he film Psycho was released in 1960 and was directed and produced Alfred Hitchcock.
Psycho is one of the most famous films that have ever been made and it paved the way for many other films of its genre, and the shower scene is quite possibly the most famous scene ever.
Alfred Hitchcock uses many different techniques to create horror and suspense in “Psycho” and in this essay I am going to write about the ones that I feel made the most impact.
These are, The use of red herrings, the main character (played by famous actor Janet Leigh) dies after only one third of the film is over, the use of sound and music, for example, the violin in the shower scene, the Mise En Scene, where everything in the frame of the camera is deliberate and often symbolic, the use of the camera, crane shots (Arbogasts Death) First person perspective shots (Marion’s view of mother in the basement scene) and shot reverse shots (Close up of a person speaking the close up of another person replying, e.
g.: Marion’s conversation with Norman in the parlor scene).
I am going to start by analyzing the opening scenes of the film, and then go on to the larger, more famous scenes.
After she has stolen the $40,000 Marion’s flight from Phoenix lasts for about 15 minutes of the film, and fills us with an ever-increasing sense of suspense. Her plan naturally goes wrong from the start, on the way out of town her boss crosses the street in front of her car and recognizes her (we hear the “Psycho” theme, which we heard over the opening credits, for the first time).
After driving for a long time, Marion begins to get tired, and we see her pull over to the side of the road. We then cut to a day lit view of Marions parked car we see a police car, which we expect to move into the center of the frame. Instead, it passes Marions car, comes to a stop, backs up behind Marions car, and then parks there.
Marion’s encounter with the “death’s head” policeman (the sightless gaze of his dark glasses will later be remembered as we see Mother’s blind, staring sockets at the climax of Psycho). She flees from the policeman’s gaze as quickly as she is able, and rushes to buy a new car, an utterly useless gesture, because he is watching her do it. Her interactions with the car salesman repeat her experience with the policeman: the more she tries to escape notice, the more she attracts it.
This is a very good example of a red herring, in this scene we are conned into thinking that the policeman will play an important role in the film, when in fact we never see or hear from him again.
It is said that casting is 95% of any movie success, and Tony Perkins as Norman, is the key to Psychos extreme success. Tony Perkins plays the frail, meek and seemingly defenseless Norman Bates.
In the parlor scene there is a very significant conversation between Norman and Marion:
Norman: “You eat like a bird”
Marion: (Looking at the stuffed birds in his den) “You’d know, of course.”
Norman: “no, not really… I don’t really know anything about birds. My hobby is stuffing things. You know, taxidermy. And I guess I’d rather stuff birds because I hate the look of beasts when they’re stuffed. You know, foxes and chimps… Only birds look well stuffed because – well, they’re passive to begin with.”
Marion: “It’s a strange hobby. Curious.”
Norman: “Uncommon, too.”
Marion: “Oh, I imagine so!”
Norman: “And it’s not as expensive as you might think. It’s cheap, really. You know, needles, thread, sawdust. The chemicals are the only things that cost anything.”
Marion: “A man should have a hobby.”
Norman: “It’s more than a hobby…”
Marion: “Do you go out with friends?”
Norman: (resigned) “A boy’s best friend is his mother… Where are you going?”
Marion: “I’m looking for a private island.”
Norman: “… I think we’re all in our private traps. Clamped in them. And none of us can ever get out. We scratch and we claw, but only at the air. Only at each other. And for all of it, we never budge an inch.”
Marion: “Sometimes we deliberately step into those traps.”
Norman: “I was born in mine.”
Marion realizes that Norman has to escape his mother if he’s going to survive. She also realizes she can’t run forever… that’s a trap in itself. Marion decides to return the $40,000. They start to talk about Mother, Marion ends up suggesting that Mother should be committed. Marion’s suggestion that he should have Mother committed creates an anger within Norman that seems to grow almost without limit, this anger is frightening, and it creates a lot of suspense.
