Thursday, October 15, 2009

Musing Pictures: Psycho (1960)

I recently took the time to watch this classic Hitchcock thriller again, in the context of a screenwriting course I'm taking at Hopkins. I won't write much on it, since so much has already been written, but I'd like to focus on one scene.

Early in the film, Marion crane steals forty thousand dollars from her employer, and skips town. After driving West through the desert for several hours, she pulls over to the side of the road, to catch a bit of sleep. In the morning, she is woken up by a startling knock on the window. A police officer has a few questions for her.

The scene is very suspenseful, but unlike other moments in the film which generate suspense through subtle and often subconscious manipulation, this scene's suspense emerges out of a very clear dissonance between perspectives.

I've written elsewhere about Hitchcock's particular methods of inspiring suspense, but it's a topic that is always worth exploring. It's not for nothing that he is known as the "master of suspense", after all.

This particular scene contains three perspectives, or subjective points from which it is seen. Marion, of course, provides one, and the police officer provides another. The third, of course, is our own, as the detached-yet-engaged audience, observing the scene without being within it.

Marion's mind seems fairly clear to us. She must be nervous, and her reaction to the officer betrays her fears of being followed, or of being caught. We don't know what the officer is thinking (the windows to his soul, his eyes, are obscured by very dark sunglasses). Marion must be feeling a lot of guilt. The arrival of a police officer inspires her first to start the motor of her car. It is only a moment later, once she has come out of her sleep a bit more, that she realizes that he's not necessarily there because of the money she stole, and she plays along (albeit nervously).

Our perspective tends to follow Marion's. We see much of the first act of the film through her point of view. Her initial panic is our initial panic. But we can see the scene from outside of her car. We can see that she's parked quite unusually on the side of the road, and that as such, there's another reason for the police officer to be there. We can see before she does that if she stays calm, and says the right things, she can survive the encounter.

We feel this, so we don't quite share Marion's panic, but we also don't know for certain that the police officer isn't a threat. On the contrary, when Marion behaves suspiciously, we recognize the suspiciousness of her behavior, and are made uneasy by the police officer's unchanged expression. Did he notice? Did he pick up on anything? We pick up on the slip-ups because we know Marion is guilty of theft. We are made uneasy by the police officer's apparent lack of response. This sets us on edge, and lays the groundwork for the scene's most suspenseful aspect.

Because we can see Marion's mistakes more clearly than she can, it is natural that we would want to warn her about them, or at least to reprimand her for slipping up, so she doesn't do it again. It's the "no, don't say that!" or "don't do that!" sensation. Since we can not actually reach in to the film to affect Marion's behavior, we are left biting our nails, hoping she figures it out herself.

By the end of the scene, Marion is driving away, but since the police officer's face remains impassive, we are still left with the question of whether or not her escape is complete. On one hand, we wished just a moment ago that we could reach in to the film and warn Marion to watch her words and actions, and on the other hand, we're now left without enough information to know if there's a need for caution or not. Over the course of the scene, we're shuttled back and forth between knowing what the danger is without being able to address it, and being on that fine razor's edge between the dangerous and the safe.

When watching Hitchcock films, it's often worthwhile to track what we, as viewers, know over the course of the film. The dissonance between our observations and the observations of the characters with which we identify is at the heart of Hitchcock's scheme. He was named "Master of Suspense" because of his keen understanding of how to balance the delivery of these two types of information.


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