In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« Schizophrenic Science | Main | Torn from the Pages of Friedrich's Sketchbooks »

June 04, 2003

Psychological Suspense

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Friedrich --

I caught a good French movie the other night -- Claude Miller's Alias Betty. From one point of view, it's a fairly absorbing, not-very-thrilling thriller. But from another, it's a first-rate example of my very favorite genre, the one known as "psychological suspense." Some people like speculative history; some like hobbit-style fantasy; some like Cold War spy fiction. I like psychological suspense. I can't defend my taste for it, which seems built into my biology. All I know is that I tend to be happy and engrossed when I'm in that world.

Ever run across discussions of this genre? I can't imagine why; it's not very well known in America. England and France have much more developed traditions of psych-suspense fiction. But it's got its own interesting history, and sets of conventions and expectations.

A few movies and authors to get us in the ballpark: Ruth Rendell. Patricia Highsmith. Simenon's non-Maigret novels. "Lantana." The Swedish co-authors Sjowell and Wahloo. "Purple Noon." "Cul de Sac." Chabrol. "The Vanishing." The movie version of "The Talented Mr. Ripley" was a highly-compromised version of psychological suspense. Another fairly recent example: "With a Friend Like Harry." Have you seen that one? A French film about a charming murderer, very lowkey and quietly freaky. Tragedy, desperation, psychosis -- and life goes on.

What characterizes the genre? I find it helpful to keep in mind that it isn't a mystery-fiction subgenre; it's really best thought of as a crime-fiction subgenre. That helps take some weight off the idea of "mystery." Its main characteristic, though, is it generally uses a crime as a pretext for opportunities to look into personality and sociology. There's a murder or a kidnapping, sure -- but often in psychological suspense you know from the outset who did it. Ie., from a mystery point of view, there's pointedly no mystery. And often the central character, if there is one, isn't the investigator but the criminal.

In the crime-fiction world, these fictions are sometimes referred to not as whodunnits but as whydunnits, because they aren't as concerned with the finding of the solution to a crime as they are with psychological and social observation -- with tracing the reasons that lead to a crime and the consequences that flow from it. Where the detective novel, say, drives to a solution, the psychological-suspense fiction lingers over the minds of the criminal and the other people involved. I recall someone somewhere writing that psychological suspense is (roughly) "the story of a crime, not the story of the tracking down of a criminal." These novels and films often resemble Altman movies but with actual pretexts.

Suspense? Well, kindasorta. But seldom of the rushing-to-a-breathless-climax sort. There's often a tone of dread or malignity -- you're watching or reading about curious, fated, peculiar things, people and actions. But that tone is usually part of a more "objective" overall point of view. (Because of this, these books and movies are more likely than most to be told from multiple points of view, and to have an ambivalent view of morality and justice.) These are the elements that led to the crime; and these are the elements that the crime itself leads to. You're tracing the activities of a tableful of billiard balls, basically, only they all have some degree of free will. It's gripping, it's absorbing, it's peculiar, it's insightful ... And then it's over. The suspense is more a matter of sustaining a tone than of building to anything.

You'll notice that not too many of the examples of the genre that I've given have been American. It's not one of our specialties, while the Brits and Euros are often drawn to the form. Is it too lowkey for mass American tastes? I suspect so. Americans often want their entertainments to build to bronco-busting, cavalry-charging conclusions, god knows. And maybe because these narratives aren't hard-charging, climax-after-climax things, Hollywood doesn't pay much attention to the genre.

We do get the occasional taste of it, though, when it rubs elbows with other genres. The detective novelist Ross Macdonald was known not just for continuing the Hammett/Chandler tradition, he was also known for introducing elements of psych-suspense into that P.I. tradition. Ira Levin's fabulous "A Kiss Before Dying" is a serial-killer tale that's really a psych-suspense novel -- as is the novel version of "The Talented Mr. Ripley." (Serial-killer fictions aren't generally considered to have much in common with psych-suspense. They're generally categorized as a hybrid of mystery and horror.) The three or four George V. Higgins novels I've read -- have you tried him? Amazingly good -- were psych-suspense. I think some of the quieter Hitchcock movies have psych-suspense qualities despite the jacked-up endings Hitchcock seems to have felt he owed his audiences, but this may be a rogue opinion, I'm not sure.

