Friday, 11 February 2011

Psycho (1960)

Fig. 1  Theatrical Poster
Filmed on a tiny budget using crew from his television series, Psycho is Hitchcock's demonstration that good plot and direction can make a film a classic, regardless of resources.  Much of its effect is due to Hitchcock's careful manipulation of the audience's expectations and sympathies, misdirecting them in the manner of a conjurer.
Indeed, almost the entire first third of the film is a misdirection, (described by Empire critic David Parkinson as "the biggest and most glorious macguffins of Hitchcock's career - the life and crime of Marion Crane (Leigh)" (Parkinson, 2006)) with Hitchcock suggesting that the film will be about Marion's attempted evasion of the sinister policeman (rather like North by Northwest)

Fig. 2 Policeman
The famous (or infamous, depending upon your point of view) shower scene is notable for the way in conveys violence withought explicitly showing it.  The fast cuts (some counts put the number as high as 87) and shrieking strings in the soundtrack combine to create the impression of a violent attack, and the use of close-ups brings the audience into the action. There is also a contrast in the way that the two characters are shot - the victim (Marion) is clearly lit and filmed in close-up, while the attacker either a silhouette or filmed from the back, concealing their face and dehumanising them.

Fig. 3 Attacker
By this point, the audience's emotions are so confused, Hitchcock is able to pull of one of the most daring "tricks" in cinema history; he persuades the viewer to sympathise (at least unconciously) with the character of Norman Bates (Ebert, 1998).  We can understand his actions in cleaning up the crime scene and disposing of the evidence in the swamp at the back of the property - after all, he is trying to protect his elderly mother (even if she has just killed someone, she is the only relative he has).  Norman (Anthony Perkins) is an amiable young man, slightly awkward at times, and with somewhat macabre hobby (taxidermy), but his horror at discovering Marion's body is convincing.

Even if you have seen it before and know the twist at the end, it doesn't really spoil your enjoyment of the film; indeed if anything the knowledge helps you spot the ironic black humour that permeates the film almost from the beginning ("Mother isn't quite herself today"), and the slow and steady buildup ensures that you are still shocked whenever violence suddenly errupts.

Arguably, the most memorable scene of the film is the very last, where Norman sits, wrapped in a blanket, in a bare cell, his huddled figure in contrast to the stark white walls.  Over a slow zoom into his face, the voice of Mrs Bates talks about how she will convince them that it was all Norman's fault, and how she wouldn't hurt a fly.  Then, as Norman looks up with a sinister smile, there is a cross fade to the face of Mrs Bates.  It's over so quickly the viewer is unsure that they saw anything, the effect is electrifying.

Fig. 4 Norman Bates

List of Illustrations

Figure 1.   Shamley Productions (Org) (1960) "Psycho" Theatrical Poster [Digital Image] At: (Accessed on 10/02/2011)

Figure 2.   Shamley Productions (Org) (1960) Psycho [Film Still] At: (Accessed on 10/02/2011)

Figure 3.   Shamley Productions (Org) (1960) Psycho [Film Still] At: (Accessed on 11/02/2011)

Figure 4.   Shamley Productions (Org) (1960) Psycho [Film Still] At: (Accessed on 11/02/2011)

Crowther, Bosley (1960) Hitchcock's Psycho Bows at 2 Houses In: The New York Times [Online] At: (Accessed on 11/02/2011)

Ebert, Roger (1998) Psycho (1960) In: [Online] At: (Accessed on 11/02/2011)

Film4 Staff (2011) Psycho In: [Online] At: (Accessed on 11/02/2011)
Parkinson, David (2006) Psycho In: [Online] At: (Accessed on 10/02/2011)

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