Everyone is familiar with the famous shower stabbing scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 thriller, Psycho, with its screaming score and gooey fake blood. So, is the whole film as memorable as that iconic scene? What’s the story behind this cinematic snapshot?
The film starts by introducing the steamy affair between Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and her lover, Sam, who cannot yet marry her because of his debts. When entrusted with a considerable amount of cash that she must deposit for a client at work, Marion instead makes the impulsive choice to take the money and run. She finds herself in Sam’s hometown at the Bates Motel. Awkward and lonely Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), the hotel’s owner, immediately befriends Marion and talks to her about his life at the hotel with his invalid mother. But Marion is in for a surprise during her one night stay, and finds herself wrapped up in a fatal mystery.
The film is a mystery and a thriller that toys with uncomfortable and taboo subjects while also playing with the audience’s anxiety. Hitchcock taps into suspense and anxiety by focusing on the story rather than characters. While some of the characters, namely Norman Bates, are quite intriguing, others prove to be (spoiler alter) quite disposable. The audience isn’t prompted to emotionally connect with characters, but rather to observe the story as it unfolds. And in that way, Hitchcock archives his purpose with the film: to entertain through suspense.
While the main focus of the film is that emotional effect, Hitchcock also focuses on technical aspects to achieve that effect. He makes good use of voice-overs to mimic the endless chorus of voices we often hear in our heads when we are faced with guilt or a tough decision. The choice to have the film in black and white enhances a dense of desolation and isolation, which is important in making people feel afraid. The music is also excellently timed; it clues the audience in on the flow of the story and guides their emotions. In that shower scene, for example, when the woman first gets in the shower, there is no music at all, reflecting through sound the feeling of holding one’s breath and waiting for something big.
The type of conflict within the film changes depending on where you are in the movie and how much you know. But overall, I would say that the conflict is man vs. the unknown. Since the film is a mystery, the audience is directly involved in the conflict because they don’t know what is going to happen. Even at the end, when all is revealed, the answer to the mystery is a frightening reality about the human mental condition that doctors and psychiatrists did not fully understand in 1960. In other words, the characters are still dealing with the unknown when the mystery is revealed.
The film’s strongest point is the story and the careful timing of revealing information, both to the audience and to the characters. While outdated special effects may seem like a weak point today, the film still effectively taps into fear with its subject matter. It succeeded in haunting me and holding my attention as I waited to find out what was really happening. It was obvious that careful planning went into this film, so as always, I appreciated it simply for the fact that it is well made. But I was also entertained, concluding that the film is just as memorable as its most famous scene.