Psycho, or How The Audience Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Being Misled

When an audience begins to watch a film, it is a generally safe experience: the protagonists are clear cut, the conflict is well defined, and the story has a clear resolution to be reached. The audience is put on a train track and pushed straight through. However, there are films that assault an audience’s expectations and use every tool possible to make the moviegoers doubt their own thoughts. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) utilized camera angles, lighting, acting style, and dialogue, among a multitude of other cinematic devices, to pull away the sense of security moviegoers are used to.

Firstly, the lighting. The following image is pulled from the infamous shower scene:psycho-crop-promovar-mediumlarge

The visual language of this image is quite easy to read: a woman, whose face is completely shrouded in darkness, prepares to attack an unsuspecting victim. The lighting in this shot is important for two reasons: it both adds a clear villainy to the character portrayed, as well as hides their identity. By this point in the film, the viewer is almost in their suspicion that Mrs. Bates is the murderer, mainly propelled by this shot. What Hitchcock and his team did in this was use a simple silhouette to intentionally deepen the mystery and disrupt the natural thought process. A similarly lit shot was used when the killer strikes again, this time attacking the private investigator.

Next, the camera angles. Keeping the mystery of the killer’s identity is vital to the story’s white-knuckled suspenseful tone, and Norman Bates’ relationship with his mother is at the center of that mystery. The following image is from a scene in which Norman “argues” with his mother and is forced to remove her from her room by physically carrying her: bates The high angle of this shot, in tandem with the seemingly on-screen dialogue, is yet another notch in Hitchcock’s campaign of manipulation. The viewer cannot directly see the faces (most specifically, the mouths) of the two characters depicted on screen; this is coupled with conversation between two distinct voices in an enclosed area. While after having viewing the film in its entirety, this seems like an obvious ploy, the uninformed viewer would not bat an eyelid at such a scene. The camera’s perspective is instrumental in achieving this effect.

Finally, the acting style. What misled those initial audience members in 1960, without a doubt, was the character of Norman Bates. Was this just a shy, misunderstood boy? A victim of his mother? Or the mastermind himself? Was he some combination of the three? The difficulty of pinning down his personification and reading his intentions was a majority of the tension throughout the film. What made this largely possible was the undeniable range and dynamism of actor Anthony Perkins’ acting style. The following shots are from a scene in which Norman Bates shares dinner, glares, and conversation with would-be protagonist Marion Crane, portrayed by Janet Leigh.

What is important to note about these images are changes in Bates’ visible emotion – and even more important to realize is how gradual and subtle the transition was.  What started off as pleasant and friendly ended with tension and uneasiness. Just through seemingly casual conversation, the audience is able gather bits and pieces of Norman’s tortured psyche, but is not yet able to label it evil. Here, Hitchcock is exposing viewers to the possibility that something is not quite right with Norman Bates. This sentiment is held over the head of the viewer throughout the run time, making it an even harder process to be sure who the killer was. It is an example of how the acting style can influence the perception of a given character.

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2 thoughts on “Psycho, or How The Audience Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Being Misled

  1. Chris,

    This is a very strong post on what critics often call the “epistemology of film”–that is, how we know what we know when watching a film. As you argue, Hitchcock uses various devices in Psycho to destabilize traditional filmic epistemology. We can trust neither what we see nor what we hear–the two main ways we gain information while watching a film. I like that you consider how this is working both at the level of plot (Norman’s characterization) and at the level of aesthetics, such as the lighting design and camera angles. This lends a sophisticated depth to your post.

    Very nice work here. I hope you share your ideas in class.

    MT

    Like

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