Getting Hitched: David Thomson's new book commemorates the golden anniversary of Hitchcock's "Psycho." (Book cover, courtesy Perseus Books Group, cropped)

David Thomson Revisits 'Psycho's' Critical Moment

Michael Fox December 14, 2009

Fifty years ago this week, Alfred Hitchcock shot the shower scene in Psycho. Try not to think of Norman Bates, or his mother, or Anthony Perkins, when you hear “Don we now our gay apparel” –especially Dec. 23, when Psycho and Frenzy conclude the Castro Theatre series “Hitch For the Holidays.” Critic and historian extraordinaire David Thomson’s slender new book, The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder (Basic Books, $22.95), is a delicious and incisive commemoration of the film’s golden anniversary. Thomson spans the negotiations that gave Hitchcock creative control (and a financial windfall), drops in nuggets from the production and delivers a brilliant analysis of the film’s structure, scenes and shots. As the title suggests, the British-born, San Francisco-based writer also invokes the genteel world of movies before Psycho and catalogs the savagery that followed, from Polanski and De Palma to Red Riding, a British trilogy airing in February on IFC. We recently sat down for a civilized chat in his living room.

SF360: I daresay if you’d penned a book about Reservoir Dogs on its 17th birthday, every Tarantino fanboy would know your name and blog about your work. Instead you took the harder task of articulating why a movie was groundbreaking half a century ago.

David Thomson: The book only exists because the publisher has this series, The Moment of… and they came to me and said, ‘If you were to do a short book about a film that changed everything, what would it be? Psycho jumped into my head automatically. It stands for a complete transition in attitudes towards cinema. You can look at it under a lot of categories, but it is the decisive film in the breakdown of the kind of censorship attitude that had existed since the beginning. This was [the movie] where people came out of it and said, ‘Don’t they censor films anymore?’

SF360: What other effects did Psycho have in 1960?

Thomson: It’s a film that changed cinemagoers’ idea of how important the director was. In America, it was vital in the recognition of the auteur. It’s extraordinary in its decision to play dirty tricks with the supposed format: ‘What is a movie? This is a movie. OK, show them a movie. That’s not a movie–it does something shocking and different.’ It’s only really long afterwards that audiences realize what a terribly bleak picture of the world it is. It’s a world in which there is no recovery or redemption, and chance is seen as a very vicious thing. It’s a very unsympathetic world in every way.

SF360: This is a film you encountered in a theater on its initial release and, by your estimate, saw perhaps 30 times (and taught in college classes) before you came to this project.

Thomson: I’m old enough to have seen it and to have been an adult, just, when it came out. I remember thinking, ‘This is going to change so much.’ It didn’t change overnight. There were still old-fashioned films made. But the commercial acceptance of the cruelty of cinema absolutely comes from Psycho. That’s a bigger thing than people own up to. It hurts them that there are films made that they really maybe shouldn’t see. The average sort of bourgeois middle-aged audience shouldn’t see some of these films because they’re too disturbing, too fretful, too damaging, too cruel to the notion that once existed in the idea of entertainment in film. The idea of entertainment, and replacing it with something like ordeal, that comes from Psycho. Not to say that there aren’t many people who find ordeals entertaining. There are, and that’s something that has kept cinema going for a long time: How scary can you stand it? That feeling of roller-coaster rides, there is something entertaining about it. But it’s a very limited form of entertainment.

SF360: And a bit of a departure for Hitchcock.

Thomson: The first thing you have to say is that Hitchcock in the ‘50s is one of the great periods in a career. A lot of the films he made in the ‘50s were quote very entertaining, very enjoyable, like Rear Window and North by Northwest. Doesn’t mean that they’re not great films; I think they’re probably the two best films he ever made. I’d certainly rather see them than Vertigo again. He was on a roll, and puzzling out in his strange mind the risks you could take with film. There was something experimental about Psycho almost: ‘Let’s suppose we did this to the [punters]. See what would happen.’ I think he had a very cold-blooded attitude to the audience, and felt very superior to them. It is a film—and that’s where it’s important in the theory of authorship–that says, ‘Don’t just think you’re going out to the movies on a Saturday evening for fun. You’re subjecting yourself to a powerful mind.‘

SF360: Hitchcock didn’t win an Academy Award for any of his ‘entertaining’ films. Might he have sought to take a measure of revenge with Psycho?

Thomson: Yes, I think so. He was extremely conscious that he had been left out of the director’s Oscar. He knew his film history; he knew that other good people had been left out, too. And it’s a peculiar Oscar in that it has left out more people than almost any other category. But yes, I think he was very conscious of that, and certainly it was in his nature to jab back. He was a tease, he was a joker—quite a cruel joker—and if he’d been upset, he could upset you. ‘If you underestimated me—I think you have—then you’ve got to pay for that.’

SF360: In the book you mention Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, which came out a few months before Psycho. That would have been the disturbing movie that changed everything, had it been a hit instead of being demolished by the critics.

