13 May 2015

The medical accuracy of "Psycho"

In 1955, the American Medical Association founded a committee called the Physicians Advisory Committee on Television, Radio and Motion Pictures. The committee advised producers, writers etc. on medical subjects with the intention of insuring medical accuracy in films, tv and radio shows, as well as protecting the image of the practising physician.

When "Psycho" was released in the summer of 1960 containing a medical inaccuracy, the Physicians Advisory Committee immediately wrote to the film's director Alfred Hitchcock. The scene which had caught the attention of the committee was the famous shower scene and in particular the close-up shot of Janet Leigh's eye after she'd been murdered. Written by the committee's vice-chairman Dudley M. Cobb, the letter explains what is wrong with Leigh's pupil from a medical point of view. Cobb also points out that medical accuracy could have been insured had Hitch consulted the committee beforehand. A great and most informative letter, here goes:


August 29, 1960

Mr. Alfred Hitchcock
Revue Studios
Universal City, California

Dear Mr. Hitchcock:

It is indeed a pleasure to write you in connection with your most interesting motion picture "Psycho." I enjoyed the content of this feature film and feel that it carries a worth-while message. However, there was one incident that I wish to call to your attention from a medical standpoint. In the scene where Janet Leigh has just sustained multiple knife wounds and through loss of blood and shock has gradually slumped to the floor, the scene fades out to another portion of the story and then immediately cuts back to a closeup of one of her eyes, then gradually the camera moves back to include the whole scene.

It is this portion of the picture that I wish to bring to your attention. The picture reveals an eye and the pupillary reaction or size is not consistent with a person that is recently deceased or suffering from extreme shock. In the case such as you portray, the central nervous system is "knocked out", thereby causing the pupil to be greatly dilated. As you will remember, Miss Leigh's eye portrayed normal pupillary size. It was not one of a deceased person or of one in great shock. I am sure doctors, nurses and first aid personnel would immediately recognize the condition of the eye that one would expect in such cases.

As you know, the American Medical Association's Physicians Advisory Committee always stands ready and willing to give technical advice on such medical scenes and this is a good example wherein we could have advised you to insure medical accuracy. The Committee is anxious to help in any way it can in the future and we would welcome a meeting or luncheon where we could explain our functions.

Again, my congratulations on your interesting picture,

Sincerely yours,


Dudley M. Cobb, jr., M.D., Vice-chairman
Physicians Advisory Committee for Television, Radio and Motion Pictures

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