Alfred Hitchcock is widely known as one of the masters of the film industry, having directed more than 50 feature films. His unique techniques create tension and horror, although he manages to find the balance between the two genres. Fundamentally, the balance he manages to pioneer results in superb, enticing thriller movies such as “Psycho” (1960). Psycho is a prime example of Hitchcock’s unparalleled knowledge and know-how of psychological thrillers. In the following essay, I will attempt to evaluate and analyse the visual techniques and sounds effects he uses to distinguish tension and horror.
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Fundamental to this superb artistic expression is Hitchcock’s manipulative camera; the seemingly omniscient camera allows the viewer to observe the opening scenes in a voyeuristic way, this enables the viewer to feel as if they are seeing things they shouldn’t be. It begins with the unique dynamism to the bold title graphics; the camera then cuts in with a surveying pan over the city rooftops. The surveying pan almost arbitrarily but purposefully, gradually zooms into first one of the many buildings and then one of the many windows to explore before the audience is introduced to Marion and Sam. In the intimate post-coital opening scenes, the implicating camera later witnesses Janet Leigh’s undressing through a peephole. The building is also identified with an exact date, time and location, we can see from this that Hitchcock is trying to wrong-foot the viewer into thinking that there is no abnormality to come, although this of course sets the viewer completely oblivious to how the horror film unfolds. This opening scene builds up tension and suspense due to the arbitrarily chosen window as the camera jolts to and fro before settling, making the viewer wonder about the significance of this particular block of buildings. In addition to this, the music score at the start changes as the camera cuts from the dynamic graphics of the titles, to the wide angle shot of the buildings. Diegetic music in the titles by Bernard Herrmann, consists of inharmonious sharp violin stabs with a quick tempo and repetitive pattern. This repetitive pattern score combines well with the flowing movement of the bizarre repeating patterns in the titles. As the camera cuts into the surveying pan Arizona city scene; the music score creates a sound bridge, transforming into a more reassuring but mysterious violin ensemble to work well with the mise-en-scene.
Importantly, the first signal implied to show a dual-personality sense is the various mirrors used throughout the film. Marion’s reflection and many other protagonists’ reflections are portrayed in precisely situated mirrors. Significantly, mirrors are a particularly unique technique to deploy into a film. They create awareness that there is more to a character than what meets the eye according to body language and stature, they also show give distance between the viewer and the subject showing dissociative personalities. In the picture, left, Marion is shown suspiciously in a small claustrophobic toilet, attempting to count the money she has attained. This already implies to a viewer something is wrong, since a toilet represents a very personal and private place where a character should not be deprived of their privacy. Therefore, Hitchcock get’s viewers to ask questions, such as: what is there to hide? However, with the clever bird’s eye camera angle and conveniently placed tilted mirror the voyeur is conveyed with a sense that an ever pondering conscious mind can often lead to sub-conscious thoughts while in private spaces. Everyone has their guilty pleasures, and a simple blend of a mirror and a smartly placed bird’s eye camera angle can expose all this. The incidental music in this scene is particularly effective in creating tension, the crescendo of the violin mysterious ensemble when it is reaching its peak note, causes the audience to realise that Marion’s head is racing and boiling over with thoughts about the money. In contrast, when the violins calm down again, it seems to be that Marion is not overawed by the thoughts. By using these sound effects, the audience is able to once again able to discover what is going inside Marion’s mind. The simple technique of a violin crescendo and decrescendo or a change in tempo, can be extremely useful for a viewer as it links to a characters heartbeat and mind furthermore masterfully building up the swaying tower of tension, which can only be knocked down by horror.
Norman is first introduced as a quiet and shy individual, the sort of once bitten twice shy type of character thus reconnecting with the whole issue of his stricken mother. Enabling audiences to believe his own devotion to his invalid mother has cost him his own identity. This all but secures the audience’s sympathy and understanding of Norman.Norman then attempts to gain an acquaintance with Marion by offering sandwiches and milk as an absurd ‘supper’, it creates an unsettling atmosphere; the tone then allows the audience to have second thoughts about this enticing but concealing character. Furthermore, Marion offers Norman to have dinner in her cabin. Norman makes a slight movement towards the door, although he shrewdly backs away as he was performing a wrong deed, or more specifically, entering a woman’s room. This small conundrum of a scene using a two-shot camera angle yet again builds up more tension that needs to be toppled somehow. The full identity of Norman is not yet exposed, as he is unwrapped layer by layer, yet Norman is still being exploited in an abnormal way. Additionally, it seems that Norman always has a crude smile etched into his face once talking to Marion, depicting a man with great discomfort around a young attractive woman.
