THE GIRL (2012): “Blondes make the best victims.”

THE GIRL (2012) – BBC/HBO FILMS – ★★★1/2

Color – 91 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Julian Jarrold

Featuring:  Toby Jones (Alfred Hitchcock), Sienna Miller (Tippi Hedren), Imelda Staunton (Alma Reville), Penelope Wilton (Peggy Robertson).

Written by Gwyneth Hughes

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Most fans of Alfred Hitchcock are aware of his obsession with his leading ladies.  He would cast them, mold them into his desired image, and charm them on the set and off, often engaging in playful banter.   This HBO film from a few years ago suggests that in the case of at least one actress Hitchcock crossed a line; that his banter became overt harassment.

The Girl deals with the relationship between Alfred Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren, who starred in The Birds and Marnie for Hitchcock.    Anyone who has read Tippi’s engaging autobiography of 2017 will recognize most of the incidents that make up the bulk of this film.

The film begins with Hitchcock reveling in the success of Psycho, and planning his next feature film.  He chooses The Birds, based on a short story by Daphne du Maurier, and hires Evan Hunter to write the screenplay.    Hitchcock and his wife Alma are taken with an attractive young woman in a TV commercial, and Hitchcock brings her in for an interview.  This young woman is Tippi Hedren, who has years of successful modeling behind her, but zero acting experience.  Hitchcock gives her a screen test, and then signs her to an exclusive contract.

The director/actress relationship begins promisingly enough;  Hitchcock runs lines with Tippi, giving her acting lessons in the process.  Sienna Miller is very good in the title role as Tippi Hedren;  in the beginning we share her excitement and eagerness to do well.  Later, as things become more difficult, we feel deeply for her.  Toby Jones is a wonder as Hitchcock.  He completely loses himself in the part, and plays Hitchcock with real depth, and never crosses the line into caricature.   Imelda Staunton is equally good as Hitchcock’s wife and collaborator Alma Reville.

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Hitchcock is portrayed as having moments of jealousy, as well as petulant outbursts.  He also attempts to kiss and grope his leading lady on at least two occasions.  These scenes are difficult to watch, as they should be.  There is also an implication that Hitchcock exacted revenge on Tippi Hedren for refusing his advances by making the shooting of the film more challenging.   It is well known that Tippi Hedren spent a week shooting the penultimate attic scene in The Birds, having live birds thrown at her over and over again.  This film suggests that Hitchcock physically and emotionally traumatized her on purpose.

I’m not going to address the veracity of the movie’s claims in depth.  Regarding the sexual harassment, it is a shame that Hitchcock is no longer alive to address the accusations.  At the same time, I absolutely believe Tippi;  she has no reason to manufacture such claims at this point in her life.   Some of the other episodes in the film however, the suggestions that Hitchcock made the shooting more difficult on purpose, I find hard to swallow.   Tippi herself has said that the movie over-dramatizes some elements.  She says if it was really that bad all the time she would have left much sooner.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the film for a Hitchcock fan is the recreation of several scenes from The Birds being shot by Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren.  The attention to detail by director Julian Jarrold and his technical team is impressive.

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Ultimately, this is the tale of a young woman whose Hollywood story had a fairy tale beginning that turned dark quickly, and her ability to overcome the obstacles in her path.  It is an entertaining film, despite stretching the truth in places.

The Girl is currently available to purchase on DVD and is available to stream on HBO streaming platforms.

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HITCHCOCK (2012): “Don’t upset yourself darling, it’s only a bloody movie.”

HITCHCOCK (2012) – Fox Searchlight Pictures – ★★★

Color – 98 mins. – 2.35:1

Directed by Sacha Gervasi

Featuring:  Anthony Hopkins (Alfred Hitchcock), Helen Mirren (Alma Reville), Scarlett Johansson (Janet Leigh), Danny Huston (Whitfield Cook), Toni Collette (Peggy Robertson), Jessica Biel (Vera Miles), James D’Arcy (Anthony Perkins).

