How does Hitchcock create suspense and tension in the film "Psycho?"
Kamran Hussain 10MF 07/05/2007
How does Hitchcock create suspense
and tension in the film “Psycho?”
Alfred Hitchcock’s fantastic thriller “Psycho” was made in 1959 and was released in 1960. Horror movies were very popular in those days. Alfred Hitchcock bought the rights to Psycho, he then sent his assistants out to bookstalls to buy up as many copies of the book as they could. Hitchcock wanted Psycho to avoid the ending being common knowledge. This also made more people come and watch the movie in the cinemas, which would’ve increase the rate of the movie and money. Alfred Hitchcock creates tension and suspense by lighting, music, camera angles and shots and also by the clever use of limited dialogue.
Throughout this essay, the different techniques Hitchcock used to create tension and suspense will be examined. Hitchcock used several techniques to promote Psycho. An example of one of these would be the publicity of the poster. The poster made the audience think opposite to what the film was really about, this was what exactly Hitchcock wanted. However, Hitchcock wanted the ending of the film to stay a secret. Hitchcock insisted that no one would be allowed into the cinema once the film had started. This led to huge queues and lots of publicity. The actors were made to swear an oath of secrecy when filming. This was because he wanted to direct a film that would be new to the audience and create suspense and tension. The publicity of the poster makes the audience think that Psycho would be to do with relationship and an adult sexual film. The poster shows Janet Leigh, a young famous actress in her underwear named Marion in the film.
The first scene I will be concentrating on will be the “Parlour Scene”. The parlour scene has Norman talking to Janet Leigh’s character. In this scene they both talk about Norman’s mother. The scene uses five main techniques, which are “lighting, music, camera angles and shots and also dialogues”.
Lighting is a very important technique, because Hitchcock uses darkness and shadows a lot to hide details. This makes the audience uncomfortable. However, there are also a few untypical scenes that are very brightly lit. In the shower scene a shower curtain is used to hide the attacker’s details. The audience will be very tense because you do not know whom the attacker is. Hitchcock used the shower curtains deliberately for two reasons, firstly to obscure the view of when the attacker approaches the shower and secondly, to evoke a sense of the private world. Therefore the shower curtain allows for dramatic irony, which is a powerful tool in creating suspense, as it allows the audience to see the figure behind the shower before Marion does. Therefore, we are alerted of danger. However in the shower scene there is no dialogue, this is because it creates more tension and builds up the atmosphere giving it a dramatic effect. When the attacker kills Marion he/she walks off while Marion lay dead on the floor. While a knife was stabbing Marion, there were over 70 angle shots to give you an overall view of the scene. The close up of Marion’s eye created an image, which in my opinion was very effective. Marion’s dead body lies on the bathroom floor with her head brightly lit, this emphasises horror and shows that she is dead. Often when the characters are alone and afraid the lights are dim. In the opening dialogue between Norman and Marian, Norman shows her to her room. She is the only guest staying at Bates Motel so he puts her in room number 1 the closest room to him. Norman underlines how isolated the motel is by saying that no one ever comes to the motel anymore.
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The house behind the motel is big, old and frightening. It is appropriate to the genre as it creates an element of tension its not somewhere you would want to go. When Marian is unpacking in her room she overhears a conversation between Norman and his mother. Norman’s mother is shouting at him because she doesn’t want him seeing young women, as her son might be lead astray. This makes the audience feel sympathy towards him, his mother treats him like a child and he is still worried she will tell him off he is scared of her.
In the parlour scene Norman is having a conversation with Marian. The purpose of the extended dialogue between the two central characters is to get to know them better particularly Norman Bates. Within the dialogue there are hints about what is going to happen later. Its starts to reveal a more sinister threatening side to Norman. When Norman talks of his mother the angle of the camera focuses the audience on one of the birds connecting Norman with murder and death. The lighting of this scene creates a very good atmosphere. When Marian is talking there is an oval frame on the wall behind her head. This shows that her personality is very easy to understand. Beside Norman there are big birds, which give us a big shadow beside it. The camera also gives us a shot on the big black house. This makes it spooky. The big house has only two lights on and the rest is dark. This creates tension and suspense making it spooky. When they both are talking, suddenly Norman leans in front; half of his face is lit in light and the other side in dark. This shows us his two split personalities. It creates more tension because the audience want to know why his face all ways splits up in different lighting, creating more tension. On the poster Normans face is again lit in two personalities. Marians face is brightly lit; she has no split personalities.
