Sun, Apr 11, 2010 - Page 14 News List

Hardcover: US: Hollywood’s psycho obsession

The enduring legacy of Hitchcock’s masterpiece is examined in two books, published on the 50th anniversary of the film’s release

By Peter Bradshaw  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON


Fifty years ago, all America was convulsed by a low-budget, violent movie in black and white, featuring a motel bathroom with a shockingly visible flushing lavatory and a grisly murder scene of unparalleled ingenuity and cinematic flair: Psycho.

Nowadays, such a film would be expected to come from a young hotshot, but this was directed by the 61-year-old Alfred Hitchcock, a figure known for elegance and high production values and as the star of a popular TV show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but also as someone beginning a gentle career decline. Instead, Psycho sensationally jolted Hitchcock’s reputation up to a higher level, and as the owner of a profit-percentage in the film, he became staggeringly wealthy as few studio directors could ever dream of being.

The career of fellow Englishman Michael Powell had been destroyed by his own transgressive chiller, Peeping Tom, made the year before, but Hitchcock was the toast of every town. A promotional campaign centering on his reputation for disarmingly droll black comedy, combined with the stunning fact of the film’s commercial success, neutralized any outrage from the beginning. That murder scene in the shower, the masterpiece-within-a-masterpiece — a dizzying succession of images whose explicitly violent effect was created chiefly by the shrieking violin-stabs of Bernard Herrmann’s score — took Hitchcock fully seven days to film out of a 30-day shooting schedule. It was a 45-second sequence of 70 camera setups plus one “lost” image: an overhead shot showing Janet Leigh’s naked buttocks, withdrawn lest it upset the censor. All this lived on in America’s intimate dreams and nightmares, and accelerated American popular culture into its modern age of permissiveness and exploitation.

David Thomson intuits the secret afterlife of Psycho in the American mind, in a short book that is like an inspired, bravura jazz solo. Robert Graysmith, the author whose books on the Zodiac serial killer were themselves made into a movie, composes some strange, pungent, but anti-climactic reportage, footnoting the film’s occult traces in two unknown lives: those of Henry Adolph “Sunny” Busch Jr, the real-life “Psycho” serial-killer reportedly inspired by the movie to murder (although he saw the film halfway through his murderous spree) and Marli Renfro, the naked body-double for Leigh in the shower scene, who was never credited, disappeared into obscurity, and who was herself, incredibly, assumed to have been murdered by a serial killer in 1988 — until Graysmith tracked her down and uncovered the truth.

Thomson attempts to place himself inside the fabric of Psycho, floating in its pin-sharp monochrome nightmare, living through its narrative and the narrative of its cultural impact in a sort of subjective real time. Shrewdly, he places it alongside Truman Capote’s 1966 true-crime study In Cold Blood, as a work that shows that America’s hinterlands are not the places of provincial decency quaintly imagined by popular culture, but un-policed worlds of melancholy and menace. Who are all these lonely men? Good ol’ boys? Momma’s boys? Thomson playfully asks us to imagine that dutiful son Elvis Presley in the Tony Perkins role: a disquietingly plausible cine-fantasy and the kind of brilliant flourish that only Thomson could conjure.

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