Alfred Hitchcock was a filmmaker whose visual language took precedent over spoken dialogue. The shower scene in Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho is a perfect example of his visual mastery and is one of the most famous sequences in the history of cinema. The demise of the protagonist, Marion Crane, marks the death of classic Hollywood cinema. Psycho set a new precedent for sex and violence in films and was released at the beginning of a decade in which the Motion Picture Production Code no longer restricted filmmakers.
All of the events leading up to the infamous shower scene establish Marion Crane as the film’s protagonist. However, in the shot-reverse shot sequence that precedes it, the viewer begins to identify with Norman Bates. Marion decides to return the money she has stolen and retires to her room for the night. The viewer is not permitted the sight of Marion’s nude body, which Norman observes through a peephole. However, the viewer is permitted entry into Marion’s bathroom as she performs the intimate act of showering. Marion flushes a piece of incriminating evidence down the toilet. This marks the first toilet shot in American cinema. It must have been pretty shocking for audiences at the time and was a primer for the most shocking scene in the cinema – Marion’s murder in the shower.
In his films, Hitchcock is often literally opening and closing curtains, which evokes his love for the theater. Marion closes the shower curtain and places the viewer with her inside this intimate space. A shot of the showerhead from Marion’s point of view suggests the viewer’s voyeuristic tendencies. We are watching Marion intimately, not entirely unlike Norman staring at her through the peephole. At the center of the showerhead is an “eye” that resembles a peephole: “The showerhead is the double of Norman’s peephole; it is an eye staring into the camera” (Rothman 300-301). The viewer occupies the shower with Marion whose beauty we can admire. Marion seems ecstatic while showering. She is cleansing herself both physically and mentally. Marion was never comfortable with stealing the money. Now that she has decided to return it, she is feeling a newfound sense of peace. This redemptive moment of sensuous pleasure for Marion and the viewer is about to be ended by imminent death. In a medium close up of Marion in front of the transparent shower curtain, a shadowy figure becomes visible to the viewer.
Psycho, Hitchcock’s most famous film, has become so engrained in our culture that most people now know that the film’s protagonist is killed within the first forty five minutes. Furthermore, most people already know the truth about Norman Bates and his mother well before the revelation at the end. Yet, it must have been extremely shocking for audiences at the time to see the film’s biggest star killed in such a violent manner. To an unsuspecting viewer, the shadowy figure appears to be Mother or her ghost. This shadowy figure opens the curtain, signaling the beginning of the most famous murder in the history of cinema. The murder itself is a brilliant example of pure cinema and montage. Each cut in the editing of the murder reflects the stabbing of Marion’s “fine soft flesh.” The murder is also a testament to the power of imagination. Even though the viewer never sees the knife penetrate Marion’s skin, the quick cuts in editing and Bernard Hermann’s screeching violins and cellos make it seem as if Marion is being stabbed multiple times.
After the murder is complete, the shadowy figure leaves the room. The viewer is just as shocked and bewildered as Marion, who appears to be in a daze. In a medium close up, Marion reaches her hand out to the camera. She seems to be reaching for the viewer as if they were just as responsible for her death as the shadowy figure. As she takes her final breath, Marion pulls down the curtain to her murder.
Another close-up of the showerhead and its peephole further implicate the viewer in Marion’s murder. The water and blood flow down the drain as if spiraling into another of the film’s “traps”: “The sound of the shower is simultaneously transmuted into what might be called an ‘aural close-up’ of the water going down the drain. This sound recalls the flushing toilet that preceded Marion’s entrance into the shower” (Rothman 316). The scene begins with only diegetic sound before Hermann’s terrifying score accompanies the murder. Once the murder is complete, the music stops and only the showering water is audible.
Like most of Hitchcock’s films, every shot in Psycho is beautifully composed. The drain dissolves into an extreme close-up of Marion’s eye, the most impressive shot in the film. The camera zooms out from Marion’s eye to reveal her face leaning against the tile floor and her head against the toilet that began the scene.
The death of Marion Crane not only signals the death of the film’s protagonist; it also marks the death of classic Hollywood cinema. The shower scene completely obliterated the boundaries of acceptability in film, standards that had been established since the Motion Picture Production Code, or Hays Code, had been implemented in 1934. Psycho helped give birth to the new Hollywood cinema and some of the greatest American films of all time by setting new standards. Furthermore, Psycho encouraged filmmakers to make more daring films without the approval of the Hays Code. By the end of the 1960s, the Hays Code had no power and was abandoned completely.
In conclusion, the death of Marion Crane marks the end of an era of Hollywood cinema and the beginning of the end of Hitchcock’s long career. Hitchcock’s film output slowed down considerably after Psycho, his most successful film at the box office. Psycho still remains one of the Master’s greatest films and has become embedded in popular culture. The visual imagery of Psycho continues to spellbind viewers.
Rothman, William. “Psycho,” from The Murderous Gaze, 256-347, Digital PDF.