Screenplay by John J. McLaughlin, based on the book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello

Music by Danny Elfman

Cinematography by Cronenweth

The making of Psycho was a watershed event,  both in the career of Alfred Hitchcock, and in the history of cinema in general.  It was a very fitting subject for Stephen Rebello’s book, which covers the history of the movie in chronological sequence.   When I first learned that Rebello’s book was going to be made into a film, I assumed it would be a documentary.  Instead, director Sacha Gervasi brought us a period biopic, peopled with some of the biggest actors in the world.

My initial reaction to this movie when it came out was mixed at best.  I was viewing it with the critical eye of a Hitchcock scholar, focusing too much on the minutiae of details that were altered or invented from whole cloth.   Now that some time has passed, I thought it would be worthwhile to revisit it.

The movie begins with Alfred Hitchcock at the absolute top of his game.  He is riding high on the success of his recent blockbuster North by Northwest.  But he is looking to make a change.  He decides on Psycho as his next movie, against the wishes of Paramount Studios, and most of his creative team.  He undergoes crises both financial and emotional,  and is aided by the love and support of his wife Alma, played brilliantly by Helen Mirren.   The role of Hitchcock is played by the one and only Anthony Hopkins.  What happens when an inimitable director is portrayed on film by an inimitable actor?  Something has to give.  Considering how well known both the voice and visage of Hitchcock are, director Gervasi and Hopkins found a middle ground.  Prosthetic make up gives Hopkins a look that is closer to Hitch, without completely losing his own identity.  It is in no way an imitation, nor was it intended to be so.

The end game of the movie is certainly no surprise; after all, Psycho was Hitchcock’s biggest commercial hit.  But does this film accurately portray the making of the movie?  Let’s take a look at a few of the movie’s specifics.

First of all, did the Hitchcock’s really mortgage their house to get Psycho made?  Absolutely not!  That was added for dramatic effect.  Hitchcock was already a  wealthy man at this point, and owned two houses.  He did agree to completely waive his salary for points on the back end, which ended up being the smartest financial decision of his life.  This movie alone earned Hitchcock upwards of $10 million.  But at no point were the Hitchcock’s in any kind of dire straits.  They certainly did not have to cut back on groceries, or their staff.

Did Alma Reville really come close to an affair with Whitfield Cook?  The jury is out on this question.  The Reville/Cook partnership actually occurred about a decade earlier than the time period of Psycho.  Whitfield Cook co-wrote the screenplays of two Hitchcock films:  Stage Fright (1950) and Strangers on a Train (1951).  Alma was a close collaborator at the time.  If one is to believe Whitfield’s diaries, he and Alma were affectionate.  He describes a scene where they were close to physical intimacy, when they were interrupted by a phone call from Hitch.  That moment is portrayed in the movie.  At the very least, based on Whitfield’s diaries and the surviving correspondence, there was an emotional bond between the two.

Did Alma Reville really direct a scene of Psycho while Hitchcock was ill?  Again, no.  Hitchcock was bedridden at one point, and asked his assistant director Hilton Green to shoot the day’s scenes without him.  When Hitchcock recovered and saw the dailies of Green’s footage, he realized much of it would have to be re-shot.  Alma was most definitely a collaborator on all of Hitchcock’s films to some extent.  She received on-screen credit on eleven films, but certainly gave input on every film.  Alma had been in the movie business longer than her husband.  She was a good writer, and a good film editor, and Hitch frequently sought her approval.

Was Hitchcock really cold and distant towards Vera Miles on the set?  To an extent, yes.  By all accounts he was always professional, but he was much more businesslike in his scenes with her than he was when directing Janet Leigh.  Hitchcock apparently never got over his disappointment in Vera Miles getting pregnant after he had cast her in the lead role in Vertigo.  Hitchcock enjoyed immensely his interactions with both Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins.