The shower scene follows the parlor scene and starts as Marion Crane is tidying up her room in the Bate’s motel, she starts getting undressed for a shower (all the time being watched by Norman Bates through a hole in the wall that backs on to his office). At this point the only sound that we the viewer can hear is the sound of the shower, Hitchcock has done this deliberately, it helps create suspense because the silence helps to give the viewer the idea that something is about to happen. After about 30 seconds of seeing Marion enjoy her shower, we see the door slowly opening out of the corner of our eye. This builds a lot of suspense by instantly making the viewer on edge and wanting to know who is behind the door. We see the door slowly opening and are desperate to see who is behind it, and then we see the silhouette of what we think is “Mother”. There is very good use of editing in the shower scene as through out the frantic scene we never get a close look at Mothers” face. So until the final moments of the film we are thinking that it is her who is killing, only to be proved wrong in the final scenes of the film. As James Berardinelli states
“The shower scene alone stands as one of the greatest single examples of execution and editing in the history of cinema” (James Berardinelli. Psycho 1960. http://movie-reveiws.collossus.net/movies/p/psycho.html)
When mother tears back the shower curtain, Hitchcock himself said that he had tried to “give an impression of a knife slashing, as if it is tearing at the screen and ripping the film” (Alan Vanneman www.brightlightsfilm.com/28/psycho1.html)
As Norman (or “mother”) stands before Marion, he pauses for a few seconds to let her, and us to take in the full horror of the situation.
After Marions first scream, Hitchcock cuts to a close up shot of her mouth so that as she was being stabbed we could all see the horror and pain that she was going through.
Once the assault was over and Norman/mother had left Marion slumped against the bathtub we see the last of her blood flow out of her body and down the drain as a sign of her life flowing away.
The music that was played during the shower scene also played a very important part in creating horror and suspense. The screeching violin mimics the movement of the knife as “Mother” kills Marion, and after “Mother” leaves the violin strokes slow in time to the slowing of Marion’s heart as she dies.
In the scene where Arbogast dies, the camera at first lags behind Arbogast as he begins his climb, then jumps ahead and above him (crane shot), and then to the terrifying shot of the thin band of light that runs from the crack in the door of Mother’s room, a band that quickly widens as Mother prepares to launch her assault. Once more, we never get a good look at mothers face as she is cleverly hidden in patches of light and shadow. As the door widens, we return to the shot showing Arbogast ascending the stairs. Instead of returning to show Mother coming through the door, we switch to an overhead shot. Just as Arbogast reaches the top of the stairs, the Psycho strings enter and so does Mother, brandishing her carving knife once more. There is a strange manner to the way that Mother moves, she is moving in a herky-jerky way, like the sort of movement you would see in an old, speeded-up silent film, that at once distances us from the action, but makes it more horrible. A sudden close-up of Arbogast’s stunned, bloody face throws us back into the action, and the camera follows him as he staggers backwards down the stairs. He collapses at the foot of the stairs, where Mother finishes him off.
Although it looks that Arbogast is stumbling backward at he makes his descent, Hitchcock apparently envisioned him as being almost in free fall. “The back must have been broken on impact,” he says, in the trailer. The shot was filmed with the camera gliding down the empty staircase. Balsam then sat in a chair and waved his arms wildly while the staircase shot was projected behind him. Meanwhile, Sam and Lila are waiting to hear from Arbogast, in a hardware store. Twice we see Lila back-lit so that her face is completely obscured, reminding us of our first encounter with Mother, and suggesting that the two of them will eventually have a showdown. Prodded by Lila, Sam goes out to the motel, but is unable to find anyone. His shouts of “Arbogast!” carry out to the swamp, where Norman is supervising the disappearance of the private investigator’s car.
