Customer Reviews: The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder
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on January 5, 2010
I get a kick out of books with grandiose subtitles anymore - there are so many of them! And the subtitles hardly EVER deliver what they claim they will deliver if only you'll shell out the bucks for the book - in this case $22.95 for 167 pages (how much is that per page?). The subtitle: HOW ALFRED HITCHCOCK TAUGHT AMERICA TO LOVE MURDER is gimmicky and catchy and a publisher's and author's dream. But in this case, David Thomson offers next to naught in edifying us as to HOW Hitch TAUGHT we Americans to LOVE murder. It just isn't there, folks.

What is there, in this trifling effort to seemingly make a fast buck, is 19 pages of extremely sparsely detailed back-story followed by 69 pages - 69, count 'em! - of SYNOPSIS of the film that had me reaching for my DVD and wondering why I was reading what I already knew when I'd rather be watching it. This is then followed by a chapter cheaply entitled "HITCH-COCK" that runs for about 24 pages and tells us about the Maestro's career post PSYCHO - and then, the real low-point of the book, is 20 pages listing films influenced by PSYCHO but not going into any real depth at all and coming across as what it actually is, and that's filler, a listless laundry list. Then a few chapters about critical reactions, loneliness and what it is like to drive across America. This book is about as skeletonized and desiccated as Mrs. Bates herself.

During the synopsis sequence, Thomson constantly returns to the theme of his never buying into the plotline that Norman's Mother overtakes him "psycho"logically. He calls it "fanciful," and guesses that Hitch himself never "believed in this idea of a character taking over another." He also writes, regarding Mrs. Bates' corpse: "It's impossible that the mother's corpse sits up as a living person." Why not? She's been stuffed! He goes on: "Above all, I mean that I don't credit half a second of this rigmarole about Mother having taken over Norman." Those are outrageous and ill-informed jabs. Had Mr. Thomson spent some time on researching the source of the Robert Bloch novel, he'd have found that reality is much more outrageous than film: Ed Gein, Norman Bates' inspiration, was a real man, a true "psycho" with a submissive relationship with his own dominant mother, killed other women,dug up the corpses of many others, used their bones to build furniture out of...and wore their skinned and preserved faces and breasts to BECOME them! So why is Norman Bates' psychic submission to the mother he murdered "rigmarole'? I think Thomson feels that Anthony Perkins is too likeable in the role to go as bonkers as the script makes him - and yet Ed Gein was a well-liked member of his own little town...yet no one knew what was really in his psycho head - or in his barn where he had his last victim hung upside down like a steer, naked, gutted, head cut off. When the townsfolk wondered where this well-liked lady had vanished to, Gein told them she was in his barn - but people took him to be kidding, because he was wacky and fun to be around. And what about Ted Bundy? He had wit and charm and a "killer" smile - literally. When he saw young, lovely women he didn't see them in "bed" - he saw them..."dead." Who could have guessed, such a handsome, articulate chap!

Anyway - there are other bizarre critical points Thomson makes regarding the film (especially about its second half) that really don't wash. He feels that Arbogast's killing evokes no sympathy for him - "He is just the figure in a tour de force execution." I don't agree: as we follow Arbogast down the stairs in a physically impossible backwards fall, it is precisely THAT which makes his killing so tragic and makes us travel to Death with him. We've first seen him as the big head entering the hardware store a few scenes earlier - and now we are seeing that same extreme close-up on Martin Balsam's face as his blood squirts across it. It is a very moving scene - and the overhead shot which distances (and disguises the killer's identity out of story-telling necessity) is actually what makes the scene all the more tragic: we had a God's eye view of the killer's approach to an unsuspecting Arbogast and then a sudden cut to the shocked and blood-spattered face - and we stay with that face, feeling his every amazement at his own agony as he careens down the stairs he just so carefully and silently climbed. Thomson feels that the "virtuoso crane shot" is "baroque and decadent" because it conceals information. Although he finds it "very beautiful" he also brands it as "style for style's sake." I think that Thomson falls into his own trap and offers up criticisms for criticisms' sake, he being a "critic" and all. Thomson also feels that Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony (which Lila finds an LP of in Norman's room) is a clue to "the source of some of the Herrmann music." How and why he feels this way is not further explained. I'm familiar with both pieces of music and hear no similarity in them whatsoever.

Another reviewer on this board rightly wrote that this "book" seems more like an extended magazine article, or something to that effect. In fact, it does. Very much so. And not a very interesting one at that. I can hardly wait now to pick-up and read what looks to be a much more informative, exciting book - PSYCHO IN THE SHOWER - another Christmas gift loving mother!

