Throughout the history of art, artists have endlessly
challenged their audiences to see. They
toyed with their audiences’ perception, persuaded them to question their
assumptions and search for deeper meanings.
As the way we see is less spontaneous and natural than
we tend to believe, a large part of seeing
depends upon habit, upon the convention of perspective. Therefore, to
effectively affect their viewership, directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and
Nicolas Roeg defied the traditional film-making customs and reinvented them.
In this essay, I am going to explore how the theme of
seeing is separately approached in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t
Look Now. Fascinatingly, the same theme is tackled radically different: in Psycho, seeing is represented as voyeurism, while, in Don’t Look Now, it takes the form of mysticism and consciousness.
Psycho opens with a bird-eye view over Pheonix and zooms to
a hotel window. The theme of seeing is introduced as voyeurism from the first
shots: the viewer peeks through drawn
blinds and invades the intimacy of two characters, Marion and Sam. This
establishes the viewers’ position as voyeurs, which will later be accentuated
by two iconic scenes: Norman watching Marion through a peephole and the
infamous shower scene.
The first scene mentioned occurs at the Bates Motel, after
Marion has dinner with Norman. She returns to her cabin and Norman watches her
undress through a peephole. We, the viewers, see Marion in a framed shot – as
if we ourselves are looking through a hole. Hitchcock uses point of view shots
to include the audience in Norman’s prying. We look with Norman – and we become voyeurs ourselves. His guilt is
transferred to us; Norman craves Marion and he watches her eagerly, just as we excitedly
observe Janet Leigh. We are provoked to view Marion the way Norman does – and
to question the nature of our gaze. What differentiates the two? Are our
reasons more acceptable than Norman’s? Is our prying ethical?
Moreover, the shower scene, which startlingly kills
off the main lead of Psycho one third
through the film, was edited with jump-cuts and 180-degree shifts in viewpoint.
This, along with the famous juxtaposition of the shot of blood swirling down
the drain and of a close-up of Marion’s staring eye, does not only simulate
nausea, but it also increases the intensity of voyeurism. Marion outstretches
her hand towards the viewers as she collapses. Her dead eye, linked with the
blackness of the bathtub drain, contrasts the close-up of Norman’s bright, inquisitive
eye , which mirrors our own stare. The
viewer’s gaze becomes violent.
In the ending scene, Norman looks straight into the camera,
breaking the fourth wall, blankly stating that “They’re probably watching me.
(…) Let them see.” It might be implied that the authorities are watching him,
but they are not – we, the viewers are. We are omniscient: we look through the
peephole with Norman, we kill with Norman, we discover Norman’s secrets and we
know that Norman (or his persona, Norman’s mother) would hurt a fly.
Cinematography-wise, Hitchcock chose to have Psycho
shot in 50mm lenses, in order to “give the closest approximation to human
vision technically possible.” This creates the illusion that we are not
watching the action unfolding on a screen, but with our own eyes.
Finally, Hitchcock stated that nine out of ten people
would “stay and look” if they saw a woman across the courtyard, undressing for
bed. “They could pull down their blinds, but they never do, they stand there
and look out.”
This quote is extremely poignant to what Hitchcock’s
intent is. With Psycho, Hitchcock
establishes a strong connection between Norman’s murderous gaze and the viewer’s.
We invade Marion’s privacy together and are pressed to believe that our passive
voyeurism causes Marion’s death.
On the other hand, Don’t
Look Now explores the theme of seeing in a more metaphorical and mystical
way; seeing is presented as perceiving and as a gift, a sixth sense.
The film itself is a powerful, visual study of grief.
Based on Daphne du Maurier’s novella, it follows the Baxters, a married couple
who lose their daughter, Christine, in a tragic accident.
The film’s bold title introduces the theme of seeing. It
creates apprehension and a sense of unease. The structure appears in the film: “Don’t
look now”, John says to his wife. “But there are a couple of old ladies who are
trying to hypnotize me.” This sequence urges us, the viewers, to pay attention.
