Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film “Psycho” is one of those movies that are so iconic that you can recognise scenes, sounds and characters from it without ever having watched it at all. It is rated in most listings as one of the best films ever made, and definitely ranks among the greatest horror movies of all time.
It was made by a man who was similarly influential as a director. The genres of suspense and psychological thriller would not be the same without Hitchcock. His contributions to film techniques as well as his unique approach to making a movie have placed him firmly among the defining masters of the art-form. Even the trailer of the film is unconventional.
Hitchcock approached his films with the intention of creating waves in the audience’s emotions rather than emphasis on plots and intricate story details. “I don’t give a damn about, what the film is about,” he said. “I am more interested in how to handle the material to create an emotion in an audience.”
This direct and focused approach resulted in films that have a unique “creepy” quality, and are thick with suspense. Hitchcock’s control of plot information is one of his greatest innovative strengths, and is taught to film students around the world. “There’s a great confusion between mystery and suspense – the two things are absolutely miles apart,” he says, and insists that mystery has no appeal to him. The difference between mystery and suspense is that mystery requires an audience's intellectual engagement, he says, while suspense just makes them feel, and involves them by keeping them on-edge.
Hitchcock’s British sensibilities also made him a great minimalist, and he believed in creating his films without any frills. Psycho – arguably his most famous film – is one of the best examples of his overall style – from its tiny budget, to its casting, sound and shots – everything is traceable to his unique style.
The movie takes place in Phoenix, Arizona where a young woman named Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) works as a secretary and aspires to have a better, easier life with her boyfriend Sam Loomis (John Gavin).
One day on an impulse, Marion decides to take $40,000 from one of her employer's clients and run away to help kick-start her life with Sam in California. She nervously drives out of town until she cannot drive any longer and has to sleep in order to avoid crashing her car. After having a nerve-wracking run-in with a police officer, hurriedly trading her car, and running into a heavy rain-storm, she decides to stop at a wayside motel to rest, and calmly figure out her plan.
She stops at the Bates Hotel to spend the night. It is a deserted looking establishment that is run by the lonely Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). That is her biggest mistake.
Anthony Perkins’ role as Norman Bates is ingenious. He plays the character as a nervous, but affable young man who is meek and pleasant, but has just a glint of strange in his eye. The subtlety of his acting gives depth to the film’s eerie undertone.
Norman offers to share dinner with Marion, and goes back into his house to find out about arrangements for a meal. The house is a dark, ominous structure on a hill next to the motel, and while he is there, Marion overhears his mother shouting at him angrily and warning him to not invite her in.
Following this he returns from his house and decides that they can eat in his parlour instead. It is a claustrophobic room full of stuffed birds which Bates explains, are a product of his taxidermy hobby. They talk about his stiflingly close relationship with his mother, and his contradictory feelings about the matter. The conversation is loaded with a foreboding feeling.
She asks him whether he has any friends, "A boy's best friend is his mother.” He says. It makes chills run down your spine, and they continue as he keeps talking.
Hitchcock loved to use the insights of psychoanalysis to make his themes edgier and more unnerving, the character of Norman Bates is one of the best examples of this, but such a background was often written into some of his other characters too. This was perhaps fueled by Hitchcock’s own strained relationship with his mother. When asked in an interview by Dick Cavette about the source of his own fears, he replies only half-jokingly: “I think my mother scared me when I was three months old. You see she said ‘boo!’ It gave me the hiccups, and she apparently was very satisfied. All mothers do it you know, that’s how fear starts in everyone.”
Apart from plot, acting and script, Psycho is also remembered for its sound and its shots. Of course the first scene that comes to anyone’s mind is the scene of the shower-murder. Bernard Hermann’s screeching score makes your hair stand on end, while the sounds of the knife, the water, and the screams of the girl compel the audience to cringe.
The frantic visual editing incorporates dozens of cuts in just a matter of seconds. Hitchcock was the innovator of the point-of-view camera angle (where you see the scene from the perspective of the actor) and in this scene we alternate between tight shots, the view-point of the murderer, and the view-point of the victim – creating an immersion that is jarring even for modern audiences. The familiar, claustrophobic setting of being in the shower is also easy to identify with. In fact, after shooting this scene actress Janet Leigh said she used to take baths instead of showers.
Another example is the second murder scene, which comes with virtually no warning. The whole scene is shot unconventionally, starting with a wide shot from the ceiling, right up to the completion of the murder. But no further explanation can do justice when one sees what the director has to say about this scene himself:
Whether you are exploring the classics, learning about film making or simply looking to be thrilled, this film is for you. Once an exploration of this director’s work has begun, there are many excellent movies to go through, but if you want to watch your first Hitchcock movie, then Psycho is the best place to start.
Nadir Siddiqui is a photographer and interactive producer at Dawn.com. You can view some of his photography here.
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