Lesson No. 2: Psycho and the Art of Suspense

This week, we will focus on dramatic tension, suspense and the opening scene of Alfred Hitchcock’s film, Psycho, as well as the screenplay by Joseph Stefano. As you read the below opening scene in the script, notice how much attention is given to setting, tone and atmosphere. This is going to be your focus this week for your own script.




                              Joseph Stefano

                     Based on the novel by Robert Bloch

                          REVISED December 1, 1959




	Above Midtown section of the city. It is early afternoon, a 
	hot mid-summer day. The city is sun-sunblanched white and 
	its drifted-up noises are muted in blanched their own echoes. 
	We fly low, heading in a downtown direction, passing over 
	traffic-clogged streets, parking lots, white business 
	buildings, neatly patterned residential districts. As we 
	approach downtown section, the character of the city begins 
	to change. It is darker and shabby with age and industry. We 
	see railroad tracks, smokestacks, wholesale fruit-and-
	vegetable markets, old municipal buildings, empty lots.  
	vegetable The very geography seems to give us a climate of 
	nefariousness, of back-doorness, dark and shadowy. And secret.

	We fly lower and faster now, as if seeking out a specific 
	location. A skinny, high old hotel comes into view. On its 
	exposed brick side great painted letters advertise "Transients-
	Low Weekly Rates-Radio in Every Room." We pause long enough 
	to establish the shoddy character of this hotel. Its open, 
	curtainless windows, its silent resigned look so 
	characteristic of such hole-and-corner hotels. We move forward 
	with purposefulness and-toward a certain window. The sash is 
	raised as high as it can go, but the shade is pulled down to 
	three or four inches of the inside sill, as if the occupants 
	of the room within wanted privacy but needed air. We are 
	close now, so that only the lower half of the window frame 
	is in shot. No sounds come from within the room.

	Suddenly, we tip downward, go to the narrow space between 
	shade and sill, peep into the room.

	A young woman is stretched out on the mussed bed. She wears 
	a full slip, stockings, no shoes. She lies in and attitude 
	of physical relaxation, but her face, seen in the dimness of 
	the room, betrays a certain inner-tension, worrisome 
	conflicts. She is MARY CRANE, an tension, attractive girl 
	nearing the end of her twenties and her rope.

	A man stands beside the bed, only the lower half of his figure 
	visible. We hold on this tableau for a long moment, then 
	start forward. As we pass under the window shade,

							 CUT TO:


	A small room, a slow fan buzzing on a shelf above the narrow 
	bed. A card of hotel rules is pasted on the mirror above the 
	bureau. An unopened suitcase and a woman's large, straw open-
	top handbag are on the bureau.

	On the table beside the bed there are a container of Coco-
	Cola and an unwrapped, untouched egg-salad sandwich. There 
	is no radio.

	The man standing by the bed, wearing only trousers, T-shirt 
	and sox, is SAM LOOMIS, a good-looking, sensual shirt man 
	with warm humorous eyes and a compelling smile. He is blotting 
	his neck and face with a thin towel, and is staring down at 
	Mary, a small sweet smile playing about his mouth. Mary keeps 
	her face turned away from him.

	After a moment, Sam drops the towel, sits on the bed, leans 
	over and takes Mary into his arms, kisses her long and warmly, 
	holds her with a firm possessiveness. The kiss is disturbed 
	and finally interrupted by the buzzing closeness of an 
	inconsiderate fly. Sam smiles, pulls away enough to allow 
	Mary to relax again against the pillow. He studies her, frowns 
	at her unresponsiveness, then speaks in a low, intimate, 
	playful voice.

		Never did eat your lunch, did you.

	Mary looks at his smile, has to respond, pulls him to her, 
	kisses him. Then, and without breaking the kiss, she swings 
	her legs over the side of the bed, toe-searches around, finds 
	her shoes, slips her feet into searches them. And finally 
	pulls away and sits up.

		I better get back to the office.  
		These extended lunch hours give my 
		boss excess acid.

	She rises, goes to the bureau, takes a pair of small earrings 
	out of her bag, begins putting them on, not bothering or 
	perhaps not wanting to look at herself in the mirror. Sam 
	watches her, concerned but unable to inhibit his cheery, 
	humorous good mood. Throughout remainder of this scene, they 
	occupy themselves with dressing, hair-combing, etc.

		Call your boss and tell him you're 
		taking the rest of the afternoon 
		off. It's Friday anyway... and hot.

			(soft sarcasm)
		What do I do with my free afternoon, 
		walk you to the airport?

		We could laze around here a while 

		Checking out time is three P.M. Hotels 
		of this sort aren't interested in 
		you when you come in, but when your 
		time's up...
			(a small anguish)
		Sam, I hate having to be with you in 
		a place like this.

		I've heard of married couples who 
		deliberately spend occasional nights 
		in cheap hotels. They say it...

		When you're married you can do a lot 
		of things deliberately.

		You sure talk like a girl who's been 


		I'm sorry, Mary.
			(after a moment)
		My old Dad used to say 'when you 
		can't change a situation, laugh at 
		it.' Nothing ridicules a thing like 
		laughing at it.

		I've lost my girlish laughter.

		The only girlish thing you have lost.

			(a meaningful quiet, 
			then, with difficulty:)
		Sam. This is the last time.

		For what?

