ACF #4 — “Psycho”

 

Welcome to the fourth episode of the American Cinema Foundation movie podcast! Today, I am joined by my friend and Ricochet compeer @stsalieriericcook. Eric Cook is a history teacher in a charter school in North Carolina, an organist in a church, and a builder of pipe organs, actually. One of Ricochet’s eccentric scholar-gentlemen, with an all-American upbringing in the working classes of Western Pennsylvania and a sometimes nostalgic, sometimes angry respect for the dignity of work, which is not faring well in our times. He also scores silent films–this is his BluRay of the 1922 movie Timothy’s quest–and leads the Ivy Leaf Orchestra!

We’re beginning a series talking about sacred limits in Hitchcock’s films and what happens when they are unwittingly transgressed. We want to bring out the critique of liberalism in his movies, as well as the elements of Christianity. I’m not trying to say that Hitchcock was a believing Catholic–he was brought up Catholic. I’m not saying his movies are religious, either. But they certainly involve important Biblical stories; Christian symbolism; and, I think, a Christian criticism of art. This is therefore a great introduction to one of my themes and future books on film: the horror movie as moral education. This may be an unusual thought, but it has obvious importance for conservatives who want to reflect on the culture and to find persuasive ways to reflect on society without pedantry or preaching. That’s my claim for Hitchcock at any rate and I hope you’ll give it a hearing!

The “sacred” is one of those words that sounds important and is unfortunately too often used to refer very vaguely to something to do with religion. Unfortunately, religion is, often enough, that sort of word as well. We’ll look at four Hitchcock movies–over several episodes, of course–to show a couple of things that have to do with his being (brought up) Catholic. The first two movies start from “the hidden family.” This is the symbol that the movie Psycho wants you to take seriously, beyond pop psychology or sensationalism and titillation. The most obvious connection to Christianity is through the Bible: the very important painting of the story of Susanna and the Elders (Daniel 13). That turns out to be the barrier between life and death.

So here’s my three-point pitch to conservatives, What Hitchcock can teach modern audiences:

  1. Why there are sacred limits to human action–this is where the Old Testament and Greek tragedy agree: The family is the place of tragedy.
  2. How guilt and innocence are connected in human life and complicated by the necessity in society for respectability. We hope to show the origin of the American social horror in individuals who break unwritten laws, put themselves beyond respectability, and then discover beyond it something horrifying.
  3. How the low-brow horror genre and the use of high-brow works of art make an American form of middle-brow: the movies. This cinema fights off respectability without encouraging lawlessness. It satisfies the vice of curiosity against the not-entirely-sound virtue of respectability, but in the service of showing the public to itself. The public is both curious at the movies and respectable otherwise, and therefore not really innocent.Moral fallibility and the need to defend innocence emerge as the concerns of this kind of movie-making. This looks suspiciously like the perfectly Catholic and Christian concern to remind people they are not above sin and that they therefore cannot simply trust themselves to their desires for freedom, or their society, which itself may desire too much freedom from being judged. Movies in this sense foster a kind of self-awareness.

By way of show notes: the novel on which the movie is based was written by Robert Bloch, famous as a horror, then crime writer in mid-century America. He was a protegee of H.P. Lovecraft. This is yet another part of my attempt–see my podcasts on Ridley Scott’s Alien–to talk of horror as a moral education and a conservative genre. Lovecraft’s writing was all about how progress is leading us into horror and how the future is not automatically superior to the past. Also, therefore, about what we might need to recover to live with life. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to talk about this part much…

Next, the music Eric talked about–he’s of course around to discuss it with whoever is curious, better informed, or at all moved by it:

  1. The Psycho suite
  2. The Bernard Herrmann Sinfonietta
  3. The Cowell Sinfonietta
  4. Beethoven’s third symphony, Eroica, First movement and also the Second movement

I’ll end on a light note with the long trailer Hitchcock shot and sent to theaters–himself showing off the setting with colorful commentary:

By the way, that’s not Janet Leigh screaming–it’s Vera Miles!

Published in Entertainment, Podcasts
Like this post? Want to comment? Join Ricochet’s growing community of conservatives and be part of the conversation. Get your first month free.

Members have made 17 comments.

  1. Profile photo of Ansonia Member

    This was a fantastic podcast. I’m going to rewatch the movie . And I’m looking forward to what the next podcast tells me about The Birds.

    • #1
    • June 17, 2017 at 11:15 pm
    • Like2 likes
  2. Profile photo of Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera Post author

    Thanks for the enthusiastic praise! Probably up next weekend.

    I’m publishing a brief essay with the paintings Hitchcock placed in the movie & some discussion of the religion – respectability – art problems we were trying to get at in the middle of the discusion…

    • #2
    • June 18, 2017 at 3:31 am
    • LikeLike
  3. Profile photo of Ansonia Member

    Re # 2

    Very good, because it would help to easily be able to look at the paintings while I’m considering what you’re saying.

    • #3
    • June 18, 2017 at 1:09 pm
    • Like1 like
  4. Profile photo of Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera Post author

    Yeah, I thought so, too.

    We paid a lot of attention to that because it’s the sort of stuff Hitchcock added to his movies without any connection to the stories–he didn’t write stories, but he made them into what he wanted, irrespective of original source, screenwriter, studio, &c.

    We’re trying to draw attention to much-neglected planning in the stories–especially as everyone has seen the movies, it’s easier to give them a sense of the sophisticated design.

    Of course, not on Father’s Day. But soon-

    • #4
    • June 18, 2017 at 1:37 pm
    • LikeLike
  5. Profile photo of Ansonia Member

    I’m not sure I saw the movie when I watched it. For instance, before this podcast, I never noticed that the psycho might essentially be like Francis Macomber’s wife in Hemingway’s story. And, Francis Macomber and Marion, what could they be said to have in common ? Wierd.

