Happy 60th Birthday Psycho (1960) 16th June 2020!

Psycho theatricalJanet Leigh in PsychoPSYCHO shower scene stills

The film that changed everything premiered on this day at the DeMille Theater in New York City sixty years ago. From its mordant premise to its stunning performances and exquisite mise-en-scène, the cod Freudianism and the cutting – culminating in the shower scene, that masterpiece of montage, this is Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest achievement. Happy birthday to Psycho!

The 39 Steps (1959)

The 39 Steps 1959

If you’re looking for Richard Hannay this is the man you want. Freshly returned to London, British diplomat Richard Hannay (Kenneth More) goes to the aid of a nanny ‘Nannie’ (Faith Brook) in a park only to discover there is no baby in the pram and follows her to a music hall where he watches Mr Memory (James Hayter). She goes back to his flat and reveals that she is a spy working for British intelligence looking for the organisation The Thirty-Nine Steps who are after information on the British ballistic missiles project. When she is murdered in his flat he goes on the run, encountering a bevy of schoolgirls on a train with their teacher Miss Fisher (Taina Elg) who reports him to the police but he jumps off the vehicle on the Forth Bridge and hitches a ride on a truck driven by ex-con Percy Baker (Sidney James) who advises him to stay at The Gallows Inn run by occultist Nellie Lumsden (Brenda De Banzie) and her husband who help him escape during a cycling race.  He approaches Professor Logan (Barry Jones) only to find the man is in fact the leader of the spy ring and he must keep running … I’m not having a Sagittarius in the house tonight! Hitchcock was responsible for the first adaptation of John Buchan’s classic spy-chase thriller and this is a more or less straight remake, with the romance-chase narrative lines crisscrossing pleasingly as per the generic template established by The Master. More may be a slightly ridiculous hero but this is played for comic effect and its Hitchcockian homage continues in the casting of De Banzie who essays a knowing spiritualist in her crofting cottage. It has the advantage of location shooting, a winning plot, doubtful romantic interest, a deal of suspense and a collective tongue planted firmly in cheek. Directed by Ralph Thomas, written by Frank Harvey and produced by Betty Box. Keep out of the woods. Especially in August!

Torn Curtain (1966)

Torn Curtain

How do you like playing the dirty defector? During a trip to Copenhagen, American physicist and rocket scientist Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) is attending a conference with his lab assistant and fiancée Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) and he picks up a telegram and tells her he is going to Stockholm. She follows him as he travels to Berlin where he publicly announces he is defecting to pursue his research for the Soviet Union. During a trip to a farm Michael meets a ‘farmer’ contact (Mort Mills) and it is clear that he is on a secret spying mission for the US. At the farmhouse he is watched by his official guard Herman Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) who suspects what he is doing and Michael and the farmer’s ‘wife’ (Carolyn Conwell) are forced to kill him. He travels to Leipzig and tells Sarah what is really going on. He goes to the University in an attempt to persuade Professor Lindt (Ludwig Donath) to share his secrets but the man realises Michael has little to share and calls the authorities and the chase to catch him with Sarah commences … I forbid you to leave this room! A Hitchcock film in which various getaways are staged using bicycles, buses and boats, this is the one that forced him to conclude he no longer wished to work with stars. And what stars! Newman, who had already played a variation on this role in The Prize and Andrews, the world’s favourite actress at the time. They were not the choice of the director but of moneyman Lew Wasserman who probably played too large a role in his career and contributed to what could be described as his decline in the Sixties. And it’s true that they are weirdly mismatched. Nonetheless there is ample opportunity for local actors, Lila Kedrova, Tamara Toumanova and Ludwig Donath to shine. Peter Lorre Jr even has an uncredited role as a treacherous taxi driver! Many feel this is one of Hitchcock’s lesser films and one might ask, given that he had originated the Cold War spy thriller genre with a masterpiece, North By Northwest, why he felt he had to make another one. But we forget how fascinating the Iron Curtain was, and not just to filmmakers. What an opportunity to look at a society where spying on people wasn’t confined to Government but permeated everyday life – most Germans were snoops and tattle tales, and not in a good way. The landscape is another reason – all that flat land. (A reminder of the crop dusting scene…). The opportunity to kill someone in virtual silence because there’s a taxi driver outside the door – and what a sequence that is, using whatever comes to hand in a farmhouse kitchen.  Hitchcock told Truffaut in their famous interview that the point of that was to demonstrate how hard it actually was to kill somebody, something that the conventions of the contemporary spy thriller avoided. There is a sense in which Hitchcock is playing his greatest hits – the set pieces are fun and  quite reminiscent of ones he did earlier. Perhaps that’s understandable given that this was his fiftieth film and projects he felt more deeply about had failed to get off the ground. Despite being inspired by the defections of famed British traitors Burgess and Maclean the script originally focused on the female character and so Irish writer Brian Moore whose gynocentric novels were so acclaimed did the original draft. At that point Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant were Hitchcock’s dream cast – a replay of old attractions. But when that changed he got Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall to rewrite and the story was radically altered but Moore still got sole credit. (Moore repaid the slight by caricaturing Hitchcock in his novel Fergus). There are some horribly clunky visuals that make it obvious this was shot on the Universal lot – very unlike a director who should have been at the peak of his powers. Is he deliberately making the artificiality of the genre more transparent?! Even more oddly, Hitchcock dumped Bernard Herrmann’s unsatisfactory score (which you can find on the DVD and watch it again) and commissioned John Addison to do the version used on the theatrical release – viewing this with a different musical accompaniment alters the affect (something that a Channel 4 documentary demonstrated twenty-plus years ago). Fascinating, suspenseful and altogether necessary and not just for Hitchcock completionists. You told me nothing! You know nothing!

