Psycho

Psycho 1The line between suspense and horror is blurred anyway, but when director Alfred Hitchcock and screen writer Joseph Stefano adapted master horror writer Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel Psycho for the screen, and composer Bernard Herrmann was brought on board, they changed the horror film genre forever, creating ripples that are still felt by filmmakers today.

It began when Hitchcock read Bloch’s novel on a flight to England.  He immediately decided it would be his follow-up to the blockbuster North by Northwest and that it would be a stark departure from his acknowledged style.  Noting the success of low budget black and white horror films, he wondered what would be the effect if such a film was made by someone who really understood the cinema.  The first writer called in wrote a boring script that he immediately rejected, instead bringing in young Joseph Stefano to craft a completely original screenplay that was based only marginally on the book.  Stefano was in therapy at the time and they decided to center the film in a young man who was patently, homicidally, crazy. 

This movie is so well-known that I will discuss the entire plot in detail.

They decided to begin the movie from the point of view of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), a Phoenix girl in her late twenties in a serious relationship with a man named Sam Loomis (John Gavin), a hardware store manager from a mid-sized Northern California town named Fairvale.  Caught in a situation of having to pay alimony to his ex-wife, Sam believes that marriage is impossible until he can get out of his financial crisis. 

Psycho 3In the first scene, in a Phoenix hotel room, we see Marion wearing a white bra and slip and Sam naked from the waist up.  They have just finished making love and discuss their situation.  Marion goes back to the real estate office where she works and finds that a client is giving them $40,000 in cash to hold for a purchase.  However, instead of taking the money to the bank, she goes home, packs, gets in her car and sets out for Fairvale, thinking that they money will give them the fresh start they need.

Along the way, she is menaced by a highway patrolman, ominous in his dark glasses.  She trades in her car and spends $700 of the money for a new one with California plates.  She drives into a thunderstorm and pulls over at the Bates Motel, a lonely spot on an old highway, with a mansion on the hill behind it and meets the proprietor, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins).  A quirky, nervous young man, he volunteers to share his dinner with her.  In the back room of the motel office, surrounded by the stuffed birds that Norman works on as his hobby, she encourages him to leave and find a life for himself, but he protests that he is the only one who can take care of his mother, an invalid, who sometimes goes “a little crazy.”  As they talk, Marion realizes that she can’t solve her problems by running away and decides to return to Phoenix.  She has enough in her bank account to make up for the $700 she has already spent.

Norman watches her from a peephole as she undresses to take a shower.  As she scrubs herself, a fuzzy figure appears behind the shower curtain.  It is Norman’s mother and she mercilessly stabs Marion until she is dead.  Norman, seeing the blood on his mother, runs to motel room.  To cover up the crime, he cleans the room, moves the body into the trunk of Marion’s car (along with, unknowingly, the $39,300 remaining of the theft), and disposes of them all in a nearby swampy lake.

The next day, Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) arrives in Fairvale, thinking that Marion must have taken the money to join Sam, but he has no idea where Marion might be.  A private investigator, Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam) shows up also looking for Marion.  Grudgingly accepting that Lila and Sam really don’t know where she is, he begins to check every hotel and motel in Fairvale with no luck.  However, at the Bates Motel, he catches Norman in several lies and decides that he will need to interview Norman’s mother.  When Norman refuses, Arbogast leaves and calls Lila and Sam from a public phone to tell them that he’s going to go back to the Bates Motel to interview the invalid mother.

Returning to the motel, Arbogast watches Norman head to one of the rooms to work and then goes to the mansion to interview his mother.  At the top of the stairs, however, she rushes from her room and stabs Arbogast to death.  After disposing of this second body, Norman puts his mother in the fruit cellar because he’s afraid that more people will come to investigate, even though she loudly protests the action.

Lila and Sam try to get the local sheriff, Al Chambers (John McIntire) involved, but he tells them that Mrs. Bates has been dead for more than ten years.  She apparently poisoned her lover and then herself in a murder-suicide.  When Lila tells him that Arbogast claimed she was still alive, the sheriff wonders who it was they buried ten years earlier.

Without any significant action by the sheriff, Lila gets Sam to join her in their own investigation of the Bates Motel.  They check in, then Sam keeps Norman busy in conversation while Lila goes up to the mansion to try to find Mrs. Bates, but Sam thinks that Norman has stolen the money and gets Norman all worked up to the point where Norman bashes him in the head and runs to the mansion to find Lila.  Upstairs in Mrs. Bates’ bedroom, Lila notices that the bed has been permanently indented in the form of a body.  As she’s getting ready to leave, she sees Norman running for the house, so she ducks down the stairs toward the root cellar.  Curious, she goes all the way down and sees Mrs. Bates sitting in a chair.  She touches the woman on the shoulder and when the body swings around, the mummified skull of the old woman stares at her.  She screams, then the old woman appears in the doorway with a butcher knife, but before she can attack Lila, Sam shows up and wrestles her to the floor.  As she falls, a wig comes off her head and we see that “she” is actually Norman dressed up in his mother’s clothing.  All this time, he as been impersonating her, even going so far as to use her voice in conversations with himself.

