3.2 Mise en scene

Mise en scene

Mise en scene is a cinema studies term that refers to what’s put in the scene. It refers to the overall effect of lighting, make up, costume, props and colour within the frame. 
Mise-en-scene is used purposefully throughout films to contribute to the narrative.In Psycho (1960), Alfred Hitchcock uses mise-en-scene to subtly contribute to character development in the film. During the conversation, Marion and Norman are framed separately.

Norman is surrounded by menacing looking birds. In the top left hand corner of the frame, there is an owl – its wings outstretched as if descending on its prey. Towards the bottom of the frame, there is the shadow of a crow. Both of these birds are extremely sinister and clearly foreshadow the discovery that Norman is murderer. On the wall in the background, there are two paintings. Both of these paintings are medieval paintings of women being attacked. The shadow that divides Norman’s face is a clear reference to his split personality. In the background of this shot, the frame is filled with straight lines. In contrast, Marion is more generously lit than Norman. She is surrounded by curved lines: the milk jug, Tiffany lamp, a rounded picture frame.

By itself, this use of visual composition doesn’t tell the audience much about her character. Nevertheless, it creates a contrast between Norman and Marion, between murderer and victim.

There are birds in this shot, too. There are several small, stuffed finches perched beneath the lamp. Whereas Norman is surrounded by sinister looking birds of prey, Marion is framed with harmless, ‘passive’ birds.

Throughout the parlour scene, Hitchcock is clearly using visual composition to tell the audience about the characters. Norman – surrounded by sinister birds – is clearly characterised as a murderer. Marion – generously lit and framed with small, stuffed finches – is clearly going to become his victim.

Although many people don’t recognise this on first viewing the film, when you watch the movie again, it is clear what Hitchcock was conveying through his use of visual composition.


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