Tag Archive: Bernard Herrmann


capefear2CAPE FEAR (1962) – Universal – Rating:  ★★★★

B&W – 105 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  Gregory Peck (Sam Bowden), Robert Mitchum (Max Cady), Polly Bergen (Peggy Bowden), Lori Martin (Nancy Bowden), Martin Balsam (Mark Dutton), Jack Kruschen (Dave Grafton), Telly Savalas (Charlie Sievers), Barry Chase (Diane Taylor).

Directed by J. Lee Thompson

Cinematography by Sam Leavitt

Editing by George Tomasini

Music by Bernard Herrmann

Art Direction by Robert Boyle and Alexander Golitzen

Screenplay by James R. Webb

A Hitchcockian thriller:  While filming the movie The Guns of Navarone, Gregory Peck acquired the rights to a book called The Executioners for his newly-formed independent production company.  He asked his Navarone director, J. Lee Thompson, if he would come to Hollywood to make the picture, and Thompson readily agreed.  This was the birth of the movie that would become Cape Fear.  Thompson did not set out to deliberately evoke Hitchcock in his movie, but Cape Fear features an editor, music composer, two art directors, a leading actor and a supporting actor who were all associated with Hitchcock, so it is hard to avoid comparison.  It is not a true Hitchcock movie  in theme or in style, although in camera movements, in economy of shots, in the tightness of the editing, in the evocative score of Bernard Herrmann, it is very Hitchcockian indeed.

The story centers around a prosecuting attorney named Sam Bowden (played by Gregory Peck) a well-respected family man in the prime of life.  All of a sudden, a man from his past appears in town.  Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) spent eight years in prison, primarily because of testimony given by Sam Bowden.  And it quickly becomes clear that Cady blames Bowden, and plans on exacting some kind of revenge.  Cady gradually insinuates himself into the Bowden’s lives, and more importantly into their psyches.  Sam, the law-abiding attorney, tries to use the law to protect himself and his family.  But after the family dog is poisoned, and the daughter Nancy (Lori Martin) is traumatized and struck by a car when she feels Cady is stalking her, Bowden begins to feel helpless within the law.  Cady always seems to stay just this side of the line, keeping himself above prosecution.  And this introduces the major theme of the movie (and the original novel as well):  how far would you be willing to go to protect your family?  If your career, your entire life, is based on upholding the law, and now that law seems to be failing you, would you cross over to the other side?  Would you be willing to commit a crime, even murder, to keep your family safe?  Ultimately, Sam Bowden decides he has no choice but to cross that line, using his own wife (Polly Bergen) and daughter to stake out a trap for Max Cady, which leads to the films finale on the Cape Fear river.

Hitchcockian themes:  Certainly the theme of introducing menace into an idyllic family setting had been explored by Hitchcock, most notably in his brilliant, underrated Shadow of a Doubt.   In that case, the menace comes from within the family, which makes the plot more complex, and twisted.   Another theme in Cape Fear that is frequently seen in Hitchcock is the emasculated male.  Oftentimes in Hitchcock movies, the male protagonist finds himself in a situation where he feels completely helpless.  In Hitchcock, it is often the female protagonist who comes to the rescue.  Think of Rear Window:  Jimmy Stewart is helpless in his wheelchair, it is Grace Kelly who risks life and limb (literally) climbing in the window of the suspected murderer.  At the conclusion of the original The Man Who Knew Too Much,  the father (Leslie Banks) is helpless, trapped inside the house with the criminals.  It is the mother (Edna Best) who snatches a gun from a policeman and shoots the man who is menacing her daughter.   In Cape Fear, we do not have this gender reversal, as Gregory Peck eventually overcomes his feelings of inadequacy and rises to the occasion to protect his family.   As a matter of fact, one minor quibble about Cape Fear is the subtle sexism in some scenes, certainly a product of the time.

This film shares some visual ideas with Hitchcock as well.  First of all in the director’s decision to eschew color photography.  As J. Lee Thompson said “I saw it only in black and white.”  Of course, Hitchcock had made a similar decision the previous year with Psycho, this at a time when black and white films were already beginning to die out.  Of course, both directors used black and white for artistic reasons, and both made the correct decision.   Thompson  used a lot of interplay with light and shadow, something that Hitchcock had employed in a couple of films, most notably The Wrong Man, and portions of Foreign Correspondent (that film’s windmill interior could almost be a Rembrandt painting, in its interplay of light and shadow).  Thompson uses this interplay in a different way however.  He designed a “cage” motif, where Mitchum would frequently be shot looking through the bars of a fence, or a wooden lattice, or tall grass, with shadows lining his face, highlighting his animal as well as his criminal qualities, as if he were in a cage, or a cell.

Mitchum looking through a fence, part of director Thompson’s use of a “cage” motif.

There are other differences as well.  First of all, Cape Fear is more overtly sexual than any film Hitchcock had ever made (or ever would make, with the exception of Frenzy).  Even coming a year after Hitchcock’s Psycho, which had shocked a generation of movie-goers, and broken new ground in what a movie could show, Cape Fear feels almost contemporary in its raw sexuality.  When Max Cady leers at a woman’s backside and says “look at that wiggle”, when he calls the underage Bowden daughter “juicy”, and especially when he breaks the egg over Peggy Bowden and begins to rub the yolk into her cleavage,  one can only imagine the discomfort of an early 60’s audience.  Part of this sexuality comes from the screenplay, certainly;  but a greater part comes from the seemingly effortless portrayal by Mitchum.  One taboo that could not be broached in Cape Fear was the rape of a minor.  It was certainly implied, but the “R” word was off limits.   Sam Bowden says to his wife:  “What would you do if Nancy was…attacked?”  And we all know what he means, but it could not be uttered directly.

Performance:  The performances throughout are stellar.  Gregory Peck is playing his typical stalwart all-American model of virtue, a variation of his Oscar-winning performance as Atticus Finch a couple of years earlier.  Polly Bergen was better known as a singer than an actress, but she is spot-on in the role of Peck’s wife, a role that requires considerable range, and some challenging scenes.  Lori Martin brings the right amount of vulnerability and innocence to the role of the Bowden’s daughter.  And then there’s Robert Mitchum.   He absolutely exudes menace, along with a raw animal lust, sensuality, and brutality.  He was one of the screen’s greatest actors, and this is one of his best performances.  Martin Balsam was one of the greatest character actors to ever grace the screen; he brought a genuine, believable quality to every role he played, and his Chief Dutton is no exception.  And I would be remiss if I did not mention the brilliant Jack Kruschen, a character actor who buried himself in his parts, truly becoming the character.  It’s hard to believe that the man who is playing the shyster southern lawyer Dave Grafton in this movie, is the same man who played the Oscar-nominated Jewish Dr. Dreyfuss (Jack Lemmon’s neighbor) in The Apartment just one year previously.  Telly Savalas and Barry Chase are also solid in early film roles.

Mitchum, Kruschen, Balsam, Peck: four great actors at the peak of their craft.

An Alfred Hitchcock team:  Several people who worked on this film had worked with Hitchcock in the past, which couldn’t help but influence the way the movie was designed, shot, edited and scored.  Let’s take a look at some of these Hitchcock collaborators.

J. Lee Thompson, director:  Thompson got his start at Elstree studios in the late 1930’s, initially hired as a screenwriter.  He also worked as an assistant to David Lean, who at that time was one of Elstree’s premiere film editors.  After this experience he was assigned the job of dialogue coach for Jamaica Inn, Hitchcock’s last British film.  Of this experience, Thompson said

I saw the great master at work…Of course I studied Hitchcock, all his films, very carefully, but it is one of my precious memories that I saw him closely at hand at work.  He had everything plotted down to the last detail, so it wasn’t a matter of actors coming on set and trying to improvise.  He knew exactly what he wanted and,  as he said to himself:  “I could shoot this from  my office, I don’t need to go down on the floor.”  Of course he did, but the theory was he worked out every shot, every move, and he didn’t want any actors’ suggestions.

Robert Boyle, art director:  Of frequent Hitchcock collaborator Bob Boyle, J. Lee Thompson had the following to say:

It was a supreme pleasure to work with him, knowing that I was very much in tune with Hitchcock.  I really had an Alfred Hitchcock team.

George Tomasini, editor:  Thompson said of Hitchcock’s favorite editor that

We worked extremely well together.  We got  the suspense and the right pacing.  He understood that perfectly, obviously having worked with Hitchcock.