Psycho 2Much of the psychology of Norman’s dual personality is revealed by a psychiatrist, Dr. Fred Richmond (Simon Oakland) at the jail who also tells them that the Mother has now taken full control of Norman’s body and that he will probably never be himself again.  We see Norman, right near the end, sitting in the jail, with a voice-over of his mother talking.  He sees a fly on his fingers and she says, “I wouldn’t even harm a fly,” as Norman grins maniacally.  The final shot is over the car being pulled from the swamp.

Eschewing the big budget color films of the day, he made the movie using his television crew, only relying on the skills of longtime collaborators George Tomasini for the editing and Bernard Herrmann for the score.  Probably the major breakthrough of the film was in building up the character of Marion Crane, getting the audience completely on her side, then killing her off barely 45 minutes into the movie, but there were other major departures from standardized cinema as well.  Showing her in a brassiere, lying in bed with Sam was extremely risqué for the time.  Hitchcock later had her in a black brassiere and slip, after she had stolen the money.  This was amazingly the first movie ever to show a toilet.  When Marion rips up her notes about the money, she flushes them down the toilet.

Joseph Stefano thought they were going to have a great film, but when he watched the rough cut, he became very depressed because it just didn’t look like it was going to work.  Hitchcock spoke to him very kindly.  “It’s just a rough cut, dear boy” he said.  The reason Hitchcock knew it was going to work was that the score was missing.

Although Bernard Herrmann wrote many great film scores for Hitchcock and other directors, the music for Psycho is by far his best and most effective composing.  In the history of cinema, there may never be a better match of action and score than the contribution of Herrmann to Psycho.  Very early in the process of composing the music, Herrmann made one critical decision—to use only strings in his composition.  The intense use of violins, cellos, and basses gives the action a depth that is astounding.  Most people remember the shower scene, but throughout the film, the music flies and dances, going dead silent at times, and pulsing organically at others.

The shower scene changed the American understanding of montage.  Shot over seven days, using 70 separate set-ups, the scene is a masterpiece of modern editing.  Some shots only appear for a few frames.  Hitchcock worked with Tomasini to put together an absolute tour-de-force in which it appears that Marion is hacked to death, without ever showing a knife piercing skin, without ever showing a bared breast.  In her book about the making of the film, Janet Leigh said that part of Hitchcock’s mastery was in allowing the audience to fill in the gaps.  By jumping all around in scenes that sometimes lasted less than a second, he created the illusion of the murder and allowed the minds of the audience to fill in the gaps.

Although the music and the editing contributed greatly to the success of the scene, what really set it apart was that it came so unexpectedly.  Never before had a director spent so much film time drawing the audience to a character only to have her viciously dispatched in a scene that lasts less than two minutes.

A case can certainly be made that Psycho is Hitchcock’s masterpiece, but a case can also be made for many of Hitchcock’s movies.  What is beyond debate is that Psycho changed the course of horror movies forever.

Vertigo

Vertigo_1958_trailer_Kim_Novak_at_Golden_Gate_Bridge_Fort_PointAcrophobia is a perfect psychological ploy for a Hitchcock movie. Always fascinated with little psychological motivations, Hitchcock used fear of heights as the guiding principle of his 1958 movie Vertigo.  The plot, so detailed and involving, has become nearly iconic as the film has worked its way into the American psyche.  It will be discussed in some detail in this review, so if you haven’t seen the movie, please beware.

The film begins with a rooftop chase scene in San Francisco. A uniformed cop is chasing some criminal with Detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) right behind him. Jumping from one roof to another, Scottie slips on the Spanish tiles and slides down, barely catching hold of a gutter to prevent himself dropping many stories to the pavement.  In an effort to help him, the cop climbs back down the roof and holds out his hand, but Scottie has entered a kind of fugue state where he is unable to respond.  Slipping, the cop falls to his death as Scottie watches with a kind of tunnel vision.

