Alfred Hitchcock (13 August 1899 – 29 April 1980) is perhaps one of the most renowned and innovative film directors in the history of cinema, with an incredible film-making career spanning over half a century and dozens of award-winning films. He specialized in the psychological thriller genre, creating famous hit films such as Psycho (1960), North by North-west (1958) and Vertigo (1959) and revolutionized many cinematic techniques such as camera angles, lighting and sound which he used extensively in his films to successfully create a variety of moods and atmospheres in scenes and to manipulate the audience’s feelings and emotions from fear, shock and suspense.
Psycho was based on the novel written by Robert Bloch and is probably one of the most recognizable and famous films made by Hitchcock. Released in 1960, it initially received mixed reviews from film critics, but soon it became a massive hit at the box office and thousands of people around queued up at movie theatres to watch the film. Later, many critics considered it Hitchcock’s best film and praised Psycho as a masterpiece of cinematic art. Despite all these good reviews, the film caused a lot of controversies because it contained quite explicit gore and sex references, things that have rarely shown so strongly in American films as in Psycho. For example, there is a scene where a shadowy figure brutally stabs a woman while she is showering, and an embalmed corpse is shown during the end. Although these scenes are nothing compared to the brutal and overwhelmingly gruesome horror films of today, Hitchcock still struggled to get his whole film released due to the censor’s efforts to delete several explicit shots in the movie.
Psycho was known as the “mother of all horror films” and Hitchcock basically formed the whole archetypical basis for most horror and thriller films that were released after it. Shot in stark black and white, the film Psycho portrays young secretary Marion Crane as she successfully steals $ 40,000 from her employer and leaving her town of Phoenix in Arizona, intending to get married. However, as Marion escapes, she drives through a heavy rainstorm at night and accidentally drives off the highway, driving along an unlit road and turning up at the eerie, seemingly deserted Bates Motel, in the middle of nowhere. However, the motel owner Norman Bate hurries out and helps her inside with her bags while the rain pours around them.
After Marion has settled into her cabin, Norman Bates innocently invites her to have dinner with him in the massive, eerie house that overlooks the motel, however after he has a loud and furious argument with his “invalid” mother up on the second floor of the house, he brings the dinner down to the motel and suggests to Marion they have it in the parlour. The parlour scene is the scene prior to the famous, celebrated shower scene, and Hitchcock is very successful in this scene in using his technical mastery of camera angles, lighting and clever imagery to foretell the future events of the film. The scene begins when Norman walks into the darkened parlour and switches the light on, illuminating the room. The parlour, where the scene takes place, is a very interesting room which reveals a lot about Norman’s personality. It is decorated with stuffed birds of prey, like owls and large ravens, hanging from the walls and ceilings. The camera pans to each one, finally showing Marion’s uncomfortable expression with eating in a room full of stuffed birds.
The two characters sit on the opposite ends of the room, both facing each other; however, the camera never shows both of them in the same shot for most of the duration of the scene. In the scene, Hitchcock makes clever use of camera angles and the position of the actors in the camera shots to subtly show to the audience the emotions of the two characters and who has power in the conversation. He also uses lighting to show the personalities of the two – next to where Marion is seated there is a bright light so there are almost no shadows on her, however, Norman is sitting in the dark side of the room, and most of the time half of his face is shrouded in shadow, something that cleverly shows his dual or split personality that is revealed and explained later in the movie.
Marion starts eating her dinner, while Norman never touches his. Instead, he watches her intently, sitting upright as she nibbles her sandwich, looking frightened as well as very interested. He remarks to her “You eat like a bird ” which she replies to “You’d know, of course” as she looks around the room at the large stuffed birds, staring at her from the ceiling. They have a noticeably uncomfortable conversation about his strange hobby (taxidermy) which “fills the time, not pass it” and the audience notices his lack of friends. For most of the start of the conversation, the camera switches smoothly between Marion and Norman as they talk, and the camera angles are ordinary, shot at neither a low or high angle shot. However, as they start to talk about Norman’s mother and his furious argument with her, Norman is strangely shot in a very low angle- shot, that is cleverly framed to include the huge stuffed owl that hangs from the ceiling above his head, causing the audience to think of Norman as some kind of predator.
