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New England Review (2010) - Psycho at Fifty: Pure Cinema or Invitation to an Orgy?




Bertolini reviews Psycho directed by Alfred Hitchcock.


As Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho has now arrived at the age of fifty, the moment seems propitious for a reconsideration of the film's significance and staying power. In The Moment of Psycho, David Thomson has used the occasion to situate this film in cinema history, and indeed in America's larger cultural history. But Thomson's unpleasant little book makes some rather large claims regarding the impact on movies of Hitchcock's virtuoso exercise in cinematic anxiety. He charges Hitchcock with making a "breakthrough" in Psycho that led all of us, and filmmakers in particular, to take "bloodletting, sadism, and slaughter" for granted, to treat sex and violence ironically or mockingly, because they "were no longer games," "but were in fact everything." "Everything"? As Hitchcock himself might ask, "Whatever does the gentleman mean?" Thomson is given to such opaque assertions. For example, he summarizes how Psycho affected subsequent cinema by announcing that "The Orgy had arrived." Presumably he means the term "orgy" to serve as a summary description of the subsequent films that doubled, then tripled, then quadrupled their quotient of sex and violence while simultaneously magnifying the crudeness and explicitness of representation. But Psycho neither caused nor was it even the occasion of such an "orgy"; all that had started years before Psycho — when, say, Lee Marvin disfigured Gloria Grahame in Fritz Lang's The Big Heat (1953) by throwing boiling hot coffee in her face, or when Richard Widmark, laughing maniacally in Kiss of Death (1947), pushed an old lady in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs to her death. The postwar push against censorship was relentless until the late sixties when everything became possible in the realms of porn and brutality. Psycho's sex and violence merely reflected the changes at work in the larger society, especially the increasing insistence on greater frankness in the depiction of actual sexual behavior.

In the François Truffaut interview regarding Psycho, Hitchcock explained that he began the film with Janet Leigh in a brassiere and John Gavin stripped to the waist after a sexual tryst at lunchtime in a hotel because audiences were "changing" and young people would have "looked down" on a more chaste encounter. Hitchcock had the sense that "Nowadays you have to show them the way they themselves behave most of the time." In other words, Hitchcock saw himself simply as keeping up with the times, not starting an "orgy." Such an attitude may be associated with artists of all kinds: Noël Coward, for example, balked when asked in an interview whether The Vortex, his early play involving drug addiction and hinting at incest, was designed to make people "look seriously at these moral problems." Later in the same interview, Coward commented on whether he ever sought to be considered a "significant" playwright: "I liked to be contemporary and bright as a button, but I don't think I was all that keen on being significant." (This interview is included in The Noël Coward Trilogy DVD.) Compare Coward's remark to Hitchcock's comment to Truffaut: "I didn't start off to make an important movie. I thought I could have fun with this subject and this situation." Thomson makes much of the daring sexuality of Psycho's opening scene, but from Hitchcock's point of view, he was just being "contemporary and bright as a button." Besides, the sexuality implicit in the scene is subdued, understated, in keeping with the director's usual mode in these matters: you get the idea, but there is no panting, no heavy breathing in Hitchcock love scenes.

Films are often a species of news the way novels are. You go to them partly to keep up with what's going on, to find out what's new — the latest slang, the new manners, changes in moral attitudes, styles of hair and clothing. That's why the primary audience for films is teenagers (who do not want to stay at home, which is generally located somewhere behind the times): films help them escape to the neighborhood of the up-to-date. They find models on the screen for how to talk to one another, to be...

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