Psycho

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Norman Bates remains a clas­sic anti-hero 50 years after the release of Psycho.

When Psycho was released in 1960, it was crit­i­cized for twist­ing and bend­ing the con­ven­tions of the pre­ced­ing decades of cin­e­ma com­plete­ly out of shape. Then bit by bit it was revealed that direc­tor Alfred Hitchcock was cor­rect at every bend.

We all go a lit­tle insane some­times.” — Norman Bates.

Hitchcock’s uncon­ven­tion­al style is clear­ly evi­dent in the pro­duc­tion val­ues of the film: although backed by a major stu­dio, the direc­tor chose to work with his tele­vi­sion crew. He also made the high­ly con­tro­ver­sial choice to film in black and white. In the era of lush col­or film­mak­ing, many con­sid­ered this as an ill-advised and sacro­sanct return to out­dat­ed tech­niques. The result of both these choic­es, how­ev­er, was that the film took on a stark char­ac­ter that con­tributed immense­ly to its per­verse­ly dis­turb­ing brand of hor­ror.

In Opening

The famous open­ing sequence of the film aban­dons the tra­di­tion­al estab­lish­ing shot (which moves from the gen­er­al to the spe­cif­ic) in favor of one almost con­tin­u­ous shot that pans along a city sky­line and grad­u­al­ly moves into a win­dow and then into a hotel room, where an adul­ter­ous encounter between the main char­ac­ter and her boyfriend is under­way. This sequence through space, rather than being a neu­tral estab­lish­er of loca­tion, has the added effect of impli­cat­ing the view­er as a voyeur and wit­ness to this illic­it affair from the start. This effect is height­ened when we first lay eyes on Marion Crane in a bra, some­thing quite dar­ing for its time (though the white bra sug­gests she remains moral­ly untaint­ed).

OPENING SCENE OF PSYCHO • Click on each image for a larg­er view.

Stills tak­en from DVD of the film.

We are forced to bear wit­ness to and become cocon­spir­a­tors in her even­tu­al crime of steal­ing mon­ey from her boss (soon after that we see her half naked again, but now in a black bra). The view­er unwit­ting­ly becomes com­plic­it in her plight and shares her bur­den of guilt. This form of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion is very impor­tant in the cin­e­ma of Hitchcock, and it is soon revealed why.

The scenes of Marion’s crime and her get­away dri­ve through the rain to a remote hotel lead to a com­plete­ly unex­pect­ed scene that takes the film in a rad­i­cal new direc­tion. Designed by Hitchcock in col­lab­o­ra­tion with ridicu­lous­ly tal­ent­ed graph­ic design­er Saul Bass, it is the most famous scene of the film, and prob­a­bly the sin­gle most quot­ed sequence in film his­to­ry. It is also an exam­ple of expres­sion­is­tic edit­ing and of the pow­er of film to invoke strong emo­tions, in this case of extreme ter­ror. It is, in fact, the only moment of gra­tu­itous shock (as opposed to sus­pense) in Hitchcock’s entire career. (In case you haven’t seen Psycho, I’ve hid­den this and oth­er spoil­ers so as not to ruin your enjoy­ment of the film. Otherwise, click on “Show” to reveal the hid­den text.)

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Theory of Suspense

Alfred Hitchock is cred­it­ed as the Master of Suspense because he is arguably the first direc­tor to make an effec­tive and clear dis­tinc­tion between sus­pense and shock, which is much eas­i­er to achieve but ulti­mate­ly much less effec­tive: “There is no ter­ror in the bang, only in the antic­i­pa­tion of it.” In a con­ver­sa­tion with François Truffaut, he famous­ly gave the fol­low­ing exam­ple to illus­trate.

We are now hav­ing a very inno­cent lit­tle chat. Let us sup­pose that there is a bomb under­neath this table between us. Nothing hap­pens, and then all of a sud­den, “Boom!” There is an explo­sion. Then the pub­lic is sur­prised, but pri­or to this sur­prise, it has seen an absolute­ly ordi­nary scene, of no spe­cial con­se­quence. Now, let us take a sus­pense sit­u­a­tion. The bomb is under­neath the table and the pub­lic knows it, prob­a­bly because they have seen the anar­chist place it there. The pub­lic is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the décor.

The pub­lic can see that it is a quar­ter to one. In these con­di­tions this same innocu­ous con­ver­sa­tion becomes fas­ci­nat­ing because the pub­lic is par­tic­i­pat­ing in the scene. The audi­ence is long­ing to warn the char­ac­ters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talk­ing about such triv­ial mat­ters. There is a bomb beneath you and it’s about to explode!”

