Cinematography in the Alfred Hitchcock Thriller 'Psycho'

Modified: 6th Aug 2021
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Cinematography refers to the visual creative techniques of a film, consisting of lighting, sound and composition. Alfred Hitchcock thriller, Psycho [Alfred Hitchcock, 1960, USA] practices exquisite cinematography techniques to construct suspense and tremor to the spectators from his use of framing, lighting, camera movement, editing as well as sound. Film critic Roger Ebert states that a prevalent element among Hitchcock’s films, is the guilt of the regular person in a criminal situation [Ebert, 1998]. However in this scenario the key character Marion Crane [Janet Leigh] flees with stolen cash, nevertheless still fitting the Hitchcock mould of an innocent crime.


Hitchcock practises some remarkable camera techniques to make sequences more effective, the notorious shower scene is a vital element and illustrates Hitchcock’s adoration for visuality. Adopting editing and sound as a cinematic guidance to stimulate the audience both visually and emotionally to create a horrific, suspense led murder scene. However spectators never actually witness the knife cutting into the woman’s flesh, we just assume it through the use of sound FX, hand motions, a tension building soundtrack and editing; The filmic makes the murder scene more realistic and suspense driven creating tension between the spectators. As a result by exposing the horrific continuous violence without truly presenting any, leaving it up to the spectator’s imagination.

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Fast editing countenances for an even more vicious stance to the scene, notwithstanding the insignificant amount of blood. Hasty editing of multiple shots signify the knife’s sharp cuts, plentiful as the squelching soundtrack rupture the spectators eardrums while perhaps representing a scream or a fowl shriek. Some of the possessed shots are high and medium angle shots to conceal the spectators from seeing the killers face. The combination of the shots makes the sequence seem longer, more subjective and more uncontrolled and violent oppose to the images being exposed alone or using a wide angle shot In this scene the woman’s nudity represents one of two concepts; vulnerability as she has nothing to protect her body i.e. clothes also within western society nudity is looked upon as exceedingly private therefore we as spectators are interfering on her private moment voyeurism.


In many Hitchcock movies the leading lady is usually a blonde and attractive, essentially there to create sex appeal in this case this is clear with the woman being naked. Other than sex appeal and representation of the male gaze, nudity also carries other connotations appropriate in this case the woman is in fatal danger. The low angle shot of the showerhead from the woman POV resembles an eye, its observant presence could suggest a ‘big brothers watching you’ feeling as it watches her washing herself, cleansing herself of the impurity of her prior actions; meanwhile her posture implies almost sexual enjoyment. Nonetheless, she is being so sensual that it supports Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze as it displays a woman being sexualized and delicate at the same time. She is about to be penetrated by a knife. Given the period of this film, censors restricted sex and nudity. As such, water perhaps symbolically used to express sexual desire and orgasms, while the woman is cleansing plays into Hitchcock’s theme of guilt [Leighmediaasfilm, 2011].

However in the parlor scene camera angles play a vital role in revealing to the spectator about Norman Bates character with Hitchcock directing the scene in terms of contrasts. We get the woman sitting comfortably in her seat, leaning slightly forward; Hitchcock purposely arranged the camera near eye level perhaps to give the spectators the idea as to how two people may see each other while sitting and talking, however Hitchcock shoots the man from an abnormal low angle, suggesting that he is twisted and askew.


Bernard Herman composed the movies intense soundtrack incorporating a fast cutting squelching soundtrack Hitchcock created an intense impression of slaughter, violence and nudity while remaining to display very little. However the infamous scene begins with the sound FX of running water perhaps to imply to the spectators that everything is fine. It also becomes significantly clear that the woman is going to have difficulty in hearing anything else as the sound of the water is overpowering the other diegetic sounds.

A figuration slowly appears behind the shower curtain the suspense of the scene become more intense, only when the curtain is pushed aside that the spectators comprehend what is about to occur, suspense enhanced by the shrieking high pitched squelching soundtrack. The soundtrack in this scene in particular is dark and sinister, accompanying the knife movements to her skin also including tearing sounds. Perhaps this signifies the agony of the knife to her skin through the high pitched violin instruments within the soundtrack, it has a discordant quality to it possibly to signify the knife’s sharpness again creating tension. Tension is also created as the camera is represented as the knife’s movements, being drawn away and reversed. After the woman has been slaughtered, the soundtrack reaches its crescendo and transforms from a high pitched squelching to a low pitched distressing sound.


The parlour scene uses camera angles, lighting, dialogue and sound FX to portray the characters in a certain light. They are precisely positioned according to the light source in order to accentuate their aims and intensions within the scene as well as their characteristics. The woman is located close yet relatively behind the lamp, with her face being well lit; perhaps signifying that she is a beaming with warmth and renovation despite her recent escapades. The lighting around her also suggests a gentleness around her also signifying she is redeemable. Although Hitchcock purposely positioned the man away from any type of light source and into a dark shadowy corner. This has the effect of a strict rift between light and shadow also represented across his face, also indicating the clash of his double personality [murderer/son]. He is also engrossed in low key lighting which suggests something is being hidden or kept in the dark and further results in piercing pointed shadows portentously on the wall and ceiling beyond him.


The black and white look of the film gave it a crisp classic feel while remaining to embody the spirit of an old film noir and further accentuates the theme of good vs evil, this is also illustrated by the sharp distinction of light and dark. Black and white costume is also exploited greatly within the film, for example at the beginning of the movie the woman is seen wearing white lingerie perhaps suggesting her innocents and purity, then later she’s in black lingerie after she’s stolen the money. The mise-en-scene reveals the woman surrounded by simple objects that make her appear to be a sympathetic character. Before her is a jug of milk rather than a glass and small snacks prepared by the man Norman, meanwhile as the woman ingests none of the milk it is in fact the shape of the jug that holds the visual signs.

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Colour plays a huge role in the mise-en-scene the jug is white, shiny and elegant perhaps signifying her innocent and pure goodness. Also her hunched curved posture and curly hairstyle adds to the sense that she is or ultimately will be a victim. However the man on the other hand is engrossed in lines of shadows across his face and body, many of which are set at angles creating a sense of emulation and danger rather than conformity. In one shot behind the man’s shoulder there is a dark chest of some sort with shadowy lines perhaps a distinction to the curved lamp, as well as the fact that the woman is wearing light clothes and the man is wearing dark clothing. Moreover one of the most significant visually stimulating feature into the man’s twisted mind, is the stuffed birds positioned around the walls, table and chest in the room, this also implies the dark facets of his character; he is a predator. The birds also create a sense of fear and fright within the parlour, as the hover around him.

References, (2011). AS Film Studies 2012-2013: Voyeurism & The Male Gaze (the shower scene). [online] Available at: [Accessed 9 Jul. 2014].

Psycho. (1960). [DVD] USA: Alfred Hitchcock.


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