Bernard Herrmann, composer:  Of Herrmann’s work on Cape Fear, Thompson explained that  he

said how much he enjoyed it…He kindly compared it to some of Hitchcock’s best films.

Source material:  James R. Webb’s screenplay is based on the novel The Executioners, by John D. MacDonald.  The film follows the basic structure of the book, with a few exceptions.  In the book, the Bowden family has three children, two small boys in addition to the teenage daughter.  The final act of the book takes place at the Bowden family farmhouse, rather than on a river.  There is no river at all in the book.  And Max Cady is killed at the book’s climax.  The basic theme of the novel however, is the same as in the book.

 

Hitchcock connections:  Gregory Peck starred in two films for Alfred Hitchcock:  Spellbound and The Paradine Case.  Martin Balsam had appeared as the detective Arbogast in Psycho.  Edward Platt (who most people will recognize as the Chief from Get Smart) played a judge in one scene in North by Northwest, just as he plays a judge in one scene in this movie.  Editor George Tomasini also cut nine of Hitchcock’s films, including many of his best-known films from the 50’s and 60’s.   Bernard Herrmann famously collaborated with Hitchcock several times, doing some of his best work as a film composer in the process.   Both of the art directors on this film had also worked with Hitchcock before.  Robert Boyle had been involved in several Hitchcock films, including Saboteur and North by Northwest.  And Alexander Golitzen had received an Academy Award nomination for his art direction on Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent.    And last but certainly not least, director J. Lee Thompson was a dialogue coach on Hitchcock’s last British film, Jamaica Inn.

Remake:  Martin Scorsese remade Cape Fear in 1991.  Many moviegoers today are probably more familiar with his version than the original.  As a matter of fact, many people may not even be aware that Scorsese’s version is a remake.  The updated film is definitely worthy of a viewing, and has many admirable updates in plot and execution.   One of the nice touches in the remake is the appearance of Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum in cameos, also with a bit of role reversal (Peck plays the shyster lawyer who represents Cady, while Mitchum plays a police Lieutenant.)  An ailing Martin Balsam also has a cameo.

Definitive edition:  The Universal blu-ray (released in 2013) has a very crisp, clear image.  The two-channel audio really highlights Bernard Herrmann’s score, which sounds great.  The dialogue is discernible, but not as clear as the score.  The blu-ray includes a 28-minute documentary, which features interview footage of both director J. Lee Thompson and star Gregory Peck, reminiscing about the film.  Also included are the original theatrical trailer, and a 5-minute montage of behind-the-scenes and promotional stills, intercut with short clips from the movie.

TORN CURTAIN (1966) – Universal Pictures – Rating:  ★★ 1/2

Color – 128 mins. – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  Paul Newman (Professor Michael Armstrong), Julie Andrews (Sarah Sherman), Lila Kedrova (Countess Kuchinska), Hansjorg Felmy (Heinrich Gerhard), Tamara Toumanova (Ballerina), Wolfgang Kieling (Hermann Gromek), Ludwig Donath (Professor Gustav Lindt), Mort Mills (Farmer/Pi).

 Directed Torn1and produced by Alfred  Hitchcock

 Written by Brian Moore

 Cinematographer:  John F. Warren

 Editor:  Bud Hoffman

 Original Music:  John Addison

 

 

Torn Curtain begins with one Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite techniques:  a brief montage of images, with no dialogue, that perfectly sets the scene.  Hitchcock used this type of wordless opening montage in numerous films, including Sabotage, Dial M For Murder, and Rear Window.  So three minutes into the movie, we know we are on a ship that is hosting an assembly of scientists;  we know the ship is freezing cold;  and we know a certain pair are missing from breakfast, because they are in bed together.  And these of course are the stars, Professor Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman), and his assistant and fiancee Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews).   This set-up is quite good;  Hitchcock is on familiar ground.  Unfortunately, the movie soon begins to labor under the weight of its own plot.

Of the film’s structure, Hitchcock said  “…the first third of the film is more or less from a woman’s point of view…”, meaning that the audience is seeing things as Julie Andrews’ character sees them.  This is perhaps the weakest part of the movie.  After a solid set-up, we learn that Michael is keeping something from Sarah.   Michael receives a mysterious telegram on the ship.  Later, in Copenhagen, he receives a book that contains a coded message.  He then tells Sarah that he must leave Copenhagen that night, alone.  He is terse, uncommunicative, and dismissive.  Later Sarah learns that he has a plane ticket to East Berlin, to which she utters the almost laughingly trite line “But – that’s behind the Iron Curtain.”  Oh, brother!   Screenwriter Keith Waterhouse later called this “an immortally bad line” and despite his and his partner’s pleading “…Hitchcock steadfastly refused to modify the line, not even to the extent of getting rid of the superfluous ‘but’ and its hesitant dash.”

Julie Andrews utters the worst line of dialogue in the movie.

Julie Andrews utters the worst line of dialogue in the movie.

She buys a ticket on the same plane, without Michael knowing about it, and follows him to East Berlin, where he announces his intentions to defect to the communist bloc and share his knowledge of American rocketry.  It is abundantly clear to the audience at this point that Newman’s character can’t be a real defector.  I’m not sure which is more implausible:  that his fiancee and confidante would not be able to see this, or that he would keep such a secret from the most important person in his life, especially now that she is in jeopardy.   This lapse in logic causes the whole early portion of the film to suffer.  Fortunately though, the middle third of the movie is the strongest portion by far.  It shifts to Paul Newman’s point of view.  Now the viewer will see the action from his point of view.

First, the couple has a discussion in an East Berlin hotel room.  This is shot from a distance, all in one take;  the staging is rather like that of a play, and makes the viewer feel like an interloper in the characters’ private lives.  It is gorgeously shot, as described by Hitchcock:

“There was one very effective sequence in the film that I purposely played entirely in long shot.  It took place in that East Berlin hotel room where we had the evening sun shining in – just a faint yellow shaft of warm sunlight; the rest was that awful heavy brown, a mood effect.  That sequence represents very close coordination between the visual conceptions of the production designer and the cameraman.  The lighting, and the color of the light, work in relationship to the somber tones of the room.”

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A shot from a masterfully constructed sequence. The beautiful lighting makes this look almost like a painting.

Professor Armstrong has been assigned a security detail named Gromek, played by the German actor Wolfgang Kieling.  Gromek is the most interesting character in the movie;  he makes the most of every moment he is on screen.  Armstrong wants to give Gromek the slip; he leaves his hotel with the German agent in pursuit.  Armstrong goes to an art museum, where we see a silent chase through vast rooms displaying works of art, the only sound the clopping of shoes on the tiled floor.    These scenes were filmed by shooting the actors walking, while most of the walls and works of art were added in later as a matte painting done by the masterful Albert Whitlock.  These shots hold up very well today;  overall the sequence is quite good.

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Armstrong exits out a side door and takes a taxi to a farm in the countryside, where he meets with an American agent (played by Mort Mills) nicknamed Pi.  Unfortunately, he was followed by Gromek, and is trapped in the small farmhouse with Gromek and the wife of the agent.  Here follows the best sequence in the movie.  Now Gromek knows that Armstrong is a double agent, so Gromek must be killed.  But it must be done quietly, because the taxi driver is outside the window.  Hitchcock describes the sequence:

“In doing that long killing scene, my first thought again was to avoid the cliche.  In every picture somebody gets killed and it goes very quickly.  They are stabbed or shot, and the killer never even stops to look and see whether the victim is really dead or not.  And I thought it was time to show that it was very difficult, very painful, and it takes a long time to kill a man.”

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The killing of Gromek, the best sequence in the movie.

 

After Gromek is killed, Armstrong knows is time is limited.  The final third of the film focuses on Armstrong meeing with a German scientist in Leipzig to pry some information from him;  then on his and Sarah’s attempt to escape East Germany and get to Sweden and safety.  This last section of the film is inconsistent.  While the first third of the film was marred by implausible plot points, it is technical details that help to weaken the final third.  There is a scene in which Armstrong finally tells Sarah that he is not really defecting, that he is a double agent working for America.  This scene is shot on a hilltop, and we don’t hear the dialogue.  Hitchcock used this effective technique in a few movies;  when the audience already has the knowledge that the character doesn’t, he lets the expository dialogue play out of earshot;  we more or less know what is being said.   Unfortunately, this otherwise well-constructed sequence is marred by set design.  It is painfully obvious that this “hillside” was shot on a soundstage.  Had he chosen to shoot this scene at an exterior location, it would have been one of the most powerful, moving scenes in the movie.  Julie Andrews is quite good here. For most of his career Hitchcock was the master of special effects and trick shots;  he was an innovator even in the silent film days.  How could he let a shot like this stand?  Did the artificiality not bother him?  It tends to take the audience out of the film.

