`A BLOT on an honorable career'' is how the New York Times critic hailed the arrival of ``Psycho'' in 1960. It's likely that Alfred Hitchcock felt a twinge on reading this, since he always took reviewers seriously - not for the intelligence of their ideas, necessarily, but for their impact on the box office. As often happened, though, the Master of Suspense had the last laugh: The same pundit soon reversed himself and enshrined ``Psycho'' on his 10-best list for the year. In the three decades since, many more critics have agreed with Andrew Sarris, who placed it ``in the same creative rank as the great European films,'' than with Dwight Macdonald, who called it ``a reflection of a most unpleasant mind.''
Indeed, the power of ``Psycho'' to fascinate moviegoers has been praised, analyzed, criticized, and worried about continually since the picture's premi`ere. Although reviewers were divided over it initially, audiences weren't - they flocked to it, and haven't tired of it yet on screen, TV, and video cassette.
Just as important, a new generation of movies (including the popular ``Halloween'' and ``Friday the 13th'' series) has taken its cue from ``Psycho,'' especially its famous shower-murder scene and its use of point-of-view techniques to encourage identification between the audience and crazy Norman Bates.
Not surprisingly, a new generation of critics has also raised fresh concerns about the film, especially in light of feminist insights that hadn't been formulated when the movie first appeared. Some feminists have deplored the picture's graphic depiction of violence against a helpless woman. Yet others have found the situation more complex.
In her excellent book ``The Women Who Knew Too Much,'' scholar Tanya Modleski notes that there are ``always elements resistant to ... destruction or assimilation'' of women in such films as ``Psycho'' and the somewhat similar ``Frenzy,'' made 12 years later. Robin Wood, who also has a strong feminist orientation in his recent ``Hitchcock's Films Revisited,'' sets the filmmaker's ``frequently passionate identification with his female characters'' against the male violence that often erupts in his films.
Such complexities find little expression in Stephen Rebello's new volume, ``Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho'' (Dembner Books, 224 pp., $24.50). Here the author is less interested in plumbing the movie's psychological depths than in charting the circumstances of its creation - from the real-life crimes that inspired the original Robert Bloch novel, to Hitchcock's meticulous interest in the film's publicity campaign.
Perhaps the most revealing fact in the account is that Hitchcock never realized what a major phenomenon he was setting in motion. He saw ``Psycho'' as a low-budget quickie, filmed with inexpensive TV techniques (rather than the flashy production values of ``North by Northwest'' and other then-recent hits) because of Hollywood resistance to its sleazy plot and characters. Nobody was more surprised than Hitch himself when it became an international success - and as a straight-out horror film, rather than the pitch-black ``joke'' that he always insisted it was meant to be.
It isn't clear whether the picture's success inhibited Hitchcock's free-wheeling creativity in later years, as Mr. Rebello maintains. It is possible that, coming at the end of Hitchcock's most brilliant decade, ``Psycho'' merely represented the peaking of a talent that couldn't maintain such a high level of achievement forever and shouldn't have been expected to.
More important has been the effect of ``Psycho'' on subsequent filmmaking and filmgoing habits. With very few exceptions, the progeny of ``Psycho'' have been far inferior to the model that inspired them, peddling ever-cheaper and ever-more-gruesome variations on Hitchcock's wholly original vision. Rebello's book will do some good if it prods more analytical writers into investigating the ``Psycho'' syndrome farther. Their task should be to probe not only the cinematic and psychological mechanisms of the film itself - which still need a lot more work, despite the numerous pages already written on them - but also the social and cultural currents of the 20th century that have made ``Psycho'' and its spawn such an enduring and far-reaching phenomenon.