In his article “The Moment of Psycho (2007),” David Thomson talks about the importance of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (Paramount, 1960) in the history of cinema. Psycho is probably one of the most widely recognized films in America and possibly the world. Its music and famous shower murder scene have been alluded to or parodied in some way or another. Thomson mentions that Psycho came at a time when the Golden Age was over in Hollywood (Thomson 4). Box offices were below $1 billion, “a figure it held in the early 1940s” (4). “The average number of “weekly attendance at the movies…fell to 35 million from 82 million in 1946” (4). Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was very profitable at the time because it held an audience at a time when the studios were losing them with the typical, shall we call them “safe-bet” classic films. In addition to this, Psycho dared to cross boundaries in taking ideas of voyeurism and the uncanny to new terrifying heights through a mentally disturbed character. In the film’s concluding scene with the character Norman Bates, Hitchcock’s use of widescreen shots, somewhat low-key lighting, a long take, close ups, a track in and dissolve all create terror for the film’s audience.
This scene begins after the doctor explains that Norman Bates’ crimes were for “passion not for profit” and an officer walks in and says that Bates wants a blanket because he is chilly. A theme is evident here with doors and windows, especially from when the murder takes place. Through the shower curtain, a door opens and the figure emerges and the crime is committed. We can look at the significance of doors in both voyeurism and the uncanny. In voyeurism, it is through peep holes, key holes, cracks, windows, etc. that people can spy on one another. At the same time during the shower, mother emerges. Mother is a psychological personality who Norman summons when he feels she is angry. Inevitably, the peep-hole incident which leads to the shower scene is figuratively a doorway through which the madwoman surfaces. When the officer opens the door when the doctor is talking to detectives and Marion’s sister, we are going to be led back to Norman’s disturbed psyche. The officer walks in, filmed at a medium shot, in near low-key lighting, there is a Noir effect also because we see distinct angles. About half the shot is the wall with pictures on it, and the cop emerging out of the door creates vertical shadows. When the camera cuts to the doctor and the detectives in a medium long shot, dimly lit it then cuts back to the officer who shuts the door and will head down the hall to bring Norman his blanket.
As the officer walks down the hallway of doors, the camera simultaneously tracks in and closes up from medium long to medium. At this point, there is no music so the suspense is all from the lack of sound creating it ourselves as we move closer to the murderer, who has now completely gone insane and taken the persona of Mother. When the officer arrives to the door, another officer is there with keys and he has to unlock the door to give the officer with the blanket access to Norman. The uncanny is explored here because we are about to hear from mother at this point but, it also messes with our own minds because our morbid curiosity wants to know what is going on inside that room or more specifically, what is going on inside his head. The track in toward the doorway can be viewed as a deeper journey into the psyche.
When the officer goes inside the room, we are just shown the other officer, keeping watch at the door and we hear the words “Thank You” in mother’s voice. The officer is looking into the room and out of the room, he does this three times. One of those times is when thank you is being heard by us, but whether or not it’s being heard by him is a mystery. After this point, we transition with a cut into the room, eerie music begins and mother is already starting to speak her thoughts as she has now completely taken the place of Norman. The lighting is fairly bright, as there is not much shadow because mother has come to the surface and there is no more inner conflict. There is one window next to Norman but it is just empty space, the camera zooms in and we are shown different expressions of Norman. He looks very non-threatening at first, ridiculous even. He sits there, making faces that someone looking in a mirror, or waiting at the doctor’s office would make. Until….when we get an extreme close up of Norman’s hand with the fly on it. Mother tries to clear her name because she won’t swat the fly and they will say “why she wouldn’t even harm a fly.” At this point, Norman’s eyes are pointing up looking at the camera and he has a very sinister grin. A dissolve happens where Norman’s face overlaps with the face of mother’s corpse, revealing the doppelganger—his ghastly double.
This scene was terrifying because it transitions from a point of view that’s benign to something truly horrifying. We are the voyeurs he is grinning at because he knows someone’s watching when he says “they’ll see.” It is no surprise that this film has left a huge mark on film because it plays with the possibilities of film and is almost self-reflexive in that way. Aside from Freudian studies of the uncanny and the doppelganger, someone could do several analyses of this rich film.