The Edited Element of Suspense in Psycho

            “Nothing more clearly suggests the extent of Alfred Hitchcock’s ongoing influence than the legacy of Psycho (1960), quite possibly the single most influential film of the past half century: like Norman Bates’ mother, it just refuses to lie down and die.” In the film store of Alfred Hitchcock Psycho, is perhaps his most well known film of all time. The minute yet suspenseful choices in this film make it quite the iconic piece of film. Psycho has been redone and repackaged throughout the common film era. Hitchcock set the stage for “slasher” films like the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street series to become a part of the everyday American pop-culture. The film has even warranted an identical remake done by Gus Van Sant in 1998. Psycho is best known for its ominous score and haunting editing style.

            The film opens with a pan across what is to be Phoenix, Arizona. This pan turns to a push as it creeps slowly straight toward a window and just before it reaches the window it cuts to a different shot of that same window but at a thirty-degree angle. Time and time again, Hitchcock throws his audience off by just enough to keep them guessing and in a constant state of suspenseful anxiety. This seemingly insignificant shift from a straight push to a thirty-degree insert shot tells us that something is not right and that what we are about to witness is not easily shown or explained and will take a different, more unusual vantage point to understand. As we cross over the windowsill and into the hotel room we find our two love interests, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Sam Loomis (John Gavin), finishing up what seems to have been a delightful lunch break.

When discovering the genius of Psycho for the first time, viewers are immediately struck by the threatening tone of the music. The underlying score will reappear throughout the film in moments of heightened stakes to usher in the suspenseful and dramatic tone that follows the construction of such work only Hitchcock can create. The film follows Marion as she steals $40,000 from one of her boss’s clients. While on the run she gets stranded by a torrential rainstorm. As the rain beats down the score is lifted higher and more intense as she arrives at The Bates Motel where she meets Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins).

Norman, at first sight, seems unassuming and quite the hospitable gentleman, all the while holding detrimental tendencies. The depth of his character is perfectly showcased in the shot right before he begins to spy on Marion in her room. As he stands next to the wall his eyes wander and he leans closer to the wall revealing his face in a reflection off a picture next to him. This reflection is distorted due to the angle and lighting in the shot and portrays the duality in the singular character. While up front on we see a polite and genteel young man, but ever creeping under the surface is “mother”, a murderous monster.

Perhaps the most famous scene in the entire slasher genre is the shower scene in Psycho. In contrast with Rear Window (1954), in which all the suspenseful action is seen and laid out before the audience so that they may take a position of an all knowing third party, Psycho retains all the suspenseful action from the audience until the last possible moment. The opaque shower curtain coupled with back lighting to show exactly what Hitchcock wants to achieve. This is just enough to recognize an eerie entity entering the bathroom. This shot from inside the shower facing out to the door holds until the entity throws open the shower curtain. With the opening of the curtain we see a darkened silhouette of the killer and then a new shot that comes from the point of view of the killer.  This then brings us to a series of shot-reverse-shots with Marion screaming and fighting off the carving knife of the killer and the killer. Marion is shot from a higher angle pointing down in a typical underscoring of her character while the killer is shot from a low angle pointing upward giving them a point of dominance in the scene. Along with the quick successive shots, the score abruptly kicks back in with the sound of screeching violins, as the shower curtain is torn open. The brilliant scene is brought to a final chilling close as the camera pushes in toward the drain of the bathtub and then cutting to a perfect match cut to Marion’s eye as she lies lifeless on the floor of her bathroom. This combination of shots and scoring is one of the most widely recognized and most imitated sequences in all of modern cinema.

Psycho is a formula based film with the perfect amount of each element to make it an intense journey through the cinematic, characteristic world of Alfred Hitchcock. “Psycho is taken as the benchmark for surveying each of the component categories of the slasher film genre: Norman Bates is the original killer, “the psychotic product of a sick family, but still recognizably human”; the Bates mansion is the locale,” the terrible place that enfolds the history of the mother and son licked in a sick attachment”; the carving knife is the killer’s preferred weapon; Marion Crane is the first victim, “ the beautiful, sexually active woman,” and her sister, Lila, is the survivor, “the final girl” or “the one who looks death in the face but survives the murderer’s last stab”. None of these generic particulars are exclusive to Psycho, but the unprecedented success of Hitchcock’s particular formulation prompted a flood of imitation and variation.”

-Richard Jackson


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