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What film techniques are used in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho?

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In the film Psycho, director Alfred Hitchcock uses several innovative film techniques to maintain the audience’s sense of suspense and tension. We are introduced to Marion Crane, the primary female lead who is played by Janet Leigh, and learn that she is having an affair with a divorced man. The film is set in 1960, so the revelation of the sexual liaison is a technique that clues the audience into the possibility that Marion might have somewhat ambivalent attitudes toward morals that the 1960s audiences took for granted.

Marion then steals a large sum from one of her company’s clients and flees in her car. On the drive, she begins to imagine the reaction when her boss discovers the theft and plays the scene in her head. The audience hears her thoughts. This is an interesting film technique, as Hitchcock concentrates on Marion’s face as she drives and we see the tension in her features, as she grips the steering wheel.

Ultimately, Marion exits the road and checks into the Bates Motel where she encounters the friendly clerk, Norman Bates. She steps into the shower in a scene in which the actress’ nudity is hinted at but never really disclosed. The famous shower scene achieves one of the suspenseful highlights of the movie. We see a hand holding a knife. We see Janet Leigh screaming over and over and the audience is both mesmerized and repulsed. Although we never see the murderer, we see the blood mixing with the water raining down from the shower, just as the blows are raining down on Marion. The music accompanying this scene reaches a crescendo, which helps build the audience’s tension. The camera angle from above Marion adds to the suspense, as the audience gets a bird’s eye view of the violent scene.

The scene in which Norman’s mother is revealed utilizes some of Hitchcock’s most innovative and frightening film techniques. Mrs. Bates is sitting in her wheelchair. When she does not respond, Marion’s sister Lila gingerly touches her shoulder to turn her around. Simultaneously the audience and Lila see that Mrs. Bates is a skeleton dressed in Norman’s dead mother’s clothes. The audience is on edge as Lila screams in horror and shock.

Finally, when Norman is arrested, we hear the thoughts in Norman’s twisted brain, which is another technique that Hitchcock uses to end the film on an eerie note.

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Hitchcock was the master of suspense, and Psycho was perhaps his most controlled film. Every element of the film was designed specifically to manage and manipulate audience expectations. Here are just three examples:

Plot. Hitchcock stunned audiences by killing off his star, Janet Leigh, a third of the way into the film. This move disorients the viewer and upends expectations: viewers who were expecting to watch a film about a beautiful woman on the run suddenly found themselves watching a very different sort of film.

Performance. Anthony Perkin's portrayal of Norman Bates is memorable for a similar misdirection. In his first scenes with Leigh, he appears to be more or less normal, albeit a bit socially awkward. As the audience spends more time with the character, it becomes clear that something is not right with him. It is a credit to Perkin's performance that this suspicion about Bates builds thoughout the film. 

Camera. Of course, Hitchcock is a master of creating suspense through the editing process and of being in complete control over what he shows you. In the famous shower sequence, for example, the point is to convey the maximum horror while giving the minimum amount of information; because of the extraordinary way that the sequence is cut, the viewer is overwhelmed with visceral detail while not actually seeing the knife cut the character, or seeing who is wielding the knife. 

There are many of examples of how Hitchcock uses the clever intercutting of wide and point of view shots to create suspense, but the basic element common to them all is the control of information. That is, Hitchcock is supremely concerned with what the audience knows about given situation and when they know it. Almost all of his shots and edits are about providing that small bit of information the audience needs in order to heighten their suspense.

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While Orson Welles's Citizen Kane initiated new techniques in cinematography, the 1960 release of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho set new precedents for film making, especially breaking new ground for horror films. While the use of black and white film placed upon Hitchcock many of the restraints he had had with his Alfred Hitchcock Hour, it was selected by Hitchcock because he felt that color would be too distracting. Also, the contrast of black and white is especially effective for films whose themes are dark themselves. 

Here are some of the film techniques employed in Psycho:

  • The variation of long shots and short "cuts" with the camera, some of which are without sound is effective in creating suspense. In one short sequence, Marion packs to leave with the money and there is no sound. In another scene which has long and short sequences, Marion's sister Lila and her husband take a room at the Bates Motel, hoping to learn what has happened to Detective Argogast. When Lila approaches the Bates's Gothic house on the hill (modeled after a painting by Edward Hopper), there is a long shot of it against the sky. This disarming pattern of long/short shots is repeated.
  • The use of what are called "subjective shots" is also very effective. For instance, as she nears the Bates house, there is a close up of Lila; then, Hitchcock has the house and porch come into view as Lila would see them, and there are "subjective close-ups" as her hand pushes the door as though the viewers were looking through her eyes. This perspective of the character narrows the view of the audience, inviting them into the mind of character for them to share the apprehension of Lila. Then, in the shower scene, there are 90 splices of split-second shots from different angles that are extremely unnerving for audiences.
  • The soundtrack is especially innovative and effective. Bernard Hermann's hair-raising music certainly sets the audience on edge, also, particularly in the famous shower scene. The intensity of this music parallels the vicious stabbings and becomes very nerve-wracking for audiences.
  • Black and white film contributes to the ominous tone of the film as shadows and small views of lighted objects create disturbing contrasts while also focusing the audience's attention where the director desires it to be.
  • Substitution is used in the shower sequence. Hitchcock hired Anne Dore to double for Tony Perkins as the mother so that audience's would not discern who the mother really was as Hitchcock worried that Perkins's slim silhouette would be detected.
  • Black comedy. Director Alfred Hitchcock intended for his film to be ‘tongue-in-cheek’ and a dark comedy. He was ‘horrified’ that audiences were truly disturbed by the film, BBC interviews with him have revealed.

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