Diagnosed with acrophobia, Scottie, independently wealthy, decides to retire rather than take a desk job. He hangs out with his old pal, former fiance, Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes), a former artist who now designs brassieres.  An old college friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) calls Scottie and asks for a meeting.  A shipping magnate, Elster is concerned about his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), a stunning blond who is obsessed with her great gandmother, Carlotta Valdez, who was courted by and bore a child to a very rich San Franciscan, who built a great house for her in what is now the Western Addition, then abandoned her.  She gradually went mad and eventually committed suicide.  At first reluctant, Scottie takes on the job of tailing her as a protective measure, as Elster thinks she might do harm to herself.  He follows her first to a flower shop where she buys a little nosegay of rosebuds, then to the Palace of the Legion of Honor in the Presidio, where she sits before a painting called Portrait of Carlotta, in which the mysterious Carlotta Valdez holds an identical nosegay.  Looking closely, he sees that Madeleine’s hair, done up in a bun that terminates in a distinctive whorl, exactly matches the hair style of Carlotta in the portrait.  Afterwards, he follows her to Mission Dolores, where she visits Carlotta’s grave, and, finally, he tails her to the McKittrick Hotel, which he later discovers is the home that had been built for Carlotta.

The next day, Midge takes Scottie to visit the proprieter of the Argosy Bookstore, who tells him Carlotta’s history. Later, he follows Madeleine to Fort Point, underneath the Western end of Golden Gate Bridge, where, to his horror, she jumps into San Francisco Bay, an apparent suicide.  He jumps in after her and saves her life.  Rather than returning her home, he brings her back to his apartment, undresses her, and puts her to bed, hanging up her clothing to dry.  Scottie passes through phases of becoming fascinated with her, to becoming obsessed with her, and finally falling in love with her.  They meet the following morning, going to Muir Woods, where he begins to drill her on what she remembers of her rambling and especially her dreams, one of which includes a memory of being at the Mission of San Juan Bautista.  Stopping at Cypress Point, they kiss passionately, then he brings her to the Mission, hoping that he will be able to confront her with the past and help her to move beyond it.

At the Mission, she emotionally begs him that whatever happens, he should remember that she loved him, then she runs into the church and climbs the stairs of the bell tower. Following, he begins to have his vertigo attack and cannot go all the way to the top.  He hears a scream and sees her body falling past a window and she dies in the fall.

Although he is cleared of any wrongdoing during the inquiry, he retreats into himself and is finally hospitalized with extreme depresson. Visiting him, Midge sees that he is nearly catatonic and the doctor informs her that it will be six months to a year before he can be released.  Skipping ahead, we see him visiting the places that Madeleine used to visit.  One day, he sees a brunette that looks so much like Madeleine that he follows her back to her apartment and introduces herself.  At first reluctant to see him, Judy Barton (Kim Novak), a shopgirl who works at I Magnin, eventually gives in and agrees to a date at Ernies, the restaurant where Scottie first saw Madeleine.  After he leaves her apartment, Judy relives the moment at the top of the bell tower and we see Elster throw his wife’s body from the bell tower as Judy screams.  It becomes apparent that Judy had been playing the part of Madeleine for Scottie’s benefit, so that Elster would have a reliable witness (with vertigo) who would swear that she committed suicide.  Still in love with Scottie, Judy decides to pursue a relationship with him.

Obsessed with the memory of Madeleine, he begins to dress Judy to look like her, going to the extreme of having her hair dyed blond and recreated the whorl at the back. When she dresses for dinner, however, she makes the crucial mistake of putting on Carlotta’s necklace.  Recognizing it, Scottie assembles the pieces of the puzzle.  He brings her back to the bell tower and forces her to go all the way to the top.  In the process, he overcomes his vertigo.  She confesses to being an accomplice to Madeleine’s murder, but when a nun comes up the steps, Judy screams and turns to run, falling to her death, the same as Madeleine.

James Stewart and Kim Novak both give brilliant, breathtaking performances in this film, which must rank as one of Hitchcock’s very best in a distinguished career of filmmaking. Stewart gives the best performance of his own career as Scottie, perfectly believable from beginning to end.

The cinematography by long-time Hitchcock collaborator Robert Burks is excellent. As a long-time resident of San Francisco, I love the detail and love of landscape shown the San Francisco Bay area, from the Golden Gate Bridge, to the Palace of Fine Arts, Coit Tower, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, the Presidio, Muir Woods, Cypress Point, and Mission Dolores.  It is stunning to see the city in all of its beauty in the late 1950’s.  Although many things have changed over the years, the essential beauty remains unchanged.  At one point in the film, Elster, talking about his return to San Francisco, remarks that the city isn’t what it used to be, but he doesn’t understand the basic timeless beauty to be found there.

The opening credits, designed by Saul Bass, provide a dramatic introduction to the movie. Beginning with a close-up of a woman’s face, the camera moves into and extreme close-up of the woman’s right eye, dissolving into the distinctive whorl, in vibrant violet, that becomes a repeated motif in the movie.  The costumes, by Edith Head, are gorgeous.  And, of course, the music by long time Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann is great and illustrative of the action.

The screenplay, written by Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor, based on the French novel D’entre les morts by Boileau-Narcejac, is the perfect Hitchcock vehicle.  The pacing of the film is nearly flawless, although it must be considered a little bit long.  As with most of Hitchcock’s movies, the first viewing is the most important because all of the details are just being discovered, but it is also a film that can be watched many times merely to study the technique. 