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The artificial setting detracts from an otherwise well-constructed scene.

 

After this the couple are secreted away on a bus to meet a contact in East Berlin.  The bus is a fake city bus, running just moments ahead of the real bus, and the passengers all Germans with anti-communist sentiment, risking their lives.  This sequence should have been one of the highlights of the movie;  it is certainly written and structured in a way designed to build tension over several minutes.  Unfortunately, the tension is lessened again for a technical reason.  The bus is so obviously on a soundstage, with screens outside the windows projecting images of passing countryside and vehicles.  Hitchcock explains:  “I’m not happy with the technical quality of the transparencies for that scene.  For economy reasons I had the background plates shot by German cameramen, but we should have sent an American crew over.”

Again, how did Hitchcock let this slip by?  Shouldn’t he have looked at the footage sooner, while there was time to shoot replacement film?  The clearly artificial quality of these shots deflates the tension from what would have been a great sequence.

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Later the couple meet a bizarre lady who calls herself Countess Kuchinska (played by Lila Kedrova, who had recently won an Oscar for her role in Zorba the Greek).   Hitchcock really enjoyed working with Kedrova, and the sequence is somewhat effective but longer than it needed to be.  Eventually our couple are sent to a ballet, from which they will be secreted out of the country on a ship bound for Sweden.  They find themselves trapped in a crowded room, another favorite Hitchcock motif used in several movies, from The 39 Steps to Saboteur to North by Northwest.  They just manage to evade capture and make it to Sweden.  We leave them as we found them, snuggled under a blanket.

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Lila Kedrova as the Countess Kuchinska, with our hero and heroine.

Performance:  Paul Newman and Julie Andrews are both solid in their own way, but lack a strong screen chemistry.  At times they seem to be characters visiting one another from different movies.  Early in production, Newman sent Alfred Hitchcock a three-page memo outlining some ideas and concerns he had about the script.  This was really off-putting to Hitchcock, who never replied to the memo, and had a very reserved relationship with the actor.  Many of the supporting characters, most of them European actors, were quite good, adding some needed life and vibrancy to the movie.

A lost scene (Gromek’s brother):  Alfred Hitchcock shot a sequence for the movie which would have occured shortly after the killing of Gromek.  Professor Armstrong stops at a German canteen and meets a man who looks a lot like the man he just killed.  This man is Gromek’s brother, and the part is played by Wolfgang Kieling, the same actor who played Gromek.  He asks Armstrong to deliver some sausage to his brother, which he proceeds to cut with a knife very like the one that Gromek was stabbed with.    This scene, rife with Hitchcock’s typical dark humor, sounds fantastic.  Hitchcock said of it:  “It’s quite effective.  In fact, very good.  I dropped it from the final film because the film was too long…the actor who played Gromek was very good.  I had him completely transformed for the brother’s role.”  Once again, Hitchcock’s judgment went awry;  he cut a scene which by his own admission was “very good” because the film was “too long”?  Why not cut a sequence that was not “very good”?  The Countess Kuchinska sequence definitely could have been trimmed.

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A shot from the deleted scene featuring Paul Newman as Professor Armstrong, and Wolfgang Kieling as Gromek’s brother.

Farewell, Bernard Herrmann:  Hitchcock began this movie having lost two of his most important collaborators,  editor George Tomasini and cinematographer Bob Burks.  He would lose another one during post production.   Bernard Herrmann, who had composed the film score for seven Hitchcock movies, was hired to score this film as well.  Hitchcock told Herrmann he wanted something different, explaining in a telegram “This audience is very different from the one to which we used to cater it is young vigorous and demanding.”  It seems to me that Hitchcock should have heeded his own advice;  nonetheless, Herrmann promised to deliver the type of score that Hitchcock was asking for.  But when it came time to hear it, Hitchcock didn’t like it at all.  Herrmann stormed off;  he later claimed he quit, while Hitchcock claimed he was fired.  Whatever the reason, one of the greatest parternships between film composer and director was ended;  they would never speak again.

Recurring players:  Because Hitchcock recruited many European actors for this movie, he did not employ many people that he had previously worked with.  William Yetter, Sr. had also been an extra in Foreign Correspondent.  And Mort Mills, who plays the agent named Pi, had earlier appeared in Psycho as the highway patrolman who follows Marion Crane early in the movie.

Where’s Hitch?  Alfred Hitchcock wrote a memo detailing his cameo for this movie:  “I should be seen sitting in an armchair in the lounge with a nine month old baby on my knee and I’m looking around rather impatiently for the mother to come back.  This impatience could be underscored by shifting the baby from one knee to the other, and then with the free hand, surreptitiously wiping the thigh.”  This is exactly how the cameo was shot, and begins at about the 8:18 mark, early in the movie.

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Hitchcock on the set, providing direction during the Gromek killing.

The resolution:  Alfred Hitchcock began shooting this film with a screenplay that was not up to his usual standards.   Everybody recognized this (Paul Newman later said “We all knew we had a loser on our hands”), but they all soldiered on.  Despite the flaws in the screenplay, the film could have been better than it is.   Hitchcock could have recognized and corrected some of the technical faults in the picture.  He could have trimmed a couple of overlong sequences, and left intact a scene that by his own admission was “very good.”   How could Hitchcock be so right in some instances, and so very wrong in others?  It would make more sense if the whole film was a disaster;  it most certainly is not.   This film is ultimately a mix of a few very good moments, and many forgettable ones.   Losing so many important collaborators had to impact him; he was reeling from numerous losses.  The film made a meager profit of $1.5 million, which was a bona fide flop, especially considering the director and the two stars.  The reviews were harsh;  some suggested that Hitchcock had lost his touch.  Unfortunately for Hitch, things would get worse before they got better.

Definitive edition:  Universal’s 2012 blu-ray is the best looking and sounding version of this movie available.  John Warren’s cinematography looks quite good.  The blu-ray contains a 32 minute documentary called “Torn Curtain Rising”, which is rather poor.  Unlike most of the other documentaries on the Universal Hitchcock movies, this one features no interviews with cast or crew members.  I have heard Julie Andrews discuss this movie many times, as recently as last year;  surely she would have participated if asked?  Instead we get some bland narrator taking us through the film and offering an apologist’s view of its faults and strengths.  Also included are 14 minutes of Bernard Herrmann’s musical cues, which he wrote before leaving the project to be replaced by John Addison.  Again, Universal dropped the ball here.  Herrmann scored much more of the movie than 14 minutes.  Why not include all of his cues, which I personally feel are better suited to the material than Addison’s.  Also included are production photographs and the theatrical trailer.

 

 

NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) – MGM – Rating: ★★★★★

Color – 136 mins. – 1.66:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  Cary Grant (Roger Thornhill), Eva Marie Saint (Eve Kendall), James Mason (Philip VanDamm), Martin Landau (Leonard),  Jessie Royce Landis (Clara Thornhill), Leo G Carroll (The Professor), Edward Platt (Victor Larrabee), Edward Binns (Captain Junket).

Produced by Alfred Hitchcock, Associate Producer Herbert Coleman

Screenplay by Ernest Lehman

Director of Photography:  Robert Burks

Editor:  George Tomasini

Original musical score:  Bernard Herrmann

Production Design:  Robert Boyle

Title sequence designed by Saul Bass

Alfred Hitchcock’s film output during his first two decades in America is astonishing, especially by today’s standards.  Between 1940 and 1959, Hitchcock directed 23 feature-length films, an average of one film every 11 months.  If that is not impressive enough, during this same time period he still found time to direct 14 episodes of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show, 2 TV shows for other anthology programs, and several short propaganda pieces during World War II.  He also recorded his personal opening and closing remarks for 167 episodes of his television program, as well as doing extensive pre-production on several film projects that never came to fruition.   Whew!   I’m exhausted just listing his accomplishments.

So at any given time during this period, it was not uncommon for Hitch to be working on up to three different projects simultaneously.  In the summer of 1956, he was going on a promotional tour for The Wrong Man, which he had just finished filming.  His next planned film was to be Flamingo Feather, but this movie was scrapped after already being announced in the trades as a Hitchcock feature to star James Stewart.   This meant that Vertigo, which was in the screenwriting phase, was moved up to be Hitch’s next feature.  And what would follow Vertigo?

