The horror film ‘Psycho’, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, was released in 1960. With its original ideas and unusual themes, it became one of the most famous horror movies of all time. It created a new dimension to the horror genre with its realistic special effects, previously unheard of ideas and inventive camera angles. Psycho was extremely controversial when it was first released as it contained love scenes and very graphic special effects, and the reaction from the public was shocked and outraged.
Psycho is a detective/horror film about a woman in her thirties called Marion Crane who is unmarried, but in love with a man called Sam Loomis. Sam, however, is burdened by debts from his late father, and is unable to pay for a wedding or support a wife. Therefore, when her boss entrusts Marion with $40,000, after a moment’s hesitation, she drives off with it. She finds herself in Bates’ Motel, a hotel owned by the creepy, lonesome Norman Bates – and that is where the trouble begins…
By the word ‘psycho’ I understand a connection with the mind and thoughts, for example, a psychopath is a person with no emotions, capable of murder without feeling any guilt. The dictionary definition is “prefix meaning ‘relating to the mind'” and the word comes from the Greek psyche, meaning ‘soul’. This does not relate to the imagery used on the opening credits in the sense of a conventional mind but in the case of Norman Bates, the cutting effects give an impression of brutality. The black background with white lettering is sliced by horizontal and vertical chops, cutting the names of the actors into pieces. This implies that the same might happen to the characters that they play.
In the opening credits, the music is a high, screechy sound made by violins and other stringed instruments, and has a tense, frantic pace. This makes the audience feel uneasy, jumpy and tense. It sets the scene for the horror to come.
The establishing shot is a high-angle panoramic shot of Phoenix, Arizona. This gives the impression of an all-seeing eye, watching over the whole city. When the camera slows down, it wavers, as if thinking about where to look, then zooms into the bedroom of the hotel. This makes us believe that it could be anyone that the story is happening to; that there is nothing particularly special about Marion Crane that makes her get into trouble when any other person could not.
In the hotel, we see a dimly lit room with Marion Crane in her underwear, having sex with Sam Loomis. The darkness in the room, compared with the brightness outdoors, signifies wrongdoing, and the way the camera zooms in through the window makes us feel uncomfortable; that we are intruding on an intimate situation. This contrasts with the racing, exciting effect the music in the opening credits was supposed to have, as we are expecting some kind of horror scene right away. Instead we see a private bedroom affair and this is unsettling, as it is so unexpected.
I think that Hitchcock chose to use black and white instead of colour to emphasise the symbolism of good and evil. For example, when Marion is getting dressed in the hotel to go back to work, she is wearing white underwear, to symbolise purity. So although she has been doing something that many people would consider wrong – especially at the time the film was released – in Hitchcock’s eyes, she is still good and pure. Her underwear only changes to black when she has taken the $40,000 home and is considering stealing it. This questions the 1950s views of morality and our sense of right and wrong.
When Marion is in her room, deciding whether to steal the money, I noticed the camera zooms in and films a close-up of the money, then pans across to her suitcase. This suggests to the audience Marion’s thoughts about where she is going to place it. The music in this scene is very jumpy and jerky, making us feel tense guilty and uncertain, and it starts just as the camera points at the money. This shows that Marion’s emotions are connected to the money, and we feel guilty and nervous that she might be caught.
However, she escapes with the money and drives away desperately. Here I think is a very effective series of film techniques, which are used to create tension and suspense, and I think they really add to the sense of unease in this scene. As Marion is driving away from home, the camera shows an extreme close-up of her eyes, which look shifty and keep darting around as she checks for any pursuers. Then, when she notices the car behind her, the jumpy, panicky music starts. The car behind her symbolises her guilt, a burden that she cannot get rid of. We see an extreme close-up of the rear view mirror of Marion’s car with her wild, edgy eyes reflected on one side and the car behind on the other. I think this is a particularly effective way of showing the whole situation of being followed, from Marion’s viewpoint.
Finally Marion manages to shake off the car behind, and there is a close-up of her head and shoulders driving the car. We hear a voice-over, echoey voices of what Marion is imagining her sister and colleagues saying about her absence. I think this is a subtle way of showing that perhaps she is having second thoughts about running away with the money. She seems apprehensive of her sister and colleagues’ reaction – otherwise she would not be thinking about it. This scene is quite dimly lit, although the car is outdoors, suggesting the obscurity of the situation and her uneasiness. When later a rainstorm starts, the camera shows Marion’s warped view through the water-covered windscreen. Her inability to see a great deal through the glass represents her confusion – both her mind and the window are clouding. This is pathetic fallacy, a technique often used to emphasise an emotion of a character and the mood of the scene.
I think that Psycho is an exciting, gripping film although I did not really find it scary. I think that the way Hitchcock makes us feel empathy with the characters, in particular Marion Crane, contributes to the quality of the film and made me interested to know what would happen to them. In my opinion, Psycho would have been better publicised as a detective story instead of a horror movie. This is because it has many of the key features of a detective film, such as a gripping plot, that horror films do not usually have so much. I did not find it terrifying as much as I found it exciting. However, I understand that at the time Psycho was first released, the public was not used to such frightening horror movies that we are today. So there were not so many clichï¿½s around, and some of the material in it was considered shocking, when nowadays we would think nothing of it.
For me, the most effective part of the film is right at the end, when we see Norman Bates locked in a room and we hear a voice-over of his emotions in a sinister, ironic voice. The look on his face is really wild and the dry humour he uses makes him seem even more sinister and creepy than before.
I think the least effective scene is near the end, when a psychologist explains the story to us. I think this is a bit clumsy, and in a way is insulting the audience by saying that they would not have understood the plot without someone summarising it for them, bit by bit.
However, apart from that, I think that Psycho is an imaginative, gripping film that completely deserved the acclaim that it received. Its fast pace and effective film techniques made a really exciting storyline, and I enjoyed watching it thoroughly.