Category: Hitchcock legacy


cavett.coverart
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.

cavett.hepburn

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.

cavett.huston

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?)

cavett.brando

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.

This blogblochpsycho has already explored the long legacy of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in movies and television.  Now let’s take a brief look at the legacy of Psycho in print.

Robert Bloch’s novel first appeared in 1959.  All of the major elements of the movie were already firmly in place in the book, including the surprise ending.  Bloch’s prose style was very straighforward, it was his plotting and structure that made his books memorable.

Alfred Hitchcock put in a “blind bid” for the rights to Psycho, meaning that Bloch did not know the identity of the bidder.  This was fairly common practice at the time, for if an author knew that Alfred Hitchcock wanted the rights to his work, he would have demanded more money.   Bloch reportedly received $9,500 for the rights to his novel, which is a decent amount of money by the standards of 1960, but still far less than he could have received from a high-profile director at a major studio.  There are some unconfirmed stories that Robert Bloch was upset by being “duped” into selling his book rights on the cheap, but there it little evidence to support this.  Bloch would go on to write ten episodes of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show and another seven episodes for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, which would suggest that Hitchcock and Bloch had a good relationship.

psychoII

Robert Bloch initially wrote the novel Psycho II as a treatment of sorts for Universal Studios, who had announced plans to produce a movie sequel.  Universal rejected Bloch’s work, and reputedly the studio suggested to the author that he abandon any plans to publish it.  Bloch did publish the novel in 1982, to solid reviews and decent sales.   Many people must have assumed that the movie Psycho II was inspired by the book, as both sequels shared the same title.  The truth is that they have nothing in common, except of course for the character of Norman Bates.  Psycho II is a good read, equally engrossing and unsettling, and a worthy followup to the original novel.   It begins with Norman Bates escaping from the mental institution where he has lived for 20 years.  At the same time, a Hollywood movie studio is planning to make a film about the original Bates murders.  The novel’s greatest failure is in the “gotcha” plot device, similar to the one used in the original novel, where we learn at the end that Norman was actually becoming his mother.  Bloch must have felt a need to create a similar ending here, which was quite unnecessary.

Psychohouse

Robert Bloch revisited his most famous creation one last time in 1990, with the release of Psycho House.  This novel focuses on an attempt to create a Bates Motel “theme park” of sorts, a macabre attraction for paying tourists.  An investigative journalist is in town to learn about the opening of the Bates themed property, and bodies once again begin to accumulate.  This is the weakest of the three Psycho novels, but fans of the earlier two will most likely enjoy it.   In Booklist’s review of this novel, they celebrated Bloch’s “marvelous bargain-basement prose, full of well-turned cliches and wry cracks.”  Bargain basement?  That’s a backhanded compliment at best.  Bloch does love alliteration and assonance, and occasionally uses them in a self-conscious manner.   He is also fond of morbid puns, which occasionally work, and other times fall flat.  In one early scene, a character is in a diner, “gazing at the glass-coffined slices of embalmed pies and pastries,” a fairly typical Bloch description.

Bloch was an incredibly prolific writer, publishing over 20 novels and 500 short stories, as well as dozens of television screenplays.  He has been cited as a major influence by many writers in the horror genre, most notably Stephen King.  And yet, were it not for his creation of Psycho, and Norman Bates, he would be virtually unknown today.   Fans of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Psycho are encouraged to give Bloch’s novels a try, particularly the first two.

PSYCHO (1998 remake): Why?

psycho1998one

 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.

psycho1998two

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.

psycho1998four


 

 

 

 

 

 

  • 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.
  •  

    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?”

 

 

 

 

psycho2When one thinks of Alfred Hitchcock one does not think of sequels.  And while he never directed any sequels himself, his 1960 release Psycho has generated quite a legacy on film, television and in print.  There are three feature-length sequels, all with Anthony Perkins reprising his role as Norman Bates.  There are two television shows, one that never made it past the pilot episode, and one that has just concluded its first successful season.  Robert Bloch also wrote two sequels to his original novel, something he arguably would not have done had the movie not been such a success.  There is an excellent non-fiction book by Stephen Rebello about the making of the original film.  There is a movie based loosely on Rebello’s book.  And there is also a remake directed by Gus Van Sant.   (I should note that Alfred Hitchcock had nothing to do with any of these projects; they all were released after his death in 1980).

psychoII

Psycho II (1983) – Universal – Rating: 4/10

 Color – 113 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Richard Franklin

Principal cast:  Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates), Vera Miles (Lila Loomis), Meg Tilly (Mary Samuels), Robert Loggia (Dr. Bill Raymond), Dennis Franz (Warren Toomey).

