Basic Instinct (1992)

 

Basic Instinct movie poster.jpg

I think she’s the fuck of the century.  Paul Verhoeven’s film was notorious even prior to release – 25 years ago! – when word of the highly sexualised story got out.  Then it caused an uproar with a shot of Sharon Stone uncrossing her legs:  she’s not wearing any underwear. And the gay community in San Francisco in particular (where it’s set) didn’t like the portrayal of a psychopathic bisexual writer Catherine Tramell (Stone) – albeit we don’t know if it’s her, or her former and slighted lover, police psychiatrist Beth Garner (Jeanne Tripplehorn), who’s the murderess in this tricky, explicit neo-noir. That sub-genre really had a moment in the 90s, with this and the films of John Dahl – remember Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction?! Wow. Stone goes all-out here as the millionaire authoress whose books have a basis in true crime. Michael Douglas is the controversial ‘shooter’ detective Nick Curran who’s assigned to investigate the violent death of an old rock star – a murder we see in the opening scenes, bloody, sexy and ending with an ice pick applied to his neck. It’s the plot of one of Catherine Tramell’s lurid thrillers – she writes them under the surname Woolf.  Everything points to her being the guilty party. Now she wants to study him too. He got his nickname after accidentally killing tourists while he was high on cocaine. Catherine hangs out with jealous girlfriend Roxy and an old woman called Hazel Dobkins. Both of them have an interesting past. After Nick avoids being killed by Roxy when she sees him and Catherine having sex, he finds out she killed a bunch of kids when she was 15. And Hazel?  She murdered her children and husband back in the 50s. The fact that she’s played by Dorothy Malone gives you the meta-picture here:  this is practically a dissertation on the Hollywood blonde, a Hitchcock film with extra sex. Nick’s also been involved with the police psychiatrist who it turns out knows Catherine too, from when they went to college together a decade earlier.  And they may have had a relationship. This knotty tale of seduction, deception, copycat killing and betrayal leads cleverly to two very clear – and alternate – conclusions. It’s wrapped in extraordinarily beautiful and brutal imagery and the narrative ambiguity merely compounds its legend. Written by Joe Eszterhas in 13 days it earned him a record-breaking $3 million.  Yet as he stated so lucidly in his memoir, he is a militant screenwriter-auteur and the most memorable bit of the film was shot without his knowledge – and apparently Stone’s. Interpret this how you will. Some people might say that the real crime here is one against fashion – Douglas’ v-neck at the club is really something. Stone is stunning: she’s something else!

Advertisements

How to Steal a Million (1966)

How To Steal A Million poster.jpg

You should be in jail and I should be in bed. Super stylish Sixties Art Nouveau heist comedy about a painting forger Bonnet (Hugh Griffiths) whose daughter Nicole (Audrey Hepburn) needs to steal back a famous but fake statue (by her grandfather) that he’s loaned to an art museum and does it with the aid of a thief Simon Dermott (Peter O’Toole) –  who’s actually a private detective investigating this sort of thing.   Harry Kurnitz adapted the 1962  story Venus Rising from a collection about art forgeries by George Bradshaw and despite its overlength it coasts on the sheerly delightful charm of the leads and some very sparky dialogue. Charles Boyer has a blast as O’Toole’s boss and you’ll recognise the chief security guard at the museum Jacques Marin because he played the chief of police in Hepburn’s earlier Parisian comedy thriller, Charade. Eli Wallach is an industrialist who feigns romantic interest in Hepburn to get at her grandfather’s work and there’s an outstanding score by John Williams as well as to-die-for production design. Givenchy dressed Hepburn – mais quoi d’neuf? Directed by William Wyler reunited with Hepburn 13 years after Roman Holiday. Bliss.

