In The Moment of Psycho, David Thomson sets a dangerous precedent. Not for pointing out that Alfred Hitchcock's shocking little low-budget 1960 movie about an adulterous thief and her cross-dressing killer could be a destabilizing "piece of insurrectionary defiance" in American cinema. We'd more or less figured that out by now, hadn't we? Rather, the "danger" here is the evidence that any one of the short, sharp essays in Thomson's more famously encyclopedic tomes, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film or Have You Seen ... ? A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films, might so promptly and gracefully be elaborated into its own book.
So now Thomson really has his work cut out. Apparently undaunted, he has four more books due next month — individual treatises on Bette Davis, Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, and Ingrid Bergman. Meanwhile, here's this slender, clever volume, with its deceptive breeziness, its confident scarcity of photographs, its sportive blood-red endpaper, and a general sense that Hitchcock's most famous movie should be an ideal subject for the tirelessly observant local cinema essayist to write about.
Thomson's nine short chapters guide us through the film, with discerning annotations of history and biography, and examine its cultural context. "It's clear in hindsight," he writes, "that Hitchcock was a point of reference in the discovery of a tone that would let the audience laugh at things that were once beyond laughter, because of cruelty or sexual exploitation."
The martyr for that discovery is Janet Leigh, to whom we were led to believe the film would belong — until she got so indelibly offed, about 40 minutes in, by a glinting montage of knife swipes. Just before that, Thomson reminds us, came the extraordinary characterization of Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates, "an alarming mixture of meekness and anger" and "by far the most sensitive and kind person the picture has had to offer." That fascinating, easily forgotten fact is reason enough to revisit the film now, and to consider Thomson's corollary assertion: "The central killing grows out of the grim unkindness of the world we have seen, not from the lurid casebook of the Bates family." More to the point: "The energy and the malice come more from the film's design than from Norman's psychotic state."
And so Hitchcock's "old sneaking habit of dainty murder — dainty in that the violence was offset by the meringue of style" had evolved. Psycho was a turning point for the filmmaker, too, whose indulgence of voyeurism, so invitingly portentous in 1960, had "started to look like prurience" by the time he'd made it to Marnie in 1964.
Thomson includes a few revelatory details about the production — titles designer Saul Bass was present for the shooting of the shower scene, while Perkins was excused — but he's writing less for Hitchcock-literature completists than for the rest of us. Putting the master's tussles with the Production Code in perspective, Thomson explains, "Apparently, in all of American film, there had never been a scene that showed a toilet being flushed before — it really is quite exhilarating to see what tender creatures we were in 1960."
Although regrettably if understandably eliding "the forlorn sequels to Psycho itself where a rare actor, Anthony Perkins, was squeezed dry," Thomson invites us to consider the legacy of the film in later work by moviemaking luminaries including Polanski, Antonioni, Truffaut, Kubrick, Scorsese, Coppola, Lynch, Tarantino, and, of course, Jerry Lewis, whose nutty professor in 1963 became his way of "owning up to enormous hostilities within the American dream and the sudden way in which a goofy nerd could become a rat with teeth." So thanks for that, Psycho.
Okay, maybe 999 more books like this would induce madness in more ways than one. Still, like the movies that warrant his closest attention, Thomson's film-literate free associations will for a long time be the best around.