Hitchcock also used music to create tension. An example of this is during the shower scene. The music starts off slow and steady but as Marion draws closer to death the speed of the music gets faster and faster. When the attacker approaches the music changes and grows a higher pitch therefore, when he starts attacking Marion short and loud shrikes were used to build up the tension of the audience. The attacker used short stabs, which are repetitive; this also made the audience feel the pain and horror that Marion is going through. After the death the music stops and all you could hear is the running water. The long close ups and bright lighting signifies to the audience what just happened. Hitchcock used music to increase the tension to the audience. Therefore, the music being slow and steady creates a sinister feeling towards the audience. The music gets very sinister when Marian starts talking about sending his mum to a mad house. Norman gets upset as he cares for his mother and keeps going on about her such as, how important she is to him. The music at this point changes as he is disappointed and Marion has said something that she shouldn’t have. The music slows down but still on a high pitch creating more tension and building up atmosphere that indicates the audience something is going to happen. When he starts talking about killing his mum the music still is slow but has a high pitched tone, this is where the audience get a feeling of fright as the tone changes. The music is high pitched, which means danger. When it is low pitched, it indicates that something bad is going to happen or is just beginning to happen.
Hitchcock used a variety of camera shots and angles to create many effects. An example of this is during the Parlour scene. It gives us a close up of money, when Marion is putting her stolen notes in the newspaper. Hitchcock gives us a close up of the money in the newspaper because this creates tension, and gets us suspicious not knowing what actually happens with the money. There is 40 thousand pounds in the newspaper. We are reminded that Marian has not put the money in the bank and has run away with it. The camera gives us a close up of the big birds in the office. This shows us that something is wrong, nothing is right. A particular effective camera angle is when Norman leans forward and the camera is below his chin and this makes him look strong in front of the audience. As they talk of the mad house the camera works to convey tension by focusing up close on the two central characters, the camera cuts from one face to the next. When the camera is focused on Norman’s face his eyes stare intensely and become threatening this makes Marion feel uncomfortable and nervous around Norman. When the camera focuses on Norman’s eye it is just still staring all you see is a little beam of light from the room shinning onto it. The camera shows us Norman’s face and beside that there is a square frame. Square frames fit in to Norman’s personality because he is difficult to understand. The camera shows us Marian and beside her is an oval frame and that fits in to her personality because she is easy to understand, rounded is symbolic of gentle, soft personality. This adds to the general sense of unease and tension, which runs through the scene. The camera gives us a subjective viewpoint when she looks down at Norman, and when he looks up at Marion. The camera gives us a close up of the book because when talking to Norman, Marion says Crain is her name, but in the book she has signed in a different name/person. This signifies that she is hiding her identity so no one knows that actually she did come to the motel.
Another example of Hitchcock using variety of camera shots and angles would be in the shower scene. The shower scene can be broken down into many different frames to help with the interpretation of this part of the film. When Marion is undressing Hitchcock uses long editing to prolong this sequence. This heightens tensions as we have already seen Mr. Bates look through the peephole at her undressing. The longer we wait the tenser we get. When Marion enters the shower the camera focuses on her washing. She is vulnerable because she is naked and has no means of escape in this isolated motel. The camera spends a long time focusing on her washing. While in the shower the camera shot over 70 different angles to give you an overall view of what just happened. In addition we also see Marion’s point of view shot looking at a silhouette of the killer whilst he is stabbing her. This manipulates the audience a great deal because the audience feel hurt. The pain of Marion is being reflected to the audience’s pain this makes the scene horrific. This indicates to the audience that something is going to happen. Hitchcock sets up clues for example camera shots for each thing happening in the film however; the audience are notified before the actual character finds out. Marion was killed in the shower scene, as Marian reaches for the shower curtain for support in helping her up but however Marion is not stable and falls to the ground with the shower curtain rapped around her. This again shows a sense of the private world as she is not showing any part of her body to the audience. However Marion lay dead on the bathroom floor, here the audience feel helpless. It took the attacker 45 seconds to kill Marion. After the murder there are two important close-up shots, which serve to emphasis the severity of what just happened. One of the shots was a close up of where Marion is lying dead in the bathtub. This shot is a sinister one that manipulates the audience. Marion's open eye is very sinister to the audience as the audience have identified her with feel and now have become apart of her. When the headshot took place the audience were in shock as they thought that Marion is the main character. This is what Hitchcock wanted, the audience to be shock in who is the main characters. Another close up shot would be Marion’s blood running down the plug. This shot symbolises the fact that Marian‘s life has just been wasted. This increases the heart rate of the audience and brings a shock of what had just happened. Both of these close-up shots increase our feeling of shock about what we have just seen. The close-up shots serve to slow down the action after the frenzied attack that we have just witnessed. They allow us to focus on what has just happened – the film’s main character, a famous actress, has just been murdered. This is untypical of the genre. The long close-up allows us to absorb Marian’s death.
