Psycho has been referred to as ‘Hitchcock’s movie above all others’. The plot is simple, based on a novel by Robert Bloch, which in it’s turn reflected a real incident of a man who kept the body of his mother in his house in Wisconsin. Psycho was filmed in black and white. Hitchcock’s reason for this is that if the blood in the shower scene had been shown as red the scene would have been considered too disturbing and have been cut.
However, the stark contrast between the black and white, shown again in the film when Marion changes to dark clothes and black underwear after she has stolen the money and become a ‘thief’, reflects the main theme of the film; the study of good and evil. The opening credits include the sharp contrasting horizontal and vertical black and white lines, breaking apart and erratically moving across the scene, accompanied of course by the eyrie music of Bernard Herman. The film and this music are inseparable. Originally Hitchcock wanted no music, but after it was composed he allowed it to be included.
As over half of the film is silent, the music acts to build the suspense and atmosphere in a way that dialogue or simply silence could not. For example, as Arbogast climbs the stairs in the house the music lets the audience know by its urgent jarring sounds that something terrible is about to happen to him. The knowledge that Arbogast is not going to ‘be alright’, as members of the audience may otherwise has expected, builds fear and suspense for what exactly is going to happen to him. The film reflects the good and evil inside each of us.
The characters and their situations are portrayed as being as normal as possible, to help the audience relate to them. In fact, it has been said that because the film is really about Norman Bates, the other characters are simply acting as extensions of the audience. The audience is given a chance to relate to each character separately helping them to act as voyeurs, and take part in the film. All characters have uncovered eyes except for the policemen who wears sunglasses, as he is regarding Marion, and at that time in the film we are relating to Marion and so seeing the policemen out of her eyes, not visa versa.
While psycho is ‘A film that belongs to filmakers’, it works through the emotions of the audience. The normality of the characters and their situations is reflected in the opening scenes. Psycho begins with a view of a city, full of normal people living their normal lives. The name of the city, and a precise date and time appears. While Hitchcock includes the name and date of places at the beginnings of many of his films, it was included here for a special reason. Hitchcock said, ‘this is the only time the poor girl has to go to bed with her lover.
It suggests she has spent her whole lunch hour with him’. This is the beginning of the audience’s sympathies with Marion. The camera pans over the city, but then hesitates before moving down into one window in particular. This causes it to seem as if the window has been chosen at random from the large selection in view, and so enforces the idea of the characters as normal people. The members of the audience are enabled to act as voyeurs, looking in on Marion and her lover, Sam, through their open window.
Very soon however, the audience ceases to look at the film through their own eyes, and begin to relate to Marion. Her proposal to her lover is rejected by him, and so we sympathies with her spurned dreams. It is interesting to not here that Marion is prevented from living her life as she wishes to by the old fashioned morals of society, upheld by the symbol of her mother’s portrait. Both Marion and Norman are restricted by their images of their mothers, and what she would expect of them. The domination of the past over the present is another theme of Psycho.
Sam and Marion cannot marry because he must pay his fathers debts and ex-wife’s alimony, behind Marion as she changes we can see that her room is decorated with family pictures, and of course Norman Bate’s entire consciousness is governed by his perception of the past. Also in this first scene the image of contrast is illustrated, with Marion lying on the bed but Sam standing up, found also in the opening credits and the image of the low horizontal motel against the high and vertical Bates Mansion. Psycho explores the good and evil inside all of us.
Our ‘heroine’ takes part in illicit affairs and steals a very large amount of money. But all the same when her boss spots her at the traffic lights we feel concern that Marion’s crime is not discovered. From following Marion from the beginning of the film and sympathising with her in the first scene we already relate to her. We view the boss crossing the zebra crossing from inside the car. The camera allows the audience to see out of Marion’s eyes, and so help us relate to her. No character in the film is fully honest, but yet the audience still finds themselves identifying with them.
In this way Hitchcock encourages us to explore the good and the evil inside ourselves. Rarely in psycho are two characters shown talking to each other at once. First a close up of one face will be shown, then the other. This helps the audience participate in the film as they can feel like they are the ones being spoken to, and the can also relate to the person doing the speaking. Again the technique of causing to audience to feel as if they are looking through the eyes of a character is obtained. Another theme of psycho is guilt.
Marion has never done something as wrong as stealing $40,000 before, and as a result finds her guilt blinding. She knows that she has let people down in their trust for her, and nothing inside her tells her that her plan could work, yet still she continues to carry it out because she can see no other way of doing things than the way she is going. With the blinding sensation of guilt, and the fear of being caught, she acts irrationally, and looses much of her freedom of mind. This is demonstrated by the mock conversations she plays to herself in her head on the car journey.
Instead if seeing out of Marion’s eyes, the audience is now looking into her subconscious, and so we see her through her car windscreen. We know she feels guilt because of the conversations that she plays. She knows that Sam will not easily accept the stolen money; she cannot finish her conversation with him. The conversations and the expressions we can see on Marion’s face help us to understand and share in the turmoil she is going through. The loss of rational thought, and the way it can be lost in any person who we would consider normal, is also a theme in psycho.
Norman Bates was a normal person until his experiences and complex feelings caused him to loose track of rational thought. So much detail is given to the change over of cars and the motorcycle policeman to add detail to Marion’s journey. As Hitchcock said, “You know that the public always likes to be one jump ahead of the story; they like to feel they know what’s coming next. So you deliberately play upon this fact to control their thoughts. The more we go into the details of the girl’s journey, the more the audience becomes absorbed in her flight.
