Alfred Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense, was known for his romantic thrillers with cool blondes and dashing men set in eye-catching locations, but moviegoers remember him best for a horror shocker that almost didn’t get made.
PSYCHO, which opened in New York on June 16, 1960, wasn’t what Paramount expected from Hitchcock. The studio wanted him to do NO BAIL FOR THE JUDGE, based on a 1952 crime novel, with Audrey Hepburn (not a cool blonde, but very hot then) & Laurence Harvey starring. When Hepburn became pregnant and dropped out, Hitchcock felt JUDGE didn’t work without her.
Hitch changed gears then to film Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel PSYCHO, about a twisted killer called Norman Bates. He’d already paid $9,500 for the rights to the surprise-ending book that Paramount had previously passed on. Paramount wouldn’t give Hitch a workable budget — like the $4.3M MGM had spent to make his 1959 hit NORTH BY NORTHWEST with Cary Grant & Eva Marie Saint. To cut costs, Hitch said he’d shoot in black & white, using the Shamley Productions TV crew that did his hit Universal series ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS. Paramount still said no, claiming it had no available soundstages.
Hitchcock countered that he’d self-finance PSYCHO and film it at Universal if Paramount would just distribute it — and instead of his own $250,000 fee, he’d take a 60% interest in PSYCHO. That was an offer Paramount felt it couldn’t refuse.
Filming PSYCHO in B&W saved money. It also kept Janet Leigh’s now infamous shower scene from looking overly gory — thanks to using chocolate syrup rather than buckets of bright red stage blood. Because it was for Hitchcock, PSYCHO’s crew reportedly worked for just $62,000. He also got amazing deals from his stars — reportedly signing Leigh for $25,000 and Anthony Perkins for $40,000. Hitch also managed to hire his usual team of composer Bernard Herrmann, film editor George Tomasini & title designer Saul Bass, who also storyboarded the shower stabbing.
During production, the cameras rolled until 6 p.m., except on Thursdays when filming wrapped earlier so Hitch and his wife, veteran film editor & screenwriter Alma Reville, could enjoy their weekly dinner date at Chasen’s — since Thursday was their cook’s day off.
PSYCHO turned out to be a fabulous deal for the Hitchcocks, who risked $800,000 of their own money to make it. Its release through Paramount did $32M, a big number then. Four years later, Hitch sold his Shamley Productions shares to MCA, the corporate parent of Universal, where he made six more films before his death at 80 in 1980.
“The film announced that, ‘Murder was now going to be an acceptable form of entertainment. There was violence in American film but nothing like Psycho—nothing that intimate, nothing that designed, nothing with that kind of remorseless.” – Bret Easton Ellis, author of American Psycho