Although Hitchcock didn’t receive the attention he deserved from the Academy and only one of his films has won an Academy Award, his relevance within the cinematic universe is undeniable. And among all of his films that even inspire filmmakers to tell their own stories, the main one is perhaps Psycho.
In Psycho, Hitchcock and his team used a variety of visual, sound and writing techniques to build one of the most famous films of all time, ranging from voyeurism to the symbolism and moral relativity explored in the scenes. In this essay, I intend to unravel these elements so that you can not only appreciate this masterpiece, but also understand its process of creation and development so that you can work on your own creations.
Who’s the Psycho?
We begin the film by seeing the real-state secretary Marion Crane and her lover, Sam Loomis, in a room through a sensual scene that uses voyeurism (the practice of gaining sexual pleasure from watching others when they are naked or engaged in sexual activity, according to the dictionary.) Here we assume that Marion will be the protagonist for whom we’ll cheer during the rest of the film and we create a good image of her when we realize that her objective is to obtain money to marry Sam. Who wouldn’t want to see a girl with the appearance of Marion marrying the love of her life, after all?
Back at work, Marion sees a client leaving $40,000 as payment for a property. Her boss then asks her to deposit the money and gives her permission to leave the job early because of a headache. When she gets home, however, she makes a decision: steal her boss’s money and go to Fairvale, California, where Sam lives.
This is a decision that plays with the psychological of us, the viewers. After all, we can see ourselves in Marion’s situation when she wants to marry and we empathize with her. However, as we are surprised by a scene in which everything we have assumed until then is confronted, our perception of Marion becomes dubious. After all, a young lady shouldn’t steal money, right?
While Marion drives and is pursued by a police officer, we can even assume that the title Psycho refers to her, who starts to hear voices and always be aware about the image of the police officer. These could be perfectly the signs of a psychosis, when a human being has difficulty distinguishing what is real from what is not.
Marion finds herself forced to stop at a motel far from civilization during a storm, the Bates Motel. She meets young Norman Bates, the owner of the place who lives in a Gothic-looking house just above the motel. Norman is a shy boy with soft voice and good looks, so we feel comfortable when he invites Marion for dinner.
But unlike the minor characters, we soon realize that Norman possesses a more important aspect within the narrative when we hear him arguing with his mother and when he tells his life story, talking about the sick mother he takes care and the death of her lover. Here we have a break in the atmosphere and characterization of Norman through his tone of voice and the framing chosen by Hitchcock, which leads us to assume that there is something mysterious behind this motel. The close-up putting Norman’s face above us may even suggest that he is a threat.
Again, voyeurism is applied when Norman watches Marion undress through a hole in the wall. Does he have sexual intentions? Could he be a sexual predator? Does he usually do this to other women who pass by the motel? And more importantly, is he really a threat to Marion?
Marion, by the way, wins again our empathy and our support when she decides to return to her city and give back the money she stole. She’s regretted and decides to take a shower. It’s all right. Our sorry blonde protagonist is taking a calm bath and there is nothing to worry about.
Until Marion is brutally stabbed in the bathroom by someone from whom we only see the silhouette and the hand that cut her flesh amid the crying of the protagonist. This is probably one of the greatest plot-twists in filmmaking, especially for the time, when it was uncommon for filmmakers to risk themselves to the point of killing the protagonist right in the middle of the story, just when our empathy for her had been restored. We feel lost.
The narrative then turns to focus on Norman, who gets desperate when he sees what his mother supposedly did. Despite the mysterious air, his good-looking appearance still makes us believe in his despair. But again, we don’t know if we should support him when he puts Marion’s body in the car along with the $ 40,000 and sinks it into the swamp near the house.
A week later, when Marion’s sister, Lila, confronts Sam about her sister, private investigator Milton Arbogast, who had been investigating Marion, confirms to them that the woman actually stole the $40,000. He investigates the Bates Motel and Norman’s evasive behavior raises suspicions, especially when the young man refuses to let the detective talk to his mother. And when Arbogast returns and tries to climb the stairs of the house to talk to Norman’s mother, he is murdered in a shot that holds our perspective above the characters, leading us to assume that Norman’s mother murdered the detective.
