I first saw “Psycho” in an order that must be unusual among Hitchcock devotees: it was the last of his American movies that I watched. I had avoided it for a long time, imagining that it must be exploitative, terrifying, akin to the “slasher” movies so popular at slumber parties. In fact, its big “moments” had become so canonical as to have lost their shock value. It seemed to have three merits: Bernard Herrmann’s unforgettable score, thrilling despite its future entrenchment as a musical cliché; Anthony Perkins’s haunting performance; and the most famous set piece, the impressive, disturbing shower scene. But even these merits were reminders of the film’s many obvious deficiencies. The technical challenges were the raison d’etre. The psychology was farfetched and over-explicated. The feeling of the film reflected the way it was made: on a low budget with a crew from the “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” television show. The structure was problematic; had the film actually been an episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” it could have ended after the shower scene, followed by Hitchcock himself invisibly wiping the blood from the corners of his mouth as he said, “This young lady has discovered that crime doesn’t pay. I don’t think she will attempt any more thefts, do you?”
In “The Moment of ‘Psycho’: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder” (Basic Books, $22.95), David Thomson, one of the cinema’s most prolific and idiosyncratic chroniclers, offers an informal tour around this dubious landmark of cinema. While acknowledging “Psycho”’s morally ambiguous status as a pioneer of violence-as-art, and purporting to trace its influence, Thomson also takes a close look at the 1960 film. His chatty, free-associative remarks resemble nothing so much as a DVD commentary track; we can almost hear throat-clearings and chuckles above the muted swells and scrapes of Herrmann’s score.
Thomson fails to acknowledge that America’s love of murder—at least in films—had been fed by gangster movies, film noir and even war movies, long before Marion drove up to the Bates Motel. (Surprisingly, Thomson applies the term “noir” to the spirit of 1960s films.) Certainly Hitchcock himself had specialized in murder for over 30 years before “Psycho.” Thomson prefers to view “Psycho” as separate from the rest of Hitchcock’s oeuvre; in fact, the four-page entry on Hitchcock in Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film is a model of unreliable criticism. There is not a single mention of “Shadow of a Doubt,” Hitchcock’s own favorite of his films, while the dreadful “Under Capricorn” is rated one of his 10 best. After proposing the intriguing idea that Hitchcock’s obsession with fear constrained him philosophically, Thomson then proclaims, apparently with a straight face, that Hitchcock cannot compare to Bach, Proust or Rembrandt as an artist. Perhaps not, but then, Nicole Kidman—to whom Thomson published a 300-page paean—was no Virginia Woolf, Oscar-winning proboscis notwithstanding.
Thomson’s filmography of “Psycho”’s celluloid legacy could have been the cornerstone of this book. While some inclusions are insightful—such as “The Conversation”—many of the films are there simply because they further advanced the cause of gore. And surely Brian De Palma’s trashy reveries should be omitted—or put in a category with Mel Brooks’s “High Anxiety” as Hitchcock burlesques. William Castle’s 1965 exploitation thriller “I Saw What You Did,” not included in Thomson’s list, contains a graphic shower murder. Hitchcock’s own “Frenzy” is cited for its violence and ugliness, but his 1964 “Marnie”—which, like “Psycho,” is the story of a female thief—is left out. While “Psycho” turns into an exploration of the psyche of the heroine’s murderer, “Marnie” is an exploration of the (living) heroine’s own, which is more satisfying. Does “Psycho”’s gritty black-and-white photography make it more legitimate to Thomson than “Marnie”’s gorgeous, high-gloss finish?
For someone who so often writes about classic Hollywood films, Thomson disavows them in a disappointingly conventional way. True to his generation, he is sentimentally enamored of the French New Wave and holds it up as the highest standard. Thomson even disavows Hitchcock himself, invoking Robin Wood’s idea that the director did not understand his own films. This is cowardly, flattering the writer while justifying any interpretation. Thomson belittles Hitchcock in the familiar ways—as a relic of a stuffier age; an intellectually limited craftsman who knew nothing but movies; a pitiful, lovelorn obesity case panting over his blondes—and, perhaps most cruelly, an insecure puddle of gratitude over admiration from Francois Truffaut at the beginning of the latter’s career.
Sometimes the very subject of Hitchcock is rejected. Thomson readily lurches into observations on any area of life, from college computer studies to NASCAR. In the final chapter of the book, he indulges in truly excessive digression. Perhaps fearing that he had left some big subjects unaddressed, Thomson opines of driving through the west, “the unfolding views are done with skill and taste. If only the country could do education, welfare, health with the same grace.” And now, back to our movie…
Thomson the road warrior reassures us that, in fact, the motels of rural California are run by normal, sane people. He declares, “You see, divas like Norman Bates don’t actually get to run motels. It’s too much work. …You need the bathrooms cleaned.” Never mind that Thomson had made much of Norman’s lengthy and dogged clean-up of the motel bathroom after the shower murder, which reveals “how innately obedient and tidy-minded he is.” These kinds of contradictions do a disservice to Thomson, whose obvious devotion to film is palpable and inspiring. It is this that makes his recklessness tolerable (up to a point).
Thomson has all of the qualities one would want in a film writer: breadth of knowledge, unpredictable prose, humor. His off-the-cuff responses to “Psycho” are provocative and offer much to argue with. At his most outrageous—for example, proposing imaginary additions to the film—he can be most rewarding. But perhaps Thomson’s position of authority has given him too much freedom to transfer his every thought to the page. As Norman Bates says, “We all go a little mad sometimes.”
Remy Holzer is a freelance writer living in New York City.