Mad about Psycho

As stated on my Film page I’m a great fan of Hitchcock. I love his films and despite teaching them numerous times over the years I never get bored, rather I tend to find something new in each viewing.

The following is a review comparing and critiquing some other film reviews and comments on Psycho spanning from when it was released until the early 2000s:

Reviews of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho abound, varying from the more academic exploring film theory to present day cyber blogs, but no matter what the style, it seems that everyone has an opinion of this seminal film. Alfred Hitchcock’s title ‘Master of Suspense’ still reigns today despite his death 27 years ago. By critiquing and analysing landmark films such as Psycho you can be left with no doubt as to what all the interest is about or as to why there is so much literature, and in particular, so many reviews of the film.

Now considered a ‘classic’ it seems that not all are, or were, fans of this ground breaking film. Bosley Crowther’s review in the New York Times 17 June, 1960 “stabs its own holes” into Psycho. Written a day after the film’s release at the DeMille and Baronet Cinema, Crowther does little to entice theatre goers to what is a history making film. Although he does concede that “a great many people are sure to” go and see this latest of Hitchcock’s films. From his opening sentence Crowther downplays the impact of the filmmaking as he warns film goers to be “prepared for a couple of grisly shocks”. This is in contrast to Jeffrey Anderson’s review (1998) where he has nothing but praise for a man, and a film, which paved the way for not only the genre, but the way films could and would be made. However, Anderson prefaces his review by saying he was “jaded” by all the films’ hype before being “jolted” into a “real appreciation” for the film after a research project. Roger Ebert’s review, also from 1998, starts with the words of Alfred Hitchcock himself, taken from the famous interview with film critic Francois Truffaut, where the director comments that at the heart of the films’ popularity is the audience being “aroused by pure film.”

Crowther denigrates Hitchcock by stating he is “an old hand at frightening people” implying that, this being the case, he should have been able to be more effective in scaring the audience. He criticises what he sees to be “obviously a low budget job” as a determining factor in the film’s predictable (black and white) plot which he simplifies to “the arrival of a fugitive girl with a stolen bankroll at an eerie motel”. In contrast, Anderson acknowledges the opening scene where the audience sees Marion in her underwear as being “(still shocking in 1960)”, something, perhaps a prudish, Crowther doesn’t comment on. Anderson uses a series of short sentences to describe Marion, her predicament and the reasons why we, as an audience, relate to her. He tells us “she is ordinary” like us. And, like us, “She wants to have sex. She wants to be married. She wants to be rich.” As Anderson continues, Hitchcock demonstrated “power and bravery”, he was “brazen”, “audacious” and did take risks – all characteristics of a filmmaker that was visionary and who loved to challenge himself most of all. Crowther fails to see the “low budget” aspect of the film as a plus, but it was, as Hitchcock was making a personal comment by turning away from the big budget production houses so that he could continue to make films the way he wanted not being dictated by, what was emerging as the big budget Hollywood machine. Ebert in his review refers to the relatively low budget and Hitchcock’s reasoning for it as being a deliberate move to make the film “look like a cheap exploitation film.” He also gets to the heart of what many theorists have observed and that is that Hitchcock was playing with the audience and our privacy boundaries. The audience is continually positioned to be the voyeur and to question how comfortable we are with that.

Crowther finds the story “slowly paced” and shallowly refers to the setting of Bates Motel as a “haunted house” again failing to mention or acknowledge the way Hitchcock works within the genre using gothic elements to firmly implant fear into the viewer. Whereas Anderson reminds us that it is in fact only “48 minutes into the film, Hitchcock makes the masterstroke”. Of course, all of us who have seen the film can read into the pun. It still seems, to me, far too fast to Marion’s demise as we are just getting to know who she is. Ebert hints at the importance of context and at Hitchcock’s mastery of suspense when he reminds us “It was the most shocking film its original audience had ever seen” and what still makes it a great thriller by today’s blatantly gruesome standards is the “set up” of Marion’s story and the relationship between the two protagonists, Marion and Norman.

Crowther fails to acknowledge the way Hitchcock craftily characterises both the desperately in love Marion Crane and the cold, complex sociopath Norman Bates. Another insult is the description of Norman Bates, brilliantly played by Anthony Perkins, (of course Crowther wouldn’t have know that Perkins would win an Oscar for the performance at the time of writing – but no excuses!) as “a queer duck, given to smirks and giggles and swift dashes”. The brilliance of casting Perkins and his boyish looks as the tormented Bates was genius! As Ebert says Perkins “has a young mans likeability”. We are captivated by all his idiosyncrasies, his peculiar phrasing and his reliance on ‘mother’. Perkins and Leigh are far more than Crowther’s “fair” actors who “do well enough.”

