Bright Lights Film Journal

Book review: The Moment of Psycho, by David Thomson

The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder, by David Thomson. New York: Basic Books, 2009. Hardcover. $22.95. 183pp. ISBN 978-0-465-00339-6.

Feeling a little psycho these days? Well, why not? Indulge yourself. GoPsycho. Legendary, and legendarily prolific film critic David Thomson does just that in this handy little riff on the Hitchcock classic.

Thomson does a little scene-setting, pointing out the placid, polite nature of fifties Hollywood, with a few notable exceptions — Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter and Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil1 — before heading for Phoenix and a date with the late, lamented Marion Crain. Thomson is definitely in the tank for Janet Leigh, and wishes he were in the sack, speculating on her bra size — a 36-D perchance? — before sighing “But guessing is a fool’s romance.”2

Once he calms down, Thomson gives a nice, close reading of the film through Marion’s murder. But after he’s gotten this far, Thomson has a surprise for us — the rest of the film, well, he really doesn’t care for it all that much! Particularly, he doesn’t like Norman, doesn’t believe that a man can be under the control of his dead mother, and suggests an alternative plot — OK, Marion’s dead, but then we meet someone else and follow their story. That old house! It’s so depressing! Let’s just leave it behind. Or how about this? Instead of Marion’s sister looking for her, it’s Marion’s mother. How would that work? Because, let’s face it, the end of the film, “If I say this stuff stinks, I mean not just amateur taxidermy — it’s simply not worthy of the first half of Psycho. Not even when the wig knocked off Norman’s head seems to seethe and live in the swaying light. I mean it’s impossible that the mother’s corpse sits up as a living person.”

I’ve written about Psycho and Hitchcock for Bright Lights here and here, and all I can say is that I part company with Thomson. Why so literal all of a sudden? For Thomson, Hitchcock can’t do anything right. “The staircase crane shot in Psycho is very beautiful. Hitch was as good on stairs as he was with agonized faces. It can be defended, I suppose, as being vital to information concealment. At ground level, we would have to see Mother’s face. But when felicities of style exist to conceal information, then they are in great danger of being baroque and decadent.”

To my mind, faulting Psycho for being “baroque and decadent” is scarcely a definitive putdown. As for Mom sitting up and all the rest, how about the famous and unforgettable shot in Night of the Hunter of Shelley Winters at the bottom of the river at the wheel of a Model T Ford with her throat cut and her long hair flowing with the current. Did you “believe” that? It’s the old willing suspension of disbelief thing. I didn’t care for The Birds at all, but for Psycho I bought a good 98 percent of what Hitchcock sold me.

   

Once he’s done kicking Norman and Hitchcock around, Thomson runs through a more or less obligatory rap about Psycho‘s “influence,” Hitchcock’s subsequent career, and a few other odds and ends before wrapping it up with an odd, meandering meditation on cruisin’ the interstates, lookin’ for adventure, lookin’ for death. The good news is, nothing about Angie Dickinson in this book.

If you’re a Psycho dude, you’ll probably have fun reading this book. But you’d have to be pretty flush to cough up $22.95 for the privilege. That’s why God made libraries.

Afterword

If you really want the lowdown on Psycho, track down Stephen Rebello’s  Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho.

  1. John W. Hall was way ahead of Thomson in linking Touch of Evil and Psycho, in Bright Lights 14, Sept. 1995. []
  2. Which it totally is. []