Shot for Shot: Building Tension and Detailing Power Struggles through Shots and Angles in Hitchcock’s PSYCHO
13 October 2013
Undoubtedly, Psycho (1960) has gone down in American cinema as one of the greatest horror/thriller films to date, and is certainly one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most popular flicks. That said, Psycho has been so referenced, so discussed, and so analyzed, particularly the infamous shower scene, that it is nearly impossible to watch the film without pretense. Apparently it is not only movie stars that get pigeonholed; films themselves can, sadly, be pigeonholed too.
Psycho’s pigeonholing is a great disservice to the film. In popular culture, Psycho boils down to a shower scene and psychopath killer, obsessed with his mother and unable to accept her death, which he caused, who, vengefully, kills, as her, on her behalf. True, with the shower scene, many movie lovers recognizes the groundbreaking cinematic complexity, but this not the only scene in Psycho that shows Hitchcock’s prowess as filmmaker, as auteur; yet, this is one of the only scenes extracted for style. Unfortunately for “Hitch,” the shock value of Psycho’s narrative often outshines the brilliant composition of the movie.
In short, Psycho is one pivotal week in the life of a psychologically broken man. Initially, the film appears to be following Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), a bank worker who impulsively steals $40,000 cash in the wild hope of being with the man she loves, an unhappily married man who lives in the next state over. While on the run with the cash, Marion pulls over for the night at Bates Motel. The motel is owned by the Bates family, an elderly woman and her grown son, Norman, who both live in a large home overlooking the motel. Norman (Anthony Perkins), seemingly kind and tolerant of an oppressive mother, greets Marion when she arrives. Things change, though, in the night, when Mrs. Bates breaks into Marion’s room while she is in the shower and stabs her to death. Norman finds Marion in the shower and covers up the crime. But, since Marion committed her own crime just prior to her death, investigators soon begin looking for her, as does Marion’s sister, Lila (Vera Miles), and Marion’s married lover, Sam (John Gavin). Marion’s trail leads Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam), a private detective, to Bates Motel, and his insistent questions about Marion’s disappearance cause Mrs. Bates to claim another life. With Arbogast now missing, and Marion still gone, Lila and Sam make their way to Bates Motel where they, too, interrogate Norman and investigate the scene. And, as Lila makes her way down to the Bates’ home’s basement, she discovers Mrs. Bates, a dressed skeleton; Lila screams. Norman, dressed as his mother, wig and all, runs into the basement with a butcher’s knife to attack Lila; however, Sam stops him and Norman is taken away. In the film’s resolution, a psychologist informs police that Norman Bates experienced a psychological break and completely assumed his dead mother’s identity as his own. Moreover, he murdered several people, including his mother, 10 years earlier, and has murdered Marion and Arbogast as his mother.
Forgetting the shower scene for a minute, several scenes in Psycho jump out (pun intended) for their sophisticated style and clear ability to communicate subliminal messages and tone in the film. One of these scenes occurs not long after Marion’s death. When Arbogast arrives at Bates Motel he immediately bumps in to Norman, who sits just outside the motel’s office eating candy (a detail Anthony Perkins added). Analyzing the shots and framing of this scene reveals how subtly Hitchcock can create a complex cinematic moment, a moment which reveals a power struggle between these two characters and foreshadows how fatal this power struggle, inevitably, becomes.
Norman and Arbogast begin their conversation in a medium shot. In this medium shot, viewers immediately recognize Norman is considerably taller, not to mention younger, than Arbogast, which, psychically, puts Arbogast at a disadvantage. However, also evident by the medium shot, Norman holds a small bag of candy, a visual reminder of the simple, although dangerous, mind of Norman Bates. This is an advantage for Arbogast. The framing of this medium shot suggests viewers should not yet know who, of these two men, has power over the other. Put another way, in a horror-movie themed way, which man will survive and which will make Psycho’s body count that much higher? From the start of this scene a power struggle is established, and the struggle continually goes back and forth throughout the sequence.
This scene quickly moves inside the motel’s office, but is still a medium shot with both men in the frame. Thus, the power struggle Hitchcock established in the exterior shot will continue in this interior shot; the shot transitions the setting.
Then, Hitchcock makes a change. He continues the medium shot, but begins to cut between the two men; now the men are no longer in the same frame. Norman and Arbogast’s separation in the frame builds tension because the continuous cuts between the two characters establish a faster, more anxious pace in the scene.
