Joey Licciardi

Alfred Hitchcock - Psycho

FIS 410 Robinson

Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho

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  • Intro

  • Meaning of Psycho

  • Reoccuring Theme 1

  • Reoccuring Theme 2

  • Supporting Aspect to Theme 1

  • Supporting Aspect to Theme 2

  • Camera Techinques

  • Critical Reception

  • Conclusion

Psycho is a 1960 psychological thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The film details the murder of Janet Leigh and begs the question whom the murderer could be. This film, being one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most popular films, has been analyzed quite a bit throughout the years. Not just its obvious use of suspense made the film great, but so much other aspects that the average viewer would not see. Several aspects of the film, such as: Reoccurring themes, scenes, camera techniques, and critical reception are all a major part of Psycho. What is important to note about this film is how much sponsorhip and promotion Hitchcock put into this film before its release. This promotion is directly because of the new and challenging filmmaking aspects Hitchcock implemented in the film.

The meaning of this film stems from what a person could do to another in real life. When psychotic rage and revenge become a part of aperson, their devastation to another, or others, for that matter, can be limitless.This film especially speaks, connects, and relates to people who may have been a psycho in one point of their lives, or been the victim of a psyhotic attack. Throughout the film, the murderer clearly is slowly getting addicted to killing and the hunt of the kill. The film details sick, twisted desires as well that can be assoicated with sex. Psycho also has meaning related to death and a loss of hope. The film shows how brutally a human life can be taken when people are at their weakest. For the film to be named Psycho, naturally there are controversies to follow about mental illness among the characters and characteristics of being a Psycho. Welch and Racine state that, “Images, representations, objects of desire and fear are constructed and presented by the films we see, and few films have such a prominent place in the public lexicon as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho." (Welch and Recine, pg.216, 1999). Being that said, the killer in Psycho did share characteristics of a Psycho, but not in every sense of the word. Welch and Recine describe a scene in Psycho. Welch and Recine state that, “While chatting casually with the doomed Marion Crane over a wholesome snack of milk and cheese sandwiches, Norman remarks that, ‘We all go a little crazy sometimes’." (Welce and Recine, pg.216, 1999). This begs the question who the real Psycho is and what it takes to be considered a Psycho taking into consideration Marion’s characteristics. Naturally, though, the characterisitcs of a character in a film are technically based on opinions.

One important theme of Psycho is sexuality in general. From the very opening sequence of Psycho, the camera moves slowly towards the window of a hotel room. Here, we are introduced to the film’s main female character Marion Crane as well as her boyfriend Sam in bed together. Recchia states," From the beginning of the film, Hitchcock has set us in the audience up for our later series of shocks of recognition by luring us into assuming a perceptual and emotional relationship with Marion that is both natural and inevitable." (Recchia, 1991). What was so taboo in this scene for its time is that we see Marion in her underwear. Although this scene doesn’t show the two of them having sex, there are many clues that prove otherwise, especially from the camera. In the opening sequence, the mise en scene establishes the hotel room. The camera pans straight to the bed with a medium shot of Marion lying down. Additionally, there is a cut away shot showing the uneaten food suggesting that this was her “lunch break.” Here is an image of the opening scene of Psycho:

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As the film goes on, as the viewer you continue to get this overwhelming tension between the male and female characters. A second scene from Psycho with sexuality was where Norman was peeping through a hole spying on Marion. This is an example of voyeurism. It not only shows him spying with a sexual nature, but it also puts us, the viewer, somewhat into a role of voyeurism. Hitchcock seemed like he wanted you to actually feel what the characters felt in this way. Here is a short clip of this scene:

Another scene with Norman in a sexual nature was when he was talking to Marion. In this scene, his gestures were of a sexual nature as he had one hand on his private area. What I also think Psycho tries to show is that sexual feelings are often associated with violent behavior. A great example of this is the famous shower scene where Janet Leigh’s murder happens. Up until Psycho, there were many murders in film and we know by watching that they are bad. But, this scene actually shows a murder in its most raw form. I think repressed sexual feelings from the murderer led to the violent stabbing by the murderer. Feelings, especially those of a sexual nature, can motivate one to kill because of either jealousy or because one person doesn’t get what they want. Hitchcock clearly tries in Psycho to prove that violent nature is a part of sex. Both can be described as a release of one's feelings, so the combination of the two in thie film was brilliant.