Did Hitchcock really want the shower scene to be music-free?  Initially, yes.  He conceived of a scene that would be aurally filled with running water, stabbing sounds, and screams.  It was only after he heard Bernard Herrmann’s scoring for the scene that he relented, realizing the scene would be better with the music.

Alma and Hitch’s marriage is portrayed as fairly tempestuous at this point.  Is this accurate?  While we can never truly know what went on behind closed doors when the Hitchcocks were home alone, by all accounts they were a truly happy couple, who were married for 53 years.

So this movie does play around quite a bit with history, but it is entertaining nonetheless, with good performances.  And while the historical truth may be toyed with, perhaps there is an emotional truth to the material.  This is the first movie to really give Alma Reville the recognition she deserves as half of the great Hitchcock partnership, and for that reason alone it is worth seeing.

Definitive edition:  The 2012 blu ray contains a commentary track with director Sacha Gervasi and author Stephen Rebello, one deleted scene, several featurettes, and the original theatrical trailer.

78/52: HITCHCOCK’S SHOWER SCENE: “He has broken the covenant of filmmaker and audience”

78/52:  HITCHCOCK’S SHOWER SCENE (2017) – IFC Midnight – ★★★ 

B&W – 91 mins. – 1.78:1

Directed by Alexandre O. Philippe

Featuring:  Guillermo del Toro, Walter Murch, Danny Elfman, Peter Bogdanovich, Ileanna Douglas, Eli Roth, and many more, through direct interview and archival footage.

There have been plenty of documentaries made about particular film directors, and particular films.  This may be the first documentary inspired by one scene from one movie.    Granted, it is an iconic scene.  (The title is based on the 78 different camera set ups and the 52 editorial cuts in Psycho‘s shower scene).  I first saw Psycho on television in the early 80’s, by which time the horror “new wave” was in full swing.  Little did I know how significant was Hitchcock’s film.

This film, like many documentaries, is a series of “talking head” shots, of dozens of people in the film industry, talking about the importance of Psycho in general, and the shower scene in particular.   There is a good balance between historical information (the nuts and bolts of how the scene was shot) as well as more abstract discussion about the meaning and influence of the scene.

Director Alexandre O. Philippe is a long-time documentarian, whose best known work is The People vs. George Lucas, which examined the often contentious post-prequel relationship between the creator of the Star Wars universe and his fans.  Whereas the George Lucas film was seen by many as overly critical of its namesake, this new documentary is more complementary to Alfred Hitchcock.  This is a film that could only have been made by a fan;  who else but a die-hard fan would stab casaba melons with a knife in an attempt to recreate the foley sounds Hitchcock had created to represent the stabs of the knife in the shower scene?

Director Philippe does make a couple of artistic choices that detract from the overall appeal of the film, in my opinion.  First of all, the movie opens with some re-created shots; scenes attempting to mirror similar scenes from Psycho.  So we get to see some girl, who is not Janet Leigh, driving a car in the rain, with camera set-ups similar to those used by Hitchcock.   These shots are unnecessary.

He also made the decision to shoot the movie in black and white.   I have seen at least one review dismiss this as pretension.  Since Psycho was in black and white, perhaps it makes some artistic sense, because we will be viewing clips and still images from the earlier film frequently?  Except, we also see color clips (several of them) from other movies, which breaks the artistic framework established by black and white.  Ultimately, I don’t think it really makes any difference.  I would probably feel exactly the same way about this movie were it shot in color.

There are an awful lot of images of people watching the shower scene, and reacting to it.  This is similar to the many youtube videos which show peoples’ reaction shots, without seeing what they are reacting too.  While it might be cool for two seconds to watch Elijah Wood going “Oh my God!” as he watches the shower scene, this particular contrivance gets old quickly.

