COM 154 (Thur.)
November 23rd, 2018
Critical Response Paper
When examining a film correctly, as with any medium of art, one must consider not only what is happening at any particular moment, but how and to what extent that information is being presented. In the case of Psycho, Hitchcock is the artist whose success is measured by analyzing the relationships all aspects of the film and how they contribute to his vision. By explicitly and implicitly providing dark and eerie tones, and exploring previously unvisited controversial topics, Hitchcock is able to involve his audience in a way which builds suspense efficiently.
Before delving into what techniques are used and the extent to which they are implemented, it is important to begin with the purpose of the film itself. After one’s initial viewing of the film, it becomes clear that this film deals more with clarity rather than progression. It is only at the end, during revelations of the past that the viewer is finally provided with information that cohesively connects the entire movie. While there are undoubtable scenes of progression, as seen more abundantly in the beginning and the latter half of the film, a considerable amount of Psycho involves a relatively slow moving plot. However, uneventfulness—apparent during the dialogue shared between Marion and Norman—does not speak to overall importance and relevance of the scenes. This is due to the fact that it is within these scenes that the delicately placed minutiae are abundant; minutiae that serve the greatest purpose in the film, clarity.
In any suspense thriller, the most common forms of building suspense are often clear. The viewer’s first “interaction” with Psycho¬ is the opening credit sequence that features a suspenseful orchestra composition usually common during a climactic scene. This sets the tone of the film from the beginning. The eerie sounds appear again when protagonist Marion Crane is driving in her new vehicle nervously thinking to herself. Then arrives Marion and Norman’s first meeting, which occurs at night during a rain storm at a completely vacant and secluded motel, all signs to be heeded. Furthermore, during the parlor scene, many of the shots include a profile of Norman and a good view of the birds on his wall. These birds appear to be leering over the two and even the audience. The lighting in the shots allows for intense shadows that stretch across the walls and compliment Norman’s development as a character. This is intensified by the fact that the film is in black and white. The climactic shower scene includes a bevy of cinematic cuts that, with the screeching violins, add a layer of confusion and fright, making the scene that much more effective at portraying macabre mayhem unbeknownst to movie goers at that time.
Though the clear signs of suspense definitely added to the viewer’s sense of danger, it is the subtle moments and actions that truly implant an unshakable sensation of distrust and worry. The majority of these instances occur during Marion and Norman’s first and only intimate interaction. The first hints of distrust develop during the inconstancies in Norman’s words. For example, he invites Marion into the office for dinner, which he was ready to have alone, but then changes the location to the parlor room and tells Marion that he isn’t hungry. These discrepancies, however minute they may be, put Norman on the audience’s “radar”. The following scene provides both the naïve Marion and the audience with worrisome feelings in regards to Norman. Norman tells Marion that “a mother is a boy’s best friend” and “a son a poor substitute for a lover”, both things which invite confusion and more importantly, caution. These words lead the audience to believe that the relationship between Norman and his mother is anything but ordinary. Norman’s body language in correspondence with his differing tones and syntax also point to the possibility the Norman may be struggling with his inner “personalities” as Norman’s posture, facial expressions, and verbal cues fluctuate.
Moreover, controversy is something that Hitchcock skillfully incites in order to invite more critical mindsets, which increases vulnerability and susceptibility to the film’s true intentions. In other words, because the audience is confronted with unmistakably controversial content, such as voyeurism and murder, they are prone to be uncharacteristically more critical of what they see and this oftentimes carries on throughout the film’s entirety. This can be seen successfully executed in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange in which he introduces a character who partakes in a disturbing amount of violent acts and yet, the audience still keeps a slight sentiment, even hope for our otherwise evil protagonist. The guilt evoked by the contradictory feeling is what makes the film as effective as it is. In the case of Psycho, the viewer is challenged within the first five minutes due to the portrayal of an unmarried Sam and Marion in an indecent situation. By placing viewers in the clandestine rendezvous between the two, Hitchcock forcefully involves us in the entire ordeal. This consequently invites feelings of unease and glimpses of guilt. The aforementioned vulnerability of the viewer is the main reason why the audience grows to care for Marion and hope for her well-being even after we see her steal the money. In addition to our feelings of hope, our recently developed attachment to Marion extends to a person’s instinctual need to survive and protect. In light of the obvious futility of trying to protect our protagonist, hope turns to fear and suspense, which will only be calmed when Marion finally leaves. Unfortunately, this never occurs.
Psycho presents itself as a combination of controversially insightful, obvious and subliminal techniques all which work in unison to build suspense throughout the film. The three thematic aspects build off of each other from the beginning of the film to the end. The previously unexplored themes established throughout the film serve to put the viewer on edge and eliminates the common audience stagnancy when viewing. This alert attitude in turn compliments the obvious scenes of suspense, which are highlighted with dark visuals and tense, eerie musical compositions; all which are tied together by ever-present cues including dialogue and body language. By the time the end credits begin to roll, the audience is left with an unnerving, yet acceptable clarity.
• Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, Stephen Rebello, 04/15/1990
• Looking at Movies: An Introduction to Film, Richard Barsam ; Dave Monahan, 2004
• Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock, 1960
• Psycho(novel), Robert Bloch, 1959