The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder
Reviewed by David Greven
by David Thomson. New York: Basic Books, 2009. 183 pp. Hardcover: $22.95.
In his famous early essay on Alfred Hitchcock’s film Psycho (1960), which he likened to Macbeth and called “one of the key works of our age,” Robin Wood positioned himself against the kind of shallow criticism of the film that concluded with statements along the lines of “make sure never to stop at a deserted motel on a rainy night.” The shallow treatment of Psycho—after years of exhaustive high seriousness—has made a return in David Thomson’s new book. Readers fleeing the confines of psychoanalytic film theory (Bellour, Žižek – Psycho has emerged as a central text) may find Thomson’s antiacademic approach refreshing. However much one sympathizes with Thomson’s resistance to the academic tendency to politicize art, one has to concede that he doesn’t make a compelling case for the nonacademic approach to Hitchcock’s work. For a writer whose book’s central concerns are sex and violence, Thomson shies away from sex and raises his middlebrow nose at violence, leaving his as well as Hitchcock’s chief subjects buried in the swamp.
When I was a kid aspiring to become a movie critic, I gobbled up all of those tasty, long passages in The Biographical Dictionary of Film, savoring Thomson asides like “Thelma Ritter had a face like a rolled-up newspaper” and Bette Davis in All About Eve is a “curdled cocktail.” Thomson’s knack for eye-catching phrasing and casual penchant for penetrating observation remain vivid strengths, and there are lines to quote and insights to savor galore in this brief book: “the black cream of Hitchcock’s humor,” “Psycho is a new acid-rural poetry.” There is a genuinely important point made about the film in one of the last chapters: the “loneliness is more interesting in Psycho, and more pioneering, than the violence, the sex, or the terrific assertion of ‘pure’ cinema.” Yet the book is fatally hampered by its inability—a consistent one throughout Thomson’s career—to take Hitchcock seriously as an artist. While Thomson does view Psycho’s first forty minutes and its coda, in which Mother speaks as Norman looks directly at us, as brilliant work and responds sensitively to the theme of loneliness the film so unbearably sustains, overall his view of the film is troubled and troubling.
Thomson holds Psycho responsible for the cinematic bloodbath that occurred in this Code-busting film’s wake—for Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the original Halloween (both of which Thomson treats with revulsion), for the slasher film, and for a general culture apparently inured to violence graphically and indiscriminately rendered.
I have a certain sympathy for Thomson’s argument here. Murder has indeed become a disquietingly obsessive trope in entertainment’s diverse fields—film, television, news channels, and endless cable shows devoted to the subject. A routine episode of any TV policier contains information and imagery about human savagery so graphic as to seem pornographic. In order to lay the blame for this at Hitchcock’s door, Thomson reverts to a view of the artist that one might have imagined Robin Wood disabused us of in the 1960s. Thomson returns to Hitchcock’s stated view of Psycho as “a fun picture,” indeed a fun-house. It is little wonder that Thomson invokes Pauline Kael as a critic who supports his view of Hitchcock as a gifted technician with a talent for mordant formal games who cannot, ultimately, be regarded as one of the supreme artists of the cinema. Kael would often discuss Psycho as something that affected her despite the fact that she knew it was just a joke, a fun-house, thereby assigning the film sensationalistic value but little art-consciousness. Taking it seriously, in other words, was something one could admit to only under duress. When Robin Wood first submitted his Psycho piece, anticipating his great book Hitchcock’s Films, the editor of an English film journal told him that he had apparently failed to get the fact that the film was a joke. (Cahiers du cinéma would eventually publish Wood’s essay.)
For Thomson, Psycho remains a joke, albeit a queasy, sickening one, more revealing of the disquieting qualities of its maker than its ostensible themes. Thomson quotes Wood on Psycho’s correspondences to the German concentration camp of World War II, but misses the further point Wood makes about the jokey tone Hitchcock adopted in his relentless, brazen advertising campaigns for the film. Wood argued that Psycho reflects the awareness of the terrifying potential for human barbarity that Hitchcock confronted in his tour of the camps, of which he produced a rarely seen documentary film; Hitchcock’s cutting comments about his film were most likely a kind defensive shield. Certainly, and for many reasons, cultural as well as personal, this seems a plausible argument for any viewer of the film who tries to reconcile its grim messages with Hitchcock’s public persona, increasingly ubiquitous thanks to his weekly, self-named television show. Thomson can see the film only in terms of its maker, and its maker only in the terms of popular mythology, which, to be sure, Hitchcock himself decisively shaped. Thomson proceeds squarely, in all senses of the term, from the assumption that an absolute correspondence exists between Hitchcock the public showman and Hitchcock the private filmmaker. The Hitchcock that Thomson evokes here (familiar from Donald Spoto’s muckraking hatchet-job biography The Dark Side of Genius—obese, sadistic, as terrified as he is terrorizing) privately squirms in unfulfilled sexual desires, namely in the form of the female stars who rebuffed his advances (Tippi Hedren, most famously), as he proceeds to hawk his wares, a crude P.T. Barnum of the new media age he heralds.
