After stealing cash from her workplace and fleeing by car, Marion has arrived in California. She stops at a used car dealer and tells the salesman that she wants to buy a car and exchange her old one. While she looks around the rows of cars, she notices a policeman looking at her from across the street. It’s the same officer who questioned her while she was taking a nap in her car on the side of the highway earlier. Panicked, Marion tells the salesman immediately that she wants to buy the car in front of her. The salesman thinks her behavior suspicious, but he cannot find any reason to say no to her. After finishing the transaction and coming out of the office, Marion sees the police officer drive into the car dealer’s lot. She starts her new car to leave right away, but is stopped by a mechanic, who brings her luggage from her old car. She hastily gets her bags and leaves the dealership, leaving a confused salesman and the suspicious police behind.
‘film is visual’
This is another scene from Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Psycho. Hitchcock started his career as a film director during the silent movie period. When silent films became talkies, film productions were largely influenced; camera positions, camera movements, and acting styles had to be altered to accommodate this new arrival of technology. However, as Hitchcock said, “film is visual.” A film’s effectiveness depends on how well you can tell a story visually and how well you can depict the emotion and thoughts of the characters visually. With his skills, which he mastered during the silent film days, these are what Hitchcock does
best, and this is apparent in the introductory scene from Psycho.
Hitchcock said that in order to get the most suspense out of audience, the story must be simple. He also said that anything, which was tied to key information in the story, should be shown in a close-up. It is important not to make the audience confused. In the introductory scene there are several cuts of Marion looking at number plates on the cars; a sequence with repeated cuts of a medium shot of Marion looking and a close-up shot of a number plate. To clearly show the difference of California and Arizona number, the number plates are shot in the same ECU (extreme close-up). These cuts show the audience Marion’s thoughts clearly; she needs to dispose of her Arizona number in order to blend in. However, the purpose of this sequence is not just to reveal what Marion’s plan is. The frequency of the point of view (POV) cuts shows her nervousness and the large size with ECU framing of the number plate express intimidation that Marion is feeling. Editing, camera angle, and music highlighted the weakness of being chased and the threat of a chaser. The purpose of each scene should be “not to show what you see, but to show emotion,” as Hitchcock said.
‘Anticipation’ rather than ‘Surprise’
In this scene, the psychological dynamics between the characters shift several times, drawing the audience into the story more and more. It is not said in the conversation, but it’s clear that Marion is thinking about how she can get away from the police. Meanwhile, the salesman thinks Marion must have committed a crime. All these inner thoughts become apparent to the audience through the characters eyes. The audience shares the secrets, sometimes with the police, sometimes with Marion, and sometimes with the salesman. These secretive worlds of the characters, as Hitchcock said, are what the film pulls the audience in. In this less than six-minute-long scene, Hitchcock skillfully showed just enough information to heighten the audience’s suspense.
Hitchcock said that in order to make a good suspense film, the film needs to give the audience “anticipation” rather than “surprise.” People tend to think that a suspense and thrill in a movie will be given by seeing something scary on the screen. However, he said, “Surprise finishes in a second. But the suspense from anticipation can extend a long time.” In this scene, the initial suspense comes from the fear of Marion being arrested by the police. At the same time, the audience anticipates how Marion will be revealed for her crime. And this “how” keeps changing as the films progresses and as the film shows who knows what. Will the police come in and get her? Will she be able to escape somehow? Will the salesman turn her in? At this moment, the audience is not just sitting and watching the screen. They are pulled in the film and actively participating to the story. Hitchcock again succeeds to play the audience here.
I myself have watched many suspense and thrillers in the past. However, Hitchcock’s films made me realize that the scariest moment in a film is not the vision of ghost or a bloody corpse, but our own anticipation and imagination. For example, imagine a scene where there is a closed door at the end of a hallway. There are strange noises coming from behind the door. We have the information that a brutal murder has happened behind that specific door in the past. The camera moves slowly toward the door. Cut to a character’s nervous face approaching to the door. The character’s hand is slowly extended and grabs the doorknob and the door starts to open slowly. A well-crafted film should make the audience anticipate what’s behind the door, and give them enough suspense by this point. What’s actually behind the door is not important.
ILLUSTRATOR: Hisako MIYAKE