Psycho: Parlor Sequence

Instead of writing a traditional review for Psycho I decided to write a sequence analysis of the Parlor Sequence. I could have been cliché and analyzed the Shower Scene, but the Parlor Sequence stood out to me on my recent rewatch of this film.

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Image from Psycho’s famous Shower Scene

If you’ve never seen Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho, what is wrong with you? No but seriously, stop what you’re doing and go watch it right now. It is one of the greatest American films and a masterpiece of horror.

If you have seen the film, you may recall the Parlor Sequence, where Norman (Anthony Perkins) and Marion (Janet Leigh) have an important conversation in the Bates’ Motel Parlor room behind the main office. This sequence is about nine minutes long and begins at the 35 minute mark.

What is impressive about this sequence is that it accomplishes so much in that time frame, utilizing only 13 setups. Of course the clips themselves are likely from various takes within these setups, but it is still an impressive feat nonetheless.

This sequence is a long conversation between Marion and Norman with a mostly static camera. If you heard that and had never seen the sequence you would likely assume it to be boring. But this is Hitchcock we’re talking about here. The truth is, this is one of the most tense moments in the film and also an important sequence within the plot.

In these frames, the audience learns of Norman’s back story (who will become a major player from now on). The sequence also moves Marion’s story along, who we’ve been following for the last 35 minutes. Hitchcock gives the audience this information brilliantly through many means as I will break down in this analysis.

Through their discussion the audience receives information about Marion and Norman’s characters, but we also receive information through the visuals, performances and mise-en-scene. The shadows in the room engulf Norman and the creepy stuffed birds around the room, build on the foreshadowing of the sinister events to follow.

Here are two clips that show some of what I will be talking about in this analysis. This is not the entire sequence, but if you need a refresher, they are worth viewing before reading.

Sequence Analysis

Shot 1 – Opening Shot

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The opening shot of the sequence pans with Norman (who is engulfed in shadows) as he walks across the room. Norman flips on the lights and sets up the dinner (sandwiches) he has prepared for Marion. This shot gives us a quick glimpse of the room where we will hang out with these characters for the next nine minutes of screen time. The sequence later cuts back to this shot when Norman politely asks Marion to sit down.

Shot 2 – Marion in the doorway and Establishing Shot

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Marion steps into the doorway and is framed in a medium wide. She checks out the room where she is about to have her “meal” and immediately notices the stuffed birds spread around the parlor.

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Once Norman asks Marion to sit down, the camera pans with her as she walks to the seat across the room. The camera locks off in this wide shot, which lingers for over ten seconds to build suspense. Both characters sit down simultaneously to show they are on equal footing. Notice how most of Marion’s face is bathed in light, while Norman has shadows on his left side, a reference to his split personality that continues throughout the sequence. It never cuts back to this shot, so this is an establishing shot rather than a master wide, but it establishes this sequence well.

Shots 3 and 4 – Inserts of Stuffed Birds

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As Marion examines the room there are two quick inserts of these stuffed birds. Again, notices the shadows here. They are expressionistic in style. The mise-en-scene adds to the creepiness of the whole sequence, and also is a topic of some of their discussion. The choice of Owl and Crow as the stuffed birds was an interesting one made by Hitchcock. I’m assuming the crow symbolizes death, but with both of these inserts, it could also be another reference to Norman’s split personality.

Shot 5 – Medium Wide on Norman

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The sequence cuts from the wide establishing shot (shot 2) to this medium wide on Norman as Norman tells Marion she “eats like a bird.” This is where Norman describes his interest in taxidermy and begins talking about his relationship with his mother.

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Norman later leans back and pets one of his stuffed birds and you can plainly see his shadow on the wall, again referencing his split personality.

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Norman leans forward again as Marion talks about her idea of a “private island.” This is when Norman gives his famous line about how everyone is lost in their “private traps.”

This leaning forward and backward action will be mirrored throughout the sequence, and is vitally important to understanding Norman.

Shot 6 – Medium Wide on Marion

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The sequence alternates between Shot 5 and Shot 6 (this medium wide on Marion) for a few minutes as they continue their conversation. Marion seems disturbed at times, but through Leigh’s performance we can see that some of Norman’s words get through to Marion, which is proven true at the end of the sequence.

