Sarris vs. Crowther

Either you get it or you don’t. But if you get it, you might incur the wrath of the complacent cows in the field. Consider first this June 17, 1960 review of Alfred Hitchcock‘s Pyscho by N.Y. Times critic Bosley Crowther — perhaps the most fuddy-duddy-ish review of Hitchcock’s classic ever written:

“You had better have a pretty strong stomach and be prepared or a couple of grisly shocks when you go to see Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which a great many people are sure to do. For Mr. Hitchcock, an old hand at frightening people, comes at you with a club in this frankly intended blood-curdler, which opened at the DeMille and Baronet yesterday.

“There is not an abundance of subtlety or the lately familiar Hitchcock bent toward significant and colorful scenery in this obviously low-budget job. With a minimum of complication, it gets off to a black-and-white start with the arrival of a fugitive girl with a stolen bankroll at an eerie motel.

“Well, perhaps it doesn’t get her there too swiftly. That’s another little thing about this film. It does seem slowly paced for Mr. Hitchcock and given over to a lot of small detail. But when it does get her to the motel and apparently settled for the night, it turns out this isolated haven is, indeed, a haunted house.

“The young man who diffidently tends it — he is Anthony Perkins and the girl is Janet Leigh — is a queer duck, given to smirks and giggles and swift dashes up to a stark Victorian mansion on a hill. There, it appears, he has a mother — a cantankerous old woman — concealed. And that mother, as it soon develops, is deft at creeping up with a knife and sticking holes into people, drawing considerable blood.

“That’s the way it is with Mr. Hitchcock’s picture — slow buildups to sudden shocks that are old-fashioned melodramatics, however effective and sure, until a couple of people have been gruesomely punctured and the mystery of the haunted house has been revealed. Then it may be a matter of question whether Mr. Hitchcock points of psychology, the sort of highly favored by Krafft-Ebing, are as reliable as his melodramatic stunts.

“Frankly, we feel his explanations are a bit of leg-pulling by a man who has been known to resort to such tactics in his former films.

“The consequence is his denouement falls quite flat for us. But the acting is fair. Mr. Perkins and Miss Leigh perform with verve, and Vera Miles, John Gavin and Martin Balsam do well enough in other roles.

“The one thing we would note with disappointment is that, among the stuffed birds that adorn the motel office of Mr. Perkins, there are no significant bats.”

And now this Village Voice review by Andrew Sarris, published a week or so later:

“For many years American and British critics have been mourning the ‘old’ Alfred Hitchcock who used to make neat, unpretentious British thrillers before he was corrupted by Hollywood’s garish technical facility. Oh, for the days of The Thirty-Nine Steps, The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Lady Vanishes! Meanwhile in Paris the wild
young men on Cahiers du Cinema, particularly Claude Chabrol, were proclaiming the gospel that Hitchcock’s later American movies stamped him as one of the screen’s major artists.

“A close inspection of Psycho indicates not only that the French have been right all along, but that Hitchcock is the most-daring avant-garde film-maker in America today.

“Besides making previous horror films look like variations of Pollyanna, Psycho is overlaid with a richly symbolic commentary on the modern world as a public swamp in which human feelings and passions are flushed down the drain. What once seemed like impurities in his patented cut-and-chase technique now give Psycho and the rest of Hollywood Hitchcock a personal flavor and intellectual penetration which his British classics lack.

“For one thing, Hitchcock no longer cheats his endings. Where the mystery of Diabolique, for example, is explained in the most popular after-all-this-is-just-a-movie-and-we’ve-been-taken manner, the solution of Psycho is more ghoulish than the antecedent horror which includes the grisliest murder scenes ever filmed.

“Although Hitchcock continually teases his conglomerate audience, he never fails to deliver on his most ominous portents. Such divergent American institutions as motherhood and motels, will never seem quite the same again, and only Hitchcock could give a soft-spoken State Trooper the visually sinister overtones of a dehumanized machine patrolling a conformist society.

“Despite its huge grosses, Psycho makes fewer concessions to popular tastes than an allegedly daring film like Private Property. Psycho takes its audience wherever its director wants to go, while Private Property stays a little ahead of the audience until catching-up finale worthy of Albert Zugsmith.

