Playing the Audience

- Hitchcock’s Pure Cinema -





After embezzling a large amount of cash from work, Marion is preparing to runaway, packing in her room. She committed this crime impulsively out of her strong desire to marry her lover. She continues throwing her clothes into a small suitcase that lays open on the bed. There is a bundle of cash, which she was supposed to deposit in a bank, next to the suitcase. While getting ready to leave, she can’t keep her eyes off the cash. After checking her car title and closing the suitcase, she finally stuffs the cash into a handbag and rushes out of her room.
This is a scene from the movie, Psycho, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. It is the 53rd film in his 58 year-long career as a film director. This film clearly highlights and displays the masterful craftsmanship that the director acquired in his lifetime. The 1950s were the most productive year for Hitchcock, with many memorable box office hits, such as Vertigo, Rear Window and North by Northwest. Psycho tends to be overlooked for its cinematic masterfulness because of the fact that it became popular for the visual violence, which was rare in those days. However, without any doubt, I believe that this is the Hitchcock’s best film.

When you are watching a Hitchcock movie, you feel like your mind is being controlled by the film. It is as if you see and follow the flashing instructions on the screen, such as “Laugh right here” or “Be nervous at this point” or “Be scared now.” This is because the audience’s perceived emotions about the film are skillfully calculated. Controlling the audience’s emotion is the ultimate goal for each scene in the film, and Hitchcock utilizes camera angles, camera movements, compositions, sound effects, music and editing to achieve this.

In one of many interviews, Hitchcock has said that he creates a scene like a composer writes a musical score. Instead of a composer playing instruments to complete a music piece, Hitchcock plays the audience to create a scene. When watching one of his films, the audience’s minds are constantly at work. Based on the information given to them on the screen, they wonder if the film will go in a certain direction or take a sharp turn. As they follow the story, they try to predict if the story will turn out this way or that. If their prediction doesn’t come true they tend to think that the film is slow and boring. When a surprise comes out of nowhere, they feel betrayed by the film, and as a result, the film looks foolish. Surprises have to make sense in the end or you will lose the audience’s mind. On the other hand, if the timing and reasoning is right, the film will grab the audience’s mind and won’t let go all the way to the end. This is what Hitchcock does best.

During the introductory scenes before the one mentioned above, there are no suggestions of Marion running away with the company money. She simply says that she would like to go home and rest after taking the money to the bank because she has a headache. She leaves the office and the film dissolves to the next shot, where she is staring at something nervously. It appears to be that she is in her room, not completely dressed. We wonder what she is doing. When the camera slowly pans down and reveals the cash, surprise! We realize that she took the money home. With her expression nervous and uncertain, we know she is up to no good. At this moment, the information given in the opening scene will hit our mind. Marion desires to get married with her lover, but is somewhat reluctant to do so because of his financial situation. Now this surprise makes sense.

Movie techniques, called “Pure Cinema”

Although it’s clear that she is running away from her crime, the repeated shots of Marion looking at the cash make us think that she might regret what she has done. In this scene, the shot of her looking at something and the eyeline match shot of the cash are repeated four times. Hitchcock called this technique of point of view editing “pure cinema”. With other visual arts, such as a play or photography, which part of the stage or the frame of the photography draws the attention of a viewer depends on the preference of the viewer. In a play, a viewer may be interested in an actor talking or an actor sitting behind. In photography, a viewer may be interested in the foreground flower, or background ocean.

In a movie, a filmmaker has much more control over this by choosing and showing any objects. The proximity of an object on the screen, such as close up of medium shot, will control the intensity of audience’s emotion. How often the filmmaker shows certain object also will determine how intense the emotion will be. In Marion’s bedroom scene, if the shot of looking at the cash is repeated only once, the audience probably feels less of Marion’s guilt. If the reverse shot is not the close up of the cash but a clock, the audience will think Marion needs to go or be somewhere by a certain time. Hitchcock considered this as one of the strongest power of cinematic effects, and thus calls it as “pure cinema.”

By repeating the shot four times, Hitchcock emphasized Marion’s regret and her unsure feelings of what she had done deep in the audience’s mind. The cash in the repeated close up shots enforces the weight of Marion’s guilt about the crime she committed. With these emotional cues, more suspense will emerge: is she running away or going back to work to apologize. Bernard Herrmann’s score effectively heightens this suspense and also ominously suggests what will happen to her later in the film.
After closing the suitcase, Marion sits on the bed, avoiding looking at the money. It is as if she views the money as something demonic and threatening. Finally, she makes up her mind, sticks the cash in her handbag and leaves the room. Marion is no doubt a criminal. Yet we cannot help but feel sympathy for her because we just witnessed her internal struggle with her guilty conscious. This feeling towards the heroin is crucial for the audience to identify themselves with her and experience what Marion will later go through in the film. This scene happens about 11 minutes from the start of the film, yet it has successfully grasped our mind and we are ready for the rest of the ride with the film. It is working on us just as Hitchcock planned years ago. He played us successfully.

I loved movies when I grew up in Japan and was a regular visitor of movie theatres. During my teenage years, the movie Exorcist was released and horror movies became popular. It was after I watched every single major horror film, which came from abroad, that I had a chance to see Hitchcock’s films in a revival theater. There was no blood gushing out into the air nor a gruesome murder scene in Hitch’s films. Yet, the suspense and chilling feeling I experienced was much stronger than the contemporary splatter films. Why? What makes the difference? It was the revelation of my life; the moment when movies became, not just what I enjoyed watching, but what I watched to find out how they were made.