Views from the Sofa’s 100 Greatest Scenes is a list of the 100 greatest moments in the movies. This could be long introductions, moments of action or great dialogue between characters. The scenes are in no particular order and come from many different types of movies.
There aren’t many scenes that are as iconic and instantly recognisable as the shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Even the title, without an accompanying picture, would probably prompt most people to think of this particular scene. That is because it is a scene which has it all. A great soundtrack, suspense, clever camera and stage trickery and of course a shock ending.
Greatest Scene Number 23: Psycho – The Shower Scene
What makes the scene so effective is that it contains all the key elements which make Hitchcock movies so memorable. All the traits and tropes he employed as a director make some sort of appearance in this four minute scene. For example the beginning is ordinary. It doesn’t rush or get to the “action” too quickly. Very calmly and without incident we watch Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane, the lead actress of the movie, finish writing a letter and then get in the shower.
Even once in the shower the scene moves at a slower pace. Maybe Hitchcock realised that “sex sells” so having a “naked” Janet Leigh on-screen was desirable but the average, ordinariness of the scene continues, most notably without any music playing over the top.
This makes the sudden shower curtain pull and Mrs Bates’ attack much more shocking. Add to this the music changing, with the dramatic tones undercut by that sharp violin sound with each stab of the knife.
This is where Hitchcock’s second notable technique comes into play. He balances the camera work expertly, never showing the knife entering the body, only glimpsing at Leigh’s flesh and also effectively hiding the face of her attacker in the shadows, which would of course pay-off for the film’s finale.
These aspects don’t make the scene any less shocking or less believable. Janet Leigh manages to sell the attack perfectly, especially with her screams and hands up helplessly. Add to this the “blood” which mixes with the shower water swirling around Leigh’s feet.
The scene doesn’t end with the attacker leaving. Leigh slowly falls to the ground, trying to clutch the shower curtain which gives way. It is here that another camera trick is employed and Hitchcock’s work with camera angles comes into play. The now famous and much parodied blood trickling into the plug hole, which “becomes” the eye of the movie’s heroine, is an example of how Hitchcock elevates a “normal” scene and makes it something much more impressive.
The final piece of the Hitchcock puzzle is that the scene itself is a huge rug-pull shock. Janet Leigh was the star of the movie so her death halfway through was a genuine surprise. It was a precursor to the modern idea of “no-one is safe” and would lead to other shocks in the same ilk, in both Hitchcock movies and other directors inspired by him.
Overall, the shower scene is so iconic because how Hitchcock it is. It has shocks, surprises, genuine horror and a killer soundtrack to elevate the action. It also demonstrates how adept Hitchcock is with a camera.