MGM was in turmoil at this time.  At one time Hollywood’s most prestigious studio, MGM had just fired Dore Schary as studio head and stockholders were in a panic.  MGM began courting Hitchcock; if the studio could announce a future Hitchcock film, shareholders would be pacified.  So Hitchcock was hired to direct The Wreck of the Mary Deare for MGM upon completion of Vertigo at Paramount.

Hitchcock hired Ernest Lehman to write a screenplay for Mary Deare, but Lehman was struggling with the adaptation.  He wanted to quit the project, but Hitchcock told him they would just shelve that screenplay and create something original together.  And that original screenplay, which was born out of Hitchcock’s desire to stage a chase scene atop Mt. Rushmore, would become North by Northwest.  

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An image from the iconic Saul Bass title sequence.

North by Northwest begins with a burst of kinetic energy;  Saul Bass’ title sequence, a series of intersecting diagonal lines which become the side of a Madison Avenue skyscraper, meld with Bernard Herrmann’s driving music.  The skyscraper image is followed by a montage of people in motion, and the title sequence ends with Hitchcock himself missing a bus.  The message is clear;  the viewer had better keep up, or be left behind.  When we first see Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill he is stepping out of an elevator, walking and talking.  This film begins as if we are joining a movie already in progress.  There is no slow build, no exposition to set the scene;  that will come later.  Just a few short minutes into the movie Thornhill (Grant) has been kidnapped in a case of mistaken identity.  A group of spies have mistaken him for George Kaplan, a government agent.   The ringleader of the spies is Philip VanDamm, played by the impeccable James Mason.   Mason questions Roger Thornhill at a large Long Island estate, then has his henchmen (led by a young Martin Landau in the role of Leonard) get him drunk and put him behind the wheel of a car, planning to drive the car off of a cliff.

 

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Cary Grant is interrogated by Martin Landau and an amused James Mason.

Roger Thornhill manages to escape his would-be assassins and ends up in the hands of the police.  We soon meet Roger’s mother, played by Jessie Royce Landis.   Landis had played Grace Kelly’s mother in the Hitchcock film To Catch A Thief, and she and Cary Grant established a great rapport in that movie, so it was natural to pair them together again.   (Many sources have cited that Landis does a great job in this movie, despite the fact that the actress is too young to be Grant’s mother.   Many people have even said they are the same age, or that Landis is younger than Grant.  Let’s put this spurious tale to rest now.  Jessie Royce Landis was born on November 25, 1896, while Grant was born on January 18, 1904.  So while it is true that Landis is not old enough to be Grant’s biological mother, she is over seven years older).

Thornhill begins a search for the man he was mistaken for, George Kaplan, believing that he will hold the answers to this mystery, and his mother accompanies him as he begins his search.  Soon enough the spies are hot on his tail again, and he is framed for a murder.  Now public enemy number one, he sneaks aboard the 20th Century Limited train en route to Chicago, and meets Eve Kendall, played by Eva Marie Saint.  It is interesting to note that Saint, the leading lady, does not make her entrance until the 44th minute of the film.  And once she makes an appearance, Jessie Royce Landis does not appear in the film anymore, nor is she referenced.   So Cary Grant’s character is under the thumb of his mother in the beginning section, and that female control transfers to Eva Marie Saint for the duration of the film.

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Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant are essentially having sex with their clothes on; this is about as sexually charged a scene as Hitchcock ever shot.

This next section of the movie, as Grant and Saint converse in the train’s dining car, then later rendezvous in Saint’s sleeping compartment, are some of the most sexually charged scenes in 1950’s cinema.  Screenwriter Ernest Lehman’s dialogue walks a subtle line, but there is nothing subtle in the way that Eva Marie Saint looks at Cary Grant; it is a bold and brazen seduction.  By the end of the train sequence, the audience knows a few things that Roger Thornhill does not.  Hitchcock typically liked to give the viewer information that the protagonist lacks.  So by this point the viewer knows that George Kaplan does not exist, and that Eve Kendall is somehow associated with James Mason and the spies.  Things are looking rather hopeless for Roger Thornhill.

Eve Kendall sends Thornhill to a supposed meeting with Kaplan on a deserted Indiana highway, where he faces another assassination attempt.  The crop duster sequence is not only one of Hitchcock’s greatest triumphs, but one of the most memorable scenes in film history.  Couldn’t these spies think of less elaborate ways to kill someone?  It certainly seems like a lot of trouble to go to, sending a man to the middle of nowhere, so he can be gunned down by a crop dusting plane.  Of course, within the confines of the movie, the viewer does not question the logic of the scene, in part because of the movie’s frenetic pace.  Every scene seems a logical follow up to the preceding scene.  ( I will do a deconstruction of the crop duster sequence in my next blog entry.)

download (1)This sequence marks a pivotal change in the movie; up to now Roger Thornhill has been a victim of circumstances beyond his control.   He has been emasculated and manipulated like a pawn.  He does not yet understand how all the pieces fit together, but he does know that he can only rely on himself if he wishes to survive.  This sets up another fantastic sequence which takes place in a Chicago auction hall, where Roger Thornhill confronts Eve Kendall, VanDamm, and Leonard.    VanDamm is standing behind Eve, with a hand on her shoulder, as if he is clutching a possession.  At one point in conversation, VanDamm asks Eve if Thornhill was in her hotel room, to which Thornhill replies “Sure, isn’t everyone?”  Hitchcock then cuts to a close up of VanDamm slowly removing his hand from Eve, which is as telling as any dialogue could be.  Once again it seems that Roger Thornhill will be captured and killed, and once again he uses his wits to escape.

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Cary Grant’s character is beginning to assert himself, and now it is Eva Marie Saint who feels like a pawn as the two men tower over her, discussing her as if she were an object.

 

Finally Roger Thornhill meets an American intelligence officer known as the Professor, (Leo G. Carroll), who fills in the blanks for Thornhill.  He now realizes that Eve is working for the Americans, and he realizes that he has put her at risk.  This sets up the final sequence of events at Mount Rushmore, which involves much duplicity amongst the leading characters, until finally Thornhill and Grant are fleeing for their lives on the monument itself.  Hitchcock was not allowed to film on the monument, so this sequence was made with some gorgeous process shots that combine matte painting with a scale model of the Rushmore faces that was build at MGM.  The film ends as it began, in motion, and finally the audience can catch its collective breath.

Themes:  One of the reasons that North by Northwest is such an iconic film is because it contains all of Hitchcock’s major themes.  First and foremost is the innocent man falsely accused of a crime, who is trying to find the real conspirators while staying one step ahead of the police.   He had already filmed variations of this theme several times (The 39 Steps, Young and Innocent, Saboteur), and while those are all good films, this movie can be seen as the culmination of his life’s work.  Other prominent Hitchcock themes present in this movie include the icy blonde leading lady;  the domineering mother; and the debonair gentleman antagonist.   There are a handful of Hitchcock films that feature a hint of homosexuality, and there is a slight element of that here in Martin Landau’s character Leonard.  Late in the film he utters the line “Call it my woman’s intuition.”  And James Mason’s character accuses him of being jealous.  There is certainly a suggestion here that Leonard’s feelings for his boss went beyond the professional.

Hitchcock and the censors:  Alfred Hitchcock delighted in sneaking sexual subtext past the film censors, and he succeeded many times in his career.  There is one line of dialogue in this movie that the censors would not approve, however.  When Eva Marie Saint is talking to Cary Grant in the dining car, the original line of dialogue was “I never make love on an empty stomach.”  This was unacceptable to the censors, so the line was looped to say “I never discuss love on an empty stomach.”  If you watch Eva Marie’s lips, you can clearly see the dialogue does not sync up.  It doesn’t really matter what she said, though, because the tone of her voice, the way she looks at Cary Grant, the way she pulls his hand towards her to light her cigarette, are as blatantly sexual as a major movie scene could be shot at the time.

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Hitchcock also delighted in the final shot of the movie, which did not appear in the screenplay;  it was Hitch’s own invention.  As Cary Grant pulls Eva Marie Saint into the upper berth bed on the train, Hitchcock cuts outside, to a shot of a train entering a tunnel, which was a not-too-subtle mimicking of the act of sexual penetration.  Hitchcock was very proud of this shot, telling the story many times.

