Hitchcock’s knife

It’s all about the knife. A razor-sharp object eager to stab you, jab you, make a corpse of you. When it comes to cinematic mayhem, the knife has surpassed even the far more capable gun as a symbol of brutality, for the way it gleefully splashes blood around. The raised blade displays mercilessness up close, unlike the distanced indifference of a bullet that flies out of a gun. The slasher genre is built around its mythical presence.

Born out of a screaming mouth, the genre, with its excursions into violence, has come a long way, leaving a steadily increasing body count behind it.

But it owes a lot to a certain parent knife that glowed under a night bulb, more than 55 years ago, ready to kill an innocent victim enjoying her shower.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, with its iconic shower scene, spawned an entire sub-genre, with Halloween, Scream and so many more; closer home, its ominous shadow can be seen in many films, like Biren Nag’s Kohraa and Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Khamosh.

Having been exposed to the myriad cheaper imitations it inspired in various languages, it’s difficult to imagine today the monumental impact the film would have made when Hitchcock unleashed it on an unsuspecting audience.

Not only was it the precursor to the slasher genre, Psycho was the first of many other things. In an industry fighting puritanical censorship, Hitchcock took everyone into the bedroom of lovers in their undergarments, into a shower with a nude woman. Aided by a wondrous first-person camera, the sexuality galloped from the suggestive to the provocative, when the audience realised to their discomfort that they enjoyed this voyeurism. The shocking intensity of the shower scene opened the floodgates to future violence in American cinema.

Hitchcock’s legendary diktat of not allowing anyone into the hall once the film had begun showed how he could direct not only the actors but also the audience. The French were so right: Hitchcock was the most groundbreaking filmmaker in America.

The story — of Marion Crane running away with a huge sum of money, taking a room at Bates Motel, and the horrific nightmare that follows — is widely known, but it continues to be a chilling film. What really makes it a work of such appeal?

The answer lies in the details. Hitchcock frame Psycho as a cheap thriller, but he was putting himself out there, with his own fears and desires, like any of us.

For a newcomer, it’s an alarming thriller. For the returnee, it holds more than a cinematic experience; it is an amalgamation of symbols and clues that play on the Oedipal complex with a vengeance, hidden behind the façade of a thriller.

Tread with caution and you will see many recurring Hitchcock motifs throughout the narrative. There is a very strong urge to conceal, or to attach personal secrets to material objects. There are desolate houses and mirrors, a significant Gothic trope to reflect and hide, like the many personalities that lie within us. Hitch changed the stuffed animals in the Robert Bloch novel to stuffed birds, for their dead gaze carries an inescapable sense of doom; the woman who gets killed is aptly named Crane, and Norman Bates chews on candy corn.

The visual geometry, from the title credits to the design of the houses, vertical and horizontal, is also a deliberate construct. Remember the knife’s shape? It constantly explored the various facets of our fears, even when the protagonist gets substituted midway. First we are anxious about Marion; when she is murdered, we worry for Norman, and our heart races when the car containing the corpse momentarily stops in the swamp. The shifting point of view is a common device in today’s genre exercises, but Psycho makes us repent for our moral choices.

Coming back to the iconic shower sequence, it was designed by Saul Bass, who also designed the title credits. Hitch, however, made additions to the design: the shot of the knife against the woman’s abdomen, and the twin streams of blood and water running down the drain. Bernard Herrmann’s celebrated score wasn’t part of the original soundtrack, which was supposed to contain only the cries and the water splashing. The shrieking was added later for impact. More than the violence, the scene, with its misty-eyed focus on nudity, and the toilet, was a major cause of worry for the studio. Hitchcock, the iconoclast, broke the censor’s toilet taboo by staging the most important scene in it. If you go through Hitch’s entire oeuvre, the toilet is a place of huge importance in more than a dozen of his films.

Psycho, of course, is more than its shower scene and the resultant scream. It’s about a filmmaker who was coming to terms with his worries and obsessions, and preparing the audience for a confrontation with their vices, for he knew he wasn’t alone in his misery.

The next time you spot a raised knife greeting a squealing mouth, you’d know we haven’t been able to come out of that house yet.

The author is a freelance writer

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | May 13, 2021 1:02:45 AM |

Next Story