Alfred Hitchcock and “The Moment of Psycho”

3 02 2013

Alfred Hitchcock may be the most influential film director of all time, but choThe Moment of Psychoosing which is his most important film is not quite so easy. The British Film Institute clearly favor “Vertigo,” as I wrote about here. And other filmmakers never seem to tire of making references to “North by Northwest.” But for influence that encompasses both film and society itself, nothing surpasses “Psycho.” Writer David Thomson looks at Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece in his 2009 book “The Moment of Psycho.”

The book begins with think piece on the state of the cinema circa 1960, and how “Psycho” transformed both the growing awareness of serial killing and Robert Bloch’s book of the same name into an unsettling film that was unlike anything else in theaters at the time. It had more in common with Roger Corman’s low-budget shockers, which played mostly in drive-ins, than with other films of the time. Indeed, to keep the studio off his back, Hitchcock invested his own money, with a controlling ownership of 60 percent of “Psycho.” As the majority shareholder, he was beholden to no one in his choices. Filming quickly, in black and white, with every scene carefully storyboarded and working with his television series crew, the shoot accomplished a hat trick that is usually considered impossible: It was fast, cheap, and good.

And it was Hitchcock’s control of “Psycho” that made it what it was. At the time, he was still seen by Hollywood as a talented journeyman director, but the French saw him differently. In the pages of “Cahiers du Cinema,” the case was being made that Hitchcock was something else: an auteur, someone whose work as a director transcended the limits of Hollywood backlots to bring a unique vision to the screen.

The real horror of “Psycho,” Thomson argues, is not mere murder and mayhem, but the way in which that bloody moment that shocked audiences follows forty minutes of the banal, depressing life of Marion Crane. It’s a life of furtive, go-nowhere affairs, sleazy clients, ill-conceived and impulsive thievery, an interminable drive, a vaguely threatening cop (whose mirrored shades force Marion to see herself), used-car salesmen and, finally, a rundown roadside motel. And while the young manager is welcoming and sweet, the motel is a place of shadows, stuffed birds and a shrill, unseen mother who’s “not herself.” Marion’s redemption is short-lived; she convinces herself that she can just return the stolen money, writing the sums earnestly, childishly, on a scrap of paper, before she takes the symbolically cleansing shower that seals her fate.

Thomson makes the case that Hitchcock planted the seeds of the story and its real intent from the very start of “Psycho,” when the credits read “And Janet Leigh as Marion Crane,” as though she were a featured player and not the star. Marion’s story is the prologue to the film’s actual story, just as the tale of the stranded passengers in “The Lady Vanishes” is the prologue to Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave’s search for the missing Dame Mae Whitty. Anthony Perkins gets top billing, even though he doesn’t show up in the film until Marion reaches the Bates Motel. And after all, the movie is called “Psycho,” not “Marion.” A few years later, Hitchcock would film a tale of a female thief and give it the more appropriate name of “Marnie.”

To Thomson, “Psycho” presages a decade of the horrors of war and the struggles of the Civil Rights movement. Popular entertainment moved away from musicals and biblical epics and toward tales of crime and violence. Following the 1940s and 50s, during which Hitchcock had kept violence at arm’s length and relied instead upon veiled threats and creeping suspense, “Psycho” pulls back the curtain on a new decade of frank sexuality and explicity violence. Hitchcock would see out the remaining years of his career with films that followed in the footsteps of “Psycho,” serving up violence and sex in differing ratios in “The Birds,” “Marnie,” “Torn Curtain” and “Frenzy.”

If you’ve just seen the movie “Hitchcock,” which of course focuses on the making of “Psycho,” “The Moment of Psycho” would make a great postprandial refresher. Rather than looking at the struggles of making “Psycho,” David Thomson takes the long view on its impact. You can order your own copy of “The Moment of Psycho” here.

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Spotlight on Hitch and Alma in the New Film “Hitchcock”

28 11 2012

Anthony Hopkins portrays Alfred Hitchcock in his own way in the new film “Hitchcock,” which opened last week in limited release. The movie looks at Hitchcock’s difficulties in making the movie “Psycho,” while also delving into his relationships with actors, writers, studio executives and, most importantly, his wife, Alma.

Without creating a slavish recreation of Hitchcock’s drawl or picture-perfect likeness, Hopkins breathes life into the Master of Suspense, whether he is being charming or petulant, commanding or obsessive. Helen Mirren’s portrays Alma as every bit Hitchcock’s equal, returning his cool remarks with her own withering sarcasm. And yet there is a real affection behind their barbs.

Alma stands by Hitchcock throughout the arduous task of making “Psycho.” When he selects the project; she gets on board despite her distaste for the subject matter, and later she lends her expertise to sharpening up the final product after a screening goes badly. Despite his suspicions about her work with another former collaborator, writer Whitfield Cook, Hitchcock implicity trusts her, both as a soulmate and filmmaker.

“Hitchcock” is very enjoyable look at the creative process; one wonders, however, if it could have been sharper. The flirtation between Alma and Cook feels almost trite, and the specter of serial killer Ed Gein overstays his welcome. Also, this Hitchcock seems far more open with his feelings than the real one was; he acts explicitly where the real McCoy would likely not have. And as much as Hitchcock liked to say that he played his audience like an orchestra, it’s hard to believe that he would have acted that out so literally as he does in one scene here.

James D’Arcy and Ralph Macchio each have one great scene as Anthony Perkins and Joseph Stefano, respectively; each gives viewers a chance to see the voyeuristic component of Hitchcock’s personality, as he perks up at their mentions of their own neuroses. Scarlet Johannson and Jessica Biel, too, as Janet Leigh and Vera Miles (also respectively) serve to illuminate aspects of Hitchcock’s way of dealing with others. While Hitchcock has all but dismissed Miles for having dared to get pregnant when she was slated to star in “Vertigo,” he dotes on Leigh, his blond of the moment. There are glimpses, too, of composer Bernard Herrmann and designer Saul Bass, as well as censor Geoffrey Shurlock, and even Hitchcock’s beloved dogs, Geoffrey and Stanley.

The opening and finale may be the two most satisfying moments of the movie; first, Hitchcock introduces the proceedings directly to the camera, in the style of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” And the end hints with great humor at what is come next, acknowledging that “Hitchcock” portrays (and expands upon) just one episode in a tumultous career; indeed, Hitchcock says as much, first by promising that “Psycho” is going to be bigger than “North by Northwest,” and later fretting that it could be another “Vertigo.”

You can read my take on the source material, Stephen Rebello’s “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho,” here.








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