Technique: From the opening frames of the movie, Saul Bass’s jarring graphic title sequence coupled with Bernard Herrmann’s frenzied musical score are designed to put the viewer on edge. After this unsettling opening the audience gets a breather, as slow, melodic strings take us into the movie proper. Titles on the screen establish the setting, as the camera starts with a wide view of the city of Phoenix, panning and zooming in on an open window. Inside are Sam and Marion, sharing in a little afternoon delight.
It is interesting to observe that Marion Cranes’s brief story arc is basically encounters with a succession of men. We first meet Marion with her boyfriend, Sam. Marion is clearly a smart young woman, but she cannot make Sam look past his pride, and agree to move Marion in with her. Next we see Marion back at the office where she works. Here she interacts with her boss and his client, the brash and boorish man who flaunts his wad of cash in Marion’s face, offering to buy away her problems, more or less offering to buy her in the bargain. One gets the sense that Marion has to deal with men like this quite frequently; men who objectify her, never recognizing her true qualities. It is a very well-drawn character portrait.
Marion’s only interaction with a woman occurs here in the office, with her co-worker, played effectively by Patricia Hitchcock (the daughter of Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville). But Patricia’s character does all the talking, and her very small part exists only to provide some comic relief, all at the expense of relationships. She has a couple of great lines, casually mentioning that her mom gave her tranquilizers for her wedding night, and observing that the customer flirted with Marion and not her because “he must have seen my wedding ring”, when the truth is that Marion is a far more attractive woman.
The next man Marion interacts with is the highway patrolman. He obviously represents authority, and does so with an effective thinly-veiled menace. By this time Marion has taken the money, so she has reason to be afraid. She asks him if she acts like she’s done something wrong, and he responds “quite frankly, yes.” She then interacts with the car salesman, California Charlie, who is surprised by how quickly Marion wants to trade in her car, saying “this is the first time the customer ever high-pressured the salesman.” As with all of the men Marion has encountered, he also has preconceived ideas about the roles of a female, telling her “you can do anything you’ve a mind to. Being a woman, you will.” And there is Mr. Highway Patrolman back on the scene, standing across the street, inscrutable behind his sunglasses, but menacing as ever.
Finally Marion arrives at the Bates Motel, and interacts with Norman Bates, the last man she will ever interact with in life. To Marion the Bates Motel is a sanctuary, from the torrential rain and from her guilty thoughts. She definitely finds Norman a bit odd, but clearly feels sorry for him, and likes his good nature. His conversation shows a genuine interest in her as a person, which is more than all the other men she has dealt with have shown. His gentle nature, his talk, have a strong influence on Marion, perhaps even more than she realizes. By the time she returns to her room to shower, she has decided to return the money, and clearly Norman’s conversation played a strong role in that decision.
Shower scene: The shower scene in Psycho is one of the most well-known movie scenes of all time, referenced and parodied in everything from The Simpsons and That 70’s Show to National Lampoon’s Vacation. What makes it so memorable? To start with, Bernard Herrmann’s musical score, that jarring string section, which sounds like the thrusts of a knife put to music, is unforgettable. At one point Hitchcock considered playing the scene with no music. Of course the music is considered such an iconic and integral part of the scene that it’s hard to imagine it without. On the Universal blu-ray, you can watch the scene without a musical score. To me it is far more menacing and frightening without the music.
Hitchcock said “It took us seven days to shoot that scene, and there were seventy camera setups for forty-five seconds of footage.” The scene itself is just a montage of images, many of them too brief to leave more than a subliminal impression. And many of them are also unforgettable. There is a point-of-view shot looking directly up at the shower head as water pours seemingly right at the camera. There is a great shot of Marion’s hand grabbing the shower curtain as she falls, and the curtain pulling from the hooks, one by one. There is a close-up shot of water swirling down the drain, which suddenly turns dark with blood. The “blood” was actually Shasta chocolate syrup, according to make up man Jack Barron. And the unforgettable final shot of the sequence, which starts on a close-up of Janet Leigh’s eye and slowly pulls back, revealing her dead body. The camera continues into the bedroom, showing the newspaper that hides the money inside, then shows the open window, through which Norman can be seen running from the house to the motel. Hitchcock wanted this to look like one continuous shot, but it is actually a composite of three separate pieces of film put seamlessly together.
The symbolic aspect of this scene should not be overlooked either. As Janet Leigh described it: “Hitch was very clear about what he wanted from me in the shower scene…The shower was a baptism, a taking away of the torment from her mind. Marion became a virgin again. He wanted the audience to feel her peacefulness, her kind of rebirth, so that the moment of intrusion is even more shocking and tragic.”
The shower scene is worthy of it’s place in cinematic history; it is impeccably shot and edited, and endlessly entertaining. You may view this scene ten times, and still discover new details with each viewing.
The murder of Arbogast: Another fantastic scene is the one showing “mother” killing Detective Arbogast. This scene begins with Martin Balsam’s character entering the Bates house and slowly climbing the stairs. When he gets to the top the camera cuts to a very high overhead shot. This is a shot that Hitchcock employed in almost every single movie he made. Removing the camera from the action, giving us a “God’s-eye view” if you will, makes the viewer feel helpless, and heightens the tension to an extreme. The way “mother’ purposefully strides towards Arbogast in this overhead shot is scary as hell, and the direct cut from the overhead shot to the close-up knife slash is equally effective, something that was deliberately planned by Hitchcock. Arbogast’s fall down the stairs has a surreal, dreamlike quality, obtained through a process shot. First Hitchcock did a dolly shot down the stairs, then sat Martin Balsam in a special chair in front of a transparency screen showing the stairs, and had the actor flail his arms.
Stairs are supposed to be a symbol of knowledge. One must climb to achieve enlightenment. Certainly Detective Arbogast does find the knowledge he is looking for when he ascends the stairs, but that knowledge costs him his life, and leaves him dead at the foot of the staircase. Some knowledge is just not worth seeking, and some stairs not worth climbing.
There are several other great sequences, including the cleanup sequence. We watch Norman Bates methodically clean the motel room and dispose of the evidence. This takes several minutes of screen time, and occurs with no dialogue at all. More of Hitchcock’s “pure” storytelling. This is a movie that works exceptionally well on a storytelling level, but does have a deeper significance for those who choose to look for it. It is absolutely required viewing for anybody that wants to understand Hitchcock, or American movies in general