Sam and Lila then look for the motel, and after some conflict, she finds the corpse of Norman’s mother in the cellar in a chair. When she screams, Norman finds her dressed like his mother and with a knife in his hand, but Sam stops him from doing something. After all this and after we discover that Norman during all this time “assumed” the personality of his mother that he himself killed together with her lover, a psychiatrist says that the murder was moved by the jealousy that Norman felt for his mother and that the fault of the act made him assume an altered personality. Norman’s “Mother” personality is possessive and violent whenever he’s attracted to a woman, thus explaining the murder of Marion. We then end “Psycho” with a take of Norman completely on the control of the “Mother” personality while her voice says she would never hurt anyone and that only Norman himself is guilty for his acts.
Notice how the film leads us to false beliefs involving the title itself: first we are led to believe that our protagonist, Marion, is the one who suffers from psychosis because of the disturbed mental state that the stolen money takes her. However, she is still murdered in the middle of the movie by someone we assume to be Norman’s mother, just as we assume for a few more moments that Norman is a good guy. But the plot-twist in the end shows that in fact he is the very “Psycho” to whom the title refers.
But still, can we totally blame Norman?
The subjective morality and ability to make us care about characters of dubious intentions is one of the things that most marks Psycho as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest classics.
At first we are led to sympathize with Marion and her desire to marry Sam. So when she steals the money, although we still know that this is something wrong, we continue to care about her. And our empathy grows back when Marion decides to return to the house and give the money back … at least until she is murdered.
But why do we create this empathy with her, anyway? Marion’s desire for love is something that can be reflected in us. Strong characters often serve as a sort of mirror for our own acts and desires, which leads us to bond with them. And since we all have a notion that no one is totally a villain or a hero in real life (may you have that notion), we are still drawn to such characters even in scenarios in which they make morally dubious decisions.
But what about Norman? What makes him such a great character?
Well, I hope you don’t identify with Norman Bates, so the best explanation for the power of this character is the subversion of expectations.
You see, when we meet him, we think he’s not even an important character in the story. What we know so far is that Marion is our protagonist and that what really matters for the narrative is the money she carries. Also, even when the film goes deeper into Norman’s personal life, something that would be totally unusual for a mere secondary character, we still have no reason to think he’s a psychopath, after all, the young actor Anthony Perkins has an appearance of a shy boy who couldn’t be evil.
The surprise that he not only killed Marion and the detective, but also killed his mother and ended up taking her personality, is such a striking plot-twist that makes Norman Bates a memorable character.
Smooth camera movement and focus are also two things that lead us to empathize with Norman, since after a conversation with Marion, the camera stays with him instead of following her, as it did with Marion at the hotel.
But Hitchcock didn’t want to just make us care about Norman, he also intended to play with our morality by suggesting that perhaps Norman might not be to blame for everything he did. After all, his psychosis could’ve been originated in a trauma of the past, in the way he was raised or maybe it’s simply the fruit of a biologically ill mind. Under these circumstances, and knowing that Normal only killed people when he assumed the personality of his mother, that is, when he left his “I” aside, can we still blame him for his acts? Could he be judged as an ordinary person? After all, is Norman Bates guilty or not? Hitchcock takes us into the character’s mind to unravel these issues through camera angles, lighting cuts and even writing techniques by screenwriter Robert Bloch.
The duality, the psychosis and the mystery through the lens
Early in the movie, we are introduced to the Psycho title through clear letters that contrast with the black background and creates impact. White suggests peace and innocence, while black suggests the mystery and the unknown, thus representing the duality that becomes the main theme of the film. The fact that the letters appear broken and divided horizontally suggests that an event throughout the film changes the personality of the character.
Soon after, an establishing shot is used to show the city in the middle of the day, which leads us to think that maybe the psycho is in the middle of the city.
And when Marion is stealing the money, a high angle is used to show her vulnerability at the moment, as well as giving us the impression of being invaders observing something that no one else is and leading us to create a bigger bond with Marion that way.
One of the most interesting shots, perhaps, is the shot that introduces us to the Bates Mansion. With dark lighting on a rainy night and the gothic look of the building, Hitchcock creates contrast with the initial shot that showed us a city in the middle of the day. This shot divides the world we have known so far, just like it divides the plot of the film.
