The Power of Sound and Editing (The Conversation and Psycho)

Gene Hackman in The Conversation

When most people think about movies, they usually judge them in terms of acting and directing, rarely does a person judge its editing or sound mixing. The reason for that being is because most editors and sound editors do all they can to make their editing as smooth as possible for the audience. When editing and sound mixing is used correctly there’s a certain flow that’s required in a good movie, the movie seems to fit better, and the truth is without editing and sound mixing most great movies wouldn’t be nearly as good as they are regarded. The 1974 Francis Ford Coppola thriller The Conversation and the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock horror movie Psycho are perfect examples of movies largely depending on the process and technique of editing and sound mixing. Each of those movies can be seen as perfect examples where the editing and sound mixing were used to perfection.

Storyboard Image of the Shower Scene

 In terms of editing a movie, there’s mostly the basic idea of joining shots to give the sense of continuity in terms of time, space, graphics, and rhythm. In terms of sound mixing, there’s the basic idea of fidelity, the extraction of sound such as off screen sound, and of course the addition of sound to a particular scene. However, there’s also the connection between those two aspects or techniques. With precise editing, there’s always a fascinating interplay of sound and image. Editing is so much more than just the joining of shots; it requires instinct, accuracy, and precise use of shots in terms of their relation to one another. After Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic Psycho, the editing was probably revolutionized because of the use of various forms of editing in that particular movie. In terms of rhythm, the movie uses the movement in time very efficiently. For example, it is clear that the movie starts one afternoon, as we are transformed from outside the window of an apartment into the apartment using smart editing. However, when Leigh leaves the room, we realize that it’s still that same day. She goes to work, collects some money that she’s supposed to put into the bank and goes back home. All that happens in one particular afternoon, and when she decides to run away with the money, the editing in terms of rhythm becomes more and more interesting. Hitchcock uses a close up of the main character, Marion Crane, as she drives away from her hometown. The shot shows her face, part of the steering wheel, and the background, which includes the sky. The shots of course changes from that particular close up shot to what might be regarded as an eye-line matching shot, in which we as the audience see the highway in front of the character. The audience begins to notice that the bright sky turn darker and darker, and eventually it starts to rain and Marion pulls over to sleep it off. The first quarter of the movie takes place in one day, which gives the movie a very interesting flow, and movement of time. The following shot involves Marion waking up the next morning after spending the night sleeping in her car. Again, the viewer knows that it’s the next day, and for the next twenty minutes or so, we stay within that time frame (she goes changes her car, and by night pulls over to the Bates Motel). George Tomasini, the editor of the movie also uses editing in terms of time very precisely. For example, the scene in which the private detective, Arbigast starts checking different hotels for any information on a missing Marion. The scene shows Arbigast in different hotels in various shots, which gives us the sense that time has passed, and that he checked those hotels in a period of time.

Tomasini also uses the relation between shots quite creepily in terms of graphics. By showing shots of stuffed birds, he puts the viewer in an uncomfortable mood. The last type of relation between shots can be seen as Tomasini uses space. When Marion’s sister, looks outside of the Bates house and sees Norman running towards her from the Bates Motel. Space is all that was needed to keep us on the edge of our seats. Psycho is a landmark in terms of editing for the very reason that it uses a large variety of editing in less than 120 minutes.

The Shower Scene

Another element that most viewers aren’t aware of is the process of sound mixing. Most people think there’s nothing to sound that requires talent, accuracy, and time, yet the truth is without proper sound editing and mixing, movies wouldn’t be at the place they are today. Elements such as overlapping dialogue, manipulating volume, using silence, extracting and adding sounds, and off screen sounds are just a few of the procedures and aspects that the sound editor has to have in mind. In Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, the subject of sound is the main focus of the plot. The idea of having the ability to record any conversation between two individuals without them notice it is terrifying, yet very interesting. There’s one particular scene in the movie that was and still is very fascinating to watch. It’s when Harry Caul played by Gene Hackman tries to record a conversation between two characters in the middle of a crowd. In order to find out what they are saying, he extracts overlapping conversations, on-location sound, and abstract noise; at the end Harry Caul ends up with the line “He’d kill us if he got the chance.” That particular scene has got to be one of the most revolutionary scenes in film history in terms of sound mixing. The way the main character plays with all kinds of overlapping sounds, makes the viewer wonder if this is the same case when it comes to filming a movie. The sound editor probably uses very similar equipment and methods as those of Harry Caul, which is why the main characters voices are often heard more clearly than that of a train, equipment, or any extras acting on set. There’s also a very interesting connection between editing and sound.

