It is required that you read this essay from the very beginning. This request should go without saying, I wouldn’t expect anybody to jump into any text half way through without any context. The same goes for cinema, it seems that nowadays there is a universal hatred of missing the start of a film. So why in 1960, did the Master of Suspense himself Alfred Hitchcock feel it was necessary to suggest that Psycho must “be seen from the beginning, in fact this is more a suggestion, it is required” (Oscars, 2012). Having almost total control over the marketing of the film, Hitchcock ran several publicity campaigns for Psycho the likes of warning audiences of possible heart attacks whilst watching. But Hitchcock also established a code of norms that seem to be the staples of the movie going etiquette today. Screenings showing on a very specific schedule, reliance of punctuality and the withholding of spoilers after viewing were all deemed mandatory by Hitchcock for viewing Psycho and are still considered to be by many film goers today. But before we are introduced to Norman Bates and his motel and before all the famous sequences that would ascend the film to legendary status, what is it about the start of Psycho that was so important you couldn’t miss it? I would argue the first establishing shot of Psycho is the reason why Hitchcock wanted his audiences in their seats from the start.
After the jarring title credits and opening theme has put the audience on edge, and before the voyeuristic sequence of Janet Leigh getting dressed, the audience are introduced to a city; Phoenix, Arizona. Each word flies into the frame in an almost gleeful manner, the soundtrack now smooth and slow, totally in contrast to the sharp grating nature of the opening credits. As the music follows on from the main theme, this establishing shot still bears a slightly ominous feel. The tempo slows down as Hitchcock tries to get the audience to relax into the seats they have showed up so punctually for. The camera slowly pans over the buildings of the Phoenix skyline, that really could be in any city. There are no recognisable landmarks, or defining features. Even when we are told we are in Phoenix it draws nothing from inside us. The city isn’t lodged into film history especially in 1960, it doesn’t have the recognisable sights from screen such as places like LA and New York. By using a relatively unknown yet oddly universal city we are being told that this film will follow a similar pattern. Hitchcock is setting the audience up for what we can expect – and that is the unexpected. Initially we will be shown a film that might appear to be about a woman embezzling money and going on the run, a narrative we think we are familiar with. However, much like the almost unknown location, the film will also turn into something unknown and much more disturbed as we explore the insanity of Norman Bates. This is anchored as the first shot continues. The camera pans and slowly zooms towards a particular tower block. We are told it is Friday December the Eleventh, and it is precisely two forty-three p.m. This information is not relevant to the narrative, but it helps build up the everyday nature of Phoenix. Everyone has experienced a Friday December the 11th at two forty-three p.m. in some way or another, a seemingly forgettable day in a forgettable town. The events that follow are far from normal, but in order to be truly terrifying you have to believe that one wrong turn off a highway could land you at Bates Motel in real life. By setting the film far from what it will turn out to be, Hitchcock calms the audience who may have been scared by the publicity about coming into the film. Only to lull us into a false sense of security that will later be shattered.
It is obvious more than ever in Psycho that Hitchcock is playing with our perceptions in order to surprise us with what is to come. A seemingly standard establishing shot can make an audience believe one thing about a text, that will drastically change over the course of the film. The importance of why Hitchcock wanted his audience to see Psycho from the beginning is clear – you have to be in your seat and settled from the beginning, so that you can be scared to the edge of it by the end.
Oscars, 2012, How Hitchcock Got People To See “Psycho”, online video, 23 April, YouTube, viewed 28 September 2016, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DjRzj_Ufiew>