In the first case we have giv­en the pub­lic fif­teen sec­onds of sur­prise at the moment of the explo­sion. In the sec­ond we have pro­vid­ed them with fif­teen min­utes of sus­pense. The con­clu­sion is that when­ev­er pos­si­ble, the pub­lic must be informed. Except when the sur­prise is a twist, that is, when the unex­pect­ed end­ing is, in itself, the high­light of the sto­ry.

In the sur­prise (a.k.a. shock) sit­u­a­tion, the abrupt­ness of the explo­sion caus­es a jolt that lasts a few sec­onds. In the sus­pense sit­u­a­tion, on the oth­er hand, the audi­ence knows the bomb is there but the char­ac­ters do not, and this dra­mat­ic irony cre­ates a degree of ten­sion as the audi­ence won­ders if the char­ac­ters are going to notice the bomb in time to escape before it explodes.

What the MacGuffin?

Not only was Hitchcock the orig­i­na­tor of a clear and well-defined the­o­ry of sus­pense in cin­e­ma, he also invent­ed what came to be known as the MacGuffin, an object that pro­pels the film for­ward and moti­vates its char­ac­ters. The nature of the object itself, how­ev­er, is arbi­trary and of min­i­mal impor­tance. What is impor­tant is that every­one wants it. In a con­ver­sa­tion with François Truffaut, Hitchcock explains.

It’s the device, the gim­mick, if you will, or the papers the spies are after. I’ll tell you about it. Most of Kipling’s sto­ries, as you know, were set in India, and they dealt with the fight­ing between the natives and the British forces on the Afghanistan bor­der. Many of them were spy sto­ries, and they were con­cerned with the efforts to steal the secret plans out of a fortress. The theft of secret doc­u­ments was the orig­i­nal MacGuffin. So the “MacGuffin” is the term we use to cov­er all that sort of thing: to steal plans or doc­u­ments, or dis­cov­er a secret, it doesn’t mat­ter what it is. And the logi­cians are wrong in try­ing to fig­ure out the truth of a MacGuffin, since it’s besides the point. The only thing that real­ly mat­ters is that in the pic­ture the plans, doc­u­ments, or secrets must seem to be of vital impor­tance to the char­ac­ters.

To me, the nar­ra­tor, they’re of no impor­tance what­ev­er.

It is inter­est­ing to play “spot the MacGuffin” with Hitchcock’s films, as it is not always imme­di­ate­ly obvi­ous what it is. The key is to look for the object/space that moti­vates the plot.

In Closing

Even though in Hitchcock’s films the MacGuffin is always mean­ing­less, it is such a pow­er­ful com­po­nent of the plot that when it is final­ly obtained, the result is the com­plete unwind­ing (what writ­ers and film­mak­ers call the dénoue­ment) of the enig­mat­ic space of the film into a bland­ly lucid sur­face. This is tak­en to a lit­er­al lev­el in the end­ing of Psycho.

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Some film­mak­ers think in a man­ner very sim­i­lar to archi­tects, where the work is large­ly con­ceived in the filmmaker’s mind before a sin­gle frame of film is shot. Alfred Hitchcock always had such a clear idea of how he would com­pose his film – the posi­tion­ing of his props, actors (which he infa­mous­ly referred to as “cat­tle”), lights and cam­era itself – that he did not even look through the cam­era lens dur­ing film­ing. The film was already com­plete in his head before pro­duc­tion even began – “I invent­ed it in my soli­tude, and I now just have to go out and make it.” According to Janet Leigh, who played the ill-fat­ed Marion Crane,

I went [to Hitchcock’s] home for tea and to be intro­duced to his modus operan­di. It was awe­some. In his mind, and sketched on the pages of his script, the film was already shot. He showed me the mod­el sets and moved the minia­ture cam­era through the tiny fur­ni­ture toward the wee dolls, exact­ly the way he intend­ed to do it in “reel” life. He was metic­u­lous­ly thor­ough.

Just like an archi­tect, one might add.

Directed by Alfred HitchcockStarring Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, Janet Leigh and Martin Balsam

This sto­ry is from Meedo’s upcom­ing book mon­tage­space: Cinema and the Making, Un-Making and Re-Making of Architecture. Please feel free to con­tact us for more details and read relat­ed sto­ries here.

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