Rear Window (1954)

Rear Window poster.png

Grace Kelly had one hour to choose between returning to work with Alfred Hitchcock or taking the part of the girl in On the Waterfront. She chose this. And a good thing too, because it was written with her in mind. At the director’s suggestion, radio writer John Michael Hayes had got to know her on and off the set of Dial M for Murder and designed the role adapted from a story by Cornell Woolrich around Kelly’s authentic persona and that of his wife, a former model. It was by working with Hitchcock that Kelly learned to work with her whole body. He listened to her and she loved his jokes – they shared a filthy sense of humour. She plays Lisa Carol Fremont, a high society NYC mover and shaker who’s in love with photojournalist James Stewart, stuck looking out his window at his neighbours’ apartments while laid up with a broken leg. She’s desperately in love with him but he wants to get rid of her – then she becomes a gorgeous Nancy Drew when he suspects one of his neighbours has murdered his wife. Only then does he realise what he’s got. She’s the action girl of his dreams. When you go to Paramount Studios you can see the four-wall facility that Hitchcock used to create the biggest set built there but sadly nothing remains of this paean to onanism, voyeurism, narcissism and whatever other perversion you’re having yourself. Oh, and scopophilia. In theory, this is all about Stewart but really it’s all about Kelly – and the biggest joke here of course is that the most beautiful woman in the world wants him and he doesn’t get it. Not really. Not until she becomes a part of the unfolding events he watches through his viewfinder. Kelly’s entrance is probably the greatest afforded any movie star. Her costumes alone tell a great story. MGM never knew what to do with her so loaning her out wasn’t a problem.  The theatre owners knew who the real star was – and put her name up on their marquees above anyone else’s. Audiences adored her. She was the biggest thing in 1954. And this witty, clever study of a man afraid of marriage is for most people Hitchcock’s greatest achievement. For more on Kelly’s collaborations with Hitchcock, which are the peak of both their careers, and the high point of midcentury cinema, you can see my essay Hitchcock/Kelly at Canadian journal Offscreen:  https://www.offscreen.com/hitchcock-kelly.

Stage Fright (1950)

Stage Fright 1950 Hitchcock.jpg

The scene is set with a theatrical curtain rising on a picture perfect London:  we are prepared for a performance in this Hitchcock thriller, a role-playing and female-centric adaptation of a Selwyn Jepson story by Whitfield Cook and Alma Reville. This was the last of her husband’s films on which Reville would receive a credit for her writing work. (There was some additional dialogue by James Bridie). Hitchcock’s return to his home town after the war is one of his lesser films for Warners but is interesting nonetheless for  some of the tropes familiar from his earlier English films – longer takes, point of view shots, the use of performance as metaphor. Not to mention a characterful Marlene Dietrich so louche as to barely bother singing The Laziest Gal in Town. Jane Wyman is the drama student whose best friend Richard Todd runs to her for help on behalf of his mistress, Dietrich, whom he says killed her husband in a flashback that is controversial to this day because he’s lying – he’s The Right Man, as it were. This however could be regarded as another development in the suspense thriller format even if Hitchcock himself said afterwards it was a mistake (people can lie, the camera shouldn’t, even if it’s someone’s version of events …)  There’s a lot to love in this ensemble drama of post-war London theatre –  Wyman playing a mousy role opposite Dietrich in Dior, Alastair Sim as Wyman’s dad, Joyce Grenfell doing her kooky shtick, Pat Hitchcock as one of Wyman’s fellow students at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (where she really studied – and she does the stunt driving for Wyman in the opening scene) and Richard Todd is very good indeed in the role of Jonathan Cooper, the villain. Michael Wilding – Dietrich’s real-life lover (or one of many) – is fine as the policeman convinced of his guilt. Was there ever a more final curtain?