Hitchcock and final cut:  At two hours and sixteen minutes, this is the longest film of Hitchcock’s entire career.  But it certainly doesn’t seem like it;  the fast pace, the constant shift in location, and the witty dialogue ensure that the movie never lags.  A couple of Hitchcock’s later pictures certainly feel longer (I’m talking about you, Torn Curtain and Topaz).   But MGM had reservations about the movie’s length at the time.  They wanted him to cut one sequence in particular:  when Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint meet in the woods after she has pretended to kill him, and they say their goodbyes.  Hitchcock believed the scene was necessary, and after getting reassurances from his lawyer that the “final cut” clause of his contract was ironclad, he respecfully told the studio that he would not cut a frame.  In the end, North by Northwest was the highest-grossing film of Hitchcock’s career to date, a massive hit with critics and audiences.  This is one time where the master was right to stand his ground.

Performance:  Every single performance in this film is spot-on, from the leads to the minor supporting characters.  Cary Grant would remain very proud of this film until he died, and justifiably so.  James Mason was so good as the bad guy, it has been suggested that his character was the prototype for a generation of James Bond villians to follow. Eva Marie Saint showed as much range as any female lead in the Hitchcock canon.

Academy awards:  North by Northwest received three Oscar nominations:  best original screenplay, Ernest Lehman;  best film editing, George Tomasini; and best Art Direction – Color.   It was another MGM picture that was the big winner at the 1960 Academy Awards – Ben-Hur.  That film would dominate the night, winning 11 total Oscars.  While it is hard to argue with Ben-Hur  in the editing category, I honestly feel like North by Northwest got robbed in the Color Art Direction category.  The sets in this movie are simply sublime, to the extent that they influenced many films that followed.

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Recurring players:  Cary Grant had also appeared in Suspicion, Notorious and To Catch A Thief.  Jessie Royce Landis had worked with Cary Grant in To Catch A Thief.  Leo G. Carroll appeared in more Hitchcock movies than any other actor, including Rebecca, Suspicion, Spellbound, The Paradine Case, and Strangers on a Train.  Malcolm Atterbury would later appear in The Birds.  Sara Berner, Len Hendry and Jesslyn Fax had been in Rear Window.  Tommy Farrell and Robert Williams were in Strangers on a Train.   Kenner G. Kemp had appeared in The Paradine Case, and would later be in Marnie.  Doreen Lang was also in The Wrong Man and The Birds.  Alexander Lockwood was in Saboteur and Family Plot.  Frank Marlow had also been in Saboteur and Notorious.  Howard Negley and Frank Wilcox were also in Notorious.  Jeffrey Sayre was also an extra in Saboteur, Notorious, and Vertigo.  Bert Stevens was in The Paradine Case and Marnie.  Harry Strang and Dale Van Sickel were in Saboteur. 

Where’s Hitch?  Hitchcock’s cameo in this movie is impossible to miss, coming at the end of the title sequence.  At about the 2:09 mark, just as his director’s credit disappears from the screen, Hitchcock attempts to board a bus, which closes the door in his face and pulls away without him.

What the actors said:  Eva Marie Saint said that Hitchcock only gave her three simple instructions for her character:  “Lower my voice; don’t use my hands; and look directly at Cary Grant in my scenes with him, look right into his eyes.  From that, I conjured up in my mind the kind of lady he saw this woman as.”

Cary Grant, speaking of his relationship with Hitchcock, said that “Hitch and I had a rapport and understanding deeper than words.”

James Mason admitted that he enjoyed Hitchcock’s movies and found him a charming man, but admitted that he thought Hitch as a director used actors like “animated props.”

What Hitch said:  I’ll include some in-depth comments from Hitchcock in my next entry, about the crop-duster sequence.

Definitive edition:  Warner Brothers blu-ray, released in 2009, is the best version available.  First of all, the VistaVision transfer is breathtaking.   This may be the best looking of all of Hitchcock’s films on blu-ray.  The soundtrack is high quality as well.  The blu-ray includes a feature-length (1 hr. 27 min.) documentary about the leading man called Cary Grant:  A Class Apart, as well as three other documentaries:  The Master’s Touch:  Hitchcock’s Signature Style (57 mins.), Destination Hitchcock:  The Making of North by Northwest (39 mins.) and North by Northwest:  One For the Ages (25 mins.)   Also included is a commentary track with screenwriter Ernest Lehman, a stills gallery, two theatrical trailers, one hosted by Hitchcock, and a TV spot.

 

 

THE Mman1956sevenAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956) – Paramount – Rating:  ★★★

Color – 120 mins. – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  James Stewart (Dr. Ben McKenna), Doris Day (Jo McKenna), Christopher  Olsen (Hank McKenna), Bernard Miles (Edward Drayton), Brenda De Banzie (Lucy  Drayton), Daniel Gelin (Louis Bernard), Reggie Nalder (Rien).

Associate Producer:  Herbert Coleman

Written by John Michael Hayes, from a story by Charles Bennett and D.B. Wyndham-Lewis

Cinematography by Robert Burks

Edited by George Tomasini

Original Music by Bernard Herrmann

Costume Designer:  Edith Head

Art Direction by Hal Pereira and Henry Bumstead

Why would an A-list director like Alfred Hitchcock choose to remake one of his own films?  He certainly wasn’t the only high-profile director in the “golden age” of film to do so:  Frank Capra, Cecil B. DeMille, Howard Hawks and John Ford all directed remakes of earlier films in their catalogs.  It may have been producer David O. Selznick who first planted the seed in Hitchcock’s mind.   As early as 1941, Selznick told Hitchcock that he thought The Man Who Knew Too Much would be a good film to remake.  Hitchcock (who was under contract to Selznick at the time), actually began writing a new treatment of the story with John Houseman, but nothing ever came of it.

Fast-forward about 13 years.  Hitchcock was in the midst of his prolific run at Paramount Pictures in the mid 50’s.  He had cranked out 3 films in less than two years, all penned by screenwriter John Michael Hayes.   He owed Paramount one more movie, after which he had to fulfill a contractual obligation to Warner Brothers for a movie.  Hitchcock already knew what movie he was going to make for Warner Brothers:  The Wrong Man.  But what movie would he first make for Paramount?  A remake of  The Man Who Knew Too Much, also written by Hayes.

The basic plot of this remake is the same as in the original film.  The McKenna family, on vacation in an exotic locale, witness a murder, and the dying victim imparts vague knowledge of an upcoming assassination attempt.  The child in this family is kidnapped, to prevent the parents from disclosing what they know to the police.   So the parents set out to find their missing child on their own.

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This film can be divided neatly into two parts:  the first 49 or so minutes, which take place in Marrakesh, Morocco, and set up the murder and kidnapping; and the latter 71 minutes, which take place in London.  The first section is by far the weaker of the two;  the pace is at times drearily slow.  Consider that Hitchcock’s original version of this movie took less than 15 minutes to shift the action to London, and this version takes over three times as long.   There are two separate story threads at work in this first section of the movie.  The overlying one introduces us to Ben and Jo McKenna (played by Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day), and their son Hank (Christopher Olsen), travelling in Marrakesh.   The McKennas have several mysterious encounters, first with a man on a bus named Louis Bernard;  later outside their hotel where a woman appears to be staring at Jo; and finally with a rather odd-looking man who “accidentally” knocks on their hotel room door.   The attempt to slowly build up suspense has some nice touches, but overall it takes far too long to get going.  Even attempts at humor don’t always work;  much is made of Ben McKenna’s ignorance of (and annoyance with) eating customs in a traditional Moroccan restaurant.  Yet he has earlier stated that he was in Morocco during the war.  Certainly he would have observed some of the local customs?   The underlying storyline is far more interesting, and this focuses on the state of the McKennas’ marriage.

John Michael Hayes often focused in his screenplays on the difficulties in relationships, how sacrifices must be made for any relationship to succeed.   His screenplays often have men and women from different worlds, who have seemingly irreconcilable differences in career and hobbies.  The best example of this is in Rear Window, in which Jimmy Stewart’s character deflects all talk of marriage with the incredibly sublime Grace Kelly, because of their different jobs and social standing.  The movie ending hints at a possible compromise.  One could  argue that the McKennas in The Man Who Knew Too Much are a logical progression of the couple from Rear Window.  Ben McKenna is a successful doctor in Indianapolis, Jo is an accomplished singer on the Broadway stage, who gave up her career for her husband.    And thus is established a theme of patriarchal dominance (as pointed out by Steven DeRosa in his informative book “Writing with Hitchcock”) which is rather on point for mid-1950’s America, and might have made more than a few movie-going couples squirm in their seats a little.

