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Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” Annotation Essay (Movie Review)

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Updated: Jun 15th, 2022

Psycho is considered the earliest slasher movie as well as one of the best films ever created. Wood calls it “perhaps the most terrifying film ever made” (142), describing it as a movie that takes viewers into the darkness of themselves. Based on a 1959 novel by Robert Bloch, Psycho was made against the wishes of Paramount, which Hitchcock was working with at the time using his resources. As a result, the movie was shot on a low budget, using Hitchcock’s television show crew, and being filmed in black and white.

The Plot of the Movie

The film begins with Marion Crane, a secretary, stealing a significant sum of money and attempting to drive to her boyfriend’s house in a different state. On the way, she stops at a motel and is invited to dinner by the owner Norman Bates. She then overhears an argument between Bates and his mother about bringing Marion into the house to eat, which ends with Norman deciding to eat with her in the motel parlor. There, Norman tells Marion about his difficult life under his controlling and obsessive mother. After hearing the story, Marion has an epiphany and decides to go back and return the money the next morning.

Soon after, she is suddenly stabbed in the shower by an unknown assailant, with Bates discovering the body and hiding it along with the evidence. Marion’s relatives become alarmed at her disappearance and hire a private investigator, who is also murdered at the motel. Finally, Marion’s sister Lila and her boyfriend Sam arrive in the town themselves. There they learn that Norman’s mother, Mrs. Bates, has been dead for ten years. Deciding that Norman is the killer who wanted the money Marion was hiding, they head to the hotel.

While Sam distracts Norman, Lila manages to sneak into Bates’s house and discovers the mummified corpse of Mrs. Bates However, Norman discovers her soon after and tries to kill her, but Sam manages to subdue him. They give Norman over to the police to have him tried for his crimes. At court, a psychiatrist explains that Bates has developed dissociative identity disorder, with the violent and possessive “mother” personality completely taking charge of him. The “mother” personality protests to the viewer that Norman himself performed the murders.

Production and Development

Paramount disliked the idea of Hitchcock producing an experimental movie such as Psycho and refused to provide support for the filming. Hitchcock decided to fund the film with his resources, not using his usual filming crew and convincing the actors to work for less than their usual fee. The Paramount executives agreed to the proposal, as they would still be the distributors of the movie, even though Hitchcock secured a 60% stake in the earnings for himself, according to Smith (14).

Hitchcock decided to shoot the movie at the studios where he produced his television show, using the show’s crew. The movie’s budget was relatively small, but despite that, numerous locations were shot for reconstruction at the studio, and well-known, talented actors were hired (Kolker 48). There was a need to do retakes for some scenes, which is unusual for Hitchcock who is famous for only needing one attempt to film a shot successfully.

The actors were allowed to improvise freely, which accounts for some of the small details in the movie, such as Norman’s candy corn eating habit. There were rumors that Janet Leigh who played Marion was abused during the shower scene’s filming via the use of cold water to produce more realistic screams, but the actress has since publicly denied the statement. She did, however, only receive a quarter of her usual fee for her work, which was explained by a combination of Hitchcock’s reputation, her contract, and her agreement without reading the salary details.

The Shower Scene

The shower scene is the most well-known part of the movie, as it is masterfully shot and displays a level of violence that was unprecedented at the time of its shooting. According to Philippe, it consists of 78 camera set-ups and 52 edits in a three-minute sequence. Some of the angles are innovative for the time, such as the shot of the shower head spraying water onto the camera without blurring the lens. This effect was achieved through the blocking of the head’s inner ring of holes, which made the water spray around the camera without getting on the lens.

A significant part of the scene’s appeal is its meaning, which was unusual for the time and revolutionized the concept of storytelling in films. The perception that Marion is the protagonist increases the impact of the scene, as up to that point in time the viewer has been observing her actions and thoughts. However, she dies and is never relevant again, as the focus of the story shifts to the actual centerpiece, namely the unknown killer and the people who try to expose him. The approach has become standard for slasher movies, which tend to avoid showing the killer’s activity until the first murder occurs.

The scene’s use of matters that were previously considered unapproachable, such as displaying a flushing toilet, expanded the possibilities for future horror film creators, which they capitalized on. However, the scene still attempts to avoid on-screen displays of violence. While there is a shot of a knife stabbing Marion, it is so short that people often do not notice it without a freeze-frame analysis. The use of the music also serves to amplify the scene, despite Hitchcock’s original intention is not to have any.

The scene is said to contain numerous subtexts, some of which Hitchcock openly discussed after the movie’s release. The director compared Marion’s decision to shower to baptism, as she decided to confess her crime and face her punishment. Norman’s attack is also founded on deep sexual frustration, as his possessive “mother” personality refuses to let him express anything but hostility to women, and the knife Bates favors is a strongly phallic instrument.

Notable Works

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho: A Casebook edited by Robert Kolker approaches the movie from different sides and viewpoints by gathering the opinions of numerous analysts, such as Robin Wood and Stephen Rebello. The topics of the book cover Psycho’s production, reception, music, and other aspects. The book can be considered a collection of informed and influential opinions on the movie and its effect on the industry.

Robin Wood wrote an entire book on the famous director, which is named Hitchcock’s Films Revisited. The author describes his impressions of the various movies directed by Hitchcock as an individual and as a critic who has been strongly influenced by his works. The combination of objective insights and memories of how the works affected Wood when they were first displayed provides a valuable view of the intents and circumstances behind them.

For a detailed analysis of the movie’s plot from every aspect, Joseph W. Smith, III, offers a helpful guide. The book’s structure follows the movie’s progression, describing the events while noting matters that deserve attention, such as technical specifics or subtexts behind particular scenes. The book provides a detailed analysis of the motifs of the film and the ideas Hitchcock wanted to express with each scene as well as the whole story.

Alexandre O. Philippe devotes an entire feature-length documentary to analyzing the shower scene. 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene makes a statement that there are still secrets hidden in the 78 camera shots that have not been discovered yet. The documentary describes the shocking, but also beautiful nature of the scene with its tragic and yet irresistibly attractive visuals. Philippe states that one could explore the shower scene for a lifetime and still not get to the bottom of its numerous subtexts.

David Thomson analyses Psycho as a work that has influenced the cinematographic industry for years and decades to come. His book The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder describes how the film plays with the viewers and how it breaks the norms and establishes new ones. The author covers both the individual qualities of the movie and the battle Hitchcock had fought behind the scenes to secure acceptance of his masterpiece.

Reception

Critics did not receive Psycho positively when it premiered, denouncing it for its violence and disturbing departure from the norms. Thomson describes how a similar movie Peeping Tom by another highly talented director Michael Powell had received a strong negative response three months before Psycho’s opening and halted Powell’s career due to poor critical reception (156). Nevertheless, the film opened with great aplomb and attracted a large amount of attention from audiences despite the negative reviews.

Hitchcock’s move produced results when audiences greatly enjoyed Psycho and began spreading the fame of the picture by word of mouth. Faced with this unexpected reaction, critics were forced to watch the movie again and evaluate it with a fresh perspective. Once they did that, the tone of the reviews dramatically improved, and Psycho was hailed as a masterpiece, according to Kolker (167). A similar situation occurred in the other countries as the movie premiered there, leading to universal recognition and a theatrical re-release of the film in 1969.

The success of Psycho paved the way for other films that would previously be considered too dark or brutal. Lewis’s Blood Feast, released in 1963, became known as the first “splatter movie,” and numerous mystery thrillers took inspiration from Hitchcock’s film. After Hitchcock’s death, Universal Studios, who had acquired the rights to the franchise, began working on numerous related movies, including three sequels to Psycho. The film itself is preserved in the National Film Registry as significant.

Conclusion

Psycho is a brilliant film that challenged the norms of its times and emerged victoriously. It has established many standards and approaches that are being used even today. The combination of great direction, music, acting, and story creates a film that was revolutionary when it premiered but remains a highly recommended picture half a century later. With its outstanding list of achievements, Psycho is a strong contender for the title of the best movie ever filmed.

Works Cited

Kolker, Robert, editor. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho: A Casebook. Oxford University Press, 2004.

Lewis, Herschell Gordon, director. Blood Feast. Box Office Spectaculars, 1963.

Philippe, Alexandre O., director. 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene. IFC Films, 2017.

Psycho. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, performances by Anthony Perkins and Vera Miles, Paramount Pictures, 1960.

Smith, Joseph W., III. The Psycho File: A Comprehensive Guide to Hitchcock’s Classic Shocker. McFarland, 2009.

Thomson, David. The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder. Basic Books, 2009.

Wood, Robin. Hitchcock’s Films Revisited. Columbia University Press, 2002.

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