Psycho is an undisputed masterpiece, and arguably Alfred Hitchcock’s finest one at that. Its esteemed place in Hitchcock’s impressive oeuvre is due to its unprecedented subject matter, revolutionary technical achievements, and the deepest examination of his common themes, such as identity, guilt versus innocence, bondage versus freedom, and psychology. Psycho is so unparalleled because of the extraordinary way Hitchcock utilized every technical and stylistic tool at his disposal to explore these issues, thus providing startling insight into the human psyche. Hitchcock tackles the dark side of human nature in Psycho through the characterization of Norman Bates and Marion Crane, his unique visual style, and the use of mise-en-scène. This paper examines these three crucial aspects of Psycho’s successful execution while also discussing the emergence of Hitchcock’s distinct themes in these areas and throughout the entire film.
Since the audience is completely devoted to Marion, the fact that her murder occurs just after she decides to repent makes it even more disorienting. After Marion’s brutal death, the viewer desperately clings to Norman as the new hero. Actually, the transition to Norman as the protagonist is an easy one, because he is an immediately likeable, sympathetic character. When he greets Marion at the motel, he exudes a childlike innocence, which is reiterated later by his compulsive eating of candy corn. He is shy, nervous, and a bit awkward, but he is gentle and endearing, especially when he mentions the Bates Motel stationary to Marion, “in case you want to make your friends back home feel envious.” This first impression gives no indication of the madness lurking inside of him, making this the ultimate case of the distrust of appearances.
Soon after this initial meeting, an argument with his oppressive mother explains Norman’s twitchiness. Norman is very lonely, made painfully clear by his remark, “A boy’s best friend is his mother.” Norman also discusses the theme of bondage, “I think that we’re all in our private traps...” Marion suggests putting his mother in an institution, and Norman snaps. He angrily denounces the cruelty of the institutions, reverting to a trancelike state, but he calms down, uttering the film’s most famous lines, “We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you?” After Mother apparently kills Marion, Norman is horrified by what he sees in the bathroom. But, like a devoted son, he cleans up his mother’s mess, marking the most important transfer of guilt in the film. This transfer of guilt intensifies as Norman continues to conceal Marion’s death, as well as Arbogast’s. He assumes his mother’s guilt by covering the crimes up. As he watches Marion’s car sink in the swamp, he panics when it stops, causing the viewer to panic. When it sinks, the audience morbidly shares his relief.
When making his films, Hitchcock fully grasped the powerful impact of a close-up at just the right moment in the story. After Marion takes the $40,000 home with her, a close-up shows the envelope of money resting tantalizingly on her bed. This shot represents Marion’s confusion of identity and the temptation of evil. In an extreme close-up, Norman’s eye watches Marion undress through a peephole in the wall. This violation of her privacy raises questions about Norman’s trustworthiness. The shower scene consists of a series of extreme close-ups depicting Marion’s victimization, including her bare stomach, the knife, her mouth screaming, and her hand clutching at the shower wall as she dies. These close-ups, like the one of Norman’s eye, force the viewer to be a part of the action, allowing no room for escape or solace. An extreme close-up of Marion’s lifeless eye is the most upsetting in the film, reminding the audience that Marion will never gain the freedom she deserves. Near the end of the film, a close-up of Mother’s ghastly, shriveled head with hollow eyes brings the audience face-to-face, literally, with evil and insanity. These close-ups emphasize the film’s dark and sinister mood.
Like other Hitchcock films, staircases play an important role in Psycho by standing for mystery and danger. The stairs between the motel and the house symbolize a path between the normal and the insane. Actually, the motel only appears normal, so maybe the stairs represent travel between different levels of insanity, specifically in Norman’s own mind. In the house, the only normal place is the main level, but even a murder takes place there. Nothing good comes of going up or down stairs; in Psycho, stairs lead to madness. When Norman goes up to the house or upstairs to his mother’s room, it reinforces his bondage. Not quite as prominent as the staircases, Marion’s car still serves a dramatic function. Originally a symbol of freedom, Marion’s car changes into a symbol of confinement. She uses the car to escape her ordinary life and seek something better and more exciting, so of course this sin of curiosity must be punished. However, the car becomes her coffin, the ultimate trap.
Even before The Birds, Psycho displays Hitchcock’s fascination with the feathered creatures. Stuffed birds watch over Norman’s parlor, hovering menacingly despite Norman’s description of birds as “passive,” and pictures of birds line the walls of Marion’s room. In a way, birds represent the freedom so elusive to Norman and even Marion. But the stuffed birds look dangerous and keep a watchful, oppressive eye on Norman, signifying his complete helplessness. Most significantly, the extensive use of mirrors symbolizes the duality of human nature. The first mirror appears in Marion’s home after she takes the money, which indicates that she is split in two between her good and evil sides. Mirrors represent inner conflict and the struggle between good and evil, but they also serve as reminders of guilt, like when Marion’s image is reflected in various mirrors or when Norman checks the cabinet in the bathroom after cleaning up his mother’s crime. A mirror also suggests illusion and the idea that appearances cannot be trusted, such as Norman’s reflection in the window (a mirror substitute) outside the motel when he brings Marion her dinner. Certainly, Marion and Norman are not who they appear to be. For Norman, mirrors reflect his individual psychology. Since he suffers from split personalities, the mirror refers explicitly to his two halves. Due to the powerful combination of the use of costumes, settings, and props as meaningful imagery, Hitchcock’s camera style, and characterization, Psycho presents an unparalleled examination of the human mind.