Written by Tom Holland

Music by Jerry Goldsmith

 First off, let’s acknowledge that Psycho did not need a sequel.  But the horror genre was experiencing a massive popularity burst in the early 80’s, thanks in large part to movies like Halloween and Friday the 13th.  And Universal Pictures owned the rights to the original movie, which meant they could use its characters, or even steal scenes from it.  They also still had the Psycho house standing on their backlot.  (The motel building had been torn down, and had to be rebuilt.)  And the most important piece of the puzzle:  Anthony Perkins, who somewhat reluctantly agreed to reprise his role as Norman Bates.

This movie is in trouble from the very first moment.  It begins with the shower scene from the original Psycho, but in edited form!  How can you edit one of the most iconic scenes in movie history?  Either let it play out,  or don’t use it at all.  The set-up for the film is actually quite good, and the tagline on the movie poster sums it up as well as anybody could:  “It’s 22 years later, and Norman Bates is coming home.”   Norman is released from the mental facility where he has spent over two decades, and returns to his childhood home to find the Bates Motel being run by an obnoxious sleazebag played by Dennis Franz (this is before Franz made the switch from obnoxious sleazebags to endearing sleazebags.)  Within five seconds of meeting Franz’s character we know he is going to die, and this points to the movie’s biggest problem; the script sucks.  There is just no subtlety to be found, either in plot or dialogue.

Anthony Perkins and Vera Miles are both very believable in the roles they had initiated over 20 years earlier.  It’s quite plausible that Lila Loomis would have married Sam after the death of Marion.  It’s also believable that Lila would hate Norman Bates, and do anything to get him locked up for good.  It is a bit of a stretch, however, to believe that she would use her daughter as a pawn in a potentially deadly game.  Robert Loggia is very solid in the role of Robert Loggia.  (That is not meant as a slight; he is a good character actor, who helps keep this movie from going completely off the rails.)  Meg Tilly is, well, annoying at best.  Rumor has it that Anthony Perkins did not get along with her, and asked for her to be replaced at some point during filming.  Honestly though, you could put any other actress in that role and it would not have been enough to save the rest of the movie.

Did Jerry Goldsmith really compose the score?  The same man who scored Chinatown, Alien, and Star Trek: TMP?  He had the choice of echoing Bernard Herrmann’s score in some way, or going in a different direction.  He chose the latter.  But its just so movie-of-the-week sounding, that to me it weakens the films already shaky credibility.

So, people are stabbed to death, Norman questions his sanity, and let’s not forget about the surpsise ending.  There is an absolutely ludicrous plot twist that seems to undermine the logic of the original movie.  I can’t really fault the director Richard Franklin, who was a student of Hitchcock, no less, but a stronger script may have helped this be something more than what it is.

Psycho_3_poster

 PSYCHO III (1986) – Universal – Rating:  5/10

Color – 92 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Anthony Perkins

Principal cast:  Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates), Diana Scarwid (Maureen Coyle), Jeff Fahey (Duane Duke), Roberta Maxwell (Tracy Venable), Hugh Gillin (Sheriff John Hunt).

Written by Charles Edward Pogue

Music by Carter Burwell

The third chapter in the Psycho series is somewhat better than its predecessor,  but is still miles away from being a truly good film.   Norman is back to his crazy ways, having installed Mother 2.0 in the bed where he kept the first model.  Norman has a love interest again, this time a nun who has been kicked out of her convent.  She caused a mother superior to fall to her death, in a scene that deliberately (and quite effectively) evokes Hitchcock’s Vertigo.  She ends up at the Bates Motel, along with Jeff Fahey’s character Duane, a drifter looking to make a score, and make it with every woman who crosses his path.   Hugh Gillin reprises his role from the last installment as Sheriff Hunt, a man who sympathizes with Norman Bates and wishes everyone would just leave him alone.

So, this being a Psycho movie, you can be assured that people will die violent deaths, and Norman will wage his mental battle with Mother.  And that is what really drives this movie, and makes it worth watching.  Anthony Perkins still makes Norman Bates a sympathetic character.  We watch him perform acts of evil, and yet still root for him to somehow overcome in this struggle with his dead mother, who is the real source of evil.

Anthony Perkins directed this movie, and did an admirable job, considering it was the first (and only) time he sat in the director’s chair in his career.   He overcame his initial nervousness about directing, and won over everyone on the set.  Several cast and crew members remarked that Perkins was a pleasure to work with as a director.

Psycho III throws in a plot twist at the end, regarding Norman’s family tree, that seemingly attempts to untwist the twist at the end of Psycho II.  Once again, ludicrous!  But if you’re watching this movie, you’re not doing so for plot points.  You’re doing it because you just can’t get enough Norman Bates.

PsychoIV

Psycho IV: The Beginning  (1990)- Universal – Rating: 5/10

Color – 96 minutes – 1.78:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Mick Garris

Principal cast:  Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates), Henry Thomas (Young Norman Bates), Olivia Hussey (Norma Bates), C.C.H. Pounder (Fran Ambrose).

Written by Joseph Stefano

Music by Graeme Revell

When a horror movie franchise reaches part 4, you know its time for the inevitable flashback motif to show up, if it hasn’t already.  And so a good part of this film is the older Norman Bates recounting his teenage years.  For the first time we see Norma Bates in the flesh, and we see how Norman became who he became.  This movie was written by Joseph Stefano, who wrote the screenplay for Hitchcock’s original 1960 Psycho.  Stefano does a pretty decent job; I would say the screenplay is definitely better than the last two movies in the series.  Some have said that it is highly improbable Norman Bates would have been released from the insane asylum a second time, and that is certainly true.  But Joseph Stefano wrote this as a follow-up to his original movie, more-or-less ignoring the existence of Parts II and III altogether.  If you take that into consideration, the plot of this film makes a little more sense, although its probably a little too late to introduce sense into this movie franchise, considering how senseless the last two screenplays were.

Anthony Perkins initially expressed interest in directing this installment as well, but Universal nixed that idea, based on the poor box office of the Perkins-directed part III.  As it turns out, the potential box office of part IV was not a factor, because it was never released in theaters, but instead went straight to video, premiering exclusively on the Showtime cable TV network in 1990.

The set-up here is pretty good.  Norman Bates calls in to a radio talk show hosted by Fran Ambrose.  Fran is played quite believably by C.C.H. Pounder.  Norman admits that he has killed, and says he is going to kill again.  While on the phone with Fran, Norman talks about his childhood, and we get to see several flashback sequences showing Norman in his teenage years.  The young Norman is played well by Henry Thomas of ET fame.  He does not try to copy Anthony Perkins’ mannerisms in any way, which was a good decision.  And young Norman’s mother is played in creepily good fashion by Olivia Hussey.

Norman’s present-day situation, and the reason that he feels he may have to kill again, is both surprising and disturbing.  And the film’s resolution seems to imply that the Bates family saga has finally come to a conclusion.  This movie is better than the cable TV movie-of-the-week status to which it was relegated.  It is interesting to observe the ease with which Anthony Perkins now slips in the skin of Norman Bates.  And while the quality of the movies definitely declined, Perkins’ performance is a marvel; he stayed true to the character, and made his atrocities believable from first to last.  (When Psycho IV was being filmed, Anthony Perkins had already been diagnosed as HIV positive, and was receiving treatment during filming.  This was one of the last projects he completed before his death.)

perkins

Once every decade, Sight & Sound  (a publication of the British Film Institute) releases a list of the top 50 films, as voted on by film “professionals.”  This list has always been viewed with a certain hallowed reverence by some in the industry, but an equal number of film buffs view it as elitist.  One constant on this list for the last half century has been Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane in the top spot.  This year that film has been supplanted by Hitchcock’s Vertigo.  