Finally Hitchcock also used dialogue to create tension and suspense. Norman is talking about his mum. He says, “Sometimes when my mum gets on my nerves I fell like killing her.” This puts Marion in a very frighting position because he says he feels to murder someone. But the audience doesn’t know that Norman Bates mother is already dead. He also says, “I couldn’t leave her because the fire will go out and it will be cold at the grave.” He is comparing the room as a graveyard, making the audience scared and putting us in more tension and suspense. He says this because she is already dead and he is comparing things. Marion says to Norman “Why not leave her in a mad house.” The only reason why Marian says this is because she wants to help him out with his problem. Norman gets upset for Marion saying this. Norman rises and has a serious look on his face; here the music begins to play. Norman replies, “Everyone says that, but I can not do that.” Marion says, “Why don’t you go on holiday for a little while.” Norman says, “What like you.” He says that because she has run away and he is being sympathetic. This quote draws attention to Marion’s own difficulty. He compares his mother like a stuff bird. He says all these things because he is keeping the mother alive. It also shows the audience that his mother is not alive. This makes Norman very strange and unnatural because she’s like stuffed birds, he talks very strange, making the audience tense and suspicious. He also says that “My mum’s boyfriend died and the way he died was horrible.” This tells the audience that Norman’s father is dead and his mum had a boyfriend. Making it creepier because the audience doesn’t know that Norman has killed his mum’s boyfriend. Norman killed him because he could not stand anyone in his father’s position. This tells the audience that he was very close with his father and that he loved him a lot. However in the shower scene Hitchcock decided not to have a dialogue. This is because it creates more tension. Norman at the end of the attack scene says, “Mother, mother. O God! Blood, blood!” this suggest that Mrs. Bates is the attacker.
The discovery of Mrs. Bates was the main scene as it reveals the actual killer. Marion’s sister Lila and Marian’s boyfriend Sam both go as husband and wife to the Bates Motel. Lila sees Norman coming and hides at a side. She hides on the stairs and sees a door. A subjective camera shot of door shows us what Lila is thinking? Lila enters the creepy house while her boyfriend Sam tries to distract Norman. The music builds up giving the audience a fright of fear. Lila tries making her way out the house but Norman has got suspicious and makes his way up to his house. Lila hides under the staircase not getting a chance to get out the house. The audience here are tense as the music builds up in a higher pitched tone. The music slows down making the audience relax, as Lila makes here way down the staircase were she spots a door. As she enters the music starts building up starting to raise the heartbeats of the audience. Lighting in the discovery of Mrs. Bates. There is light on Lila when she enters the cellar. It is a little dark to hide details, which Hitchcock uses to promote horror to make it look creepier. As Lila sees Mrs. Bates skeleton face she is shocked and swings back. The swinging light illustrates the face of the skeleton and makes it appear to be animated and almost laughing or smiling. This creates suspense and tension because the eyes show the audience the face and emphasises how long it has been since she is dead. This is how Hitchcock creates suspense and tension in this scene. Norman comes in with a knife dressed up like his mum and tried killing Lila. At this point the audience will be in shock not knowing who the killer is dressed up like Mrs. Bates. The music gets loud when the attacker pulls out his knife bringing more tension. The audience will be thinking she is not going to survive however Sam comes and saves her. Here the audience will be relieved that she is safe.
The final technique is the use of camera angles and shots. It again gives us a subjective camera angle, when Lila is looking down at the cellar. When Lila enters the cellar it has the light bulb on the top right hand corner it is a mid-shot when Lila looks at Mrs Bates (Normans mum). It gives us a close up shot of the mother, a long shot of Norman dressed up as his mother, a long shot of Norman because this is when the audience know that Norman was the one who dressed up like his mum and killed Marian and the detective. This shows that he was there when his mum’s boyfriend was dead or getting killed. It gives us a close up of the wig and the dress of Mrs Bates. This gives us a dramatic irony, which the audience know something and the characters don’t know. This gives us a dramatic irony because the audience knew that the killer was a woman.
My feeling towards the film Psycho is that Alfred Hitchcock created tension and suspense by his cleverness. To promote this film and add horror he used many techniques which are Lighting, Camera angles and shots, Music and also by dialogues. Just by using these five techniques Hitchcock has made Psycho a well known horror movie full of tension and suspense. Psycho was not only filmed incredibly well, but it had a fantastic storyline. No matter how good the directing or the acting is you need a good story line and script. ”Psycho” had this. It had good characters, irony, humour, repetitions, imagery and a great piece of music.
My opinion is that without these five techniques it wouldn’t be as good as it is. This film creates a good atmosphere for the audience because; it keeps everyone in tension and suspense. To me it’s also a mystery in who is the killer and finding out towards the end.