Thursday, April 28, 2011

We All Go A Little Mad Sometimes. On Psycho

I annually watch Hitchcock's Psycho. I am a devout follower of the late director's work, and even though I think he has many better films, Psycho is the one that always sticks with me, especially the first half of the film. I can watch Marion Crane drive to her destiny endlessly, just as exhilarated on view 45 as I was the first time. Psycho is the kind of film that could or would not be made today. Not because of the subject matter, which is tame by today's standards. Nor because of the level of artistry that Hitchcock achieved in making his film. Many working filmmakers can and do reach that level quite often. One of the major elements of the film that makes Psycho so special, and what is near impossible today, is the element of surprise. Marion's death was kept so secret from the public that audiences were not allowed to enter the theater after the film began. The film's advertisements were purposely vague as to throw audiences from the plot, and critics were asked to write about the film with out revealing all that it was. Today it would be nearly impossible to keep Marion's death a secret, or Norman's identity left in the basement until the films credits. The internet is filled with spoilers and scripts and discussions that make themselves known even before some films begin production. There would be no way a film that relies so heavily on audiences have no previous knowledge of what they are walking in to to be successful. It simply wouldn't happen.

That being said, there are plenty of books that are essential for any Psycho fans. Some of my favorites are as follows:

The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder, by David Thompson

Thompson, whose Biographical Dictionary of Film is an essential read for any film lover, has written a slim and sometimes enlightening discussion of the film. Part analysis, part review, the work looks at the film as a whole as well as how it inspired (or is responsible for) a long list of later films. Thompson's is especially adroit when discussing Marion and Norman's pre-murder discussion ("We all go a little mad sometimes.") and also in placing the shock back into the film's opening moments. He paints a clear line from Hitchcock's work to the such modern films as Pulp Fiction and the James Bond series, most of which would feel like a stretch from anyone but Thompson. While Thompson may occasionally go off the rails (his moody and evocative coda could have easily been excised), his authoritative voice is a welcome addition the the film's written cannon.

Hitchcock, by Francois Truffaut. Another essential read. French New Wave director Truffaut conducted extensive interviews with Hitchcock, in which the discussed each of his films from the beginning of his career on. The book is a great reference material and is also fun to read. Truffaut is a true fan, and admits to basing much of his career on Hitchcock's. While Hitchcock is closely guarded, never veering far from his well-orchestrated public persona, Truffaut's knowledge and love of the films keeps this from being a publicity piece. The book is neatly divided by film, so a casual reader can pick and choose what films to read about.

The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, by Donald Spoto. Celebrity biographer Donald Spoto has written what is by most accounts the definitive book on Hitchcock's life. The book is somewhat repetitive; Hitchcock worked tirelessly on his film before they went into production, only to lose interest in them by the time they were ready to be shot, and Spoto runs out of creative ways in which to present this point. But this should not distract any interested fan. If anything, Spoto's Freudian approach to the director's life is great fun. Spoto is especially effective in deconstructing Hitchcock the Image vs. Hitchcock the man. This is the second of Spoto's three books on the director.

What You See In The Dark, by Maneul Munoz.

Of all the books in this list, this is the one standout, mainly as it is a work of fiction. What You See is Munoz’s first novel, and centers around the small town Bakersfield, CA, the city near which Marion Crane met her fate. The novel is told in a shifting of voices, and follows several central characters surrounding the arrival of the Actress and the Director, a fictionalized Janet Leigh and Alfred Hitchcock. The Actress and the Director are in Bakersfield to film an exterior shot for an upcoming movie (the never-mentioned but framing and looming Psycho). Alongside this, the novel also follows a lonely, motel-owning mother whose son may or may not have killed his new love. Upfront, the novel does not fully come together in all places. I found myself underwhelmed by my own expectations: Psycho was a shocking work, and I kept waiting for the moment when the rug was pulled out from under me. That moment never came. What You See does leave the reader with two things, both worth your time: the character of the Actress and the novel’s sense of mood. Munoz’s fascinating portrait of the Actress and her search for her morally deviant character feels more honest than any biography, and allows one to see the luminous powers of fiction in fleshing out our everyday life in ways that non-fiction could never do. More fully realized, however, is Munoz’s mood, produced by his beautifully written second person narrator, which opens and closes the novel. Ricky Nelson’s “Lonesome Town” haunts the novel’s characters and What You See often reads like that song itself, quiet, beautiful and laced with a tinge of fear. Whereas Hitchcock made such an effort to have Psycho rooted in outright horror, Munoz keeps his horror just below the surface, letting the suspense reside more in the possibility of what could happen rather than what actually does. This is a lesson he learned from the master himself.


  1. you said "Today it would be nearly impossible to keep Marion's death a secret, or Norman's identity left in the basement until the films credits", but the credits are at the start....

  2. Actually, if I remember correctly, there are both main and ending credits on the film. There is an extended shot in which Marion's car is being pulled from the lake that displays the end credits. In any case, the main credits reveal nothing to the audience about the film's plot.


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