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

The Man Who Knew Too Much 1934

Let that be a lesson to you. Never have any children. On a family holiday in Saint Moritz, Switzerland, Bob Lawrence (Leslie Banks) and his wife, Jill (Edna Best), become friendly with Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay) who is staying in their hotel. He is assassinated in their presence, but as he is dying manages to passes along a secret to Jill, asking her to contact the British consulate. To keep the pair silent, a band of foreign assassins kidnaps their teenage daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam). Offered no help by the police, Bob and Jill hunt for their daughter back in London as they try to understand the information that they have before tracing the kidnappers and once again encountering the cunning Abbott (Peter Lorre) in very compromising circumstances while an assassination is due to take place during a concert at the Albert HallYou must learn to control your fatherly feelings. Providing a template for much of director Alfred Hitchcock’s subsequent career, this is written by Charles Bennett and D. B. Wyndham Lewis with a scenario by Edwin Greenwood and A.R. Rawlinson (and additional dialogue by Emlyn Williams) and it’s a gripping and blackly comic suspenser with a simple lesson – if a gun goes off in the first act it’s bound to go off again in the third, in order to bring things to a pleasingly grim conclusion in an extended siege and shootout. Hitchcock’s experience in German cinema is telling in terms of editing and design (for which Alfred Junge is responsible) and it moves quickly and effectively, suiting his talents far better than the slow-moving melodramas he made after the coming of sound, with nary a moment to contemplate some of the zingers which particularly work for Lorre’s sly delivery. Above all it’s a fascinating portrait of subversives in the seedier parts of London, influenced by the 1911 Sidney Street siege, a Conradian subject of anarchy to which Hitchcock would soon return. You’ll be agog at the gathering at the Tabernacle of the Sun and amused by Banks and his mate Clive (Hugh Wakefield) singing out instructions to each other to the tune of a hymn. Hitchcock’s future assistant and producer Joan Harrison has a small uncredited role as a secretary but it’s Best you’ll remember as the brilliant sharpshooting mother – you don’t want to mess with the woman. Don’t breathe a word!

