Imagery in Psycho
The Alfred Hitchcock classic Psycho broke box-office records when first introduced in 1960. Hitchcock’s cinematography involving the skillful use of black and white film enabled him to effectively play with shadows and silhouettes. These devices are used throughout this movie to influence and manipulate the audience into various states of comfort and terror throughout the film. It is the clever use of duality in human nature and the associated environments that surround the main character that makes Psycho a true American cinema classic.
Psycho opens with an extensive view of Arizona that highlights the spacious scenic background of the city. The scene then switches to a more restricted view of Marion and Sam in their hotel room. Their room is very small and the lighting is extremely dim, perhaps matching their lives and the pending state of their relationship. This is a major contrast to the brightly lit wider view that we were first introduced to in Arizona.
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The symbolic value in these two scenes represents the distinction between openness and concealment. Outside we are unaware of what is not directly in front of us.
We are in a sense naive to our surroundings, as though we have tunnel vision. A crucial example of this is when Marion’s boss gives her money to take to the bank. Although he believes she is going to follow through with the task at hand, Marion decides to keep the money and leave town. Her focus becomes survival, at all costs. Marion’s boss represents the outside world. Normality exists in this carefree world and it as if nothing bad can occur. However, in the confined area of the hotel room there is a mysterious element that presents itself.
The audience is aware of the conflicting circumstances that prohibit Marion and Sam from getting married, but they are unaware of what is to come for the two characters. This lack of knowledge provides an uneasiness for the viewers. Marion’s underwear is another prime example of binary opposites used methodically to create suspense. As she is expressing her ethical stance on their relationship, she is shot in white undergarments. Hitchcock’s choice of white in this scene emphasizes his desire to portray Marion in an angelic light.
Chaste women are associated with lighter colored underwear, while loose woman are often connected with red or black underwear. The color white represents innocence, and in this scene Marion is perceived as the innocent woman who wants to get married to her one true love. She is trying to progress her relationship in the right direction, and her wardrobe mirroring this attitude emphasizes this “good girl” image of Marion that Hitchcock wished to exude. In contrast, after she steals 40,000 from her boss, she is later shown in black under garments.
Due to debts from his father and divorce, Sam does not have enough money to marry Marion. She decides to take matters into her own hands, and ends up completely shattering this good girl image that she previously emanated. This underlying theme of good versus evil within the choice of color in wardrobe, coupled with Marion’s actions, reiterates the psychological aspects that our emotions, if left unchecked, can get the best of us. When we are led by our desire, we often find ourselves in dangerous situations. Wealth versus poverty serves as another binary opposite as well.
We are introduced to a wealthy father who believes that his financial status can purchase his daughter’s contentment. He is readily willing and able to give away vast sums of money without a care in the world. He has it, so he can do whatever he pleases with it… On the contrary, Marion and Sam are not as well off. They are severely lacking in the financial department. And money, seemingly, is prohibiting them from getting married. They are desperately looking for ways to overcome their situation, but Marion finds herself reduced to thievery. The value of money is also an important concept to examine with each character.
Monetary value is not important to the father who willingly trusts an outsider with his money. He is certain that his well will not run dry. However, monetary value is extremely important to Marion. She is willing to put everything on the line for money. She acknowledges the significance of what capital can do for her and her loved one, and as a result, she risks it all. Reality versus facade is another binary opposite presented throughout the film. For many of the characters, what we see isn’t always what we get. We are introduced to Norman Bates, who on the surface appears to be a shy, young man who owns the Bates motel.
He is very kind and comforting to Marion. He even offers her food so that she doesn’t have to go out in the rain to find a meal. She felt comfortable with Norman, and he gave life to her chaotic situation. His existence brought a sense of balance to her situation. Little did she know, this man who once gave her life(bread), would be the same man taking away her life. However, this concept of reality versus facade was not a one-way relationship. Norman duped Marion into believing he was something that he was not, and vice versa. The first interaction between Marion and Norman was a lie.
Marion registered her room with a false name, and this set the tone for their relationship. Typically, lies beget more lies. Norman believed Marion was a kind woman, but his schizophrenic side that coexisted as his mother told him differently. We later learn that Norman, who is shown as a doting ‘mommas boy’, in actuality, killed his mother. This matricide provides the foundation of the duality that is spread throughout the movie. No one and nothing is as it seems to be: dark and light coexist, in spirit and in fact. Hitchcock also uses the duality of prey versus predator to build tension throughout Psycho.