Does this mean that Vertigo is “better” than Kane?  The idea of empirically defining any work of art as better than another can only be subjective and arbitrary.   In  many other mediums of expression, the very idea of a best-of list is absurd.   The thought of trying to say that Van Gogh’s Starry Night is “better” than Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (to pick two famous paintings at random) is laughable.  There is no context by which to compare them.  They are separated by centuries, the product not only of different times and nations, but different worldviews.   Try this one:  rank the following books in order of greatness:  The Odyssey, Oliver Twist, Catch-22, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Huckleberry Finn.  Difficult, if not impossible.

Yet when it comes to movies, (and music), we are incessantly making lists.  Perhaps it has to do with the medium of movies having been around for a much shorter time.  With just over a century of material to view, maybe we have an easier time placing them in context.  And yet, one could make the argument that Kane and Vertigo, although made in the same state less than 20 years apart, are as dramatically different as two paintings or novels separated by centuries.   Whatever the reason, movie list-making is here to stay.  All one has to do is google “top films of all time”, or something similar, and you will find page after page of movie lists, from the popular and mainstream, to the many hundreds if not thousands of blogs devoted to films.

I had a suspicion that a majority of film lists would be written by men, and that top-10 lists in general were more a male activity, particularly young men.   When I was a twenty-something young man I had many conversations with friends and coworkers that centered around making a list:  What are the three best burgers you’ve ever had?  Who are the five best-looking girls that work here?  Most of the guys I knew, including myself, were slightly tamer versions of the characters in Nick Hornby’s brilliant novel High Fidelity.  These fictional characters worked at a record store called Championship Vinyl, and incessantly made lists about everything.  When the protagonist discovers that his girlfriend’s father has died, these guys immediately start making a list of the top five songs dealing with death.  My very unscientific random sampling of blog sites leads me to believe that there are indeed more men making best-of movie lists, but there are plenty of women who have as well, I was delighted and relieved to discover.

So if all these lists are arbitrary and subjective, what is the point?  Why do so many movie lovers (myself included) eagerly peruse these lists?  Because we want to compare our own subjective views with those of the listmaker;  our views may be very different, but what we share is a passion for films.  Our “10-best” films are at the very least a reflection of our taste, and at best, maybe a reflection of something more.  So do these lists ultimately mean anything?  Nope.  There is no “best” anything.  The primary function of a movie is to entertain, to provide some escapism.   Whatever movie does that for you, may be your best, and that is irrefutable, no matter how many film “experts” tell you that your view is incorrect.  I once worked with a girl who thought Con Air was the greatest film ever made, and I, seeing myself as an arbiter of good taste in films, secretly snickered behind her back.   Today I would applaud her view.  If that film brings her pleasure, then who am I to deride it?

It is precisely because our tastes differ that these lists have meaning.  That is their greatest significance, as a conversation starter.  Put 10 self-professed movie lovers in a conference room, distribute to them a list of the 100 greatest films as chosen by (whomever) and give them the direction:   discuss.  You can be assured that hours of dialogue will follow.  So there you have it.   We are humans of the 21st century.  We will make movies.  We will make lists about movies.  We will discuss the lists, and the movies, endlessly, as a way of expressing our individuality, and yet finding a commonality at the same time.

Now a quick look at these two films, in the world of movie lists.   Both Vertigo and Citizen Kane appear on virtually every major “best movie” list.  However, Kane has always placed higher, until now.

AFI                AMC                     IMDB                      EMPIRE

Citizen Kane                 1                         9                            44                                 28

Vertigo                           9                        16                          49                                 40

Kane placed higher on all of these lists as you can see (of course IMDB changes constantly, but this ranking is as of 9-23-2012.)

Does this reflect a change in the view of these two movies in general, or in relation to each other?  They actually share some things  in common:  they are both considered technically brilliant, they both achieved their status of “greatness” decades after their initial release, and they are both films that many casual movie viewers struggle to engage with on a first viewing.   I have heard or seen comments many times,  in reference to both films, along the lines of:  “I just didn’t get it”, or “I couldn’t even get through it.”  While such comments may make some of us wish to grab the comment makers by the shoulders and shake them, there is a validity to what they are saying.

