Over half a century on, Psycho is a tremendous inspiration to low budget filmmakers, as Hitchcock shot the film on a shoestring budget of under a million dollars. Admittedly, to generate the marketing and awareness of the film at the time, studios today would have to spend blockbuster budgets.
Because many “B” movies did well commercially back then, Hitchcock wanted to see if he could turn a solid, inexpensive film into a success. Psycho’s black and white look was not an artistic choice, as colour had long become mainstream. He just wanted to keep the cost down.
Psycho’s black and white look was not an artistic choice.
Hitchcock did everything to make the film a success, including creating hype in any way he possibly could. To keep the movie’s shock twist a secret, he bought the rights to the novel (for only $9,000), and then bought up all available copies he could lay his hands on.
In other words, he created suspense in the market, long before the movie’s release.
Master Of Suspense
Hitchcock was known as the Master of suspense. He famously explained the difference between surprise and suspense using the anecdote of two people sitting at a table, talking. When suddenly a bomb explodes, this is an example of surprise. More effective however, would be suspense: we know about the bomb before it explodes. Hitchcock taught us that not only suspense is cinematically far more powerful, the tension can also be extended for much longer.
Still, the twist in Psycho goes against this golden rule of suspense, because we don’t see Marion Crane’s death coming. It hits us as a terrible shock instead.
The twist in Psycho goes against this golden rule of suspense.
Ironically, when we watch Psycho again today, the whole first third of the film has become pure suspense … as we know she will die in the shower!
Oops. Did I just spoil something?
Breaking His Own Rules
Hitch didn’t really break his suspense rule in Psycho. The long travel sequence from downtown Phoenix to the Bates Motel is one long string of suspenseful moments. As the car scene in the swamp with Norman Bates will illustrate, even after the shock twist, Hitchcock stays true to his suspense mantra.
If he didn’t believe in surprise, why did Hitchcock kill off Marion Crane so suddenly?
Because Hitchcock is also a master of POV.
Removing the main character served a greater purpose. Now he could mess with another golden principle of cinema: the single POV.
This brings us to the scene in question, which is not the shower scene.
Removing the main character served a greater purpose.
Playing With POV
Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is schizophrenic, and indirectly Hitchcock creates a cinematic experience that emulates this condition for the audience, by placing us in his POV.
First we identify with Marion Crane, but once she is gone, there is only one character left — her murderer. Is it possible to immediately shift our POV to the antagonist, and even empathise with him?
You Are A Psycho
Most viewers will admit after seeing Psycho that – at least for a short while – they moved their empathy from the victim to the killer. “Hold on,” I hear you say, “we don’t ever root for Norman Bates!” Really? Well check out this scene…
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Norman has just murdered Marion, and has to get rid of the body. He puts it in the trunk of the car, and drives it into a swamp.
Agonizingly slowly, we witness how the car sinks … suspense … it gets stuck! We are squarely in Norman Bates’ POV.
The shiny white roof remains visible above the mud. Norman panics – and so do we … with him.
We are squarely in Norman Bates’ POV.
We hold our breath — until the car finally disappears into the black bog.
Download the Psycho screenplay here: Psycho – Screenplay by Joseph Stefano
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.