Hitchcock (2012)

Hitchcock 2012

But what if someone really good were to make a horror movie? In 1959 the world’s most famous film director Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) is fretting about his next project, fearing his best days are behind him, chooses to adapt a horror novel, much to the disgust of his wife and collaborator, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren). He is forced to finance it himself with the assistance of agent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and has to deal with censorship issues through the office of meddlesome Geoffrey Shurlock (Kurtwood Smith). As they decide he should hire Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) to play the lead, Alma fears Hitch is obsessing over his leading lady and develops her own interest in screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who wrote for Hitch a decade earlier. When the film runs into trouble in the edit, Hitch needs Alma’s full attention to save it … You may call me Hitch. Hold the Cock. The screenplay by John J. McLaughlin is based on Stephen Rebello’s non-fiction book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho and it then takes a dive into a fantastical cornucopia of Hitchcockiana, turning a factual account into a world of in-jokes, dream and reality, with Hitchcock on the couch to pyschiatrist Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the real-life model for serial killer Norman Bates (James D’Arcy), screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio) exploring his own relationship with his mother and star Janet Leigh dealing with information Hitch’s former protegée Vera Miles (Jessia Biel) has supplied about the director’s penchant for control. It’s wildly funny, filled with a plethora of references to Hitchcock’s TV show, psychiatry, other movies.  The reproduction of how the shower sequence is shot is memorable for all the right reasons and Johansson is superb at conveying Leigh’s game personality. “It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream… and her head.” Charming. Doris Day should do it as a musical!  You’ll chafe initially at the casting but the performances simply overwhelm you. There is so much to cherish:  for a film (within a film) that boasts the most famous [shower] scene of all time it starts in a bathtub and features excursions to the family swimming pool and screenwriter Cook’s beach cabin where Alma might just enjoy some extra-marital succour. The metaphor of a man whose life is in hot water is understood without being overdone. The suspense is not just if the film will be made – we already know that – but what kind of man made it and how it might have happened despite the begrudgers. There are insights about filmmaking and acting in the period and it looks absolutely stunning courtesy of cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and production designer Judy Becker.  The blackly comic playfulness is miraculously maintained throughout. Hitchcock fetishists should love it, I know I do. Directed by Sacha Gervasi. And that my dear, is why they call me the Master of Suspense.  I’ve written about it for Offscreen:  https://offscreen.com/view/hitchcock-blonde-scarlett-johansson-scream-queen

Becoming Cary Grant (2017)

Becoming Cary Grant poster

Everybody wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant. Born in 1904 as Archie Leach, Cary Grant was the greatest star ever produced in Hollywood. Before he went there he was the younger survivor of two sons with the older dying following an accident for which his mother blamed herself. Then one day aged eleven he came home to be told by his father that his mother had died. Twenty years later he discovered she had been institutionalised on the man’s say-so in order that he could shack up with another woman. The reinvention Archie conjured across the Atlantic having literally run away with the circus to become an acrobat was accompanied by a lifelong mistrust of women and a name change. After two dozen films where he played a piece of jewellery for his leading ladies as contributor Mark Glancy puts it, he found himself working with George Cukor in Sylvia Scarlett and played a character I know, as Jonathan Pryce relates from Grant’s unpublished autobiography: he was finally acting and he was good. When he worked with director Leo McCarey on The Awful Truth nerves got the better of him and he took his lead from his director – McCarey was a suave, urbane, debonair, handsome, beautifully dressed and well-spoken ladykiller, and Grant copied him. That character became key to his screen persona. At the age of 31 he was reunited with the mother he had thought dead for twenty years and when they met, she asked him, Archie, is that really you?  His identity is at the centre of this film by Mark Kidel, as it penetrates the mystery of  his spectacular stardom and his acting technique.  Yet critic David Thomson says Grant’s persona is very democratic,  you can still sense the working class Archie Leach in him, something you can aspire to.  Howard Hawks would further the development of his screen image, locating in Grant something insecure and strange. Their many collaborations would reveal these layers of oddness, some of which was inhabited by Grant’s sexuality. He appealed equally to men and women. The film interrogates his relationships with women (he married among others actress Virginia Cherrill, heiress Barbara Hutton and actress Betsy Drake) but never mentions his long living arrangement with fellow actor Randolph Scott in the Thirties. Thomson claims, This is a man who is exploring gender safeguards as we see a clip of Bringing Up Baby, in which Grant’s character exclaims, I just went gay all of a sudden! wearing a woman’s dressing gown. Grant was well aware of his dichotomy and much of the film explores pictorially what Grant expresses in his unpublished writing, the experience of using LSD in controlled experiments in the late Fifties, an idea pushed by his then wife Drake, a woman who made him feel young again and who was an avid proponent of the therapeutic treatment herself.  It is clear that Grant believed it helped him make psychological breakthroughs. Home movies show him dressing up and acting the clown and in late life when he would do a theatre tour about his career he particularly liked to show those film clips which showed him doing backflips. When he worked with Hitchcock, Thomson declares that the director saw a different level of darkness than other collaborators and excerpts from Suspicion and Notorious accompany the narration. (But the viewer will note that Hitchcock also did the same for James Stewart, albeit he had already exploited a kind of psychopathic edge in the westerns he made with Anthony Mann). You never quite know where you are, Thomson says of this degree of sadism on display. It doesn’t ruin the likability but it qualifies it. Grant went independent so that he could control the roles he played and in the Forties persuaded RKO to buy the rights to the novel None But the Lonely Heart in which he essays the role of the kind of man he might have been had he remained in Britain, as one commentator notes.  Following a period of near-retirement he would work again happily with Hitchcock on To Catch a Thief of whom he said, Hitch and I had a rapport deeper than words.  He was incredibly well prepared.  Nothing ever went wrong. He is similarly complimentary about co-star Grace Kelly of whom he was in awe and he says, There are very few actresses who really listen to you. He could throw any line at her and she had a comeback. They were fast friends. He would team up with Hitchcock again for North By Northwest, and Thomson says of the great Cold War comic thriller, It’s about a man who has to grow up emotionally. He aged better than any other actor and in Father Goose despite its apparent un-Cary Grant-ness he always maintained the louche mariner was the one most similar to himself. He loved children and would finally find personal happiness when wife Dyan Cannon gave birth to their daughter Jennifer. He adored her and would have loved a huge family.  Despite a divorce a couple of years later he and Jennifer would remain close. She says what he really liked to do was stay home and watch TV – He loved television! she smiles to camera as home movie footage shows father and daughter sitting up on a huge bed with snack trays in front of them. His last wife Barbara Jaynes recalls him with love but says of his early perceived abandonment, Somewhere in the back of his mind was the idea that women were not always going to be there. She still lives in his Hollywood house with the panoramic views of the city he loved. In 1986 he had a massive stroke during a rehearsal for his one-man show and he died shortly afterwards. Kirk Kerkorian choppered Barbara and Jennifer over his home and out to sea, to spread the ashes of Archie Leach who insisted there be no funeral or memorial. A film about the best Hollywood star ends scattered in the air, skirting the surface of a fascinating man who was all transatlantic speaking voice and great clothes and beautiful movement, an actor who was never quite there.  Written by Kidel and Nick Ware. I feel fine. Alone. But fine

Under the Silver Lake (2018)

