ThinkMovies: Sixty Years of Psycho – would it be made today?

ThinkMovies: Sixty Years of Psycho – would it be made today?

by Alan Grant
article from Friday 19, June, 2020

THIS ARTICLE contains significant spoilers for a sixty-year-old film that you should have seen already. 

When I was young, I had a very good relationship with my maternal Grandfather. He was a cinephile and is, most likely, the reason I am too. Without him and his influence on my young life, there is no ThinkMovies and a lot of the cultural touchstones on which I rely would not have been made available to me. As a man of sound judgement and maturity, he was also responsible for introducing me to great cinema that carried with it age restrictions that would have made it impossible for me to access by myself and was always able to add context or answer questions that I had about it. 

This early cinema education included Pulp Fiction, The Godfather, Goodfellas, The Shawshank Redemption, The Shinning, The Exorcist, Top Gun, and a raft of other essential viewing all lovingly curated on VHS (for readers for whom peeing is not a race against the clock, VHS was like if someone put YouTube on some liquorish and hid it inside a Minecraft brick) and handed to me, always with a word or two of context, when I would see them. These movie drops are among some of my most cherished childhood memories.

One such movie was Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 horror classic, Psycho, which this week celebrates its 60th Anniversary.

The anniversary of this masterwork of horror and suspense would be worth celebrating normally but the context is important. Amid the chaos in which we currently find ourselves, we also find an emboldened cancel culture that sees people going back and going on offence archaeology expeditions and uncovering cultural artifacts from years ago that do not chime with modern sensibilities. 

My own take on this is not as cut and dry as you might expect. On one hand, I don’t see the need to have comedies with blackface or racist slurs, like Little Britain, Come Fly With Me, or Love Thy Neighbour, on TV anymore whilst on the other I think that Gone With The Wind is an essential piece of cinema history and should be preserved as such. My argument may rely on subjective taste but, when dealing with the arts and creative media, what doesn’t?

As muddy as I find the waters of the ‘culture wars’, what is clear is that the tide is with the cancellers rather than the knee-jerk defenders of everything. My god, what I wouldn’t give for some nuance and complexity! With that in mind, I thought it would be prudent to add a blue tinge to my hair, grab a twee placard, forgo my usual excellent levels of personal hygiene, and see if Psycho would stand the tests that cancel culture would force upon it. Is Psychoprogressive enough to be left alone?

Unsurprisingly for a movie made when Dwight D. Eisenhower was still President, the answer is a very hard no!

Psycho would be cancelled before it even made it to the cinema today. Its director, Alfred Hitchcock has been since dragged through the controversy mill. He has been accused of sexual assault by The Birds actress Tippi Hedren, was rumoured to have gotten violent with women, and had an on-set reputation as a bit of a brute who used cruel tricks to get the shots and reactions that he wanted. He himself would, at the very least, be cancelled. 

On top of that, consider the title of the movie – Psycho; a term used as an insult against those with mental health conditions. Hardly something that would be put up with in today’s day and age. 

When the film starts rolling, this story of a woman stealing $40,000 from her boss, running away, and meeting her end at the hand of the creepy Norman Bates in his macabre hotel, doesn’t fare much better in social justice terms. There is gaslighting, casual misogyny, sexism, stereotypes, and even a scene in which a car salesman tells Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane that she should “Do anything you’ve a mind to…” and that “being a woman, you will.” Such blatant sexism would earn the makers, at the very least, a few unpleasant headlines and maybe even a protest.

However, perhaps the strongest objections would be thrown up around the character of Norman Bates himself – the boy who digs up his mother’s corpse, wears her clothes and wig, and commits murder while ‘being’ her. He is obviously a mentally-ill man whose mental state is the subject of the movie’s closing monologue and wears clothing that is not normally associated with his sex – another hot button subject at the moment. The fact that he is depicted as a deranged, disturbed, and dangerous killer when the film opens up would cause outrage today. 

It is possible, I spent an evening doing it, to go through the many different levels that this story of relationships, lust, violence, identity, and many other themes and ideas in Psycho and search for so-called ‘problematic’ content. It is absolutely there and is there in spades. However, and having watched the film hundreds of times I can attest to this, doing so completely ruins the experience of it. If you have to stop and make pernickety little notes in a book about how a film from the 1960s doesn’t chime with modern society’s views on personal and moral issues then you absolutely won’t, and can’t, enjoy or engage with the film at all. And you absolutely should engage with Psycho; I find it hard to imagine a complete cinematic education, such as I received from my Grandfather, without it. 

I conclude this discussion safe in the knowledge that the writing, direction, performances, and mould-shattering production of Psycho allow it to withstand any attack from those of bad faith and I invite those who don’t to go think about it… perhaps in the shower?

Go on, watch it yourself and decide.

 

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