I have selected Hitchcock’s Psycho for the topic of my mid-term. I have always been partial to thriller and suspense films, yet strangely I had only seen Psycho once, and that was nearly 20 years ago. While I respected what I knew of Hitchcock’s work, enrollment in this class is what really piqued my interest. Certainly it was time to revisit this classic film, now with some background knowledge to help me analyze and critique it.
After one viewing, even with my sparse knowledge of film composition, I believe that this film lives up to every expectation I had. It is fairly common knowledge that this film was a defining moment in cinematic history, and it was amazing to take a close look and try to analyze why. This film is brilliant on so many levels, from the use of lighting, camera angles, editing, and certainly musical accompaniment. Upon multiple viewings, I examined each scene and am amazed at how structured this movie is. This movie manipulated the viewer on several levels – from suggesting confusion through odd lighting and angles, to creating disorientation through editing and dramatic music, to creating the transference of the audience from one supposed “main character” to another through subtle nuances and suspenseful scenes. I could easily go scene by scene, commenting on every technique used, but I have narrowed it down to what I believe are eight defining scenes in this film. The techniques presented are indeed used throughout the film to guide the viewer.
The film opens with some very busy, intense, choppy graphics for the opening credits which combine with the now-famous string arrangement as accompanying music, intended to induce a sense of anxiousness in the viewer, an uneasy feel and anticipation of things to come. The lines criss-crossing the screen as the credits flash may indeed represent the underlying themes of the film, including but not limited to the struggle of good vs. evil and the dual personalities of the films main characters. Immediately, the credits end, the music turns calm, and the establishing shot fills the screen.
Panning over the city and zooming into a hotel room voyeuristically, the viewer is introduced to Marion Crane. The scenes to follow induce further attachment to Marion by the viewer, and give glimpses of her “pure” nature (her white under-garments, the bright lighting in her scenes, and close-up shots to establish intimacy). When Marion makes the decision to take the money, she is shown in a different light and the viewer glimpses her “dark side”. While packing in her room, she is now shown in black underwear, symbolizing her dark, bad-girl side, and the use of editing makes the viewer identify with her. Cuts back and forth from her to the money on the bed give clear insight to her inner-struggles, and the mirror reflections suggest a dark alter ego. This opening sequence establishes the tone for the viewer, and gives them every reason to believe Marion is the central character, as well as making it easy to identify with her as a good person who has been tempted to do a bad thing. Hitchcock set this up carefully, and use of voice-overs to display her inner-thoughts and worries solidify the tone.
After this deliberate opening set-up, the first defining scene, for me, was as Marion was driving, getting tired, and the storm began. The use of cutting from her tired gaze to the oncoming headlights combined with the erratic music gave a sense of desperation to her flight from town. As the storm worsens, the close ups of Marion couple with the obstructed view of the road heighten the viewers anxiety. Finally the music ceases and nothing is heard but the rain and the wiper blades on the car (a similar sound will be heard later), and the viewer is on edge as if something might jump out or happen to Marion. Instead, she pulls into the motel parking lot and for the moment we are relieved that she’s all right.
The shot cuts to a low angle shot of the house, with the dominant bedroom window and dark, shadowed surroundings, and suddenly the viewer is uneasy again. This sequence establishes the use of darkness and contrast to suggest the overall mood, one that tells the viewer something “bad” might happen. We are then introduced to Norman, who eases the mood a bit with his friendly nature and boyish good looks. As the film progresses, we see some sexual tension arising between Norman and Marion, although the proximity is not close, this is suggested by editing and nervousness in Norman. Soon, after some friendly small-talk, he invites her to his parlor for dinner.
Upon appearing with the dinner tray, Norman is seen from front and 3/4 angles, inviting the viewer to identify with and trust him. Softer music plays near the beginning of the scene, suggesting calmness and bonding between them. As they enter the parlor, we see stuffed birds on the wall and a dark, shadowed room, enhancing the suddenly-eerie feel. The cuts between Norman and Marion during their conversation and the camera angles perfectly display their personas; Marion is shown from eye level, straight on, and in bright light, while Norman is filmed at low angles with shadows covering part of his face. This gives the feel that he is, perhaps, only half himself and the skewed angles, profile shots and swooping birds symbolize his predator-like nature and confused state. When the topic turns to Mother, Norman is visibly upset, further supported by the low camera angles, and him leaning into the shot when he is upset or losing control, yet sitting back calmly during other parts of the dialog, seeming non-threatening. This scene tells the story by camera angles, lighting, and edits; one does not need to hear the dialog or score to understand the tone being set. As Marion leaves and gives her real name, Norman is shown glancing at the registry. Chuckling to himself that she lied, perhaps he sees her as a ‘bad girl’ now, which leads to the next sequence.
The sexual tension between the two was established earlier and after the parlor exchange, and the viewer is aware of Norman apparently fighting some inner demons. This is further exhibited in the peeping scene. The dark shadows on Norman enhance his predator-like state as he begins to peep into Marion’s cabin. Through point-of-view shots we see Marion in bright light undressing (still in dark underwear, suggesting her bad side), preparing for her shower, symbolizing “coming clean”. Cuts between Marion’s calm state, and Norman’s unblinking eye make the viewer feel a sense of guilt. We should not be spying on Marion, yet the point-of-view shots make it uncomfortably impossible not to.
