David Thomson is one of the most accomplished film historians and critics working today. His books, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood, are must-owns for all film fans. While, I was excited to read his most recent book, The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. Nevertheless, it’s still a fascinating slice of film history.
Thomson spends over half of his book in detailed analysis of nearly every second (or so it seems) of Hitchcock‘s landmark film. In it, he reveals both the subversive nature of the film during its time and the thematic and stylistic tensions within the film itself. Only in Chapter 6 (of 9) does he begin to consider the ways in which the film influenced American culture and subsequent films. Unfortunately, I could never detect a strong case that Psycho taught “us” to love murder. However, I’m well aware that my age and social location (born into an apparent murder-loving culture) will skew my perception. For example, I wasn’t aware that Psycho was the first film to feature a flushing toilet. Thomson does look at, in Chapter 6, one film from almost every year following Psycho that has been influenced by it, although I’m still trying to figure out how Pulp Fiction makes that list (Thomson cites the Norman Bates clean-up skills of Mr. Wolf). Chapter 7, “A Noir Society,” however, does include some interesting points about the evolution of special effects and their contribution to the growing brutality of on-screen violence. Thomson writes, “In time, the ingenuity of special effects soared ahead–it is the fundamental creative explosion in modern filmmaking, made at the expense of deeper imaginative thought, and it left the human context way behind. […] All too often, it [has been] a ‘fun ride’ separated from pain, damage, and consequence” (140).
Among many other things, Thomson shows, still, in my opinion, too little too late in his text, that there was a prophetic streak in Hitchcock’s films as well. He writes, despite the racial, social homogeneity of his films, “[…You] can feel the beating pulse that is afraid of disorder, or the lack of order. It is not too great a step to go from birds ready to attack mankind to a shark fit to swallow the camera and its crew” (149). Thomson highlights the sense of togetherness that earlier American films engendered (and whose success relied on) that had begun to dissolve with the arrival of Psycho that was in danger of breaking down. This “audience togetherness” has all but disappeared today thanks to, among other things, viewer disillusionment, the content of the films themselves, and the proliferation of entertainment alternatives.
As usual with Thomson’s work, The Moment of Psycho belongs in any film lover’s library. While it might not seem an initial fit for students of film and religion, these types of works should not be neglected by those seeking to make theological assessments of not only films, but the culture from which they emerge as well.