The shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) is easily one the most viewed, analyzed and parsed lengths of film in cinema history. Constructed from over 70 shots, the scene shows Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) – the supposed protagonist of the movie – meeting a gory end at the hands of a cross-dressing Norman Bates 30 minutes into the movie. Hitchcock’s quick editing and his subjective camera work brilliantly evokes all the scene’s nudity and transgressive violence without actually showing much of either. The scene freaked out audiences when it came out and 54 years later, it still has the power to shock. Critic David Thomson called it “legitimately among the most violent scenes ever shot for an American film.”
Psycho went a long way toward cementing Hitchcock’s standing as a cinematic auteur. So in 1970, seminal graphic designer Saul Bass, who did the title sequence for the movie, made waves when he claimed that he directed the shower scene. His proof is his storyboard, which shows a sequence of images that are similar — though not exactly the same — as what ended up in the movie. Vashi Nedomansky helpfully placed Bass’s storyboard alongside the actual movie. See above.
As you might notice, that eerie motif of the shower head is not to be found on the storyboards. Other images – the knife-wielding murderer in silhouette, the blood spiraling down the drain, the curtain getting pulled from the rod – look like they came straight from Bass. And some have argued that the scene simply looks more like Bass’s previous work than Hitchcock’s.
Others, including many of the people who were actually on set, insist that Hitchcock was at the helm. Janet Leigh — who, of course, was there for the duration of the scene’s seven day shoot, screaming her head off – has been unequivocal about her thoughts on the matter:
Saul Bass was there for the shooting, but he never directed me. Absolutely not. Saul Bass is brilliant, but he couldn’t have done the drawings had Mr. Hitchcock not discussed with him what he wanted to get. And you couldn’t have filmed the drawings. Why does there always have to be controversy?
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Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) Pitches Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) on the Famous Shower Scene
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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow.
To confuse the matter even more, Hitchcock was known to work very closely with his storyboard artists on the storyboards. My guess is they both very very involved.
Looks like it was a great collaboration, that’s all. Hitchcock directed the film, and clearly added some spectacular shots to fill out an already fantastic storyboard sequence that we can’t assume was entirely conceived by Saul Bass. Who is to say they didn’t sit together and have a beautiful time discussing shot angles, editing tempo, etc., appreciating each other’s brilliance? They were both geniuses in their own ways.
Hitchcock hired Bass to draw storyboards based on test footage shot by Hitchcock and his DP with a hand held Eymo (probably the same one used by Orson Welles for Touch of Evil).
Bass then worked up storyboards based on the test footage.
Bass in NO WAY “directed” anything on set as he was NOT a member of I.A.T.S.E. at the time and Union floor representative would have pulled everyone out on strike if Bass had in any way violated union rules. Having Bass on set to observe test footage (which stills show) wasn’t a problem, but Bass claiming (as he did later) that he “hung around after hours and put the whole thing together” is an utter fiction created by Bass after the fact.
Bass only started making such outrageous claims after Truffaut’s interview book with Hitchcock appeared in English, where the director’s response to Truffaut’s question about
what Bass did on Psycho (“Not Much.”) totally set him off. Bass then began claiming he “directed” segments of Spartacus and Grand Prix. Well, Hollywood has quite a few fabulists:
the rule of thumb (including for Hitchcock) was always “take credit for EVERYTHING and blame others for anything remotely looking like failure”!!!!
Seriously? I don’t care who directed the scene – that’s the least important question since it’s an almost shot-by-shot representation of the storyboards and the rest was done in editing. Anyone with eyes and a brain (and minus a slavish devotion to Hitchcock) can tell the shower scene was clearly designed by Bass since the fast-cutting between dozens of shots is nothing like Hitchcock’s work before or after Psycho.
We’ve got armchair “experts” here trying to bolster Hitchcock’s sad refusal to acknowledge Bass’s innovation on the most heralded scene of the film, when someone as knowledgeable as Billy Wilder already laid out the facts plain as day:
Film director Billy Wilder, who knew both Bass’s and Hitchcock’s work inside out, had little patience with those who could not see the difference between the overall style of the film and that of the shower scene. He told [Ms. Kirkham in a 1994 interview], “Like most people in Hollywood you knew who did what if you were in the industry, especially if great stuff was involved. Everybody talked about that scene. Right from the beginning I understood that Saul did it. Everybody knew. Everybody knew Saul was brilliant. Who questioned it until those remarks of Hitchcock? . . . You only have to look at the sequence and look at the film and think. Think for one minute. You see the shower scene and you see it is not at all like Mr. Hitchcock — King of the Long Shot.”
Hitchcock also failed to mention Bass’s idea for the time-lapse clouds above the Bates house at night, another great idea.
BTW, this scholarly link delves deeply into Bass’s work, his collaborations with Hitchcock, and the Psycho controversy (for citation)