February 27, 2016

'Every Cut a Weapon': Martin Scorsese on the Editing of 'Psycho'

Martin Scorsese is one of our most cinematically intelligent directors. Not only has he seen almost every film ever made, but he seems to remember them, too, down to when and where he saw the film and what he took from it.

In this clip, he discusses a certain cut in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and what it has meant to him and his films.   

Psycho is unique in many respects; it was one of Alfred Hitchcock's most low budget films, shot more like an episode of a TV show than Vertigo or North by Northwest. And more than that, Hitchcock's film features one of the most daring gambits in recent film history (spoiler alert), the murder of Marion Crane, played by Janet Leigh. She meets her end in the infamous shower scene after being set-up as the protagonist, a woman who has stolen $40,000 and is on the run. When she dies less than halfway into the film, Psycho becomes infinitely more disturbing. Another fact worth noting is that though the murder in the shower takes about 45 seconds, the clean-up, by Norman, who thinks that he is covering for his mother, takes considerably longer

In this video, Hitchcock discusses the editing in general, and Psycho specifically. First, he talks about how the shower scene was cut "impressionistically", from "little pieces" of film, in order to avoid showing what could not be shown and what, arguably, would have been infinitely weaker had it been shown in its entirety. 

And then he discusses the second murder in the film, namely that of Arbogast, the Detective in the scene referenced by Scorsese. Hitchcock describes the editing style here as quite different, owing to the irony inherent in the sequence: whereas in the shower scene, the appearance of Norman (as Mother) comes as a shock to the audience, in the second murder, committed as Arbogast walks up the stairs, we know that Mother is lying in wait for him, and so, in Hitchcock's words, "...they were apprehensive for him. But they didn't know when it was going to happen." 

The one cut he doesn't discuss is the one Scorsese references, the little moment when it is revealed, almost subliminally, that Norman is the one behind the murders (even though at this point in the film the audience still thinks there is a crazy old woman running around with a kitchen knife).

The fact that Scorsese remembers and has been so influenced by this one cut and has made use of it in his own work is a testament to his genius as well as an example of how that genius works. A true artist, Scorsese is more than the sum of everything he has seen; he synthesizes an infinity of images to create a new and utterly original whole. And since we are none of us an island, that is arguably what all good filmmakers aspire to do in one way or the other: take the old and make it new. Bring history into the present, and most importantly, make your influences your own.       

Your Comment

12 Comments

Hitchcock was a master in creating tension before the actual event occurred. Be it 'psycho' or 'rear window' he always believed what leads to the event is more important than the event itself. Scorcesse I would say has applied a technique in many of his films now, which is just the opposite of this. He has shocked the viewer with an event when no one was expecting one. A master example would be towards the end of 'Departed' when Matt and Decaprio were coming down the lift, and as the door opens, without any hint of what was going to happen whatsoever, Decaprio gets shot and is killed on spot. It takes the viewer quite some time to get out of such a shock. Two masters, two approaches I guess.

February 28, 2016 at 3:42AM

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Ayan Banerjee
Film Maker
212

A master example of tension. Its no wonder why analyzing and remaking the shower scene is such a common assignment in "film school". When I made my remake I made a point of emphasizing the brutality of the slashing "cuts". I did this by filming the killer pulling the knife away as fast as possible then playing it back in reverse and applied a speed ramp. I shot it MOS and created every and all sound element in post. The screams are in fact from a different talent!
Check it out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sOiNqg9tvCc

February 29, 2016 at 2:43PM, Edited February 29, 2:46PM

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Daniel Reed
Hat Collector
1019

sorry, it sucks. Impressionistic way much subtle and nicers.
Sharp images detracts suspence.

March 1, 2016 at 10:07AM, Edited March 1, 10:07AM

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Matt
186

I disagree with Matt, I think it's very good. Looks great, and it's very well paced. "Sharp images detracts suspense"? What does that mean?

March 4, 2016 at 8:54PM, Edited March 4, 8:55PM

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José Pedro Pinto
Wannabe
680

"The fact that Scorsese remembers and has been so influenced by this one cut and has made use of it in his own work is a testament to his genius as well as an example of how that genius works. A true artist."

So copying something is a testament to genius and true artistry???

February 28, 2016 at 10:55AM

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Absolutely. Every work of art you have ever experienced was influenced by what came before it. We've been doing it forever. We started it off with cave paintings and just took it from there.

February 28, 2016 at 5:06PM, Edited February 28, 5:07PM

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Alexandra
Videographer / Documentary Filmmaker
378

So any creative effort that is influenced by someone else's work is by definition a work of genius? I'm amazed!

February 29, 2016 at 2:53PM

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Great post, what's the "one cut he doesn't discuss is the one Scorsese references" — you might want to include that in your article if you can find the quote/clip.

February 28, 2016 at 1:50PM, Edited February 28, 1:50PM

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Regarding this article, I would like to pose a more general question, that is in my head for a long time and that is just in time before the Academy Awards are taking place: how to judge good editing (and give an Oscar for that ...), if you can't comprehend all the editing process from the very beginning to the very end? Unfortunately you don't see which frames are left out / put into the rubbish / preferred regarding to others takes / changed in chronology / are liked more from the editor than from the director. What you can actual see is: rhythm, perspective changes, preciseness, interplay with sound and music and so on. But the hidden and the past decisions you don't see. So: how does the committee work? Are they comparing the script with each scene? What further research do they do? I would be glad, if you could tell me more about this!

February 28, 2016 at 3:40PM

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You make very good points, and it's a very good question.
Considering the movies that have won in the past years, I'm pretty convinced that a lot of the voting in the editing category is nearly random, more based on how flashy or noteworthy it is than anything else.

March 4, 2016 at 9:00PM, Edited March 4, 9:01PM

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José Pedro Pinto
Wannabe
680

"seen almost every film ever made" is complete and utter gibberish, he's maybe seen the majority of relevant American films of the 50's to 70's...maybe. Have a look at Scorsese's list of best European films, it shows horrific gaps in his knowledge, he listed the same directors several times and didn't even mention most of the greats. It was pretty sad for such a known cinephile.

February 28, 2016 at 5:22PM, Edited February 28, 5:22PM

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chris
392

So, a list of "best films" can't include more than one film from a director and has to include all of the "greats"? That makes no sense.

March 4, 2016 at 8:58PM, Edited March 4, 8:58PM

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José Pedro Pinto
Wannabe
680