“Psycho” is a classic suspense film directed by Alfred Hitchcock which features a central female protagonist, a seemingly ordinary young woman named Marion Crane, who crosses paths with a dangerous mentally ill motel owner, Norman Bates. As their strange relationship develops, a dominant theme of good versus evil is introduced to the audience through the use of characterisation, editing, mise-en-scene and various other media techniques. From the outset, Hitchcock introduces an initial theme of good versus evil during the opening credits.
The title scene could be seen as a reflection of the personality of Norman Bates as the credits themselves are presented as fragmented titles which come together as one on the screen but then shake and split up again, which hints towards the disjointed personality of Bates. The fact that the titles are dotted around the screen suggests that his character is severely unbalanced and not in a stable condition, foreshadowing the idea that his mind is in different places at different times and it is hard to tell when his mind-set will alter.
The contrasting colours used in this scene are also important to the later character development as the black, white and grey each reflect the constantly conflicting part of Bates’ temperament. The darker areas on the screen reflect the deepest inner shadow of his mind, while the lighter areas show that he can also be a good person. They show the persistent inner conflict and the constant battle between good and evil. The grey, however, represents the uncertain parts of his split personality but could also be interpreted to refer to the indecision and doubt seen in the character of Marion as the film develops.
This primary theme is developed as we are familiarised with the character of Marion Crane, the dominant leading role. We first see her meeting up with her boyfriend, Sam, in a hotel room during her lunch hour. The camera enters the room by zooming through the window and Hitchcock wants us to feel as if we are intruding on a private moment between the characters inside. This sense of voyeurism is clearly accentuated by the very first shot of the couple which is very personal and intimate – making the viewer feel rather awkward.
This scene acts as a vital link to the film as a whole and is fundamental for the expansion of the theme of good and evil as it gives Marion a clear reason to steal the money in the scene that follows. Marion is presented as a good character at this point as her good intentions are outlined: we see that she just wants to marry Sam and for them to be able to be together respectably. When Sam states that he would not be able to provide for her, Marion is given an obvious ulterior motive and a chance to make the transition from good to evil, therefore setting up the entire film.
We also notice that, the first time we see Marion, she is wearing white underwear: hinting to her kind and innocent personality but, when we see her after she has made the decision to steal the money, she is wearing black underwear. This visual symbolism presents a contrast between the two different stages of characterisation and depicts the character change of Marion as she goes from good to evil. Similar to the original view of Marion, when we first meet Norman Bates he seems like a very ordinary person, but as the scenes progress we begin to notice slight abnormalities in his behaviour.
When Marion arrives at the Bates Motel, the heavy rain which forces her to stop is foreshadowing her impending doom while acting as effective pathetic fallacy as she is feeling isolated and guilty at this point. The fact that Norman hesitates before giving her the key to cabin one hints at his irregularity, along with the fact that he opens the window as soon as he enters the room – as if he is setting up his own escape route – and he never mentions the bathroom, foretelling the event which will take place there.
Also, when Marion is checking into the motel, what should have been a clear view of Bates is blurred in the mirror: showing that he is changeable and that his personality is hazy. In a similar shot, only half of his face is shown and this clearly symbolises the fact that only one half of him can ever be fully good at any one time – the other half will always remain evil. However, sympathy is also evoked for Norman in this scene as we see that his mother takes an instant dislike to Marion – something which you would not normally see between two strangers.
We see how close – and slightly strange – the relationship between Norman and his mother and the unnatural dependence they have on each other, showing that Norman is trapped in his current situation and making him seem like a good person. A similar effect is used throughout the scene in Norman’s parlour by with the use of light and dark as the lighting picks out significant features such as only one side of Norman’s face and the underside of the owl’s wings.
The owl with its wings spread signifies his mother controlling his mind and shows that she is ever present, although we never see her, even when he is behaving normally she will always be inside his mind, therefore making the viewer feel sympathetic towards him as he has no control over his actions. Conversely, framing him next to an owl may suggest that Norman is a predator and the owl is his equal. Like the owl, many other birds are featured in the parlour scene, linking back to the recurring theme.
Framing Marion next to them when she first enters the room makes her seem vulnerable and presents her as equal to the birds which Norman has stuffed. The shower scene is important to the character development of Marion as we see her clear transition from the evil character she turned into after stealing the money back to the good character we saw in the beginning. She has changed her mind about stealing the money and has made the decision to go home. We are able to pinpoint the exact moment of relief as she flushes the toilet: it is as if she is flushing away her problems and guilt.
