‘Psycho’ loosed mayhem and chaos in American cinema
Even acceptable patterns of behavior among moviegoers were nudged toward change for “Psycho.’’ “Now there were life-size cardboard-cutout figures of [director Alfred] Hitchcock himself in theater lobbies,’’ David Thomson writes in “The Moment of Psycho,’’ “wagging a finger and insisting that no one, positively no one, would be let in once the film had started.’’
Where once audience members could show up in the middle of a picture and stick around through the next screening until they had caught themselves up, “Psycho’’ needed to be viewed from its starting point in order to maintain the element of surprise. With “Psycho,’’ Hitchcock was wagging his finger at us all, warning us that a dark revolution was in progress.
It was not just Marion Crane who disappeared in 1960. When Janet Leigh’s character was stabbed to death at the Bates Motel, some 40 minutes into “Psycho,’’ we lost not only our protagonist, but any semblance of the sense of safety that had once been our guarantee at the movies. “Psycho’’ marked a watershed in film history, removing the barrier protecting us from chaos. Full of sex and violence and without the redemption of a happy ending, Hitchcock pulled the rug out from under us.
Thomson, author of “Biographical Dictionary of Film’’ and an eminence grise of American film critics, takes the occasion of “Psycho’s’’ upcoming 50th anniversary to celebrate Hitchcock’s gonzo classic, and also to gently bemoan the film’s effect on American culture. Thomson’s short book, part close analysis, part speculative cultural history, is itself of two minds about the film, which it admires without fully respecting. “Psycho,’’ in Thomson’s estimation, is Hollywood’s brilliantly creative primal sin, opening the floodgates to five decades of unabashed reveling in murder, mayhem, and disorder. Sam Peckinpah’s “balletic’’ violence, the FX-heavy storytelling of “Jaws’’ and “Star Wars,’’ and even the Zapruder film, in his telling, are all children of “Psycho.’’
“Psycho’’ is a rift in American culture represented by a rift in the film itself, sacrificing its heroine one-third of the way in and stumbling with deliberate uncertainty for its remainder. Into the yawning gap opened by Norman Bates’s slashing knife, decades of carefully wrought filmmaking technique, and an American film industry that assiduously kept the wraps on horror, tumbled in. What happens when a familiar world begins to crumble?
The film itself was an accelerant, speeding up the process of putting the torch to Hollywood’s carefully maintained system of order. Hitchcock spliced together 78 pieces of film for the 45-second shower sequence, making sure never to show the actual moment of violence (although jumpy viewers swore they saw knife piercing flesh). As Thomson astutely notes, Hitchcock not only managed to smuggle this incendiary moment of frenzy past the censors, but two other groundbreaking firsts: the film’s opening sequence, in which Leigh’s dishabille unambiguously indicates a postcoital mood; and, more humorously, the film’s flushing toilet - the first ever in a film. Hitchcock’s former agent Lew Wasserman, sensing an unparalleled box-office opportunity, suggested opening the film in wide release (another first), turning shock value into buzz. “Psycho,’’ unsurprisingly, was a huge hit, grossing nearly triple what “Rear Window’’ and “North by Northwest’’ managed.
Thomson, echoing Hitchcock, structures his book like “Psycho,’’ concentrating its energies on its opening section, about the film itself, and then petering out in a series of postscripts and addendums. It is a clever trick, if lacking some of the original’s element of surprise. The second half of the film, according to Thomson, renders the prospect of “another hour of screen time, an hour that is as fabricated and spurious as the first hour is solid and resonant.’’
“The Moment of Psycho’’ makes a similarly awkward transition, offering a capsule biography of Hitchcock as a man working through his thwarted sexual desires, a historiography of the director’s work, and a discerning consideration of “The Birds’’ as an unannounced sequel. The book is better the closer it stays to Marion Crane; once it leaves the Bates Motel, it, too, begins to slowly (and not without its moments of insight and enlightenment) sink into a swamp of its own speculation and conjecture.
Narrative trickery, and the efficiencies of the publishing industry, aside, one cannot help but wonder whether Thomson’s little book might have worked better as an even littler one, or as an extended essay. Nonetheless, Thomson takes a kaleidoscopic perspective on his subject, surrounding “Psycho’’ from all sides after carefully treading every length of the film itself. But as he astutely grasps, the story of “Psycho’’ is as much about the moments that followed as the film itself. “Psycho’s’’ bombshell has been continually going off for half a century; every time we leap out of our seats with fear - or fail to be similarly moved by genuine horror.
Saul Austerlitz is at work on a history of the American film comedy.