Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Girl In Alfred Hitchcock's Shower - Robert Graysmith

The Girl In Alfred Hitchcock’s Shower
Robert Graysmith


In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock released “Psycho,” a movie that remains iconic. The centerpiece of the film, of course, is the shower scene. In that scene, Mother Bates famously stabs Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) to the strains of shrieking violins. It may be the most famous piece of film in cinematic history. What’s so shocking about the scene in hindsight is not that it’s full of gore or nudity, but that it really isn’t. It’s just cut in a way to make the audience feel that they’ve seen a lot more than they really have.

Most moviegoers would say that Janet Leigh is “The Girl in the Shower,” but the truth is that, unless you can see her face, you’re looking at her body double, a little-known nudist, actress, and model known as Marli Renfro. Apparently, Hitchcock, Leigh, and their pr team tried repeatedly to deny the use of a body double until that position became untenable. The body double is, of course, uncredited in the film and was paid roughly $500 for her pivotal role in movie history. In 2001, it was widely reported that a serial killer who modeled himself after Norman Bates had killed the shower scene stand-in in a way that mimicked the film.

As it turns out, that’s true. But the stand-in and the body double were two different women. Author Robert Graysmith was first taken with the image of Marli Renfro when she appeared on the cover of Playboy in 1960. (This image is available online, and, by today’s standards, pretty darn tame.) That image stayed with him for years, until he heard about the above-described murder. He realized there was a difference between a stand-in and a body double, and decided to find out what happened to Marli Renfro.

This book has all the makings of a great noir classic. Somehow, though, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. The most interesting sections deal with the actual filming of the shower scene in “Psycho,” and the contemporaneous presence of Sonny, a man who killed several older women who were apparently some sort of stand-ins for his own Mother. These two stories, while playing out at the same time in Los Angeles, never actually intersect, except for the Mother/Son angle. The majority of the book deals with Marli’s year after “Psycho,” including modeling and a brief stint in a mercifully-failed movie genre known as “nudie-cuties.” Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the “nudie-cutie” is that it gave Francis Ford Coppola his first directing credit.

All of these disparate threads are fascinating, both as true crime, as film history, and as cultural history. It’s clear the author was present in the times and researched his topics thoroughly. He manages to convey a real sense of what it was like in America in the 1960s, both in the entertainment industries of Los Angeles and Las Vegas and in more average walks of life. The seemingly random leaps from one topic to another take some getting used to, and, in the end, left me feeling a bit short-changed. Perhaps the jumps in the narrative were meant to echo the jump cuts used in the shower scene. Unfortunately, jump cuts that allow a viewer’s imagination to fill in information in a film are far less effective in a book. In the end, we learn a lot more about the entertainment industry in the 1960s than we do about Marli Renfro, but I have the distinct impression that she likes it that way.

Rating: 7 ½
February 2010
ISBN# 978-0-425-23231-6 (hardcover)


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