The year was 1960, and America was starting to watch television. Attendance at movie theaters was half what it had been in the post-war period, the fall-off due entirely to the invasion of the boob-tube in private houses. But there were great movies being made, movies that would change the character of American film.
Psycho was one of those, a never-look-back moment in cinema history when we learned to stop moralizing and love the blood.
David Thomson is author of
A Biographical Dictionary of Film and a regular writer for The New York Times,
Film Comment, and other trend-setting and taste-defining publications. In this small but effective study, he gives us a stark, fascinating behind-the-camera look at Alfred Hitchcock and his legendary black-and-white film
Psycho, based on a book loosely based on the horrible crimes of serial killer Ed Gein. Gein was a nobody from nameless nowhere whose evil deeds seemed all the more horrible because they were perpetrated by an unromantic “fat and forty” slob. The
Psycho story became a formula that Hitchcock rescued from the teen horror film and polished up for a respectable, nay intellectual, film-going public. Fear the least likely suspect, the most boring setting, the non-descript day when nothing is going to happen. Shriek!
Hitchcock was an English class-bounder whose sexual obsessions always extended to the all-seeing eye of the camera pursuing his chilly blond actresses. In
Psycho he murders the blond only a few minutes into the film, having given us just enough time to start liking her (though she is a thief and something of a slut). The killer is also likeable, the young, nervous Anthony Perkins, whose real-life homosexuality added a twist to the tale, the kind of subtext that Hitchcock knew how to manipulate. In this case, he made the apparently sweet-natured boy a true psycho, with an eerie voice faking conversations with his dead mother and a willingness to first murder the bad woman in a bath of blood and then clean it all up, nice and tidy, letting the body famously locked in the trunk of a car sink down down down into the nearest swamp.
Hitchcock overcame the objections of his producers and the censors. He made
Psycho on a short budget, in a short time, and kept 60% ownership because no one else wanted to risk it. Three elements of the movie were too extreme for the moral watchdogs of the early 1960s: brief nudity, a flushing toilet, and a shower stall/slaughterhouse. This was an era when married couples on TV always slept in separate beds. With an ersatz cultural superiority (the cleverer-than-thou japes delivered in the fruity British accent) that masked his lonely, perverted nature, Hitchcock changed the face of American film forever with
Psycho, making a Hitch’s brew of such disparate concepts as infidelity, amorality and mental illness, stamped onto settings that were dark, dingy, yet very recognizably American.
What is more American, more welcoming, you might say, than an old-fashioned tourist court with a neon sign glowing in the night?
The wrap-up at the film's end, we all knew, was a little too pat, a bone thrown to the censors. The fans suspected that at its heart, the story of
Psycho was the story of the triumph of nihilism. It laid the groundwork for
In Cold Blood, and for real life.
Thomson’s book is going to be consumed by movie fans, Sixties freaks, and sixty-somethings who remember seeing
Psycho when it first came out. And all those who, having seen it, have thought twice about that romantic cross-country road trip with its inevitable stops in remote little motels that have that Bates feeling…