Psycho – Alfred Hitchcock
Psycho is undoubtedly Alfred Hitchcock’s chef d’oeuvre in tenor, and for many it is the quintessential horror film of our time; it is also one of the few financially successful motion pictures which can truly be termed an art film. Produced for an economical $800,000, it has grossed twenty million dollars to date.
Psycho’s extraordinary appeal can be attributed to its modern universality. While its story concerns a psychopathic murderer, its technique reveals the dark side of all mankind—the inner secrets, deceits, and guilts of all human beings; and, as is so often true of even the most ordinary situations in life, nothing is as it really seems. Additionally, Psycho superbly plays with the viewing audience’s emotions. Hitchcock makes unabashed voyeurs out of his audience more deliberately and with more subtlety and deftness than in any of his other films. Hitchcock draws the viewer into the film, into the sordid depths of a twisted world. He forces the audience to psychoanalyze themselves as they identify—for varying lengths of time and with varying degrees of intensity—with each of the film’s main characters. However, Hitchcock’s purpose in this film is not to build multifaceted characters; the characters are really little more than prototypes. Rather, the film is about a split personality, and the main characters in a sense are simply different sides of one collective character—the audience itself. This is Hitchcock’s little joke and the reason he has described Psycho as a “fun picture.”
In Psycho, Hitchcock attempts to make the “horror” of the film take place in the minds of the audience. While there are only two actual violent occurrences—the deaths of Marion Crane and the insurance investigator—the real terror is in the minds of the viewer; suspense arises from wondering what is going to happen next and who else is going to be murdered. Manipulative as these devices are, Hitchcock carries them out with such finesse that the ambience of horror which he achieves is memorable even after many viewings.
Psycho is based on the novel by Robert Bloch which fictitiously dealt with a real incident in Wisconsin. Hitchcock’s locale is Phoenix, and the very ordinariness of the opening sequences of the film and the characters themselves belie the terror that follows. However, the clever title designs by Saul Bass have already prepared us for an excursion in psychological terror: the credit names appear on the screen split apart and then disappear, all to the accompaniment of Bernard Herrmann’s vibrant music score.
Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is a secretary whom we first meet in a motel room where she is having a lunch-hour tryst with her lover, Sam Loomis (John Gavin). Their romance is frustrated by the fact that Marion lives with her sister Lila (Vera Miles), and she and Sam are unable to marry because Sam is financially burdened by his dead father’s debts and the alimony he must pay to his ex-wife. Following this frusirated scene of secret lovemaking—a scene which throws our sympathies towards Marion—Marion returns to her office where she listens to a coworker’s complaints about her mother. Also, Marion’s boss, Mr. Lowery (Vaughn Taylor), introduces Marion to a client who turns over $40,000 to her to be, placed in a safety deposit box.
We next see Marion in her bedroom with the money, packing a suitcase. It is obvious that she plans to flee with the money, but the sympathy of the audience remains with this seemingly put-upon, almost mousey woman. The audience has already been drawn into Hitchcock’s voyeuristic manipulation. We have seen Marion in partial undress in a motel room with her lover and have seen her changing her clothes in her bedroom. Throughout these few scenes, we have seen reflections of Marion in mirrors and through windows, all intimating the split personality aspect of the plot.
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