“Psycho” by Alfred Hitchcock is an important film in the history of cinema. Hitchcock created a tale of shock, passion, and horror using his usual elements of filmmaking based on suspense. Beginning with what seems like a normal thriller, the film shifts quite shockingly after the first half. We start with Marion Crane and her boyfriend, Sam Loomis, having a passionate time at a local hotel. They discuss how they cannot marry each other due to various constraints that are related to their economic status. Marion steals money from her office and goes on the road, running away from her old life to live with her boyfriend. All this while, Hitchcock is playing with our minds as we cannot imagine what will happen next. The events take an unexpected turn when, while staying at a motel for the night, Marion is murdered to death while taking a bath in the shower in what has now become the most famous scene of all time in the history of cinema.
The shower scene is the most important in the film in terms of both its aesthetic quality and also how it turns things upside down in the narrative. Shot in a manner that vividly evokes the Soviet films by Eisenstein, the scene became a highlight of the entire film, its nuances taught in film schools the world over. Hitchcock was heavily influenced by the Soviet style of editing. He has demonstrated in his interviews how the visual medium works while referencing the Russian filmmaker and theorist, Pudovkin. And he applies the theories of Montage developed by the Soviet filmmakers to create the effect of shock and terror in the almost 5-minute shower scene by employing razor-sharp cuts with images that manage to pulsate the viewers. What increases the effect of horror further is the music by Bernard Herrmann. Initially, Hitchcock had planned to keep the scene silent, but later, when he heard the track created by Herrmann, he decided to keep it in the film, agreeing later that it accentuated the appeal. The racing music of violins and violas screeching to form a roughed-up melody is heard right from the beginning in the credits, establishing a sense of fear that is to come later in the film. So, while the act of murder is ghastly in itself, it becomes all the more devastating with the music and editing.
In another sequence of murder, later in the film, the private detective is stabbed to death on the stairs of the house. This again comes off unexpectedly. The detective slowly ascends the steps with very mild music accompanying the scene. Then we see the door to a room upstairs open, but there is no one coming out; not even a shadow is visible. We feel it must be the air. And then suddenly, a figure comes running towards him. As it happens, again, the screeching violin sound is heard with full intensity, and we are looking down upon the detective when he is killed with a knife. We cut to the close-up of his bloodied face as he falls down the stairs, his face evoking shock. Such images of violence created havoc in the minds of everyone when the film first came about. Violence was not so openly depicted with such explicit appeal in Hollywood films of the time. One of the reasons for making the film in black and white was also to minimize the gory effect of blood shown in the film!
Hitchcock deceives us by keeping alive the sense of mystery throughout. Before every killing, he makes it a point to show Norman going in the opposite direction of the crime scene so that our suspicions are not raised about him. And inherently, “Psycho” is a mystery. By giving some amount of information to us, we know something is wrong with the Bates Motel and its shy owner. Moreover, we have seen a young girl getting butchered in the shower and hence have knowledge of the dangers that reside there. But the characters don’t know all of this. They don’t know until the end that Marion was killed. And so, whenever they arrive at the motel to enquire about her, a sense of danger looms on us. This is a classic Hitchcock way of creating suspense where significant information about the plot is known to us while the characters are oblivious of the entire fact. All of this mystery and suspense pay off in the end when we get to know what actually happened. Norman was suffering from dual personality disorder owing to childhood trauma and was unable to reconcile with the fact that he killed his own mother. Starting with a couple making out in a motel, talking about their material concerns, and leaving us with a tint of psychological trauma that Norman inhibits, Hitchcock takes us on an uncertain ride. To speak of a little thing which he does in an early sequence, using the color of the clothes Marion is wearing to convey larger ideas, Marion is wearing white lingerie when she is with Sam in the hotel. There is an expression of love, with both of their intentions pure. But later, when she comes home with the money given to her by the client in the office, she is seen wearing black-colored inners, showing her descent into the immoral. The packet of money is kept on the bed. She keeps looking at it while filling her suitcase. There is a tense feeling on her face. A small detail that goes on to tell us more about the state of mind of Marion.
Combined with the innovative use of the camera and maintaining a certain rhythm with the editing, Hitchcock created a miracle with “Psycho” that enthralls people to this day. It has influenced a lot of filmmakers; its scenes were referenced in many films that were made later, and it broke a certain way of storytelling in Hollywood. There was a taboo to show sex and violence, and even shots of the toilet in Hollywood before that, and the film came as a disturbing feat for many. Nonetheless, it was appreciated widely just for its bold portrayal. Hitchcock was so particular about retaining the suspense of the film and not letting anyone spoil some part of the story to the audience before they watch it, that he himself went to promote the film and prevented the actors from talking to the press. In the film, he used narrative devices time and again to keep the truth from the audience, and while outside tried maintaining the same with such cunning moves. So much for the final effect of the climax. Film textbooks the world over are filled with examples of visuals from “Psycho” and other films of Hitchcock. Understanding the cinema of Hitchcock is paramount to understanding the language of cinema itself.
“Psycho” is a 1960 Horror Classic Film directed By Alfred Hitchcock.