How do you even write about Psycho? It’s one of the most analyzed films of all time, it’s the seed from which all slasher movies sprouted, and it’s an absolute, still-terrifying masterpiece. It’s got a giant reputation, and it’s the one film most identified with the name (and style) of Alfred Hitchcock. Luckily, I don’t really have to write about it! I just have to pick my favorite image, because Psycho‘s the most recent selection for The Film Experience’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot series.
One of my favorite things about Psycho (and there are a lot of them) is the way Hitchcock structures parts of the film as little games or sick jokes at the expense of the viewers. It’s a dark, scary movie, to be sure, but you get a definite sense of playfulness in how Hitch toys with film grammar to manipulate the audience. Take, for example, the repeated shot of the patrolman leering at Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) from across the street as she urgently tries to trade in her car:
He just stands there, leaning against his car, and the camera glances back at him every few seconds. As Marion completes her transaction, this shot is repeated so many times it’s almost ridiculous, but it’s still effective. Like Marion, we become nervous. It feels like we’re compulsively checking over our collective shoulders and, sure enough, he’s still there. It’s editing that’s more expressionistic than functional, and it helps drag us into alliance with poor, guilt-ridden Marion. Hitchcock also plays around with framing, as in this instantly recognizable shot:
Nobody’s behind her. Not yet, anyway. We’ve been casually watching Marion showering in close-ups and medium shots,when in a barely noticeable transition, she moves from the center of the frame to off in the lower-right corner. This shot is held for about 2-3 solid seconds before we get any background movement or silhouettes. It’s a subtle warning to the audience that someone is about to arrive—or, alternatively, Hitchcock rolling out the welcome mat for his shadow-shrouded killer. It’s yet another manifestation of his giddy, self-conscious visual style.
But neither of these, clever as they are, constitute my favorite shot in Psycho. For that, I go to a reaction shot. Just a plain, superficially unremarkable reaction shot showing Lila Crane (Vera Miles) gazing inside a book. It’s also probably my favorite reaction shot in any movie, ever:
It’s a testament to Hitchcock’s restraint and Miles’ range of expression that they don’t overplay this moment. She doesn’t shriek or gasp or drop the book or anything. In fact, we never find out what she does, because a second later, we cut away to Sam and Norman arguing back in the motel. The next time we see Lila, she’s running to hide in the fruit cellar. The book is unmarked by a title or cover illustration; it just has two little symbols on the binding. Since it’s lying randomly in Norman’s childhood room, it might well be a book of bedtime stories or nursery names.
But we never find out. And since the Bates household is such an inherently creepy place, and since Lila assumes this ambiguous look of curiosity (or is it concern? or surprise? or muted horror?), we’re left to wonder. Was it a manual on corpse preservation? Was it the Bates family’s photo album? Was it hollowed out and used to contain chunks of human flesh? Unless there’s a lost insert shot that turns up someday, we’ll never know. This reaction shot, with Vera Miles’ downturned eyes, is our only glimpse into what might just contain the Bates family’s darkest horrors.