Let’s talk about Psycho. The first time I watched this movie, I was 16 and home alone while my parents were at some kind of party. I was creeped out at the end and my parents hadn’t gotten home yet, so I watched the featurette on the DVD, hoping they would get back by the time that had finished. They hadn’t, and I ended up going to sleep with the lights on, but at least I learned some interesting things about a great movie.
Psycho is, of course, most famous for that scene when Janet Leigh takes a shower. (In case you’ve somehow never seen this, spoilers abound ahead.) This is probably the most famous shower of all time, and rightly so. Besides being pretty scary, it’s some of the most interesting movie making of any film previously or since—and the most frequently copied and spoofed. Say what you will about Alfred Hitchcock and his creepy propensity toward blondes (case in point: Janet Leigh was brunette, but Hitchcock insisted she wear a blonde wig), he was brilliant at what he did, and the shower scene is arguably the pinnacle of his work.
Let’s take a closer look.
This one 3-minute scene took seven days to shoot, using 78 camera set-ups. Although Hitchcock frequently used multiple cameras in his films, he only used one for this scene. Each wall of the set was removable so that the camera could move easily from one shot to the next. Hitchcock even made a special shower head with the center covered up, then used a long lens on the camera so that the water would fall all around the lens instead of directly on it.
Despite the murder feeling so graphic and intense, the knife never actually penetrates Marion Crane’s skin—mostly because the censors would never have allowed that. But with extreme close-up shots, some a little out of focus, along with frenetic editing and that screechy soundtrack by Bernard Hermann, Marion Crane’s death is just as scary as anything you’ll see in a more graphic horror movie. Although the film was shot in black and white and the blood you see flowing down the shower drain is actually chocolate syrup, many moviegoers swear the scene was in color, because the experience is so vivid. Not to mention, nobody could believe that a movie could be killing off its protagonist half an hour in!
The lighting adds more to the suspense. As she steps into the shower and begins to clean off the literal and metaphorical dirt of stealing a lot of money, Marion is bathed in a clean, glowing light. As the killer steps into the bathroom, we only see his (her?) fuzzy shadow through the translucent shower curtain, which is very unsettling. What is this shape? What’s interrupting Marion’s nice light? Then, once s/he pulls back the shower curtain, s/he is only ever shown in shadow, while Marion’s face is still as brightly lit as ever. We watch Marion’s looks of terror clearly as the killer is still obscured from us.
So, you take all 78 of these disquieting shots with their great lighting, and they get edited together into the scene we recognize. In three minutes there are 50 cuts, which was unheard of at the time and is still pretty intense. It’s so frantic while Marion is being stabbed that your eyes never have a chance to rest on anything. Now it’s a close-up of the knife. Now it’s an overhead shot of Marion. Now it’s the shadowy killer. Now it’s the showerhead. Now it’s a close-up of Marion’s face. It’s all over the place, which, I would imagine, would be how you’d feel if you were being stabbed to death in your shower. It’s not until the killer has left and Marion starts to slide down the shower in her last moments that things slow down, the shots get longer—and then you’re looking at her blood and her dead body. There’s no rest for the viewer, and that’s what makes it so awesome to watch.
Everything about this short scene is brilliant; there’s a reason people are still talking about it and spoofing it even 55 years after the fact. Hitchcock’s direction, the contrastive lighting set-up, Janet Leigh’s acting, the crazy editing, and that iconic, horrifying soundtrack, all work together to make a horror-fest worth remembering.
I dare you to take a shower now.
Here is a partial shot-by-shot description of the scene: http://the.hitchcock.zone/wiki/Psycho_(1960)_-_The_Shower_Scene:_shot_by_shot
And here is a video of some kittens re-enacting it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jsrh6Y_gLls
And the featurette included in the special features of the DVD