It's the most character-driven of the crime forms. The best American film example I've seen in recent years -- one of my favorite movies from last year and just now out on DVD -- was the Diane Lane movie Unfaithful. Have you seen it? I'd be curious to hear how you react. I loved it, of course. But I also got fascinated by the people who told me they didn't love it, or enjoyed it up till (spoiler alert here) the murder, and then didn't like it afterwards. As far as I could tell, most of them viewed the movie as a failed thriller rather than a daring piece of psychological suspense. (I tend to think they'd have been disappointed by it even if they'd been able to identify its correct genre. But maybe not.) One young woman amazed me by complaining that the movie "punished" Diane Lane for her infidelity. She was complaining that the movie got too moral, when what's really distinctive and unusual about the movie is its Continental-style amorality.

It's a beautifully done (and atypical only in the frankly-depicted sexuality) piece of psychological suspense, in other words, like it or not. It's all about the presence of the irrational in the midst of the daily. You see the bits that lead to (spoiler alert) the murder; you see the consequences that flow from it. You move between the characters. Everything is seen objectively. The movie's full of perceptions about people and the lives we lead these days. There's a focus on day-to-day life and routine appearances, yet the movie has tons of quietly passionate, effective moments. And then it's over. It's true that the film has more stardust and production value than psych-suspense usually allows itself, and maybe that confused some people in the audience. But I thought Adrian Lyne did a beautiful job with it. There's a moment when a car goes through a carwash that I found poetic and moving -- and that combo of the mundane, the intense, and the emotional is a perfect example of the pleasures of psych-suspense.

"Alias Betty," the film I saw the other night, is itself a pretty dazzling example of the genre. It's lacking a little something -- eroticism, some touch of the malignant, something. But it's fabulously well-made and acted, and I found it absorbing from beginning to end. It's based on a novel by Ruth Rendell, and hats off to her. As far as I'm concerned, she's the genre's genius. Have you ever read her? Quiet, wicked, needlingly smart and insightful, and a technician beyond compare. Like Highsmith and George V. Higgins, she's about as good as a fiction writer gets. IMHO, of course.

I'm still fascinated, as you can tell, by the question of personalities and genre preferences. Have you ever been drawn to this genre? Which fiction genres do you find you take to most easily?



posted by Michael at June 4, 2003


Sounds like "Alias Betty" is worth checking out. I also enjoyed "Unfaithful" although I wasn't quite as hipped about Richard Gere as I was about Diane Lane. (But you face an uphill battle with me when you cast Richard Gere in anything.) I was also amused by portions of "The Talented Mr. Ripley" although the movie as a whole left me pretty unaffected.

I'm just wondering, but it seems like there are a lot of detective stories that are...

full of perceptions about people and the lives we lead these days.

And that also offer...

a focus on day-to-day life and routine appearances, yet [offer] tons of quietly passionate, effective moments.

It's been a few decades since I've kept up with this sort of thing, but I would add John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee novels to your list. (For some reason, maybe the title, "The Dreadful Lemon Sky" comes particularly to mind.)

Now you've got me puzzling over a silly point: why should such a genre need a murder, a kidnapping, or some other "high crime" as a plot device? Wouldn't an ordinary sadistic little scheme do? Or do we need a really serious crime in order to re-connect our private prurience with the concerns of the larger community? Maybe the real question is, why is the whole notion of morality so central to this sort of fiction, and why, given its centrality, is it treated in such a low-key manner?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 4, 2003 9:37 PM

Oops, sorry, forgot. Would you include James M. Cain in this genre?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 4, 2003 9:39 PM

I think the crime serves two purposes. First, it gives someone, usually the detective, a perfectly legitimate reason to poke around in the lives and psyche of all the characters. Second, it serves to create a cast of people that are involved in the victim's life. It's a plot device that establishes conventions that everyone reading understands and yet allows for enough variation that the different permutations of the story remain endlessly entertaining. And it concerns death--always an interesting topic, especially if approached obliquely.

You forgot P.D. James in your list of pychological suspense writers and Hitchcock in the list of movie makers. If anyone knew how to create suspense, he did.

Posted by: Deb on June 4, 2003 10:29 PM

Ok, so I reread your post and you did mention Hitchcock! Oops...I'll tiptoe away now and go read my murder mystery.

