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How does Hitchcock defy expectations in Psycho?

In his 1960 film, Psycho, Hitchcock embraces his title as the “master of suspense.” Psycho is widely recognized as one of the greatest films of all time and because of this, it is hard to find a contemporary audience that is not aware of its plot twists. However, the viewer had very little previous knowledge of the film and was thus able to relate similarly to the reactions of the original audience of 1960. These reactions are due to Hitchcock expertly defying the expectations of both the audience’s thoughts of their own conscious as well as the Classic Hollywood film style prevalent at the time.

The introduction of Marion Crane as the film’s protagonist immediately invites the audience to sympathize with her character. Between her secret affair with Sam and what seems to be a monotonous, cyclical job, it is not surprising that she runs away with the money she sees can help improve her life. The audience is connected to Marion and the viewer’s feel what she feels while the plot seemingly revolves around her story. When Norman Bates’ character is introduced he appears as a timid man whose life revolves around taking care of his debilitated mother. By characterizing Norman this way, Hitchcock subtly, almost against the viewer’s knowledge, shifts the sympathy from Marion to Norman. Norman’s character is where Hitchcock begins to utilize his technique of defying expectations.

Think about these two descriptions: “a person who steals money, from a crude man, to escape her tedious life and help pay off the debts of the man she loves” vs “a person with multiple personality disorder who has murderous tendencies.” When presented with the following two descriptions of a person, not a character, it seems obvious who has more a realistic and relatable problem many could sympathize with. While one might read the second description and recognize the unfortunate situation, it is uncommon that people sympathize with real life murderers with mental illness. However, Hitchcock manages to defy this conscious expectation in the film. This viewer felt more sympathy for Norman, who was revealed to have, potentially, killed four people as opposed to Marion who only stole $40,000 which she intended to give back before she was brutally murdered.

In previous paragraphs it was mentioned that Marion is the audience’s link to the films plot. When she meets Norman and they have a conversation the audience expects that the plot will now revolve around both of them together as protagonists. That expectation is shattered with the first chilling chord strung before the plunge of the knife. The audience is left jarred; the protagonist of the film was just killed after only 40 minutes. The fact that the heroine died so suddenly and abruptly is vastly different than conventional Hollywood films.

Marion’s death introduces the detective Arbogast, Sam, and Marion’s sister Lila, all vying for information about Marion’s disappearance and the stolen money. Previously, Hitchcock gave the audience some omniscient knowledge because it is known that the money is gone; sunk with Marion’s body. To modern audiences the repeated obsession with the stolen money may seem a bit redundant, but it makes sense within the confines of the Hollywood era. Typically in those films characters who do wrong are meant to be punished. Marion did steal the money after all, even if she intended to give it back. By continually mentioning the crime the audience almost forgets her plan to return it. This makes the audience question if Marion “deserved” to die for her actions, like Hollywood style expects, or if she atoned for her crime, either way she did not get the ending many anticipated for her. This brings up the final expectation for Hollywood cinema that Hitchcock defied. Typically there was a happily ever after- all things solved and everyone smiling in these films. It is ironic that at the end of the film someone is smiling; Norman Bates as “Mother” is shown with a ghastly superimposed grin of a skeleton after speaking to the police. This final image leaves the audience feeling disturbed rather than comforted as they leave the cinema

There are certain tropes that films are expected to have, especially in the Classic Hollywood era. Hitchcock throws these expectations out the window and presents a new film style that will pave the way for years to come. Do the unexpected; make a film where the protagonist doesn’t necessarily win and the audience cares more for the “bad guy.” Additionally, make an ending imperfect where nothing turns out right for the characters. The point, Hitchcock’s Psycho taught Hollywood, was to defy expectations.

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One response to “How does Hitchcock defy expectations in Psycho?

  1. I agree with your assessment that the film is very effective in use of suspense and surprise–I thought I knew most of what there was to know about this cultural touchstone of a film, but I still found myself engaged throughout the film and even shocked at several points. However, I disagree with your assertion that Marion is a sympathetic character with whom the audience was immediately invited to identify. I found it remarkable that the film seemed determined not to nudge the audience’s opinion in either direction regarding her character, showing the rashness of her actions and her paranoid nature as well as the difficulty of her position and her change of heart regarding her crime.

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