For any fan of Hitchcock, though, there is much to enjoy here. We get to hear  Guillermo del Toro talk about Hitchcock “breaking the covenant” between director and audience by killing off the female protagonist a half hour in to the movie.  We hear the brilliant film editor Walter Murch discussing the editorial choices made in the scene.  We hear Danny Elfman talk about how much he was influenced by the musical score of Bernard Herrmann.    These scenes form the meat of the movie, and are the most appealing to watch.

If you are interested in learning about how this groundbreaking, game-changing scene was made, and the impact it had, then this movie is well worth 90 minutes of your time.  The blu ray also includes bonus interview footage of both Walter Murch and Guillermo del Toro,  which is a real godsend for fans of these two influential filmmakers.  Also included is footage of a variety of melons being stabbed, and the original theatrical trailer.

 

CROOK’S TOUR (1941): “Sign says bathroom.” “That’s ridiculous. It should say Bosporous.”

CROOK’S TOUR (1941) – Anglo-Amalgamated Films – ★★1/2

B&W – 80 mins. – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by John Baxter

Principal cast:  Basil Radford (Charters), Naunton Wayne (Caldicott), Greta Gynt (La Palermo), Noel Hood (Edith Charters).

Everyone who has seen Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes is familiar with the characters of Charters and Caldicott.  They appeared together again in Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich, which I have also reviewed on this site.  I thought I would at least provide a brief summary of this movie here.  Even though it has nothing to do with Alfred Hitchcock, the characters did originate in a Hitchcock movie, and they have quite a few fans.  This movie elevates Charters and Caldicott from the role of supporting characters to stars of the movie.  One would think that having more of this pair on screen could only be a good thing.  However, there is one main difference between this film and the earlier ones in which they appeared:  the writers.  The team of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat gave birth to Charters and Caldicott, and wrote their subsequent parts as well.  The writers on this film do not have the original wit and storytelling capabilities of Launder and Gilliat.

This movie plays very much like one of the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby “Road” pictures, with our starring couple in an exotic locale, being chased by spies.   Charters and Caldicott are mistakenly given an album which contains Nazi plans for sabotage, and the Germans spend the bulk of the movie trying to recover the album, and assassinate our unwitting heroes.  Unfortunately most of the jokes don’t land.  There are some funny moments that involve Caldicott and his fiancee Edith Charters (yes, she is Charter’s sister).  There should have been more moments with the sister.  Also, in their other appearances Charters and Caldicott are very likable.  While we might chuckle at their boyish fondness for cricket, we know they will answer the call when there is trouble.  In this movie they are written as just one level above buffoonery.    Did the writers not see the earlier films?  Charters and Caldicott deserve better.

For all that, it is worthy of at least one viewing for anyone who is a fan of these characters.  Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, so very different in style and appearance, made for a perfect pairing on the screen, and their names should be better known today.  God bless them both! They would spend the rest of their professional lives paired together, appearing side-by-side onscreen at least ten times. They also did several radio programs together.   Rumor has it that Basil Radford suffered the heart attack that would take his life at the young age of 55, while on break from rehearsing a radio show with Naunton Wayne.  This movie can be found in its entirety on the Criterion blu-ray for The Lady Vanishes.  There are no extra features for the movie.

 

HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT (2015): “Logic is dull”

HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT (2015) – Cohen Media Group – ★★★★

Color – 80 mins. – 1.78:1

Directed by Kent Jones

Featuring:  Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut (archival audio footage), and interviews with Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, David Fincher, Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, Paul Schrader, and more.

Hitchcock/Truffaut is the most indispensable book ever published about director Alfred Hitchcock. The book is essentially a transcription of a week’s worth of in-depth conversations between the two titular directors, in which they discuss every film in Hitchcock’s catalog, many in great detail. From its first publication fifty years ago, through revisions and reissues, to the current day, it is the vade mecum for the hardcore Hitchcock fan or scholar.   Now, thanks to director Kent Jones, we have a documentary film which discusses the book, its origins and its influences.

