Sunday, May 13, 2012

Hitchcock's Use of Editing Techniques: Notorious

I never get tired of watching Hitchcock films. Hitchcock's film Notorious (1946) is very lightly based upon the short story The Song of the Dragon written by John Taintor Foote. In fact, Foote is uncredited for the film. It is amazing to see how different the film is from the short story and how the film was developed from the tiny seed of the story from Song of the Dragon by the writer Ben Hecht. Anyone who would like to see this for themselves or who might be interested in screenwriting should pick up a copy or write to me and I will share a copy with you. In this post, however, instead of discussing the subject of how the written word is adapted to the motion picture, I'd like to concentrate on the use of techniques in editing and highlight how suspense is kept at a high temperature in Notorious. The tenuous relationship between the two main characters and their gender role opposites is displayed using several continuity editing techniques that contribute to the suspense, deception and espionage in which these characters are embroiled. Motifs of mise-en-scene are used to display aspects of similarity and repetition and help develop the narrative and film’s form, culminating with love and redemption for the heroes and of the treachery of the villains from which they are brought to their demise.

The scene presented here for discussion involves the use of one such central prop: the key to the wine cellar. Advancing the narrative through its use as prop and motif, Hitchcock employs two prominent techniques of the continuity system: the 180º axis system and rhythmic editing. The key serves as a visual metaphor for the unlocking of truth and its use in combination with these two techniques ingeniously heightens the scene’s mood of suspense and deception.

The scene begins with a montage sequence: a dissolve of the last shot of Dev and Alicia saying goodbye after discussing how they will further the investigation of her husband and his associates. In particular, Alicia has told him that she was not given the wine cellar key; Dev tells her that she should request her husband have a party to introduce his new bride, that he will attend, and that she should make a point to get the cellar key for him to investigate its contents. She walks off screen right, leaving Dev to look after her, his right side profile facing the camera, the scene dissolves into the still extreme long shot of the Sebastian Mansion, it is dark and all the windows are lit up (shot 1). (Follow along with a shot by shot breakdown.)

This montage sequence establishes the scene using elliptical editing; casually advancing the plot since the time of Dev and Alicia’s meeting to the night of the party and with the still mansion shot dissolving into a shot inside the house (shot 2). A still of the upstairs hallway shows a vase with flowers on a small table by a window. There is formal drapery which is open and we can see it is dark out. There is a grandfather clock showing the time of
6:40 in the evening. There are menacing shadows on the wall and part of the staircase banister is showing.

Next we dissolve into what we might call an establishing shot that calls our attention to the first key editing technique under discussion, the 180° axis system The scene starts at end point of the axis, Alicia (shot 3). Using the mise-en-scene of a railroad apartment type space with the doorways between three rooms, Hitchcock has the perfect setting to enhance the continuity system. Specifically, the doors to the three rooms mirror the camera as it focuses on the center line of the axis guiding the scene development from Alicia at one end point, to the key on top of the dressing table in the middle, to the opposite end point on the axis [and from Alicia] – her husband, who is at first not wholly visible, behind the bathroom door and in preparation for the night’s party. Enabling smooth screen direction, the 180° system identifies and maintains the principal motif of Mise-en-scene utilizing the prop of the wine cellar key and the movements of the characters around it. In concert, the rule helps develop the central theme of the heroine’s duplicity in her deceit and desire to unlock the truth of her husband’s treachery in order to gain another man’s love and her own redemption. In this scene, the system is never broken: the axis of action is never crossed and the camera transverses right on the center line of action throughout a majority as Hitchcock makes use of strong point of view editing and eyeline matching (e. g. shots 4, 6, 8, 13, 16). Only after Alicia has taken possession of the key does Hitchcock move off the center line to form a new axis of action, bringing the husband out from the shadows and from behind the bathroom door to face Alicia and try to claim control of his bride (shot 17). Using the 180° rule most definitely contributes to the power of the characters and their movement, yet sustains continuity by upholding the narrative.

The second technique of continuity editing in this scene that so strongly in combination with the first assists Hitchcock in building a riveting pulse, is the rhythmic editing he employs. The scene plays to a crescendo with longer shots interspersed with shorter point-of-view shots between Alicia and the key, Alicia and the bathroom door, and finally Alicia and her husband. Hitchcock uses rhythmic editing of cuts between long and short shots on the axis of action magnifying the fear and tension surrounding Alicia’s determination to obtain the cellar key (shots 5-14). He goes from a shot of Alicia to a shot of her POV of the bathroom door then to another shot of her POV that tracks and zooms in on the key; following her eyes and her thoughts through the camera. The use of rhythm keeps the viewer intensely the aware of the cat and mouse tension between Alicia and her husband.

The axis maintains a consistency in shot transitions but is balanced against the suspense created with its rhythm and keeps the audience’s attention on a tight string. The camera preserves the axis of action, so 
attention is maintained and un-obscured; it’s obvious Alicia is holding the key as it is obvious her husband is unaware (shot 18). 

With that knowledge, however, tension is increased by the question of whether she will elude his discovery. The brilliant use of rhythmic editing built upon the foundation of the axis is used to instill a breath holding fear and pulse from which we wish for release as the last shot’s dissolve of this scene moves into the next in this scene in the film Notorious.

This is a classic of the Hitchcock repertoire and I hope you enjoyed my analysis of this scene, but don't take my word for it, see it for yourself !

Thanks for reading. Peace out.


  1. Terrific post . . . I wonder if you would be able to send me a copy of the original short story? Tony

  2. Thank you for reading my post. As for the copy, please send me an email at I've been ill and will have to see if I can dig it out. I've been away from my blog and it's so wonderful to have some feedback. Thanks again.

  3. all this is great, really helped me understand the movie and how to make a shot analysis for a film class of mine

  4. Thanks for review, it was excellent and very informative.
    thank you :)

  5. Thank you for the review, this has been most helpful for my film class

  6. This has been super useful for my film assignment. Thanks a bunch!