Painstakingly restored to its original Vistavision glory by Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz, the DVD is simply stunning. It contains a special feature on the film’s difficult restoration process.  If there is one thing, however, that dates the film, it is the special effects depiction of Scottie’s dream after Madeleine has died.  Stewart’s head, framed against a pulsing stream of light and with evolving animation just doesn’t seem to work now.  It was state-of-the-art in 1958, but it doesn’t show well now.

Even with that flaw, the film remains one of Hitchcock’s finest.

North by Northwest

north-by-northwest Samt and GrantMistaken identity, an innocent man, bloodthirsty spies, a long train trip, a beautiful, sexy blond, and suspense building to a nail-biting conclusion—all these staples of legendary director Alfred Hitchcock drive his epic 1959 film, North by Northwest.  This review assumes the reader has already seen the film, and thus reveals many plot details that might spoil the movie for a novice film viewer.  Beware!

New York advertising executive Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) is about to conclude another busy day when he is kidnapped by two vaguely eastern European men (Adam Williams and Robert Ellenstein) and taken to a mansion in the country. An erudite Englishman, whom Thornhill assumes is the estate owner, Mr. Townsend (James Mason) has mistaken him for a George Kaplan, a mysterious man who moves about the country making short stays in hotels before moving on.  Townsend recites Kaplan’s complete itinerary, demanding information from him.  When Thornhill tells him of his real identity and refuses to cooperate, Townsend tells his henchman, Leonard (Martin Landau) to kill him.  They force a bottle of bourbon into Thornhill, then put him behind the wheel of a stolen car and aim it at the ocean, but Thornhill revives just enough to avoid the plunge and leads them on a wild car chase.

Arrested for drunken driving, Thornhill calls his mother (Jessie Royce Landis) and tries to explain about his kidnapping. On a return trip to the mansion, Mrs. Townsend tells the police that he was there for dinner, got drunk, and went off on his own.  Thornhill then takes his mother back to the hotel where Kaplan was staying and they find evidence of his presence, but none of the hotel employees have actually seen Kaplan.  When Townsend’s flunkies show up, Thornhill grabs a taxi and goes to the United Nations, where he discovers that the real Townsend knows nothing about his adventures.  As he speaks to Townsend, Leonard sneaks up and stabs the diplomat in the back, leaving Thornhill holding the knife.  A photographer takes a picture, then Thornhill drops the knife and runs off.

Hitchcock usually includes a scene in his movies where the audience learns something that his hero doesn’t know. In North by Northwest, that scene occurs in a Federal Government building (FBI? CIA? Hitchcock never says) where a group of executives led by the Professor (Leo G. Carroll) ponder Thornhill’s predicament and wonder if they should help him.  Kaplan, you see, doesn’t actually exist.  They created him in order to make the spies think that they were closing in on them, while actually they are simply trying to get them to reveal information.  They decide to allow Thornhill to sink or swim on his own.

Knowing that Kaplan’s next stop is in Chicago, Thornhill boards a train, the 20th Century Limited. With no disguise but dark glasses, he should be easy to spot, but the beautiful blond, Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) appears and hides him in her private room.  While the porter is putting down the bed and Thornhill is hiding in her toilet, she slips a note to Luther Vandamm (James Mason), the man who had posed as Townsend earlier.  In Chicago, she pretends to help him by calling Kaplan to set up a meeting, but she gives him instructions to take a bus into the country.  That is where the famous scene with the crop-dusting plane occurs.  Waiting on the side of the highway, surrounded by bleak, empty fields, a small plane dives him, trying to run him down and spraying deadly poison on him.  He makes it to a field, then runs back onto the highway, stopping a tanker truck, which the plane then proceeds to hit, causing an explosion.  Stealing a pick-up left idling by a local, he returns to Chicago and goes to Kaplan’s hotel only to find out that Kaplan had checked out and left before Eve could have possibly talked to him.

Now that he knows she is working for his enemies, he goes to confront her at an art auction, only to find Vandamm and his henchmen. Disrupting the auction, he is able to save his own life by getting arrested.  Diverted to the airport, the police deliver him to the Professor who explains that Eve is actually working for the government, gathering information on Vandamm, and that Thornhill has now endangered her life.

North by Northwest - Saint on RushmoreFollowing the villains to Rapid City, South Dakota, Thornhill and the Professor have set up a little scene in the restaurant at Mt. Rushmore where Eve shoots him with a gun loaded with blanks, but when he finds out that Eve will be leaving the country with Vandamm, he eludes the Professor and goes off on his own to save Eve, resulting in the famous final scene at Mt. Rushmore where Thornhill and Eve clamor over the president’s faces running from Leonard and the others with a statue filled with microfilm.

