Psycho Aesthetics

In order to build incredible suspense, there must be a shred of doubt. However, when there is no doubt, surprise can become an equally entertaining substitute. Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) combines both suspense and surprise masterfully with the use of aesthetics—that is, his choice of lighting, cinematography, and set design. This film is one of the most memorable thrillers of all time. With one re-make and several parodies—including scenes from That 70’s Show and Family Guy—Psycho has already proved its effect on both the film industry and all of entertainment.

Hitchcock’s stylistic lighting easily takes us from a complicated romance beginning into a dark, thrilling conclusion. Hard key lighting tends to be popular amongst a plethora of horror and suspense films, and Hitchcock is no different. He does, however, utilize his knowledge of storytelling, camera point of view, and psychoanalytic perspective to create an environment for us to believe in. Most importantly, the shadows created by this style of lighting provide gloomy details of the surroundings in which we find ourselves, especially in the Bates Motel and Norman’s house. Shadows help conceal Norman’s psychological disorder throughout the film, creating a believable illusion of the mother for the spectator. In the infamous shower scene, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) does not see the female figure approaching her from behind—the audience “plays God”—and thus the spectator, although far more aware than Marion, is tricked by the figures shadow. Not once do we see Norman’s mother’s face; however we believe it to be her because of the film’s context prior to this event. The “motif of the shadowy figure” (Smith) provides multiple elements—shock, thrill, suspense, narrative, etc.—while hiding the truth from us simultaneously. Many contemporary thrillers and suspense films copy this use of shadows or distorted perspective to hide the audience from the truth until the very end for an exciting twist.

The camera is used for more than just storytelling in Psycho. Hitchcock uses the camera to manipulate the audience, to hide the truth, to fabricate Norman’s mother, to convey suspense, etc. Rather than discussing his choice of cinematography in his most memorable shower scene, I will examine his applied cinematography in another brief yet critical moment. Marion listens to Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) argue with his mother, Norma, in their house behind the motel. Marion stands by the window to her room, listening to their quarrel from a distance, clueless of Norman’s schizophrenic episode. V. F. Perkins’ believes that “significance, emotional or intellectual, arises rather from the creation of significant relationships than from the presentation of things significant in themselves.” This idea of relationships creating meaning applies directly to this scene in Psycho. Marion, along with the audience, is tricked into believing Norman’s mother is arguing with him, when in the story’s reality he is arguing with his alternate personality. The audience, like Marion, never gets to see the quarrel, or the mother’s face throughout the film—just her profile. The shot in which we see Marion’s point-of-view of the house relates to the sequence in that she is far from the truth, in fact she’s blind. The sequence itself relates to the film’s deceptive, ambiguous representation of Norman’s mother. And finally, this film is important to cinema because it proves how production techniques can produce misleading plots to produce thrilling climaxes—a narrative technique that continues to exist in contemporary cinema due to its effectiveness.

An effective set design not only creates an environment for the characters, but for the audience. The director has the burden of convincing the audience that the environment within the frame is real (unless he or she chooses to do the opposite). According to Hitchcock, “in order to appreciate what the characters…are going through, we have to project ourselves into their consciousness” (Gottlieb). Poor direction suspends the audience’s belief. A well-made film allows the spectators to participate (Gottlieb). When the spectator participates, the director is able to directly affect the audience more effectively. Hitchcock’s choice in having Marion, at her position looking up through the window at the eerie, looming house, listening to Norman and his mother’s argument, makes Marion believe that there is a genuine argument occurring, which in turn makes the audience believe it is genuine. This effect on the spectator fits into our world in multiple ways. Unseen noise can be deceptive; our perspective might not be the right one; there are some things we cannot grasp as human beings, etc. The motel’s establishment as the films major setting has also been adapted several times, including and especially in James Mangold’s Identity (2003) and Nimród Antal’s Vacancy (2007), both of which utilize this setting for suspense and action.

Psycho is arguably Hitchcock’s most famous film; not for its four Oscar nominations, but for its ability to shock audiences around the globe and greatly influence the film industry. Hitchcock’s unusually appealing cinematography—surprisingly disturbing, brilliantly placed static shots mixed with technical camera movements—his highly detailed lighting—illuminating the environment, yet hiding the truth—and his fantastic set design—used repeatedly over the ages—convey more than just an entertainingly suspenseful thriller; Hitchcock’s mastery continues to inspire creations of today, influencing not just film but entertainment and media in general. Even in barely-related films, Psycho and Alfred Hitchcock somehow make their way into the future. Tom Ford’s A Single Man (2009) contains brief references to Psycho. In one scene, George (Colin Firth) talks to Carlos (Jon Kortajarena) in front of a billboard advertising Psycho. Another moment is towards the end when George looks outside his window and sees an owl, perched up on a tree, in a bitter, gloomy sequence. These references appear, and will most definitely continue to pop up, throughout film of all genres. Psycho’s layers of psychological narrative and meaning are still respected by the filmmakers of today, and Hitchcock’s effect on contemporary film as influence and intrigue is endless.

Post by: Doug Yablun

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