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How 'Psycho' changed us all

My favorite moment in all of Hitchcock isn't one of the show-stopping, self-conscious set pieces. It's at the end of "Rear Window."

We've spent 100 minutes watching James Stewart and Grace Kelly stalk their prey, the man they suspect has chopped up his wife. And now the prey has turned on his tormentors. The door to Stewart's apartment opens, and Raymond Burr's Lars Thorwald walks in and stands there, dimly silhouetted in the reflected light from the hallway.

"What do you want of me?" he says hoarsely.

It's almost a Shakespearean moment. All the audience's hunter-and-prey expectations are tossed aside, as you realize this poor, desperate bastard's frigid, constrained, lonely life offers no release, no freedom, even after he's committed a murder.

It's a moment of genuine existential dread, echoing with a moral complexity you rarely find at the movies. It's echoed, to a lesser extent, in "Psycho," when the car containing Janet Leigh's body stops sinking in the mudhole, and poor, mother-centric Norman Bates is suddenly caught in the middle.

Which brings us to our subject. "Psycho" is probably the single most influential movie since World War II. In the mercantile sense, it showed major studios how to make cheap exploitation pictures and proved that violence was no hindrance to commercial success - audiences weren't revolted by a movie that went further than any movie ever had. Rather, they were terrified and thrilled and loved being terrified and thrilled.

David Thomson's new book on "Psycho" is really a long magazine article that anatomizes the film's first half rather in the manner of a good DVD commentary track.

After the death of Martin Balsam's Arbogast - another case of Hitchcock demonstrating his breathtaking virtuosity, like a dog sitting up, rolling over, then fetching you a beer - Thomson bails out and resorts to padding: a list of films that were influenced by "Psycho."

It's too bad; I would have loved to have read Thomson's scavenging deconstruction of the single worst scene in all of Hitchcock - the explanation scene at the end, in which the director stops the movie dead and has a character "explain" Norman's mother fixation.

Thomson is at all times a delicious, stimulating writer, and the book is particularly interesting as he shifts between admiration for the director's technical skills, and a stark dismay at Hitchcock's customary evasion of reality: "I don't think he ever believed in this idea of a character taking over another - only in the ways it could be filmed."

Thomson questions whether Norman, as he's played by Anthony Perkins, would really be capable of the murders, calling it the "film's inner fallacy ... There is nothing in this awkward young man that suggests the anger of Mother, the repeated thrusts with the blade. Rather, the energy and the malice come more from the film's design than from Norman's psychotic state."

In other words, the sickness and voyeurism and sublimated rage are attributable to Hitchcock rather than the characters. I think Thomson's onto something here, something that only first-rate critics are capable of - to make you completely rethink something you had thought was overly familiar.

The breakthrough represented by "Psycho" is not just in the power of its filmmaking but in the clarity with which it shows how a gifted artist can put his sickness inside us.

The measure of the breakthrough of this film made in 1960, writes Thomson, "is in the bloodletting, sadism and slaughter that are now taken for granted. In terms of the cruelties we no longer notice, we are another species."

The book's loose structure also gives room for the writer's accustomed unease - actually, it's more like thinly veiled contempt - for America: "Most films of the '50s are secret ads for the American way of life. 'Psycho' is a warning about its lies and limits."

Off the top of my head, I can think of a lot of '50s films that are explicit critiques of the American way of life: "The Searchers," "Giant," "Imitation of Life," "Rebel Without a Cause," "Bigger Than Life," "The Seven Year Itch," "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" and on and on. I'll bet you can, too.

The implication is that films of the '70s, '80s and so forth are devastating critiques of the country whose entertainment industry finances said pictures.

That has never happened, and it never will, because most - there's that word again - of the audience wants to be taken out of their own reality, not have it reflected back at them.

That's why Hitchock was and is among the greatest directors; his technique was so extraordinary, his command of human psychology so acute, that he managed to provoke universal emotional responses while taking the audience on journeys through his very specific, and, in Hitchcock's case, very twisted, psyche.

In so doing, he accomplished the primary obligation of the entertainer, as well as the artist.

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