Psycho – 1960 – dir. Alfred Hitchcock
I have a tremendous amount of respect and affection for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, easily one the director’s best-known and most influential films, and certainly one of my favorites. It remains a study in the successful undermining of audience expectations (cannily using what we know about genre and even film stardom against us), and on a personal level, it was one of the first films to get me thinking about the structures and strategies that filmmakers use (it also may well have taught me the meanings of the words “inordinately” and “aspic.”) Yet while it has a well-earned reputation as an exemplary thriller and an indispensable horror film, the sly humor of Psycho is occasionally overlooked.
I’ll admit that it seemed blasphemous at first when a professor in one of my undergraduate film study classes asked us if we found the final shock reveal of the real killer a bit, well, funny. But the truth was that there had been an uneasy ripple of laughter when the killer had lurched into the room, an unimposing young man in an ill-fitting wig. The question was posed to the class: If Hitchcock had wanted that moment to be terrifying, couldn’t he have made it terrifying? He certainly had no trouble establishing a purely horrific tone for the murder scenes. Hitchcock subtly blurs the lines between humor and horror with Psycho, and why wouldn’t one expect such a thing from the man who directed The Trouble with Harry (in which the title character is a corpse) five years earlier? In one of his famed interviews with French New Wave director François Truffaut (collected in Truffaut’s book “Hitchcock”), Psycho’s director calls the film “a serious story told with tongue in cheek.” Hitchcock goes on to describe the approach as “indispensable” to the mystery and suspense genre, separating films of this ilk from pictures intent on presenting “a clinical case.” The close of Psycho, with that famous internal monologue (“She wouldn’t even hurt a fly”) may raise a shiver, but it’s also likely for viewers to be answering Anthony Perkins’ final wicked smile with devious, amused expressions of their own. Hitchcock’s macabre, prankish sense of humor is an essential element of this, one of his most defining works. Consider the film’s trailer, in which Hitchcock offers a cheeky tour of both the Bates Motel and the imposing black mass of a California Gothic that towers over it. He coyly teases the audience upon entering the hotel room of the film’s ill-starred murder victim by noting that the room has been “All tidied up.” He didn’t lose the mischievous spark we seen in front of the camera when he disappeared behind it. Rather, it was quite the contrary. Also, for their part the performers, particularly Perkins, come across as being keenly aware of Hitchcock’s tone, a delicate mix of the serious and the sickly funny (attend any screening of Psycho and Perkins’ line about disliking the “creepy smell” of linen that hasn’t been freshly changed will score a laugh.) When Perkins himself directed Psycho III, he imbued the film with a nasty sense of humor that proved to be its greatest saving grace. “There are a couple of scenes that remind us directly of Hitchcock,” Roger Ebert wrote in his review of Psycho III, “especially the scene where the local sheriff dips into the ice chest on a hot day, and doesn’t notice that some of the cubes he’s popping into his mouth have blood on them.” That Ebert selected this scene as being most directly evocative of Hitchcock speaks volumes.
The far-ranging influence of Psycho on the horror genre is well noted (even I discussed its status as the progenitor of the slasher subgenre in an essay on Friday the 13th.), but the complexity of this influence bears remembering. Hitchcock notes in the Truffaut interviews that the kind of approach he took with Psycho is one “generally misunderstood by critics. When the content of the film is funny, they will go along with you, but when you handle a serious subject in a humorous way, they don’t always see what you’re driving at.” These words continue to carry some truth today – films that attempt the kind of balance that Psycho nails are regularly accused, accurately or not, of being tonal disasters –but Hitchcock did set a precedent that has aided in our understanding of everything from the barbed comedy that laces that other touchstone of the creepy-hotel subgenre, The Shining, to the surreal ironies of contemporary auteurs from David Lynch to Quentin Tarantino. So when you sit down to watch Psycho for the first or the five hundredth time, bear this mind: be afraid, certainly, but don’t be afraid to laugh. Somewhere, Hitch is laughing with you.