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.

The Auteur Theory: Intentional and Unintentional (Hitchcock, Eisenstein, and Scorsese)

The auteur theory is possibly the most interesting theory of film for the simple reason that there is no true definition to fully explain the theory. It is a theory that concentrates or focuses on the styles and themes that are consistent in the films of an individual artist. Yet it is also a theory that explains that all the films of that individual artist or auteur is a basically a vision or view the auteur has on the world. It his vision and so the auteur usually uses the same themes to establish a point or message to the world.  However, some auteurs are great artists without them knowing it, while others know of their themes and are not afraid to inject the audience with their message. Auteurs have a theme consistent in their work and that auteur doesn’t necessarily have to be the director, in fact it may be a director and an actor working together, each displaying his own vision.

Hitchcock Sympathetic Look next to one of "The Birds"

Auteurs or authors in film are great artists, and while anyone can be an auteur, the work of the auteur varies, and therefore only the great ones are remembered for their work and clear vision. The auteur is clearly an individual who has something to say to the world, and through his work, the viewer discovers his statement. However, an auteur doesn’t necessarily have to be the director; an actor can be just as great of an auteur as the greatest of directors. Therefore in some cases we might end up watching a movie that has more than one auteur. A great example of such a case would be that of Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese in the70’s. Back then, De Niro seemed to be very selective of his roles, and even though he experimented with genres, the characters he chose to portray had this constant similarity or feature. All his characters were those who seemed isolated, lonely, or tried to fit in whether among friends as Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, or an immigrant trying to fit in American as Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Copolla’s The Godfather Part II, perhaps a better example would be trying to fit in with society as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, or maybe a veteran trying to fit in with life after the Vietnam war in Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter. His work as an auteur was still very strong and present well into the eighties with his portrayal of Jake La Motta in Raging Bull or Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy. Martin Scorsese worked with him several times, but his vision seemed a bit different. His movies seemed like he was trying to embody New York and its gritty environment unlike Woody Allen who kind of tried to portray the beauty of New York in movies such as Annie Hall and Manhattan. Scorsese’s collaborations with De Niro include Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, New York, New York, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, and Goodfellas. All of which were portrayals of a city and the corrupted souls living within that city, in his case New York. Again, Scorsese continued to portray this city even without his collaborator in movies such as Gangs of New York, New York Stories, The Concert for New York, and Bringing Out the Dead. This is probably one of the few examples in which two great auteurs clashed with one another, and while one was contributing to his statement to the world, the other was doing the same as well. Now that one has established the point that there may be more than one auteur working within a picture, some may argue that some auteurs or great artists with a specific vision present their authorship intentionally while at other times it is unintentional and the auteur is unaware of his effect on the picture.


Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle

  Directors who are intentionally adjusting their picture to establish a certain effect are those who know their vision and are not afraid to express it to the world. One can recognize those so called intentionally artistic auteurs by identifying the input the director had on the picture. A very obvious example would be that of Sergie Eisenstein. Eisenstein clearly knew what he was doing, and through intellectual and dialectical montage he expressed the purpose of his movies. In his movies Battleship Potemkin and Strike, he used editing to an extreme to persuade the audience to act against authorities and those who take their power for granted. He knew what he was doing and he used the same methods in his movies to achieve an effect on his audience in all of his movies. A true film student can clearly identify an Eisenstein or Stanley Kubrick picture without even watching the opening or closing credits because they had a very specific style of filmmaking. While in their cases their contribution to their pictures is quite clear, others have intentionally tried to deliver a message but have done so without the awareness of the audience. A terrific example of such a case would be Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. An average movie-goer may watch the film and think that it is simply the greatest character study ever duplicated on film, but the movie is so much more than that. Again, by identifying the input the director had on the picture one can see the vision or message he had to the world. As stated before, Scorsese pictures usually talked about corrupted individuals living in New York City, and it is arguable that Taxi Driver is his ultimate masterpiece in an auteur point of view. The movie is quite confusing and the director doesn’t give us any clues or reasons for the actions that Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) commits, but if one thinks about the movie, there are two major plotlines. The first being the story of Travis and how he meets Betsy (Cybil Shepherd) in her working place and takes her out to dinner, and later on tries to assassinate the man she’s working for Senator Candidate Palantine.  The second plotline is that of Travis meeting Iris (Jodie Foster) a 12 year old prostitute in her working place, takes out to dinner, and succeeds at killing the man she’s working for Sport played by (Harvey Keitel). Having read the screenplay, I happen to know that Paul Schrader intended for the Iris plotline to take place after the Palantine plotline; however, Scorsese did not do that, he made them intersect as if to compare or establish a statement. Both storylines take place scene after scene intersecting with one another even though that wasn’t supposed to be the order. He clearly filmed the movie in the correct order since Travis’s haircut is shorter in the Iris scenes than in the Betsy ones; however in the movie, we jump from one scene to the other from short hair to long hair, Iris to Betsy, politics to the underground, and it is quite clear that Scorsese’s input was to have the movie edited that way. The interesting aspect about this is the similarities between both storylines. Travis meets both at their working places (an open office and a cheap motel room), he takes them both out for lunch (in a cafeteria), and shaves to a Mohawk and attempt to kill both of their bosses (Sport, Iris’s pimp and Candidate Palantine). Having watched the movie dozens of times, many more similarities arise like the dinner conversations of Travis with both Iris and Betsy. In both Travis is badmouthing their working environment, or the first time Travis meets their bosses (Palantine in his cab and Sport in the street) in both conversations he’s gentle and friendly with them and the most important similarity is probably his attempt to kill them. Here’s where the interesting part comes, for he failed to kill Palantine yet succeeded to kill Sport. Scorsese may be trying to state something here like the reason that as Travis Bickle puts it the “scum and filth of the Earth” exist are the Senator’s and leaders; or maybe Scorsese was just trying to state that the Senators are just as corrupt as the “low lifes” living in the dark street alleys of New York. It is Scorsese’s vision that is displayed before our eyes, and he and he only should take credit for that for it was his input to shoot the movie that way and have both stories intersect to establish the connection between them. (What he meant by this connection and what the message he was trying to inject us viewers is just my personal speculation.) Other directors, however, have done so without them knowing it.

     An unintentional auteur isn’t aware of his input to the picture. He isn’t aware of what he was indirectly telling to the world. Robin Wood, a very much focused student of Hitchcock films, explains very clearly how Hitchcock was an auteur or great artist without being aware of that. The reason Robin Wood uses Hitchcock as an exemplar of the auteur theory in the chapter “Genre, Ideology, and Auteur” is because Hitchcock’s vision of the world is reflected in the themes that predominate in his films. There is this consistency within his movies that seem unintentional. A great example would be the characters of Norman Bates in Psycho and Bruno in Strangers on a Train, both of those characters have homosexual features. The way Norman Bates walks and the way Bruno talks may suggest that they are homosexuals and since Wood believes that the vision the director has of the world dominates the picture, one can argue that since Hitchcock displayed both Bruno and Bates as the villains of their movies probably suggests that Hitchcock was homophobic. Hitchcock probably didn’t do this intestinally because it would be too controversial to do so, but using subliminal messages within the dialogue and any other element in a scene, we as viewers can get something out of the director’s character and vision. A lighter example would be in The Birds, it is probably a movie environmentalists despise, but the truth is, Hitchcock may have created the most environmentalist picture of all time. At first we may just think of the birds as evil birds gone crazy, but when studying the movie carefully one can easily see that Hitchcock was an environmentalist himself. In the beginning of the movie, the main characters meet in a bird store where all the birds are trapped in tiny cages. By the end of the movie, the main characters or human beings are the ones who are trapped only not in a cage but in a house. This times the ones the humans are the birds’ captives not the other way around. However, it’s the ending of the movie that makes Hitchcock an environmentalist. At the end, the trapped humans are freed and leave the house without any of the hundreds of surrounding birds attacking. This is the beauty of the scene, they actually let them go, which may suggest a message Hitchcock was trying to send out to his viewers; they (the birds) let us (humans) go, so why shouldn’t we set them free as well. Again, this is just a personal speculation in which the director may have tried to communicate a message unintentionally. The reason all of these examples are given is to clarify that Hitchcock may be the perfect auteur with a clear vision, and as Wood believes being unaware of his genius contributions to his pictures.   

            So what defines an auteur, he is probably an individual artist who has something to say to the world, and he is saying it through his work whether as an actor director, or even screenwriter. Whether or not that auteur is aware of his authorship and displayed theme or message in his films does not matter as long as he succeeds at doing so and the viewer becomes aware of what the person is trying to communicate and so labels him as an individual artist or author of his message. Most actors and directors these days either do it for the money or excitement of working on a movie, and sadly only a few can be recognized as true auteurs who actually work in film because they have something important to say to the world or the audience.