Posted by: Deb on June 4, 2003 10:33 PM

FvB -- I think it's all a matter of emphasis. A detective novel might well have lots of sociological/psychological observations -- Chandler's novels were certainly full of them. But in psych suspense, the solving of the crime tends to carry little or no weight. There's often a cop or a detective, but he's usually just one in a cast of characters. And the story isn't usually structured as "an investigation into a crime," is it is with much other crime and mystery fiction. The emphasis is instead on the context of the crime and the minds and experiences of the people involved or touched by it.. The John D. Macdonald novels I've read were all, by genre, detective/PI novels -- strong central figure who we accompany and who has a case, and his involvement in that case is the book's story. I'm sure you could make the case for John D., though, as many buffs do for Ross McD, that he brought psych-suspense elements into his detective fiction.

Psych suspense as a genre tends to dissolve strong central-figure identification, and tends to block that kind of straight-ahead narrative in favor of something branching. When there is a central character, it's often a sociopath, and the book/movie is a character study of him. That was the weakness of the movie of "Ripley," it seemed to me. The Ripley character is a homicidal nut, and in the book we view him as such. He's fascinating, but a diseased figure, and the book is a very creepy experience. But the movie couldn't resist trying to win sympathy for Matt Damon.

James M. Cain I'd place as a hardboiled crime writer, but not in the psych-suspense category. How about you? But I've really only read the two most famous novels, so I have no idea what his other books are like.

Hey Deb, I detect a fan of the genre. If only there were more of us in this country. I didn't mention P.D. because I've only read a couple of her books, and neither one struck me as psych suspense. They were very impressively mounted and delivered, but they seemed more like crime fiction crossed with 19th century moral fiction. But I don't know her other novels. Would you say they qualify?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 4, 2003 11:31 PM

Okay, I get your point about the lack of a central character who has to make a kind of moral sense out of everything. But I'm still not sure why you wouldn't include James M. Cain--in both "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and "Double Indemnity" the central character is, basically, a psychopath who gradually wakes up to the notion of a moral universe. (Cain was a Catholic, wasn't he?)

Thus back to my unanswered question--what is the role of morality in this genre? Is it just there to be outraged? Is the point of this genre that we don't live in a moral universe?

Or am I missing the whole point? (I have a really bad cold, it's entirely possible.)

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 5, 2003 4:07 AM

I wonder how you would classify The Secret History, by Donna Tart, a novel that came about about six years ago.

It opens with the culprits discussing the murder, so there's no mystery there. It's main focus is their psychology. But I don't know if I'd call it suspenseful.

In a way, the murder is totally secondary to the main drama, which is gradual exposure of their little society.

Posted by: alexis on June 5, 2003 5:52 AM

Hmm. Single White Female, Fatal Attraction (Adrian Lyne again), Insomnia , Eyes Wide Shut ... I wonder if the Anglo directors aren't getting a bum rap here. And those were all essentially American films, albeit mostly English directors. I suspect your observation may be related to the fact that these are not necessarily memorable examples (Insomnia was based on a Scandinavian film but it was a very American take on the genre).

Posted by: Dave Farrell on June 5, 2003 6:49 AM

I think there's a couple of reasons why psychological suspense as a genre is more developed in Europe than in America. One is that it doesn't lend itself to the incident-driven pace of movies that get made in Hollywood. In many psych suspense novels, there's often only one dramatic scene (usually a murder) and the rest of the action largely takes place inside the protagonist's head.

Secondly, Europeans are more at ease with the idea of a world with shifting, ill-defined morals and the absence of justice that characterise the genre. The world of Patricia Highsmith is peopled with psychopathic heroes and people who get accused of and killed for crimes they didn't commit. (The moral climate of the whodunnit is quite the opposite: it's all about rooting out evil and restoring order.) Psych suspense is also influenced by a sort of European existentialism - Camus' "L'Etranger" is psych suspense par excellence, as are Dostoyevsky novels such as "Crime & Punishment" and "The Brothers Karamazov". American movies made of psych suspense novels tend to obscure this sense of moral ambiguity. In the movie version of "The Talented Mr Ripley", Ripley is finally troubled and traumatized by his murders, which he isn't at all in the novel. The Yul Brynner version of "Brothers Karamazov" even has a happy ending, for Chrissakes! As for "Unfaithful", you're left with expectation that the couple can escape to Mexico and continue with their lives - but the film is based on the infinitely superior Chabrol movie "La Femme Infidèle" which had a much more downbeat ending.