Psycho (1998)

Psycho 1998 poster.jpg

The Hitchcock film is so ingrained in the collective psyche it was some kind of madness to remake it shot for shot (almost – there are some surreal inserts.) When Gus Van Sant’s name was attached it didn’t even make lunatic sense. Nor the fact that some cast members (I mean you, Anne Heche) didn’t even seem to know the original. The cinematographer (Chris Doyle) didn’t even understand the point of some shots, it appears. If you can get past the fact that this is sacrilege; that paradoxically Pat Hitchcock O’Connell, the keeper of her father’s flame, approved it; and that huge dead-eyed Vince Vaughn was selected to play the delicate bird-like Norman Bates (okay, Vaughn is truer to Bloch’s image, but who but the indelible Anthony Perkins is Norman?!), this can be viewed as an interesting homage to the most important film in (some people’s) living memory. It is about identity and its negation;  the camera articulates vision and perception (just look! A crane shot introduces Marion Crane! And the final shot of her eye is the single most important image in cinema); and Anne Heche’s underwear is kinda wonderful – the whole first section of the film is all about the colour orange. It’s about a man in a dress pretending to be his dead mother, whose rotting corpse is in the fruit cellar. The original film was censor-bait – when Janet Leigh flushed her calculations down the toilet censorship was literally flushed away in American cinema: that doesn’t even register nowadays. It is a reverie about a kingdom of death, as Donald Spoto has it. Joseph Stefano’s screenplay (he had a lot of help from Mrs Hitchcock) is shot word for word;  and Bernard Herrmann’s score is reworked by Danny Elfman. So this is an empty act of nostalgia and avant-gardism inasmuch as it is doing a Warhol to something that effectively belongs to everyone. But it is Hitchcock. Not to be reproduced. Like I said, sacrilege.

High Anxiety (1977)

High Anxiety poster.jpg

Mel Brooks’ Hithcock spoof is great fun, in fits and starts, and in those sequences where the laughs are thin, the action is silly, which is pretty good too. Look out for wholesale ripoffs (okay, homages to) of Psycho, Vertigo, Spellbound, The Birds, Notorious, The Wrong Man, and, oh a pile more. Mel’s the renowned psychiatrist deployed to an Institute for the Very, Very Nervous where his own fear of heights is treated and he becomes aware of long-term patients who, on the face of it, are pretty sane. Until Dr Hedley Lamarr puts in his wolf-teeth. Mel sings, Madeline Kahn swoons and Mrs Danvers-a-like Cloris Leachman administers Nazified S&M (but mainly S). There’s even a spoof soundtrack, with John Morris riffing on Herrmann’s classic swoops. Co-written by Ron Clark, Rudy De Luca and Barry Levinson, all of whom appear in small roles. Dedicated to Hitchcock, who sent Brooks wine and a note that read, “A small token of my pleasure, have no anxiety about this.”

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

The Man Who Knew Too Much 1956.jpg

Hitchcock returned to the scene of his first international success, radically altered it, and put two of the industry’s biggest stars at its centre, doctor James Stewart (the Everyman of American cinema) and singer Doris Day, who gets to trill Que Sera, Sera to their young son, Christopher Olsen, who will be kidnapped. The VistaVision Technicolor action is transferred from Switzerland to Morocco (where Day was shocked by the state of animal health) and the juxtaposition with the film’s later scenes in London is well achieved. Uniquely among the master’s films this is almost entirely predicated on the notion of pure suspense, augmented by Bernard Herrmann’s innovative scoring and concluding of course in a famous concert sequence. Featuring those two chaps Ambrose Chappell and Albert Hall, this was adapted from the original (Charles Bennett and DB Wyndham Lewis) by Hitch’s regular Fifties collaborator John Michael Hayes, with an uncredited assist from Angus MacPhail, the man who had dreamed up the term MacGuffin for the meaningless Hitchcockian plot lure. Beautifully shot by Robert Burks and edited by George Tomasini, there is a nice opportunity to watch French actor Daniel Gelin at work – he was the father of the late Maria Schneider, whom he never acknowledged. And the improvised scene with the food is great!