Is the film trying to hypnotize us?
Thus, seeing (or not seeing) becomes a leitmotif; while
comforting his wife, John tells her that “seeing is believing”. This statement
might be the gist of the film. It also resumes their relationship, as, while
Laura technically is a ‘believer’, John is a ‘seer’. Laura is allured by two older
women she meets in a restaurant, one of whom alleges to be a clairvoyant who
can see their daughter. However, John
is sceptical. This is a paradox, as John is the one who has the ability to see: through the film, he has vivid premonitions
– he predicts his daughter’s death, his own murder and his funeral, but he
blatantly disregards his visions. He can see,
but he does not choose to believe. His
ignorance is his downfall and his incapacity to read the signs is what brutally
kills him in the end.
In this case, the montage disillusions the viewers: we
tend to believe that John’s premonitions are real. Roeg joins shots that might
be linked, but that are not necessarily connected. As one of the most popular
film conventions is that shots are joined chronologically, this disturbs the
viewers, who become uncertain of what is real and what is not.
what it seems”, John tells his daughter when she asks about flat pond water.
This applies to the film as well. We see many duplicates, mirrored images: the
two sisters in the bathroom mirror, John and Laura in their hotel room,
Christine’s reflection in the pond water, photographs, the sketches the police
make of Laura’s face. Mirrored images
symbolize deceit: a distorted side of reality. Roeg pushes his viewers to doubt
the authenticity of what they see, to wonder if the film’s reality is a
Seeing is a metaphor for perspective, as well. The two
English sisters Laura meets in the bathroom, right after she collapses, explain
to her that both can see, but differently: one is blind and the other one is
psychic. Heather, the blind sister, tells John that she finds it easy to
navigate through the city because of the city’s walls’ echo, while John finds
the echo confusing: a matter of perspective.
Nicolas Roeg’s approach to this theme mirrors his own
convictions. He believes in destiny and is confident that coincidence does not
exist. He thinks that everything is connected and this translates to his film.
In Don’t Look Now, all elements are
intertwined. All the details that appear urge us to see: for example, the film is set in Venice, a flooded city, where the
canals are a constant reminder of Christine’s fate.
Therefore, while both films approach the theme of
seeing, they develop it drastically different. Psycho warns viewers about the dehumanizing and narcissistic nature
of voyeurism and Don’t Look Now explores
the mystical realm of visions that are entwined with grief.
However, what both films have in common is that both proceed
to startle their audiences by breaking cinema conventions.
By pushing the viewers to be active voyeurs, rather
than passive onlookers, Hitchcock twists the customs of classical Hollywood
Cinema. Classical cinema provides a ‘safe space’ for audiences, a private world
they can wordlessly observe, a distant fictive world that provides escapism –
in contrast, Psycho is not a safe
space: it makes them feel exposed.
Hitchcock also manipulates the viewers’ tendency to relate to the main
character, prompting them to relate to a murderer and, in turn, making them
feel guilty and vulnerable.
Roeg confounds viewers by not using a traditional editing.
Viewers are accustomed to trust films; they assume that what they see is not
only chronological, but “real” in the world of film. Roeg twists that by
linking shots of John’s visions to real actions, without any specific
forewarning like techniques such as fade-out or dissolve.
John’s ignorance becomes the viewer’s ignorance: while
John’s inability to see killed him,
the viewers’ inability to read the
film makes it impossible for them to understand it.
While Hitchcock accuses his viewers of violence, Roeg
accuses his of ignorance.
Roeg manipulates time using slow-motion (John realizing
Christine died) and superimpositions (Heather’s blank expression) which creates
the illusion of a leap in a fragmented and discontinuous time.
In conclusion, what the two films brilliantly succeed
in doing, through various filmmaking techniques, is to persuade their viewers to
be curious, to discover more about the ways they are unconsciously living. Psycho and Don’t Look Now steer their audiences to analyse their actions, to think
independently and to hopefully test conventions themselves. Overall, they urge
us to see.