Hitchcock presents numerous challenges to any critic who wants to explore his work with the seriousness it deeply deserves; Hitchcock himself, for the most part, eschewed such treatments. It is a grave error, I would argue, to equate the Hitchcock who shrewdly promoted his work and public persona with the Hitchcock evinced in his films. It is telling that Thomson claims Rear Window as Hitchcock’s best work—not because Rear Window is not a great film. Its cold, tidy formalism not only confirms Thomson’s view of Hitchcock as a formally innovative but emotionally and cinematically narrow filmmaker but also embodies precisely the values that critics like Thomson and Kael champion in Hitchcock. Unable to see Hitchcock as a great artist because his geometric patterns of human conflict apparently do not often open up to the kinds of emotionally charged vistas in the work of more “human” film artists, Thomson and Kael principally see him as a “highly skilled” entertainer, one whose championing by French critics and their disciples, such as auteurist Andrew Sarris, says less about Hitchcock and more about French wrongheadedness about American culture. This view, of course, misses out on the often harrowing emotional depths to which Hitchcock plunged in films—the sadistic, wounding games would-be lovers play in Notorious, the ardent need to rescue the beloved in Spellbound, Vertigo, and Marnie, the apocalyptic visions of the world in Psycho and The Birds. Thomson’s work provides ample, fresh evidence that, despite the reams of critical treatments of Hitchcock that exist, for middlebrow critics Hitchcock will always remain a superficial entertainer whose love of artifice conceals little depth.
Punningly, Thomson complains about Psycho’s “cockamamie” plot, seeing all the stuff about Mother as cheap Gothic machinery. But to view these aspects of the film as such seriously risks misunderstanding not only this film but also Hitchcock’s oeuvre. Throughout his films, mother figures make an impact, as do mother-child relationships, either with daughters or sons. Often, these mother figures are quietly disturbing when not downright odious (think of Florence Bates putting out a cigarette in cold cream in Rebecca). Given the anguished mother-child relationships in Hitchcock and their ambivalence towards maternal figures, Psycho’s mother-based themes are far from crudely, opportunistically incidental, but, instead, are a ferociously pointed fusion of the director’s previous treatments. Moreover, despite bland suggestions that sweet, sensitive Norman Bates may be “gay,” and more insistent suggestions that he is Marion Crane’s ideal suitor, the mother-child themes in the film are crucial to Hitchcock’s Freudian depictions of male homosexuality as inextricable from mother-son relationships. Indeed, Psycho fuses two major Hitchcock themes—the criminal woman and the sexually deviant male—and then savagely bifurcates them.
Thomson shows no awareness here of the myriad ways in which the character of Lila Crane (Vera Miles)—Marion’s sister, who investigates her sister’s disappearance along with Sam (John Gavin), Marion’s dubious boyfriend—has been positively read in recent feminist and gay and lesbian criticism as a queer character. Thomson even omits the gossipy detail from his gossipy account that Miles was Hitchcock’s first choice to play Madeleine/Judy in Vertigo, and that his casting of her in this secondary role was probably a reflection of his displeasure that she had a baby rather than star in his film. Seeing Psycho today, Miles’s performance is a revelation—her directness and toughness are striking. Thomson pays no attention to the most extraordinary passage in the film, in which Hitchcock parallels the action of Lila exploring the Bates house and Sam grilling Norman, a chilling face-off between doppelgangers. As Lila explores Mother’s room and traces out the indentation of her body in the bed and exclaims in terror at her own reflection in the mirror, Hitchcock explores the psychosexual and feminist dynamics of the Gothic in ways provocatively new to American film. Lila’s exploration of Norman’s childhood room most exquisitely depicts the searing loneliness that Thomson rightly posits as central to the film. Thomson’s failure to consider such moments, and his relegation of the Gothic-mother themes to the basement of critical consideration, further evince his refusal to engage with the film in anything other than skeptical, shallow, ultimately derisive terms. (This tendency characterizes his treatment of the Alien films in a previous work as well.) His frequent asides about possible directions the screenplay should have taken, such as the invented character of Marion and Lila’s mother, say more about Thomson’s own frustrated ambitions as a writer of fiction (best represented by his movie-fed book Suspects) than it does about the film Hitchcock and his collaborators made.
In the end, Thomson has given us a few provocative observations to consider about the importance of Psycho, but very little that is new or especially striking. (Wood had already made the point about the theme of loneliness in his early review.) Indeed, in his presentation of Hitchcock as a shallow showman and of Psycho as, ultimately, a reflection of that shallowness, Thomson has taken us quite a few regressive steps back in our understanding of Hitchcock’s achievement. Thomson is someone you outgrow, because beneath the barbs, there’s little sting. (He is Anthony Lane’s critical father.) The grisliest joke of all is that a critic whose chief imperative is defending cultural propriety has chosen to take on a work that forcefully subverts his own position.
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David Greven is Associate Professor of English at Connecticut College and the author of Manhood in Hollywood from Bush to Bush (University of Texas Press, 2009).
Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Magazine, Inc.