Because the Village Voice’s resident movie reviewer Jonas Mekas was off making a film of his own in June of 1960, when Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was released, a still-youngish journalist named Andrew Sarris got his chance to launch a long career as one of America’s most famously academic, arguably elitist film critics – one for whom “movie reviewer” might have seemed too lowbrow a job title. Regardless of how one feels about his tendency to love or hate a film solely on the basis of who directed it, one must give Sarris props for filling a whole column with that maiden-voyage review, while making a deft end run around the fact that the star of Psycho dies only a third of the way in.
It was in this review that cinephiles got their first serious taste of the auteur theory so closely associated with Sarris, as he praised Hitchcock as “the most daring avant-garde filmmaker in America today” and lauded the movie’s “richly symbolic commentary on the modern world as a public swamp.” Meanwhile, he managed to divulge almost nothing of what actually transpires in Psycho, other than to note that it “includes the grisliest murder scenes ever filmed.” “Only a congenital spoilsport would reveal the plot,” he wrote.
That is the conundrum that confronts would-be reviewers of thrillers whose primary selling point is one or more major plot twists of which the audience is not supposed to have any inkling coming in: Other than from the lofty intellectual catbird seat so effectively claimed by Sarris and his ilk, how do you talk in a way that serves the film-consuming public about a movie in which the biggest shocker scene lands at the end of Act One, rendering everything that follows unmentionable except by the most obscure or equivocal of references?
As popular tastes in film and television fare grow more sophisticated (and perhaps more jaded), demanding subtle, morally ambiguous characterizations rather than the black-hatted villains and white-hatted heroes of Hollywood’s Golden Age and narratives that take us places we didn’t expect to go, movies that challenge reviewers in this way are becoming more numerous. Blogs are now proliferating that have one link to a review fostering in-depth analysis among those who have already read the book on which the movie or TV show is based, and a second link to a spoiler-free version catering to unsuspecting newbies, or what Game of Thrones fans call the Unsullied.