“In ‘Psycho’ how has Alfred Hitchcock created tension throughout the film and what effect does it have on us as viewers?”
In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock created a powerful, complex psychological thriller. Psycho is now regarded as the ‘mother’ of all modern horror, suspense films. The film had a huge impact on the British public; this was mainly due to the fact that it was one of the first films to depict violence in a graphic manner.
It was a low budget movie based on the book by Robert Bloch. However it has now become a world-wide phenomenon, owing largely to the inspirational directing by Hitchcock.
Throughout the film Hitchcock uses a variety of techniques to keep the audience engrossed but the method I will be focusing on is tension. Tension can be used to great effect, primarily to emphasis the horror of certain scenes. Also it allows the audience to anticipate what is going to happen, forcing us to empathise with the characters.
Some of the most famous suspense scenes include, the stealing of the money, the shower scene, the killing of Arbogast, and the ending in which Laila discovers Mrs. Bates.
The first scene in which the tension is built up is the stealing of the money. The first time we are shown the $40,000 is whilst the business man is brandishing it in front of Marion. This emphasizes the importance that the money is going to have on this scene.
It is significant that when Marion is at work, whilst playing the reliable secretary role, she is wearing a white outfit. On the other hand, in the scene where she is packing her things to leave town and insert shots of the envelope of money are shown, she is wearing black underwear. This reveals her darker, more dishonest side. Marion also displays signs of duality in her. Mirrors and reflections in windows are a device that Hitchcock uses to symbolize split personality. There is a shot of Marion in the office, holding the money and deciding what to do with it. We see her reflection in the mirror, creating two Marion’s. One is the innocent ordinary secretary that would not commit a crime. The other is the darker side of Marion that would steal the $40,000. Another shot of Marion and her reflection in a mirror is at the reception desk of the motel. On one side of her, we see her bag with the newspaper she is carrying, and in the reflection, we see the envelope of money she has stolen, showing her corrupt side.
Hitchcock also uses close-up shots of the money to show that the $40,000 is Marion’s prominent thought, also the fact that she is constantly glancing at the envelope adds to this effect. We are then shown a close-up of her suitcase this indicates that she is leaving. This tells the audience that Marion is intent on stealing the money which begins to make the audience question where she is going. This adds a mysterious side to Marion. Having stolen the money Marion is stopped by a suspicious police officer. This scene cuts to Marion and then to the officer many times. The camera shows a subjective shot, from Marion’s point of view so when he is looking at her it appears to the audience that he is looking at us. This use of empathy forces us feel what she does.
Dark sunglasses blank the police officer’s eyes out so we cannot tell what he is looking at. This suggests that his eyes are emotionless. As the officer questions Marion, she portrays herself as being nervous by giving short, breathless answers. This adds tension for we are worried that Marion is going to give herself away. She acts suspiciously when saying ‘why do you want my license’. The camera then films a privilege shot, so we can see everything that the officer cannot, Marion hiding the stolen money. Again, the camera moves into a subjective shot, when we can see the view from her point as Marion watches the officer look at her license, to feel her fright and distress.
Throughout the entire film, Hitchcock drops subtle hints that Norman is very disturbed via media techniques. This then creates tension because it almost appears that Norman is hiding something from the other characters and us.
It is almost as though Hitchcock changes the mood when shooting Norman. Very low angle shots are used. This has the effect of suggesting that Norman’s world is off balance. This is a very uncomfortable shot for the audiences because it is not a view which we would see in every day life. The camera frequently shoots just one side of Normans face, so that the other side is totally obscured. This creates more mystery around Norman and again suggests he is hiding something from not only the
characters, but the audience as well.
There are also times when Hitchcock creates mystery about the link between mother and Norman, using media techniques, consequently creating suspense and tension. In the scene where Norman brings Marion a tray of dinner, there is a faint reflection of himself in the window behind him. This could be his other personality, Mother, watching over him. In that same scene at one point the lighting portrays a long sinister shadow behind Norman, which creates images for two people. One of which is stood tall, looming over the other. I feel the shadow was used to personify the two dissimilar characters within Norman.
Norman seems to be inseparable from his environment because the house imprisons him. The hotel seems to be Norman’s reign, whereas the house represents Mother; When Norman is in the hotel, he is Norman, but when he is in the house, he becomes Mother. The house overlooks the hotel, almost as if Mother is overseeing Norman. What links the house and the hotel together is the long zigzagging pathway. This is where the transformation from mother to Norman occurs, for example when Marion first arrives at the Motel she sees mother in the window, but moments later, Norman comes down the pathway. The pathway could be likened to an umbilical cord, as the womb is where mother and child are closest, and if the cord is cut, the child and mother are separated. All these different methods contribute to the atmosphere and anticipation we begin to associate with Norman as the film progresses. They make us, the audience, feel tense whenever he is around, forcing the viewers to constantly expect something to happen whilst he is present.
