If you’ve made a film, you’ll remember when you realized that editing, more than any other stage of production, determines the audience’s final experience. “The first films ever made were shot in one take,” wrote the late, always editing-conscious Roger Ebert, reviewing Mike Figgis’ Time Code. “Just about everybody agrees that the introduction of editing was an improvement.” Figgis’ film tried to do without editing, successfully to my mind, not so successfully to Ebert’s. Later, the critic openly loathed Vincent Gallo’s traditionally edited The Brown Bunny, but his opinion turned almost 180 degrees when the director re-edited the movie, strategically cutting 26 minutes. “It is said that editing is the soul of the cinema,” Ebert wrote of the revision. “In the case of The Brown Bunny, it is its salvation.” Yet the impulse to create a wholly unedited film still occasionally grabs a major filmmaker, and not all of them wind up remaking Andy Warhol’s eight-hour still shot Empire.
Some of these pictures, thanks to well-placed cuts and clever camera movements, only look unedited. The best-known of these comes from no less a craftsman than Alfred Hitchcock, who built 1948’s Rope out of ten seemingly cut-free segments, each internal splice meticulously disguised. Twelve years later, he would make his most overt and memorable use of editing in Psycho. In the clip at the top of this post, Hitchcock himself explains the importance of editing — or, in his preferred term, assembly. He breaks down the structure of Psycho’s famous shower scene. “Now, as you know, you could not take the camera and just show a nude woman being stabbed to death. It had to be done impressionistically. It was done with little pieces of the film: the head, the hand, parts of the torso, shadow on the curtain, the shower itself. In that scene there were 78 pieces of film in about 45 seconds.” Say what you will about the content-restricting Hays Code; its limitations could sometimes drive to new heights the visual creativity of our best cinematic minds.
If you’d like to behold more of the editing prowess Hitchcock commanded, visit our collection of 20 Free Alfred Hitchcock Movies Online.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.