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A Master's Stroke

America checks out at the Bates Motel.

Nov 2, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 07 • By SONNY BUNCH
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The Moment of Psycho

How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder


by David Thomson
Basic, 192 pp., $22.95

It's Summer 1960--June, to be exact--and you â re looking to escape the heat beating down on the city streets: Why not retire to the local cinema and take in a movie under the refrigerated air conditioning? And look! the new Hitchcock movie is just about to start. Good timing on your part since the portly Englishman has decreed no one shall enter a screening once the movie has begun.

We â re dealing with pretty standard fare--slightly risqu , perhaps, with Janet Leigh â s Marion Crane shown in her bra a couple of times, but nothing too special. She â s engaged in a major theft from her employer, skipping Phoenix with the illicit proceeds and looking for a place to hole up on the way to Fairvale, California.

Ah, look! she â s pulling into a motel for the night, just as that intimidating police officer suggested she do. And here â s the hotelkeeper, a slight little thing with a jaunty gait and an awkward way of speaking. He â s shy, a mama â s boy who endures the old woman â s shrill taunts, becoming aggravated when they â re noticed by the attractive young woman who has washed up on his motel steps.

Norman is his name and, although kind, there â s something just a little off about him. Still, his honest manner has impressed Marion, convincing her to return to Phoenix and return the money. No need to turn around right away. A shower and some sleep will do her some good, and then--REE REE REE REE!--Bernard Herrmann â s iconic strings spring to life; a darkened figure swings a butcher â s knife; Marion slumps over in a pool of her own blood and the camera pulls out, lingering over her dead body like an unseemly voyeur gently backing away from a scene at which he glimpsed a little more than he bargained for.

And, David Thomson posits in The Moment of Psycho, the world of American cinema--indeed, America itself--would never be the same.

Thomson â s argument is three-pronged: Psycho did much to break down the censorship regime that ruled the cinematic landscape at the time; by murdering the apparent lead of his film in the opening 40 minutes, Hitchcock initiated a new era of filmmaking in which directors were free to toy with their audience â s expectations; and America â s loneliness was examined for the first time.

The Moment of Psycho opens with a brief introduction to Hitchcock â s standing in the artistic and commercial Hollywood communities before spinning off into an in-depth recap of Psycho itself. Imagine the paragraphs that opened this piece of writing, but with a shot-by-shot analysis of the movie as it progresses.

Though at times the effort is tedious, it â s important to remember exactly where American movies stood at the beginning of the 1960s, and just what it felt like to be in the theater when that first killing occurred.

â In terms of the cruelties we no longer notice, we are another species, â Thomson writes of the desensitized modern cineaste. It â s something of a banality to say that the movies have been vulgarized, that nudity and violence and sexuality have all combined into an ugly m lange that leaves nothing to the imagination, allowing generations of filmmakers to reject creativity in favor of a brutal assault on the senses.

Being a banality renders the observation no less true, however. At the time Psycho spooled through projectors â no other country required so detailed or technical a code of what could be seen on public screens and what could not. And no other film business so encouraged the ingenuity of directors, photographers, and actors to see what they could get away with. â

Thomson â s tone, here and elsewhere, is almost wistful, longing for an age well past where audiences were forced to imagine what they couldn â t see. So it â s interesting, when citing the future films that Psycho would influence, that he doesn â t take that thought to its logical conclusion: Psycho is the forebear of the â torture porn â genre.

Torture porn refers to a subgenre of horror films primarily obsessed with showing, in graphic detail, the horrible suffering a human body can absorb, embodied most succinctly by the Saw series. When you remove the censors and encourage filmmakers to have at it without restraint, this is the inevitable endpoint. Thomson probably overemphasizes Psycho â s role in breaking down the censorship regime with regard to sex--foreign and art house films were largely operating without the restraints imposed by domestic ratings boards and thriving as a result--but Marion Crane â s bloody death was certainly a key moment in the evolution of just how much viscera could be exposed to the audience.

More interesting, from a critical perspective, is Thomson â s assertion that â the new tone in cinema said â Believe less in the story and its characters, but study the game being played. â â â This new meta-cinema, which is concerned first and foremost with form and subverting the viewer â s expectations, can be trying, at times. But when done well--as Steven Soderbergh and Tony Gilroy proved this year with The Informant! and Duplicity--it â s a treat for audiences.

Did Psycho change America? More to the point, did Psycho change the way America looks at itself? Probably not. Public interest in murder dates to well before the year Alfred Hitchcock washed up on our shores. Just look at the heroes we made of public enemies plaguing Midwest banks in the 1920s and â 30s, or the folk status the murderous cowboy Jesse James achieved after his death--and in part because of his violent death.

Nevertheless, Psycho â s impact on the movies is undeniable, a key moment in Hitchcock â s oeuvre that has had as lasting an impact as anything the great auteur ever directed. David Thomson â s rereading of Psycho a half-century after its release shows us just how far we â ve come. And in some ways, how far we â ve fallen.

Sonny Bunch is a film critic at The Washington Times.