The movie has some voice-over narration, but primarily consists of contemporary interview clips of prominent directors,  several scenes from Hitchcock movies, and some audio archival footage of Hitchcock and Truffaut in conversation.   The movie sets up the backstory:  Truffaut began his professional life as a movie critic, writing for the influential French magazine Cahiers du Cinema.  He devised the auteur theory of filmmakers, the idea that a truly talented director is like the “author” of his or her movies, leaving a distinct and recognizable imprint.  He was also one of the first critics to recognize and write about the recurring themes in Hitchcock’s movies, thereby elevating them above the level of mere entertainment.

When I watch a documentary film I want to be informed, and I want to be engaged.  In other words, teach me something I didn’t know, and do it in an entertaining way.  This film succeeds on both counts.  I had always assumed that the conversations between Truffaut and Hitchcock were impromptu in nature.  But Truffaut spent a great deal of time watching films and preparing his questions.  He basically approached the book the same way he would have approached making a new movie.  And this was done in the pre-internet age, when one could not just google some obscure Hitchcock silent film, and be watching a clip ten seconds later.    It is pointed out in the documentary that Truffaut probably sacrificed at least one movie  with the amount of time he dedicated to the Hitchcock project.

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The real treat for me in this documentary is watching so many great directors talk about the work of Hitchcock, and the influence of the book on their lives and work.  Martin Scorsese becomes almost like a child when he discusses movies;  he is so undeniably a fan, it is absolutely infectious.  And when he discusses specific scenes, you know he is citing from memory;  he didn’t need to re-watch it to refresh his recollection.  I’m glad that David Fincher was included as well, because I believe he is the most Hitchcockian director working today, at least in visual style, and ability to emotionally manipulate an audience.

I wish the film would have spent a little more time on Truffaut’s life and career, but that is a minor quibble.  Any fan of Alfred Hitchcock will be enthralled watching this fine documentary.   In addition to the feature, the blu ray does include some additional interview footage.

 

 

 

 

“The Dick Cavett Show – Hollywood Greats” features the art of conversation.

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Dick Cavett was a unique talk-show host, the best of a breed that no longer exists on television.  Today a star appears on a talk show  for a few minutes to promote a new project.  Cavett would devote  an entire show, or a majority of the  show, to one star.   And the talk was not limited to hawking a new movie, along with a couple of  previously agreed-upon anecdotes, as we see today.   The conversation was free-flowing.  Cavett has his  critics.  Some say he was too fawning of his guests.  Some say his questions were too simplistic.  For me,  it is the results that matter, and there is no denying that Cavett had the ability to charm and disarm his  most reticent guests.

This 4-DVD set compiles some of the most memorable episodes from The Dick Cavett Show, all of them featuring stars from the golden age of Hollywood (including, of course, Alfred Hitchcock).   I will provide a brief synopsis of each episode, along with my overall impression.

Katherine Hepburn (original air date October 2 and 3, 1973) – Kate Hepburn avoided the talk-show circuit for most of her career, making her appearance on Cavett unique.   Before she agreed to appear, she went to tour the studio where the show was recorded.  While there, she suggested that they tape the interview on the spot, with no studio audience.  Cavett agreed, and the result is unforgettable.  They talked for so long, there was enough material for two shows.  Hepburn is charming, witty, honest.  And she keeps Cavett en pointe,  eliciting several laughs from the crew, who gathered on the set to watch.  At one point Cavett asks if she regrets never working with Laurence Olivier, to which Hepburn replies “We’re not dead yet!”  This is arguably the highlight of this fantastic DVD set, and a must-see for all fans of the great Katherine Hepburn.

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Fred Astaire (original air date November 10, 1970) – Fred Astaire was the epitome of charm, and he didn’t disappoint when he appeared with Dick Cavett.  Much of the show is dedicated to Astaire singing, and even dancing (at age 71!).   Apparently he was more comfortable performing than he was talking about his life.  For that reason, this episode feels somewhat lacking.   I personally would have preferred more conversation, but fans of Astaire will certainly enjoy watching.