Blow Out (1981)

Blow Out poster.jpg

Take an Antonioni classic, Blow-up, make it about sound rather than pictures, add a dash of Kennedy crisis (Chappaquiddick/Texas), mix in a hint of right-wing conspiracy theories, use the ideas in Coppola’s The Conversation, and whisk into a Hitchcockian pastiche. And there you have it. A recipe for one of the key films of the Eighties, courtesy of Brian De Palma. This man knows his movies. Shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, sound by Pino Donaggio, star by John Travolta. Yum.

Dressed to Kill (1980)

dressed-to-kill-poster

A film that practically embodies the term Psychosexual. Brian de Palma’s outrageous, explicit Hitchcockian homage (some might say rip off, Hitch called it fromage) still has the power to shock, with its jawdropping opening sequence – married Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) masturbating in a shower while her lover shaves in a mirror. She fesses up to her psychoanalyst Robert Elliott (Michael Caine) that she’s faking it because her lover’s not really up to it then asks him if he’s attracted to her. She does the  Vertigo shtick at the Metropolitan in Kim Novak’s off-white coat and when she drops a glove (fetish alert!) she attracts a man in shades (another warning).  He gets her off in a taxi (yes, this has to be seen to be believed) then wakes up to find a medical notice in his apartment …. and enters an elevator to leave the building when she suddenly remembers her wedding ring and presses the button to return to the scene of the extra-marital crime … You had me at hello!!! Call girl Liz (Nancy Allen) is the only witness to the murder – while the killer is a mysterious tall blonde in shades. Dickinson’s teenage inventor son Keith Gordon plays private dick, Allen becomes the woman in peril stalked by the tall blonde in shades, the shrink gets taunting messages from Bobbi, a transgender patient, and it all ends just the way you want:  blonde on blonde. Crazy, classic warning cinema – beware of shrinks and nooners! The soundtrack by Pino Donaggio is brilliant. Wild!

Psycho (1960)

Psycho_(1960).jpg

Sometimes we are in danger of overlooking the greatest filmmakers – and Alfred Hitchcock never won an Academy Award, which tells you pretty much all you need to know about recognition. As we know from Sacha Gervasi’s supremely funny and informative Hitchcock (adapted from Stephen Rebello’s The Making of Psycho) the great man needed a new project that would excite him. Yet he had been coining it from his TV show and was the most famous filmmaker on the planet. He should have been resting on his laurels on the eve of his sixtieth birthday – instead he took a radical new direction, had a true crime shocker by Robert Bloch adapted (by Joseph Stefano and his own wife, Alma Reville, who was uncredited) and filmed it in monochrome on his TV sets on a low budget. He created film history. No matter how you feel about the auteur theory (and I’m agnostic depending on the day/the director) he was responsible for pursuing the notion of the split protagonist to ever more devastating effect from Shadow of a Doubt (1943) through  Strangers on a Train (1951) and Vertigo (1958) which were adapted from neo-Gothic novels.  And here, in perhaps the ultimate noir tale, troubled mama’s boy Norman Bates internalises a perplexing matriarch and compulsively stuffs birds in an attempt at a kind of female individuation. It is of course the blackest of comedies. It boasts two astonishing performances – Janet Leigh in the first forty-five minutes, whose desires as Marion Crane drive that narrative, until she crosses paths with a confused motel proprietor, Anthony Perkins as that charmingly twitchy mother-loving madman. This is a tour de force in presentation:  these drab worlds are the external realities of the protagonists and the flatness of the style is then rendered bent in two by juxtaposition with the extraordinarily inventive murder sequences –  the shower scene cannot be adequately described, only experienced (preferably only cinematically) and definitely with those screaming violins. It was released 57 years ago and was the start of something entirely new that goes beyond its being merely the parent of the slasher flick:  a cinema of unease, a cinema of anxiety, something totally modern that severed the connection with the democratic and the unified. Cinema was never the same afterwards. And look at all those references to birds! A preview of coming attractions, as Grace Kelly once told us. Totally terrifying.