I love Vertigo.  I think it is an amazing work, a tortured and tortuous psychological journey into the darkness of the human psyche, with amazing performances.  This film is Exhibit A to refute anyone who thinks that Jimmy Stewart  just played variations of the same character over and over.   And I can’t say enough about Kim Novak’s work in this film.  She has to play multiple roles, and she has to make the audience fall for just as she has to make Stewart’s character fall for her, and she does it in the most intensely understated way.  But I certainly wouldn’t recommend Vertigo to a Hitchcock newbie who asked what film to watch first.  As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t recommend it as my second or third choice either.  It’s not as directly engaging as Rear Window, or Psycho or many other Hitchcock films considered classics.  Vertigo (and Citizen Kane as well) require a level of committed engagement from the viewer, and some people are never going to have that kind of patience.  And for those who don’t, that’s OK.  I would say to someone who was watching these films for the first time, that they require the maximum investment if you want to receive the maximum payoff.


So which is better, the Van Gogh or the Botticelli?  The Welles or the Hitchcock?  Let’s just say they are two very good films, and you could certainly do worse than giving them a try.

Filming has begun on the adaptation of Stephen Rebello’s non-fiction book,  a very informative and entertaining look at the making of Hitchcock’s classic film Psycho. 

The book begins with the story of Ed Gein, the serial killer who inspired Robert Bloch to write the novel Psycho.   The book then follows the entire process of making the film, from acquiring the rights to Bloch’s novel, to writing the screenplay, casting, filming, publicity and audience response.

An inventive marketing strategy was key to the success of the movie.  One could argue it was the most ingenious marketing of any film up to that point.  It was also one of the most profitable films of Hitchcock’s entire career.

If you love the movie Psycho, you’ll probably enjoy the book, which is packed with lots of great stories, culled from interviews with many of the people involved in the making of the movie.

And now the book about the making of the movie is being made into a movie.  You follow?

I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised to hear that this film was being made, and even more surprised to see all the A-list actors involved.

Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock?  He can definitely pull it off, although he might have to wear some extra padding.

Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh?  I love ScarJo, but I just don’t see this one at all.

Jessica Biel as Vera Miles?   I have an easier time imagining this one working than I do Scarlett as Janet.  But who knows, they may all surprise.

The cast also includes Helen Mirren as Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville, James D’Arcy as Anthony Perkins, and Toni Collette as script supervisor and close Hitchcock collaborator Peggy Robertson.

The movie is set for release in 2013.  A movie with this many A-listers should generate some buzz, lets hope they do the book and the Hitchcock legacy proud!

Paramount Pictures released a blu-ray version of Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief today.

Hitchcock made several films for Paramount in the 1950’s, including some of his most popular titles, but this is the only film in the Hitchcock catalog for which Paramount still retains the rights.

Although the story in this film is slight, it is well worth an HD viewing to appreciate Robert Burks’ Academy Award-winning color cinematography.

All the extra features from the last DVD release are here.  My only complaint is that Paramount included the commentary track by Drew Casper, but not the one by Peter Bogdanovich and Laurent Bouzereau.  I believe their light and easy-going approach to commentary was better suited to what is certainly one of Hitchcock’s lighter films.

There are now 7 titles in the Hitchcock catalog available in the blu-ray format from a major studio.  Universal and Warner Bros. own the rights to most of the major titles that have not yet been released, but word is that several (including The Birds and Dial M For Murder) may see the light of day later this year.  Here’s hoping.  In the meantime enjoy this gorgeous feast for the eyes.

Stay tuned for a review of 1936’s Sabotage.

And why not?  Alfred Hitchcock is arguably the most inflential director in the history of film.  In one of the longest and most prolific directorial careers, Hitchcock directed 53 films in just over half a century, averaging around one  per year.  At least ten of those pictures are bona fide classics, routinely appearing on “best-of” lists around the world.  As of today, Alfred Hitckcock has 11 entries on imdb.com’s top 250 films list.   Alfred Hitchcocks movies, themes and directorial style have influenced countless directors, from Scorsese to Spielberg.  And most importantly, his best films are as entertaining today as they were upon their initial release.

