In your textbook, in the chapter on editing, there are a couple examples of editing in Psycho (there’s also an essay, at the end of the chapter, on editing in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious).
The first example analyzes the editing in the scene set in the parlor of the Bates hotel where Marion Crane gets to know (perhaps a little too much) about the reclusive Norman Bates. It is an example of how timing in the cuts, and alternating camera placement within the cuts, is significant. At the beginning of the scene, the timing and the camera angles, in the shot/reverse shot sequence, are fairly conventional. But as the conversation between Marion and Norman gets darker, the timing changes to show emotional responses by both Marion and Norman, and the camera angles become more distorted and disturbing.
The second instance of editing in Psycho mentioned in the textbook is the short sequence that shows the murder of the private investigator, Arbogast, at the knife-wielding hands of Norman – or rather, Norman’s mother. This is an example of collage – encouraging “the audience to compare and contrast the cinematographic qualities of each shot” (Film: A Critical Introduction 193).
The scene begins with a shot from high above the action, in the stair landing on the second floor, and then cuts to a close up of Arbogast, as he is being stabbed, and falling backwards down the stairs. The textbook authors quote Hitchcock himself to explain the significance of the editing here:
The main reason for raising the camera [to an overhead shot] was to get the contrast between the long shot and the close-up of the big head as the knife came down on him. It was like music, you see, the high shot with the violins and suddenly the big head with the brass instruments clashing.
The textbook authors say, of this quote, that it “suggests how the director was acutely aware of the way abrupt changes in camera positioning can evoke an emotional response.” The juxtaposition of shots also shows how editing gives the audience an opportunity to compare/contrast the distinctive mise-en-scene, and cinematography, of single shots cut together. Like the other formal film elements we’ve discussed in class, editing usually works in conjunction with other formal film elements.
The textbook authors don’t discuss Hitchcock’s use of the same overhead shot – though much more drawn out – a little later in the film when Norman carries his mother down-stairs. Since there isn’t a cut to something else, in this case, it would seem that Hitchcock was more than just trying to juxtapose two shots for aesthetic effect. Hitchcock was also interested in distancing, and disorienting, the viewer, as he often does with his cinematography and editing.
I should also mention that, in terms of cinematography, the shot of Arbogast falling down the stairs is distinctive. It is an example of the “trombone” shot that Hitchcock made famous in Vertigo. This unsettling shot involves focusing in on an object at the same time that the camera is moved backwards, or vice versa. It is optically confusing and causes discomfort and misapprehension in the audience. (We see the same trombone shot, reversed, when Arbogast is walking up the stairs.)
In class, I showed you a few other instances of editing in Psycho.
I began with the establishing shot at the beginning of the film, which is actually a number of zoom shots edited together, transporting the viewer into the hotel room where Sam and Marion have just finished having sex (it is implied).
The shot/reverse shot editing in the hotel room show the intimacy between the two, before they begin discussing the difficult dilemma they are in (she has no money, and Sam has no money because of alimony payments, so they can’t get married), at which point the shot/reverse shot shows distance between them. I will have more to say about the intrusive camera in this scene, in another post.
Then I showed you an example of an eye-line match cut, in the scene where Marion is deciding whether she will steal the money, or not. Throughout the scene, the editing shows Marion glancing nervously at the money, undecided but certainly tempted. Eventually, she decides to take the money; and this sets up the most prominent “McGuffin” in the film (a McGuffin is a plot element that forwards the plot, though often misleading the audience as to the true direction of the plot, becoming a “red herring”).
Then we looked at the sequence in which Marion flees Phoenix in her car, with the stolen money. Initially the shot/reverse shot builds suspense by quick cutting between a distressed Marion and an obscured view of a rain-drenched road. Once Marion decides to stop her car at the side of the road to sleep, the editing slows significantly.
Then we have the tense shot/reverse shot of Marion and the policeman in sun-glasses, in which camera angles are important: the policeman is seen in an extreme close up shot from a low angle, which, along with the fact that we can’t see his eyes, makes him an ominous figure. Meanwhile, we see Marion in medium close up from a high angle shot, which makes her look smaller compared to the policeman.
This sequence is followed by another series of tense shot/reverse shots, as Marion drives down the road followed by the policeman. We see Marion, again distressed, with the police car behind her in the shot; and then, to emphasize Marion’s anxiety, the camera cuts to shots of the police car in the rear-view mirror.
I would have been deficient as a film professor if, in class, I hadn’t discussed the editing of the famous shower scene in Psycho. When we went over it in class, I demonstrated (by counting) how the thirty or so cuts we see, once Marion steps into the shower, creates a sense of frenetic action and a feeling of disorientation in the audience, due to the dizzying array of multiple camera angles and the variety of zooms (close-up, extreme close up).
Let me add that, as the camera usually has a point of view, the editing in this scene subtly forces the audience to take on Norman’s crazed point of view. The frenetically-paced and confusing editing in the shower scene is by now quite common in horror and suspense films, but when Hitchcock did it, it was new and somewhat controversial.
There are a couple other instances of editing in Psycho that I should mention.
In the scene where Norman is watching Marion’s car – with all of Marion’s effects, including, unbeknownst to Norman, the money Marion stole – the pacing of the editing of the shot/reverse slows down. Instead of creating suspense by speeding up the cuts (as in the scenes where Marion is fleeing with the money, and in the shower scene), the longer shots in this scene, along with the more leisurely pacing of cuts, give us ample opportunity to see Norman’s anxiety, coupled with relatively long shots of a car that refuses to sink. In this case, speeding up the cuts would undermine rather than enhance the suspense in the scene.
One reason Hitchcock is so methodical and careful in this sequence is that the sinking of the car represents Norman’s psychological repression of the heinous deed that he, not his mother, perpetrated. According to this reading, the swamp represents Norman’s unconscious. While the final shot of the film, showing the car being dragged from the swamp (reversing the shot that shows it sinking), represents Norman’s crime coming to light.
Finally, Hitchcock provides us with a good example of parallel editing (cross-cutting) in the scene where Sam and Lila (Marion’s sister) go to the Bates motel to investigate. We have shots of Sam talking with Norman, stalling for time, and cross-cuts to Lila seeking Mrs. Bates in the house. This, like much of the editing in the film (and like most instances of parallel editing), is done to create suspense.
One of the interesting things about the cross-cutting here is that while Sam rather aggressively interrogates Norman, accusing him of killing Marion to steal the $40,000, Lila – by way of many eyeline-match cuts – finds ample evidence in the mise-en-scène of Norman’s arrested development and insanity. That is, Sam is dead wrong in his approach, while Lila inadvertently gets to the bottom of things, just by closely observing the details in Norman’s home.