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.

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.

Gravity

Gravity Sandra BullockAlfonso Cuarón’s 2013 science fiction film Gravity is extremely well-made, a tight thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat for an hour and twenty-four minutes holding on for dear life.  It is almost a perfect movie.

This review includes vital information about the plot that may prevent a first-time viewer from enjoying the movie. Please read on if you’ve already seen the film.

On a mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), on her first space shuttle mission, works to install upgrades to the system. Veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) flits around her using his maneuvering back pack as he attempts to break the record for the longest space walk, knowing he will never have enough time to do it.  Mission Control interrupts them to abort the mission.  Apparently, Russia has demolished one of their satellites using a missile and debris is now hurtling through space toward them.  As they make their way back to the shuttle, Houston tells them that the debris is taking out other satellites and they will probably lose contact, which happens almost immediately.

Before they can get back into shuttle to return to earth, the junk comes shooting through their area. Although it misses the two astronauts, the shuttle is destroyed and the other mission specialists are killed.   Kowalski and Stone must now take a very long space walk to reach the International Space Station (ISS).  Time is of the essence because the debris will returns once it has made its way around the earth.  Unfortunately, the ISS has also suffered damage.  One of the two Soyuz escape modules has been used to evacuate the station and the other has been rendered useless because the parachute has already been deployed.  In spite of this Kowalski believes that they can use this useless module to reach the Chinese space station and use their escape module to return to earth.  Their approach is fast and they bounce off the craft, but finally Stone’s foot becomes entangled in the chute lines.  As Kowalski flies by her, she grabs his tether and holds him tight, but Kowalski’s momentum means pulls against her hold.  To save her, he unhooks his tether and drifts away.

From that point on, the film is sharply focussed on Stone’s survival from the Soyuz capsule to the Chinese space station, which is disintegrating in the upper atmosphere, to her entry into its escape module and flight to earth.

Obviously, in winning seven Academy Awards, including Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing, it was clearly the best movie of the year and probably should have won Best Picture as well.

Cuarón’s hand is in most of the movie. Not only did he direct it, but he co-wrote the script with his son, Jonás, co-produced and co-edited it, so he deserved all of his awards, which also included six BAFTA Awards, including Outstanding British Film and Best Director, the Golden Globe Award for Best Director, and seven Critics Choice Awards.  The other artists that he surrounded himself with all made major contributions to the success of this movie.  The score by Steven Price is amazing, complimenting the action exactly as it should to keep the suspense at a high level.  The sound was so good that it was breathtaking at times.  Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is both flawless and inspired and the special effects by British artists Framestore is simply stunning.  Considering that nearly 80% of the movie consists of computer generated graphics, they certainly deserve a huge share of the praise for this awesome movie.

The human heart of the movie exists in Sandra Bullock’s inspired performance. Although George Clooney contributes somewhat to the action, his character is gone by the time the action really gets rolling and the only other in the movie is Dr. Stone.  This is Bullock’s film and she carries it from beginning to end with a high-energy emotional presence perfectly in compliment with the music, sound, cinematography.  Bullock has grown tremendously as an actress in the last ten years, especially with her role in Blind Side, but she tops that performance in Gravity.

Although it must be considered one of the best space films ever made, right up there with Apollo 13, there were a few things that bothered me and would probably keep the movie out of the top ten best science fiction films on my list.

There are many inaccuracies in the film, most of which can be easily overlooked, but not all. First, I do not believe that neither Kowalski’s mass, nor their speed would have realistically created the situation that forced him to un-tether himself so that Stone might be saved.  Their attempt to grab onto the ISS, hurtling into it and bouncing off, is a violent scene.  When Stone finally makes it inside, I expected to see bruises and contusions all over her body, but instead, she emerges from her space suit looking squeaky clean.  When she finally boards the Chinese space station, the same thing happens, but her grabbing a handhold while hurting at a prohibitive speed with the clumsy glove is extremely unrealistic.  The final problem for me occurred during her attempts to figure out how to operate the Chinese capsule as she pushed buttons at random and finally found the one that magically allowed her to re-enter earth’s atmosphere at the proper angle to avoid a complete burn-up.

I might be overly critical on these scenes—I’m sure most people wouldn’t have an objection—but I thought that all of these problems, with a little tweaking, could have been easily made more realistic and would have really made it a flawless film.

This is still a great and powerful film, a rollercoaster of a movie that shoots its way along an arc that is tightly plotted, with every aspect of the film working in complete harmony, and it does it with no discernable fat in terms of scenes or timing. Everybody should see this movie!

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.

Capote

Philip-Seymour-Hoffman-Capote

Bennett Miller’s film Capote is a well-crafted, thoughtful look at the process by which Truman Capote sculpted his novel In Cold Blood. The restrained control of color, minimal sets and costumes, and stark cinematography make this film so good that it should be studied in film schools as a masterful use of time and funding.

At the heart of the film, though, is a great performance by Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the diminutive novelist who followed his instincts to a small Kansas town to investigate the murder of the Clutters, a family of four, execution style, in their own home. The way he insinuated himself into their landscape was nothing less than audacious, especially for a flamboyant New York homosexual. Hoffman won the Academy Award as Best Actor for this beautiful, studied performance. He portrays Truman Capote as the consummate artist searching for the heart of the story and finding it in the person of the primary killer, Perry Smith, portrayed with restrained power by Clifton Collins, Jr. The relationship that develops between this unlikely pair is pinned on the fact that both of them had difficult childhoods.

Capote lies repeatedly to Perry to get the answers he needs. The heart of In Cold Blood resides with Perry’s unpredictable rampage that turned a robbery gone wrong into a heartless mass killing. The novelist takes his time to slowly lead Perry to tell the story until time runs out and he must manipulate the killer into telling how everything went down that night at the farmhouse.

A number of subordinate performances are also of extremely high quality, including Catherine Keener as Capote’s research assistant and brilliant novelist in her own right Harper Lee (To Kill A Mockingbird) and Chris Cooper as the officer in charge of the investigation.

I urge anyone interested in either filmmaking or the art of the novel to see this movie. It is truly brilliant.