But this is all old news, isn’t it?  I am not writing here to build a case in support of Hitchcock as “The Greatest Director Of All Time.”  Nor do I wish to influence your opinion of his work.  Many enjoy his movies, some do not.  What I will endeavor to do here is review all of Hitchcock’s films, not chronologically or by some best-to-worst ratings system, but simply however I am moved to.   Although I have seen all of Hitchcock’s movies before, I will view them all again for the purpose of this experiment.  My intent is not to write a simple synopsis, but a detailed exploration of the major themes of each movie.  This is aimed primarily at an audience that is familiar with Hitchcock’s pictures on at least a basic level, although I hope to engage newer fans and students of Hitch as well.

I will provide a brief biographical background here;  if you are interested in learning more about the life of Hitchcock, there are numerous biographies available.

Alfred Hitchcock was born in 1899, in a working-class London family.  He was raised a strict Catholic, which may have a bearing on some of the major recurring themes in his films.   Hitchcock joined the film industry around 1920, beginning as a drawer of scenery and title cards. By 1925 he was a full-time director, and would remain so for over 50 years.  He made his mark in the silent film era with films like “The Lodger” (1926).  In the 1930’s came the talkies, and Hitchcock made many remarkable films during this decade, gaining notoriety outside his native England.  In 1940 he was enticed to Hollywood by producer David O. Selznick.  By the late 40’s, Hitchcock had gained creative control of his films, and the 1950’s marked a period of unparalleled critical and commercial success.  The 1960’s saw Hitchcock move from Paramount to Universal, and by the end of the decade Hitchcock’s health and that of his wife Alma Reville, was beginning to fail.  Hitchcock’s last film was 1976’s “Family Plot”.   Alfred Hitchcock died in April, 1980.

hitchcock

(image source: http://www.ovationtv.com/files/large_image_videos/0000/0026/alfred_hitchcock_372×495.jpg)

MAJOR THEMES OF ALFRED HITCHCOCK

Guilt:  The concept of guilt features prominently in virtually every Hitchcock film.  Of course, most all of Hitchcock’s movies deal with the commission of a crime, usually involving murder, so it is not surprising that guilt and innocence would figure in the plot.  But of much greater significance than criminal guilt is psychological guilt:  whether real, imagined or assumed, Hitchcock’s characters often carry this burden, which affects the way they act, and interact.  Hitchcock’s favorite motif is that of the innocent man falsely accused, who must elude capture while trying to find the real perpetrators of a crime or crimes.  The concept of guilt is a theme which works well in movies, because it is universal; even if the specific plot devices are outrageous,  the theme of guilt creates an objective correlative which everyone watching can relate to.

Relationships between men and women:   While you will find a romantic pairing in virtually every Hitchcock film, the characters never have an idyllic Hollywood romance.  Hitchcock tended to emphasize the disparate qualites of the sexes;  there is a always a struggle of some sort occuring between the male and female characters, and only through compromise will they ever find happiness.  The male protagonists in Hitchcock’s movies often find themselves at the mercy of, or dependent upon, their female counterparts, for at least a portion of the action.  The men are emasculated through physical injury, or handcuffs, or by being imprisoned.   By the movies’ climax, the wheel has turned, and our hero will be in a position to help the heroine, or they will be working together to nab the culprits and save the day.   Hitchcock employs much humor in portraying the relationships of his principal characters.

Sex:  Now that I have your attention…sex could easily fall under the male/female realtionship heading, but I make brief mention here because Hitchcock did have sexual references in virtually every film.  Of course these references were seldom overt;  not only because of a strict moral code imposed in earlier times, but because Hitchcock preferred subtle entendre to direct reference.

Voyeurism (audience as voyeur):   Hitchcock was always keenly aware of the role of the audience member as active spectator; the very reason he is called the master of suspense, rather than mystery, is because he liked the audience members to have more information than the protagonist.  Rear Window is almost certainly the greatest film ever made on the subject of voyeurism.

Various:  There are numerous minor themes or motifs that others have noted, that I will mention only briefly here, because I do not see them of great significance.  They may pop up later during discussions of specific films.   Mothers:  usually controlling and cantankerous (with the exception of Patricia Collinge in “Shadow of a Doubt”.  Gentleman scoundrel:  the antagonist is often civilized and genteel, primarily to elicit sympathy from the viewer.  Stairs:  Freudian implications aside, staircases figure prominently in many movies.

So there we have it, a brief overview.  My first movie overview will be posted soon.  What movie shall I start with?

%d bloggers like this: