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'The Moment of "Psycho," ' by David Thomson

THE MOMENT OF 'PSYCHO': How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder, by David Thomson. Basic Books, 192 pages. $22.95.

'Psycho," the mother of all chillers, turns 50 this year, Oscar-less but golden.

Film historian David Thomson's anniversary tribute to the breakthrough movie of the '60s unspools with insight and affection. Thomson does go on some curious tangents and silly stretches. But "The Moment of 'Psycho' " makes you want to revisit the landmark shocker.

Alfred Hitchcock received his last, fruitless Academy Award nomination for "Psycho." Anthony Perkins' unsettling, campy performance and Bernard Herrmann's peerless shriek of a musical score were, of course, ignored. At least Janet Leigh got nominated for supporting actress. Top movie honors went to "The Apartment," Billy Wilder's tart comedy-drama and '50s farewell. Another best picture nominee: John Wayne's comic-book epic, "The Alamo."

"Psycho" followed a series of Technicolor triumphs by Hitchcock, including "Rear Window," "North by Northwest" and his dark masterpiece, "Vertigo." None, however, prepared viewers for this sardonic black-and-white frenzy, which toyed with Production Code boundaries for sex and violence.

Starting with a voyeuristic, post-coital scene, "Psycho" proceeds mercilessly to a crime, an escape and the final check-in at the Bates Motel. Janet Leigh's unthinkably early exit, in cinema's coldest shower scene, required 78 pieces of film in 45 seconds, plus chocolate sauce.

The first part of "Psycho" is touchstone terror; the second, less so. But all the tidy psychiatry, explanations and doubts vanish when the camera captures Perkins' death's-head stare and slight grin, dissolving to that white car coming from the swamp.

Enjoy Thomson's book; play the DVD.


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