Moreover, Hitchcock adds a subtlety significant detail to the respective medium shots each of these characters is filmed in. First, there is a hanging mirror on the wall to Arbogast’s right side. Mirrors are incredibly important in Psycho (a prop Hitchcock uses consistently throughout, frequently to highlight duality, not always directly connected to Norman (the obvious character with deadly duality), but with almost every characters, possibly pointing out duality exists in us all.) From the angle the camera is set up, the mirror to Arbogast’s right shows Arbogast’s back; viewers see almost all of Arbogast thanks to this mirror’s placement. The suggestion here is two-fold: first, Arbogast is not hiding anything, and, second, Arbogast is vulnerable because he is completely exposed. Behind Norman Bates is his shadow, a dark, ominous figure looming the background. Although he is not standing near a mirror, duality is still present with Norman; his shadow highlights he has another part to him, and that part is dark and difficult to distinguish.
Just then, another change is made. Arbogast, completely unaware of how dangerous Norman is, continues to question Marion’s disappearance, insisting he be able to look at the motel’s registry. As he does, Hitchcock includes one of his strongest, but most unappreciated, shots in Psycho. As Arbogast flips the registry’s pages, Norman, anxiously chewing more candy, cocks his head and leans toward the book. Hitchcock films Norman’s lean in a close-up, specifically focusing on Norman’s chewing jaw and protruding jugular. All of a sudden, the power has shifted again; now Norman is exposed and vulnerable because Arbogast knows Marion signed the registry at Bates Motel.
This close-up on Norman’s jaw and throat signals the start of several, consistent close-ups Hitchcock uses as this scene continues. As Norman pulls back from his lean, Hitchcock begins to capture the subsequent conversation about Marion’s stay at Bates Motel through a methodical use of slight low and high angle close-up shots, respectively, on both characters.
First, each character is captured in a low angle close-up. They both have power here: Arbogast has the knowledge that Norman lied and Marion actually stayed at Bates Motel. Norman has power because Arbogast does not know Marion was murdered and he was involved.
Yet, when Norman recants his original denial of Marion’s stay and acknowledges she was at Bates Motel, Arbogast counters him with, “Tell me about her.” This causes a shift of angle; now, Hitchcock continues to use close-ups, but switches to subtly high angles. This switch suggests both characters lost some power; Norman now has to think on his feet and come up with a new lie, and Arbogast, unknowingly, in inching his way closer to a psychopath’s breaking point.
These close-up high angles continue until Arbogast asks Norman, outright, “Did you spend the night with [Marion]?” All of a sudden, Hitchcock switches back to low angle close-ups on these two characters, respectively. Power has just been restored to Norman. First, he can finally tell the truth; no, he did not have a sexual encounter with Marion. But, he is also empowered by his alternate personality when Arbogast poses this question. Sex is one of Norman Bates’ undoings, and when Arbogast brings up sex the protective, violent alter that lurks in Norman takes over, and this part of him is very powerful. As for Arbogast, he has the illusion of power. Put another way, he thinks he has power in this moment, although he actually does not. Arbogast thinks he is backing Norman up into a corner and that will force a confession out of him. He now has Norman talking, and that is exactly what he wanted.
Hitchcock switches the angle a fourth time during this conversational scene. When Norman starts to tell Arbogast about the parlor, the backroom of the office where he and Marion shared dinner the night she arrived at Bates Motel, the angles revert back to high. Both characters lose power here. Again, Norman has accidentally revealed a truth about the night Marion died, causing a loss of power, but Arbogast misinterprets part of what Norman says, which is his loss of power. Norman mentions he and Marion dined “back there,” and the vagueness of that phrase causes Arbogast to question it, and leads him to assumptions that are inaccurate.
The final shift is a return to low angle close-ups, and that is when Arbogast tells Norman that his story “does not gel.” Arbogast asserts power here because he calls Norman out on the obvious lies about Marion he is spinning. However, Norman has power here too. Clearly, Arbogast, in telling Norman his story doesn’t fit together, reveals himself as an undeniable threat to Norman. Norman gains power here because he knows his mother will kill Arbogast.
Lastly, Hitchcock returns to a medium shot in which both characters are captured within the same frame. This return to how the scene began signals that the moment is over, it has been bookended. This, roughly, six minute scene of cutting from one close-up to another began at some distance, then isolated the two players, next closed in one both, which detailed a power struggle existing between these two characters, but ultimately recuperated.
In conclusion, this masterful and often overlooked scene clearly demonstrates Hitchcock’s, perhaps, unmatched ability to communicate his objective through subtly visual cues. For example, in this scene, Hitchcock needed to communicate a tense power struggle between these two men, who both know more than they are revealing, yet neither knows enough about the circumstances of Marion’s death to understand it. The anxiety needed to build and this particular scene needed to set up Arbogast’s death, which comes shortly after. It is not the content of the scene Hitchcock uses to build this tension, communicate the power struggle, and create anxiety; the construct of the scene does all this, as it does in the entire film. It is a shame Psycho’s popularity often overlooks its noteworthy cinematic composition, but it is necessary to remember that its cinematic composition, not its shocking showers, toilets, and skeletons, is what make this film a true masterpiece.