Who directed the infamous shower scene in Psycho? Yesterday, Open Culture highlighted Vashi Nedomansky’s recent attempt to answer this question in video-essay form. Saul Bass did the storyboards for the scene, and Nedomansky has placed those storyboards alongside the shots that appear in the film.
The video explores a controversy that dates at least as far back as 1973, when the Sunday Times of London inferred from a conversation with Bass that, in addition to designing the storyboards, he had actually directed the scene. Eight years later, as Stephen Rebello notes in Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, Bass told Variety that he showed test footage of the scene to Hitchcock, and that the director “very graciously said, you do it.” Hitchcock “was on the set” with him, Bass said. “It was really a very generous gesture.”
Several others involved with the movie have vehemently denied Bass’s contributions, as both Rebello and Philip J. Skerry, in Psycho in the Shower: The History of Cinema’s Most Famous Scene, have documented. Janet Leigh told Skerry:
“Bass was the instrument, and Mr. Hitchcock was the one who said, “Give this to me in every kind of direction, in every kind of situation … Draw it so that I can see what it looks like, what the camera would tell me it looks like.” And Mr. Bass did it. How Mr. Hitchcock arrived at the choices he made I have no idea.”
Rebello interviewed most of the surviving cast and crew members for his book, first published in 1990 and recently adapted as a biopic. Leigh told Rebello that Bass was present at the shooting of the scene, but “he never directed” her: “absolutely not.”
Curiously, assistant director Hilton Green didn’t place Bass on the set at all. He told Skerry, “I was there every moment, shot for shot for that thing, and [he] was never on the set. He did lay out the storyboard with Hitchcock, and all that. But I saw Saul years and years later—he’s dead now—and I said, ‘Saul, how can you possibly say you directed that?’ And he was very embarrassed.”
Bass himself would pull back a bit on the notion that he “directed” the scene, telling Rebello that the Sunday Times quotes were “totally inaccurate.” But he insisted on his direct involvement, backing up his claim by noting his own experience with directing (he made one feature film, Phase IV):
“It is hell. So complex, wearing, time-consuming. If anybody can help you, you want it. If somebody can relieve you of something, you’re grateful. That was the spirit in which [Hitchcock] asked me to lift certain things, to concentrate on things he couldn’t pay attention to while he was doing everything else.”
For what it’s worth, the only scene (outside of the opening titles) that Hitchcock openly admitted Bass’ direct involvement with is the famous staircase murder of Detective Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam). Hitchcock told François Truffaut that while he “let [Bass] lay out the sequence” of Arbogast going up the stairs, and told his cameraman and assistant to shoot using Bass’ drawings (Hitchcock was out sick that day), he ultimately decided that the scene wasn’t working. He scrapped Bass’ montage, and reshot the sequence.
As Nedomansky says on his blog, the dispute, while fascinating, mostly highlights a larger point about cinema. “Film is a collaborative art,” he says. “Everyone on a project wants to contribute their strengths and make the film the best it can be. The best intentions and points of view can clash, but ultimately the best ideas will rise to the surface and survive, no matter who proposed them.”