There are a dozen examples of dialogue in the opening section of the movie that point to the frayed edges in the McKennas’ marriage, and most of them are written with the subtlety and humor that were Hayes’ trademark as a writer.   Jo questions why Ben couldn’t be a doctor in New York, so she could appear on Broadway.  She asks him when they will have another child, which clearly blindsides him.  When their son Hank is getting ready for bed and sings the line “When I was just a little boy, I asked my mother what would I be?” the McKennas exchange a knowing glance.  Clearly Ben wants his son to follow in his footsteps as a doctor, while Jo, by encouraging Hank’s singing, has other ideas.

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The male dominance established in the film’s early sequence is not always so subtle.  In the movies most disturbing scene, (and one of the most disturbing scenes in all of Hitchcock), Ben McKenna forces his wife to take a sedative before he tells her that their son has been kidnapped.   By modern sensibilities this goes beyond patronizing.  But I find it hard to believe that a 1950’s audience would have been any less disturbed.  Doris Day’s performance in this scene is gut-wrenching and unforgettable.   But as is usually the case with Hitchcock scripts, the male lead will be emasculated later on, and it is the female who will save the day.

As soon as the story transitions to London, the pace quickens, and this latter half of the movie is far better.  The McKennas work (first separately, then together) to locate their kidnapped child, with the major set piece of the film being the assassination attempt at the Royal Albert Hall, just as in the original version.  ( I will focus on a comparison between the Royal Albert Hall sequences in a later entry.)  It is Doris Day who prevents the assassination, by screaming to throw off the shooter’s aim.  And again it is Doris Day who uses her singing to attract the attention of her child in the movie’s final sequence.

Six minutes of self-indulgence:  In one of the movies better sequences, Jimmy Stewart’s character goes in search of a man named Ambrose Chapell, not realizing that the name refers to a place, not a person.  After a brilliant set-up, and escalation of tension, the sequence moves into a taxidermy shop (which seems to specialize in exotic animals),  where we quickly realize that Ben McKenna is not in the right place.  Further, his rather bizarre and disturbing dialogue alarms the shopkeepers (it sounds as if McKenna is proposing that they stuff a dead person!)  Clearly they think McKenna is a madman.   There is much jostling around, before McKenna flees.  This sequence ultimately serves no purpose in advancing the plot;  it exists only for it’s own sake.  The sole purpose is some comic relief, to deflate the building tension.  Hitchcock enjoyed sequences like this.  He once likened movies to riding a roller coaster, in that you have to give the audience ups and downs.

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Performance:  Jimmy Stewart is adequate in this film, but not nearly as strong as he was in both Rear Window and Vertigo.  He does have several good moments.  Doris Day, who is a polar opposite of the typical Hitchcock heroine, was astounding in this role.  She gives an outstanding performance.   Christopher Olsen has little to do in his role as Hank, and what he does is mostly forgettable.  In Hitchcock movies, it is female children that are given interesting and memorable roles.  Male children, as in this movie,  are used for comic relief more than anything.  Bernard Miles does a decent job as Drayton, the leader of the gang, but he is no Peter Lorre.   Brenda De Banzie does a very good job as Mrs. Drayton, especially as her maternal feelings begin to show in the later portion of the film.

Recurring players:  Jimmy Stewart appeared also in Rope, Rear Window and Vertigo.  Patrick Aherne was in The Paradine Case.  For trivia buffs, Frank Atkinson appeared in both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much (in the first he is the policeman shot behind the mattress, in this one he works in the taxidermy shop) as well as Young and Innocent.   Betty Bascomb is the only other person to appear in both versions (in the original she gives up her room for the two policemen, in this one she is Edna, the glasses-wearing kidnapper).  I think Betty Bascomb is also in Sabotage;  she is not credited on imdb, but I am almost certain that the girl in the aquarium is her.   And of course Bess Flowers, the Queen of the Hollywood extras (who appeared in more movies than anyone in film history), was also in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Notorious, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, To Catch  a Thief, Vertigo, and North by Northwest.   Gladys Holland, Louis Mercier and Edward Manouk were also in To Catch a Thief.  Anthony Warde also had an uncredited role in Rear Window.

Where’s Hitch?  At the 25:40 mark, Alfred Hitchcock can be seen in the crowd of people in the marketplace, watching the performers.  He is to the left of the screen, seen from the rear.

Academy awards:  This movie was the winner of one Oscar in 1957, for best Original Song:  “Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera)”.   This was the only nomination the movie received.  Hitchcock was at first opposed to the use of a song, but the studio felt that it would be a missed opportunity to cast Doris Day in the lead and not have her sing.  Alfred Hitchcock was pleasantly surprised with the song penned by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, which became a hit record after the release of the movie.

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What Hitch said:  In comparing this remake to his original film, Hitchcock said “Let’s say the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional.”

Definitive edition:   The 2012 Universal blu-ray is by far the best-looking print of this movie available.   That being said, it is not a fantastic print.  There are some problem areas with the movie, where some colors will shift over the course of a scene (particularly skin tone).  On the other hand, some scenes are absolutely gorgeous.  The VistaVision process allowed for amazing image clarity and color separation.    Perhaps a true restoration will be done at some point, but in the meantime, this is as good as it gets.  The soundtrack is a two-track mono, and sounds very good.  Also included is a 34-minute making-of documentary, production photographs, and two trailers.

 

 

saulbassGraphic designer Saul Bass was born on May 8, 1920, making this year the 94th anniversary of his birth (Bass died in 1996).   Before we look at the Bass/Hitchcock connection,  let’s take a look at what made Bass’s career so memorable.

You may have never heard the name Saul Bass before, but you are definitely familiar with his work.  Bass designed dozens of corporate logos, many of which became iconic over time.   Everything from the AT&T “bell” logo, to the Warner Brothers’ “W” logo, and many others that you would instantly recognize, all were created by Saul Bass.

Take a look at the following corporate logos, all designed by Saul Bass.  How many do you recognize?  This is just a small portion of his total output over a 40 year career.

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Saul Bass was so good at marrying a logo to a brand, creating “brand recognition”, that it was only a matter of time before Hollywood came calling, asking Bass to design movie posters.  Saul Bass designed dozens of iconic movie posters over a span of 4 decades.  Let’s take a look at just a few of his many memorable posters, including three that he designed for Alfred Hitchcock.

SaulBassVertigoSaulBassPsychoSaulBassBirds

 

 

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Saul Bass’ most significant contribution to movies was not his iconic posters, however, but his title sequences.  Movie directors began approaching Bass in the 1950’s to create innovative and memorable opening title sequences for films.  Bass’ first title sequence was for the 1954 movie “Carmen Jones”, and his last was for Martin Scorsese’s 1990 release “Casino.”   Within that 36-year span Saul Bass created many ground-breaking title sequences.  It is not an understatement to say that Bass single-handedly changed movie title sequences.

This is what Saul Bass had to say about creating a title sequence:  “My initial thoughts about what a title can do was to set mood and the prime underlying core of the film’s story, to express the story in some metaphorical way.  I saw the title as a way of conditioning the audience, so that when the film actually began, viewers would already have an emotional resonance with it.”

Saul Bass created three title sequences for Alfred Hitchcock:  for Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho.  All three of his sequences are pitch-perfect; all succeed in “setting the audience up”, as Bass once put it.  It is worth noting that all three of these films were scored by Bernard Herrmann, and in each instance Saul Bass’ title sequence works in unison with Herrmann’s score to put the audience in a particular frame of mind, a particular emotional state, before seeing one image of Hitchcock’s movie, or hearing one line of dialogue.

Saul Bass’ legacy lives on beyond his death.  Not only are many of his corporate logos still used today, but his movie posters are collectors’ items,  and the title sequences he designed are seen every time somebody watches one of the classic films he was involved with.  Below you can watch Bass’s unforgettable title sequence for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.  Note how in sync Bass’ title sequence is with Bernard Herrmann’s beautiful score.  (All rights to the movie Vertigo are owned by Universal Pictures.)


