Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Book Review: The Girl in Alfred Hitchcock's Shower

Spoiler alert: At the end of this post, you'll find a blank space. If you mouse over it, you'll be able to read the spoiler.

Thanks to an early Christmas present from Richard's wonderful sister, Kathy, I finally read Robert Graysmith's latest book, The Girl in Alfred Hitchcock's Shower. As I'm both an unsolved-mystery freak and a Hitchcock geek, this one would be nearly impossible to pass up. It tells the story of the young dancer-model who served as Janet Leigh's nude body double for the shower scene in Psycho, as well as the story of a warped mama's boy named Sonny Busch, dubbed "The Pyscho Killer" because he stabbed two women and abducted a third immediately after seeing the movie.

Marli Renfro was the Girl in the Shower. When the knife wielded by Norman Bates (also a female body double) seems to pierce Marian Crane's belly, Hitch himself was holding the knife and the belly was Marli's. She spent hours in that bathtub, pruning and shivering in the buff as the most infamous scene in American cinema was shot from nearly every angle imaginable. Her role in the film was uncredited, and for years Janet Leigh claimed she did the entire scene herself. Graysmith spends the first several chapters on the film set, shivering and pruning along with Marli through every re-take (delightful for Hitchcock fans, but perhaps tedious for everyone else).
In the late '50s and early '60s Marli Renfro appeared on countless men's magazine covers, starred in Francis Ford Coppola's grad-school "nudie cutie" film The Peeper, waitressed at the first Playboy Club, appeared on Hef's TV show, danced in Vegas, and made a supremely corny, nudie cutie Western that eventually became Coppola's first credited feature film (Tonight for Sure). But when she wasn't nekkid in front of a camera, Marli Renfro had a full and healthy life. She was a dedicated nature-lover and nudist, a painter, a filmmaker, a devoted daughter, and ultimately a wife and mother who sold real estate and traveled the country in an RV. After 1963, she began raising up a family with her first husband, and gave up the modeling and acting.

Marli Renfro depicted as a puzzle, shortly before Psycho's release (Playboy's editors knew she was Janet Leigh's body double, but like everyone else at that time they kept Hitchcock's secret.)

Meanwhile, the Norman Batesian serial killer Henry "Sonny" Busch was dating his mother's elderly friends and quietly working at an eyeglass-manufacturing shop. One night in the summer of '57, he took his mum's septuagenarian neighbor to a screening of Psycho, accompanied her back to her apartment, and murdered her. He left her body in the apartment while he killed another woman - his own aunt - and kidnapped a co-worker. Graysmith intersperses the two stories, Marli's days of carefree nudity and Sonny's tortured nights of deviance, with colourful tales of the early days of what you could call porn (though it bears little resemblance to today's variety), the painfully repressed sexuality of the American 1950s, and the first faint stirrings of the sexual revolution that would soon wash all the way from the California coast to splash nearly every town and city across the nation, from Midwestern burgs to bluenosed East Coast villages.
We see the rise of mammophile director Russ Meyer and the creation of the very first nudie cutie (The Immoral Mr. Teas), but Graysmith also shows us the darker side of California's awkward love affair with female beauty - obsession, violence, and murder.

After her heyday in the early '60s, no more was heard of Marli Renfro until 2001, when media outlets throughout the country announced that Janet Leigh's shower body double had ironically been stabbed to death in her own L.A. home by Kenneth Dean Hunt back in 1988. The murder had only recently been solved. Marli had been known as Myra Davis when she died at Hunt's hands at the age of 71.

Graysmith, who had been intrigued by Marli since she appeared on the cover of Playboy, was grieved - but also baffled. The reporting on Ms. Davis' murder didn't jive with what he knew of Marli Renfro. First of all, she was not 43 years old when Psycho was filmed, as Myra Davis would have been. Secondly, the woman's granddaughter told reporters that the knife in the shower scene had been held by a female body double, rather than Hitch.

He began to wonder: Were Marli Renfro and Myra Davis really the same person?

Spoiler below:

As it turned out, they weren't. Ms. Davis had indeed been on the Psycho set, but she was used only to work out some of the shower shots. She wasn't actually in the film. Marli was still living happily in the California desert that she had first fallen in love with during her modeling and acting days. She had heard of Ms. Davis' death, but had no strong desire to set the record straight until Graysmith came along with his "double body double" theory. A twist worthy of Hitchcock, no?


tweetey30 said...

Sounds interesting... Btw do you know if your mom is coming back to blogland anytime soon.. What has happened since you two are so close?? VV and I were just wondering whats up???

S.M. Elliott said...

I think like a lot of bloggers, she is now hopelessly addicted to Facebook. ;D
We should all nag her to come back to blogland.

tweetey30 said...

VV said she doesnt want to keep calling her and nagging her if something is wrong so she asked me i had talked to her and I havent so I thought maybe you knew what was wrong.. She hasnt posted since April....

Barbara Bruederlin said...

That sounds like a fascinating book! I have never heard of the story of the body double, let alone her tragic end.

La Cremiere said...

oh wow SME, this is worthy of a magazine article, you should send this to film mags and you could make a few bucks out of it. The style is perfect and the story is awesome.

The Zombieslayer said...

Where in the world do you hear of these books? I'm definitely going to look for The Girl in Alfred Hitchcock's Shower. Looks like a book I couldn't put down.

S.M. Elliott said...

Definitely worth a read. It's a slice of Americana you won't see too often, and gives some interesting insight into Hitchcock's perfectionism and the bizarre moral censorship standards of the '50s and early '60s.