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Also, throughout much of the sequence Marion holds onto this piece of bread, although she only takes a few small bites, she plays with it from time to time.

Shot 7 – Medium Profile of Norman

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The sequence cuts to this medium profile shot of Norman (focusing on Norman’s shadowed side) after Marion mentions the way Norman’s mother speaks to him. In the scene prior, Marion overheard a discussion between Norman and his mother (or who she thought was his mother), where Norman’s mother was verbally abusive toward her son.

Norman leans forward, dominating the frame as he discusses how he sometimes wishes he could “defy” his mother.

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Norman leans back again as he realizes he can never defeat his mother. This is where he tells Marion about his back story and his mother’s “illness.” This is important characterization of Norman and although it is exposition Perkins’ performance really sells it and holds the audience’s interest.

Also, notice the owl showing up again, this time out of focus in the background at the top left third of the frame. The lighting on the owl seems to draw our eyes to it. Overall, this is a well composed frame.

Shot 8 – Medium on Marion

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The sequence gives us a tighter shot on Marion as they continue their discussion. Like before, it cross cuts between Shots 7 and 8. She continues to play with the bread but seems to be more invested in their conversation. This is where Marion mentions that Norman might want to send his mother “someplace.” I find it interesting that the coverage changes only slightly on Marion, but on Norman it changes more drastically. This is visual way to show the mindset of these characters within the sequence.

Shot 9 – Medium Close-up on Norman

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As soon as Marion mentions this Norman leans forward like before, this time dominating the frame. The thought of sending his mother to an “institution” offends him deeply. He chastises her for even bringing it up. The shot is no longer in profile and we can now see more of the lighter side of Norman’s face.

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Norman leans back as he mentions that he has thought about sending his mother away before. He now becomes dominated by the frame. Notice the bird perched up on the rock with its head toward Norman, watching him. More of the light side of his face is revealed.

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As their discussion continues, Norman leans forward yet again to plead his case. “We all go a little mad sometimes,” he says. Then he leans back again.

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This lean forward and backward routine is clearly a visualization of Norman’s split personality and foreshadows the rest of the film. Anthony Perkins’ performance and the way he delivers the ups and downs of Norman’s psyche in this sequence must be commended.

Shot 10 – Medium Close-up on Marion

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As Norman and Marion discuss his mother and sending her away it cross cuts between Shots 9 and 10 like before. Shot 10 is a tighter shot on Marion, but is similarly framed to Shot 9. She really soaks in Norman’s words in these moments and apologizes.

Shot 11 – Tilt up with Marion

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The next setup (Shot 11) begins as a slight reframe of Shot 10.

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The camera tilts up with Marion as she stands and locks off in this low angle medium close-up. Marion explains that she needs to get some sleep because she has “a long drive back to Phoenix.” This clues the audience that Marion plans to change and step out of her own “private trap.”

Shot 12 – High Angle Medium on Norman

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As Marion explains her position, we get this high angle medium shot of Norman. This could be seen as her P.O.V. by putting the camera at her level. Or this could also be viewed in the Citizen Kane ideology, where this set up is a visualization of Marion’s power over Norman in this moment. Seeing as it is Hitchcock we’re talking about, I believe it is the latter.

Shot 13 – Closing Shot

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The closing shot of the sequence begins as a panning shot with Marion as she says “goodnight” and leaves the parlor. Marion walks out of frame and the camera locks off.

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Norman then rises into frame (in a similar frame position to Marion) and watches Marion leave. This gives us one last glimpse of Norman’s lighter side in this sequence.

This is a brilliant sequence conducted by master filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. Although it is nine minutes of pretty much straight dialogue, Hitchcock is able to give information not just about the characters, but about the events to follow in the film through many means.

Studying this sequence and Hitchcock’s films in general, I’ve learned more about the power of Cinema and how just the tiniest details can provide a wealth of information to the audience. Even if they never notice it, it’s there…

Written by William David Glenn IV

2.9.17

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