the end of a Psycho era

Alex on Film makes a thorough analysis of Hitchcock's Psycho and lobs some brickbats at the Gus Van Sant remake. A few thoughts on his thoughts. He says "Hitchcock had noticed how lousy, cheaply made exploitation movies were making a lot of money and so wondered what would happen if someone tried to do a B-movie well, if just as inexpensively." And in the Van Sant post he adds "Hitchcock filmed Psycho in black-and-white in part because it was cheap but also because it looked cheap and he was going for a low-budget, exploitation aesthetic." And he quotes David Thomson on the abrasiveness or indifference of the characters and how, metaphorically, "the central killing grows out of the grim unkindness of the world we have seen."

Martin Scorsese, a film critic with an interesting side career as a director, made some recent commentary for the 1957 movie The Brothers Rico that touches on both these points, that is, the low budget filmmaking and the grim unkindness. I transcribed what he said (with a few minor syntax flubs intact):

"Many of the pictures shot in the late '50s had this flatness to them. Maybe it really was the influence of fast-shooting television crews -- television production -- and the idea that some of these films would go to television, and have to have the contrast that way. So the idea of the film noir, the looks of expressionistic shadows, and it'll look better on a TV tube. Ah, but maybe it was something else, too, maybe it was a reflection of a certain unease of everyday life that came out almost unconsciously. I mean, you see it in the late Howard Hawks pictures, in the last few American Fritz Lang movies, in low budget black and white comedies, even in John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, you can see this, in this flatness -- and some have reacted against the picture because of that -- and you can even stretch it to the point of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, which was shot with his television crew. And it's present in [The Brothers Rico], which takes place in the bright sunshine, and where the Mob runs their business in a kind of button-down, real corporate manner."

Scorsese is compressing forty years of black and white film history here and his conflation of expressionistic shadows and bright sunshine is a little careless (Brothers Rico does in fact have both elements). But black and white moviemaking in the '50s was slowly morphing from German Expressionism (angles and shadows) to television flatness, and the content of a lot of '50s movies is unrelentingly grim. Psycho is in some ways a continuation of all this and also turns up the amplifier to eleven, with more overt horror and psychological nastiness. And it essentially ended the era of that type of black and white filmmaking. You had a few more gasps in the early '60s, mostly on television (The Twilight Zone, Thriller, and Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano's uber-creepy The Outer Limits) and then it was over -- a grisaille style to be recycled for effect by knowing directors in the color era (The Last Picture Show, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, Lars Von Trier's Europa etc.)

Of course, as Alex on Film notes, the nastiness didn't go away, it only got worse: "The slasher serial killer didn’t just go on to become acceptable, he became the hero while at the same time becoming less sympathetic, more inhuman." However, I see Psycho as more of an end (apotheosis of '50s melodrama) than a beginning of something. I wouldn't dignify the slasher genre by rooting it in Hitchcock's smart, unruly-yet-disciplined film.