Here are some sexual images of Marion crane which were considered taboo at the time, a challenge by Hithccock:

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A second theme of Psycho prevalent in many of Hitchcock's films is its Hitchcockian narrative structure. Although, this film seems to break away from the classic Hollywood narrative more, even when compared to other Hitchcock films like Vertigo. Psycho challenged normal filmmaking conventions. All of Hitchcock films are complex in their own way. But, Psycho takes it a step further and challenged what can be done when making a story. James Kendrick expands upon this stating that, “The most obvious violation of the traditional Hollywood narrative is the fact that Janet Leigh’s character not only dies in the first forty-five minutes of a 106 minute film, but is brutally murdered." (Kendrick, pg.6, 2010). This portrayal of brutality was something that was not used in most films back then and was even frowned upon by some. Her murder has two effects on the audience. Firstly, it changes what we thought up until that point. As Kendrick states, “For the first half hour, Psycho quite clearly seems to be about a young, frustrated woman named Marion Crane who cannot marry her lover because he is in debt, so she steals $40,000 in the naïve hope they can run away together." (Kendrick, pg.6, 2010). Her murder essentially erased the progression in the story the viewer witnesses. Secondly, Marion Crane was played by Hollywood starlet Janet Leigh. Janet Leigh was a big time actress during this time, so killing her off was a shock to audiences. Kendrick adds, “View it in terms of the simple outline of the priming effects model: the Janet Leigh construct in the minds of viewers would have been linked with constructs such as movie star, glamour, beauty, and most certainly, character invincibility." (Kendrick, pg. 6, 2010). People thought nothing could happen to her, or that she could possibly come back later in the film. This marked one of the first times if not the first time a real life movie star got murdered in their own film. It could also be said that the film went from linear to non linear in this sense as it stooped the halt of natural progression.

A clip showing the shower scene in Psycho can be seen here:

Aside from all the violence this film portrays, there is a dash of humor like in other Hitchcock films. But, it is not the humor most people are accustomed to. It is what is known as black humor, a much darker humor relating to death. The dark, black humor is what it is because when people laugh at certain events when watching Psycho, it is not what people would normally not laugh at when watching a film. Viewers would usually not laugh at scenes of death or fear, but Hitchcock was remarkably able to contradict.You can feel it as a viewer when watching that it is not meant to be totally serious. Naremore states, “Psycho, Hitchcock’s most brilliant and frightening exercise in black humor, shaped his public identity in later years." (Naremore, pg.22-23, 2001). This humor is called black humor because of the death and violence the film portrays. Naremore further states, “This film invites audiences to identify first with a thief and then with a murderer, and its entire mechanism of suspense, surprise and bloody horror is structured like a practical joke." (Naremore, pg.23, 2010). The use of this black humor is prevalent is in the buildup to the murders. This black humor also goes hand in hand with the prementioned narrative structure. Janet Leigh’s death was treated with amusement, purposely done by Hitchcock to create a reaction from people who see it. The black humor in Psycho is not blatant, as in you don't see people laughing. You feel it more in your own head as the viewer.

What is also apparent in Psycho is how the music aided its theme. From the opening of the film to its finale, music was used in the film enhanced plot elements. Much of the background music is of the slasher variety, heard in popular movies today like Scary Movie and Friday the 13th. Bernard Herrmann was the man who did the music for Psycho. For times like the rising point and the climax of the film, he changed his music to coincide with it. As Husarik states, “In the case of Psycho, Hitchcock doubled Herrmann’s usual fee for the film saying that 33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music.” (Husarik, pg.146, 2009). The background music is something that most viewers don’t pay attention to when watching a film, but it is a major part of what creates effects like the famous Hitchcockian suspense. One such example of early slasher music is with the Lila search scene. Husarik states, “As Lila wanders through the Bates house in the bedroom and the toys the music takes an unexpected diatonic turn and the listener is reminded once again of Norman with notes of the psycho theme." (Husarik, pg.154, 2009). This psycho theme Husarik describes is the theme of a psychological killer. This search scene of Lila is a prime example of how music adds to suspense. Linked here is a full composition of the whole movie Psycho by Bernard Herrmann:

Next, to be discussed are Psycho’s camera techniques including things like camera angles and shots. One such scene is the famous shower scene. Recchia states, “In the scene, the next time we see the murdered strike, Hitchcock again provides us with camera angles that reinforce not only the logic of the scene but also our own preconceptions." (Recchia, pg.264, 1991). Additionally in this scene, there are shots shown both from the murderer’s perspective, whose face is not shown, and Marian’s perspective. What is interesting about this is that there is more emphasis towards the side of the murderer. As Kendrick adds to what Recchia describes, "The murder itself is composed of thirty-four separate shots, from the first time Mother/Norman is glimpsed through the shower curtain to the shot that shows her/him leaving the bathroom; sixteen are from Mother/Norman’s, which means that the viewer is forced into the uncomfortable position of alternating between the killer’s viewpoint and the victim’s." (Kendrick, pg.8, 2010). The shots are fast, alternating constantly between one another. Additionaly, there is an interesting camera transition from the drainage of the shower to Marion's eyes. This was effective because it showed a reaction shot of Marion and simultaneously whowed the stabbing. It was effective because of the speed of it as well. The shots were fast adding to the shock value. It was an effective use of shot by Hitchcock because it showed what was going on, when, and where all at the same time. Here a few images that show what kind of shots were used simultaneously:

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Another scene characteristic of Hitchcock's camera style is the scene with Lila searching the house. In this scene, Hitchcock clearly uses certain camera angles to create suspense and tension. Recchia states, “As Lila fearfully approaches the front door of the house, Hitchcock builds suspense by counterbalancing subjective camera shots, which limits us to her field of vision, with our apprehension that Mrs. Bates will leap into the frame at any moment waving her butcher knife." (Recchia, pg.265, 1991). And, as she makes her way inside, there is a world famous Hitchcock staircase for added suspense. But, nothing happens immediately and is more used as a build-up by Hitchcock of what follows right after. As Lila reaches the bedroom she looks at herself in the mirror. This technique by Hitchcock makes us wonder either what she is looking at, or if there is someone else in the room preying on her. The emotional shock occurs when Lila touches the remains of Mrs. Bates. Norman jumps out with a wig on his head and attacks Lila. Another man jumps into the frame quarreling with the man. How the frame was used in this scene was also characteristic to Hitchcock in terms of where the characters were placed. The Lila search scene through Mrs. Bates' house can be seen here:

Psycho has attained a lot of critical response throughout the years since its release up until now. Kendrick states, “When the reviews first came out, they were almost uniformly negative; and even those critics who wrote positively about the movie as a whole still had negative things to say about Marion’s murder.” (Kendrick, pg.6, 2010). I think the reason critics and people in general felt this way was because it was such a shock to them, or possibly because they thought it was just wrong. They weren’t ready to accept it at the time. Nowadays, the elements and themes that Hitchcock implemented are now commonplace compared to some of the things movies show now. For example, sex is now much more out there today in movies quite possibly because of Hitchcock. What is shown in movies today does not shock people because slowly through the years we have adapted to them. Many that have watched the film after finishing questioned whether if the entire film was a dream or if it was real and he did kill all the people that he found. So, to sum up, Psycho was praised technically. But, its early negative responses came because reviewers and critics at the time were not ready for such a bold statement to be made in film.

Psycho is a film that proves to be dynamic in so many ways. Its themes coupled with its suspenseful music and dark humor created a true Hitchcock masterpiece. Psycho challenged conventional thought and brought many film ideas into the mainstream. By Hitchcock challenging these normal filmmaking conventions with Psycho, it influenced later films to do the same.such as Halloween, Scream, and Friday the 13th. Psycho is truly my favorite Hitchcock film of all time and was a blast to analyze.


Husarik, S. (2009). Transformation of "The Psycho Theme" in Bernard Herrmann's music for Psycho. Interdisciplinary Humanities, p.144-158.

Kendrick, J. (2010). Disturbing New Pathways: Psycho and the priming of the audience. Journal of Popular Film and Television, p.2-9.

Naremore, J. (2001). Hitchcock and humor. Journal of Theory: Culture and Politics, p.13-25.

Recchia, E. (1991). Through a shower curtain darkly; Reflexivity as a dramatic component of Psycho. Literature Film Quarterly, p.258-267.

Welch, M. & Racine, T. (1999). A psycho for every generation. Nursing Inquiry, p. 216-219.

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