‘Psycho’ takes a stab at history with 50th anniversary screening

Feb. 12, 2010 | 5:36 p.m.
Psycho

No surprise, when censors got a look at Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece “Psycho,” they were aghast at what they saw in a certain bathroom scene. But it may not be the part you expect. 

Who can forget the infamous shower scene in which Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is knifed to death by Mrs. Bates? Women have been known to refuse to set foot into a shower after seeing the movie.
But it wasn’t that brutal scene that caused Hitchcock problem with the censors. According to the film’s first assistant director, Hilton A. Green, it was the sight of a toilet that left the censors flushed with embarrassment.

Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Perkins

“They wanted to cut the shot of the toilet where Janet Leigh tears up the note and flushes it down the toilet. You couldn’t show a toilet on-screen. Can you imagine that?”

Thankfully, the shower scene and the commode moment made it to the screen intact. And this Saturday, the Alex Film Society is presenting two shows of the classic at the Alex Theatre in celebration of the film’s 50th anniversary. In addition to the 79-year-old Green, special guests include Stephen Rebello, author of “The Making of Psycho.”

The thriller, based on the novel by Robert Bloch, stars Leigh as a secretary on the lam after she embezzles from her employer. She makes the biggest (and last) mistake of her life when she takes a room at the lonely Bates Motel.

Anthony Perkins gives one of the screen’s most chilling performances as the creepy mama’s boy Norman Bates, who runs the motel and lives with his elderly, demanding mother in a spooky house on the hill. The film was shot on a low budget with the crew Hitchcock used on his TV series, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”

“He was still shooting ‘North by Northwest’ when he started to prepare ‘Psycho,’” says Green, who later became a producer. “North by Northwest” “was his biggest-budgeted movie at that time and he wanted to prove to Hollywood that he could make a quality low-budget movie, which was the script of ‘Psycho.'”

The Master of Suspense, Green said, was an introvert.

“Mr. Hitchcock had a TV crew and a feature crew,” he says. “He didn’t feel comfortable around new faces. That’s why he always kept his same crew intact. When he went to do ‘Psycho,’ he felt with the budget and the schedule ‘Psycho’ had, his TV crew was the better choice to do it.”

Pyscho poster

Green recalls the shooting schedule on the black-and-white film was about 33 days, “of which we spent five of those days in the shower.”

The son of film director Alfred E. Green (“Disraeli,” “The Jolson Story”), Green was an assistant director at Revue Productions, which was part of MCA, and produced Hitchcock’s TV series.

“He would direct about three or four of those half-hour series a year,” he says. “The first assistant that did the first show he directed, he didn’t care for. I was put on his second show and I did it. But he never spoke to me. He didn’t even acknowledge I was present. He would talk to the cameraman.”

So Green was shocked when two weeks later, he got a call that Hitchcock wanted his services again.

“When I came on the second show, it was like he had known me forever. It was like we were old friends and from that time on I did 90% of the shows he did and I stayed with him. We became very close.”

Though Hitch had a reputation for being difficult to work with, Green found him a pleasure. Hitchcock meticulously planned every aspect of his movie long before the camera shot any footage. Every scene was intricately storyboarded.

“He knew what he was doing,” says Green. “He was prepared. I knew every shot that he wanted to do.”

That preparation would continue with the actors. Hitchcock would gather his principal actors before shooting, sit down with them and go through all the scenes they were in, describing the mood and exactly what he wanted from them.

“He never did rehearse very much on the set,” says Green. ”He would bring the actors on the set, he would tell the cameraman how he wanted the camera to move and he would leave. The cameraman would light the set and would turn to me and say, ‘We are ready.’”

Though Green didn’t rehearse the major stars Hitchcock worked with, he would bring in the supporting players and rehearse with them. After the stars were brought on the set, “then I would call Mr. Hitchcock and he’d say, ‘Let’s shoot.”’

Green actually got to shoot the sequence in “Psycho” when ill-fated private detective Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam) goes into the Bates house while searching for Marion.

“The morning we were going to do the scene where he goes into the house, looks around and comes up the steps, I got a call from Mr. H. He said, ‘I’ve got the flu. I can’t come in today’. I said we can close down. We have insurance. He said, ‘No, we have got to continue on. I don’t want to stop. You shoot it. You know what to get. So I shot the scenes where he comes in the door, looks around and starts up the stairs.”

– Susan King

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Photos: “Psycho” images; credit: AMC. Anthony Hopkins in “Silence of the Lambs”; credit: MGM.

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