(full disclosure - I'm the author of a psych. suspense novel myself.)

Posted by: Hugo on June 5, 2003 8:48 AM

FvB -- Ah, I think I get your point about Cain now. Given "Postman"'s similarities to something like "Unfaithful," why isn't it considered psych suspense -- is that right? Well, first, true, why not? But you don't generally find it discussed as such; it's generally discussed as "hardboiled." I suspect that's for a couple of reasons. One is historical: psych suspense is (generally) a post WW2 phenom. What something like "Postman" represents historically is taking the hardboiled thing that Hammett kicked off and was used as a private-eye tone, and moving it out of the PI thing into crime more generally. Cain was one of the originators of the meta-genre known as the crime novel (as opposed to the mystery novel). He's known for blending together hardboiled and some of the lit of the era -- people like Steinbeck and Dos Passos, if I remember right. The other thing is tone. Most psych suspense is cool, detached, prone to irony and un-resolutions. And Cain, of course, is overheated and melodramatic and hardhitting. But you're right, it's kinda fun to think of him as a precursor.

Hi Alexis -- It's been years since I've thought about "The Secret History," but offhand I'd say that it isn't a crime or genre novel at all -- that it's really a writing-school literary novel that borrows and makes use of certain crime-novel elements. Psych-suspense moves in the direction of "literature" but remains grounded in genre, where it seems to me that Tartt stays grounded in literature while opening up a little bit to crime. But that's very offhand. What's your hunch?

Hi Dave -- How would you categorize those films? Offhand, here's how I would: "SWF": psych-suspense blended with horror. "Fatal Attraction": yuppie horror with some psych-suspense elements. "Eyes Wide Shut" -- literary erotica. I haven't seen "Insomnia." Would you categorize them differently?

Hey Hugo -- Great observations and info, thanks. It's a great form, isn't it? (I confess that I liked "Unfaithful" better than the Chabrol. Very possibly a sign of my utter superficiality.)

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 5, 2003 10:52 AM

Hey Hugo again -- I just checked out the page for your novel, which sounds very intriguing. Would love to hear from you about your influences, etc. How did you happen to stumble into psych-suspense? Who did you learn what from? How was it to try to sell such a project? And did you think you got fairly reviewed -- ie., did the reviewers recognize what you were doing?

Everyone else -- click on Hugo's name in his comment and you'll be taken to the publisher's page for Hugo's book.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 5, 2003 10:55 AM

I might toss "Rebecca" by Daphne DuMaurier into the pot you are stirring... But I wonder if the line you are drawing around this particular subgenre isnt so fine that distinctions are forced.

Wasnt "Insommnia" based on a Stephen King novel--that's the movie with Al Pacina and Robin Williams up in Alaska in the summer, correct? Stephen King's non-horror books might qualify--his short stories tend more towards suspense and less towards the gothic horror he normally writes.

Posted by: Deb on June 5, 2003 11:38 AM

Michael -

I didn't really start out writing a psych-suspense novel as such. I'd read a fair amount of crime and was always struck by the fact that although I like the tight way they are plotted and the bare-bones style of writing, the problem is once you get to the end and close the book, there's nothing there. Nothing philosophically left to chew on. It seemed to me that the reverse was true with "literary" novels. I disliked the fact that plotting seems to be a secondary consideration and disliked the self-conscious "literary" style with its strained metaphors and overblown lyricism. And yet it's the literary novels that contain the open-ended complexity of ideas, and that leave you with something to consider once you've finished. So I wanted to combine the form of the crime novel with the considerations of a "literary" novel. It had sort of been done before - Camus wrote "L'Etranger" after reading "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and copied the style for his Absurdist classic. And my novel in some ways is a sort of riff on Camus' novel.

I hadn't read Patricia Highsmith when I wrote my novel, only after, and I realised she also was really playing the same game - writing essentially philosophical novels under the guise of the psych-suspense genre. I had read plenty of Graham Greene, though, who does something similar with the thriller genre.

How was it trying to sell the project? Essentially, I sent my proposal and sample chapters to almost every literary agent in London - about a hundred of them. About seven or eight responded positively. Eventually I met up with one, we got on well, and she agreed to represent me. She then in turn sent out my MS to six publishers. Four turned it down, two made an offer. One of the offers was for a two-book deal with much more money, so naturally I went with that!

