Analytical Essay: Alfred Hitchcock, Psycho

By Joanna Stevens

"Psycho . . . is a film that belongs to filmmakers."

  Filmed and shown to audiences worldwide during the 1960's it was said that,
"Psycho's fiction is that it's world is real"  (Rothman 251).   Alfred
Hitchcock's, Psycho presents its audience with a running theme that consists
of the opposition that exists between good and evil, and addresses the
notion of punishment.  Psycho has been attributed as being Hitchcock's
ultimate achievement in the technique of viewer participation.  He openly
encourages his audience to become, in a sense, the protagonist within the
film's plot.  The spectator in this case will coalesce within themselves all
the other characters.     Hitchcock, while being questioned  about the level
of violence in Psycho said that, "The children do not know they're fairy
tales.  This little boy, sitting on his mother's knee, wide-eyed, listens
with awe, and he believes"  (Hitchcock 149).  These words in mind, along
with the visual emphasis of the film's theme, help to provide a clear
insight into what Hitchcock attempted as a director.  He created emotions in
an actively participating audience.  The question now arises how he was able
to achieve and maintain through his medium of film, such profoundly evincing
effects?  A better understanding lies in the careful analysis of certain
techniques that were used by Hitchcock, within specific scenes and  frames
of  this film. Alfred Hitchcock's,  Psycho had such an effect because of but
not limited to: the subjective eye of the camera,  the juxtaposition of film
in montage, and Hitchcock's ability to make his audience comfortable with
his conceptions, mainly in the portrayal of his characters' situations as
     Using the camera's subjective eye in the opening scenes of this movie,
Hitchcock pans over a city scene, then hesitates.  In this hesitation he
appears to be giving the audience  a choice in the form of selecting a
window in which to look through.  He quickly makes this choice for them in a
seemingly random manner.  However, this initial involvement with the
audience imbues in them a sense of an arbitrary time, date, and place, that
could be their own.  This 'fishbowl' effect is further enforced by uniting
the viewer with the character of Marion.  He presents, in the initial scene
through the window, a concept of 'normal' behavior in the mundane
relationship between Sam and Marion.  Within the context of the script,
Hitchcock establishes and encourages the connection between his public and
Marion.  Sam's rejection of her proposal combined with the revulsion she
feels with the sexual act that they shared is emphasized in the expressive
and representational movements of the camera.  The sequence of images tilts,
pulls out, and twists in an ecstatic pattern drawing the viewer along its
erratic patterns.  Hitchcock wanted the audience to sympathize with Marion
and in gaining their sympathy through her, he won access to their emotions.
The audience now begins to experience Marion's frustrations, guilt, fears
and impatience as though they were their own.
    Any moral resistance that the spectator may harbor concerning the theft of
the $40 000 is dispelled during the office scene.  The revulsion felt toward
Cassidy -- the drunken, crude and very rich father, provides for the
minimization of opposition.  The audience continues to identify with Marion
and they drift with her somewhat helplessly.  This neurotic journey lasts
for the first forty minutes of the film.  Hitchcock establishes a maximum of
viewer participation, continuing the involvement with her by employing
subjective techniques, the way in which every character is portrayed through
Marion's eyes.  The tension that she feels transcends the viewer through her
stream of consciousness, achieved through imaginative voice overs; and the
progressively tight framing of her face. The viewer 'sees' the blinding
light of headlights that force her to pull over to rest, and they also 'see'
the close up of the state policeman staring through her car window in the
morning.  Rothman described this as, "a memorable realization of everyone's
paranoid fantasy of being scrutinized by the cold eyes of the Law"  (Rothman
262 ).
   Hitchcock intends the audience comfort by slowly introducing the concept of
continuity between normal and abnormal in this picture.  He establishes a
clear sense of normality in Marion, and slowly transcends into the depths of
abnormality with his introduction of Norman Bates.  With clever dialogue
delivery and subtle uses of camera setup or movements, Hitchcock guided his
audience into a shift of sympathies from Marion to Norman.  The continuity
that runs between them can be best explained in their first meeting.  This
scene encompasses a mirrored 'frame within frame' technique.  From Marion's
reflection in the mirror on the screen, we see the subtle emergence of
Norman, almost as though he were a part of or at least comparable to Marion.
The audiences initial perception of Norman, is enhanced through dialogue,
and is one of a likable manner.  The viewer is compelled towards Norman
despite his estrangement that seems due to his circumstances.  They pity his
situation of devotion and self sacrifice for his mother.
    In the notorious shower scene, Hitchcock used the identification of the
screen with the shower curtain in such a way as to evoke a sense of the
