Psycho, directed by Alfred Hitchcock was considered one of the scariest films of its time. Created in 1960 it broke the conventions of film shocking audiences, leaving it rated X, now rated at 15 people of today wouldn’t understand the shock factor it had in the 60’s but is instead seen as a classic and a great horror film for the conventions it broke for all films. “Psycho: The best horror film of all time” is the headline of a recent article on the Guardian website proving that still in 2010, 50 years on that it’s still considered the greatest.
Horror as a genre holds many codes and conventions of its own that psycho portrays for example the big house in the middle of nowhere and obviously the rain. Things like this are aimed to create fear, to deal with things from nightmares, to elicit suspense, which was the aim for Hitchcock’s films.
Psycho was Hitchcock’s first horror film and from then on he’s been known as the master of suspense. He was the creator of the MacGuffin, something that drives the story, he used sharp violins to create suspense, while the audience let their own minds create the rest.
In this essay I plan to deconstruct two scenes from the film, looking at the Mise-en-scene and mise-en-shot. Mise-en-scene being everything in front of the camera that creates the scene, Hitchcock only puts something in shot if it meant something. Mise-en shot-being the opposite – everything behind the scenes the camera work that helps create the emotion in Hitchcock films, the construction of the shots.
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The opening scene begins with the credits criss-crossing in a pattern with the images mirroring, which could be seen as foreshadowing the schizophrenic personality of Norman Bates. A wide panning shot establishes the surroundings being a city and the audience see the exact time of day( 2:43pm). The camera zooms into a room window the blinds are drawn and the camera sneaks in as if it were a peeping tom. The characters in the room, Marion and Sam, are obviously hiding something having the blinds drawn in the middle of the day and the audience sneaking in makes them a part of the secret.
Once in the room we see Marion laid on the bed half naked which was unheard of in films of the 60’s let alone being in the room with a half-naked man that she isn’t married too. Even the implication of sex was a taboo in films.
Marion brings up the subject of marriage whilst in his embrace. The camera shot is a close up as if we are a part of the situation. When he doesn’t give her the answer she was looking for her body language changes, as does the camera angle. She is giving him the cold shoulder as does the audience, which shows Marion as the main character, that we are on her side. He gives in and tells her what she wants to hear not before leaving the guilt trip on her because of how emasculated he felt. The camera angles represent the distance and emotion between the characters. Sam begins to moan about his lack of money and mentions his Ex-wife as opening the blinds and looking out as if to look for her, trying to find reasons not to get married. The camera is pulled out again showing the characters relationship troubles. We know Marion wants to marry Sam and would do anything for it to be possible.
The Parlour scene
Marion is in her hotel room waiting for Norman when she hears arguing between Norman and his mother. She becomes concerned as Norman comes down looking nervous and stuttering. He doesn’t want to enter Marion’s room for fear of upsetting his mother he even found it difficult showing her around the room because he feels uncomfortable with being alone in a room with her, especially showing her the bathroom which he can’t even say because it’s even more uncomfortable being in a room where people are naked.
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He suggests going to the parlour where he feels more comfortable using the excuse of warmth, all the time the camera stays mainly at mid shots perhaps showing how uncomfortable he is. The room is filled with stuffed birds of prey as if he has her in his trap, as if she is his prey. The conversation is small; his weird nervous comments are seen as small talk and not all threatening. He comes across as lonely when he brings up his hobby of taxidermy, which explains the mass of birds ‘Well, it’s, it’s more than a hobby. A hobby’s supposed to pass the time, not fill it’, and ‘a boys best friend is his mother’ proving he has no friends. The conversation stays conventional and each character is framed by medium shots. As the subject of his mother becomes a bigger topic he leans forward as if on the edge of his seat. Norman explains how he resents his mother and would like nothing more than to just leave her, but he can’t because she’s ill. The camera angle is now to the side and just below Norman revealing and owl in the striking position as if he is the prey this time, he is captured by his mother. The atmosphere becomes very defensive when Marion suggests sending his mother to a home. The camera closes in on Normans face showing his reaction he becomes short and snappy describing a mental home as if he’s been there before or as if he is afraid of it. He doesn’t feel she deserves to be in a home, stating she is harmless ‘But she’s harmless! She’s as harmless as one of those stuffed birds!’ giving the audience a foreshadowing that she’s actually a corpse.
The camera angle becomes less intense in the change of subject when Marion wants to return to her room, Norman stays sitting when she gets up to leave as if it will make her stay, he wants to stay in her company. Marion slips up when Norman asks her name again telling him where she’s going and her real name rather than the one she wrote in the logbook. He asked her these questions just as she was leaving as if he knew she was lying. A more sinister look comes across Norman’s face when he realises he’s been lied too; he knows his mother wouldn’t like it and would think she was a trouble maker. As Norman leaves the parlour to go back and tend to his “mother” we see the change happening like something switches in his head.
In conclusion we see how important mise-en-scene and mise-en-shot is in every aspect of the film; Hitchcock uses camera angles to depict emotion in all of his characters, wide shots to show cold emotions, close intense shots to show anger and low angles to show vulnerability. Also Hitchcock proves that it doesn t have to be the same MacGuffin to push the story along throughout the film as Marion is killed early on.
Psycho is the proof that horror doesn’t just have to be gore and blood its more psychological than that.
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