The Moment of Hitchcock

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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Voyeurism is an acceptable trait in a filmmaker. But sadism? In his new book, The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder, celebrated critic David Thomson shows how Alfred Hitchcock damaged his audiences even more than his actresses.

Thomson leads a free public presentation about his book on Thursday, August 5, at 6:30 p.m. at the Plaza Branch of the Kansas City Public Library (4801 Main Street).

More expanded essay than weighty text, The Moment of Psycho offers an accessible and occasionally unflattering analysis of Hitchcock and the legacy of his most important film: 1960’s Psycho.

Thomson is perhaps our most distinguished living film critic, with too many credits to cite. His resume includes a stint as a film professor at Dartmouth College following the publication of his Biographical Dictionary of Film, a standard film-school text that helped rehabilitate the critical reputation of director Michael Powell, who later became a close friend.

Thomson offers Hitchcock all due respect, but his analysis and criticism of Hitchcock’s career is unvarnished. In his Dictionary, Thomson includes Psycho among those Hitchcock films that “repay endless viewing” and are “without equal for the way they adjust the cinematic image to our expectations.”

But The Moment of Psycho makes a case for Hitchcock as a sadist if not a misogynist. This is suggested by the notorious shower scene in Psycho – a mere 45 seconds on the screen – that took six arduous days to shoot with Janet Leigh, her body double, and a stuntwoman filling in for Anthony Perkins.

In his next film, The Birds (1963), he tied angry birds to actress Tippi Hedren for a weeklong shoot, during which she nearly lost an eye. Meanwhile, Thomson argues, Hitchcock was nursing an obsession with Hedren that continued in Marnie (1964). He writes:

Hedren is touching in Marnie, but its looming rape sequence (which horrified [screenwriter] Evan Hunter and finally drove him from the picture) is all too palpably significant. Hunter said that it was a scene that preoccupied Hitch to an unhealthy degree. Once upon a time, the voyeur had had an expert, mischievous, self-controlling restraint. But with Psycho he had started to indulge it, and now in Marnie it began to look like prurience.

It seems fitting that one of the great figures in film studies – a field that would become so entangled in psychoanalytic theory – conspicuously dramatized his own fears and base instincts. But Hitchcock also crafted films that sought to indict his audience, even more than his own vision – and 50 years later, the film-going public has radically different standards and tastes than the audiences who first saw Psycho.

Regardless of what the shower scene did or did not show, Psycho exploded censorship codes and undermined the gatekeepers who enforced them. Thomson notes:

As far as the shower was concerned, Hitchcock was as cunning as could be. The editing was so fast, it was very hard to know what had been seen… Time and again, Hitchcock made his plea – that no sexual nudity was evident, that no blade pierced flesh… Still, the real measure of the breakthrough that had occurred – in the name of pure cinema – 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 final third of Thomson’s book focuses on the cinematic legacy of Psycho, providing a detailed list of the film’s grisly descendents, including Bonnie and Clyde, Blow-Up, A Clockwork Orange, The Texas Chain-Saw Massacre, Taxi Driver, Dressed to Kill, and Blue Velvet.

In the end, is a society that sees the worst sickness and disease and most graphic violence displayed on the big screen (and the smaller screen) better prepared to cope with real-life lunatics and murder? Is a society whose inhibitions are discarded by an increasingly commercial medium in any way a healthier society? These are not merely rhetorical questions, but long-debated concerns that must be addressed – thanks in part to Hitchcock.

Find out what Thomson thinks of Hitchcock’s legacy when he speaks at the Plaza Branch on Thursday, August 5, at 6:30 p.m.

Throughout August, the Kansas City Public Library is screening a selection of the cinematic progeny of Psycho with a film series called Money in the Blood, featuring films all handpicked by Thomson. Find the entire series schedule here.

-- Paul Smith