Bette Davis (original air date November 17, 1971) – Davis made more than one appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, and the two have a natural rapport.  It is clear that Bette Davis really enjoyed talking with Cavett.  This particular episode created a bit of a scandal when it first aired, because Cavett jokingly asked Ms. Davis how old she was when she lost her virginiy.  Little did he know that she would answer the question!  This episode was entertaining from start to finish, and exceeded my expectations. (Here is a brief clip from the Bette Davis episode. Sony/BMG owns all distribution rights.)

Groucho Marx and Debbie Reynolds (with Dan Rowan and Erin Fleming) (original air date December 16, 1971) – This episode is a disappointment.  Groucho is clearly past his prime here, and he just can’t unleash the zingers and one-liners with the comic timing that he could as a younger man, although he tries.   Granted, he is 81 years old here, but it is a little sad to see him at the twilight of his life.  Debbie Reynolds seems rather subdued, and unsure how to take Groucho at times.  One sad footnote to this episode is the inclusion of actress Erin Fleming, who was in a relationship with Groucho at the time of taping the episode.   Groucho’s family disapproved of the relationship, and after his death, they successfully sued Erin Fleming for almost half a million dollars that she had acquired from Groucho while he was alive.  Fleming would later spend time in a mental hospital before taking her own life in 2003.

Kirk Douglas (original air date June 29, 1971) – This episode is pleasant, if slightly forgettable.   Douglas relates several anecdotes from his film career.  He is entertaining, and often funny, but somehow Cavett doesn’t seem to engage Douglas as much as he does many of his other guests.  The episode feels more superficial than others, although I am sure Kirk Douglas fans would enjoy it.

Mel Brooks, Frank Capra, Robert Altman, Peter Bogdanovich (original air date January 21, 1972) – Bringing four directors together was a good idea.  Capra, retired by this point, was the elder statesman.  Brooks was at the peak of his craft, and Altman and Bogdanovich were early in their careers.   It is a shame that Cavett didn’t have more shows like this one, bringing directors from different eras of Hollywood together.

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John Huston (original air date February 21, 1972) – John Huston’s voice was instantly recognizable.  It was somehow both gravelly and mellifluous at the same time.  Personally, I could listen to him talk all day long.  Of course, he has dozens of interesting anecdotes to share, many of them involving his favorite actor Humphrey Bogart.  This episode is very solid.

Marlon Brando (June 12, 1973) – This is one of the most famous episodes of The Dick Cavett Show, for a variety of reasons.   Brando is another actor who did not do the talk-show circuit.  He liked Dick Cavett, and agreed to come on the show if he could bring some prominent Native American advocates, to talk about the plight of the American Indian.  Early on, Cavett tries to draw Brando into conversation about his films, but Brando resists.  He makes Cavett uncomfortable more than once, and it is clear that Brando knows exactly what he is saying, and the effect he is having.  He flashes that million-dollar smile more than once as Cavett squirms in his chair.  Personally, I enjoy this episode very much.   (After the taping of this episode, Brando and Cavett went to dinner.  They were followed through Chinatown by paparazzo Ron Galella.  Brando punched Galella in the face, breaking his jaw and knocking out five teeth.  How can you not love Brando?)

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Robert Mitchum (April 29, 1971) – This is another episode that exceeded my expectations.  Mitchum had a reputation for being difficult, of occasionally sparring verbally with the media.  He is an absolute delight here.  His speech is almost poetic as he recounts several delightful anecdotes from throughout his career.   Fans of Mitchum will go crazy over this episode, and it will probably make a lot of film fans see him in a different light.

Orson Welles (July 27, 1970) – Welles was perhaps Hollywood’s greatest raconteur, even if most of his tales were somewhat spurious.  But he was endlessly entertaining.  A man of great intelligence and seemingly endless wit, he charmed Cavett and his audience.   This may be my favorite episode in the entire collection.  In the brief new introduction to the episode that Cavett recorded in 2005, he gets a little teary-eyed.  It is clear that Welles was a favorite of his, too.  Must-see.

