I have been re-reading Patrick McGilligan’s excellent biography of Hitchcock, which naturally left me wanting to watch some of the films again.
Psycho is one of the most written-about films, probably ranking just behind Citizen Kane and Battleship Potempkin. I’m not going to bother with counting the number of shots in the shower sequence, or analyzing the camera angles in the scene of Arbogast’s murder. But one thing that really struck me while watching Psycho again after having read McGilligan’s book, is that is his strongest move in his heroic battle against film censorship in America.
The Hays office got the power to enforce the film production code in 1934, and Hitchcock arrived in Hollywood in 1939. He encountered problems with the code almost immediately. Hitchcock’s first movie in America was Rebecca, which had to sacrifice one of its theme in order to comply with the code. In the source novel, everyone knows that Max De Winter has murdered his first wife and gotten away with it. The second Mrs De Winter suspects this, but loves him anyway. Not so in the film, as the product code dictated that crimes have to be punished, and so Rebecca’s death became and accident, weakening the tension.
Hitchcock would butt heads with the censors over most of his films. He developed a system of “editing in the camera”, filming things in a certain way so his producers and the censors would not be able to clip out a line or dialogue or a suggestive angle without ruining the scene. When he started production on Psycho, Hitchcock had been in Hollywood for 20 years, and had developed a strategy for dealing with the censored. He approached the process like a master chess player. He anticipated the next move of his opponents, and intentionally sacrificed some pieces in order to protect those he wanted to save. Hitchcock announced to the film trade press that he was planning to shoot Janet Leigh “from behind”, revealing her buttocks in the shot that shows that her character is in fact dead. Evidently Hitchcock filmed such as shot, although it is not clear if it was actually Leigh or a stand in. Psycho screenwriter Jospeh Stefano saw the early edit of the film and called the shot “hearbreaking” and was furious when the director agreed to its deletion. But Hitchcock told Janet Leigh from the begin that he was planning to include shots that he knew all along that he would have to remove, but would give him leverage in keeping the shots he really wanted to include. (Although he was able to include a similar shot ten years later in the opening scene of Frenzy.
Some censors believed they saw nudity in the shower scene, while others thought that they had not. Cuts were ordered, and according to legend, Hitchcock sent back the sequence without making a single cut, and on the second viewing, those censors who did not see nudity the first time now did, and vice-versa. In this respect, Hitchcock had the last laugh, as the DVD reveals the outline of a breast in the background of the shot in which as hand reaches out to grasp the shower curtain. The censors also objected to the shot of scraps of paper being flushed down the toilet. Hitchcock had being setting scenes in and around bathrooms since his silent film days, but this was the first time that he, or any film director, had ever shown an actual toilet bowl. The censors probably objected simply because it had never been done before, bu the director countered that the shot was integral to the plot and it was allowed to stay in. General objections were made to the opening scene with Marion and her lover half-dressed in a hotel room. Again according to legend, Hitchcock invited the censors to visit the set and sit in while he refilmed the sequence but since the censors never arrived, the scene remained as it was. The story may be apocryphal, but it points to the fact that Hitchcock new how to play the censors. There were objections to the use of the word “transvestite” and Hitchcock had his screenwriter look up the word in the dictionary to prove there were no sexual connotations. The list goes on and on.
Clearly the film production code was become more lenient ever so gradually, but this was not because the censors were becoming more liberal-minded on their own accord. It was filmmakers like Hitchcock and his generation that were bravely pushing the envelope. In the year before Psycho, in 1959, Otto Preminger had challenged the production code with his courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder, and Billy Wilder took the radical step of releasing Some Like it Hot without a certificate of approval. The fact that Wilder’s film went out to be a smash hit called into question the long accepted notion that the production code reflected public opinion. Hitchcock had a lot invested in Psycho. His agent at Universal, Lew Wasserman tried in vain to get him to give up the idea of making a film based on the morbid novel. No one would fund the film, and so Hitchcock funded the $800,000 budget himself from his own personal money in exchange for the right to own 60% of the negative, a move that would eventually make him very rich. But while making the film, there was nothing to guarantee that the film would ever be released, preventing him from ever getting a return on his investment. So what he was doing was not only artistically daring, but also professionally brave. The freedom of expression that filmmakers enjoy today is thanks to filmmakers like Hitchcock who put their necks on the line.