The mise-en-scene of the next Norman Bates and Marion Crane scene is intricately set up to create a feel of eeriness merged with awkwardness. The room is confined, squeezing in two rustic chairs, the lamp table, coffee table, and chest that occupy it. On the lamp table is a Tiffany lamp, the only source of light in the room and thus the key light within the scene. The placing of the characters is expertly done to allow the viewer to spectate the effect lighting causes in the changing of a character’s portrayal. Marion however gives off the same radiance and warmth that the lamp emits along with her bright clothes. The walls behind her are likewise soft, brightly lit. Marion, especially with the light color of her dress, the curves in her hairstyle and her posture, adds to the sense that she is, or eventually will become the victim. On the contrary, Norman Bates is positioned far from the light source creating harsh and vivid strips of light across his body, which are made more sinister by his darkly coloured clothing. Moreover, this indicates to viewers that he has something to hide; Norman is “in the dark” about something. Furthermore, this emphasises the dual-personality link back to the plot. The paintings in the background have jagged, angled frames which duly create ominous and of course concealing dark shadows. The low angle tilt camera angle displays to the audience the difference in status and consciousness between the two characters. Marion sits comfortably in her chair whilst leaning forward; she enjoys her sandwich thinking that all is well giving the audience a feeling of ease and normality. On the other side, Norman is viewed from an unnatural low perspective shot, depicting him sitting uncomfortably in the chair; the giveaway is the unnatural location of his hand which is placed onto his inner thigh, thus referring back to the sexual genre. Hitchcock places the camera near eye level so the audience sees Marion as two people might see each other while sitting and talking, therefore creating a unique juxtaposition. It is also noticed that, Marion’s face is always shot as a full on facial camera close-up, although Norman is always shot with a side-on close up which obscures his other side. Crucially, the overlooking symbolic stuffed birds mounted in the corners of the room are a great giveaway to Norman’s corrupted mind. The birds seem to be staring through dead eyes at Bates and Marian as they share a meal and conversation. This may or may be an intentional reference to voyeurism, and it is strongly implied. As he quotes, “I like stuffing things”, yet this signifies a graphic image of death. This should warn the audience that all of the awkward tension will eventually be broken with a horrific event. The music to accompany the scene is particularly effective, as it is a repeating melody which changes tempo as the tension builds.
The sequence of shots where Detective Milton Arbogast succumbs to a brutal end, are another prime example of Hitchcock’s all-knowing and observant camera. Hitchcock capitalizes on the shock value of the previous scene, by terrifying audiences with another unexpected murder. Arbogast listens, holds his breath, and hears what could be human sounds coming from upstairs but realizes these could also be the sounds of the old house after sunset, this is in contrast to his usually witty and charismatic style. He starts up, slowly, guardedly, placing a foot squarely on each step to test it for it squeaks or groans. The music is superbly paced to coincide with the tempo of the footsteps. Hitchcock places the camera almost vertically opening the plan, to indicate the viewers that another presence may be lurking in the distance. A bird’s eye view is used to great effect to tell the viewers of Bate’s mother’s presence which he does not know; voyeurs’ sense that the camera sees things which no one else can see, replicating more voyeurism and paranoia. Despite the next scene being a full on action murder scene, Hitchcock does well to veer away from the typical jolt of the camera normally used in action scenes. Instead, the camera is held stone dead in a daunting overlooking position, similar to that of the symbolic birds.
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The very moment the brutal stabbing takes place, the sound perspective transforms from prowling and tension-building violins to horrific stabbing violins to accompany Norman’s manic actions. The tension seems to be cut, quite literally, in order to make way for unexpected horror. As Arbogast stumble down the stairs, the music tempo increases rapidly as Hitchcock employs a distinctive reverse tracking and zoom technique. However, the most effective diegetic music is when Arbogast reaches his brutualised end during the final fatal blow. The music successfully alters into a depressing, demoralising score of music; this has an extremely slow tempo consisting of the diminuendo violins to complement the steady slowing of Arbogast’s heartbeat. The Foley artist uses soft thuds and creaks as the detective sneaks up the staircase. The sound perspective is then represented as a harsh, textured stabbing sound, similar to the piercing cutting sound of a cabbage.
In summary, Hitchcock conveys an intensifying theme in Psycho, that bases itself on the subconscious battle between eroticism and death that exists in everyone through the audience’s subjective participation and implicit character parallels.
Significantly, various concealing shadows are also employed in the film, to further notch up the voyeur’s curiosity levels. Also, he distinguishes between horror and tension skilfully, by making sure that enough tension has been built up to be broken by horror. His introduction to horror from tension is often sudden and unexpected, showing he understands that horror induces intense and profound fear; tension however produces a state of mental or emotional strain or suspense. Another of his famous quotes, “If it’s a good movie, the sound could go off and the audience would still have a perfectly clear idea of what was going on.” That sums up his superb visual content and masterful camera angles, which show status, stature, body language personalities, thoughts and expressions. We can see that Voyeurism is perhaps the most prominent theme and sensation in this Hitchcock classic. Hitchcock showed that he has plunged into the human mind and found out that there is a little voyeurism in all of us. Throughout the film, sections of the dual nature of humanity and voyeurism present themselves; film, lighting, camera angle and mise-en-scene all make their contributions to the total concept. Lastly, this film shows that not all is known to what meets the eye, although what truly meets the eye can be unveiled in horrific ways.
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