Alfred Hitchcock’s 7‑Minute Master Class on Film Editing

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.

Relat­ed con­tent:

François Truffaut’s Big Inter­view with Alfred Hitch­cock (Free Audio)

Alfred Hitch­cock: The Secret Sauce for Cre­at­ing Sus­pense

Alfred Hitch­cock: A Rare Look Into the Filmmaker’s Cre­ative Mind

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rules for Watch­ing Psy­cho (1960)

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 Ange­lesA Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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Comments (2)
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  • eoghank says:

    sor­ry hitch, I count 39 shots in 45 sec­onds not 78 — haf the amount. u big aul exag­ger­a­tor

  • Heather says:

    hi there i real­ly enjoyed the arti­cle about Psy­cho and film cut­ting. i was won­der­ing if you could tell me the orig­i­nal name of the Alfred Hitch­cock inter­view you post­ed.

    kind regards


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