Under the Silver Lake poster.png

Everything you ever hoped for, everything you ever dreamed of being a part of, is a fabrication. Sam (Andrew Garfield) is a disenchanted 33-year-old who discovers a mysterious woman, Sarah (Riley Keough) frolicking in his apartment’s swimming pool.  He befriends her little bichon frisé dog Coca Cola. She has a drink with him and they watch How to Marry a Millionaire in the apartment she shares with two other women.  Her disappearance coincides with that of billionaire Jefferson Sevence (Chris Gann) whose body is eventually found with Sarah’s. Sam embarks on a surreal quest across Los Angeles to decode the secret behind her disappearance, leading him into the murkiest depths of mystery, scandal, and conspiracy as he descends to a labyrinth beneath the City of Angels while engaging with Comic Fan (Patrick Fischler) author of Under the Silver Lake a comic book about urban legends who he believes knows what’s behind a series of dog killings and other conspiracy theories who himself is murdered …Something really big is going on. I know it. Written, produced and directed by David Robert Mitchell who made the modern horror masterpiece It Follows, this is another metatext in which strange portents and signs abound. Revelling in Hollywoodiana – Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Alfred Hitchcock and Janet Gaynor – and noir and death and the afterlife and the songs that dominate your life and who may or may not have written them, this seems to be an exploration of the obsessions of Gen X. It’s an interesting film to have come out in the same year as Tarantino’s Hollywood mythic valentine Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and it covers some of the same tropes that have decorated that auteur’s past narratives with a postmodern approach that is summed up in one line: An entire generation of men obsessed with codes and video games and space aliens. The messages in the fetishised songs and cereal box toys and movies are all pointing to a massive conspiracy in communication diverting people from their own meaninglessness, symbolised in the disappearance of the billionaire which has to do with a different idea of the afterlife available only to the very rich. Sam’s quest (and it is a quest – he’s literally led by an Arthurian type of homeless guy – David Yow from the band The Jesus Lizard – straight out of The Fisher King) is a choose your own adventure affair where he gets led down some blind alleys including prostitution and chess games and even gets sprayed by a skunk which lends his character a very special aroma. The postmodern approach even extends to the sex he has – with Millicent Sevence’s (Callie Hernandez) death being a grotesque parody of the magazine cover that initiated him to masturbation. Sigh. Garfield holds the unfolding cartography together but that’s what actors do – they fill in the missing scenes:  it may not be everyone’s idea of fun to watch Spider Man having graphic sex scenes and doing things to himself but the audience is also being played.  If the objects are diffuse and the message too broad, well, you can make of it what you will. It means whatever you want it to mean (it’s not about burial, it’s about ascension), a spectral fever dream that at the end of the day is a highly sexual story about a guy who wants to make it with the woman across the court yard in his apartment building, no matter how many secret messages or subliminal warnings are in your breakfast or how many Monroe scenes are re-enacted, filmed, photographed or otherwise stored in the minutiae of our obsessive compulsive Nineties brains. So what do you think it all means?

 

Jamaica Inn (1939)

jamaica inn film

Bah, stop crying! Stop it, you little fool! Be beautiful! Oh, ply those tears if you like, but you must be beautiful. Well, you have to be hard now. The Age of Chivalry is gone! England in 1819, the reign of George IV.  After the death of her mother, young orphan Mary Yellen (Maureen O’Hara) travels from Ireland to the Cornish coast to live with her Aunt Patience (Marie Ney). Stranded on a windswept, isolated road, Mary meets the bumptious Humphrey Pengallan (Charles Laughton), who escorts her to Jamaica Inn. There, Mary meets her aunt and bullying uncle, Merlyn Joss (Leslie Banks) – who secretly leads a band of pirates that pilfers the goods from wrecked ships. Suspicious, Mary turns to Pengallan for help, only to discover another dark secret… Why not a toast to beauty, Sir Humphrey?  Written by Alma Reville, Sidney Gilliat, Joan Harrison and J.B. Priestley, this adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel about wreckers still has some of that book’s atmospherics despite too much staginess and the overt theatricality of Laughton’s performance. O’Hara is luminous in her first major role and along with the gripping opening wrecking scene, it’s her scenes with Jem Trehearne (Robert Newton) that give this its tinge of excitement.  It’s disappointing in many production respects and Du Maurier reportedly wasn’t happy with the result.  It’s not really a Hitchcock picture – even he realised that, since it was produced by Laughton’s company – but it still has some touches of gallows humour and bright moments of dark humanity. That’s women for you – save your life one minute, frightened of you the next. I guess I’m not a very pretty sight at the moment, but I don’t bite, you know

Spellbound (1945)

