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John Simkin

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Psycho is one of my favourite films. It had a major impact on me when I saw it the first time. I was only 15 and had never seen a film like it.

Joseph Stefano, the screenwriter, died this month. According to his obituary in today's Guardian, he made a major contribution to the project.


Though the contribution to the classic 1960 film Psycho made by its director, Alfred Hitchcock, and its stars, Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins, is widely recognised, the work on the movie by screenwriter Joseph Stefano, who has died aged 84, is often neglected.

When Stefano met Hitchcock to discuss the script of Psycho, he confessed to having a problem with the material; principally, he disliked the character of Norman Bates. In Robert Bloch's 1959 novel, Bates is plump, balding, bespectacled and 40 years old. "I really could not get involved with a man in his 40s who is drunk and peeps through holes," reflected Stefano. "The other problem was that there was a horrendous murder of a stranger I didn't care about either. I just kept saying to Hitch, 'I wish I knew this girl. I wish Norman were somebody else."'

Consequently, Stefano suggested that the screenplay begin with the character of Marion Crane, who steals $40,000 from her Phoenix, Arizona, employer to begin a new life with her lover but is murdered after stopping at the Bates motel. "Audiences would be sucked into a character who did something wrong but was really a good person," Stefano said. "They would feel as if they, not Marion, had stolen the money. When she dies, the audience would be the victim. With so much early emphasis on Marion, no one dreams she'll get killed. Killing the leading lady (Janet Leigh) in the first 20 minutes had never been done before."

As to the writer's qualms about the central male character, Hitchcock pacified Stefano by asking, "How would you feel if Norman were played by Anthony Perkins?" Stefano was delighted. "I suddenly saw a tender young man you could feel incredibly sorry for," he recalled. "I could really rope in an audience with someone like him." Hitchcock's motives in suggesting the lean, lanky and boyish-looking 28-year-old Perkins were not wholly artistic, though he enjoyed the idea of evil disguised as innocence. He knew that the actor owed Paramount a film under an old contract and could be hired relatively cheaply - for $40,000, the same amount that Marion stole.

Coincidentally, both Stefano and Perkins were in psychotherapy when they were hired by Hitchcock. A weirder coincidence was that Stefano had no idea that Perkins' father had died of a heart attack when his son was five, the same age as Norman at his father's death. Nor was Stefano aware of Perkins' intensely close relationship with his widowed mother.

Stefano was interested in how a formidable and over-protective mother could turn Norman Bates into a killer. So he wrote a scene between the adolescent Norman and his mother that was never intended to be shot. In it, the pair are larking about on the floor. Suddenly, Mrs Bates discovers that her son has an erection and her joy turns to hysterical anger. Screaming that he must forget that he has such a disgusting part of the body, she pulls a dress over his head, smears his face with lipstick and locks him in a closet.

Thirty years later, Stefano was able to include the scene in the flashback to Norman's adolescence in the telefilm Psycho IV, The Beginning (1990), when the mother tells her son, "I should have killed you in my womb. You sure as hell nearly killed me getting out of it." Again Perkins portrayed the adult Norman, who confesses matricide to a radio host. "How did you kill your mother?" he is asked. "Slowly," he replies.

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