Wednesday, June 23, 2010

PSYCHO - Justyn Dillingham

"There is not an abundance of subtlety or the lately familiar Hitchcock bent toward significant and colorful scenery in this obviously low-budget job." The world came to disagree with Bosley Crowther, grand poobah of the New York Times's film section for 27 years -- a man whose stuffy pronouncements irritated Pauline Kael so much that she made fun of him on virtually every page of her first book -- on the subject of Hitchcock's "Psycho," long since enshrined as a masterpiece and a turning point in the history of movies. But in some ways Crowther wasn't wrong. Hitchcock deliberately eschewed both subtlety and prettiness in the film; it was meant to hit audiences with all the grace of a murderer's knife, and audiences in 1960 reacted as if the knife had come slashing right through the screen.

To explain why audiences found the film so shocking, it is useful to explain what they might have come to the theater expecting. In general, there are two types of Hitchcock films. In the first type, an innocent man falls into dangerous circumstances and must fight his way out. He is mistaken for someone else, or wrongly implicated in a crime. This was the basic plot of "The 39 Steps," "Saboteur," "Strangers on a Train," "The Wrong Man," "The Man Who Knew Too Much," and "North By Northwest." In the second type of film, a puzzle falls into the lap of an innocent protagonist, and he or (usually) she must solve it. This was the plot of "The Lady Vanishes," "Rebecca," "Suspicion," "Spellbound," "Shadow of a Doubt," "Vertigo," and "Rear Window." Only once did Hitchcock sharply deviate from this pattern in one of his great films. In "Psycho," the audience is placed in the role of the innocent protagonist, and everyone we see on the screen is guilty. The entire film is a set-up, and the joke is on us.

For years, Hitchcock had made a game of toying with the audience's sympathies. He particularly seemed to relish pushing the audience to identify with his villains, like Claude Rains's sad-sack Nazi war criminal in "Notorious," so put upon and deceived by the film's heroes. Another favorite trick was to make the hero seem unscrupulous or weird. Hitchcock's heroes quarrel with their fiancées, peer into strangers' windows and joke about murdering their ex-wives. Hitchcock had never gone so far as he did in "Psycho," however, and the elaborate game he played with the press to drape a curtain of mystery around the film -- his playful attempt to "spoil" the film in his famous trailer, his injunction that no one be admitted to the theater after the beginning -- suggest that he knew all too well what a dangerous film he had made. At one point we watch a character watch a car sinking into a swamp. The car suddenly stops sinking, and we tense up -- will it sink? It does, and we feel relieved, just like the character. Then we realize that we've been tricked into identifying, however momentarily, with a person most of us would never want to share a hotel room with, to say the last.

The film's dangerousness lay in the way Hitchcock broke one taboo after another, with the casualness of a kid popping a sheet of bubble wrap. The opening scene shows a couple -- obviously unmarried -- lounging in a bed in a rundown hotel room. Later, for the first time in Hollywood history, a toilet is seen flushing. And then -- well, if you've seen it, you know what I'm talking about. (I've avoided talking about the plot as much as I can, since it's my experience that while everyone kind of knows what "Psycho" is about, a surprising number of people have never seen it -- perhaps, unfortunately, because they think they already know what happens.) But these small violations of Hollywood convention prepare us for what comes next, when the film plunges us into subjects so startling we can't even imagine the characters in other Hitchcock films talking about them. Much of that shockingness has been lost, partly because the film achieved what it set out to do. It's often been said that Hitchcock was successful because knew just how far he could go without alarming the censors. In this film, Hitchcock did go too far, and he got away with it because "Psycho" was enormously successful. At one point he considered releasing the film without the approval of the censors; a few years later, the censors themselves were out of a job, in part because of what Hitchcock had achieved in "Psycho."

Hitchcock was famously impatient with explanations. He thought they got in the way of the suspense. (In "North By Northwest," we never find out exactly what kind of agent Cary Grant is supposed to be mistaken for, or what the villains are trying to accomplish.) So it's a little puzzling that he ends -- or almost ends -- "Psycho" with a long explanation of what we have just seen. Perhaps he felt that the film would be too overwhelming and disturbing without it. He must have taken heart from the film's success, for his next film, "The Birds," contains no explanation at all for what has happened. There is no "villain" except the universe itself, and that film ends where it does because there is simply nothing else to add. And just as "Psycho" ends, Hitchcock pulls one last trick -- in the long, sinister final shot-- that suggests that even that explanation, after all, is a little phony, and that perhaps there is no explaining what we have seen. After all, that nice young man wouldn't hurt a fly.

 Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" is playing at The Loft Cinema, Wednesday, June 23, at 7 p.m. 

Justyn Dillingham is a 2009 graduate of the University of Arizona. His favorite film is “A Taste of Honey” (1961).

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