Saul Bass And Hitchcock’s PSYCHO Shower Scene

Did the famed artist actually direct the shower scene?

The shower scene in Psycho is one of the most famous scenes in cinema history; even today the quick cutting of the sequence feels horrific, and Janet Leigh's death seems more brutal than many of the more graphic kills that came in later slashers. 

The three minute long sequence took seven days to film. It contains 50 cuts, which was almost overwhelming at the time. There was some serious concern at the time, as Janet Leigh wasn't excited about appearing naked, and Alfred Hitchcock brought in an 'exotic dancer' named Marli Renfro to possibly stand in for scenes that were a bit more nude (although not terribly nude by modern standards, as even Hitch couldn't have gotten away with frontal nudity in 1960). In the end, Leigh claims, it's only her standing in the shower in the famous scene. Hitch made good use of Renfro, though, titillating the press by announcing she was there for a 'rear view' shot of Leigh's Marion Crane. Interestingly, Alfred Hitchcock cheats in this scene - that isn't Anthony Perkins dressed as Mother. He was in New York rehearsing for a play during the shooting. There's an actual woman under there, a professional double named Margo Epper. 

There was another claim made about the shower scene: that Hitchcock didn't direct it. That came from famed and influential graphic designer Saul Bass, who in 1970 declared himself the actual director of the sequence. His evidence: the extensive storyboards that he created for the scene.

Reality's a little different. Bass did the title design for Psycho, and he was also credited as 'pictorial consultant.' He was paid $2,000. He did storyboard the shower sequence, as well as the murder of Arbogast on the staircase. And the final version of the shower sequence is close to Bass' original boards, with some variations caused by problems in shooting (they couldn't quite get the perfect shot tracking out of Leigh's eye, for instance, because splashing water made her blink). But Bass' boards came after extensive meetings with Hitchcock, who was a detail oriented tyrant. The idea that Bass went off and came up with the scene all on his own is, on its face, silly.

There are other things that add to the confusion; during the second week of shooting, Hitchcock had a test shower built on the famous Stage 28 on the Universal lot*, and Bass was allowed to shoot some proof of concept footage there. He used a newsreel camera, and the idea was just to see if the concept - repetitive cutting in the place of actual motion - would work as well as the storyboards indicated. Hitchcock liked what Bass shot, and even intimated to the press at the time that he might shoot the scene handheld as Bass had. In 1981 Bass made a crazy claim to Variety that Hitch had liked the newsreel footage so much that he gave over the shower scene to him completely.

Everybody who worked on set denied that up and down. The shower scene was the big shoot of the whole film, with crowds of people standing outside the stage trying to get a peek. It was a closed set, with a guard, and only the most vital crew was there. It was a long, tedious shoot, delayed twice because Janet Leigh first had a cold and then had her period; when the actual shoot happened it was slow, often delayed because moleskin nipple protectors that Leigh wore would fall off in the shower. 

Crew members recalled using the storyboards as a strong guide for the scene, and remembered Hitch shooting every single shot. Says Leigh in the book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho: "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?"

Another thing that led to confusion was the fact that Hitchcock DID let someone else shoot the Arbogast murder. Bass' original storyboards had insert shots of Arbogast's hands gripping the railing as he walked up the stairs in the Bates home, with cuts to his feet taking each step. Hitchcock hated this, saying that it was exactly wrong, that it was telling the audience something horrible was about to happen when Arbogast got to the top of the stairs. Hitchcock agonized over how to shoot the scene, and decided to do a complicated shot that would be from above, and would require the cameraman to shoot and pull focus himself. 

But when the day of the shoot came, Hitchcock fell seriously ill with the flu, and he let assistant director Hilton Green direct the scene - while he had Hitchcock on the phone constantly. They shot a version that incorporated both the overhead shot, but also some of Bass' cutaways, inserted to cover a moment when the focus got soft. When Hitchcock saw what they had put together he hated it, and wanted to keep just the overhead shot, including the soft moment. The director himself reshot the fall down the stairs, using a background plate.

Later in life Hitchcock would give Bass credit for the unused version of the Arbogast murder, but never gave him any credit for the shower scene. Bass himself, years later, would take back many of his claims about the shower, but would still hold on to the idea that there was a sense of autership based on the use of his boards. Some film books would credit Bass as a co-director of Psycho. In the end, though, it seems obvious that Hitchcock conceived and directed the scene; film is a collaborative medium and one of Hitch's strengths was knowing how to choose his collaborators well. 

Here are Bass' original shower scene storyboards:

And here's the finished scene from the film:

* Stage 28 is known as the Phantom Stage because it holds, to this day, the Paris Opera House set from the 1925 Lon Chaney Phantom of the Opera. It's the oldest standing set in the country, if not the world. And when I say to this day I can vouch for up to last week, when I snuck on it!