Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Cutting Edge: Psycho

Alfred Hitchcock's 'Psycho' (1960) is a film that everyone knows about in one way or another, even if they haven't seen the film itself. From the infamous murder scene in the shower to the signature piece of music that accompanies it, 'Psycho' has become embedded in cinema history. The low-budget film featured bold scenes that, at the time of its release, were gruesome and shocking to the audience. Nothing like it had been presented to the public like that before, but the way Hitchcock executed it made the film work. In fact, it worked so well that it spawned an entirely new subgenre for horror films - the slasher.

Fig. 1 'Psycho' (1960)
Now audiences are accustomed to violently gory scenes, or even go to see films specifically to witness blood, guts and murderous psychopaths. However, 'Psycho' would probably disappoint fans of slasher films if they were solely interested in brutality and gore. 'Psycho' doesn't show the knife actually puncturing flesh and the amount of blood is very minimal compared to the violence featured in films such as 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' or 'Friday the 13th'. Society at the time wasn't ready violence that graphic. The film was purposely shot in black and white to mellow down the murder scene, preventing the audience from the vibrant red colour of blood. However, unlike the typical modern fast-paced slasher films, Hitchcock takes his time to get to the killing.

Instead, he draws it out, "...that's the way it is with Mr. Hitchcock's picture- slow buildups to sudden shocks that are old-fashioned melodramatics, however effective and sure, until a couple of people have been gruesomely punctured and the mystery of the haunted house has been revealed," (Crowther, 1960). Hitchcock makes us feel comfortable believing that this is a story about a young woman, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) who steals $40,000 to help out her lover. However, midway through the film Hitchcock throws us a curveball by killing off our protagonist...or at least we thought she was our protagonist.

Disturbingly, however, it is easily to suddenly feel as though Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is the new hero. Although it is relatively obvious Norman is the murderer, it is almost instinctive to side with the young man as he appears shocked at the discovery of Marion's corpse, "Hitchcock is insidiously substituting protagonists. Marion is dead, but now (not consciously but in a deeper place) we identify with normal--not because we could stab someone, but because, if we did, we would be consumed by fear and guilt, as is he," (Ebert, 1998).

Norman hurriedly clears up the murder scene, giving the impression he has experience disposing of dead bodies. He even knows a location in a swamp to dispose of Marion's body along with her car and belongings. Despite coming to the conclusion Norman has killed before, we still feel the pressure when the car hesitates while sinking... along with the relief when it disappears into the muck. The pressure returns as Norman is later interrogated by a private investigator searching for Marion. This feeling of guilt and stress is played on by Hitchock's use of camera shots. He focuses in on Norman's throat from curious angle, signaling vulnerability to the investigator. In turn, the investigator's prying eyes are captured using close-ups of his face for the duration of the scene to increase the sense that he is dominating the situation.

Fig. 2 Norman's Throat
Another example of this is when Marion is stopped by a policeman on the road, his face fills the entirety of the shot as he gazes at Marion as she nervously searches through her purse. It is easy to see that he is intimidating and she is terrified despite the fact that he is oblivious to the situation she is in. Hitchcock uses the various methods to control his audience throughout the film, "Hitchcock's mischievous genius for audience manipulation is everywhere: in the nourish angularity of the cinematography, in the use of Bernard Herrmann's stabbing string score, in the ornithological imagery that creates a bizarre sense of preying and being preyed upon," (Monahan, 2015).

The use of music and editing is part of what made 'Psycho' a classic. The notorious shower scene uses over 70 pieces of film which have been cut and edited together using montage editing to create an experience instead of just a passive moving image the audience witnesses. By adding score created by Bernard Herrman on top of this montage, Hitchcock managed to put the viewer in the position of Marion as she was being stabbed to death by a mysterious figure. That sequence itself became arguably one of the most recognizable and celebrated scenes/movie score in cinema history.

Near the end of the film, Hitchcock presents us with one more morbid twist. Norman Bates has a split personality with a childish, obedient Norman being one and his abusive, controlling mother being the other. Technically, according to the psychologist in the film, it was Norman's mother who was a killer. Watching the film now, the scene where the psychologist explains Norman's mental state to us seems tedious but it gives us a look into how mental illness was viewed in the 1960's. Not many people knew anything about it and even went out of their way to ignore it

Fig. 3 Norman/Norma Bates
The film ends with Norman (or Norma) smirking at the audience, who now know the full truth behind Norman's disturbing behavior. It's almost as if Hitchcock himself is sitting in that chair, smiling at the viewer. He manipulated the perspective and feelings of the audience while getting away with exhibiting murder and violence in a way that has never been seen before.

Crowther, B (1960) Movie Review Psycho At: http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=EE05E7DF173DE273BC4F52DFB066838B679EDE Accessed on: 19/1/2016
Ebert, R. (1998) Psycho At: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-psycho-1960 Accessed on: 19/1/2016
Monahan, M. (2015) Psycho, review At: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/filmreviews/11025424/Psycho-review.html Accessed on: 19/1/2016

Illustration List:
Figure 1. Psycho [Poster] At: https://img1.etsystatic.com/002/1/5927693/il_fullxfull.359974463_rlia.jpg Accessed on: 19/1/2016
Figure 2. Norman's Throat [Film Still] At: http://the.hitchcock.zone/wiki/1000_Frames_of_Psycho_(1960)_-_frame_604 Accessed on: 19/1/2016
Figure 3. Norman/Norma Bates [Film Still] At: https://i.ytimg.com/vi/nceYiqf0CPw/maxresdefault.jpg Accessed on: 19/1/2016


  1. Another excellent review Dee! :)

  2. That sequence itself became *questionably* one of the most recognizable and celebrated scenes/movie score in cinema history.

    Just a small point - here, I think you mean 'arguably', as it is arguable that the shower scene is cinema's most celebrated scene. 'Questionably' means something a little different - 'if something is questionable, it is suspicious or doubtful - so in fact, arguably and questionably are near opposites of each other in terms of what they connote.

    1. Yes, that's the word I was trying to think of...thanks!