The bathroom scene, of course, is the most famous scene in Psycho. It not only hides Norman Bates and surprises us with the death of the protagonist still in the middle of the story, but it’s also lead with mastery between shots that focus on the desperate face of Marion, the stabbing and the blood that falls in the bathtub.
However, the heavy aspect that this blood would have is diminished because of the film being in black and white. This was a choice of Hitchcock himself, which in addition to giving the plot a more mysterious air, also managed to ensure that the film was not censored.
Only this famous bathroom scene needed 78 shot set-ups and took 7 days to film. The scene also used only one cameraman and the set was constructed so that none of the walls could be removed. In order to make us feel that the knife was actually entering Marion’s abdomen, Hitchcock used a fast-moving reverse shot (a shot reverse shot is a technique technique where one character is shown looking at another character, often off-screen, and then the other character is shown looking at the first character.)
Another thing that draws attention to the construction of Psycho is dialogues with repetitions that take us back to the theme of duality.
“I refuse to discuss disgusting things because they disgust me!”
“Eating in an office is just too officious.”
Such phrases indicate the multiple personality of Norman and show how well constructed the film was. Another sign of this beautiful construction is the symbolism used in the film.
As the excellent YouTube channel The Take By Screenprism points out, the bird motifs placed in the scenarios of the film serve as a reference for Norman and Marion and characterizes them as “predator and prey.”
In the begging, we observe the city of Phoenix (reference to a mythological bird) from the point of view of a bird and we are presented to Marion Crane, being this surname also the name of a bird. The name Marion also has as diminutive Marie, which refers to “marionette” (a puppet).
Norman’s surname, Bates, is also a verb for the action of a hawk flapping its wings in an attempt to escape from the perch.
As soon as Norman and Marion sit together in the living room he compares her to a harmless bird by saying that she “eats like a bird.” Throughout the scene, bird shadows, alternating between predators and prey, and the angles used by Hitchcock continue to give us hints that Norman can be menacing and also represent the duality of his personality.
In addition, the motif birds are also a reference to Norman’s own mother, whose skeleton he keeps preserved and properly clothed.
Hitchcock also uses mirrors to explore the theme of duality. After Marion steals the money, for example, she is often seen with her own reflection even if she does not look at it, which means she is not able to look at herself because of her actions. This brings Marion to the Bates Motel and her insanity is replaced by Norman’s even greater insanity.
Another form of symbolism in the film is that the characters often refuse to eat, and by denying such a natural act, they are also denying their natural desires, that is, their real desires hidden within themselves.
The eyes, in turn, also serve as symbolism for things we should not be seeing. Like when Marion crosses her eyes with her boss on the street and knows she was discovered or when she is running in the car and the camera is positioned so that the viewers themselves are watching her and even listening to her thoughts, thus increasing the tension and suspense of the film.
And among all those elements that add more value to Hitchcock’s work, of course we can not forget the sound.
Using sound to tell a story
Psycho’s soundtrack was composed by Bernard Herrmann, who had previously worked with Hitchcock on other films like Vertigo and The Man Who Knew Too Much, as well as working on films like Citizen Kane and The Day The Earth Stood Still.
Early on, the music composed by Herrmann through only violin strings helps set the tone of the film, suggesting both mental illness and suspense. Then the tone changes to something more romantic when we see Sam and Marion in the room, although this is just a variation of the disturbing music we heard at the beginning. After that, we only hear the score again when Marion decides to steal the money, thus making a connection between music and bad events. Therefore, the score in Psycho is used both to build suspense and to explore the morals of the characters.
For example, the score becomes more intense when Marion sees her boss and drives through the roads. This continues until she arrives at the Bates Motel, when the music stops with the intention of convincing us that this is a safe place. But of course this is not true; although the music convinces us that the Bates Motel is safe, we are surprised by an even more intense song when Marion is stabbed in the bathroom.
Thus, both the visual and sound aspects of Psycho work together to create a masterpiece that Hitchcock expected to be a failure. There are dozens of details that we can observe throughout the film that make it pleasurable for any cinephile to study them. And although the sequences of Psycho are not good, the first will always remain a legend of cinema.