The Moment of Psycho

By David Thomson

The way film history, at least American film history, is usually written, there was a period in the early 1970s – the days Peter Biskind so memorably evokes in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls – that saw a sudden explosion of creativity and originality just before everything went to hell with – take your pick – the release of Jaws or Star Wars. In The Moment of Psycho noted film critic David Thomson wants to push things back a bit earlier, to 1960, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Only this, he argues, wasn’t so much the watershed for when American film went into a long decline, as the “moment” when America itself fell apart, its sense of community “given way to a vision of murder as the new orthodoxy.” Nastiness and a noir disillusionment with the dream of happiness “was about to overtake not just the American movie but the nation’s way of life.”

That’s a lot of weight for one cheaply-produced popular film to carry, and so it’s not terribly disappointing when it can’t. While it’s true that Psycho is a movie that has a lot to answer for, when Thomson tracks “the spreading influence it exerted on other films, especially in the treatment of sex and violence, and the room it opened up for the ironic (or mocking) treatment of both” through films like Dr. No, The Nutty Professor, and Pulp Fiction, some of the links, albeit fascinating, start to get pretty thin. And while America was transforming into “a noir society” post-1960, a nastier, lonelier place in every way, how this relates to Psycho isn’t always clear. Was Hitch a prophet? A sorcerer’s apprentice? A mirror?

Viewed strictly as film criticism, an extended (but not too extended) essay on a single movie, the results are just as mixed. Thomson’s verdict on the film is pretty clear. It is a cynical, heartless bit of movie-making, with no other point than to manipulate the audience. The breakthrough it represented was to take “bloodletting, sadism, and slaughter” for granted “in the name of pure cinema.” Those familiar with Thomson’s body of work will recognize in terms like these Hitch’s likeness to Thomson’s bête noire Stanley Kubrick. And in case you aren’t familiar with that particular bill of indictment:

Kubrick and Hitchcock had a lot of things in common: an extreme appetite for technique that sometimes forgot “content”; a recognition of watching as perhaps the central expression of modern intelligence and a surgeon’s interest in the eye; a very cold, sociological gloominess; and a strange confusion of America and Britain that can leave them both looking very unworldly.

Thomson wants Horatian filmmakers, ones who, if they wish their audience to weep, must first feel grief themselves. But in Psycho technique, and in particular a showy kind of technique, is all. Hitchcock had little interest in reality. Fear, and not psychosis, is his subject. The movie has no larger (conscious) meaning. And that is its larger meaning.

In terms of structure, the first forty minutes have all the good stuff, leading up to the orgasmic shower scene (“This killing is passionate. This killer comes.”). Everything else is a post-coital let-down (“this stuff stinks . . . simply not worthy of the first half”). Gone from the second half is the magic chemistry between Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh. “Emotional truth” is discarded. The psychobabble about Norman and his mother is just a lot of “rigmarole” we can’t “credit half a second.”

Which is fair, as far as it goes. But I think it misses a lot. Much of the first forty minutes I actually find pretty slow. While I love the relationship between Perkins and Leigh (Thomson calls them the “strangers in the rain” in a caption to the book’s only still), Marion’s theft of the $40,000 and subsequent flight seem perfunctory to me. Not quite as plodding as the first forty minutes of The Birds, but still a lot of waiting for something to happen. On a recent re-viewing I even found the shower scene itself to be less thrilling, and convincing, than I remembered it.

Nor is the second half all bad. In his earlier history of Hollywood, The Whole Equation, Thomson writes about how moviegoers fall in love with faces. Movies, he says, “are always about the faces on the screen . . . there isn’t a sight in movies as momentous as shots of a face as its mind is being changed.” This is a wonderful observation that I find corresponds with my own experience. We love to see a mind in operation behind a face, to watch a character thinking. In Psycho there is one such revealing moment in the second half when Sam Loomis comes to the motel looking for the detective Arbogast. As he calls out his name we cut to a shot of Perkins standing by the swamp as Arbogast’s car is sucked under, gloomily looking back at the sound of Sam’s voice. It is a great moment because it’s so much more than Anthony Perkins striking a brooding and sinister pose. In his face we see that Norman knows he will never be alone again, that he can never go back to a time before his crimes, that the end is now in sight. The novel is explicit about this, but in the film it’s all there in that face.

Another example: While acknowledging the “very beautiful” crane shot that sets up the murder of Arbogast, Thomson then inveighs against it: “when felicities of style exist to conceal information, then they are in great danger of becoming baroque and decadent.” This is where the movie falls into the trap of becoming pure technique, “style for style’s sake.” But, aside from the question of how on earth else Thomson thinks Hitchcock could have filmed the scene, I think this the most effective of the movie’s climaxes. The process shot of Arbogast falling down the stairs is, I’ll allow, laughable. But the sequence immediately preceding it is brilliant, and not at all style for style’s sake. Of course, Thomson doesn’t much care for Hitchcock’s real aim either, but that’s another story.

It’s fun to disagree with a critic as poetic, provocative, and insightful as Thomson. Some of what he says is nonsense (the connection, not original with Thomson, that there is a relation between Hitch’s technique and the operation of gas chambers is, I think, ludicrous), but so what if his reach exceeds his grasp? Who wants to read a 180-page film review? The idea that Psycho marked the watershed between Eisenhower-era values and a detached attitude toward violence that has been nurtured by contemporary feelings of loneliness is suggestive of what makes Norman Bates such a compelling and sympathetic character. Norman has, after all, survived his own family breakdown and come out the other side. A place from where he now peeps through his spy hole, watching us. Voyeurism is very much a theme in modern horror films, and one whose genealogy Thomson traces back to this one. But as we enjoy looking into the abyss . . . well, you know the rest.

Review first published online September 6, 2010.

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