This effect is also used when the water goes down the plughole in the shower: representing the washing away of her sins. However, I feel that this image could also be taken to represent evil as Marion’s life is being washed away and she is going to down to Hell for the sins she has committed. A contrast between Norman and his Mother is clearly displayed in this scene although we also see that Norman can be evil while being totally himself as we see him spying on Marion before she is murdered.
After the murder, Norman is linked to the crime in many ways. The camera work and editing assists this by panning directly to a view of Norman’s house, telling the story without the need for dialogue. Almost immediately following this we see Norman running from the house and consequently directly linking himself to the murder. We see him automatically assume that his mother has killed Marion without questioning her, making the viewer even more suspicious of him.
Both good and evil sides of Norman are presented to the audience at this point as, although he seems flustered and hurried when he first discovers what his mother has done, he is able to relax into a state of unemotional professionalism which allows the viewer to realise that this has happened before. By pretending so strongly that it was in fact his mother who killed Marion, I think it is obvious he is trying to convince himself that he has done nothing wrong and, ultimately, that he is not mentally ill. The mise-en-scene when he sinks Marion’s car is representative of this.
We see him framed next to a tree with a split trunk, suggestive to his split personality. The contrast between the two sides of Norman’s personality is extended in the scene which features Marion’s sister, Lila, as she searches the house for evidence relating to the murder. When she enters mother’s room, it looks very inhabited: the bed seems as if someone has just gotten up and the wardrobe is full of neatly stored clothes. Despite the clutter, everything is organised and tidy. I believe this highlights the extent of Bates’ mental illness as we see how much effort he has gone to keep up the illusion.
The subjective close-up shot of the hands when Lila scans the dressing table suggests that Norman is still in the clutches of his mother and the darker side of his personality hence reminding us that he is not in control of his situation. Norman’s room provides a total contrast when compared with his mother’s. It is a lot smaller and appears to have remained the same since he was a child and contains an eclectic mix of the possessions of a childish boy and those of a twisted man.
This conveys the idea that perhaps he is refusing to grow up or his mind has never developed past this stage. This idea combined with the toys explains his dependence on his mother and why he is so unwilling to leave her. The stuffed owl which sits at his door brings back the recurring motif of birds while also representing the ever present Mrs Bates. She is always watching him and he allows her to control him completely and make his decisions – just as if he were a child. The battle between good and evil continues as Lila makes her way down to the cellar and mother is finally revealed.
As the scene ends the climax is completed with a close-up shot of “mother” which allows us to clearly see the light and dark reflecting in her eye sockets – representing the fact that it is possible for Norman to be both a fully good and fully evil character. Although we are now aware that mother is dead in reality, she continues to live on inside Norman. The last time we see the character of Norman Bates, he has been arrested and we are able to see that the dominant evil personality of “mother” has won and taken over.
To display this, we hear Norman thinking in his mother’s voice and understand that he believes that he is her – unnervingly outlining the severity of his mental illness. The medium shot of Norman sitting in the chair is effective as it shows his body language while he behaves like an old woman; the image is creepy and, in my opinion, really gets under your skin. At this stage I think that it is important we hear mother before we see Norman as it allows the audience to realise that he is not really Norman any more, showing that he is still and not fighting with his inner self as it appears the battle for good over evil has finally been lost.
As the camera zooms in on Norman, we see his blank stare change to a sinister grin and a super imposed shot of mother’s skull on his face which shows that the good side of him is trapped inside for what looks like forever. For me, the film did have a satisfying ending as we see the detective bring the case to a close so there are no more remaining questions, but the creepy smile we see at the end makes me think otherwise; leaving us at a cliff hanger of sorts. In conclusion, I believe that, with the use of media features such as characterisation and editing, Hitchcock is able to present a highly engaging struggle between good and evil.
Although I did feel sympathy for the character of Norman, I believe that he did have the option to control his actions and get help to fight back against his evil personality but, as he relied on his mother too much, he did not want to push her away. However, while Marion’s decision to steal the money was irresponsible and out of character, I still feel that she did it with good intentions. Overall, I felt that the fact that evil came out on top rather than the more typical outcome made it particularly realistic as, in a real life situation, good would not always prevail.