		This! Meeting you in secret so we 
		can be... secretive! You come down 
		here on business trips and we steal 
		lunch hours and... I wish you wouldn't 
		even come.

		Okay. What do we do instead, write 
		each other lurid love letters?

			(about to argue, then 
			turning away)
		I haven't time to argue. I'm a working 

		And I'm a working man! We're a regular 
		working-class tragedy!
			(he laughs)

		It is tragic! Or it will be... if we 
		go on meeting in shabby hotels 
		whenever you can find a tax-deductible 
		excuse for flying down deductible 

		You can't laugh at it, huh?

		Can you?

		Sure. It's like laughing through a 
		broken jaw, but...

	He breaks off, his cheeriness dissolved, goes to the window, 
	tries to raise the shade. It sticks. He pulls at it.

	It comes down entirely, and the hot sun glares into the room, 
	revealing it in all its shabbiness and sordidness as if 
	corroborating Mary's words and attitude. Sam kicks at the 
	fallen shade, laughs in frustration, grabs on to his humor 

		And besides, when you say I make tax-
		deductible excuses you make me out a 

			(having to smile)
		You couldn't be a criminal if you 
		committed a major crime.

		I wish I were. Not an active criminal 
		but... a nice guy with the conscience 
		of a criminal.
			(goes close to mary, 
			touches her)
		Next best thing to no conscience at 

			(pulling away)
		I have to go, Sam.

		I can come down next week.


		Not even just to see you, to have 
		lunch... in public?

		We can see each other, we can even 
		have dinner... but respectably, in 
		my house with my mother's picture on 
		the mantel and my sister helping me 
		broil a big steak for three!

		And after the steak... do we send 
		Sister to the movies and turn Mama's 
		picture to the wall?

		Sam! No!

			(after a pause, simply)
		All right.

	She stares at him, surprised at his willingness to continue 
	the affair on her terms, as girls are so often surprised 
	when they discover men will continue to want them even after 
	the sexual bait has been pulled in. Sam smiles reassuringly, 
	places his hands gently on her arms, speaks with gentle and 
	simple sincerity.

		Mary, whenever it's possible, tax-
		deductible or not, I want to see 
		deductible you. And under any 
			(a smile)
		Even respectability.

		You make respectability sound...  

		I'm all for it! It requires patience 
		and temperance and a lot of sweating-
		out... otherwise, though, it's only 
		hard work.
			(a pause)
		But if I can see you, touch you even 
		as simply as this... I won't mind.

	He moves away and again the weight of his pain and problems 
	crushes away his good humor. There is a quiet moment.

		I'm fed up with sweating for people 
		who aren't there. I sweat to pay off 
		my father's debts... and he's in his 
		grave... I sweat to pay my ex-wife 
		alimony, and she's living on the 
		other side of the world somewhere.

			(a smile)
		I pay, too. They also pay who meet 
		in hotel rooms.

		A couple of years and the debts will 
		be paid off. And if she ever re-
		marries, the alimony stops... and 

		I haven't even been married once 

		Yeah, but when you do... you'll swing.

			(smiling, then with a 
			terrible urgency)
		Sam, let's go get married.

		And live with me in a storeroom behind 
		a hardware store in Fairvale. We'll 
		have a lot of laughs. When I send my 
		ex-wife her money, you can lick the 

			(a deep desperation)
		I'll lick the stamps.

	He looks at her, long, pulls her close, kisses her lightly, 
	looks out the window and stares at the wide sky.

		You know what I'd like? A clear, 
		empty sky... and a plane, and us in 
		it... and somewhere a private island 
		for sale, where we can run around 
		without our... shoes on.  And the 
		wherewithal to buy what I'd like.
			(he moves away, 
			suddenly serious)
		Mary, you want to cut this off, go 
		out and find yourself someone 

		I'm thinking of it.

			(a cheerful shout)
		How can you even think a thing like 

			(picking up handbag, 
			starting for door)
		Don't miss your plane.

		Hey, we can leave together can't we?

			(at door)
		I'm late... and you have to put your 
		shoes on.

	Mary goes out quickly, closing door behind her. As Sam stares 
	down at his shoeless feet,


Psycho | Film Directed by Alfred Hitchcock


Writing Exercise: Opening with Dramatic Tension & Suspense

Using last week’s screenplay, create an opening setting paragraph or two that are ripe with dramatic tension and suspense. Use Psycho as a model of study for this. In Psycho, we open with “geography [that] seems to give us a climate of nefariousness, of back-doorness, dark and shadowy. And secret.” What is going to happen? Hitchcock earned his nomenclature as the “master of suspense.” He knew how to use suspense to drive emotion and how suspense was a far better attention grabber than gore itself. The anticipation of danger is the key. Now, do it.



Kevin Del Principe

The son of a snowplow truck driver and a nurse, Kevin Del Principe grew up in Buffalo, New York. He first cut his teeth working as a schoolteacher while also producing plays and publishing poetry. He later moved to Los Angeles to pursue writing for film and to earn his MFA in Screenwriting at the University of Southern California. During his time at USC, Kevin was a finalist for Script Pipeline’s Student Screenwriting Competition. Since graduation, he continues to write, direct, produce, and teach. Kevin currently teaches screenwriting at Loyola Marymount University. He specializes in short screenplay writing, creating online content, feature writing, and rewriting.