Films That Almost Got Made That Time Forgot: Psycho
Alfred Hitchcock has long been recognized as one of the finest and most successful directors in the history of cinema. Five of his films were included in the American Film Institute’s 2007 list of the 100 greatest films of all time, and in 2012 Vertigo finally overtook Citizen Kane for the top spot in the Sight & Sound list of best films. The peak years of his career came in the 1950’s and by 1959 he’d had a string of hits that included Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, Vertigo and North by Northwest. However, after this run of success, Hitchcock found himself at a crossroads. There was no denying that his films were critical and commercial hits, but he had been working in essentially the same two genres his whole career. Thrillers and mysteries had been good to Hitchcock, but he was anxious to branch out and try something different. As Hitchcock told French filmmaker Francoise Truffaut in a 1959 interview, “I had done thrillers to death, so to speak, and I wanted to try my hand at something more…fun.”
To that end, Hitchcock purchased the rights to Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel Psycho, which was loosely based on the life of notorious psychopathic murderer Ed Gein. At first glance, the book would seem to embrace the horror and thriller elements that had permeated Hitchcock’s recent work, but the director saw comic possibilities in the morbid tale of a homicidal recluse’s obsession with his dead mother. “Actually, Gein was a very humorous man,” Hitchcock told Truffault. He was known to provide entertainment at parties of the lampshade-over-the-head variety and he enjoyed making people laugh with his pratfalls and silly voices. This was before he killed them, of course. After finishing the book, I immediately thought of Jerry.”
Jerry Lewis had been a popular comedian in the 1940’s and 50’s while teamed up with partner Dean Martin. Lewis and Martin had dissolved their partnership in 1956 and, while both went on to successful solo careers, by 1959 both were at low points. When Hitchcock offered the part of Norman Bates to Jerry Lewis and the part of Sam Loomis to Dean Martin, the two jumped at the chance. The studio was also enthusiastic and saw the film as a comeback vehicle for Lewis and Martin, while Hitchcock was thrilled to be at the driver’s seat of what would surely be a wacky comedy. As if to solidify the broad comic tone he was trying to achieve, Hitchcock cast comedienne Phyllis Diller in the key role of Marion Crane, the beautiful secretary who meets her fate at the Bates Motel.
Filming began on November 11, 1959, but was troubled from the start. Hitchcock became frustrated with Lewis’s constant mugging for the camera and inserting the phrase “NICE LADYYYY” into the scenes between the Bates and Crane characters. Hitchcock had always stuck closely to the text of the script during shooting and did not encourage improvisation. But he also had trouble with Diller who insisted on smoking a cigarette in a long cigarette
holder during the shower murder scene and blurting out unscripted one-liners during the shower scene, such as “honey, if you’re going to stab me, at least let me put my best wig on. Some of those ambulance drivers are to die for!”
Dean Martin gave Hitchcock a different set of problems. Angered over what he considered a supporting role in the film, Martin drank heavily. On one occasion, he became so drunk that he made a sloppy pass at the dead mother prop that had been prepared for the final scene. The special effects crew later discovered evidence that Martin had managed to consummate the “relationship.”
Things came to a head during the final scene when Lewis and Martin were performing the climactic song and dance number, “Mummy Dearest.” A fistfight erupted between the two men, who had been increasingly at odds with each other. In a fit of anger, Hitchcock ordered the cameras to stop rolling, dismissed the cast and crew and shut down production. Hitchcock had ultimately not been comfortable with his new direction and preferred to return to making thrillers. Shortly after shutting down filming, Hitchcock commissioned a new, much darker script, recast the film and resumed production a few months later.
The revamped Psycho would go on to become one of Hitchcock’s biggest hits and cement his reputation as a master filmmaker. Martin and Lewis would not speak again until the mid-70’s and would not perform together again until the 80’s.
The footage of the original version of Psycho has been lost, which leaves Hitchcock fans as well as Martin and Lewis fans to wonder what might have been.