Psycho (1960) is one of the most debated and written on films for over fifty years. Its director, Alfred Hitchcock, created the masterpiece, where everything is done to perfection, so generations of filmmakers, and film critics as well as film lovers watch it over and over again, every time discovering something new and unexpected. The style of continuity editing in Psycho not only ensures narrative continuity but clarifies and intensifies the events taking place in the film and it turns the black-and-white low budget film into one of the world’s best psychological thrillers.
Continuity editing – a classical Hollywood editing style – is a system of cutting, which enables to connect shots seamlessly so the viewers are encouraged to follow the events of the film and not to pay attention on how the film was made. Alfred Hitchcock manages to “play the audience like a piano,” from the first to the last second of his film. The notes on Hitchcock’s “piano” are the techniques of continuity editing he uses so skilfully.
As David Thomson writes in his famous book The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder, by 1960, Hitchcock was many things: a very skilled director of suspense situations, a witty explorer of character and situation, and an analyst of his own medium, a man, who was entranced by the way film’s mechanics could manipulate audiences and play on their feelings of fear and desire. So when spectators watch the 1998 Psycho, the shot-for-shot remake copying Hitchcock’s camera movements and editing style, they realize how thoroughly the original film was planned and created.
It is well-known that Hitchcock used storyboards – drawings of images of how the shots should look like – before the actual shooting of his films. These storyboards showed how he imagined scenes: how actors should enter shots, his instructions for cast and crew, where the camera should be, and how he moved from one scene to another. The most important is that with the help of the storyboards at the time he was only shooting the film Hitchcock had a clear idea of how he will cut the film together, as well as he could control the way the studios edited the film.
It is interesting that there are two separate storylines in Psycho: “Marion Crane” and “Norman Bates” narratives. Each of the stories has its narrative conclusion, but the audience, shocked by a violent and unexpected Marion’s murder, does not feel that the end of “Marion Crane’s” story may be the end of the film. It is not common that the main character is killed in the middle of the film. The scene, where Norman discovers Marion’s body and cleans the rooms, could have been much shorter, but Hitchcock wanted the spectators to calm down after the shower murder scene. At the same time, he pictures Norman as just a nervous young man and a caring son rather than a murderer.
The fade-out to black shot helps the viewers to connect these two narratives – get from the swamp at the back of The Bates motel to Sam’s hardware store (beginning of “Norman Bates” story) very smoothly.
The continuity editing in Psycho helps the spectators remain oriented in the film space. It is ensured by the temporal, rhythmic, graphic, and spatial relationships between the shots.
It is well-known that continuity editing is a set of cutting methods to maintain clear and continuous narrative action by adhering to certain rules (Tavener). The first is the 180-degree rule, which helps to establish spatial continuity. Once the spectators see Marion on the left side of the frame and Norman on the right side in the master shot, the characters will stay in those established positions throughout the scene. When the spectators see Arbogast, Sam, and Lily talking in Sam’s store, the camera moves from one to another or shows all the three in one shot. All this time Arbogast stands on the left, Sam is in the middle and Lily is on the right, so the spectators pay all their attention only to what they are discussing.
Hitchcock wants his viewers to get involved in the film, so he often uses point-of-view (or eyeliner match) technique. It also helps to establish spatial continuity. First, the spectators see the medium shot of the person in some situation (Marion packing the suitcase) and then they are shown what this character can see around (the envelope with money, the suitcase, and reflection in the mirror), so they themselves become this person in a way (Marion).
The shot-reverse-shot technique also establishes spatial continuity. Marion eats supper in Norman’s parlor, and the spectators see them both in one shot. Then the main characters are shown in separate shots facing different directions, and spectators assume that Norman and Marion are looking at each other.
Continuity in time (temporal) is easy to follow because the film starts and ends with showing the exact dates as if establishing some temporal frame. As the film opens the spectators see “Friday, December the Eleventh”, as well as they pay attention to the calendar with the date “17” on the wall of the courthouse at one of the final scenes. All the time the viewers hear some information about the time, like we hear Marion and Sam mentioning the afternoon break at the hotel or Lily tells the deputy sheriff and his wife that Marion left Phoenix “a week ago yesterday” and we know that Marion left on Friday, so they are talking on next Saturday. The spectators watch Marion driving the car after she leaves the city with the stolen money. They see how the road becomes darker and oncoming headlight glare nearly blinds Marion, so it is night time. The scene, when Sam and Lily talk to a deputy sheriff and his wife outside the church, implies that it is Sunday morning. So the spectators are visually and audibly continuously informed about the time frame. Cutting on the action technique when, for instance, Marion gets out of the door in the hotel in one shot and gets into the office in the next shot helps to establish temporal continuity.
Rhythmic continuity is the perfect way to create tension. It is normally accompanied by the rhythmical music in Psycho. When the police officer is following Marion’s car, we see the same sequence of shots three times: medium shot of Marion driving the car, point-of-view shot of the road, medium shot of Marion looking at the rear-view mirror, point-of-view shot of the rear-view mirror, in which Marion can see that the police officer’s car is following her. Not a single word is said, but the spectators hear the music, see Marion’s anxious eyes and her rhythmical repeated actions (watching the road ahead and the police car behind), and get very scared, though they know that the police officer has already seen Marion’s driving license and let her go.
Another way to intensify the suspense of the situation is to make frequent cuts following the rhythm of the music. The spectators watch Lily walking towards the Bates’ house and the house itself repeatedly, and repeated music increases tension. The beat of the orchestra in the famous shower scene represents stabbing. The viewers never actually see when Marion is stabbed, but the skillful cutting of the scene accompanied by music makes them believe that they do.
The beautiful example of graphic continuity is Marion’s hand in the shower scene. The spectators see it in several cuts when Marion is sliding down the wall after being stabbed. Then the hand is reaching for the shower curtain and grabbing it when Marion is making an attempt to get up. Finally, the hand is on the bathroom floor and the spectators see it in the of point-of-view shot when Norman Bates gets into the bathroom to clean up after the murder.
The masterpiece of graphic editing is the shower drain fading into Marion’s eye. The viewers watch the water swirling counter-clockwise into the drain and after that the cut to Marion’s eye with the camera rotating clockwise around it.
Graphic continuity helps to establish the strange relationship between Norman and his dead mother. In one of the last scenes of the film, the spectators see Norman’s face substituted by her skull for a second.
Graphic continuity means that two successive shots are joined so as to create similarity of some objects (color, shape). Hitchcock uses graphic continuity in his way. For instance, when she is in the motel, Marion wraps the forty thousand dollars in a newspaper the same way she wraps sandwiches in the hotel at the beginning of the film. Taxidermist Norman watching the car sinking in the swamp turns his head the way birds do.
The style of continuity editing in Psycho helps Hitchcock affect the reputation of the thriller genre.