Saturday, August 13, 2016

Celebrating Alfred Hitchcock -- and revisitng Psycho -- on the birthday of The Master of Suspense

Alfred Hitchcock continues to entertain us, and sometimes astonish us, more than three decades after his death. But that doesn’t mean he ever really liked us. Indeed, there is ample evidence to the contrary — which, all things considered, might not be such a bad thing. Francois Truffaut, who famously interviewed and occasionally emulated the Master of Suspense, once spoke of his idol as “the man whom we are glad to be despised by.” And, mind you, Truffaut meant that as a compliment. 

Throughout his prolific and prodigious life, Hitchcock — whose Aug. 13, 1899 birthday we celebrate today — repeatedly preyed upon our ambivalent responses to violent death. In doing so, he slyly pandered to our baser instincts, implicating us in the machinations of his characters by exploiting our voyeuristic impulses. Thanks to him, we want James Stewart to be right when he thinks he witnessed a murder in Rear Window. We really want Farley Granger’s slatternly wife to get what’s coming to her in Strangers on a Train.

And we really, really want Anthony Perkins to dispose of that car with the fresh corpse inside its trunk behind the Bates Motel in Psycho.

Do we blame Hitchcock for bringing out the worst in us? Quite the contrary: We’re greatly amused, and grateful, for being so effectively worked over. And yet, when you remember the haughtily droll raconteur who quipped his way through countless interviews, promotional shorts and wrap-around segments for his long-running TV series, you may find yourself reading something like contempt in Hitchcock’s insolent smirk. He knew what his audiences wanted and, just as important, how to make them want more of it. And he made no secret of the ruthless methods he might employ to achieve his aims. “My love of film,” Hitchcock admitted in his book-length interview with Truffaut, “is far more important to me than any consideration of morality.” 

Which is part of the reason why he was ready, willing and able to make Psycho, arguably his most amoral movie. “I don’t care about the subject matter, I don’t care about the acting,” Hitchcock said. “But I do care about the pieces of film and the photography and the soundtrack and all the technical ingredients that made the audience scream. I feel it’s tremendously satisfying for us to be able to use the cinematic art to achieve something of a mass emotion. And with Psycho, we most definitely achieved this. It wasn’t a message that stirred the audiences... They were aroused by pure film.”

Or, perhaps more accurately, impure film. At once the granddaddy of all slasher movies and one of the blackest comedies ever concocted, Psycho was conceived and executed as something of a down-and-dirty stunt. Hitchcock wanted to see if he could make a feature film as quickly and cheaply as the B-movie moguls who produced low-budget, high-profit drive-in fare during the late 1950s. So he borrowed a production crew from his Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show, drew upon impolitely lurid source material — a Robert Bloch novel very loosely based on the life and crimes of serial killer Ed Gein — and made a no-frills black-and-white thriller that overcame mixed-to-hostile reviews to become the second-highest grossing film (after Ben Hur) of 1960. 

Psycho is one of Hitchcock’s most enduring and influential masterworks. It also is the most cold-blooded and mean-spirited prank that any major filmmaker has ever pulled on an audience. The graphic violence of the infamous shower scene is more apparent than real because, thanks to Hitchcock’s celebrated genius for montage, we’re tricked into thinking we see much more than we’re actually shown. But there’s an even more significant sleight-of-hand to consider: Psycho is a movie that scores its most devastating impact by playing on assumptions and expectations informed by other movies.

Hitchcock blindsided moviegoers in 1960 by daring to switch gears from sexy crime story to shocking gothic horror, by insidiously luring the audience into sympathizing with a homicidal maniac -- and, even more audaciously, by daring to kill off a well-known leading lady (Janet Leigh) 50 minutes into his story. When asked to explain why he was drawn to Bloch’s novel in the first place, Hitchcock claimed he found the central gimmick – Norman, is that you? – only modestly clever. What really sold him on the story, he said, was “the suddenness of the murder in the shower, coming, as it were, out of the blue.” Obviously, he immediately recognized the sudden savagery as more than just a terrific device for scaring the yell out of people. The sequence also allowed him to pull the rug, and then the floor, out from under the audience. 

Ever since Hitchcock opened this trap door, dozens of other filmmakers have tried, with mixed success, to match the Master of Suspense in narrative duplicity. (The Crying Game, The Sixth Sense and The Usual Suspects are only the most obvious examples.) And yet, as good or great as these other films might be, they cannot match the master’s work. Two generations after its premiere, Psycho continues to loom imposingly large in our collective pop-culture conscious. So much so, in fact, that Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake never really had a chance to be judged on its own dubious merits, not even by people who never saw the original. Since everybody already knows what happens in Psycho, a shot-by-shot reprise isn’t merely redundant – it’s pointless.

For better or worse, Psycho is the title most people think about when they hear Hitchcock’s name. The association is more than a little ironic — in many respects, the film is the least typical of Hitchcock’s works — but maybe inevitable. The Master of Suspense prided himself on his ability to manipulate audiences. And he was never more masterful than when he checked us into the Bates Motel.

(By the way: The late Anthony Perkins once told me that Alfred Hitchcock didn’t always live up to his reputation as a steadfast control freak. But maybe his experience with Hitchcock on Psycho was the exception that proves the rule? You can decide for yourself after reading this.)

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