Crowther’s descriptions of the killings debases them to “sticking holes into people” or being “gruesomely punctured”, where he accuses Hitchcock of using “old fashioned melodramatics” repeating his dislike with reference to the psychological aspects of the film as “melodramatic stunts.” Again, he has failed to comment on the technical aspects of the film unlike Anderson who acknowledges the mastery of Bernard Hermann’s “brilliant score”.


The music is essential to the success of Psycho and to the creation of suspense, capitalised (or canonised?) in the infamous ‘shower scene’. Anderson’s description of its effect is spot on. The way he ‘runs’ the adjectives on in the sentence creates a clear and vivid picture of the music, the action of the film and of our own reactions as we all can experience “running away from something, breathing hard, panicking, tripping over …(in a ) hurry to get away.” Anderson also remind us that Hermann himself, like Hitchcock who “re-invented cinema”, is a leader in his field helping to “change cinema history” with his work on Citizen Kane and Taxi Driver, films from completely different eras but that are influential, ‘classic’, must see cinematic masterpieces. Ebert too is a fan of the shower scene for a lot of the same elements as Anderson putting its ingenuity down to Hitchcock’s “situation and artistry” rather than “graphic details.”

Crowther’s review is basic. Unlike Anderson’s he doesn’t delve into filmography, history, comparison, anecdotes, analysis or for that matter hold any relevant facts. It is basic opinion with its own “denouement fall(ing) quite flat”. The final “bat” analogy leaving me wishing Mr Crowther himself was “stuffed”. As a reviewer Crowther fails to touch on any film theory or literary criticism to analyse the film. Theorists such as Richard Maltby saw an opportunity for reviewers to take a post-structuralist analysis of the text which gave them the opportunity to make comment on what was omitted from the film, perhaps more so than, what was shown. A good reviewer, Maltby believes, was now able to delve into how the film reflected the director, in a psychoanalytical sense, as a way of understanding what the director was revealing or hiding about the characters.

Anderson’s review is engaging. His research, facts, opinions, comparisons, analysis etc all give weight to his comments and opinions. They help to broaden the viewers’ knowledge of a film and director we are already familiar with and admire. Referring to specifics such as the use of voice-overs and explaining not just its effect in the film but how it was another of Hitchcock’s ground-breaking techniques reinforces his view of the Director being “a true and great artist” and made him a more credible reviewer. Anderson obviously is a cineophile, in his own words a “film buff”, whether his ‘knowledge’ is based or backed by academic credentials is irrelevant, for what he is doing is as Professor of Film Studies, Malcolm Turvey believes film criticism is all about and that is “clarifying the practices and concepts that human beings already engage in and know.” Ebert’s style seems less personal than Andersons but also interesting as he relies heavily on the Hitchcock himself to explain how, why, what the film is all about and perhaps, how it should be ‘read’.

Anderson’s use of repetition is effective in reaffirming his positive opinion of Hitchcock. Noting that Hitchcock was “perhaps the first popular director to have a ‘look’ to his films”, being the “first director-as-star”, being the “one who led the pack” and being able to “with one swift stroke” kill his rivals makes us clear of Anderson’s stance and Hitchcock’s prowess. Hitchcock’s brilliance comes down to his manipulation of the audience, his films are not just effective but affective. Ebert reaffirms this when he explains why Psycho is “immortal” stating “it connects directly with our fears” of not Norman but our self. We are left wondering, as Associate lecturer in film studies, Bill Schafer states, at not just “what will happen next?, but ‘what I have become’”. Surely Hitchcock and Psycho will never be reviewed to death as the director and the film even today remain a mystery.

While there are many theorists, philosophers, critics who have analysed the film ad nausea, one philosopher, Noel Carroll presents a view of interest to this analysis, as he states “the methodology adopted by grand theorists inhibits productive theorising about film.”

Be sure to let me know what you think about Psycho and Hitchcock too.

References:

Photos courtesy of imdb.com

Anderson, Jeffrey, 1998 cited at http://www.combustiblecelluloid.com/classic/psycho.shtml

Crowther, Bosley, Hitchcock’s Psycho Bows at 2 Houses, June 17, 1960 cited at http://www.nytimes.com/library/film/061760hitch-psycho-review.html

Ebert, Roger, Psycho, Reviewed, December 6, 1998 cited at http://rogerebert.suntimes.com

Fordham, Geoff, Hitchcock’s place in film theory, The Open University, cited at www.crimeculture.com/Contents/Articles-Spring 05/Hitchcock.html

Maltby, Richard (1995) Hollywood Cinema, Blackwell, Oxford

Schaffer, Bill, Cutting the Flow: Thinking Psycho cited at http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/00/6/psycho.html

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