At two hours and 16 minutes, this should feel like a very long movie, but Hitchcock keeps the tension building so that viewers will not notice the passing of time. Even so, I wonder if it couldn’t have been cut a bit to bring it down to a more realistic length.  As with most of Hitchcock’s films, there isn’t much in the story, but action and suspense.  When Ernest Lehman wrote the script, he definitely wanted this to be the best Hitchcock film of all time and there may have been a certain amount of collusion from all of Hitchcock’s collaborators to make this movie his “masterpiece,” resulting in a greater length than usual.  It is Hitchcock’s longest running film and although it was stunning at the time of its release, in retrospective, there are many other films that would better fit the description “masterpiece.”

Although Hitchcock pulls all the right strings to keep the audience involved, I thought that Cary Grant really just mailed in his performance. Aside from a few moments early in the film, I really didn’t care what happened to him.  Eva Marie Saint was considerably better, bringing a level of nuance that was involving, but Mason, Landau, and all of the other actors seemed to be on automatic pilot.

The opening credits by Saul Bass are quite captivating, especially with the music of Bernard Herrmann behind them. This may be one of Herrmann’s best scores for Hitchcock as it does much of the work of keeping the film moving along.  The cinematography by Robert Burks and the editing by George Tomasini, both long time Hitchcock collaborators are terrific.  The widescreen color by Vistavision is magnificent.

What makes the film most memorable are the two iconic scenes, by themselves kinetic masterpieces: the scene in the fields with the crop dusting airplane and the scramble across the President’s faces at Mt. Rushmore. The scenes between Grant and Saint on the train are also very sexy and quite suggestive for their time.

North by Northwest deserves its place as a iconic Hitchcock film and it should be seen anyone who is a fan of suspense movies, Hitchcock or 1950’s Hollywood. It is an outstanding film and it definitely has its place in film history.  Even so, I would not call it Hitchcock’s ultimate masterpiece, as Ernest Lehman called it, “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.” 

In fact, Hitchcock’s very next film, Psycho, would leave a much deeper impact on his audience.

D

Descendants Clooney and WoodleyThe Descendants

Although this movie might not be suitable for all ages because of language and some adult situations, it is nonetheless a family movie.  It deals with the issues people face, both as parents and as children, and ultimately it addresses the responsibility of generations to their family.  George Clooney and Shailene Woodley star in the beautiful film set in beautiful Hawaii.


Devil-Wears-Prada-3The Devil Wears Prada

Based on the novel The Devil Wears Prada, by Lauren Weisberger, the 2006 film of the same name brings a great deal to the table, namely moral, ethical, and economic issues usually absent from a comedy more concerned with appearance than reality.


Dial_M_For_Murder_Grace KellyDial M for Murder

It might be easy to plan the perfect murder, but actually doing it is something else entirely.  That is the theme of Dial M for Murder, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 movie adapted by Frederick Knott from his own successful stage play of the same name.


shailene_woodley_divergent-wideDivergent

Adapted by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor from the novel of the same name by Veronica Roth, this 2014 movie is remarkably faithful to the original book, which is both good and bad.  Shailene Woodley is brilliant as Tris, the Abnegation girl who is diagnosed as Divergent: she’s not only Abnegation, but also Erudite and Dauntless.  At her choosing ceremony, she chooses Dauntless and begins a life of courage and risk.

B

teresa wright & dana andrews - the best years of our lives 1946The Best Years of Our Lives

The stark reality of surviving life after war is best faced with the aid of friends and loved ones and that is story that is told in this 1946 film which remains one of the best films ever made.


The-Big-Sleep Bogart BacallThe Big Sleep

This 1946 film adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled detective novel remains one of the best films ever made for a variety of reasons.  Start with Chandler’s novel, written in a unique voice and style, that delved into the underworld of big city vice, using dangerous and edgy behavior that were normally hidden from the public eye: pornography, promiscuity, and homosexuality.


 Hitchcock The Birds 02The Birds

I was thirteen years old in 1963 when I went to a movie theater to Alfred Hitchcock’s latest move, The Birds, and I can still remember the effect it had, the tension it engendered, the thrill of fright, and my jangled nerves when I left the theater and stepped out into the sunlight.


 the-blind-side-22-550x366The Blind Side

The Blind Side, written and directed by John Lee Hancock, is a biographical drama that tells the story of how Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), a rather large African-American, gets adopted into a white family, defeats his educational issues, and goes on to develop into a terrific left tackle on the football field.


