Sunday, January 10, 2010
Where Evil Lives
by Libby Hellmann
It’s hard to believe Hitchcock’s PSYCHO was released 50 years ago, but it was, and there’s a terrific article in this week’s Newsweek about it. The author, Malcolm Jones, does an excellent job explaining why PSYCHO still feels so contemporary half a century later.
The articles notes that PSYCHO delivered several cinematic “firsts.” It was the first film to show a toilet flushing, to murder the star early on in the film, and, of course, there’s the shower scene, which many say ushered in the era of explicit violence on screen.
But the real power of the film, according to the author, is the randomness
of Norman Bates’ act. Evil is random, Hitchcock believes. It can strike anyone, anytime. Janet Leigh in PSYCHO; Cary Grant in NORTH BY NORTHWEST; Tippi Hedren in THE BIRDS; you; or me. (Coincidentally, I just saw THE BIRDS for about the 4th time a couple of days ago, and this time I couldn’t watch the scenes where Tippi Hedren and the others get attacked. Is there something about getting older and having less stomach for horror? Or am I just becoming a chicken?)
At any rate, this notion of the randomness of evil resonates with me. Jamie, in her inaugural post last week, talked about how evil can be camouflaged in civility. For me, the fact that evil is random is terrifying. And irresistible. In fact, I suspect that’s the case for many of us.
In fact, it makes me wonder if all of us have recurring tropes that come to mind when we’re exploring the random nature of evil. I do -- it’s World War Two. It was a time of profound conflict; a time fraught with danger, mistrust, and hopelessness. Most of all, it was a time that elicited both heroism and cowardice. I’m not talking about the Evil that was Nazism, which wasn’t random at all, but its effect on ordinary people, particularly those in the Occupied countries.
Like Sean, I am in a reading rut, so I joined Netflix and watched 4 films (and counting) on my new Mac this weekend. Three of them: BLACK BOOK (which I highly recommend despite a couple of “coincidences”), DIVIDED WE FALL, and INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, all take place during the War. And while there were Evil Nazis in all three films, the most fascinating parts were the way ordinary people behaved and reacted to them. Some became wicked themselves; some didn’t. The point was (at least to me) it is impossible to predict how people will react when faced with evil.
Which means that the fact that others suffer or lose their lives because of that unpredictability is totally random. The people who are terrified they might be reported to the Gestapo; the people whose homes might be razed by bombing raids; the soldiers who are gunned down or executed for some infraction of the rules…. There are infinite possibilities where the randomness of evil affects life and death. Of course, many authors – Alan Furst, John Le Carre, Philip Kerr, Jack Higgins, Ken Follet, Alistair Maclean – have already tapped into this area more eloquently than I. Still, I never seem to tire of it.
What about you? Is there a time, place, or situation that calls to you in your reading or writing or film-making? A place you keep returning to? A place where evil lives?