One of the many insights in Kent Jones’ sparkling new documentary, Hitchcock/Truffaut, is the “God’s Eye View.” For those moments of communion, Hitchcock--whose mind’s eye could roll out every impending compositional detail in a visual narrative--would abruptly reconfigure his camera angle to peer down on his actors from on high. The new vantage would shift the viewer’s suspenseful involvement with a prospective victim to bigger-picture concerns--say, the more detached sweep of the sociologist, the actuary, the fatalist.
Hitchcock/Truffaut demonstrated the tactic via the Master’s iconic overhead shots of Cary Grant attempting to outrace a menacing crop duster. It also showed residents of Bodega Bay, California scattering like ants from descending birds. And it didn’t forget to include the second, less celebrated murder scene in Psycho, when Martin Balsam tumbled backward down an impossibly steep flight of stairs in the Victorian “Psycho House.”
For many, that murder was but an afterthought to Janet Leigh’s earlier, iconic demise during the motel shower scene, some fifty feet away. In truth, Mother Bates' Victorian refuge and the Bates Motel are inextricably connected, casting the darkest of emotionally symbiotic shadows. The former—a freakish architectural outcrop with its devious surface area --is overtly menacing: You’re not sure what secrets lie within, but emotionally speaking you can tell that “book” by its cover. (Hitchcock apparently got inspired by Edward Hopper’s painting below.)
|Inspired by Hopper (Click to Enlarge)
The motel--in counterpoint to that aging asylum--was a thoroughly nondescript gathering of right angles—of postwar 1950s functionality. (There was, of course, the ominous exception of Norman’s taxidermy.) No surprise then that the murder had all the efficiency and single-mindedness of a first-rate operating theater.
As Hitchcock/Truffaut made clear, Hitchcock was on a career-long mission to manipulate his actors (whom he likened to cattle) and to viscerally manipulate us, his audience. So what's your pleasure? An old fashioned swipe or two of the knife and tumble down a Victorian staircase or a surgical strafing in a well-scrubbed motel bathtub. Given the public’s overwhelming reaction, it's clear that Hitchcock took a successful knife thrust at American modernity.
The new documentary is the best film course you never took, distilled into 77 minutes. Here's a trailer: