“The Moment of Psycho – How Alfred Hitchcock taught America to love Murder” by David Thomson

“The Moment of Psycho – How Alfred Hitchcock taught America to love Murder” by David Thomson  (2010) – 167 pages

When I first saw this book, I knew I had to read it and write about it, even though “Psycho” has never been anywhere near my favorite Alfred Hitchcock movie.  My three favorite Alfred Hitchcock movies are “Shadow of a Doubt”, “Strangers on a Train”, and “Rear Window”.  “Psycho” always seemed and still seems like lesser Hitchcock to me.  The first half hour of the movie where Janet Leigh steals the money from her office and takes off for northern California hardly holds my interest.  Then there is the gruesome stopover at the Bates Motel, the infamous shower scene, then the police trying to solve the case.   The movie seems disjointed since the main character and the entire focus of the first part of the movie is eliminated from the rest of the movie.  There really would be little reason to watch “Psycho” except for the performances of Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins.

The main reason I wanted to read *The Moment of Psycho” was the author, David Thomson.  David Thomson is the author of “The New Biographical Dictionary of Film”.   I own this book, and it is my go-to book for the movies.  Like any good critic, Thomson is highly opinionated.  I don’t always agree with his opinions, but these opinions are always eloquently stated and solidly backed up so they are a pleasure to encounter.  In a concise and to-the-point style, he discusses the entire history of the movies. The book also contains a plentitude of detail information about actors’ and directors’ careers and the making of movies.  The Atlantic Monthly has called him “the greatest living film critic and historian”.     

“Psycho” is a prime example of a movie where Thomson and I disagree.  I think he attaches way too much importance to a movie that is little more than the first slasher movie.    After making several elegant thrillers such as “Vertigo” and “North by Northwest”, Hitchcock decided to make this cheap little movie using the same crew he used for his weekly TV shows.  The film was shot in black and white, and the whole movie was completed in three weeks.   Hitchcock’s studio, Paramount, was squeamish about distributing it, so Hitchcock bought over half the movie and distributed it himself. The movie was a popular success, and Hitchcock himself wound up making over six million dollars from the movie.  Over the years, the movie has also become somewhat of a critical success. 

In the first part of his book, Thomson devotes minute attention to each scene in the movie, explaining every camera shot in excruciating detail.  To someone like me who has always been rather bored especially by the first part of the movie, this was way too much.  Late in the book even David Thomson concedes his favorite Hitchcock film is not “Psycho” but “Rear Window”.

    “The extended significance of ‘the moment of Psycho’ is not just the significance of an isolated sensation but the spreading influence it exerted on other films, especially in the treatment of sex and violence, and the room it opened up for the ironic (or mocking) treatment of both.”

In a chapter called “Other Bodies in the Swamp”, Thomson discusses other movies that were affected by the legacy of “Psycho”.  Some of the movies mentioned are “Dr. No” (for its tongue-in-check attitudes toward sex and violence), “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (for its macabre comedy), “Bonnie and Clyde” (for its association of comedy and murder), “Taxi Driver” (for its lone-wolf outsider), “Red Riding” (a TV movie that Thomson has praised to the hilt for its treatment of psychotic crime in a dysfunctional society), and of course the hundreds of slasher movies.

I’m going to watch “Psycho” again to see if I like it any better this time.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Thomson is a great old curmudgeon of a critic, wonderfully perceptive and (as is perhaps utterly vital in order to be as perceptive and often startlingly insightful) of oracle-esque conviction. You can see the downside to that: the ill advised ‘Nicole’, which bordered on creepy. But the upside is true, indefatigable, joyful exactness. Even whilst (in my case) largely disagreeing with his Kubrick entry in the biographical dictionary, you find yourself impressed at the correctness of his over-zealous demolition of the man (if not the movies). I’ve just ordered this, and look forward to it. I recommend Beneath Mullholland as a collection of basically linked pieces.

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    • Hi Lee,
      I’ve heard about Thomson’s book Nicole, and about how it is somewhat of an embarassment to his career, but haven’t read it yet. I like critics who have well-stated strong opinions, so I can disagree with them. I’ll re-read his entry on Kubrick, a director I’m usually not a big fan of. And that Beneath Mulholland sounds interesting, I’ll check it out.

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