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Style and Convention Breaking in Psycho

After the film studio system collapse, major distribution companies like RKO went under. Lead by industry avant-gardes, a new era of creative license for filmmakers began. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho revolutionized the horror-suspense genre by defying narrative conventions established in the decades prior to 1960. Seat-gripping stylistic choices and tragic character fates exploit the expectations of audiences previously accustomed to the rigid conventions of classic Hollywood films.

Hitchcock’s stylistic niche became clear in his previous massive productions like North By Northwest, however Psycho pushed the boundaries of his provocative tendencies. One such way was through the use of realistic point of view shots in conjunction with non-diegetic sound to build suspense and terror. As the protagonist Marion drives through the pouring rain at night after leaving Fairville, a series of shots expose her view outside the car windshield. Suspense builds as rain beats down and blinding lights hit Marion’s tired eyes. Fast paced string orchestra sounds and dialogue remind the audience of her difficult situation. The dialogue in the car scene also challenges Marion’s purity; it reminds the audience of her wrongdoing. Unlike Singin in the Rain and other classic Hollywood pictures where single shots frame entire scenes, Hitchcock predominately uses restricted camera angles to emphasize the inner terror of the main characters. Perhaps no other use of POV mixed with non-diegetic sound is more famous than the shower murder. The audience never gets a full view of the bathroom and we are aware of the killer’s presence several seconds before Marion. Her screams are mixed with screeching rhythmic sounds.

Regardless of the scene’s style, the shower murder breaks a key narrative norm. Marion is killed just after she insinuates that she will return home to give the money back. Films in previous decades reprieve protagonist misdeeds given they demonstrate a willingness to change. Rather, the convention dictates those who are evil as punished and those who are good as rewarded. Also, the timing of her death so early in the film comes as a big surprise. Another tragic fate during the film is that of the private detective Arbogast, another one of the film’s positive characters. He is killed suddenly atop the stairs in Norman’s home.

The characters of Psycho are made to exist in a world where the safeguards of society are limited and the good are punished. Even when Marion’s sister and Sam visit Sherriff Chambers, he demonstrates apathy and an unwillingness to help. Clearly Hitchcock resisted the urge to deliver classic Hollywood conventions to shock his audience. He displays the fragility of human life and the twisted cousin of a just society. He defies classic Hollywood conventions by killing positive characters. Shots and stylistic choices make the audience aware of character psychology to amplify terror.

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One response to “Style and Convention Breaking in Psycho

  1. I think make a really great point by saying that the realistic point of view shots in conjunction with non-diegetic sound build up the suspense for the audience. The fact that we have a restricted camera angle we know as much as the character that we are following in the different scenes. I think the sound that is incorporated into the scenes is very important as well because it adds to the suspense. The speed of the music increases at some points and also the pitch also influence the emotions we feel while watching the film.

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