Breakfast ClubThe Breakfast Club

Yelling one minute, giggling the next, while cool music plays throughout.  Welcome to The Breakfast Club, John Hughes’ 1985 comedy-drama about five teenagers confined to a Saturday detention in the Shermer High School library in Shermer, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago.


 renee zellweger bridge jonesBridget Jones’s Diary

Based ever so loosely on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, this 2001 British romantic comedy directed by Sharon Maguire is full of hits and misses.  The hits are all punches thrown between the two men who seek Bridget’s attention and the misses are all those single women who wish they had a choice between Colin Firth and Hugh Grant.


bright-star cornish and wishawBright Star

Written and directed by Jane Campion and based on the John Keats biography by Andrew Motion, this 2009 film is one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen and it captures one of the most touching romances in history.  It takes its title from one of Keats’ most moving poems, “Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art.”


Broken Arrow Stewart PagetBroken Arrow

This 1950 movie was one of the first to portray western Native Americans in a balanced manner and carries as its message racial equality and peaceful relations between Indians and Anglos.  Based on the popular novel, Blood Brother, by Elliott Arnold, the film adaptation by Michael Blankfort dramatizes the historical relationship between Tom Jeffords (James Stewart) and Chiricahua Apache leader Cochise (Jeff Chandler).

Rear Window

Rear Window - James Stewart and Grace KellyA nation of Peeping Toms.

That’s us, according to home care nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 masterpiece Rear Window.  She’s complaining to photographer L. B. Jefferies (James Stewart) as he sits in his wheelchair staring out the rear window of his apartment in Greenwich Village.  His left leg is encased in a great white cast bearing the inscription, “Here lie the broken bones of L. B. Jefferies.” He’s been housebound for six weeks recovering from an accident that occurred in the middle of a raceway as he attempted to photograph a racecar breaking apart.

Not only is he broken apart, but a long, slow pan at the opening of the film shows a camera lying in pieces in front of the photograph he took. The small apartment is full of his equipment, past photos, and magazine spreads, and presents a kind of homey messiness in the middle of New York City.  His entertainment is watching his neighbors. rearwindowloop2Through the back window, he can see several little adjoining patios and up to four stories of the apartment houses that abut his. It is a little world of its own. Across the way, Miss Lonelyheart (Judith Evelyn) fantasizes about having a romance, while directly above her traveling salesman Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) argues with his invalid, bedridden wife. On the top floor, a man and his sleep outside in the sweltering summer heat.  They have a little dog that they let down into the patio in a basket on a pulley.  To the left, a young dancer, Miss Torso (Georgine Darcy) exercises and fends off a spate of young admirers, while right below a middle-aged sculptress works on her latest project. At the upper right, a songwriter struggles to find a melody, while frequently entertaining his friends in show business. And on the far left, a newlywed couple honeymoons with the shade drawn most of the time.

Rear-Window-pic-2Jefferies hates his confined existence, but he has to live with the cast for one more week. After learning his trade in the Army taking photos from an airplane with his buddy Doyle (Wendell Corey), he is accustomed to traveling the world and putting himself in danger to get his award winning photographs. It is his life and he loves it. Unfortunately, he is in a serious relationship with Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), a fashionista who works in one of the big stores downtown. Convinced that their lifestyles are too different for anything to work between them, he puts her off. She’s simply too perfect for him. Beautiful, worldly, she seems unreal, but she loves him and is willing to sacrifice her safe, cozy world to be with him.

One night, as Jefferies dozes in his chair, he hears a glass shatter and a woman scream, but is too tired even to look out his window. Later, it begins to rain and he stirs himself, noticing Thorwald leave in the middle of the night with his sample suitcase, not once but twice. In the early morning hours, as he dozes we see Thorwald and a woman leaving their apartment. The next day, he sees a change in the accustomed pattern.  The shades are drawn across the way and he can’t see Mrs. Thorwald, but later he sees the man cleaning a saw and a knife with a long, curved blade and his suspicion turns into a belief that Thorwald killed his wife. At first, no one believes him, but when Lisa sees the mattress rolled up and a trunk tied together, she also becomes convinced and finally Stella comes around. The only one who doesn’t believe that a murder has occurred is Detective Doyle.

The film contains everything Hitchcock does best and it is therefore the best example of all of his filmmaking techniques. In addition, it is a first rate suspense film with great comic relief that induces edge-of-your-seat tension. In other words, it’s a really good movie purely on its own merits.

Based on a short story, “It Had to Be Murder” by Cornell Woolrich, the story unfolds in a confined space. The script, written by John Michael Hayes in conjunction with Hitchcock, initially contained one scene outside this confined space, at the office of his editor (Gig Young), but faithful and creative Assistant Director Henry Bumstead pointed this out to Hitchcock and the scene was not used in the final cut, although Young’s voice is heard over the telephone. By restricting the scene to Jefferies’ apartment and only what he can see through his rear window, Hitchcock has confined the universe to just one small area and everything you need to see is present and accounted for.

