Hitchcock truly understood how to best shock, thrill and scare us. Sometimes all at once. The greatest culmination of this is the Psycho shower scene.
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When you think of Psycho it’s more than likely that your mind conjures up two images…
One is of a haunting final face of Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, twisting into his Mother’s accompanied by a sinister monologue about flies that finally confirms to us the depths of his broken psyche. The other is Janet Leigh as Marion Crane enjoying her final moments on Earth in the shower before being stabbed to death.
Hitchcock was a genius, of that there can be no argument. He truly understood what makes us tick and how to best shock, thrill and scare us. Sometimes all at once. The greatest culmination of this is the Psycho shower scene.
Dissecting the Psycho shower scene
Every frame within the scene is its own handcrafted story, each moment altering our perception of Marion and allowing us to further understand the situation that she’s gotten herself in to.
In the first seconds of the scene she disrobes to jump in the tub having made absolutely sure that the door is indeed closed, currently only mildly afraid that the gawky Norman might decide to sneak a peek knowing her plans to shower.
At first there is nothing to hint at the harm to come. Behind her the walls are plain white, a signifier of the innocence that she’s now discovered within herself – a literal and metaphorical clean slate – it perhaps seems that she will return with the money she stole.
Now naked, she is at her most vulnerable, baring herself to the audience. She turns the shower on and the water pours over her, she relaxes just as we would under its warmth in a supposed safe place. This is not the far off world of Alien, or the middle of vast ocean in Jaws, this is a traditional everyday activity we all indulge, in which Hitchcock finds fit to set his most terrifying scene.
As Marion continues to shower she is framed with a large gap between her head and the top of the frame. In this we are made aware that she is thinking about her return, contemplating her mistake, anxious about what she will do or say.
The water washing over her plays in cleansing away her old life, absolving her of sin. Currently, the running showerhead is the only thing that we can hear, and the camera is close to Marion, giving the scene intimacy. We are there with her, not merely observing her shower we are in the shower with her. We’re just as vulnerable as her, lulled into believing that we are safe by the rhythm of the drumming water and we too feel absolved for our complicity in her crimes. We have after all watched her steal the money and travelled all this way with her – willing her to make an escape – we should really be considered an accomplice.
All of this is shattered in the next few seconds. The door opens and into the room steps the shadow of an unidentified stranger. On first viewing we assume that this is Norman, we scream at Marion to realise this, but she remains under the nozzle of the shower completely unaware of what is happening. We have a far greater awareness of the threat to Marion, giving us a tantalizing few seconds where we understand her fate before she does.
Often called ‘The Master of Suspense’, Hitchcock’s approach to filmmaking can be outlined from a discussion that he had with Francois Truffaut regarding a bomb under a table. Basically, it is important that the audience see the bomb before it goes off, and preferably a long time before it does so that they will squirm in their seats for the longest amount of time possible.
The curtain is thrown back and an oversized knife is raised, accompanied by the jarring staccato score of Bernard Herrmann. The vicious tone of the music makes us fully aware that this is indeed something to be terrified of. With each note we can already imagine the visceral and passionate plunging of the knife into flesh. The piece itself is called ‘The Murder’, its sole purpose to accompany the killing of characters in Psycho, illustrating the frantic natures of the act and the panic the characters feel at that moment.
At no moment do we actually see the knife penetrate Marion’s skin. We do all the hard work for Hitchcock here. After seeing a knife swing, the next image we assume we’ll be shown is the place where the knife is heading. However our subconscious mind has constructed this logic, not Hitchcock. The actual physical geography of the penetration is entirely in our minds.
With the attack over the assailant frees, we are offered a glimpse of a dress and long hair suggesting that this was in fact Norman’s mother. Marion slides down the wet wall and grabs at the shower curtain for support before collapsing dead on the bathroom floor. The water, once a promise of her rebirth, now takes on a different connotation. This time rather than liberating her, it conceals her death, washing her blood down the plughole.
It’s the final shot that gives us an insight into how Hitchcock wishes us to feel about the tragedy of her death, the camera mimicking the movement of the water down the plughole as it swirls outwards from her eye; a wasted life, washing down the drain.
As the final shot lingers on Marion we notice the tiny droplets of water close to her eye, tears that she was never able to cry, showing her remorse at the decisions that brought her here to the floor of the Bates’ Motel bathroom and her sorrow that she will never be able to absolve her guilt.
There is a reason that everyone immediately thinks of this scene when you mention Psycho to them. It’s the biggest shock of the film. The famous actress that we’ve followed since the beginning of the film is now dead and we have to find a new character to latch onto. For a time it’s Norman and then Lila, Marion’s sister who wishes to find her absent sister. However for viewers it offers us so much more: a masterclass in suspense cinema, a brilliantly constructed murder scene and finally a reason to be terrified of being clean.
So what do you guys think? Is Hitchcock the master of suspense he is claimed to be? Are there any scenes from other films where you can see these techniques at work? Can you think of any recent filmmakers who have used similar ideas to keep us on the edge of our seats? As ever you can leave your thoughts below and like and subscribe to keep Sight Unsound on your homepage so you’ll never miss a new video.