The Bathtub in cinema

Psycho (1960) | Crazy Movie List | 700+ Crazy Movies
The terrifying shower scene from Psycho (1960)

Splish splash, I was taking a bath / Long about a Saturday night, yeah / A rub dub, just relaxing in the tub / Thinking everything was alright.  Bobby Darin (1958).                                                                 

This piece is about the bathtub. Or more properly, The Bathtub. To put it more plainly, it’s about how we have been fed, over the years by Hollywood and at times Bollywood, an endless diet of scenes depicting the untold ecstasy of luxuriating in a bathtub. Be it Marylin Monroe or Meryl Streep, Robert Redford or Al Pacino, Hema Malini or Zeenat Aman, Shammi Kapoor or Rajesh Khanna – invariably in some movie or the other you would have seen some of them blowing soap bubbles, sipping champagne or even smoking a cigar, and only the bubbling, foaming soapsuds to cover their modesty. Sex and orgies come into it at times (though that is a Hollywood preserve) but seeing as this is a family column, I will spare you the sordid details. Some actors have even concealed deadly weapons under the soapy water and let fly if an unexpected enemy popped in. Witness Eli Wallach in the spaghetti western classic, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966), who makes short work of the grimacing villain with his hidden weapon prior to loosing off with a volley of bullets, while the bad guy is giving an extended speech. A fatal error, which our celluloid villains never seem to learn from. Wallach’s famous throwaway line, ‘When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk,’ still rings in our ears.

Who can ever forget the famous or infamous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic-noir suspense-thriller, Psycho (1960). The comely Janet Leigh steps in gingerly and turns the shower tap on, enjoying a refreshing bath, probably humming a cheerful tune as well, as most of us tend to do while under the shower. Then all the unpleasantness starts to happen. Give Hitchcock a bathroom scene and all hell breaks loose. His memorable anti-hero, the literally shadowy Anthony Perkins, draws the curtain and does all the nasty business with a bread knife. The scene ends with Janet Leigh lying prone in her bathtub, looking very dead, while the shower continues to run with force, draining away the blood. Filmed in black and white, the dark deed has a heightened, monochromatic quality about it. Perhaps Hitchcock was throwing in some symbolism here. If so, I missed it. In those days, film makers went in for that kind of thing. They wanted their audience to think. By the way, did I say bathtub? Indeed, I did. You see, despite the fact that the heroine tip-toes delicately into the tub to turn the shower on, she has no plans to fill the tub and wallow à la Eli Wallach. It’s possible she contemplated doing so after the shower, but we shall never know because of Hitchcock’s obsession with the bread knife accompanied by plenty of blood and gore. By the way, my reference to the murder weapon being a bread knife is just poetic license. It could have been any old knife that can inflict deep gashes. Nevertheless, that bathtub shower scene from Psycho is now part of movie folklore.

You want unpleasantness in a bathtub? Let me tell you, it does not get more stomach-churning than that scene in the 1983 edition of Scarface, starring Al Pacino. The director, Brian De Palma decided to take Hitchcock’s shower scene and turn it on its head. Pacino and his lackey turn up at a baddie’s place somewhere in Havana, drugs and money having something to do with it, and before you know it, our hero’s pathetic partner is hand-cuffed to the shower curtain railing, while Pacino is held down by other nasties to watch his pal being given the first degree with a huge, electrical buzz-saw. Blood and gristle all over the place. Putting all that nastiness to one side, I have a question. If the villain had our hero and his partner-in-crime by their short and curlies, why did he not finish Pacino off as well? I think De Palma will have a sound answer to that one. The notorious bathtub scene was very early on in the film, you see, and he could hardly eliminate the highly bankable cast-header Pacino, to whom doubtless, millions would have been paid. Also, letting the hero off gives the director plenty of opportunity for action-packed payback scenes, like the climactic ‘Say hello to my little friend’ sequence, as a frenzied Pacino fires away from his grenade launcher at about a hundred villains, in a coke-and-heroin smothered scene and falls tragically to his own death. Very Shakespearean. Lest we forget, it all started in a bathtub.

On a more pleasant note, the scruffy flower girl, Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) in the brilliant musical, My Fair Lady (1964) is boisterously welcomed to Professor Henry Higgins’ home with the mother-of-all-baths while she screams and yells from her steaming bathtub during all the soaping and loofah-ing by the housemaids. She vents her spleen later with that great dream sequence song, Just you wait, ‘enry ‘iggins, just you wait.

Yes, the bathtub is a well-entrenched part of world cinema and has been used time and again in varying situations. The term ‘wallowing in luxury’ could very well have emanated after the invention of the bathtub. That said, I have a couple of questions that have always bothered me about sitting around in a bathtub full of scented water, at times with flowers strewn about, and the bather, be it a he or a she, breaking into song. I grant you there’s a bathroom singer in all of us, but even a normal shower could be equally inspiring to the Muse.

Apart from the violence and gore, there is something else about bathtub sequences in films I have never quite understood, particularly the Hollywood offerings. More often than not, the actor paddling his pinkies in the tub, literally sinking in soapy foam, will suddenly decide that his ablutions have ended, step out of the tub and towel himself, and that’s that. End of bath. I mean, the bather has been swimming around in a confined space in his or her own sweat and grime, notwithstanding the soap or shampoo, with nary a thought of rinsing it all off with clean water. If I have seen this unhygienic travesty once on film, I have seen it at least 50 times. So, there must be some truth in the way some of our much-vaunted heroes bathe themselves. I cannot recall similar scenes in Indian films, but that could be because of censorship and prudery issues. Doubtless, in response to this, the faithfuls who read this will helpfully shoot off a list of Hindi or Tamil films featuring some of our stars who had a ball in a bathtub.

To round off this light-hearted contemplation on filmy bathtubs, I conclude with what has been widely regarded as one of the definitive bathtub scenes ever shot on film. And that is saying a lot. Glenn Close and Michael Douglas form an incendiary couple in Fatal Attraction (1987). The stunning Glenn Close, who preys on the married Michael Douglas after a brief dalliance, threatens to disrupt his home life. It all ends in a frightening climax with Close and Douglas in a life and death vicious struggle in, you guessed it, the bathtub. Close rises from the dead and flails a kitchen knife at her ex-lover but Douglas’ wife miraculously finds a gun and blam, blam, Glenn is Closed out, her body lying inert in the tub, looking like Caravaggio’s The Death of the Virgin – an inappropriate simile, I grant you, but it is what it is.

So you see, I don’t much care for bathtubs for obvious reasons. Bad things happen there. The only time I actually wallowed in a tub was on a bitterly cold November evening in my hotel room in New York. The hot water was so comforting I almost fell asleep and nearly drowned. Thereafter, I virtually caught my death of cold and suffered untold agonies, including an interminable coughing fit after returning home. Which is why I say, ‘If they want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, that is their problem. An efficient shower or even a bucket of water works just fine for me.’

Published by sureshsubrahmanyan

A long time advertising professional, now retired, and taken up writing as a hobby. Deeply interested in music of various genres, notably Carnatic and 60's and 70's pop/rock. An avid tennis and cricket fan. Voracious reader of British humour and satire. P.G. Wodehouse a perennial favourite.

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2 Comments

  1. So sad Punch magazine isn’t around any more as your Bathtub blog would surely find a place in there. One of your best in recent month. Most amusing for a film buff like me.

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    1. Thanks Sachi. I used to devour Punch during our Clarion days, which we subscribed to. I once even submitted a column to Punch in the 70s. I received a polite, handwritten reject letter with some encouraging words from one of their editors, the late Miles Kington. I still have it somewhere.

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