“In its treatment of outrageous perversion as a parody of an orderly social existence, Psycho has a certain affinity to a modern theatre piece like The Connection in which the audience is forced to respond to its own hypocrisy in making the conventional moral distinctions

Psycho should be seen at least three times by any discerning film-goer, the first time for the sheer terror of the experience, and on this occasion I fully agree with Hitchcock that only a congenital spoilsport would reveal the plot; the second time for the macabre comedy inherent in the conception of the film; and the third for all the hidden meanings and symbols lurking beneath the surface of the first American movie since Touch of Evil to stand in the same creative rank as the great European films.”

  • Marty Melville

    One of the most striking Psycho images I’ve ever seen… resembles a rough sketch for a Francis Bacon painting.

    As for Crowther (“slowly paced”, lacking “significant and colorful scenery”), Kael said he could always be counted on to miss the point.

    As for Sarris, that is superb writing.

  • Jesse Crall

    “I liked how Hitchcock matches all the images of taxidermy birds to the hawk-like physicality of Perkins, giving him a predatory nature and connecting him to the animalistic world. By making the birds dead, Hitchcock suggests the depravity of Perkins and foreshadows his mother’s state.” -Shallow Observation

  • KitLatura1

    I always watch the Van Sant version anyway, at least it’s in color and even neither main chick is a particular fave looks-wise, I at least know who they are and can recognize and tell them apart, and James Remar’s in it and you know Van Sant was stroking off behind the camera and has a personal reel of Mortensen spank footage.

    Why would anybody watch a black and white movie over a remake that has better acting and nice color?

  • Local Hero

    “I fully agree with Hitchcock that only a congenital spoilsport would reveal the plot”

    Ah, the good old days..

  • Ghost of Kazan

    “Why would anybody watch a black and white movie over a remake that has better acting and nice color?”

    Society would like to thank you for helping to make Snooki and Hurl! a reality.

  • GeorgePrager

    “Why would anybody watch a black and white movie over a remake that has better acting and nice color?”

    Imagine saying that on a date.

    And he wonders why he can’t get a white woman to fuck him.

  • lazarus

    Psycho isn’t anywhere near my list of favorite Hitch films, but don’t you guys know better than to take Lex’s obvious trolling bait?

    Come on.

  • cricket

    And of course a contemporaneous Wells review would have given away the twist in the headline, sneeringly.

  • Sasha Stone

    Well, actually, Hitch was known for preferring not to shock with surprise (other than Psycho, of course) – he liked it when the audience already knew what was going to happen — how it was going to turn out, though, that was where he built suspense. Psycho, arguably Hitch’s best, has the big twist with Marion’s death, and then later with the big reveal, but The Birds and Rear Window don’t build suspense on surprise but rather on the knowing.

    Are we sure that Kitlaura is Lex?

  • patches23

    OT: Jason Kottke posted to his blog over an hour of audio recording of Stanley Kubrick talking to a writer in 1966 about his life and all his movies up to that point. 2001 was shooting at the time. This was source material for a profile in The New Yorker.

    Well worth the listen.

    Interesting to consider all those early pictures were only within the last 15 years at that time. Also interesting how he brushes off the truly iconic photo he took for Look Magazine of the news vendor the day or day after FDR died.

  • great scott

    Sasha, the question is if Kit is Lex, what will Wells do about it. He’ll probably wait until he does another one of his “I NEED PUSSY OR I’LL KILL MYSELF” rants before “banning” him again.

  • lazarus

    Sasha: Are you serious?

    I’m not sure if you’re in here every day, but it’s like the worst-kept Elsewhere secret. Even Jeff must know, and won’t drop the hammer unless the late-night, all-caps tirades resume, as said above.

  • Thom Phoolery

    IRA PARKS SAYS . . .

    SASHA STONE SAYS . . .

    Are we sure that Kakihara is DZ?

  • DuluozGray

    Amazing how KitLatura’s return has coincided with Ira Parks disappearing.

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    And of course a contemporaneous Wells review would have given away the twist in the headline, sneeringly.

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    And of course a contemporaneous Wells review would have given away the twist in the headline, sneeringly.