Spellbound.jpg

If there’s anything I hate, it’s a smug woman. Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck) arrives at Green Manors, a Vermont mental hospital, to replace the outgoing hospital director, Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll).  Dr. Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman), a psychoanalyst, discovers he is an impostor. The man confesses that the real Dr. Edwardes is dead and he believes he might have killed him, but cannot recall anything. Dr. Peterson, however is convinced he is innocent and joins him on a quest to unravel his amnesia through psychoanalysis…That Freud stuff’s a bunch of hooey/Oh, you are a fine one to talk! You have a guilt complex and amnesia and you don’t know if you are coming or going from somewhere, but Freud is hooey! *This* you know! Hmph! Wiseguy.  Adapted by Angus MacPhail and Ben Hecht (with uncredited contributions from David O. Selznick’s psychiatrist May Romm!) from the 1927 novel The House of Dr Edwardes by Hilary Saint George Saunders and John Palmer, this is the Hitchcock film that brought Salvador Dali to Hollywood and those dream sequences (only 2 of the original 20 minutes remain) are a fascinating component of a film that also boasts notable theremin work in the score by Miklós Rózsa. Peck and Bergman are quite wonderful in a story that has a solidly suspenseful plot with many surprises. It’s a mad film that isn’t so much directed as orchestrated and the melodramatic flourishes are perfectly pitched. A brilliant synthesis of talents and ideas that were all aswirl as Freudianism gripped America, awash with dream symbolism and nutty psychoanalysis, it is also fascinating to see Michael (Mikhail) Chekhov, the acting coach who famously trained talents as diverse as Marilyn Monroe and Jack Nicholson, in the role of Dr Alex Brulov, Constance’s mentor. Hitchcock regular Carroll is good as the inscrutable head of the hospital, while Rhonda Fleming has a nice supporting role as a patient.  Good night and sweet dreams… which we’ll analyze at breakfast

You Were Never Really Here (2018)

You Were Never Really Here.png

Close your eyes. Traumatised war veteran Joe Rogers (Joaquin Phoenix) tracks down child traffickers for a living. He lives a small life with his mom (Judith Roberts) in between assignments. When he’s hired to find Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) the kidnapped thirteen-year old daughter of a senator he finds himself engulfed in a violent conspiracy and he vows to get the child back after she’s snatched from their hideout. But can he hold it together long enough to find her?… I want you to hurt them. No synopsis can capture or justify the sonorous strangeness of this film.  Lynne Ramsay’s gimlet eye for observation and composition was present in her first short films twenty years ago. Now her images remind one of Bresson, Kubrick, Melville. But scuzzy Phoenix is not the beautiful Delon – he’s a former soldier traumatised by PTSD and  haunted by the abuse he and his mother suffered at the hands of his father. (It’s not everyone whose safe place is in the closet with a polythene garment bag around their head.)  Nina’s numbed silence matches his flashbacks to terror – as more unspools in front of him. This is a chance for a kind of redemption, especially when the unknown thugs hurt his beloved mother who happens to have been watching Psycho when we first meet her. Some of the action is just avoided – we see Joe exit rooms via close circuit camera. We see what is absolutely necessary to understand his perspective – including snapshots of his life in the war zone which blurt into the action when he’s driving, struggling to stay conscious. It denies us the usual thrill of the chase. Who is Sandy, whose name chain figures largely at the beginning? Where were those other dead girls? His point of view is everything:  it simply propels us forward as the superfluous is jettisoned. We are left to imagine the sexual violence perpetrated:  it’s a refined approach to action which has its own reasoning, contrasting deeply with the beautifully drawn domesticity of Joe’s life with his mom. There are no explanations as to the sex slavery ring run at the higher echelons of public office.  If this doesn’t quite attain the levels of poetic one expects it packs a hell of a wallop. Ramsay adapted the book by Jonathan Ames and it’s shot by Thomas Townend with a score by Jonny Greenwood and despite the many ironic songs used in an inspired auditory experience courtesy of Paul Davies, nobody thought of If I Had a Hammer, Joe’s weapon of choice.  Sparse and sinewy, this tightly wound paean to suffering inhabits the mind. Hey Joe, wake up. Let’s go. It’s a beautiful day