Jump to: navigation, search

Film Quarterly (2010) - Intertitles: Her Fine Soft Flesh




Review of "Psycho in the Shower" - by Philip J Skerry and "The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder" - by David Thomson

Skerry is not the man to dispense with jargon or with pretentiousness and affectation. "[...] if we accept the notion of identification, which was first discussed in Aristotle's Poetics in the analysis of catharsis, then we can conclude that the killing of Marion creates for the viewer what Ortega y Gassett calls 'existential shipwreck'" is a representative remark (176).



The lady behind the counter at the well-known Berkeley bookstore where I bought my copy of David Thomson's The Moment of "Psycho" fairly raced to the shelves to get me a copy when I asked her whether it was in stock. She told me that she'd enjoyed the book so much that she'd watched Psycho again after reading it. Pleasing though it is that such encounters can still take place, I retained a certain skepticism, and asked my pet Psycho trick question: whether she remembered its very last shot. She did - and this might be the most pleasing thing of all. Most people I've asked over the years think that Psycho ends with Norman wrapped in a jail blanket, not hurting a fly. But this shot leads into a double dissolve. The first superimposes a death's head - Mrs Bates's - onto Norman's physiognomy; this composite then dissolves into the swamp from which we see (and hear) Marion's car - the car bought for $700 from California Charlie under the watchful eye of the policeman - being cranked up slurpingly and backward, so we see the "ANL" license plate (go figure) first, then the trunk containing Marion's corpse and Cassidy's money.

This - to my mind one of the most satisfying endings in the history of film - can serve to remind us that while 2010 marks Psycho's fiftieth birthday, the film is no period piece. That it still hits home explains the deliberate ambiguity of Thomson's title: "moment" can mean "importance" as well as "time." Psycho, as both Thomson and Philip J. Skerry (in Psycho in the Shower) are aware, is a watershed film if ever there was one. Thomson points out tellingly that one of Psycho's few real precursors, Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter, was at the time of its release in 1955, "a disaster, in great part because there was so little tradition of American Gothic or ugly violence and so little attention to abnormal behavior" (16 - today, a world where these counted for little takes some imagining). The Moment of "Psycho" is dedicated to Greil Marcus; it is as though Marcus's "old, weird America" is not just called to mind by Psycho's "acid-rural poetry" (101), as Thomson calls it, but is also invoked by it.

Psycho was famous all along for having paraded its own originality - if you've got it, flaunt it - inside and outside the purlieus of Hollywood. Hitchcock in life-size cardboard cutout, pointing at his wrist watch, and intoning that "No one . . . but no one . . . will be admitted to the theater after the start of each performance," was also changing when we looked as well as how we looked and what we saw. Thomson is particularly good on the business history o...

[ to view the rest of the article, please try one of the links above ]

Copyright University of California Press Summer 2010