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The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder Paperback – November 9, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

In this compact book—extended essay, really—the arguably most provocative and acerbic of major film critics (see the plethoric Have You Seen . . . ?, 2008) concentrates on a single work, Alfred Hitchcock’s influential Psycho. The 1960 film was groundbreaking not just for bringing sex and violence to the fore and eschewing the expected happy ending but also for its efficient, low-budget production. It was shot in just three months in the expedient fashion of Hitchcock’s television series. After an introductory passage on the film’s genesis, Thomson offers a close reading distinguished by insight and illumination, particularly about the problematic second half. He concludes with an analysis of Psycho’s impact, including an annotated list of films it influenced, especially in its treatment of sex and violence, from James Bond flicks to David Lynch’s and Quentin Tarantino’s bloodbaths. Thomson doesn’t blame Hitchcock for touching off the subsequent wave of emotionally detached movies predicated on gory special effects but says Psycho opened the door to ignoring consequences “if the end product is thrilling enough.” --Gordon Flagg --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"Thomson's close analysis of the film, its context in terms of director and cast and its influence on subsequent movies is another of his five-star movie masterclasses. He should be given an annual Oscar for movie criticism and a lifetime achievement award for being consistently right about film." The Times "Thomson intuits the secret afterlife of Psycho in the American mind, in a short book which is like an inspired, bravura jazz solo... 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 which shows that America's hinterlands are not the places of provincial decency quaintly imagined by popular culture but unpoliced 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 flush that only Thomson could conjure." The Guardian "a compelling argument from the pre-eminent film critic of the age. I have long been a fan of Thomson's magisterial Biographical Dictionary of Film, and in The Moment of Psycho he is at his most fluent and perceptive." The Mail On Sunday "Ever since I first saw Psycho as a terrified adolescent, I've been replaying it - inside my head for several decades, nowadays on a screen at the foot of my bed - but David Thomson has spotted things that my countless viewings overlooked... At his best, Thomson provides his own deftly poetic equivalents to the film's visual images and wordless sounds... (He) is a metaphysician of the movies who has also always been fascinated by the fantasies and mysteries that play out in the darkened cinema, and he writes compellingly about the snarled relationship between voyeurism and moral responsibility of Psycho." The Observer "A flood of slasher, slice-and-dice and arterial-spray films have dulled Psycho's edge in recent years, but Thomson is right to recall just how scandalous Hitchcock's picture was at the time of its release... Thomson leads us through the film and its release with a sure hand, always smart and provocative..." The Times "In 1960, few wrote seriously about film. Now everybody's at it, and Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 shower shocker could be cinema's most written about movie. Do we really need another Psycho book? Well... yes. David Thomson's slim, densely packed essay adds something new by concentrating on precisely that shift in attitude... Thomson is a magisterial writer. There's enough meat her to keep the Psycho industry rolling on for several more years." Total Film "Forget about assassination, communism and war - an extraordinary new book argues that it was really Hitchcock's masterpiece that sparked global panic, paranoia and distrust." The Sunday Express "Forget about assassination, communism and war - an extraordinary newbook argues that it was really Hitchcock's masterpiece that sparked global panic, paranoia and distrust." The Daily Express "Iluminating... Thomson's own passion for the film is evident." The Evening Standard "Thomson's book represents a refreshing return to the value judgment in Hitchcockian exegesis." The Spectator "satisfyingly controversial" and "persuasive". Sight and Sound Magazine"

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; First Trade Paper Edition edition (November 9, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465020704
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465020706
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.5 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,240,433 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

And the writing often lapses into critic-ese (i.e., you have no idea what Thomson's trying to say).
Gary Parker
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.
Wayne Klein
He goes on: "Above all, I mean that I don't credit half a second of this rigmarole about Mother having taken over Norman."
Richard Masloski

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

35 of 42 people found the following review helpful By Richard Masloski on January 5, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Randall L. Wilson on December 14, 2009
Format: Hardcover
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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