Alfred Hitchcock (June 8, 1972) – Alfred Hitchcock was no stranger to television at this point in his career.  He had hosted every episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents for seven seasons, and made numerous appearance on various talk shows.  Although his health had begun to decline a bit by this point, he was as charming as ever.  Several films from throughout Hitchcock’s career are discussed, including Sabotage, Foreign Correspondent, Lifeboat,  Rear Window, and Psycho.  He also discusses the importance of montage in film, as well as the difference between mystery and suspense.   This episode is an absolute must-see for fans and scholars of Alfred Hitchcock, just for the opportunity to hear the master discuss his own films, and film theory in general.  (Below is a brief clip from the episode.)


Overall, this is a very solid collection.  Fans of the golden age of Hollywood are certain to enjoy many of these episodes.  They also provide a glimpse of a type of talk show that doesn’t really exist anymore, when two people just sat down, without props or gimmicks, and conversed.

PSYCHO (1998 remake): Why?

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 PSYCHO (1998) – Universal – Rating: 1/10

Color – 104 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Gus Van Sant

Principal cast:  Vince Vaughn (Norman Bates), Anne Heche (Marion Crane), Julianne Moore (Lila Crane), Viggo Mortensen (Sam Loomis), William H. Macy (Milton Arbogast), Philip Baker Hall (Sheriff Chambers), Robert Forster (Dr. Simon).

Screenplay by Joseph Stefano

Cinematography:  Christopher Doyle

Music by Bernard Herrmann and Danny Elfman

Why?  That is the question that echoed in my head as I watched this pointless remake, and the question I continue to ask.  I respect Gus Van Sant as a filmmaker.  And I have nothing against remakes; there have been several good ones.   Even Alfred Hitchcock did a remake of one of his own movies (The Man Who Knew Too Much, original 1934, remake 1956.)  But there has to be an artistic reason to attempt a remake;  usually a desire to do a “modern take” on something that worked well in an earlier era.  Unfortunately, this film is in no way a modern take.   This film is often described as a shot-for-shot remake. That is not true.  It does come close to that, but there is probably a 5% variance between the two films, and none of that 5% makes the least bit of sense.

Van Sant claimed that he wanted to make Psycho appeal to a younger audience.  Perhaps if he would have done a completely new version of the film, he could have succeeded in that goal.  I can’t imagine a “young” person watching his version and finding it anything other than stilted, awkward and anachronistic.  Hitchcock’s original seems more fresh and modern in comparison.

If Van Sant had chosen to make a literal shot-for-shot remake, his film would have been slightly better, although still stultifyingly boring and completely unnecessary.   But the few arbitrary changes that were made only serve to make his remake seem more out of place.   The late, great Roger Ebert said of this movie “it demonstrates that a shot-by-shot remake is pointless; genius apparently resides between or beneath the shots, or in chemistry that cannot be timed or counted.”

In choosing to make this movie, Gus Van Sant not only makes it impossible to avoid comparison with Hitchcock’s original film, but actively invites comparison in virtually every scene.   Maybe that is the saving grace of this remake:  it reaffirms, through comparison, how good the original Psycho was.  So, since it seemingly serves no other purpose, let’s compare.

Vince Vaughn – Poor Vince.  He doesn’t have the widest range as an actor, but within his limited range he is very good.   He is the best schlub in the business.  I’m not even sure what a schlub is, but when I hear the word, I immediately picture Vince Vaughn.  Old School…Wedding Crashers…I can’t imagine any other actor playing those parts as well as he did.  But he is so totally wrong for the part of Norman Bates.  He lacks…well, everything that Anthony Perkins had.