The world is further narrowed to just two points of view. The first and most significant point of view is that of the audience. Like a voyeur, we are allowed to see into Jefferies’s private life, his affair with Lisa, the care given him by Stella, his arguments with Doyle, and his phone calls, but nothing else. We are in the position of looking through our own little window into his life. The second point of view is Jefferies’, as he peers into the courtyard and the windows of his constricted little universe. Only once in the film are we allowed to see something he doesn’t–and that is when Thorwald leaves his apartment in the early morning accompanied by a woman. Jefferies is asleep when that happens. It is a little thing, but it makes us realize that Thorwald may have actually taken his wife away, rather than killing her. It implants a little seed of doubt that Jefferies may be wrong.

Part of the point that Hitchcock makes with this restriction of point of view is that we are all constricted, each in our own way. Jefferies is literally constricted. He cannot move from his chair. Lisa is constricted in that she is tied to a man who is pushing her away and it seems like the main event of her life takes place in this little apartment. Doyle is constricted because he can’t investigate something on such restricted circumstantial evidence.

The only evidence of the outside world is in one narrow view of the street and in the people who come and leave from his own apartment and those of the other characters in his rear window. Those connections are tenuous. Miss Lonelyheart is looking for romance, but the only man who responds to her wants her only for sex. Miss Torso can’t accept a steady man into her life, but we don’t discover why until the end of the movie. The songwriter is restricted by the creative process. And Thorwald is restricted by his wife and he takes violent action to escape to freedom.

The movie also says a lot about human relationships, as described above, and the relationships between men and women. Jeffries and Lisa are the prime example of two people who are miles apart in view and who find a common ground through the action of a murderer. Only when Jefferies sees that Lisa can be adventurous and take chances does he truly reveal his love for her. Even though she appears ready to embrace his adventurous lifestyle, she makes a statement for her feminity in the end.

But the best of this movie lies in the camera work and the way Hitchcock moves point of view through the lens. He uses the camera relentlessly to build suspense, moving in a steady arc that starts slow, languid almost, and accelerates into rapid montage by the end of the movie. The comic parts are organic, derived from the situation and the characters’ natural involvement with the story. When I saw this movie on its first run in theaters, I was moved by the shared tension of the audience in the theater, each person so involved in the story that we all seemed to react as one person as it raced toward its conclusion.

At the end of the film, you want to go outside and breathe fresh air, to walk around see what exists beyond your four walls.

Every element of the movie works, including the sound. Although it begins with a jazz score, denoting Greenwich Village in the 1950’s, and there are snippets of score dropped in throughout, most of the movie sound appears natural: the songwriter’s piano, the babbling of neighbors, the laughter of children and the traffic in the street. It is all slightly muted, as if we are hearing what Jefferies hears.

If I had to recommend one Hitchcock movie–and only one–for everyone to see, this would be it. It is absolutely representative and might very well be his best film.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

Man Who Knew Too Much Stewart and DayNever endanger an American’s children. That is the advice given by a foreign minister to his English lackey when it is already too late for the villains in this remake of a film that Alfred Hitchcock originally directed in England before he crossed the pond.  Wishing to enlarge and improve on his earlier film, he teamed up with his signature actor and composer to produce this widescreen thriller in 1956.

An American family, Dr. Ben McKenna (James Stewart), his famous musical wife, Jo (Doris Day), and young son, Hank (Christopher Olsen) are touring Morocco after a medical convention in Paris, when Hank accidentally yanks the veil off of a Muslim woman and gets them in trouble. A Frenchman, Louis Bernard (Daniel Gelin) steps in helps them out of the jam, then invites them to dinner that evening.  Jo is suspicious of his many questions, but Ben shrugs it off.  Passing an English couple, Edward (Bernard Miles) and Lucy (Brenda De Banzie) Drayton at their hotel, Jo again suspects that they are being watched. That evening, a strange man appears at their door during cocktails and it excites Bernard enough that he leaves them.  They meet the Draytons at the restaurant and Lucy admits that she recognized Jo from a London concert and the two couples have dinner together.  When Bernard appears at the restaurant with a date and ignores them, Ben gets upset, but Jo soothes him, complaining that he gets upset too easily.

The next day, in the bazaar, Bernard, dressed in desert costume and make-up is stabbed in the back. As he is dying in Ben’s arms, he tells him that a statesman will be assassinated at Albert Hall in London and that he needs to tell the authorities there to beware of Ambrose Chapell.  Lucy offers to take Hank back to the hotel while the police question Ben and Jo.  Called aside to the phone, Ben is told that he must not tell anyone what the dying Bernard told him or Hank may suffer.  Later, Ben discovers that Lucy never returned to the hotel and that the Draytons have checked out.  Ben sedates Jo before he tells her that Hank is missing, but she is overwrought until the drug takes effect.  Determined to get Hank back, they go to London to follow up on the message that Bernard gave them–and a date with Albert Hall.