Reviews? That was an almost entirely positive experience. When you're a début novelist, you either get no reviews at all, or largely positive ones. Critics don't generally waste space damning someone no one's heard of anyway - it's the established writers who get trashed. The fate of most début novels is to sink without a trace, so I was lucky in that regard. Did the reviewers "get" my novel? To varying degrees, yes. Several honed in on the Camus connection - this one, for example:

Anyway, hope that answers your questions!

Posted by: Hugo on June 5, 2003 12:01 PM

Hey Deb -- I'm just passing along categories, not making anything up here. But I'm a bit of a category buff. I find it enlightening and interesting to know these things. I wouldn't be surprised, though, if it strikes others as hair-splitting. "Rebecca," by the way, is usually thought of as hugely-important in the category of Gothic-romantic-suspense. More hair-splitting, I know, but there you have it.

Hey Hugo, Fascinating again, thanks again. I'm drawn to psych-suspense for many of the same reasons: it can be such a great vehicle for so many things, with as you point out philosophy among them. They can be, but don't have to be, little genre exercises; they can also be ways of conveying tons of ideas and perceptions. It's a form, but an open form. I've got apparently the same feelings you do about lit fiction -- the self-consciousness, the formlessness and the showoffy writerliness of so much of it really bug me. So: rah, rah, psych suspense. I've ordered a copy of your book and am looking forward to reading it. Good luck with numero two.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 5, 2003 12:15 PM

Michael - thanks for ordering my book. Much appreciated. Let me know what you think.

Posted by: Hugo on June 6, 2003 5:17 AM

Michael, I would categorise them as essentially psychological suspense. Eyes Wide Shut is not my idea of literary erotica at all -- indeed it scarecely strikes me as erotic, unless you might regard,say, Hammer films as erotic because they show flesh. it is a dark exploration of where sexual adventure might lead, with undertones of conspiracy in high places, and possibly fatal consequences.

If your definition excludes actual violence (which you characterise here as "horror") then how does Unfaithful qualify? Or Chabrol's Le Boucher, which for all its Grand Guignol gore, is a psycho-suspense story in essence. Other examples would include The Deep End (moral ambiguity at its very core).

Perhaps Hugo's observation about moral ambiguity is the worthwhile distinction to make. Pscho-suspense is a very broad category.

Insomnia certainly qualifies and is thoroughly recommended for an extraordinarily burnt-out case study by Al Pacino, his best thing in years. Same goes for Robin Williams, a big surprise.

Posted by: Dave Farrell on June 9, 2003 3:48 AM

some other pysch novels the new one by british writer, now living here in New Zealand apparently by Neil Cross Holloway Falls is quite good if not wholly succesful...american writer george pelecanos often crosses into this territory although his new Derek Strange series is more social realism but the Nick Stefanos novels fit...and film wise my faves are still the classic film noirs - Maltese Falcon, Laura (perhaps my all time favourite movie), Double Indemnity, Out of The Past etc etc...also good the sean penn movie up at the villa...and training day a great pyschological study of evil played superbly by denzil washington and ethan hawke...and this not getting into the great westerns like shane, red river etc etc...

Posted by: art pepper on June 9, 2003 1:01 PM

Hey all

Just because I'm a hair-splitting kind of guy, I'm going to take one last swing at this and then shut my pedantic mouth.

Actually -- and I'm deliberately doing a lot of "strictly speaking" here, just because I enjoy this -- the genre of "psychological suspense" isn't a vast thing at all. It's a very specific thing, and a rather rare taste, at least in America. Few Americans read it, few Americans write it, and because of this few Americans -- even mystery and crime fans -- are aware of what the rules of its game are.

And maybe it's unfortunately named. The words "psychological suspense" seem to lead people to think that any book with some psychology and some suspense qualifies as "psychological suspense." And in fact that's not true.

As I say, I'm being pedantic here, I know, but that's because I'm a fan, and because crime and mystery fiction lend themselves to this sort of thing. They're like formal poetry -- there are a lot of forms, the books and movies are constructed according to (or in conscious violation of) these forms, and so it can be fun to know what the forms consist of. (The similarity of crime fiction to poetry is one of the reasons I love it -- the formality and the definitions and categories make it discussable in a way I find a lot of lit fiction not to be.) Is it a sestina? A sonnet? A limerick? It can be fun and helpful to know what's what, and what the rules of each little sub-game are.