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PSYCHO (1960):  continued

Technique:  From the opening frames of the movie, Saul Bass’s jarring graphic title sequence coupled with Bernard Herrmann’s frenzied musical score are designed to put the viewer on edge.  After this unsettling opening the audience gets a breather, as slow, melodic strings take us into the movie proper.   Titles on the screen establish the setting, as the camera starts with a wide view of the city of Phoenix, panning and zooming in on an open window.  Inside are Sam and Marion,  sharing in a little afternoon delight.

It is interesting to observe that Marion Cranes’s brief story arc is basically encounters with a succession of men.   We first meet Marion with her boyfriend, Sam.  Marion is clearly a smart young woman, but she cannot make Sam look past his pride, and agree to move Marion in with her.  Next we see Marion back at the office where she works.  Here she interacts with her boss and his client, the brash and boorish man who flaunts his wad of cash in Marion’s face, offering to buy away her problems, more or less offering to buy her in the bargain.  One gets the sense that Marion has to deal with men like this quite frequently;  men who objectify her, never recognizing her true qualities.  It is a very well-drawn character portrait.

Marion’s only interaction with a woman occurs here in the office, with her co-worker, played effectively by Patricia Hitchcock (the daughter of Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville).  But Patricia’s character does all the talking, and her very small part exists only to provide some comic relief, all at the expense of relationships.   She has a couple of great lines,  casually mentioning that her mom gave her tranquilizers for her wedding night, and observing that the customer flirted with Marion and not her because “he must have seen my wedding ring”, when the truth is that Marion is a far more attractive woman.

The next man Marion interacts with is the highway patrolman.  He obviously represents authority, and does so with an effective thinly-veiled menace.  By this time Marion has taken the money, so she has reason to be afraid.  She asks him if she acts like she’s done something wrong, and he responds “quite frankly, yes.”  She then interacts with the car salesman, California Charlie, who is surprised by how quickly Marion wants to trade in her car, saying “this is the first time the customer ever high-pressured the salesman.”   As with all of the men Marion has encountered, he also has preconceived ideas about the roles of a female, telling her “you can do anything you’ve a mind to.  Being a woman, you will.”   And there is Mr. Highway Patrolman back on the scene, standing across the street, inscrutable behind his sunglasses, but menacing as ever.

Finally Marion arrives at the Bates Motel, and interacts with Norman Bates, the last man she will ever interact with in life.  To Marion the Bates Motel is a sanctuary, from the torrential rain and from her guilty thoughts.  She definitely finds Norman a bit odd, but clearly feels sorry for him, and likes his good nature.  His conversation shows a genuine interest in her as a person, which is more than all the other men she has dealt with have shown.  His gentle nature, his talk, have a strong influence on Marion, perhaps even more than she realizes.  By the time she returns to her room to shower, she has decided to return the money, and clearly Norman’s conversation played a strong role in that decision.

 psychoshower Shower scene:  The shower scene in Psycho is one of the most well-known movie scenes of all time, referenced and parodied in everything from The Simpsons and That 70’s Show to National Lampoon’s Vacation.  What makes it so memorable?  To start with, Bernard Herrmann’s musical score, that jarring string section, which sounds like the thrusts of a knife put to music, is unforgettable.  At one point Hitchcock considered playing the scene with no music.  Of course the music is considered such an iconic and integral part of the scene that it’s hard to imagine it without.  On the Universal blu-ray, you can watch the scene without a musical score.  To me it is far more menacing and frightening without the music.

Hitchcock said “It took us seven days to shoot that scene, and there were seventy camera setups for forty-five seconds of footage.”   The scene itself is just a montage of images, many of them too brief to leave more than a subliminal impression.  And many of them are also unforgettable.   There is a point-of-view shot looking directly up at the shower head as water pours seemingly right at the camera.  There is a great shot of Marion’s hand grabbing the shower curtain as she falls, and the curtain pulling from the hooks, one by one.  There is a close-up shot of water swirling down the drain, which suddenly turns dark with blood.  The “blood” was actually Shasta chocolate syrup, according to make up man Jack Barron.  And the unforgettable final shot of the sequence, which starts on a close-up of Janet Leigh’s eye and slowly pulls back, revealing her dead body.  The camera continues into the bedroom, showing the newspaper that hides the money inside, then shows the open window, through which Norman can be seen running from the house to the motel.  Hitchcock wanted this to look like one continuous shot, but it is actually a composite of three separate pieces of film put seamlessly together.

The symbolic aspect of this scene should not be overlooked either.  As Janet Leigh described it:  “Hitch was very clear about what he wanted from me in the shower scene…The shower was a baptism, a taking away of the torment from her mind.  Marion became a virgin again.  He wanted the audience to feel her peacefulness, her kind of rebirth, so that the moment of intrusion is even more shocking and tragic.”

The shower scene is worthy of it’s place in cinematic history;  it is impeccably shot and edited, and endlessly entertaining.  You may view this scene ten times, and still discover new details with each viewing.

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The murder of Arbogast:  Another fantastic scene is the one showing “mother” killing Detective Arbogast.  This scene begins with Martin Balsam’s character entering the Bates house and slowly climbing the stairs.  When he gets to the top the camera cuts to a very high  overhead shot.  This is a shot that Hitchcock employed in almost every single movie he made.  Removing the camera from the action, giving us a “God’s-eye view” if you will, makes the viewer feel helpless, and heightens the tension to an extreme.  The way “mother’  purposefully strides towards Arbogast in this overhead shot is scary as hell, and the direct cut from the overhead shot to the close-up knife slash is equally effective, something that was deliberately planned by Hitchcock.  Arbogast’s fall down the stairs has a surreal, dreamlike quality, obtained through a process shot.  First Hitchcock did a dolly shot down the stairs, then sat Martin Balsam in a special chair in front of a transparency screen showing the stairs, and had the actor flail his arms.

Stairs are supposed to be a symbol of knowledge.  One must climb to achieve enlightenment.  Certainly Detective Arbogast does find the knowledge he is looking for when he ascends the stairs, but that knowledge costs him his life, and leaves him dead at the foot of the staircase.  Some knowledge is just not worth seeking, and some stairs not worth climbing.

There are several other great sequences, including the cleanup sequence.  We watch Norman Bates methodically clean the motel room and dispose of the evidence.  This takes several minutes of screen time, and occurs with no dialogue at all.  More of Hitchcock’s “pure” storytelling.   This is a movie that works exceptionally well on a storytelling level, but does have a deeper significance for those who choose to look for it.   It is absolutely required viewing for anybody that wants to understand Hitchcock, or American movies in general

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PSYCHO (1960) – Paramount – Rating:  ★★★★½

 B&W – 109 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates), Janet Leigh (Marion Crane), John Gavin (Sam Loomis), Vera Miles (Lila Crane), Martin Balsam (Milton Arbogast), Patricia Hitchcock (Caroline).

Produced by Alfred Hitchcock

Screenplay by Joseph Stefano, based on the novel by Robert Bloch.

Director of Photography:  John L. Russell

Edited by George Tomasini

Music by Bernard Herrmann

Titles designed by Saul Bass

Note:  Because of the significance of this film in Hitchcock’s catalog, I will divide my analysis into two parts.  The first is a general overview;  the second will be a more detailed look at several key scenes in the movie, as well as overall techniques employed by Hitchcock.  Also, in past Hitchcock movie entries I  have tried to walk a fine line between review and analysis.  Going forward I will focus on analysis, and presume that my audience has already seen the movie.

Everybody knows Psycho.   It is part of a select group of films (e.g. Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz) that are part of the the movie-going collective consciousness, to the extent that even those who haven’t seen it almost feel as if they have.   Elements of the movie have been referenced, alluded to, copied, and parodied hundreds of times in popular culture.  But Alfred Hitchcock certainly did not set out to make a groundbreaking movie.  Psycho was intended to be an “experiment” of sorts, one that proved to be a massive success for all involved.

Source material:  The movie is based upon the 1959  novel of the same name by Robert Bloch.    Bloch’s novel is a well-paced, fast-moving thriller that most fans of the movie would likely enjoy.   The plot structure of the movie follows the book to such a degree that the book almost reads as a movie treatment.   The most significant change made by Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano relates to character, not plot.  In the novel, Norman Bates is described as an overweight, middle-aged, pathetic looking man.  Bates’ physical description makes him a repulsive character from the first page.  For the movie, Hitchcock and Stefano made the wonderful decision that Norman Bates should be younger, more attractive, and likable.  Hitchcock loved to create a sympathetic antagonist, and perhaps there is no greater example  in his entire canon than that of Norman Bates.  He may be one of the most sympathetic “bad guys” in all of cinema.  Of course one could make the argument that Norman isn’t the villain at all;  rather his mother is the true antagonist, and Norman just another one of her victims.

