December 9, 2010
When a film combines tension and suspense to create a powerful and unpredictable atmosphere between itself and the film viewers, the final results can be a mixed bag. Some viewers may shrug it off proclaiming it to be another one of those movies, while other see it as an annoyance. But, when done correctly, even perfectly, the audience is at awe. Sounds unnerve, music becomes panic-stricken occurrences, and cries of pain end up being eye-shutting moments of terror. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho does so, with grace, but without any restraint. The 1960 horror classic to this day gives its audience fits, making them uncomfortable and a sense of not knowing what will happen next. It’s a testament to Hitchock’s brilliance that even in present times, a film with little gore can cause so much negative emotion.
Released in 1960 to an unaware public, Psycho at received mixed to negative reviews. But, that didn’t stop people from not going to the local theaters and waiting for hours to experience Hitchcock’s masterpiece. And because this period in America was a time of change and a movement away from traditional values, Psycho was a perfect embodiment of the changing views of many Americans.
The scene that perfectly captures the thematic issues Hitchock wanted to portray- the elements of unpredictability and suspense- to his audience is during the death of Detective Milton Arbogast. The scene begins with Arbogast, played by Martin Balsam, walking into the home of Norman Bates. He sees the stair case and looks up. It’s a medium close-up shot, until he decides to walk up. While he is climbing up, the camera changes shot to a close-up of his feet climbing the stairs. As the scene continues, we hear ominous, yet gentle music being played as the background music- a sign to things to come. The camera then goes back up, as if at the top of the stair case, it’s looking and following Arbogast as he slowly walks up the stairs. The music becomes louder, more ominous- but, again, it’s a gentle tune.
Arbogast looks back, and as though it was the perfect moment, the camera is aimed at the floor of the door closest to the top of the stair case. The door slowly opens- we see light, and what seems like the shadow of a figure waiting for the right moment. The music becomes even more ominous. The camera goes back to Aborgast, climbing the stair case once more. The camera then goes up- a ceiling view of the top of the stair case, Arbogast, and the opened door near the staircase. Arbogast finally reaches the top, and within a millisecond, the music changes to the title music- the screeching of violins that creates a bone chilling feel. The figure hastily walks out from the door with a knife in his hands. Arbogast didn’t see it coming- the figure stabs the detective, and the camera does a close-up of his face, bloodied from the cut wound received from the maniacal figure. He begins to fall down- the camera follows, but stays transfixed on the man’s face. We see shock, terror, and everything in between expressed on Arbogast’s face. He finally falls on the floor, the camera falling with him, and the figure ends his deed with multiple stabs to his body. The camera focuses on the knife- we hear cries of anguish.
The audience is petrified. And Hitchcock knows it.
Dark, sinister, and uneasy throughout, Hitchcock makes his audience go to places emotionally they don’t want to go. The atmosphere created from the very beginning creates a menacing setting. The audience knows what will happen- they just don’t know the how, the when, the where, nor the who that does the killing. Although most filmgoers state that the infamous shower scene may have been the best scene in Psycho, the unpredictability of the scene stated above gives goosebumps to those who have already seen the scene multiple times. The camera angles, the ominous music, the screeching of the violins played perfectly at the sight of the mad man- Hitchcock makes the combination of suspense, tension, and terror to perfection.