 In order to edit certain scenes properly one has to have the element of sound in mind. In probably one of the most famous, and well edited scenes in all of cinema, also known as the shower scene in Psycho, the use of both editing and sound to create a realistic and horrific scene is very detailed, carefully thought out, and perfect. In less than one minute, we witness a combination of at least 50 shots, in relation to the sound of a knife slashing against skin. However, what’s even more interesting is the fact that we never actually see the knife enter the woman’s flesh, yet we’re convince we do through the sight of stabbing (hand motion), sound effects, the musical score, and of course the careful editing. While most people think that the director and the actors do most of the work, one has to know that the editor, sound mixer, and composer have a lot to do with why the movie turned out the way it did. Therefore they deserve a lot more acknowledgment and credit for their work. The job of the editor is to take scenes and fit them together, and just like a puzzle, they have to fit together perfectly. In addition to that the sound effects, off screen sounds, overlapping dialogue, and every other aspect relating to sound is taken care of by the sound editor to assure a realistic and smooth feel to the movie. On top of all that we have the musical score of the movie which most probably serves as the flow of the movie. In order to turn out with a great movie, one has to make all three of those techniques work well together without the audience noticing. Both The Conversation and Psycho have done so, which is probably why both of those films are studied worldwide by film students and professors.


22 thoughts on “The Power of Sound and Editing (The Conversation and Psycho)

    1. Thank you S M Rana, the more I read about that scene, the more interesting it becomes. I’ve seen the movie a dozen times and never get bored of it. I watch it every Halloween as a tradition too 🙂 I love it when you comment


  1. In case of this Halloween, I watched John Carpenter’s “Halloween” at night for writing review. Although being made in different style(shot with steady camera), opening sequence reminds of this stabbing sequence from “Psycho”. We just barely watch several stabbing from masked killer’s view, and this is quite shocking to first-timer. And more shocking when the identity of killer is revealed at the end.

    Brian DePalma’s “Blow Out” is another nice example of sound and editing. This time, there are sounds and there are also pictures. And what happened is fascinatingly constructed through careful manipulations of these sources.


    1. I agree, Halloween is one of the greatest horror movies of all time and one of the few cases where I’d call a horror movie a masterpiece. The way they handle the plot is very interesting. A film with several memorable scenes and a landmark in the slasher genre.

      I agree that Blow Out was a masterful combination of both sight and sound. DePalma’s greatest achievement in my opinion.


  2. Ditto on Halloween. It’s probably my favorite horror movie. As for the sequels…..:-/
    I’m getting quite an education on what goes into making a film by reading these posts, Wael. Thank you, and keep them coming!


    1. I will 🙂 Your comments make my day and keep looking forward to them 🙂 The sequels and remakes are very dissapontng. I don’t think Rob Zombe understood why the original was so scary and creepy.


  3. Even before Rob Zombie, you had Halloweens II through VI (I think–I stopped watching after II, and I really should’ve stopped after I). I think Zombie’s career in cinema is indicative of the “bottom line” mentality that some studios seem to have. They aren’t interested in making money on great films; they’re just interested in making money. So, as long as Rob Zombie’s movies continue to make money, they give him more movies to gut.


    1. I think the horror genre has really gone down the drain these past few years. I mean now it’s all about making you jump out of your seat and having an overdose of violance and gore. Back then movies were scary because the idea itself and the way it was presented haunted you long after the movie was over.


  4. Great piece. In case you or anyone reading your post has missed it there’s an extraordinary group of special features on the ‘Apocalypse Now’ The Complete Dossier double-disc DVD about the sound, music and mix of the film. ‘AN’ is essentially the father of modern Dolby 5.1 and the features offer an incredible look into Coppola’s mind and how elaborate and thoughtful the soundtrack is. I found it all extremely fascinating and worthy, alone, of the purchase price. I highly reccomend it.

    PS. Any idea how I can link to your blog from my own? I don’t see much traffic but I would be happy to direct those I do get along to your blog as well.


    1. Thanks for the recommendation. I have a single disc edition of Apocalypse Now so I never saw that feature. If it’s worth the price as you say, I’ll check it out. Is it based on the film itself or sound mixing in general? Also, Apocalypse Now is one of my favorite movies ever yet I still haven’t seen the Director’s Cut in fear that it might ruin the original for me. Do you think I should finally get myself to watch it or should I stick to the original…some films just get worse with Director’s Cut…which version do you prefer?


      1. All of the special features are Apocalypse Now specific. Pound-for-pound, it’s probably the one of the best DVD treatments there is. There are hours of special features and none of it I would consider “filler.”

        AN is one of my favorite films of all time as well. While I prefer the theatrical release I think you should check out the extended version just so you have seen it. Both versions of the film are included in that DVD release.

        As far as linking your blog, I simply went to ‘My Dashboard’ and clicked on the LINKS tab on the left hand side. You can add links to your home page that way, not just for wordpress blogs but for anything you’d like to link to.


  5. Great write up on the importance of editors and sound designers. They are pivotal parts of the film-making process, but it is truly a huge team effort with sometimes up to thousands of people each adding their own touch. You picked two very powerful films to showcase your points.

    However, I am not sure how you got through the post without mentioning Walter Murch for his work on the Conversation. Coppola was very much “gone” during the post production of The Conversation, as he’d already started working on Godfather II, and left most of the work in Murch’s hands. Murch cut his teeth as a feature film editor on this project while simultaneously working on the sound which was such an integral part of this film. I suspect that this film cemented his path as one of the few dual film-sound editors in the business.


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