Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Psycho

Oh Hitch you old devil. Everywhere I turn these days I seem to be bombarded with something Hitchcockian! At work--The Hartford Stage--we're currently beginning previews of our production of The 39 Steps. Our lobby is decked out with posters of his films. Then Nathaniel R over at The Film Experience announced that the 'Hit Me With Your Best Shot' this week would be for Psycho and I felt that the stars had aligned.  Not to mention I just last week watched Frenzy on Netflix!

I wish every week could be unofficially dedicated to such a wonderful filmmaker. Maybe we'll have Jane Campion month soon!

Psycho is a complete masterclass in film-making. I had compiled over 40 frames of 36 different shots from the film that I absolutely loved. Cutting those down to a select few proved quite difficult, and when I had finished I noticed something peculiar: my favorite shot is part of a distinct technique Hitchcock uses throughout the film to manipulate the audience. In all of his films Hitchcock uses the camera and its placement and framing of people and objects to unsettle the audience when need be. Hitch created the language which contemporary horror has raped.  The quick cuts to pump up the blood pressure, the way things seem just slightly off in the frame, the use of Bernard Herrman's score, etc. All of that is so prevalent in contemporary horror and amplified to levels that are usually laughable. So how come even though these features have become so familiar are they still so effective in Hitch's films?!

It's because the way Hitchcock uses them.  Take my favorite shot, for example:

It's my favorite shot because of how effective it is at startling the audience! This shot is used right after the policeman raps on Marion's car window and wakes her up.  Marion is visibly scared and it cuts to this ugly mug and we immediately know why she gasped so audibly. This guy is absolutely horrifying. The dark sunglasses that make his face look like a skull with empty eye sockets, the clean and pale face, and the dead expression all create a sense of dread that would not have been nearly effective with a regular beat cop. If Hitch had used an average Joe Po (which he never would have done) those following scenes where he is following her to the car dealership wouldn't have been half as effective. With this face in viewer's minds he's already given them ample reason to be scared.

Hitchcock does this in many other ways.  Usually during a moment where an average film-maker would've used an over-the-shoulder shot is where Hitch uses a creative and odd shot to leave the viewer unsettled:
A smiling and charming Norman with a SCARY FUCKING BIRD.  Also, Anthony Perkins is SO adorable in this that weird?
Look at that nefarious smile and that close-up as she stares directly at the camera!
Shocked Lila and a concerned Sheriff's wife.  The way Lila is so close and the Sheriff talks at her so intensely!
This shot where Norman leans over the guest book is so odd, and leaves the viewer at such a scary place!

It's all so effective, and all so brilliant at creating a sense of dread without having to resort to creaking doors, cheap jumps, and the beautiful Herrman score.

Some of my other favorite shots:
I love how this shot starts here...

...and ends here with the skull superimposed onto Norman's face!


  1. Ooh, I'd love to read your take on The Piano. I ♥ Sam Neill!

  2. This is a great selection, and one I'd never have thought of. You're right about it though; that cop is a really menacing presence, and that particular shot is a great piece of forshadowing to the skull imagery that will appear later on in the film