As we enter Marion’s bathroom, it is brightly lit, suggestion a clean, safe place. “Bad things” typically happen in the dark, and the bright light reassures the viewer. Cuts between shots of the water and Marion cleansing herself, both literally and symbolically, give a sense of relief to the viewer. We are relieved that Marion is going to do the right thing…that we weren’t identifying with a villain after all. In what turns out to be an anticipatory set up, we see Marion with her back toward the bathroom door, as someone enters the bathroom in the empty left side of the frame. Silent suspense builds as the viewer sees Marion, brightly lit and unaware, and the shadowed intruder sneaking toward the shower. Suddenly the curtain is ripped back, and we see a large knife plunging toward us, the viewer, as the screeching music begins. The montage of cuts on action, from Marion, to the shadowed figure, to a close-up on Marion (the face of fear, her scream), the knife, and sounds of water and stabbing flesh make for a frightening, disorienting, disturbing sequence. The quick edits are all over the place-
close-ups, high angles, back to the knife, abstract close-ups (the hand, the side of Marion’s head) and although you never see an actual wound, this scene is still one of the most powerful murder scenes to this day. When the assault ends, the music fades, and we see Marion dying, with nothing but the sound of the shower running. We see blood swirling down the drain, literally taking her life with it, then cut to the stillness of her eye as the camera zooms out to display the scene, giving the viewer a moment to ponder the intensity of what they just witnessed.
The sequences following the shower scene are orchestrated in such a way that the viewer is “tricked” into identifying with Norman. We see his horror at discovering the scene, we almost hope for him to find the money, and when the scene cuts on continuity to the car being pushed into the swamp, we are just as nervous as Norman is when it stops sinking. We feel for him when we hear the way Mother yells at him. Not an easy task, but Hitchcock pulls it off perfectly; the shift of main characters is seamless. When Arbogast shows up at the Bates Motel to question Norman, the viewer is given more insight into just how disturbed Norman is. The scene between them in the office perfectly demonstrates the increasing confusion and inner-struggle for Norman. He is shot from alternating low and high angles, and shown from strange angles to illustrate how nervous he is (the strange shot toward his chin/throat showing him nervously eating candy). The editing, lighting, and angles show the viewer that Norman is descending into madness.
When Arbogast decides to talk to Mother, his entrance to the house is quite suspenseful. We have seen Norman disappear into the shadows near the motel, then we see the house, again with the window as dominant, and cuts on action show his ascent with close-ups so that we begin to identify with this character. The scene ascending the staircase is interesting, as Arbogast never gets closer to the camera, though the background clearly gets further, an interesting and eerie effect. The scene cuts to an anticipatory set up, cutting from the door cracking open, then focusing at the top of the staircase in an overhead shot (birds eye view) as if waiting for Arbogast to reach the top. As we find out, we were also waiting for Mother to enter the scene from the right, and the quick entrance takes the viewer off-guard. Upon the first wound, again the action cuts to the victim’s face, though not the extreme close-ups we saw in the shower scene with Marion. We have not grown that close to this character, so a close-up will suffice. He falls down the stairs much as he climbed, not getting further from our view but the floor is fast approaching. This adds to the disoriented feel of the scene. Again, of course, Mother is completely in the shadows and we are shown only glimpses such as cuts to her wig, the knife, and her back.
There are several dissolves and fades in and out of scenes, and the next major occurrence is from Sam and Lila back to Norman, sitting in the dark of the motel office. We see him head back to the house, and what follows is a very powerful scene based almost purely on dialog. The camera pauses for a long shot up the staircase toward Mother’s bedroom and we hear Mother and Norman arguing. The camera slowly zooms, intensifying the argument, then takes a very strange pan/tilt to an overhead shot of the door and staircase landing. We wait, and finally Norman emerges with Mother in his arms, leaving the viewer surprised and slightly confused as it was recently disclosed in a previous scene that Norman’s mother died 10 years before.
In the scenes following, the viewer encounters point-of-view shots (Lila’s approach to the house), parallel editing (Lila nearing the house and Sam/Norman’s conversation), and dramatic lighting when Lila finds Mother in the fruit cellar. The swinging light bulb adds to the eerie tone, creating strange shadows and a confused, unsettling feeling. As she screams, the now-familiar screeching music commences at the climax of the scene. When knife-wielding Mother appears, we are certain that Lila will be the next victim, as we’ve been conditioned by this music that it signifies murder. But, instead, we find that it is Norman and he is tackled to the ground, seemingly over the edge now. The scene dissolves to the Court House scene and the viewer is informed about exactly what they just witnessed. The final scene shows a disturbed Norman, with a voice over monologue by “Mother”, and finally dissolves with Mothers face/skeleton super-imposed on Norman’s evil grin, a symbol that the two personalities are now permanently one.