ADDENDUM: I have just finished reading the best book I've ever read dealing with "Psycho" and recommend it so highly that I've gotten a nose-bleed ("Blood! Mother, Blood!"). I've reviewed it here on Amazon - and it is written by Joseph W. Smith, entitled THE PSYCHO FILE: A COMPREHENSIVE GUIDE TO HITCHCOCK'S CLASSIC SHOCKER. It is a page-turning gem!
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The movie business was suffering. Attendance was down in movie theaters and the only movies that truly seemed to be making money were low budget horror flicks aside from the occasional event movie. Hitchcock assembled the team from his TV show "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" and decided to make the ultimate horror thriller--one that would change all the rules. Made for $400,000 "Psycho" grossed $11 million which, at the time, would make it the "Star Wars" of its generation.

David Thomson's book gives us an extensive history of the production of "Psycho" from conception (Hitchcock did an anonymous bid on Robert Bloch's book of the same name knowing that he could get it for a lot less money); Hitchcock's collaboration with writer Joseph Stefano (the trendsetting and brilliant writer/producer of "The Outer Limits")through the process of negotiating with censors (Hitchcock would deliberately plant stuff in the script that he planned on shooting or shoot things he knew he would never use to do a bait and switch with them)and carefully rolling out the big surprise of killing off his star less than half way through the film. For example, one day Hitch and Stefano were brainstorming and Stefano told Hitchcock (Stefano was undergoing psychoanalysis at the time and used filled any imagery he would suggest with the meaning from it)he'd never seen a toilet flushing in a film before. Hitchcock realized that it could have visual meaning, unsettle the audience, unsettle the censors (giving him something else to argue with if he needed it to keep something far more important)and recognized the symbolism in the sequence as brilliant and quickly agreed it should go in just as Marion Crane needed to appear nude in the shower sequence.

You may disagree with Thomson's take on "Psycho" and interpretation of the importance of some scenes or Hitchcock's intention but he does make a forceful argument for his point-of-view.

Thomson's "Psycho" demostrates that Hitchcock's instincts were almost always right and for "Psycho" they were perfect. Thomson's book tells us how a brilliant showman challenged the rules and managed to get his way producing a brilliant classic film.

Highly recommended for Hitchcock buffs and film fans Thompson's book also has some new tidbits some of which haven't appeared before in print.
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on February 2, 2016
I read this book in a bubble bath in under an hour. Skimming through the detailed 69 page synopsis and proposed thoughts behind why characters did what they did. This is more like a college paper than a book. No real information about the movie or the making of it, nothing you couldn't learn in a quick internet search. Glad I checked this out at the library, would've been a complete waste of money.
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on December 14, 2009
I really like David Thomson's work. I have a copy of his Encyclopedia of Film and the "Whole Equation." I love his willingness to get out on a limb, to make weird associations and his always engaging tone.

But "The Moment of Psycho" feels like an extended article. Thomson's thesis is that Psycho changed America film because it used the sensory and voyeuristic aspect of film to entrance its viewers not its content. Is this really a new idea?

Given this is David Thomson he makes some interesting points; that Psycho unleashed an American Id in 1960. Its use of the highway, the motel and of course sexuality was bleak and reflecting upon the real America that American films hadn't explored. He also exposes the problem inherent in the idea that "Mother" takes over Norman Bates. We see an awkward, sensitive young man who doesn't make sense as the angry, vengeful mother. Once the surprise element is gone, this conceit upon which the film rests, is revealed as the ridiculous gimmick that it is. And Thomson and I would say, that is Hitchcock's point. He has made us care deeply about the action on the screen and we don't feel robbed by implausibility of it all. He also makes interesting points about loneliness in Psycho, from Norman Bates to Sam Loomis.