His face is also half-shrouded with shadow. This change subtly shows that Norman has gained power in the conversation. Despite this, his voice is still quiet. Suddenly, as Marion delicately suggests that Norman’s mother should be put “someplace else” in other words, an institution, the mood and the atmosphere of the room goes cold and foreboding, and the camera switches to Norman using a close-up shot of his face as he slowly leans in towards Marion, showing his angry face. Deep violins and cellos play slowly and ominously in the background, showing the seriousness of the conversation but not too loud as not to obscure Norman’s words. The camera quickly switches to Marion a few times, framing her perfectly with a high-angle shot to show her powerlessness. The music rises with Norman’s simmering anger, and he furiously scorns Marion’s suggestions but then leans backs against his chair and the music quietens with his anger, suddenly he is back to his friendly, affable personality. Now that the audience knows Norman is trapped in a situation where he has to care for his ill mother or let her die, they sympathize with him more.
Afterwards, Marion decides to leave and thanks to Norman for the dinner. While doing so, she stands up and talks a bit more, and the camera frames her with a low-angle shot- while showing Norman, who is still seated, in a very high-angle shot; this shows that Marion has regained power and make the audience think of Norman as less of a threat to Marion than before. However, before she leaves the room, Norman quickly asks Marion her name, and she accidentally replies with her real name (Marion Crane), not the name she signed in the motel ledger (Marie Samuelson). The audience would’ve realized by now that there could be a connection between Marion’s bird-related surname with the birds of prey that Norman Bates stuffs, which he calls his ‘hobby’, and if this is perhaps a glimpse of the fate of Marion Crane, however, they cannot be too sure at this moment, as to why would Hitchcock kill the main protagonist so early in the film?
After Marion leaves the room, Norman stands up and starts chewing some gum. His mood and personality have changed dramatically; he is suddenly more relaxed and casual, contrasting with the nervous and edgy temperament that he had when Marion was in the parlour. Walking towards the counter and picking up the ledger, the audience notices how confident he has become, and wonders what the reason is. He opens the ledger and the camera shows a close-up of what he’s reading- the fake name that Marion wrote on her arrival to the motel- and then switches back to his face, while he shows a slight smirk at the false name and location. Then, he slowly walks back into the dark shadowy parlour, his face and body covered in darkness, and stops before a wall, momentarily surrounded by large, sinister birds of prey. The audience can see that he is trying to listen to what’s happening next door and then removes a painting on the wall that separates the parlour from Cabin Room 1 where Marion is staying to reveal a small jagged peephole cut into the wall, a beam of bright light coming from it.
Peering into the small hole, it is revealed to Norman that Marion is undressing to take her shower. Hitchcock uses a point-of-view shot with the camera to show to the audience exactly what he is seeing, and they feel uncomfortable to be put in a position where they can spy on Marion. Next, the camera switches to an extreme close-up of Norman’s face, filling the screen with just his unblinking eye, which is illuminated slightly due to the hole. The music that is played during the scene (sinister, high-pitched, violins and cellos) is very effective as it adds to the mounting creepiness of Norman Bates. Norman puts the painting back, and gazes at nothing, as though he is thinking intently about Marion, a stony, evil expression on his shadowy face.
The audience is very fearful at this point, as they think that Norman could now try to assault Marion or alert the police over her fake name, and as he walks resolutely out of the parlour while the music gets slightly faster and louder, but the audience relaxes, as Norman instead walks up the hill to the large, sinister house where his mother is, and walks inside, shutting the door after him. The camera uses a long shot when he does this, to suggest that Norman is no longer a threat as he is so far away, lulling the audience into a false sense of security. The audience is now itching to find out what happens, whether Marion would escape with her boyfriend or give up the money, and as they know that they watching an Alfred Hitchcock movie, they know that there are probably many shocking twists that make his movies so exciting, but perhaps not as shocking as what happens next in the film…
The camera switches to the interior of Cabin Room 1 and shows Marion, who is now clothed in a bathroom robe, scribbling on a piece of paper before ripping it out and tearing it to pieces. She walks to the bathroom and flushes the pieces of paper down the toilet (shockingly, another ground-breaking moment- a toilet flushing had never been seen or heard on American films, which was to jolt audiences, but not nearly as much as her brutal murder) and takes off her robe, steps in the bathtub, closes the shower curtain and turns the shower on. This is the beginning of the famed shower scene, where Marion, what the audience thinks is the movie’s main heroine and the protagonist gets violently and brutally killed off while she’s having a shower in the motel bathroom, in an unexpected twist that shocked the audience. The scene is only 4 minutes long, with over 70 different shots and many camera angles and it took 6 days to fully film it.
Hitchcock paid enormous amounts of attention to details and used cinematic techniques extensively such as camera angles, music and sound effects to create a truly horrific murder scene. As Marion is showering, one of the most noticeable features of the scene is the extreme crispness and loudness of the sounds that she makes, accentuating the lack of other noise around her. Furthermore, as she is showering, it looks like she is really enjoying herself, as though the shower, probably because she has decided to go back to Phoenix and the water is having a cleansing effect on her, cleaning all of her guilt. Next, the camera shows Marion from behind to show the shower curtain. The bathroom door is opened, and the audience can just about see a sinister, shadowy silhouette through the translucent shower curtain as he/she steps forwards towards the shower, although Marion is oblivious to her surroundings.
By now, the audience would be screaming at the screen, telling Marion to look behind her, but the silhouette pulls across the curtain (the sound of this is amplified greatly to emphasize its abruptness) to reveal itself -an unidentifiable, shadowy figure brandishing a large and menacing knife, one of the most iconic images of the horror genre, and stabs Marion repeatedly as she struggles. The sequence of shots that follow is shot from many different angles and altogether there were more than 70 shots, and the shower scene is sometimes hailed and the well-edited scene in history. As the figure stabs Marion, the camera quickly switches from Marion’s horrified, screaming face to the shadowy figure and back again, shooting the two from many different angles. This emphasizes the extreme franticness and rapidness of the murder. Furthermore, it gives the impression that Marion is completely surrounded and can’t escape. Also, the camera shows the murderer’s arm move in a stabbing motion many times so that even though the audience never really see the knife stabbing her skin, they use their imagination to fill up the blanks.
About forty seconds of brutal violence later, the mysterious figure swiftly leaves the bathroom and the camera cleverly only shows the back of it to conceal his/her identity. Meanwhile, Marion is left in the bath, bleeding to death, and the camera shows her hand slowly sliding off the tiled wall, signifying her diminishing life. Also, as her body falls to the floor of the bathtub, there is a shot of Marion’s face, which is cunningly framed so she is not in the centre of the shot, but more to the right of it. This camera shot shows how Marion is not the main protagonist and heroine of the movie anymore. She falls forward with her hand on the shower curtain, breaking it and laying on the floor dead while the camera pans to the bathtub where the water is washing away Marion’s blood down the plughole.
Music and sound effects are perhaps the most effective techniques used here. When the silhouette appears, one of the most iconic movie soundtracks in film history plays; a tumultuous and ear-piercing cacophony of short, high screeching notes played by violins cellos and other string instruments that greatly emphasize the franticness of the scene. It was music that made the audience’s skin crawl and their hairs stand on end. Alfred Hitchcock actually didn’t want any music in the shower scene, but after he heard the score composed by Bernard Hermann, it influenced the scene a lot, greatly adding to the horror and tension. It gradually became higher and louder as the murder goes on, accentuating the heightening horror of the scene, but then goes very melancholy and slow as Marion is left to die in the bathroom, signifying the last few moments of her life. It stops altogether after she falls over and breaks the shower curtain, and the only sound left in the scene is the splash of water from the shower falling on the bathtub.
Sound effects also added to the horror. For example, the sickening sound of the knife slashing through Marion’s skin is very audible; giving the audience impressions that the cuts are very deep (the sound was actually made by stabbing melons with a knife) By exposing the audience to forty-five seconds of nonstop violence without actually showing any gore or blood, Hitchcock leaves it up to our imagination. Imagination has no limits which are why the scene is timeless and just as shocking half a century later. The shock is not only the sudden bombardment of cuts but the fact that he killed off his leading lady. We looked through her eyes, listened to her thoughts and witnessed her actions only to see her naked body slashed to an ugly death. With more than an hour to go, anything is possible. Even though the film had a low budget, and the props used in the shower scene were quite crude and unsophisticated (although it was 1960, and special effects weren’t really used in films back then) Hitchcock uses his technical mastery of cinematic techniques to make the shower scene and the whole movie one of the most famous in film history.