Cinema and Media Studies Psycho
by
Robert Kolker
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 January 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0051

Introduction

Psycho (1960) is an endlessly intriguing film. At the height of his powers and having made his greatest film, Vertigo, two years previously, Alfred Hitchcock tried his hand at a low-budget horror film that would be made in the manner of his popular television series. Shooting quickly, decisively, and in black and white, he wound up not with a simple horror film but with a work that reflected the darkest recesses of the 1950s and even earlier. Psycho is formally and thematically astonishing. Each scene of the first part of the film builds, in the mind of the viewer, a growing discomfort that is released in the shock of the shower murder. The rest of the film is a slow descent into the mind of a madman, into the darkness of unknowable, malevolent violence. Psycho is a shocking experience for the viewer because of its explicit (very explicit for its time) violence, and it constitutes a treasure trove for the film scholar because of its formal economy. Every camera setup and every sequence expresses the anxiety of discontent, the bubbling up of incipient and actual violence. In collaboration with graphic designer Saul Bass, Hitchcock developed an abstract grid of horizontal and vertical lines and of circles and diagonals that sets up a visual template that locks his images in place. Bernard Herrmann’s score helps push the images into the viewer’s consciousness (and unconsciousness). No wonder, then, that there is a wealth of commentary and analysis about the film, including psychoanalytic, gender, cultural, and musicological approaches, that has touched the critical nerve as much as it has the nerve of the culture at large.

Books

Full-length studies of Hitchcock, all of which have chapters on Psycho, are not listed here. These are available in the Oxford Bibliographies article on Hitchcock. Instead, this section focuses on books devoted to the film. Anobile 1974 provides a transcription of the film, shot by shot, while Kolker 2004 collects a variety of essays about the film. Rebello 1990 is a complete history of the film’s production and reception. Thomson 2009 places the film in a cultural context, while Durgnat 2002 and Naremore 1973 provide close analysis of the film. Leigh and Nickens 1995 is a memoir of the actress’s work on the project, while Skerry 2009 provides summaries and analyses.

  • Anobile, Richard J., ed. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. New York: Avon, 1974.

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    A complete transcription of the film with frame enlargements of every shot with accompanying dialogue.

  • Durgnat, Raymond. A Long Hard Look at Psycho. London: British Film Institute, 2002.

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    The book lives up to its title, and then some. Durgnat segments the film into its smallest narrative units. For each of these he provides frame enlargements with a summary of the action. These are in turn surrounded by a wide-ranging analysis that draws upon numerous methodologies and, even more important, on numerous other films. The result is that Psycho is put in its place in film history.

  • Kolker, Robert, ed. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho: A Casebook. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

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    Collects a number of essays, including Brown 1994 (cited under Psycho’s Music), Williams 2000 (cited under Essays in Books), and Toles 1984 (cited under General Analysis), as well as reviews and an original essay by Kolker on the film’s visual design.

  • Leigh, Janet, and Christopher Nickens. Psycho: Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller. New York: Harmony Books, 1995.

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    A combination memoir and history of Leigh and the film. Her recollections of Hitchcock’s working methods and the making of the shower scene are interesting. There is also some gossip and trivia.

  • Naremore, James. Filmguide to Psycho. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973.

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    Though there have been more up-to-date histories and analyses of the film, this remains a useful, nicely written introduction to Hitchcock the auteur and Psycho as an intricate exercise in cinematic form and emotional fright.

  • Rebello, Stephen. Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990.

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    A complete history of the film from inception to reception. Full of detail, well written, and definitive in terms of production history.

  • Skerry, Philip J. Psycho in the Shower: The History of Cinema’s Most Famous Scene. London: Continuum, 2009.

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    Skerry writes: “I vowed to myself that my book would be different—less jargony and abstruse. It would be about the shower scene, of course, but it would also be about me” (p. 7). Memoir, interviews with key and lesser figures in the making of the film, and an excellent visual analysis mix in a reasonable companion to the film.

  • Thomson, David. The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder. New York: Basic Books, 2009.

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    Argues that the film is an act of “insurrectionary defiance” against the film industry and audience that failed to sufficiently appreciate him. Thomson reads the film sequentially, analyzing in critical detail its actions and events. He believes that after the shower murder the film is a “concoction.” But when not trying to rewrite Psycho, this is an excellent analysis of the film and its cultural contexts.

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