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Vaughn’s Norman is not sympathetic in the least;  he is creepy and repulsive, and more of a caricature than a character.  Vaughn so painfully tried to make Norman his own, but the affectations he chose to use (the lip pursing, the mad cackle at the end of sentences) are comical and pathetic.   This whole movie hangs on the performance of Norman Bates; Vaughn’s failure is the movie’s failure.

Anne Heche – Relax Vince, at least you didn’t have the worst performance in the movie.   The difference between Janet Leigh and Anne Heche in the role of Marion Crane is the difference between good acting and bad.   Much of Marion’s performance is internal;  she has several scenes where she is alone on screen.  Where Janet Leigh conveyed her thoughts through a subtle and believable internal struggle, Anne Heche uses broad, over-emphasized facial expressions and eye movements.  To call it caricature would be generous.  Her broad pantomime is unintentionally funny, and out of place everywhere except a 1920’s silent film.  I kept expecting to see title cards on the screen:  WHAT WILL I DO? CRIED OUR DAMSEL IN DISTRESS.  Her single worst acting moment in this movie (and there are plenty of bad ones) is the exaggerated roll of the eyes after the guy buying the house hits on her, then walks away from her desk.  Marion would have dealt with dozens of men like that;  he would have been forgotten before he took two steps, not treated to an eye roll that would make a 15 year-old girl say OMG.

Julianne Moore – She chose to take Lila in a different direction, making her more angry, which actually works well.  I still give the nod to Vera Miles.

Viggo Mortensen – I never thought I would say this, but where is John Gavin when you need him?

Willliam H. Macy – Good job.  He plays Arbogast straight, in a nod to Martin Balsam’s performance.  Not bad.

Philip Baker Hall – Here is the one performance that actually improves upon the original.  Granted, he is only in one scene (two in the original film), but Hall makes a very believable sheriff.

Robert Forster – Great actor, wasted on an unnecessary scene.

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  • Random observations to Gus Van Sant:
  • When Marion encounters the highway patrolman, why would you eliminate her dialogue asking if she acts like something is wrong, and his response “Frankly, yes.”  That was essential to the exchange, and certainly not dated.  Unlike Marion having her vehicle registration in her purse (!), and the cop taking it to the front of the vehicle to stare at the license plate, both anachronisms in 1998.
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    Thanks for showing us Viggo Mortensen’s ass.  Sure haven’t seen enough of that.

  •  The reason Patricia Hitchcock’s line “He must have seen my wedding ring” was so funny in the original movie is because Janet Leigh’s character was far more attractive.  In your version, Rita Wilson is arguably more attractive than Anne Heche, thereby rendering the entire exchange meaningless.
  • Why in the hell does Anne Heche have a parasol when she gets out of the car at the dealership?  Is that supposed to be appropriate to ’98?  Maybe if you’re talking about 1898.  Why not dress her in a ruffled skirt and lace petticoat?
  • Why did you show Norman Bates whacking off to Marion?  So inappropriate, and a clear indication of how little you understood the character.  Norman was most likely impotent; his sexual satisfaction would have come from the act of murder.  Beyond the psychological implications,the scene was filmed and acted in such a way that it could only inspire laughter.  Which it does.
  • You changed Arbogast’s line from “If it don’t gel it ain’t aspic” to ” if it don’t gel, it ain’t jello”? Sure, that’s something the kids were all saying in 1998.  Way to modernize the dialogue.
  • The changes in the cellar scene?  First off, all those different species of bird would never roost that way.  And Norman says himself “I don’t know anything about birds.  My hobby is stuffing things.”  There is no logic to your scene on any level.
  • The shower scene…do you  not understand why Hitchcock’s montage was so effective?  Your subliminal shots of roiling clouds deflate the emotional intensity of the scene.  Complete failure.
  • Ditto the subliminal shots in Arbogast’s murder scene.
William H. Macy asks himself "What the hell am I doing here?"
William H. Macy asks himself “What the hell am I doing here?”