NOTE: Please click on frames to enlarge. Also, this piece may contain spoilers, and most likely won’t make any sense if you haven’t already seen the film. Go watch it. Right now.
My main satisfaction is that the film had an effect on the audiences, and I consider that very important. I don’t care about the subject matter; I don’t care about the acting; but I do care about the pieces of film and the photography and the sound track and all of the technical ingredients that made the audience scream. I feel it’s tremendously satisfying for us to be able to use the cinematic art to achieve something of a mass emotion. And with Psycho we most definitely achieved this. It wasn’t a message that stirred the audiences, nor was it a great performance or their enjoyment of the novel. They were aroused by pure film…That’s why I take pride in the fact that Psycho, more than any of my other pictures, is a film that belongs to film-makers, to you and me.
– Alfred Hitchcock to director François Truffaut in 1962.
Hitchcock wasn’t being grandiose in his assessment of Psycho. It really is his purest, most effective visual accomplishment. The Master of Suspense was an alumnus of the old school of silent-era directors that lived by the first rule of cinema: Show it, don’t say it. They believed in the pre-eminence of visual storytelling – communicating emotion with only the moving picture – and understood that dialogue should be used as a supplement, to underline and augment the story being told with the images on the screen. Pure film. One doesn’t need sound or dialogue to understand the voyeurism, surprise, and claustrophobia communicated when Marion is discovered sleeping in her car by a passing Highway Patrolman, one only needs to see the sequence of compositions the director gives us:
Hitchcock is a master of manipulating an audience’s emotions with film. He not only uses the medium to define his characters and the peculiarities of their situation, he also tells us (his audience) who we are by defining our relationship to the image on the silver screen. The process begins immediately. The opening shot of Psycho offers us a bird’s eye view (keep that in mind, it’ll be important later) that carries us over a city, to a window sill where we creep inside and see what we instantly recognize as the aftermath of a discreet sexual liaison.
We are intensely aware of the intimacy of the couple’s relationship, but Hitchcock never invites us to share that intimacy. He keeps us at an awkward distance, leaving us to see the backs of heads and making us too aware of the surrounding room to be comfortable. The lighting is deliberately naturalistic, denying us the glossy romanticism of Hollywood sex. It is the vantage point of a peeping tom. As we watch what unfolds before us, we are overcome with a seedy, perverse feeling. We feel that we’re prying, witnessing something that we shouldn’t. Yet, we can’t look away. This is exactly as Hitchcock wanted it.
The titles create in us a distinct feeling of unease, the memory of which the director will later evoke with the use of strong compositional line, unnaturally rigid horizontals, verticals and diagonals that tell our subconscious mind to be wary. Hitchcock obviously enjoys this motif, using everything from fenceposts, street lines, telephone wires, and heavy rain to create these powerful, disruptive lines, lines that grow as Marion nears the Bates Motel.
Though at first, we don’t know why the lines make us uneasy, the reason is revealed in Marion’s motel bathroom. They foreshadow murder. We see strong lines of water from the shower, the lines of grout between tiles on the wall, the choppy lines that trace the slashing of a dagger, lines of blood that drip from the side of the pure-white bathtub.
The line motif is reprised to warn us of Aborgast’s murder.
Hitchcock is so invested in the motif that he cheekily sets the date of action at December 11th. When Marion checks into the Bates motel, she is given the only possible room.
Namely, stuffed birds and classical paintings of women being molested. Pretty direct, eh? Hitch uses the dialogue to support his visual thesis, and clue in the perceptive viewer to the horror that awaits Marion, and the fate that has already befallen Norman’s mother.
NORMAN You eat like a bird. MARION You'd know, of course. NORMAN Not really. I hear that expression, that one eats "like a bird," is really a fals...fals...fals...falsity, because birds really eat a tremendous lot. (A pause, then explaining) But, I don't know anything about birds. My hobby is stuffing things... taxidermy. And I guess I'd just rather stuff birds because... well, I hate the look of beasts when they're stuffed, foxes and chimps and all... some people even stuff dogs and cats... but I couldn't do that... I think only birds look well stuffed because they're rather... passive, to begin with...
And there are others. Through shadow and reflection, the dual nature of every key character is revealed; Marion, Norman, Marion’s boyfriend, even her banal sister Lila carries multiple versions of herself with her.
In the journey that takes Marion to the Bates motel, we observe her decent into madness. She transforms from Good Marion to Bad Marion (or at least normal Marion and abnormal Marion) before our very eyes, while she imagines what her persuers must be saying about her. The voices in her head speak harshly, and with increasing intensity. Hitchcock traces Marion’s transformation by subtly manipulating the lighting on her face as he cuts between shots of girl and highway. What begins as a naturalist shot of a normal Marion, ends with a highly expressive one as she reaches the brink of insanity.
This stylistic shift throws the audience into the same off-kilter paranoia that Marion experiences. We become less sure of what is real and what is illusion. Which of her thoughts are reasonable and which irrational. This is key to the film’s power to disturb and unnerve. It doesn’t just tell us about someone going crazy, it takes us along for the ride. The film’s structure even denies us the grounding of a “main character”, forcing us to shift sympathies (and empathies) from person to person. It makes us vicariously experience multiple personalities.
Look again at Marion’s expression in that last frame of transition.