At two hours, this movie runs a little long for its thin plot. Some of that time is occupied with several songs the studio put in for Doris Day, some of it is frittered away in the Marikesh bazaar.  A good deal of the time is used in the Albert Hall music leading up to the attempted assassination.  When it is all added up, this film, among all of the Hitchcock canon, seems a little indulgent.  The suspense that the director is so well-known for is definitely present, but at a slightly lower key than in his other films.  The color seems a little too bright, the rear projection effects a little too stark.

Although many scenes in the beginning of the film were actually shot in Morocco, the studio cutaways feel like movie sets. In all, the pace is just a little too slow to be an altogether successful movie.

James Stewart is good as the American doctor and Doris Day, who was a popular singer at the time, not well-known for her acting, does quite well. The script handles the two roles quite well, inserting quirks that make them more human.  Jo’s outward calm, for example, is balanced by her inability to cope with the loss of their son.  Her husband, aware of this vulnerability, convinces her to take medication before revealing that their son has been kidnapped.  Ben himself is just the opposite.  He is easily angered and tends to respond without thinking, yet when the chips are down, he is calm and steady.  The two characters and the two actors are very good foils for each other.

The supporting acting and the script for the supporting characters is less well defined. Many times, I had the feeling that I was watching stock characters from the films of the forties.  The notable exception to that is the entourage of Jo’s friends in London, who all seem to be more interesting and well-developed, especially given that they have little time on the screen.

It is also unusual for Hitchcock that the comedy seems a little forced in this movie. The action in the restaurant, for example, where Stewart cannot fit his long legs under the short table seems funny and first, but then it is continued and grows old.  Likewise, the action in the taxidermist’s shop in London seems contrived and unnatural.  Normally, Hitchcock develops his comedy directly from the script–it is organic to the action and thus seems completely natural.

Although it is most interesting to see a concert at the Albert Hall, and is even more interesting to see Hitchcock’s musical collaborator, Bernard Herrmann, directing the London Symphony. Unfortunately, the sequence goes on much too long and the tension is not as heightened as it usually is in a Hitchcock film.  And that leads to the final, nearly torturous scene in the foreign embassy that climaxes with a gimmicky solution.

I generally love to watch Hitchcock’s movies, but any time I find myself looking at my watch during the show, then the movie has failed on the most fundamental level: keeping my interest.

M

 Man Who Knew Too Much Stewart and DayThe Man Who Knew Too Much

Never endanger an American’s children.  That is the advice given by a foreign minister to his English lackey when it is already too late for the villains in this remake of a film that Alfred Hitchcock originally directed in England before he crossed the pond.  Wishing to enlarge and improve on his earlier film, he teamed up with his signature actor and composer to produce this widescreen thriller in 1956.


Marnie 03Marnie

Marnie is undoubtedly Alfred Hitchcock’s most unusual film.  There’s no murder, no spies, no sabotage, and practically no suspense.  It is a straight up psychological drama.  This might have been a great film, with sufficient editing, perhaps with a different leading actress as Marnie and maybe an American actor as Mark, with some of the action sequences done more realistically.  As it is, the movie looks like an overblown Hollywood version of what should be a compelling drama.


Midnight Cowboy 03Midnight Cowboy

This classic 1969 John Schlesinger film, adapted by Waldo Salt, from the novel by James Leo Herlihy, won three Academy Awards, for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.  It is the only X-Rated film to ever win Best Picture.  Starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, in what many consider his signature role, the film is about what happens to our dreams when they are tested against harsh reality.


 Miss PettigrewMiss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

London in 1939 was a hodgepodge of pre-war jitters.  Depression era soup kitchens operated down the block from posh nightclubs for the rich and the middle class worked to scratch out a decent living.  This is a rip-roaring comedy filled with delightful performances by Frances McDormand and Amy Adams.


mr and mrs smithMr. and Mrs. Smith

This 1941 “screwball comedy” was the first of two comedies that Alfred Hitchcock directed during his long and distinguished career, the other being the black comedy, “The Trouble with Harry.”  The script, by Academy Award winning screenwriter Norman Krasna, found its way to Carole Lombard, the actress who actually gave the name “screwball” to this kind of comedy, and she backed the project.


Much Ado About NothingMuch Ado About Nothing

If you buy the cliché that young people who argue and harp at each other are actually flirting, then William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing might have been the first great play to use it.  In Joss Whedon’s modern dress adaptation, he has whittled the play to under two hours and presented it in a witty original format.


936full-mystic-river-photoMystic River

Mystic River is a hard-hitting blue collar crime movie by the amazing Clint Eastwood.  Released in 2003, it tells the story of three boyhood friends forever changed by an incident in 1975.  Eastwood makes a point of the fact that things do not add up–it is part of the appeal of the movie.  And it is usually a fact of life that most filmmakers do not worry themselves over.  For Clint Eastwood, however, the fact that life doesn’t add up is the very point of the movie.