But at 175 pages, including the list of influenced films, the book rambles and digresses and never seems to make anymore of a point than that Psycho was the beginning of modern American film as a mainstream success. Its not that I think more pages make a better book but it feels like these 175 pages contain the kernel of some interesting ideas that aren't completely and thoroughly developed.
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on January 26, 2010
The Moment of Psycho: How Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder is a short and overpriced book on the making of a Hitchcock masterpiece. The author is the distinguished British born film historian David Thomson. I have a long library shelf of Hitchcockian books and always pick up a new one when published. Thomson's book is short with insights into the making of the film and its cultural impact. Among salient points of Thomson's sage observations are the following:
1. Psycho arrived on the scene in 1960 a time of transition from the happy days of studio glory to the television age when moviemakers were seeking to increase movie revenues by putting things and dealing with subjects absent from the small TV screen at home. Psycho has been considered the first of the genre known as "slasher films."
Thomson devotes a whole chapter to these "children" of Psycho such as "Dressed in Black" "The Halloween films";
"Blue Velvet" "The Shining" and others.
2. Psycho was unique in killing off its big female star Janet Leigh only 40 minutes into the film.
3. Thomson considers the post shower scene denoument of the film a flop. He casts aspersions on the acting of Vera Miles playing Marion's sister Lilah and the wooden faced John Gavin as Marion's lover.
4. The film was the first mainline American studio film to show the flushing of a toilet, three scenes of Janet Leigh in her bra and the most violent 45 second murder in film history up until that time. Hitch had a way of working with and around the censors to get what he wanted on celluloid.
5. The eerie music by Bernard Hermann is considered classic film music even though the composer was denied an Oscar for his stellar composition.
6. Psycho made millions for Hitchcock.
7. Thomson discusses the overweight and elderly Hitchcock's infatuation for his leading ladies especially Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman and Tippi Heddren.
8. Hitch's later movies such as The Birds and Marnie were influenced by the new sexual freedom exhibited in Psycho.
9. Psycho was filmed in black and white by Hitch's TV crew from his popular series "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" which ran on TV for years.
10. Hitch had been influenced by Orson Welles "A Touch of Evil" starring Janet Leigh and a weird motel clerk played by Dennis Hopper.
11. The film was excellently acted by Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates and Janet Leigh as Marion Crane.
12. The movie was based on the novel by Robert Bloch dealing with a real life murder.
Psycho is set in a wasteland America which would see many tragedies in the decades ahead. American film lost its Pollyannish innocence in Psycho.
Thomson is always worth reading for his insights and love of movies. The book provides a decent bibliography of books on Psycho and Hitchcock's life and career. The book lacks any pictures from Psycho which is a detriment.
The chapters remind this reader of magazine articles on particular aspects of the production of Psycho and the strange genius lurking under the too too solid flesh of the obese cockney genius Alfred Joseph Hitchcock.
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VINE VOICEon December 11, 2009
David Thomson's new "The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder" revisits Hitchcock's most popular, influentual, and arguably, best film. Hitchcock's first horror film was a sadistic black comedy shot in shuddery black-and-white. The thriller is based on Robert Bloch's novel "Psycho", upon which television screenwriter Joseph Stafano("The Outer Limits") provided the script. Bernard Herrmann added the eerie musical score. "Psycho" is a meandering trip throught the dark mind of a young demented motel inn-keeper. Multiple personalities lead to gruesome murder. Fortunately, Hitchcock's rapid-fire editing of the shower-scene murder escaped the censors. What emerged was a new platform for movie nudity and 1960 film violence. In "The Moment", for the first time, finally, Thomson reviews the exacting irony of "Psycho(1960)" versus Orson Welles' 1958 classic "Touch of Evil", filmed just two years before, at the same studio, Universal. One of "Touch of Evil"s central scenes involves a solitary young woman, alone, in a desolate, decrepit motel, just like "Psycho". More. Both films show the young woman being violently attacked. In both films, a bizarre, predatory motel-custodian patrols outside. Finally, in both films, the woman is portrayed by actress Janet Leigh. Coincidence? Hmmm. Today, you can visit the old Bates Motel and the family mansion. It's been moved, but it's still there, on the Universal City Studio back-lot tour in Hollywood. The author of "The Moment" is David Thomson, a London-born film critic and historian. He's written more than 20 books, and lives in San Francisco, California with his wife and two sons. for further reading, see Thomson's "Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles(1997)". Not a biography, "Rosebud" is an incisive, riveting, irreverent series of essays; elegant commentary that martyrs the myths, and cherishes the genius. The genius that was Welles.
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on February 16, 2011
Society was ready for change in the summer 0f 1960 when Psycho was released. It was a time in which television, politics, and sexual mores were changing society. These things and, according to the author Hitchcock's lack of recognition, told the director it was time to both push boundaries and turn the mirror back on Americans themselves. That's the thesis of critic David Thomson's interesting little volume. It's mostly historical context, intelligent observations about the film and its enduring legacy. It even contains a full chapter listing films owing something to Psycho.

It is tragic that the Academy never recognized Alfred Hitchcock and his lasting impact on films and society properly. Many may have not been able to see the humor in murder that he did, or maybe just as Psycho was ahead of its time, he was so far ahead of his time that peers couldn't understand him. This slim volume is a testament to that idea; its interesting simply as a history of the movie and its famous director, but that's been done before. Thomson places Psycho in the American History chronology and elevates it to social/cultural history.
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on May 30, 2011
The previous reviewer goes into detail that needn't be repeated here. Suffice it to say that much of Thomson's criticism is arguable, even far-fetched. And the writing often lapses into critic-ese (i.e., you have no idea what Thomson's trying to say). Thomson doesn't seem to revere this film. In fact he short-changes the second half. Another title that over promises and under delivers.
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on July 16, 2016
I've seen both the original Psycho made in the early 60's and the remake from 1998 which I liked even though the original was better. Book is interesting reading.
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on September 7, 2013
As always, Thomson cuts to the meat of his subject in a accessible but erudite way. He uses his typical scene-by-scene dscription of the film but in a way that makes even a old familiar seem like new. And his suggestion of Psycho as a turning point in the depiction of everything obscured by nearly thirty years of the production code is revealing (pardon the pun). His analysis of the first forty minutes (the 'dull' part if you're only waiting for the shower scene) demands re-viewing. Clearly, this is the pinnacle of Hitchock before the at-first slow (The Birds, Marnie) and then precipitous (Torn Curtain, Topaz, etc.) decline of this brilliant film-maker. This book, along with the works of Donald Spoto, is a must for film lovers and especially lovers of Hitch.
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