Wednesday, May 16, 2012

For the Love of FIlm III: Hitchcock's Continuity "Error"

This is my second post in the For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon. Watch my video essay on Hitchcock’s influence on Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low here.

In 2011, the New Zealand Film Archive discovered part of The White Shadow, a film directed by Graham Cutts, and written, edited, and assistant directed by the legendary Alfred Hitchcock. The first three reels of this lost work have been arduously restored, but the film has only had a single public screening. For this year’s For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon, we are asking for donations to the National Film Preservation Foundation. If we can raise $15,000, the Foundation will provide free streaming of The White Shadow for four months, and record a new score by Michael Motilla. To donate, simply click here. And for more information on the blogathon, please visit Ferdy on Films, the Self-Styled Siren, and This Island Rod. Every donation counts, and we thank you for your continued support of film.

            Hitchcock’s Psycho has been studied mercilessly to death, but there’s one moment in particular that I haven’t seen many people comment on. It’s a scene that few remember, or at least discuss in detail, where which Sam and Lila visit the Sheriff and his wife and the Sheriff reveals the history of Norman and what not. This scene itself isn’t particularly fascinating—it’s the exposition to get us back to the motel—but there’s something odd in Hitchcock’s filming. The film is shot-reverse shot, as the Sheriff discusses the details. But what’s most perplexing is the placement of the Sheriff’s wife in these shots:

            The sheriff’s wife continually seems to jump around in the frame, appearing in both shots on opposite sides. Her appearance is oddly striking, and her necessity to the scene is nonexistent, but Hitchcock not only keeps her in the scene, but also makes what most would consider a continuity error. But we can’t consider it as such—Hitchcock was meticulous in every frame. He wouldn’t just leave such a mistake in the final product. Would he? 

            Of course, who notices such a thing? Not many, only the most hardcore cinephiles. Probably the same people who notice the numerous paintings of women being raped in Norman’s home, or the sardonic humor of the film only apparent during a second viewing (“I do errands for my mother, the ones she thinks I might be capable of doing,” Norman tells Marion). Hitchcock always described Psycho as a “fun picture” and in many ways, it is perhaps most similar to an amusement park with its thrill ride moments (a long build up to a huge drop—here the protagonist dropping out), a winding corn maze (misdirection toward dead ends, in this case often hollow eyes), and a fun house (plenty of mirrors, though often as doubles). Even the final sound of the picture, a crane cranking the car out of the home, sounds reminiscent of those roller coaster sounds that push the cart to the top of the hill.
            As much as Psycho is a horror story and a very popular one, I think the reason it gets written on so much is that Hitchcock’s primary audience for this film seems to be cinephiles, the men and women who will pick apart every last detail in this film (As Mrs. Bates tells us in her voiceover, “they’re probably watching me right now”). What’s going on with the Sheriff’s wife? She’s a red herring to those who get it: keep watching and smile. It’s a fun picture.

1 comment:

Tinky said...

Uh oh ... now I'm going to have to watch "Psycho" again and look at the wife! I'd love to hear you speculate about why she might be on the move......