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Psycho Thriller, Qu’Est-Ce Que C’Est?

Posted by October 26th, 2023 No Comments »

Psycho (1960)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starting Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles and Sam Loomis
By Peter Cameron

Why Psycho? And why so many cuts?

Why in the world would Alfred Hitchcock make a film like Psycho? During an interview, Hitchcock said he read Robert Bloch’s novel and “frankly it was bad… it was worse than bad.” He was “surprised it was even written at all.”

So, why (and how) did Hitchcock turn a horrible novel into a masterpiece of a horror?

According to Hitchcock, it was the murder in the shower “coming out of the blue” that attracted him to the story. It’s unclear if he even read the novel, but he could see its potential. Put a top-bill actor in the shower scene, and no one would see the murder coming. It was a new level for Hitchcock’s style of manipulation.

For a studio like Paramount, Psycho was a risk. The title alone was a shock. Hitchcock’s agent had a brilliant proposal. He suggested his client be the producer and Paramount the distributor. Hitchcock would drop his director’s fee but maintain 60 percent ownership of the filmstock. Once Paramount recouped an agreed percentage, Hitchcock would get the rest. And since Paramount saw this film as an inevitable flop, the deal made perfect sense.

Hitchcock then turned the $800,000 budget into a $50 million box-office smash. And a cultural icon. And he did it with his TV crew and a 36-day shooting schedule. Hitchcock himself made $15 million, a hefty sum for 1960.

For me, the real payoff from this film is the craft. How can the shower scene, with 78 images and 52 cuts in 45 seconds, deliver such an indelible impact? Cinema is a strange art form. It cannibalizes the formal rules that govern music, theater, painting, and photography. The byproduct is an immersive experience unlike anything else. But the thing that makes it unique is editing.

We, of course, edit art. If you’re a novelist, you’ll want to ensure an editor checks your work. If you’re a composer, it’s a good idea to have someone look over your score and correct your accidentals. In those cases, editing is a process of verification and alteration. It’s a removal. In film, it’s a combination. Editing adds to the experience. It’s the merging of images in a rhythmic pattern. Nothing affects us like a steady stream of images in a sequence.No other art form does that. Nothing cuts like editing.

In the early stages of cinema, D.W. Griffith’s peers questioned his editing techniques. They criticized him for splicing several shots into a single sequence. Or for cutting back and forth between different actors in different locations. For Griffith, the connection between cuts was implicit. Our minds made the leap intuitively. We connected the separate images of a distressed woman followed by a man on horseback. The context of the story brought them together. It would also heighten tensions. But his peers told him audiences wouldn’t understand what was going on. For them, each scene should unfold in a single, static shot. Like sitting in the audience at a play. But Griffith knew better. Charles Dickens did it in his novels. So, why shouldn’t he.

As with all techniques, editing continued to evolve. And by 1925, it had morphed into something more than a narrative device. Besides maintaining a continuity of action, editing also creates connotations. By juxtaposing images one after the other, our minds create an additional idea outside the images. In other words, the leap between two images suggests more than the two images combined. The leap from a three second clip of a cat to a four second clip of a tree can mean so much. It can mean an intention. The cat wants to climb the tree. It could mean a certain mood. The cat could be a kitten and the tree could be in bloom — Spring is here. The leap could also suggest a transcendent connection. The leap could mean the cat and the tree are One. In every juxtaposition, it’s the leap from one image to the next that makes the sequence meaningful. The leap creates meaning outside of what’s on screen. And it’s this leap, or the cut, that structures the semiotics of cinema.

35 years later, Hitchcock cuts one of the greatest examples of editing ever conceived — Psycho’s shower scene. The man had a masterful instinct for what would and wouldn’t work with edits. At one point, he let Saul Bass (the man who made the opening title sequence) submit some storyboard drawings. Saul submitted several images for Detective Arbogast’s famous staircase ascension. When Hitchcock came down with a fever, he let his crew film the images from Saul’s storyboard. While watching the dailies, Hitch immediately knew the montage was wrong. The connotation was off. Saul had used images that, “belonged not to an innocent person but to a sinister person.” For him, the sequence of shots leading up to the attack at the top of the stairs had to be simpler. Arbogast ascending and a door opening. Bing, bang, boom. Iconic. The shower scene, however, would need to be far more complex.

It’s debated how many shots are in this sequence — (is it 78 shots and 52 cuts or is it 60 shots?) — and there is ample myth surrounding its construction. But let’s focus on the effect this sequence creates. And let’s start with the two-shot of Marion Crane showering and Norman’s mother entering the frame. To this day, that shot is still spine-tingling. Mrs. Bates walks right up to the shower curtain. Her figure becomes more distinct as the camera pushes in for a close up. She raises a knife, and the melee begins. Marion screams in close-up. The image cuts closer until her screaming mouth fills the screen. A knife held high swipes down. Marion reaches out to protect herself. These images flutter like bats emerging from a cave. It’s disorienting. The blade never penetrates her body. The blood is barely seen. Our perspective leaps from an image of Mrs. Bates leaving to a closeup of Marion’s hand trying to grip the tiled wall. The disorienting juxtapositions are over. Despite the chaos, our minds have made sense of the sequence. Marion Crane is dead, and Mrs. Bates is the killer.

This rapid succession of images creates a tonal quality. The montage, like the soundtrack, is dissonant. The images race across our minds. We feel the fear in that mayhem of moving pictures. The sequence is not only visceral, it’s intellectual. The image of the knife coming down and the blade beside her belly create an idea in our minds: she’s been stabbed. This seems obvious to us now, but the montage has an almost inexplicable effect on our minds. Without ever inserting a blade, the editing cuts make us believe that the blade made her bleed. 

Leaping from image to image along a linear, or nonlinear, timeline is the thumbprint of film. Griffith standardized its narrative techniques developed by Edwin S. Porter. Later directors like Sergei Eisenstein codified editing’s deep, associative potential. Cuts create continuity and connotation. In short, film editing is the art of juxtaposition. It’s a temporal form of association that is both tonal and intellectual. In Psycho’s case, it’s visceral. 

Hitchcock made Psycho because he saw its potential to shock. He believed his cuts would leave a permanent scar on cinema. And the fat bastard was right.

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