Psycho is a 1960 horror film directed by Alfred Hitchcock starring Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles and John Gavin. The film is based on the 1959 novel of the same name by Robert Bloch. The main theme that Hitchcock tries to express to the audience is dual or split personalities. Everyone has a subconscious battle with good and evil; he shows this in many different ways using lighting, different camera techniques, mise-en-scene and silence. Also he used a string orchestra to add tension and drama as well as setting the tone for impending violence.
The movie starts with Marion Crane and her boyfriend Sam Loomis in an intimate scene, before she has to go back to work. When she returns to work she is instructed to bank $40000 for her employer but decides to steal it and skip town instead. Driving on a rainy night, she pulls into the Bates Motel where she meets Norman Bates. After being showed to her room the two have dinner and they talk about Norman’s ill mother. Later that night while Marion is in the shower a shadowy figure comes and stabs her to death. Norman bursts into the bathroom and finds Marion’s dead body so he wraps her in a shower curtain then dumps her body and car in a nearby swamp. Marion’s sister Lila and boyfriend Sam are concerned about her disappearance.
A private detective named Arbogast is also looking for Marion. Arbogast finds the Bates Motel and notices Norman acting suspiciously. He mentions Marion meeting his mother, so Arbogast goes up to the house to find her but a figure emerges and murders him. When Arbogast doesn’t return Lila and Sam visit the sheriff who is puzzled about Arbogast’s claim that the mother died years ago. Sam and Lila rent a room at the Bates Motel and while Sam distracts Norman, Lila sneaks up to the house where she finds Norman’s mother’s corpse. Norman Bates then bursts in, wearing a dress and wig and tries to kill Lila but is stopped by Sam. After Norman is arrested the psychiatrist reveals that Norman murdered his mother and her lover and then developed a split personality to erase the memory of the crime. The movie ends with Marion’s car being pulled from the swamp. (Ebert,1998)
One of the main techniques Hitchcock uses to express the theme of duality is the use different lighting. This is evident in the parlour scene when Norman and Marion are talking about Norman’s mother. The light source in this scene is high on the wall and closer to Marion leaving Norman in the dark. The angle light behind Norman is very sharp and it draws the audience’s attention to the large dead birds that Norman has but leaves everything else behind him very dark and dull to make it seem almost like he’s lurking in the shadows. (Lamb,2013). Again in the parlour scene only half of Normans face is lit insinuating that he has a dark side but also that half of him is still good. This technique is used more than once throughout the film. In the same scene Marion is depicted as sweet and innocent with her full face being lit. She has a large round light behind her leaving no shadows and lighting the entire wall. It’s in this scene that Marion good side prevails and she decides to go back to Phoenix and return the stolen money.
Another technique Hitchcock uses well in the film is sound. The score was written for a string orchestra by Bernard Herrmann even though Hitchcock initially requested a jazz score. However, after the film’s success, Hitchcock said “thirty three percent of the effect of Psycho was due to the music” (Smith,1991, p.241). The title music which is a tense hurtling piece plays three times throughout the film adding tension to some of the earlier scenes. (Palmer,1990, p.275). He also uses silence to build suspense. For example, in the shower scene Marion gets undressed and begins showering with no background music; this implies that something bad will happen yet, when the shadowy figure appears the violins are used in a screeching and stabbing sound motion of extreme viciousness. (Palmer,1990, p.277).
The mise-en-scene is extraordinarily influential throughout Psycho but the best example of this would be in the parlour scene. One of the main objects in this scene is the milk jug that Norman carries on the tray. The spout is like an arrow pointing to Marion, This shows the audience that Norman has chosen her as his prey. Another obvious technique used in this scene is the position and placement of the actors and also the body language used. When Norman and Marion are standing facing each other Norman is holding the tray with both arms making it look almost like he’s pointing at Marion reinforcing the idea that he has chosen her, while Marion stands with both arms by her side making her seem unaware and innocent. (Quality Teacher Program,2002, p.14). Also, while Norman and Marion are standing outside the office Norman’s reflection can be seen in the window, which supports the idea of duality in the film.
Camera angle and different camera movements are another fantastic technique that Hitchcock uses very well in Psycho to reinforce the theme of duality. This can be seen in the opening scene where the camera positions the viewer as a voyeur witnessing an illicit affair between Marion who is in her lunch break and Sam who is a divorcee. In the 1950’s this was seen as pushing the limits of what is socially and morally acceptable. The shower scene also uses an extreme close up of Marion eye which shows her guilt as well as her innocence. Her open eye suggests she didn’t deserve to be killed by Norman but also by dying she has been punished for letting her evil side take over and stealing the money. (Quality Teacher Program,2002, p.29)
Hitchcock achieved his goal with Psycho by portraying his main theme of duality in human nature. He made the theme obvious to the audience and reinforced it in many different ways using a large range of techniques including camera angle and position, lighting, sound and mise-en-scene. From the thrilling and somewhat haunting music in the opening credits right up until the final scene where Marion’s car is pulled from the swamp the theme is very effective in a way that keeps the audience thinking long after the film is over.
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Psycho (motion picture) 1960, Paramount Pictures, Los Angeles, Producer, Alfred Hitchcock.
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Smith, S.C. 1991, A Heart at Fire’s Center; The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann, University of California Press, Berkeley