Alfred Hitchcock’s classic “Psycho” features a definite turning point. In the first instance the famous shower scene has a powerful and profound effect on the viewer through its content: the director’s skilful use of editing, lighting and soundtrack are unsettling and contribute substantially to the power of the scene. Moreover, through manipulating our expectations of narrative this particular scene plays a vital part in our experience of the film as a whole.
The scene itself is deceptively simple. Marion Crane, having stolen $40, 000 from her employer has seen the error of her ways and takes a shower in a remote motel room before returning to accept the consequences of her actions in the morning. The viewer is then shocked when Marion, our main point of identification, is sadistically struck down in barely a few minutes of vicious brutality leaving the viewer unsure of the direction the film will now take.
Hitchcock’s deft manipulation of the viewer when setting up the scene is instrumental to its success. As Marion prepares to shower her innocence is highlighted through the light that bathes her – a powerful visual symbol in a film that makes so much of light and shadow. The mundane preparations are carried out before the viewer, lulling us into a false sense of normality as we identify further with Marion through a point of view shot that places us in the shower itself with the water cascading over us. When we become aware of a dark shadow through the shower curtain a great deal of suspense is created – the shadow moving closer on an unsuspecting Marion only to be revealed as the curtain is sharply pulled back.
In addition, during the actual murder, Hitchcock employs effective techniques that build up suspense and highlight the importance of this scene. The motif of light and dark is used again during the murder – while the bathroom is white and brightly lit, the killer’s face is almost completely obscured by shadow, a visual reminder of the parts of ourselves that remain obscured from public view that is so central to the film. This revelation is accompanied by the opening of Bernard Hermann’s jarring and violent non-diegetic string score which slashes and stabs in time with the knife, which heightens the intensity of the scene. The first time we see the knife, it is highlighted and threatening in a close up shot, which is closely followed by an extreme close up of Marion’s helpless screaming mouth. What follows this is around 70 shots that completely terrify and disorientate the viewer as quick cutting in the editing mirrors the movement of the knife, forming a horrific and hypnotic collage of metal and flesh while the sickening diegetic sound of the knife joins the music. As the extreme close up of bloody water running down the plug hole symbolises the life draining from who we presumed to be the main character and this is followed by a dissolves into an extreme close up of Marion’s lifeless eye we are left in no doubt that this scene has represented a turning point so shocking and unexpected that, barely a third into the film, we are unsure where the director will take us next.
This scene is incredibly important to the film as a whole. When we initially watch the film, we are led to believe that we will be following Marion because at the very opening of the film we see a cityscape and through a series of dissolves and zooms, our first point of focus is Marion. Of all the people in the city it is her that our attention has been focused on. Marion is instantly made appealing to the viewer because we see her bathed in light and dressed in white underwear, both of which emphasise her innocent nature. We are made to sympathise with the difficulty of her romantic situation straight away and this sympathy is something that Hitchcock plays