What you see, what you 'get'

A Long Hard Look at Psycho - Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie
July 4, 2003

Raymond Durgnat, who died last year, was one of the liveliest, most stimulating and, sometimes, most infuriating of film critics. His mind, ceaselessly inquiring and inventive, sparked off ideas, insights and pan-cultural cross-references ad lib, so that his writing is scattered with a restless patchwork of speculative parentheses, often upholstered with question marks. Untrammelled by orthodoxy or dogmatism, he valued exploration far above consistency, and would quite happily turn around and demolish his own argument just to see where the volte-face might lead. At times, his questing, impressionistic style of criticism could turn frustratingly nebulous, but an irrepressible joy in the infinite potential of cinema and its processes always shone through.

A Long Hard Look at "Psycho" was Durgnat's last book, completed shortly before his death (although a collection of his essays is promised).

It is also one of his best. Its format might seem surprisingly predictable for such an unconventional writer. In the traditional style of close exegesis, Durgnat examines Alfred Hitchcock's film scene by scene, from opening credits to the final shot. But, as always with this critic, what matters is less what he does than the way that he does it. Operating very much after the manner of a director, Durgnat varies his composition and focus - now moving in for the close-up scrutiny of a sequence almost frame-by-frame, now pulling back to survey the film's psychological and emotional landscape.

The effect is not unlike Douglas Gordon's installation, 24 Hour Psycho, first presented at the Hayward Gallery in 1996, in which the film is slowed down from its normal 109 minutes to run for a full 24 hours. But, where Gordon simply holds up each successive frozen frame for our appraisal, giving no greater weight to one than to another, Durgnat homes in on those moments where Hitchcock's mischievous, meticulous exercise in "playing (the audience) like an organ" (as he provocatively termed it) most cunningly works its effects, and teases out his secrets. In the famous (or infamous) shower scene, of course, but also at less obvious junctures, such as tracing the power-play dynamics underlying the scene where the fugitive Janet Leigh exchanges her car.

This process of subtly arousing our apprehension, Durgnat makes clear, starts with Psycho 's credits, where Saul Bass' slithering geometric title design and the stabbing violins of Bernard Herrmann's strings-only score combine to unsettle the audience before a single image has appeared on screen. Durgnat's account of this sequence is a tour de force description in itself: "Against the last (black) bands, streaking across at middle height, white angular flecks appear, like enigmatic signs, and turn out to be the tips and tails of letters, slashed laterally and vertically disaligned..."

Hard to imagine, perhaps, that anyone reading this book will not already have seen Psycho, probably several times, but if there are any such readers, they will surely be sent scurrying to their nearest video store, their curiosity intolerably piqued. Meanwhile, those of us who know the film well will want to sit through it again, if only to check our perceptions against Durgnat's. Time and again he prods our imagination with his insights - as often as not in casual aperçus with only tangential bearing on the subject at hand. "By and large," he remarks at one point, "a film is like an iceberg: What You See Is a Lot Less Than What You Get.

('Get' in the American sense - 'to intuitively understand')." Or, comparing Anthony Perkins with other Hitchcock leading men: "From a certain angle, he's not so far from Cary Grant; but where Grant slid lightly and politely over everything, like a mildly irascible eel, Perkins put more depth, thoughtful or disturbing, into every role." I suspect I shall never again be able to view Grant in quite the same light.

It is Tony Lee Moral's ill luck that his book on Marnie, Hitchcock's next-but-one film after Psycho, should have appeared in the wake of Durgnat's idiosyncratic, illuminating study. At any time Moral's book would have made a fairly modest splash in the overstocked pool of literary Hitchcockiana, but set beside Durgnat, his staid, conscientious account appears particularly drab. Unlike Psycho, which after some initial shrieks of synthetic outrage from the reviewers was rapidly recognised as one of Hitchcock's greatest films, Marnie has always been the subject of controversy: Hitch's last major film or the onset of his decline?

In his introduction, Moral makes grand proposals towards tackling this and other cruxes of the film, although his stiff academic phraseology ("I will cite why", "I will highlight multivocality", "I will unequivocally argue") already arouses misgivings. In the event, he largely sidesteps most of the more problematic aspects of the film, or ignores the contradictions of his own material. Much debate around Marnie has centred on the blatantly painted backdrops and crude back-projections used in several scenes, often cited as evidence of Hitchcock's growing indifference to technical matters.

Moral concludes that Hitchcock was deliberately aiming for an expressionist, non-naturalistic effect, but his argument is undermined by the testimony he cites from the film's assistant director, James Brown, that a huge and much-derided backdrop of a docked liner was carefully designed to look convincing from the planned camera angle - which Hitchcock then impulsively changed at the last minute.

Moral plods dutifully through all the stages of the film's production, interviewing most of the survivors - actors and crew - as he goes. Much of this is informative, though Moral's clumsy, inelegant style hardly helps.

(Nor do some elementary howlers - at one point we're introduced to a German film-maker called Weiner Fassbinder.) The debate over Marnie will undoubtedly continue; this study provides useful primary material, but it is a long way from concluding the argument.

Philip Kemp is a freelance writer and film historian.

A Long Hard Look at Psycho

Author - Raymond Durgnat
ISBN - 0 85170 921 4 and 920 6
Publisher - BFI Publishing
Price - £45.00 and £14.99
Pages - 248

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