The “experimental” film:  The word “experimental” could apply to a handful of Hitchcock’s films:  certainly The Wrong Man, Rope, and Lifeboat at the very least could be classified as such.  But Psycho was an experiment of a different nature, by Hitchcock’s own admission.

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He had just released North by Northwest in 1959.  That film was a breathtaking spectacle for the eyes, large in scope, shot in Technicolor and VistaVistion.  Why follow that up with a small scale, black and white film that has very little dialogue and takes place primarily in small cluttered rooms?  It is often said that Hitchcock had to make Psycho in black and white, because the censors wouldn’t have allowed him to show blood in color, to the extent that he wanted to show it.   That certainly was a consideration, but Alfred Hitchcock also chose to shoot in black and white (and Psycho was his last non-color film) because he used his television crew to film it.  Alfred Hitchcock had the notion that he could use the technical crew from his very popular “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” TV show to shoot a feature film, and that they could do it in less time and with less money.  This was of some significance to Hitchcock because he was also the film’s producer.  Keeping costs down meant more money in his pocket.  And Psycho went on to become one of the most profitable film’s of Hitchcock’s entire career.  His “experiment” paid off in spades. 

Themes and motifs:  All of the major themes of Hitchcock’s career can be found in Psycho, making it a very representative work for that reason.  The concept of guilt is very significant.  Marion Crane is hounded by guilt almost from the moment she decides to flee with the money.  It is only after talking to Norman Bates at the motel that she has a change of heart, and makes her plan to return the money.  What a sad irony that Norman helps her come to this realization, only to kill her moments later.  Norman’s guilt is of a much more profound and complex nature.  He is portrayed as a victim, as much as anyone in this film, and yet he is most certainly a killer.  Another major theme is the relationship between men and women.  Hitchcock often portrays relationships with much more realism than was common at the time.  His films show that sacrifices have to be made for relationships to succeed.   Marion Crane is ready to make any sacrifice to be with Sam, but his pride gets in the way.  When he remarks sardonically that she can lick the stamps when he writes his alimony checks, the love and devotion in Marion’s voice when she replies “I’ll lick the stamps” is heartbreaking.  One could argue that Sam could have prevented the tragedy to come if he had merely put aside his pride and agreed to let Marion live with him.

psycho3To say that the “mother” motif shows up in this film is a major understatement.  Mothers in Hitchcock’s films are often domineering and belittling of their adult male children, nowhere more so than here.  Even from the grave, Mrs. Bates’ domination of her son is total.  Hitchcock’s fear of the police is on display here as well.  Hitchcock often portrayed law enforcement as inept, bumbling fools.  Here however, the highway patrolman is played with a sense of menace, and it works very well.   Some Hitchcock scholars have pointed out the many staircases that figure in his movies, and there is one that features very prominently here.

It is interesting that Hitchcock’s follow-up to this movie would be The Birds, because birds are all over in this movie.  Norman’s parlor is full of his stuffed birds.  He comments that Marion eats like a bird.  Marion’s room at the motel has pictures of birds on the wall.  Marion’s last name is Crane, a type of bird, and she is coming from Phoenix, named after the mythological bird.

Performance:  The two standout performances here belong to Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh.  Janet’s character undergoes a lot of different emotions in her shortened screen time, and she also has several scenes where she is alone on screen, and must convey her feelings with no dialogue.  She does a fantastic job of playing it low key.  And Perkins portrayal of Norman Bates is one of the best acting performances in any Hitchcock film.  Veteran character actor Martin Balsam is solid as always, in his portrayal of Arbogast.   The one performance that doesn’t work well at all is that of John Gavin, playing Sam Loomis.  There is no real chemistry between Gavin and Janet Leigh in their opening scene, and he comes off as somewhat wooden in all of his scenes.  Vera Miles, who plays Marion’s sister Lila, also gives a somewhat detached performance.  Miles is good, but somehow off-putting.

Promotion:  For Psycho  Alfred Hitchcock employed what may be the most ingenious marketing campaign in the history of motion pictures.  It all grew out of his concern that word of mouth would kill the movie’s surprises, and hurt its box office chances.  His first decision was not to have any advance screenings, either for critics or for a test audience.  He then made the decision that nobody should be allowed to enter the theater once the movie had started.  He actually made this a condition for theaters who wished to show the movie.  Movie theaters were sent a ton of promotional materials from Paramount explaining the policy of no late admissions, including signs, life-size cardboard figures of Alfred Hitchcock, and vinyl albums with repeating messages recorded by Hitchcock.  Here, you can listen to one of these promotional messages in its entirety.

Delivered with Hitchcock’s usual dry humor, the dialogue was written by James Allerdice, who also wrote most of Hitchcock’s dialogue for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television show.  Another of the recorded messages  urged moviegoers not to give away the movie’s secrets to their friends.

Some theaters even hired security guards to man the lobbies, preventing late entries into the theater.  Hitchcock even went so far as to tell theater owners how to show the movie.  He suggested that the house lights should remain off for 30 seconds after the end credits finished.  Hitchcock suggested that this would imprint the movie’s images into the viewers minds.  He then suggested a very low light, ideally green, while moviegoers exited the theaters.   The campaign was a huge, unparalleled success, with massive lines queued up outside theaters all over the country.  Alfred Hitchcock also created one of the most unique and impressive theatrical trailers for this movie.  Rather than showing clips from the movie, the trailer features Alfred Hitchcock giving a “tour” of the Psycho movie set.  This highly entertaining trailer runs over 6 minutes in length, and can be seen in its entirety on the Universal blu-ray or DVD.

Recurring players:  Vera Miles appeared in the film The Wrong Man,

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 in addition to several episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  Mort Mills, who plays the highway patrolman so well, would later appear in Torn Curtain.  Frank Albertson also had an uncredited part in the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much.  Sam Flint had a small role in Strangers on a Train.  Virginia Gregg had an uncredited role in Notorious.  And Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia can also be seen in Stage Fright and Strangers on a Train.

Where’s Hitch:  Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo comes very early in the film.  At about the 7:00 mark, he can be seen standing outside the office where Marion works, wearing a cowboy hat.

Academy Awards:  Psycho received four nominations:  Alfred Hitchcock for best director, Janet Leigh for best supporting actress, John L. Russell for best black-and-white cinematography, and Joesph Hurley, Robert Clatworthy and George Milo for best art decoration/set decoration black-and-white.  Psycho did not win in any of these categories.

What Hitch said:  He told Truffaut that his main satisfaction with Psycho was that “the film had an effect on the audiences, and I consider that very important.  I don’t care about the subject matter; I don’t care about the acting…I feel it’s tremendously satisfying for us to be able to use the cinematic art to achieve something of a mass emotion.  And with Psycho we most definitely achieved this…the audiences…were aroused by pure film.”

Definitive edition:  Universal’s excellent 2010 blu ray release has a treasure trove of extra features:  a commentary track by Stephen Rebello, author of “Alfred Hitchcock and The Making of Psycho“; a feature-length documentary; a 10 minute segment on the new 5.1 sound mix; a 26 minute documentary featuring Martin Scorsese, Willliam Freidkin, Guillermo del Toro, John Carpenter, and many other filmmakers lavishing praise on Hitchcock; a 15 minute Hitchcock/Truffaut audio interview clip;  an 8 minute vintage newsreel; the shower scene with and without music; Saul Bass’ storyboards for the shower sequence; posters, ads and lobby cards; production and behind-the-scene photos; original theatrical trailer and 5 short re-release trailers.

Below you can watch one of the best scenes from the movie:  Arbogast questioning Norman Bates about Marion.  Here are two character actors at the absolute peak of their craft, and they are a joy to watch. When the two actors completed the first take on this sequence, the crew erupted into applause!  It was Anthony Perkins idea to chew on the candy corns, as was the stutter that creeps into his speech as Arbogast presses him.  Notice the shot, early in the sequence, when Perkins leans in to look at the signature.  The camera is underneath him, looking up at his chin.  Perkins leans in, keeping his face in frame, then stands up, and the camera follows him, all in one smooth take.   (Note:  Universal Pictures owns all rights to this movie.  If you haven’t seen it, please purchase or rent it!)

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