One needs to learn the rules before they can break them. This is exactly what Hitchcock did in Psycho. Already a master in the classical Hollywood style of filmmaking, Hitchcock deliberately broke many of the rules of filmmaking in Psycho to achieve a specific effect.
False starts. At the beginning of the film, Hitchcock gives us a protagonist and a conflict then gets rid of it entirely within the first third of the film. We are introduced to Marion, who steals $40,000 for her boyfriend, and then completely gets rid of both of these elements by having Marion killed and the money thrown away. The first third of the movie is a complete MacGuffin. What does Hitchcock achieve by doing this? If the protagonist, the hero of the story who we’re supposed to identify and sympathize with and who traditionally should triumph at the end, can be killed off, Hitchcock sets the tone that no one is safe.
The movie then turns into this suspenseful thriller on whether or not the killer will be caught. We are introduced to other potential protagonists (Marion’s sister Lila, private eye Arbogast) but they all run the risk of also being killed. In fact, the character with the most screen time is Norman, which is odd (for its time) because he is supposed to be the villain (or at least villain by proxy, until the reveal of his mother’s corpse towards the end).
Precedents on screen. The film is notable in that it showed many elements of a story that Hollywood directors would not show, either due to studio disapproval (Hays’ code) or its irrelevance to the story (elliptical editing). Hitchcock was already an established and major Hollywood director by the time Psycho was released so for such a major figure in film to include some of these story elements sets precedence in what can be shown in major Hollywood films.
The film starts with Marion and her boyfriend Sam in a hotel room post-coitus. It’s obvious the couple has just had sex with both of them putting their clothes back on. While the sex is still implied and seen after the fact, it’s more obvious than other films and blunt in its presentation. Hitchcock isn’t trying to hide the fact that they just had sex. This is a shift away from classical Hollywood and can be connected to the sexual revolution in 1960s America, with sex less hush-hush and more openly discussed.
While the sex is implied, there are elements to the story that the film does not skirt. For one, Hitchcock not only showed a toilet, but showed it being flushed as well. Tame by today’s American-Pie/scatalogical-humor-raised generation, a flushing toilet on screen was controversial in an era where virtually all toilets were not seen.
While the shower scene is the iconic scene in the film and one of film history’s most brilliantly executed scenes, my favorite scene in the movie is the murder scene clean-up. While most directors at the time would present to us a murder occurring in off-screen space and then omit the immediate aftermath, Hitchcock gives us both on-screen. The clean-up shows Norman methodically cleaning the murder scene in a slow sequence that almost feels like it’s shot in real time because it’s such a long scene. The scene is slow, quiet, and dark, almost peaceful seeing Norman mop the blood in the bathtub and wrap Marion’s body in the shower curtain.
We’ve dealt with death and murder in this class and even serial killers, but the heinous action done by these characters were always shown off-screen. Fritz Lang’s M presented the murder of the child entirely off-screen, showing a balloon that signals the audience that the murder has taken place. While Wilder’s Double Indemnity brings us closer to the actual killing, it still presents it off-screen. The only film that we’ve seen in class that actually shows graphic violence and dead bodies is Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931) which was released before the Hays’ Code was strictly enforced in film in 1934. Here, Hitchcock gives us both the killing and the clean-up on-screen.
Human monsters. Prior to Psycho, American horror movies (especially ones released by Universal) usually included a supernatural element to its plot. Werewolves, vampires, creatures from a black lagoon, even the more science-fiction-oriented Frankenstein’s monster, were the focus of most horror films. These monsters were staples of the American horror film.
With Psycho, we’re given a horror movie devoid of these supernatural monsters and brings us a human monster, suffering from psychosexual problems. This shift of character launches the psychological horror movie, where the malevolence of the horror takes place within ourselves (psychological) that others can’t see (hiding in plain sight) or control, rather from an outside source (supernatural) that can either be stopped (e.g. werewolves with siver bullets) or controlled (government protection in Invasion of the Body Snatchers).
The influence of Psycho’s psychological horror and its success in Hollywood on modern horror stories (and film in general) is prevalent. In this respect, the influence on Hitchcock’s film from German expressionists is prevalent as well, who were way ahead of their time as they have been dealing with these kinds of psychological issues on film 30-40 years prior to Psycho with films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and M (1931). The film is obviously influenced by German Expressionism. The film is dark in subject matter and dark literally.
Bonus. Additional screencaps that I particularly enjoyed and would be great in a “Guess the Movie” game.