Renowned film critic fails a cinema classic

The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder ★
David Thomson
Basic Books, 2009

“It’s not like my mother is a maniac or a raving thing. She just goes a little mad sometimes. We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you?” ~Norman Bates, Psycho (1960)

***Note: the following review contains spoilers for the films Psycho, Carrie, and Friday the 13th.

Layout 1I’ve had this slim volume by film critic David Thomson on my currently reading shelf for months and it was high time to finish it, or abandon it. I finished it…barely.

Psycho is one of my favorite movies for a thousand reasons, including all of the fascinating stories that surround the mythology of how it was shot, Hitchcock’s battle with Hollywood censors, his genius marketing plan, and the film’s subsequent shell-shocking and titillation of 1960 movie audiences. So when a book like this promises to show me the moment of Psycho and how its director taught America to love murder, I’m there. The only thing that rivals talking about the movie itself for me, is talking about the cultural Zeitgeist in which it was made and received.

Thomson’s thesis in an ambitious and exciting one. His book, on the other hand, is a wishy-washy example of intellectual masturbation that goes nowhere and proves nothing. Dare I say he comes off as an idiot quite frankly, full of sound and fury, in a treatise absent of any real meaning or value. He has added zero new to the debate on Hitchcock’s films, or Psycho in particular.

This slim volume is less than 200 pages long and reads more like a series of short essays for somebody’s film blog rather than a serious book by a world-renowned film critic. The first fifty pages are literally almost a scene-by-scene recitation of the entire movie with no analysis or context. What is the point of this exercise??? It strikes me as so self-indulgent in psychoshowera short work that has a big thesis to prove.

Thomson is also very obsessed with the first 40 minutes of the film – right up to the infamous shower scene. Post Marion’s murder, for him the movie unravels and pales in comparison to the first half. For me, Psycho works as an organic whole, a symphony of screeching violins and Hitchcock’s masterful sleight of hand. Hitchcock wants us positioned just so on the rug for maximum effect when he pulls it out from underneath us. This requires the effort of the entire movie, not merely the first 40 minutes, no matter how well set up.

In fact, one of my favorite moments in the film comes after the shower scene, when Norman performs his frantic, largely silent clean-up that features the slow sinking of Marion’s car into the dark swamp. I love that moment when the car pauses and stops sinking. We’re surprised to discover that we want Norman to succeed in the cover-up. We feel bad for him, with his lonely life and his crazy mother. Now with Marion out of the picture, he has become the character who we identify with the most. We are being manipulated for the big reveal. It’s crucial the audience feels something for Norman, and while the first 40 minutes are critical, to assess the rest of the film as weak and untethered is unimaginable to me.

One of the most interesting aspects of Psycho is how it was marketed. Hitchcock’s lengthy teaser trailer was unheard of Jawsposterat the time, as was his explicit directive that no audience member be allowed into the movie once it had begun. Studio exec Lew Wasserman argued for big simultaneous openings in LA and New York, quickly followed by the widest possible release, also unheard of at the time. It’s interesting to note that it would be Wasserman, some 15 years later, who would finally succeed in his bid for nationwide release with JAWS, the first ever summer blockbuster that opened simultaneously in 400 theaters. None of this interests Thomson however, and his discussion of these matters takes up a measly, utterly disappointing five pages.

The chapter I was most keen to read is entitled, “Other Bodies in the Swamp” (great title!) Here, Thomson’s thesis is to examine “the spreading influence [Psycho] exerted on other films, especially in the treatment of sex and violence.” It’s territory that’s been trampled to death, for if you look hard enough you can see the long reach of Hitchcock just about everywhere in film. But here is a seasoned film critic who specifically wants to single out Psycho and measure its long shadow over contemporary movie-making. I can get on board with that.

This is the weakest and most pathetic chapter (second only to the weirdly included, Kerouacian chapter on driving America’s highways and stopping at small motels along the way). Thomson’s analyses of the films he selects are ridiculously superficial not to mention rife with spoilers, which should always come with a warning. He includes John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) when Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980) is Psycho in reverse – it’s not the son who is doing all the killing, it’s the mom!!! He also tries to make a case for Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) when anyone with a lick of sense knows it’s DePalma’s Carrie (1976) that has Psycho all over it, from the opening shower scene, the psychospycheekily named Bates High School, the crazy, overbearing mother, and Psycho’s four note violin theme making repeated appearances.

Where we really see Hitchcock’s influence on DePalma’s film-making style at work is in the treatment of voyeurism. Hitchcock was all about voyeurism, not just for his characters, but for his audience. What are you doing when you go to a movie? You are engaging in the ultimate act of voyeurism. In Psycho, we spy on Norman spying on Marion through a hole in the wall. In Carrie, we spy on Chris and Billy as they hide under the stage and wait for the perfect moment to drop the bucket of pig’s blood. We watch Sue Snell’s expression as she traces the rope to its final destination. Her eyes become our eyes, just as our eyes became Norman’s during his spying of Marion. It’s a shifting of guilt and a kind of audience culpability that Hitchcock mastered.

This is such a lame excuse for a book that I’m embarrassed for it. I cannot speak for the author’s other works. I’m sure his sizable reputation in the field contributed to this “grocery list” being published in the first place. It should not have been. It is a waste of paper and the reader’s time. It doesn’t even come close to proving that Alfred Hitchcock taught America to love murder, nor does it even try to. Save your time and your money. Watch the movie instead. You and your friends will come up with way more interesting things to say about it than this guy does here.

This review can also be found on Goodreads.

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