Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Alfred Hitchcock's 'Psycho', 1960

Fig. 1 Psycho poster.
Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho is considered the seminal horror film.  It was revolutionary when it was first released in 1960 and it caused as much controversy as it did thrill for the audience.  Laura Mulvey described the time it was made as "The crisis in the old Hollywood film industry, caught at a crossroads, faced with its own mortality, gave him the opportunity to write its epitaph, but also to transcend its conventions and create something startling and new." (Mulvey, 2007:85) This film was something no one had seen before both in terms of editing and story telling.  Mulvey goes on to express that "He [Alfred Hitchcock] had always used traditional forms of story-telling and translated these non-cinematic forms onto the space of the cinema screen in ways that meshed with cinema's proclivity for movement, mystery and shock." (Mulvey, 2007:85-6)  Not only is this film filled with shock and mystery but the use of silence and stillness juxtaposed with rushing movement portrays the narrative in a much more enthralling and artistic way.

Fig. 2 Marion laying dead on the bathroom floor.

One example is the iconic murder scene where the lead female character is killed by Norman Bates. The writer of the screenplay, Joseph Stefano described the shower scene as "where you're really going to find out what the human race is all about. We're going to start by showing you the toilet and it's going to get worse". (Haeffner, 2005:107)  The toilet itself was a significant victory over censorship for Hitchcock as it was deemed too disgusting to show on screens. However, not only do they show the audience the toilet but it isn't long after that, that they're shown the brutal murder of Marion as she showers.  There's no camera focusing on the direct contact of the knife on her skin but the power and brutality of the murder is portrayed through staccato editing.  This is a technique that Hitchcock adopted to portray chaotic acts of violence without risking the scene being too visceral and offensive.  There's a contrasting moment just after the high energy of the murder where the camera focuses entirely on her eye and then gradually zooms out to reveal Marion laying, eye open on the floor.  This stillness of Marion's body is juxtaposed with the fast paced running shower that is still on.  Mulvey observed that "For a moment, the stillness of the recently animate body is juxtaposed with the stream of water still pouring from the shower, inanimate material in unrelenting movement." (Mulvey, 2007:87)  It is this movement from the water that proves to the audience that they are not just looking at a still image but a long take of her lifelessness.  She then explained that "Its effect is to reanimate the image, to create another contrast with the inanimate corpse." (Mulvey, 2007:87)  The audience, still reeling from the death of their heroine has barely acknowledged that Marion is no longer a character but a corpse, laying still.  Mulvey divulged that "The stillness of the 'corpse' is a reminder that the cinema's living and moving bodies are simply animated stills and the homology between stillness and death returns to haunt the moving image" (Mulvey, 2007:88) Once the realisation occurs the audience become all too aware of the morbid tone that is now hanging over the narrative.  They are forced to take a long look at this now lifeless shell of Marion and left waiting, unsure as to what could happen next.

Fig. 3 Bates attacks the private detective.
Not only is the editing an extraordinary way of portraying an ominous atmosphere but the score is possibly even more effective.  The music was written by Bernard Herrman and it is iconic in itself. Nicholas Haeffner explains that "Herrman's music was startlingly original for a Hollywood film. He had taken the bold step of scoring the film for a string section only and later commented that this was in order to complement 'the black and white photography of the film with a black and white sound'" (Haeffner, 2005:108).  This was the best decision because the sharp sounds of the strings awakens something primordial within the audience. The shrill and abrasive music, that is like nails down a chalk board to the audience, spring up just as something horrible is about to happen and provides them with not only shock but an instantaneous fear that they just can not shake. This is especially seen in the scene where the private detective is murdered.  There's a subtle and slow indication that someone is near him and then there, seconds before the murder the score explodes and the audience jump with shock and fear. Haeffner goes on to express that "The fast-paced opening music, with its rhythmic, driving quality, sets up an air of dread and near panic, even before the story has started." (Haeffner, 2005:108)  Well before this scene the music has made the audience aware that there is something wrong.  As the viewers are welcomed in with an establishing shot of Marion's home city, they are followed by this unsettling music which makes sure they will never feel safe.

Fig. 4 Norman bates as his mother.
The music is not the only method by which Hitchcock has made sure the audience is uncomfortable but he has also done so through the subtext of the character, Norman Bates and his multiple personas.  Something that Tony Williams noticed was that Hitchcock's "castrating mothers and violent castrated sons enact the oedipal trajectory's socially sanctioned psychic violence." (Williams, 1996:72)  Norman is a prime example of this as he, as far as the audience were told, killed his mother, whom he had an unhealthy relationship with, and tried to keep her with him through her physical presence as a corpse and his own voicing and acting of her.  His jealousy of her having a lover lead him to kill them both so he assumes that whenever he is attracted to someone, she would act out in jealousy, leading to the murder of the women he meets. Mun-Hou Lo believed that "In killing off Marion, Hitchcock pushes the male spectator to shift his identification from a woman to a man - despite or rather because this "man" will turn out to be only half a man, or maybe even no(r)-man at all." (Lo, Mun-Hou, 2009:146)  It is this shift of the audiences attention, placing them now alongside Norman that causes much confusion and discomfort.  They, at the moment, have no idea that it was Norman that killed Marion and are now possibly empathising with him, it was not his fault that his mother killed Marion and now he has to try to hide it.  It is not until later that Norman is revealed to be his mother that the audience, especially the male members feel a little confused and uncertain. If Norman Bates had this relationship with his mother that shaped him in such a horrible way, could they be suffering from a milder affliction?

Psycho was a fascinating and exciting experience. Hitchcock displays a number of exciting techniques that not only tell the story but flourish it.  It should definitely be held in such high regard as though it is over 50 years old it still feels contemporary and challenging.

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. Psycho poster. At: (Accessed on: 09.02.2011)

Figure 2. Psycho (1960) Marion laying dead on the bathroom floor. At: (Accessed on: 09.02.2011)

Figure 3. Psycho (1960) Bates attacks the private detective. At: (Accessed on: 09.02.2011)

Figure 4. Psycho (1960) Norman bates as his mother. At: (Accessed on: 09.02.2011)


Haeffner, Nicholas (2005) Alfred Hitchcock. Essex: Pearson Education Limited

Lo, Mun-Hou (2009) Motherhood misconceived: representing the maternal in U.S. films. New York: State University of New York Press.

Mulvey, Laura (2007) Death 24x a second: stillness and the moving image. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.

Williams, Tony (1996) Hearths of darkness: the family in the American horror film. London: Associated University Presses, Inc.


  1. "If Norman Bates had this relationship with his mother that shaped him in such a horrible way, could they be suffering from a milder affliction?"

    I love the understatement of this observation, Molly - cuts to the dark, strange taboo of incest that hovers at the heart of this wonderful film. Great review - and you've got Mulvey in the mix. I know that Chris - as part of the Time Machine - will be referring to both Psycho and The Shining as part of a lecture on psychoanalysis, so I'd keep Mulvey nice and handy, as your Time Machine assignment might grow from this...

    just a couple of typos - the American spellings tend to double up the letters, but the English goes without...

    editting *editing*
    focussing *focusing*

  2. Bugger! I'll get on that!
    Thank you though! I'm glad it all makes sense :D