As Norman approaches the Bates mansion, you can see his mother perched high atop the scene in the window on the second floor. This shot makes Norman look like the innocent prey, as his mother perches to swoop down on him. Another example is of this device is when Norman Bates spies through the peep hole at Marian who is getting undressed in the infamous Cabin no. 1. In this scene, Hitchcock shoots from an angle where Bates is parallel with other stuffed birds of prey like a vulture and a hawk, adding to the effect of Bates as a predator. Marion is innocently undressing and expects nothing as typical prey.
She is unaware of the danger that surrounds her. It is this type of duality that Hitchcock masters in this story that adds to the overall suspense and terror, which keeps the audience in a state of quiet panic and fear. An amazing use of contrast and binary opposites is also found in the scene where a private investigator, Arbogast, is looking for Marion. He leaves the Bates Motel and enters the Bates Mansion. As he enters the room, Hitchcock uses a few streams of light to light the dark room. Arbogast cast shadows across the room and along the floor.
As he walks up the steps, Hitchcock uses music as binary opposites. As the detective walks up the steps, a lighter, pleasant symphony of music is playing, with round more melodic tones. This music involves mostly brass instruments. As he walks up the steps, the music builds. At the peak of this scene, Hitchcock switched the camera angle to high and shows a dark hallway. There is a sharp contrast as the door opens and light streams out into the hallway, filling the dark space with light. Just then, the music changes dramatically to loud high-pitched, squealing, sharp notes made by violins.
The change in instrumentation and pacing is a highly effective device in building tension and creating conflicting sounds and images. Music is used to provide chaos, which matches the odd and unexpected situations that are used to layer the twisting plot. In arguably Hitchcock’s most infamous scene in Psycho, the director uses contrasts and polar opposites to heighten the suspense, while driving the storyline straight home. After Marion checks into the Bates Hotel and is assigned Cabin 1, Bates looks through a peephole and watches as she prepares for a shower.
As Marion enters the bathroom, Hitchcock had a stark white tube, toilet, wall and floor tile and a whitish translucent shower curtain. As she closes the curtain, her pale skin and blond hair almost blend into the background. There is harmonic shading. As Norman, dressed in all black, enters the bathroom, we see the immediate contrast of the intruder in all black through the translucent shower curtain. As Norman stabs Marion with the butcher knife, her blood runs down her body, the tub and finally down the drain. This dark blood is in sharp contrast to the stark whiteness of the shower floor.
This adds to the brutality of the attack. It gives it the appearance of being even more extreme, if that is possible. Hitchcock uses the sound of the knife going in and out of the flesh to add additional terror, matching sound with emotion. As the scene closes, the director gives us a close up of Marion’s eyes, with dark eyebrows and lashes that contrast the paleness of her skin. The fact that Hitchcock chose to shoot Psycho in black and white film showed that the director was trying to use this as a device to add suspense and terror in the movie.
This movie was written after Hitchcock had done North by Northwest, which used vivid colors and color technology that was then available. Instead, Hitchcock’s use of black and white provided a device to add suspense that could not be achieved in color. For example, the stuffed animals at the Bates Hotel look more sinister in black, and cast scary shadows across the screen. Additionally, lighting is used as a device to create shock. Towards the end of the movie Marion’s sister Lila enters the Bates fruit cellar looking for her sister.
In this scene she discovers the actual corpse of Norman’s mother. In the fruit cellar, the body of Norman’s dead mother is brought to life in a creative device by Hitchcock. The dead body is shown with a laughing face and eyes moving. When Lila wildly waves her hands, she continuously hits the low hanging light bulb in the cellar. This effect causes the light bulb to sway and creates a series of terrifying dancing shadows. The eyes of the corpse look realistic, but in actuality Hitchcock is skillfully using the light in the room to animate the corpse and makes them appear live.
Binary opposites played a crucial role in the development of this psychological thriller. They aided in creating a suspenseful atmosphere that not only emphasized Hitchcock’s vision, but kept viewers on the edge of their seats. By providing a clear distinction between the characters’ circumstances and the roles they played in the film, cinematic value was better expressed. Viewers were able to channel into the various thematic mechanisms that presented themselves, while simultaneously still being unaware of the actual suspense that was taking place.