I finally sat down this week and for the first time watched Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Psycho. Luckily for me, I got to see an original print of the film at my favorite theater, the historic Castro Theater in San Francisco (talk about a real Celluloid Cinema experience). Of course, with all of these factors in play, my expectations for the film were astronomical, which is something I try to avoid with films because my expectations are never met. However, that did not happen, and upon leaving the screening, I was blown away by the truly exceptional cinematic experience that I had just witnessed. The way in which Hitchcock grasps the concept of visual directing in Psycho has changed my views on the idea of telling a story in a way that immerses the audience in a film. Today, many filmmakers rely on long, sweeping shots and meaningless plot twists to make their story engaging, but Hitchcock was able to present a far more engaging story using basic filmmaking techniques. The reason that Psycho is such a great example of storytelling is because of Hitchcock’s ability to present action with static camera movement, in conjunction with an engaging, mysterious story that does not rely on its plot twist for substance.
In the early 1990’s, the independent filmmaking world exploded with a new wave of filmmakers, including Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee, and Quentin Tarantino. These filmmakers broke a lot of the “rules” of conventional filmmaking. Since this group made such amazing films, other filmmakers assumed they could make great films just by breaking the norms. However, that was not the case. The reason that these films were able to break certain rules, such as having extremely long tracking sequences, was because these new filmmakers understood when and how to use the technique. Unfortunately, those emulating the style did not, and over time, Hollywood cinema has devolved into directors attempting to show off how they can make the camera fly around a scene, rather than putting effort into understanding how these shots would serve the story. There is a reason why the rules of filmmaking existed in the first place; by following them correctly, a director can immerse the audience in the story, just as Hitchcock did in Psycho. The film is completely deprived of any of the elaborate tracking sequences prominent in today’s films. In fact, Hitchcock only subtly pans or tilts the camera to help keep characters in frame. By using this technique, he must make sure that everything he puts in front of the camera serves a purpose of telling the story, as he cannot play around with moving the camera to reveal important objects. The result of these actions makes the viewer feel as if they are in the same room as the characters on screen. In real life, when we experience a situation, we see it from a static location in a room, and we are not constantly walking around a room in an effort to examine every inch of the space. In the method used by Hitchcock, the audience assumes the point of view of the camera. This works well when coupled with the horror genre because Hitchcock is able to make the audience feel as if they are the ones about to be murdered. The full effect of this is seen towards the end of the film, when the audience finally sees Norman Bates dressed up as his mother. First, Hitchcock cuts to an empty doorway where nothing is going on, yet he lingers on the shot for several seconds in the same style someone in real life would do if they heard a noise coming from somewhere. Then, Norman comes charging through the doorway to present himself. Instead of moving into a tighter shot, Hitchcock continues to hold the shot as Norman approaches. By this point, the audience begins to feel trapped as they are forced to confront Norman head on instead of being able to move away from his line of sight through the use of cuts to a different shot. By doing this in one of the final scenes, Hitchcock makes the viewer leave the film feeling that they just did not witness a character on screen in danger, but that they themselves were at risk of being murdered.
At the time of Psycho’s release in 1960, the base story of the film was cutting-edge not only in the amount of graphic content on screen, but also in terms of story, as audiences were still not used to extreme plot twists that alter the perspective of the film. Does this mean that if the film were released today, it would be a flop because audiences would be use to the elements that set Psycho apart originally? The answer is absolutely not, because Hitchcock made sure that the story of the film would be interesting and not reliant on shock value gimmicks, which would not matter in future decades. The problem with the stories in a majority of modern films is that they depend on the final plot twist to make the story memorable, instead of just having a memorable story. In contrast, Psycho provides entertainment throughout the film by presenting the audience with small, episodic stories about each character’s visit to the hotel. During the course of these segments, Hitchcock continually adds to the mystery of Norman’s mother, but he does not make that the primary objective of each story. Instead, he makes each character’s motive relate to a large sum of money that goes missing at the beginning of the film. By doing this, Hitchcock is able to tell a story while also setting the audience up for the big reveal at the end of the film. The effect that this has on the audience is that they are engaged in the finer details of the story, instead of waiting until the payoff to come during the climax of the film.
To say that Psycho is in any way shy of a masterpiece is outright incorrect. The way in which Hitchcock is able to control the audience throughout the course of the film is extraordinary, and definitely proves why most of the successful directors today strive to replicate his style. The thing that is interesting about how Hitchcock approached Psycho is not that he used cutting edge techniques to make it different, but that he took the time to perfect simple techniques, and use their power to their fullest potential.
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