    I’m going to watch the movie again.

    • #5
    • June 18, 2017 at 4:34 pm
    • Like1 like
  6. Profile photo of Quinn the Eskimo Member

    Still about halfway through, but I have a question.

    I read the screenplay many years ago and I recall the early draft had the movie set in the summer, which would make sense when everyone is complaining how hot it is. The title at the beginning of the first scene says December 11. Given the level of precision of so much of this movie, I suspect there is something deliberate.

    • #6
    • June 19, 2017 at 9:36 am
    • Like1 like
  7. Profile photo of Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera Post author

    Quinn the Eskimo (View Comment):
    Still about halfway through, but I have a question.

    I read the screenplay many years ago and I recall the early draft had the movie set in the summer, which would make sense when everyone is complaining how hot it is. The title at the beginning of the first scene says December 11. Given the level of precision of so much of this movie, I suspect there is something deliberate.

    So far as I know, it’s silly: In the great opening pan shot, there are some Christmas ornaments. So they changed it around to making that make sense…

    • #7
    • June 19, 2017 at 9:49 am
    • LikeLike
  8. Profile photo of Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera Post author

    I’ve been to Phoenix in November & yes, it was still very hot. You’d have to ask our Arizonans about December, but I think it still works–but of course, ‘hot as fresh milk?’ I dunno…

    • #8
    • June 19, 2017 at 9:50 am
    • LikeLike
  9. Profile photo of Quinn the Eskimo Member

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    Quinn the Eskimo (View Comment):
    Still about halfway through, but I have a question.

    I read the screenplay many years ago and I recall the early draft had the movie set in the summer, which would make sense when everyone is complaining how hot it is. The title at the beginning of the first scene says December 11. Given the level of precision of so much of this movie, I suspect there is something deliberate.

    So far as I know, it’s silly: In the great opening pan shot, there are some Christmas ornaments. So they changed it around to making that make sense…

    Ah! Continuity fix.

    • #9
    • June 19, 2017 at 9:52 am
    • LikeLike
  10. Profile photo of Quinn the Eskimo Member

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    You’d have to ask our Arizonans about December, but I think it still works–but of course, ‘hot as fresh milk?

    And Tom looks like a Texan. Surprised an Arizona winter would be tough for him.

    • #10
    • June 19, 2017 at 9:59 am
    • LikeLike
  11. Profile photo of Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera Post author

    Quinn the Eskimo (View Comment):

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    You’d have to ask our Arizonans about December, but I think it still works–but of course, ‘hot as fresh milk?

    And Tom looks like a Texan. Surprised an Arizona winter would be tough for him.

    Yeah, I don’t think it’s supposed to be tough for him as much as an occasion for a very vulgar, but not obviously objectionable remark–the first of several aimed at Marion…

    • #11
    • June 19, 2017 at 10:03 am
    • LikeLike
  12. Profile photo of Ansonia Member

    Re # 8

    “Hot as fresh milk”? You feed milk to babies. Doesn’t this also imply Marion is as vulnerable as a baby and about to be tempted by forbidden food that is also inadequate nourishment? (Money isn’t what Marion and her lover need to be married. She just thinks it is.) Isn’t the guy who makes the remark like the devil?

    • #12
    • June 19, 2017 at 10:53 am
    • LikeLike
  13. Profile photo of Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera Post author

    I think it’s a joke about breasts–the guy proceeds to mix up his daughter with Marion–& then to tell her how a weekend in Vegas could be great. Leering all the while.

    Marion’s coworker gets strangely jealous about how a pass had not been made at her–she has a ready excuse–she’s got the wedding ring on is why…

    • #13
    • June 19, 2017 at 10:59 am
    • Like1 like
  14. Profile photo of Ansonia Member

    Re # 13

    I think it’s also, on the surface, a joke about breasts.

    • #14
    • June 19, 2017 at 11:05 am
    • Like1 like
  15. Profile photo of Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera Post author

     My essay on the paintings in the movie is up!

    • #15
    • June 19, 2017 at 11:08 am
    • LikeLike
  16. Profile photo of Ansonia Member

    Oh, I forgot to say: The milk right out of a cow’s udder (“fresh”, in other words) might be referred to as “hot”. So, you have in this line another allusion to human beings as nothing more than animals. (Marion looks sexy, and is also not much more than a cow, to this man who seems to be standing in for the devil.)

    Considering all the work it does to underscore other things done and said in the movie, “Hot as fresh milk”, is a powerful line. There’s kind of a Flannery O’Connor quality about it.

    • #16
    • June 19, 2017 at 7:01 pm
    • Like2 likes
  17. Profile photo of Ansonia Member

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    I think it’s a joke about breasts–the guy proceeds to mix up his daughter with Marion–& then to tell her how a weekend in Vegas could be great. Leering all the while.

    Marion’s coworker gets strangely jealous about how a pass had not been made at her–she has a ready excuse–she’s got the wedding ring on is why…

    In Christianity, God is Our Father. The Church is the bride of Christ. The devil is presented as a seducer and called the father of lies.

    On the surface, you have the coworker soothing her own vanity by telling herself the evident fact that she’s married is the only reason she didn’t draw what she implies is flattering—and what the viewer sees is lewd and creepy—attention from the Texan.

    On a deeper level, the message is that we don’t know to be grateful when we’re protected from evil , or to honor and foster what protects us from it, because we no longer recognize the spiritual reality and power of evil.

    • #17
    • June 20, 2017 at 9:17 am
    • Like1 like