Thomson: Michael Powell and Hitch were only about five years apart in age, and he’d grown up knowing Hitch and he felt a real rivalry with him. I think it was galling in the extreme to see that these two equally shocking films got such a radically different treatment. He makes it out as if he couldn’t get a job [after Peeping Tom], which I don’t think is true. Knowing him particularly, I think it was much more that he withdrew, because he was a very proud, very tricky man. But I think that the extraordinary success of Psycho —and Michael would have known just how much money Hitch had made out of it, because Hitch would have told him, rubbed his nose in it, more money than Michael ever made in his career, I’m sure–it would have been a big thing. It’s uncanny when you think about it. It just shows you how much publicity and promotion have to do with the success of these things. Quite amazing the virulence of what was said about Peeping Tom. I can understand that it upset people and it didn’t play [well] in England. But the way sensible, good critics felt as if they’d been infected with something—that was extraordinary.

SF360: In 1960, Pyscho was a transgression. Not only has screen violence since become pervasive, but that screen is now in the home.

Thomson: It’s a fascinating subject. I’ve written a piece that’s going to be in the New York Review of Books on the Red Riding films as a television event. They were made as films by directors [Julian Jarrold, James Marsh, Anand Tucker] we know, but they’re only ever really going to play seriously, apart from at Telluride, on the television screen. There’s a lot of very horrific, almost obscure imagery. You can hardly see what it is.

SF360: I noticed that you never adopt a moralistic tone in The Moment of Psycho, although Hitchcock ushered in a movie culture that’s led to Saw VI and torture porn.

Thomson: That’s sort of an overdone lament. It’s not that I’m for a moment espousing censorship. I think that the loss of censorship that began in this period was an entirely good thing. Well, nearly entirely. But I do think we, the people who talk about it and write about it and study it, have to recognize that something came in that is pretty dangerous, pretty lethal and you can’t just laugh it off. And you can’t just laugh off the appetite people have for terror and violence. It’s very troubling, and the speed with which absolutely hideous things in life are turned over into entertainment and coated in what people call suspense and then it becomes acceptable, I have a lot of trouble with that.

SF360: Any film in particular?

Thomson: Well, you mentioned Reservoir Dogs. The scene with Michael Madsen and the ear, I wish that scene had not existed. I’m not doubting the skill with which it’s done, but I think that scene embodies the elements of torture. I don’t have any sort of shame about that, any feeling that I’m being reactionary. And it’s not that I don’t think Tarantino is interesting, although the interest is wearing thin. I just feel that horror—part of what is happening in the age of terror, it’s a very complicated thing and way, way beyond 9/11. It is in the nature of our attitude to fear; we are greedy for fear. We find it very entertaining, and it may destroy us in the end, I don’t know. I felt the way I’d done the book it was clear I was saying I find this violence excessive if—and I think this is true of Psycho—there isn’t the proper attention to Norman. Norman is a potentially great character and the film cheats in the end in that it doesn’t really give you that test case. So therefore the violence becomes an entertainment.

SF360: The test case?

Thomson: Why would someone do that? Why do people do horrific things? Why do people torture other people? Why do people slaughter other peoples? I find it increasingly the subject of our time. The degree to which murder has become an entertainment genre is extraordinary. I’m going to Berlin in February [for the Berlinale’s 60th anniversary retrospective he’s curating] and I’m going to give a talk there. I’m going to call it “The Genre of Terror,” and I’m going to argue that it comes out of German cinema and Nazism. Not reproachful and blaming of the Germans, because we’ve all been audiences to it, but to say that the consequences or the explanation for the events that concentrated in Germany between ’33 and ’45—not just in Germany, in Europe and Russia—absolutely shaped our time and we haven’t dealt with it, and we haven’t understood it. And the cinema has made it easier for people to be spectators to violence. Whereas in fact, if horror and torture are being done in the world, we are all participants.

SF360: To clarify, are you saying that Hitchcock copped out by not exploring something deeper in Norman?

Thomson: As we watch the film, Norman is the merciful event. Norman is the first decent person in the film. Now it’s not that you don’t see that Norman’s got problems, from the moment he appears, but he’s the first person with anything like feelings. And Perkins gave him an extraordinary amount and the film ends up a bit by betraying that by turning him into a Grand Guignol figure. I wish the film had worked much harder at providing a plausible reason why Norman does what he does. I think the whole mother thing is hogwash, and Hitchcock knew it was. But there are reasons why people get so lonely that they turn violent against the world. If Psycho had cracked that, it would have been a masterpiece. Whereas I think it’s half a masterpiece.

SF360: But wouldn’t the film have been vilified, instead of a box-office hit?

Thomson: Yes. What Hitchcock does, in effect, for the first half of the film, he gives you an extraordinary sort of modern novel, and he then gives you a slasher film. He goes over to the conventions of a slasher film and says, ‘Well, this guy’s just kah-razy.’ At which ‘crazy’ becomes a set mode, whereas this person is deeply disturbed. In theory we live in a society where if a person is deeply disturbed, we at least want to find out why, and perhaps we want to help them. I think if he had done that, which I don’t think would have been impossible in terms of scripting it and thinking it through, it would not have been nearly as commercial a success as it is. It would have been a much more unsettling film.

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