Anyway, as I say, the presence of psychology and suspense don't make a book a member of the "psychological suspense" genre. This is just a matter of definitions, and "psychological suspense" as a genre has a fairly strict definition. To qualify, a book or movie has to be about a crime, and not the solving of a crime. (Ie., there's no mystery per se.) It'll tend to focus as much on the criminal as on the investigator and the investigation. Often the tone is very "objective" -- as Hugo says, the tone comes out of postwar existentialism. ("Hard-boiled" books thus don't qualify.) Instead of the crime being what's of interest in the book, the crime is treated as a pretext for other things -- explorations of people's minds, or sociological observations, or both and more. "Psychological suspense" novels and movies tend not to build to a final thrilling climax, but to instead have a more level, sustained kind of tone, punctuated (usually in rather subtle ways) by smaller climaxes. But the real interest of the books and movies is usually in their insights, their observations, and their musings -- they're usually detached yet reflective. Often the crime, such as it is, occurs in the middle of the movie or the book. And the book or movie often has the feeling of a case study. "This thing, or these things, happened. Let's see what's there" -- that's kind of the tone.

If a book or movie doesn't have these qualities, then it doesn't qualify as a member of the genre of "psychological suspense," which isn't a good or a bad thing, it's just a matter of typing. It may have tons of psychology, it may have tons of suspense, but it isn't a member of the genre.

What can complicate matters a tad is that people in the crime field like to mix and match and borrow qualities from other genres. So Thomas Harris, writing a serial-killer Hannibal novel (serial-killer novels are usually thought of as hybrids between horror and mystery), introduces more in the way of psychology than the serial-killer book usually has -- he's borrowed some "psychological suspense" elements. But he's folded them back into his book, which is an example of the "serial-killer thriller." So, despite the psychologizing and the suspense, it's still a member of the "serial-killer thriller" genre, just as a matter of slotting.

Hey Dave and Art, I guess we'll agree to disagree on this, but the reason I wouldn't put "Eyes Wide Shut" in the "psychological suspense" slot is because it isn't the story of a crime, and because it doesn't use a crime as a narrative pretext. The reason I'd call it "literary erotica" instead is that it's got many of the elements of that genre: unhappy marriage, sexual torment, a restless search winding up in a chateau -- classic markers of the "lit erotica" genre. It's the story of a man who's tormented by the idea that his wife has had sexual fantasies, and who goes off to prove something or other as a consequence. And the slot I'd put something like "Maltese Falcon" in is "hardboiled P.I. novel." It's the story of a case -- the figuring-it-out defines the action. And the central figure is a detective, and it's all delivered in a hard-boiled way. Both works certainly have a lot of psychology and a lot of suspense, but (by strict definition) I can't see how either one would qualify as a member of the "psychological suspense" genre.

The reason "Unfaithful" qualifies -- not a good or a bad thing, just a matter of definition -- is that it uses the crime as a pretext for an explanation of psychology and sociology (boredom, marriage, sex, erotic attraction), it focuses on the presence of the irrational in the midst of the rational and day-to-day, it doesn't build to a big final thrill, the crime occurs (a fairly common thing in psych-suspense) in the middle of the movie -- it's all about the elements that lead to the crime, and the then the consequences of the crime. It's got the feel of a "study" of a prosperous marriage, and it's got an "objective" and even existential point of view -- the Diane Lane character is pointedly given no reason why she has the affair, she just has it. And -- typically -- the movie feels like an unthrilling thriller. So it qualifies for the genre on all counts. What makes it unusual is the high level of stardust and production value, which you don't often see in the genre, where things usually tend to be a spare and abstract. I enjoyed the glitzy touches and thought the explicit eroticism made the movie more enjoyable than the Chabrol original. Hugo preferred the original and experienced "Unfaithful" as inferior. I thought the ending was plenty ambiguous and down; Hugo thought the more explicitly downbeat ending of the Chabrol was better. But these are diffs of opinion. The film, as a matter of definition, is an example of the genre.

As I say, just being pedantic here for the pure pleasure of it. Thanks for letting me go on.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 10, 2003 11:40 AM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?