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Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” is one of the most influential and famous films of his career. Despite the low budget of the film, Hitchcock employs a variety of new techniques and experiments in filmmaking. This paper will analyze some of the techniques employed by Hitchcock.
Alfred Hitchcock cemented himself as a master of visual storytelling. The film “Psycho” could be seen as one of the most experimental works by Hitchcock. Most of the scenes of the movie utilize multiple storytelling techniques to engage the viewer in a way that was previously absent from the mainstream cinema. It is impossible to perceive all the visual and audio elements that Hitchcock put into every scene over one viewing. Formalist analysis of some of the most famous scenes could be done to show their complexity.
Starting with the opening scene, the camera becomes a voyeuristic presence, as it pans over the city, and into the room where Marion and her lover have been involved in an adulterous activity. The use of the camera in this scene serves three purposes: to introduce the theme of voyeurism, to show the perspective of Marion, and to follow the plot. The second purpose is achieved through the use of the first-person perspective intercut with more standard camerawork. The camera is used to show that Marion is planning to steal money, and run away. This information is delivered through a quick shot of the money, and a pan to a packed suitcase sitting next to it. The movie can be seen as an escalating series of nefarious acts, and the opening scene presents this escalation. It starts with infidelity and moves fast toward theft.
Although it is a less analyzed scene, I believe that the moment when Marion meets Norman outside the hotel is a great example of the subtle use of lighting in the movie. The scene is shot in such a way so we can only see one side of the characters. However, Marion stands in the light, but Norman is only lit from one side, with the other being reflected in the dark window behind him. While on the first viewing this scene would hold no significance, after discovering the true nature of Norman, it is possible to see this as a literal foreshadowing of his split personality. I believe the lighting shows a psychological duality of the character, and not just his hidden motives, as Marion also holds secrets from Norman, but she is still fully lit on both sides. The famous parlor scene continues this motif and introduces a new one in the form of birds. In the scene, Norman sits under two stuffed birds of prey. They have posed aggressively and show the predatory nature of Norman, whether he is aware of it or not. His duality is shown not just with light and shadow, but also through his position in the scene, his body language, and editing. This scene is unique due to the way it never repeats the same shot after cutting between the characters (Olivares-Merino and Olivares-Merino 153). Norman constantly changes his body language from dominant and imposing to shy, submissive, and emasculated. Each change in body language is a reaction to his dialogue with Marion. It shows his inner struggle to control the personality of his mother, and that he is too weak to win in that struggle. Depending on his reaction, the camera either get closer to him or further. It accentuates both the threatening tone he takes when discussing putting his mother in a nursing home, as well as his emasculation when Marion decides to end the conversation.
The most famous scene of the movie is the shower scene, where Marion is murdered by Norman. The scene consists of almost 60 cuts to provide an impression of a visceral and chaotic scene of violence. Hitchcock would later say that this was done to avoid censorship, but the execution provides a scene more shocking than it could be done at the time. The scene was storyboarded by Saul Bass, who was also responsible for the creation of the striking title sequence (Olivares-Merino and Olivares-Merino 17). On a technical level, it was a very complex scene, with innovative techniques used to shoot around water, create an illusion of nudity and violence, as well as to show the horror of the act. It mirrors the techniques used in the opening scene. The scene utilizes the first-person perspective from both the killer and Marion. However, this time the camera is erratic and moves around the scene with each quick cut. The killer’s face is now fully hidden in shadow, signifying that the murderous side of Norman is in control. The scene is also directed in a way to show that Marion feels guilt over her crime and regrets that she will not be able to make up for it. This is shown in her attempt to reach out to the newspaper where she hid the money and the lingering shot of her eye after she falls on the floor.
“Psycho” is an iconic film. Its influence is felt through to modern times, with thousands of directors now utilizing similar techniques to achieve suspense and thrill the audiences. It shows that a small budget can be overcome through innovation and a strong focus on the visual language of the film.
Olivares-Merino, Eugenio M, and Julio A. Olivares-Merino. Peeping Through the Holes. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013.