The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

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Raymond Shaw is the nicest, warmest, bravest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever met. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is nothing of the sort. He’s a nasty friendless well-connected Sergeant returning from the Korean War whose domineering widowed mother (Angela Lansbury) is now married to McCarthyite Senator Iselin (James Gregory) and she really is the power behind the throne:  he’s so dim he has to look at a bottle of ketchup to remember the number of Communists he says are in the State Dept. Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) is plagued by dreams of brainwashing and he’s not the only one. He investigates the possibility that there’s a sleeper agent in his platoon:  but what’s the plan? And when he discovers it’s Shaw, what is he programmed to do? And who could be his US control? This astonishing blend of Cold War paranoia, satire, political thriller and film noir is as urgent as it’s ever been. Brilliantly constructed visually – look at the cutting from dream to reality to TV coverage – by John Frankenheimer, in George Axelrod’s adaptation of the Richard Condon novel, this is even better tenth time around. This hugely controversial film was released during the Bay of Pigs crisis. The title has entered the lexicon and it became the go-to explanation for the major assassinations – both Kennedys and even John Lennon. This was Sinatra’s second film about a potential Presidential murder (he starred in Suddenly eight years earlier) and he stopped its distribution following the JFK assassination – but not due to personal sensitivities, moreso that his profit participation wasn’t being honoured by United Artists. His involvement was such that even a nightclub is named Jilly’s. Lansbury is simply masterful as the monster mother but the book’s incest theme is played down. What you will be left wondering in the aftermath of the film’s shocking impact is just why did Janet Leigh refer to the Chinese?! Amazing.

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Psycho (1998)

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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.

Wives and Lovers (1963)

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Are you working these days or are you writing?! Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Van Johnson has. He’s the unsuccessful author in a NYC coldwater flat happily married to dental assistant Janet Leigh with a 7 year old kid. Then agent Martha Hyer (‘the hottest agent in town’ – ‘in and out of the office!’) suddenly sells his novel to Broadway, a literary publisher and Hollywood and they move to the posh burbs where neighbours Shelley Winters (formerly married to a movie star) and her house guest Ray Walston rock the marital boat. When actor Jeremy Slate takes the lead in the play, he finds in Leigh a neglected stage wife, ripe for plucking … A super-slick 60s drama with sharp performances by a great cast (particularly Leigh and Walston) who have some rare, acid dialogue and enjoy casting caustic social comment. The only disappointments lie in the monochrome filming and the fact that the Bacharach and David song performed by my beloved Jack Jones (and inspired by the film) never made it to the soundtrack, which is pretty good stuff by Lyn Murray. Adapted by Edward Anhalt from Jay Presson Allen’s play, directed by John Rich with cinematography by Lucien Ballard. Biker movie fans will recognise Slate from his roles in The Born Losers (he takes on Billy Jack!), The Mini-Skirt Mob, Hell’s Belles and Hell’s Angels ’69.

Touch of Evil (1958)

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Newlywed Mexican narcotics officer Mike Vargas  (Charlton Heston) arrives with wife Susan (Janet Leigh) in his part of the world in the most famous travelling shot in cinema history and a car explodes ahead of the border checkpoint. That’s the audacious start to one of the best films Orson Welles ever made, in this tale of police corruption, gangs and drug running along the Mexican border. An unrecognisable Welles himself plays the crooked cop Quinlan, Marlene Dietrich shows up as trampy but honourable Tana and we have a preview of Psycho when Janet checks into a motel where a twitchy Dennis Weaver admits her as his only guest … Look out for Joi Lansing and Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Mercedes McCambridge makes a very welcome appearance. A classic that took far too many years to restore to its intended version.

Psycho (1960)

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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.

The Naked Spur (1953)

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What a change James Stewart’s rep took in the Fifties: in this, his third western collaboration with director Anthony Mann, he is perfectly neurotic, hysterical even, as the greed-driven bounty hunter. He teams up with an old-timer prospector (Millard Mitchell) and a former soldier (Ralph Meeker) to track down marshal-killer Robert Ryan (he made two other films with Mann: Men in War and God’s Little Acre). They think Stewart is a sheriff. Then when Ryan’s found, he tells them about the number on his head and he’s accompanied by his ward, Janet Leigh. Ryan pits them all against each other and the tensions play out against a tremendously photographed landscape:  Durango, the San Juan Mountains and Lone Pine, California (the Hollywood of the Rockies, as Stewart dedicated a monument during production). Stewart is tremendous, so too is Leigh. What is it about her that made so many great directors work with her? She did Touch of Evil with Welles;  Psycho with Hitchcock;  and The Manchurian Candidate, directed by John Frankenheimer and looking far more spookily relevant the more we learn about insider politics in Washington and the Kennedy ‘lone assassins’. Her exchanges with Stewart here are wonderful. She can really carry a scene and she looks great. Mitchell died aged fifty soon after production was concluded. Stewart had two other films directed by Mann on release the same year: Thunder Bay and The Glenn Miller Story, both good (and good looking) in their way but nothing like as striking as this. It got an Academy Award for the screenplay by Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom – something that rarely happens for a western.

The Fog (1980)

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‘Tis the season to be spooky! The countdown to Halloween commences. See this wonderful John Carpenter film in its original widescreen version, not the pan/scan version so frequently used on television.  A beautifully shot ghost story, a genuinely eerie tale of a (literal) haunting revenge on the northern Californian coast one hundred years after a shipwreck. A logical conclusion to The Birds (1963), perhaps, featuring Hitchcock’s most memorable heroine, Janet Leigh.