Sam returns to Lila, and together they go to the deputy sheriff’s house. It is at this point that we learn the Bates’ family history, that ten years ago Mrs. Bates, a widow, murdered her lover and then committed suicide, (Norman had told Marion that the lover was dead, but didn’t go into all of the details) this builds a lot of suspense because we think that it is mother who has been killing, only the be told that mother is in fact dead and buried. We instantly want to know how this is possible; did mother fake her death? Or was the murder not committed by mother after all? The deputy calls Norman, who admits to having seen both Marion and Arbogast, which is enough evidence for Sam and Lila, but not for the deputy, particularly because Sam and Lila won’t file a missing person report for Marion, because this would involve charging Marion with the theft of the $40,000.
Norman runs up the stairs and enters Mother’s room, but the camera holds the shot of the staircase. We hear Norman and Mother arguing (we once again are conned into thinking that mother is alive). It becomes clear from their conversation that if the camera remains in place we will soon be face to face with Mrs. Bates. At this point the camera deliberately moves , and it gently glides upwards toward the ceiling. Then we see Norman emerge from the bedroom carrying Mother, who, seen from above, looks quite doll-like and helpless. At this point, we are fully aware that information is being withheld from us, and that Psycho will not be over until we have looked Mother fully in the face.
Hitchcock spent a lot of time and money trying to conceal the fact that Mother and Norman are one and the same. For example, Perkins never “did” Mother’s voice. Hitchcock used several voices, male and female, to try to prevent the audience from getting a fix on Mother. He also used several different people to play Mother. Margo Epper, a 24-year-old actress who had worked largely as a double in Hollywood, played Mother in the shower scene.
The basement scene starts as Lila sneaks of to explore the house while Sam holds off Norman.
We see the dreaded staircase for the fourth time. The camera follows Lila as she opens the door to Mother’s bedroom. At last we are going to see everything. Hitchcock makes time stand still as Lila explores the suffocating Victorian furniture, the armoire with the carefully spaced dresses, the famous, horrible crossed hands on Mrs. Bates’ table, and the mattress indented with Mrs. Bates’ seated form. During this scene we get one of the best scares in Psycho, when Lila sees herself reflected in a mirror. Lila doesn’t only investigate Mother’s room. Going up another half-flight of stairs, she comes to Norman’s room. As we look at the worn toys, the filthy, unmade bed, we realize that we are inside Norman’s mind (this is a good example of mise en scene). Then Lila pulls a book from the bookcase and opens it. However, we aren’t allowed to see what it is.
After inspecting both mother and Norman rooms, Lila descends the stairs only to see Norman coming up the path. She cleverly hides beneath the cellar stairs as Norman ascends, but then, to the horror of the audience, decides to inspect the cellar rather than escape, this creates unbelievable tension as we know that mother has been hidden down there. One thing we don’t know however is that the biggest surprise of the entire film is coming up.
Lila enters the cluttered basement, and switches on the light. We then see Mothers figure sitting in the chair besides the window. Lila calls out mothers name 3 times before reaching out for the chair and spinning it around, this is the first part of the big surprise, the chair swivels around and for the first time in the film we are confronted, face to face with the stuffed remains of Mother.
Lila screams and turns around to see Norman (fully dressed up as mother charging insanely through the door, knife in hand, he is ready to attack Lila.
He staggers froward, ready to strike, but at the last minute Sam lunges through the door and restrains Norman.
After Norman is subdued, we get the official wrap-up from “Dr. Richmond”.
When the doctor is finished, a police officer enters, carrying a blanket for Norman, who is suffering from a “slight chill.” we then get our final glimpse of Norman, staring helplessly, while Mother gives us her side of the story through the voiceover. She finishes by saying that she’s just going to sit here like the harmless old lady she is “see, I’m not even going to swat that fly”. Suddenly, the focus returns to Norman’s eyes. He looks right at us and grins menacingly. The film has unmasked Norman, and to drive the point home, Hitchcock superimposes Mother’s death’s head grin over Norman’s own. For the purpose of creating horror and suspense Psycho is perfect. The film uses a mix of techniques to create horror and suspense, ranging from the use of music, camera angles to brilliant editing and direction, added to all of this is a very good story line that sucks the viewer in and keeps him at the edge of his seat.