How Does Hitchcock Develop Suspense in the Beginning of the film ‘Psycho’?
‘Psycho,’ the somewhat infamous film by Alfred Hitchcock was produced in 1961, a time when the American censors, The Hays Office, still dominated the film industry with their strict rules and principles. It earned its notoriety by defying the traditional cinematic convections of that time and pushing the boundaries of what could be shown in mainstream cinema. The rules implemented by The Hays Office were far stricter than they are today, and Hitchcock uses all available means to reach and go slightly beyond the set limit. Using clever and different camera angles, he implies things that are not shown. He proves that innuendoes can portray the same image and retract the same audience responses as blatant actions and pictures.
In most films, ‘good’ would triumph over ‘evil,’ and whatever side a character was on was painfully obvious. ‘Psycho’ defies this unspoken rule by not having a definite villain. ‘Mother’ was undoubtedly the killer until ‘mother’ was discovered to be a skeleton, and even when the psychiatrist tells Norman Bates’ story, who the villain was is still yet to be determined. How could Bates be the villain when he was clearly schizophrenic, and if it was his ‘mother’ side that was doing the murdering, how could he be to blame? That would mean that the villain was actually a character that wasn’t even in the film. Marion, the ‘heroine’ was supposed to be on the ‘good’ side – but immoral criminals weren’t usually the ‘goodies.’ These were all concepts that had never been previously explored in mainstream Hollywood films.
Marion, the stereotypical blonde and beautiful heroine, is killed by Norman Bates, the ‘villain’, early on in the film. This surprising scene threw the audience of the 1960’s into confusion as it was against the norm of ordinary cinema. In fact, a lot of horror films today still leave their leading ladies intact by the end of the film, e.g. “Scream.” Whether it is actually Marion or her sister, who is the heroine, can then be debatable.
Abogast, the private detective who is hired to find Marion, but more importantly, find the stolen $40,000, is also killed very soon after Marion. Once again, the audience gets surprised as it is usually the detective who solves the mystery and presents it to the audience at the end of the film. In this case however, Abogast is merely a stepping stone for Sam, Marion’s boyfriend and Lila, Marion’s sister. He does the majority of the work and leaves enough clues for Lila and Sam to continue his job.
The early deaths of the ‘main characters’ shocked the audience enough to leave them mystified and at the edge of their seats for the remainder of the film. Hitchcock had succeeded in creating suspense in his film using a new and different convention that had never been tried before.
The ‘early deaths’ concept wasn’t the only technique Hitchcock used to develop the suspense in ‘Psycho’. A more common but effective technique is also used; music. Not just any music either, but relevant music. It is general knowledge that music can psychologically influence people’s thoughts and emotions. Katrina Crosbie, author of an article called ‘Music for the Mind’ states that “music can induce altered states of consciousness.” Don Campbell, a musician says, “like meditation, yoga, biofeedback and other practices designed to unify mind and body, music with a pulse of about 60 beats per minute – including certain Baroque, New Age and ambient selections – can shift consciousness from the beta toward the alpha range, enhancing alertness and general well-being.”