Author contends that after Hitchcock's 'Psycho,' everything changed

by Robert W. Butler

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

18 December 2009


Just in time to please the picky movie buff on your shopping list: David Thomson’s “The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.”

I love this book.

It’s not big — fewer than 200 pages, no illustrations and you can read it in one long sitting — but this extended essay convincingly makes the case that Hitch’s “Psycho” is one of the most influential titles in film history.

Not that the movie is perfect. Thomson (“The Biographical Dictionary of Film,” “Have You Seen ...?”) devotes much time to analyzing the unconvincing last third of the movie, in which it becomes all too apparent that Hitchcock was more interested in style and audience manipulation than in logical thinking and believable storytelling.

Yet his very ability to manipulate the film medium in new ways is what makes “Psycho” so important.

This was a distasteful, exploitative film that no studio wanted to make — not even Paramount, which had partnered with the filmmaker for years.

Sensing an opportunity, Hitchcock’s agent, Lew Wasserman, cut a special deal. They’d make a modest movie shot practically on a TV budget with Hitch forgoing his usual paycheck in return for 60 percent ownership of the finished film. That majority ownership also gave him the right to the final cut — a very big deal given the rules he was about to shatter.

For example, the film gives us a major movie star, Janet Leigh, and then brutally kills her off 40 minutes into the tale. Nobody in Hollywood had ever dreamed of such nastiness.

And then there was the way she was dispatched. “Psycho’s” infamous shower scene, Thomson maintains, literally changed the course of American filmmaking, opening up possibilities of on-screen violence, nudity and sexuality that we’ve been enjoying (so to speak) ever since.

And yet watching the sequence in slow motion reveals that Hitch really didn’t show us anything objectionable. No breasts, no knife entering the body ... it’s all in our imaginations, a fact that utterly confounded the censors.

But there were so many other ways in which Hitchcock rocked the boat. The film’s first scene shows Leigh and John Gavin in what is obviously a post-coital moment in a shabby hotel room. This was incredibly daring for 1960.

“Psycho’s” innovations extended even to its marketing. Until the mid-‘60s, movies ran continually. Audience members might show up at any time during the presentation, watch the film to the end, stick around to see what they missed at the beginning, and then leave when they saw the scene at which they entered.

“Psycho’s” ads demanded that people see it from opening to closing credits.

Instead of debuting on a few screens in big markets and then expanding over weeks or months, “Psycho” opened simultaneously on 400 screens. Thus it was a harbinger of today’s movie marketing, with films opening on 3,000 or more screens. (The downside is that few of today’s films get an opportunity to build an audience. Most are gone within a couple of weeks.)

And Thomson is particularly good at examining Bernard Herrmann’s musical score, which “carried the picture past realism and into mythology. ... Time and again it is the music that turns doubt about seriousness into majestic effect.”

Thomson is one of our best writers about cinema, combining intellectual rigor with snappy, entertaining prose. No film-professor stuffiness here.

One chapter, “Other Bodies in the Swamp,” takes a brief look at 28 subsequent films to examine the influence of “Psycho.” The movies range from Jerry Lewis’ “The Nutty Professor” to Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction.”

Reading “The Moment of Psycho” makes you want to rewatch the movie right away. And then reread this book.

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