viewers private world.  To establish this as an invasion of their privacy,
was something that could affect them and their responses.  Besides the
clever subjective shot of the shower head and cascading water, in which the
viewer would begin to feel a sense of cleansing along with Marion, the
spectator is no longer invited to identify with Marion in this way.  Instead
they see through the eyes of the intruder making them an involuntary part in
her slaughter.  The audience, though shocked, needs a new focus for their
participation.  Norman here after becomes that focus and they begin to
identify with his intolerable situation.  Robin Wood's essay said that the
audience, "have been carefully prepared for this shift in sympathies.  For
one thing, Norman is an intensely sympathetic character, sensitive,
vulnerable . . . That he is unbalanced merely serves to evoke . . .
protective instincts:  he is also so helpless"  (Wood 3).  This
identification with Norman is intensified with the use of Hitchcock
subjective shots -- the audiences' hands become those that are mopping up
the blood.  Hitchcock said that, "Now the bathtub scene was an emotional
putting together of film . . . an expression of extreme violence."
(Hitchcock, 289).  In this statement he introduces the concept of emotion
response to his style.
    From this point Hitchcock encourages his audience to use the other
characters of Sam, Lila, and Arbogast, as instruments in a search.  He made
it easy in their lack of detailed individual existence within the plot, and
plunges the audience into an investigation for the truth even though they
have been involved in the horrors that occurred with their identification to
Norman.  Hitchcock's audiences, who are lulled into a false sense of
complacency about Norman, are confused by the declaration that his mother is
dead.  To play upon this confusion,  Hitchcock, in piecing together and
positioning precisely a montage sequence, the audience  is presented with a
second horrifying murder.   Hitchcock said that the, "juxtaposition of
pieces of film . . . create emotion"  (Hitchcock 289).  He illustrated this
theory during the next scene.  The detective, Arbogast walks into the Bates'
house, where Hitchcock alternates the shots of Arbogast ascending the
staircase with a subjective view from Arbogast.  In doing this, Hitchcock
provides the viewer with a reason for their union.  During the murder event
the camera angle was extremely high producing images of a woman dashing at
Arbogast with a knife.  The audience fears for him, they have seen through
his eyes.  Hitchcock immediately switched this fear to exhilaration and
blood thirsty excitement by cutting to a subjective view of the attacker.
This shot was a close up view of Arbogast's bleeding head, whose surprise
was expressed by the size of the image.  The shock to the audience was
portrayed by the juxtapositions of the shots from a high angled long shot,
an eye-level close up.  Following the event of the final stabbing, Hitchcock
satisfies the itch that he created in his audience and reveals the secret of
    During the final scenes, the audience is led into Norman's private world
through Lila's investigation of the Bates' house.  Hitchcock uses masked
shots, that gives the spectator a peephole in which to view the images.  The
effects pertain to a final reminder of the viewer's association with Norman.
In the audience are all the characters of Psycho due to the identifications
the film evokes.  Wood declared that:
We have been led to accept Norman Bates as a potential extension of
ourselves.  That we will carry within us somewhere every human potentiality,
for good or evil, so that we all share in a common guilt, may be,
intellectually, a truism:  the greatness of Psycho lies in its ability, not
merely to tell us this, but to make us experience it  (Wood 4).
    Alfred Hitchcock was a director who was meticulous in the amounts of detail
in every sequence.  It was for this reason that his scene were often intense
and violent and this enabled him to maintain the fast pace of his films.
His carefully thought out storyboarding and eventual production of Psycho,
enabled his audience to see the dark potentialities that exists for them
all, he gave them a view of eternal damnation.  However in producing these
effects cinematically or visually he provided a release for them all;
Hitchcock set them free from the intolerable finality of damnation.  It is
interesting to note that while Hitchcock had the cinematic freedom to
produce a movie where sympathetic characters pay a fearful price, he was
still under the 'knife' of the big studio producers and censors.  Asked why
he did not shoot this movie in color (as was then available), he replied,
"The reason I didn't do Psycho in color was because of the blood.  That was
the only reason.  With all the blood in that bathtub, I knew very well I'd
have had the whole sequence cut out - if it had been filmed in color"
(Hitchcock 311).


Hitchcock, Alfred. Hitchcock on Hitchcock. Selected Writings and Interviews. Ed. Sidney Gottlieb. C.A: University of California Press, 1995.

Rothman, William. Hitchcock - The Murderous Gaze. London, England: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Wood, Robin. Psycho. Netscape. Internet. 03/15/96. Available:

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