Perhaps one of the most famous of all the scenes in ‘Psycho’ is the shower scene. There is a great deal of tension built up through out the scene and this is all down to the brilliant directing by Hitchcock. He chooses to use high angled shots of Marion when she is in the shower to show the audience her vulnerability. Marion is visibly enjoying the shower. This is symbolic; it is washing away her guilt. The shots of the showerhead are important in symbolising this. The camera cuts to close-ups of the showerhead as it washes her and the audience. She now feels cleansed of her guilt and is in her own private world. While Ms Crane is washing herself, there is no background music; the silence signposts that the director is leading up to an important scene. While Marion is alone in the shower she is isolated and vulnerable. The longer Marion washes the longer the audience anticipates something will happen, it prolongs the suspense to make it last longer which has a greater impact on the viewer.
Whilst Marion is washing she turns her back to the door and we see someone enter the room. Marion is visible in the bottom corner, still showering, even though a dark blur appears through the door; I believe Hitchcock intended this to be a sign of Marion’s unknowingness. It is important that this is filmed with the camera taking the shot of the killer through the shower curtain; this makes the images blurry and so creates suspense in the audience, as they don’t know who or what it is. This creates tension for we fear the unknown. The camera stays stationary as the silhouette comes towards the shower curtain; the tension grows more and more as the figure approaches, it is almost inevitable that the figure has sinister intention. As the silhouette rips the curtain open the camera immediately jumps around to a point of view shot, showing us what the killer is seeing – Marion showering. This sudden change of view emphasizes how unexpected this event is; I also believe that Hitchcock used the killer’s view to show the audience Marion’s horror and fright.
Now the real effect of the scene is delivered, the camera switches between the squirming Marion and the killer’s knife. The shrieking music erupts, almost making us believe it is Marion who is shrieking. The shower made a rhythmic and diagetic sound that contrasted with the high-pitched non-diagetic sounds of violins. The shots are swift and precise, each lasting no more than two seconds; this highlights the stabbing and the brutality of the thrusting knife. With each separate shot it makes the audience gasp, highlighting the viciousness of the attack, to a 1960’s audience, this probably would have made them scream.
The black shadow of the psychopath is contrasted brilliantly by the bright light of the bathroom and makes the audience feel insecure about the anonymous silhouette. After the stabbing the camera pans down towards the bathtub that is now flowing with blood, this slow panning indicates the murder is over. The low pitched, loud music also corresponds to this impression. We are then shown a close up of the water and the blood running down the plug hole this represents Marion’s life draining away, this shot then dissolves into a close up of her eye, the camera then slowly zooms out. There is a droplet of water artfully placed beneath her eye; this could almost be interpreted as a tear. The brilliance of the scene is the fact that we never actually see the murder weapon sinking into the skin, which leaves a lot to our imagination and increased the horror and fear.
Throughout the scene there is a strong sense of the light representing good and the darkness representing evil. During the entire scene Marion is in light. When we first see the murderer it comes up as a dark and creepy silhouette.
Another scene, in which there is a vast amount of tension built up, is the killing of the detective, Arbogast. Arbogast is following up Marion Crane’s disappearance. Having questioned Norman Bates about the issue, he then decides to attempt to interrogate a mysterious figure he sees sitting in the house window.
Hitchcock uses a variety of media techniques in order to convey the impression that the house is very frightening. The architectural contrast between the vertical house and the horizontal motel adds to the eeriness of the house and shows how disturbing the house is compared to a basic structure such as the motel. The camera, throughout the whole film, always filmed this house from below, making it appear to tower over all else and cast a dark shadow over everything. When Arbogast is walking up the hill towards the house, the background music continually rises in pitch for every one or two steps he takes. This effect simulates walking and corresponds with the ascending camera shot. It also makes the audience feel like the scene is reaching a climax; this generates a great deal of tension, for we are now starting to anticipate that something is going happen. The camera then switches to a long shot and you see a small figure walking towards an enormous house that is towering over him, this emphasises how vulnerable he is. As Arbogast reaches the top of the hill, Hitchcock brings to our attention that the house is dimly lit, not enough for welcoming him.
Hitchcock has then chosen subjective shots, so we can put ourselves in Arbogast’s position. This technique draws us in to the scene and makes us feel like we are actually living that moment in the film. This then allows the audience to feel suspense, because we are willing Arbogast not to enter the house. At this stage the volume of the music begins to increase and starts to imply that something significant is going to take place, we hear the same music we heard during the shower scene, signalling danger. As Arbogast enters the house we see an over-the-shoulder shot of Arbogast looking up towards Mrs .Bates room. This mounts the anticipation because we know that Arbogast has the intension to go up to the room, yet at the same time we believe the occupant to be a psychotic murderer. He looks away and we see a cupid holding a bow. The resulting shadow creates an un-known figure holding a knife. Hitchcock then uses an overhead shot, showing the aggressor launching his attack, stabbing Arbogast.
The use of this camera angle then prevents the audience seeing the killer’s face, making the scene more exciting and intriguing. We then see medium close up shots of Arbogast’s stunned yet shocked face. The same shrieking music is now at full volume as the murderer plunges their knife into the detective. Hitchcock uses the same stabbing noises as used in Marion’s death; the sound represents slicing and sounds almost liquid-like. The liquid-like sound portrays the blood that is being spilt. We are then drawn down the stairs with him as he waves his arms frantically.
This waving of the arms almost appears that Arbogast is trying to reach out to the audience, pleading with us to help him. The aggressor follows him down as we see another close-up of Arbogast’s startled, bleeding face. The aggressor now kneels beside his sprawled body and concludes the job. The camera then focuses on the knife as it rises in the air emphasising the brutality of the attack. The weapon is plunged repeatedly into the detective, as he lets out one last cry, indicating the scene has ended. This Scene is very clever in the way that Hitchcock has planned this attack to make the audience believe that Normans mother is the killer. This mysterious touch creates even more tension, as we have no idea what is driving this old lady to murdering these people.
A different event in the story which prompts the audience to feel tension is Lila’s inspection of Norman’s house. When we see Lila going towards the Bates home, Hitchcock cuts back and forth between Lila and the house, as though it were advancing on her. Lila looks increasingly frightened; this encourages the audience to feel fear as well. She seizes the door knob and enters the house; at this point the audience are reminiscent of what just happened with Arbogast, we feel that the same fate is in-store for Lila. I feel that the house represents murder within our minds. She precedes a few paces inside the entrance hall, looking around cautiously at the entrance hall before making her way up the sinister stairs.
We then cut to Sam and Norman’s conversation before getting back to Lila. Lila then is startled by the image of herself in a mirror. This suggests Lila knows she shouldn’t be there and she is also scared of what might happen to her. As Lila makes her way over to the bed she notices that an impression of someone lying there has been left. The bed frame creates a dark shadow over the imprint suggesting who ever lay there had a dark, evil side to them. As Lila enters Norman’s room the camera focuses on some of Norman’s old toys. The toys almost appear like they are watching over Norman’s room; their presence adds a lot of atmosphere. They symbolize a childhood which not particularly happy. Her prolonged look around his room creates tension because the longer she spends examining Norman’s things, the more we expect that something is going to happen. Hitchcock then cuts back to Sam and Norman, Norman fights off Sam and starts to make his way up to the house. Lila hides on the stairs to the fruit cellar.
We are willing Lila not to go down to the cellar for our instincts tell us something sinister is down there. As Lila approaches Mrs. Bates from behind, the tension rises because every step closer she moves to the figure, the expectation that something will happen mounts. As the figure turns slowly, Lila throws her hands in the air hitting the lamp. This then creates confusion, and disorder, making us feel insecure. The same music is once again used, signalling that the murderer is about to make themselves known. Sam grabs the attacker from behind. Lila is not screaming. She is watching in disbelief as, in the ensuing struggle, the woman’s wig falls off and the dress falls open, revealing the face and figure of Norman Bates.
This shocks the audience, for only moments ago we believed the killer to be Mrs. Bates. In Norman’s face is a silent scream, in his arched torso a psychological battle, His two schizophrenic personalities are fighting with each other, Norman Bates the calm, loving caretaker dies, his mother a cruel wicked murderess to take over permanently. The searing violin sounds of the murders before are reprised as we gaze back at his mother, whose wrinkled, mummified flesh thinly coats her facial bone. In the hollows of her eyes the swinging lamp throws shadow over the gaunt skull, bringing the mother alive.
In conclusion, I feel Hitchcock’s use of tension throughout the film created atmosphere, suspense and was the key to the films success. The film has revolutionized the way today’s directors approach creating a thriller/horror movie. The film may be viewed as slightly tame by some, but for a 1960’s director to still be able to shock and retain a twentieth century audience is highly impressive. The clever thing about the film is the viewers never actually see the murder weapon sinking into the skin, which left a lot to the viewer’s imagination and increased the horror and fear. The tension methods, which include Diagetic and Non-diagetic sounds, camera angles, lighting, the setting and his use of symbolism, were use very effectively and created vast amounts of tension when required. He has clearly considered each individual camera shot, every single symbolic prop in order to give the intended effect. I believe the use of lighting used to depict the good/ evil effect, was the most effective technique used. I also think the film would not have had the same impact had it not been made in black and white. This was a superb film and will go down in history as one of the all time greats.