The Psycho File: A Comprehensive Guide to Hitchcock’s Classic Shocker (2009) Joseph W. Smith III
McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers
Paperback, 216 pages
Includes Acknowledgements, Table of Contents, photos, Cast and Credits, Sources, Bibliography, Index
As far as I can ascertain, no film has been written about as much as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Not only has the film been written about exhaustively, it has also been analyzed, imitated, remade, franchised, lampooned, and merchandised. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s somebody out there working on a Psycho opera. The film has become a part of the public consciousness. Just start imitating the shrieking violins from the Bernard Herrmann score to the shower scene and people instantly know what you’re referencing. (And those who don’t will move far away from you. This might just make for a wonderful social distancing tool.)
With a film this well-known and so much written about it, where do you go to know it better? You could easily find yourself headed down a long road ending at the bottom of a swamp. Where would one start?
Right here, with Joseph W. Smith’s The Psycho File, a concise, manageable “greatest hits” of some of the best writing on the film, drawing from writers such as Stephen Rebello, Donald Spoto, Robin Wood, James Naremore, Raymond Durgnat, François Truffaut, William Rothman, Danny Peary, and many others. Smith draws from other interesting sources such as Janet Leigh’s memoir (with Christopher Nickens) Psycho: Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller (1995), Thomas M. Leitch’s books The Encyclopedia of Alfred Hitchcock (2002) and Find the Director and Other Hitchcock Games (1991), and several reviews and interviews. All of this is packed into an impressive 200 pages.
Although Smith sprinkles in many interesting behind-the-scenes details, most of the book follows a scene-by-scene examination of the film in chronological order. After an introduction covering how the film was planned and developed (including the acquisition of the Robert Bloch source novel, Bloch's Ed Gein inspiration, the selection of the cast and crew, etc.), Smith begins with a detailed analysis of the film and how it has been interpreted since 1960.
Take, for instance, the first chapter actually devoted to the content of the film itself, “I Hate Having to Be with You in a Place Like This: Titles and Windows.” You know when the chapter begins with a thorough examination of the opening credits, you’re in for a deep dive. “…the altered (Paramount) logo offers a contrast between horizontals and verticals (e.g., lines and mountain) - a contrast that is more fully articulated in the opening titles and in the body of the film itself.”
And we’re off! Lest you fear a boring page-by-page dissection of theories and speculation amounting to knee-deep minutia, rest assured: Such is not the case. Each chapter examines specific details, yet never loses sight of the overall themes of the film: identity, crime and punishment, mother/son issues, sexuality, guilt, and much more. Readers will discover how the opening scene between Marion (Janet Leigh) and Sam (John Gavin) not only gives us an entire course on character, but also provides the groundwork for other themes that will run throughout the entire film. Marion’s theft of the $40,000, the transaction at the used car dealership, the encounter with the motorcycle cop, and other scenes not only build upon each other, they also include moments (sometimes only words) that bear close scrutiny in understanding and appreciating the film. Each chapter does this quite well. And yes, the shower scene is examined in wonderful detail. Even experts on the film will no doubt find something here that just might surprise them.
After only a few chapters, you’ll begin to appreciate the film's brilliant construction. Reading The Psycho File is like taking one of those Great Courses programs. It provides an incredible amount of detail and depth in a short amount of time, yet still leaves room for further exploration of other sources if you choose to do so.
While the reader could skip around in the book, moving from favorite scene to favorite scene, Smith builds his material chronologically, as the film does, and I suggest reading it in that order. Smith also includes responses and remembrances from audience members who saw the film in 1960, as well as a brief examination of the film’s sequels. The Psycho File is an essential book for fans of the film or Hitchcock aficionados.
This review is part of the 2020 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge. You can (and should!) sign up here and be a part of the challenge, telling others about the classic film books you're reading, and getting suggestions for your own reading. Enjoy!
Photo: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, Out of the Past: A Classic Film Blog