This means that when Marion arrives at the Bates Motel the audience is expecting her, not Norman, to be the main character of the film, which is what makes maroons murder in the shower so shocking and inapprehensible. It is hard for Marion to understand or control what she is doing, and so we understand why she decides she can drive no longer and stops at the Bates Motel. The audience knows that this is an unfavourable place to be by the way the sign suddenly looms out of the dark and mist. The Bates Mansion is also a daunting image. Norman Bates however dispels these feelings by being a likeable and shy young man.
During his conversation with Marion, Norman helps her regain her freedom of choice in her life, and helps her decide to do the right thing and return the money. When Norman describes his own life this helps Marion. ‘We are all in our private trap’ he says. Marion sees how far she has lapsed into confusion, and resolves to return to phoenix and return the money. The audience, who has thus far sent eh entire film through the eyes of Marion, is intent on following her story, and is lulled into a false sense of security by the belief that in her good has triumphed and everything will now sort itself out.
When Norman watches Marion change he looks through a hole in the wall that had hitherto been covered by a classical depiction of a rape. The shower scene murder has been likened to a rape, and has been explained as Norman fulfilling the sexual act he would otherwise not have the courage to perform. Thus the crimes in Psycho are not due to money, as would have otherwise been presumed, but sex. Marion even stole the money for the sake of being with her lover, and not because she herself required the money. We can see Marion though the eyes of Norman.
This is the first time we are looking though the eyes of anyone but Marion. It prepares the audience for the change in sympathies that must occur after Marion’s death. The audience becomes a ‘peeping tom’, watching Marion through a round shape of vision. For this moment it is not Marion we are relating to, she is oblivious, but Norman. For Marion to be killed as she showers comes as a complete shock to the audience, which helps to increase the horror potential of the scene. She was engaged in an act of cleansing after deciding to return he money, and believes herself to be perfectly safe and right.
The camera looks for one last time through her eyes, up to the showerhead. For this to be filmed the camera crew had to fill in the central shower holes and turn the camera upwards between the water. The camera shows Marion’s face, but behind her the audience can see a dark shape of a person appear. Hitchcock let the audience be frightened for Marion and yet be powerless to stop it. Thus guilt is mixed with the complex emotions of the audience on witnessing the murder, as they knew before Marion did that she was not safe.
When the figure pulls back the shower curtain it has been placed with it’s back to the light, so no face can b discerned. A brutal stabbing follows, which would have been considered even more violent when it was first released than today, when violence on screen is more common. When the attack began Hitchcock arranged for the water to suddenly turn cold, so the look on Janet Leigh’s face is of true shock, which is even more distressing to the emotions of the audience as acting would have been. The killer’s face is not shown in the shower scene, only their arm and knife.
The fear is reinforced by Bernard Herman’s music, whose sharp jarring violin sounds reflect the movement of the knife, and whose music generally is unsettling and dramatic. After the murderer has departed the audience follows the blood as it swirls down to the plughole, the last life of their heroine being washed away. The plughole fades into a startling close up still of Marion’s eye, and the camera then pans out to take in the whole bloody and shocking scene. The evidence of the hurried and erratic attack lies in the chaos of the bathroom.
Norman is the next character that the audience see after the death of Marion. Since now the story cannot be that of her flight, they begin to relate to Norman. Even though he is covering up a horrific crime, we feel anxious for him that he will tidy up all the evidence and complete his job before anyone can find him out. In the same way that we worried for Marion when she was seen by her boss, we worry for Norman when the car stops sinking into the bog, and breath a sigh of release when it does finally disappear.
When Norman goes upstairs to carry down his mother is was necessary for Hitchcock to have the camera raised high so that the face of the mother could not be discerned. If it had suddenly been cut to a high shot when Norman brought his mother out of the room the audience would have thought Hitchcock was trying deliberately to hide the mothers face, so it was done craftily. The camera is raised while Norman was walking up the stairs, and continues to rise after he has gone into the room.
While the conversation with the mother occurs the camera rises so that when Norman returns carrying his mother the audience is not suspicious as to why the camera is so high. We hear him say, “Mother, I’ve got to take you down to the cellar. They’re snooping around. ” This also gives an excuse for having Norman carry the body instead of his mother walking herself. As the camera gets up on top of the door, the camera turns and looks back down the stairs again to watch them descend.
Hitchcock enjoyed this, saying, “It was rather exciting to use the camera to deceive the audience. Arbogast, the detective hired to recover the money, is greeted courteously by Norman Bates, but Norman shows nervousness and inconsistence in his speech and stories. Guilt is again overpowering the rational actions of a person. Not persuaded by Norman’s story Arbogast decides to investigate the house to talk to Norman’s mother. As he walks up to the house and through the door the music begins it’s warning tones. The audience is forewarned that something bad will follow. The camera uses a single shot as Arbogast climbs the stairs.
He was made to look as innocent and complacent as he good. If close ups and different shots of him were used it would have given the impression more that he was doing something wrong, and that the suspense the audience fears will be released by him. When Arbogast reaches the top step the camera is placed very high for two reasons. The first is to hide the face of the mother when she comes out to stab him. The second is to make the close up shot of his horror stricken and blood smeared face directly afterwards all the more sudden and of impact.
This murder could be considered more violent than Marion’s, blood is visible on the victim’s body, and the murder lasts for a longer length of time. The action is stretched out by Arbogast’s fall down the stairs. The audience can see his face all the time while he is falling. To achieve this the crew superimposed a shot of Arbogast over a background of a shot taken by a camera moving down the stairs. The reason why to some Arbogast does not look like he is really falling at all is because he isn’t even moving.