The Mother of All Horrors: Hitchcock’s “Psycho” (1960) starring Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, John Gavin, & Martin Balsam

Marion: Oh, we can see each other. We can even have dinner but respectably in my house with my mother’s picture on the mantel and my sister helping me broil a big steak for three.

Sam: And after the steak, do we send Sister to the movies? Turn mama’s picture to the wall?

A secretary in Phoenix, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), is tired of how her life is going. She has to meet her boyfriend, Sam Loomis (John Gavin), on lunch breaks at a cheap hotel. Sam has to pay alimony to his ex-wife and lives in the back of his hardware store, so thinks they can’t yet get married. One Friday, Marion is trusted to take $40,000 to the bank by her boss. (Pat Hitchcock plays Marion’s co-worker.) Marion decides to steal this money and head to Sam’s town in Northern California. When she’s caught in a storm, she gets off the main highway and pulls into the Bates Motel. It’s managed by a young man, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), who seems to be dominated by his mother. Later on, we meet others, incl. Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) and a PI named Mr. Arbogast (Martin Balsam).

Marion: Do you go out with friends?

Norman: A boy’s best friend is his mother.

Psycho (iconic to modern viewers, yet controversial in its day) was made b/c Sir Alfred Hitchcock wanted to experiment w/ a sparser style of filmmaking. He used a crew mostly of TV veterans (incl. from his show– Alfred Hitchcock Presents) and hired actors who weren’t yet well-known. Hitch bought the rights to the novel from writer Robert Bloch for a mere $9,000. He also bought up as many copies of the book as he could find (to keep the ending a secret). Before cast/crew began work, they had to raise their right hands and promise not to reveal one word of the story. Hitch didn’t even tell his cast the ending until he needed to shoot it. The director made all the movie theater owners sign a contract that they wouldn’t let anyone in until the start of the film. Once they were late, they’d not be let in until the next showing. This started the process of mandatory seating times at theaters which continues today!

Norman: It’s not like my mother is a maniac or a raving thing. She just goes a little mad sometimes. We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you?

Marion: Yes. Sometimes just one time can be enough.

Paramount gave Hitch a small budget (under $1M), b/c of the studio’s distaste of the source material. He shot in black-and-white b/c he thought it’d be too gory in color and to save money. The studio gave 60% of the proceeds to Hitch (in lieu of a salary), thinking the movie would fail. Though most film critics hated it, Psycho was a big hit and Hitch ended up earning over $15 million- LOL! Hitch was so happy w/ the strings-only score (by Bernard Herrmann) that he doubled the famed composer’s salary. Hitch commented: “33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music.” The director originally wanted the shower scene to be silent, but Herrmann scored it anyway; Hitchcock immediately changed his mind when he heard the music!

Arbogast: All right, then let’s say for the sake of argument that she needed your help and that she made you out to be a fool in helping her…

Norman: Well, I’m not a fool. And I’m not capable of being fooled! Not even by a woman.

In the novel, Norman is short, fat, older, and unlikable; Hitch decided to re-imagine him as a “boy next door” type. He cast Perkins (his first choice) who has an earnest quality; he is tall and thin w/ boyish looks. Perkins does a terrific job, creating a subtle, creepy, and very unsettling young man. The dinner conversation w/ Marion (amidst the stuffed birds) is a scene studied by budding filmmakers in school. Sam is in most ways the polar opposite of Norman; he represents ’50s “old school” masculinity, while Norman suffers from gender confusion. Sam is bossy w/ the women around him; Norman is timid. Sam’s relationship w/ Marion is portrayed as healthy, but Norman’s relationship w/ her is predatory. Hitch didn’t want Gavin for the role of Sam, but the studio insisted (b/c of his “beefcake” status). Looking back, viewers thought Gavin did a fine job w/ the role.

The structure of this film is rare for its time. We think the protagonist will be Marion, but then the focus shifts to Norman; eventually we follow Lila and Sam. Lila (introduced just before the 1 hr. mark) may be conventional when compared to the risk-taking Marion, but she’s a determined woman also. Miles and Leigh look like they really could be sisters. Arbogast doesn’t have a big role, but he has a fine scene w/ Norman. Hitchcock wasn’t a fan of authority figures; notice how the highway patrolman is portrayed in a sinister manner (never even removing his sunglasses). Many have commented how they hated the scene just before the ending (as did Hitch); the studio insisted on having the psychiatrist wrap things up for the audience.

[1] We can see that he is moody when he angrily leans forward and delivers an angry, though controlled tirade against putting people in institutions. Every camera angle and line of dialogue in this scene has meaning and carries enormous weight, and yet the drama plays out in a light, relaxed mode, and the performers seems truly connected to one another at its conclusion, strangers no more.

[2] …this movie doesn’t have the shock value today for audiences

But, what you WILL see in this movie is (1) superb acting; (2) a fascinating lead character; (3) excellent photography, and (4) a bizarre story.

[3] You can feel the decade literally shifting out of ’50s and into ’60s with this one. Norman Rockwell touches abound, like the decor of the motel, but look at what’s going on around it. People dress well, they still wear fedoras and jackets, but in their tense conversations and hooded gazes, you can feel the culture just ticking away like a time bomb waiting to explode.

Most especially, there’s Anthony Perkins, who plays motel clerk Norman Bates in a very oddly naturalistic way, complete with facial tics and half-swallowed words, not the polished image one expected to see then.

– Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“The Wedding Guest” (2018) starring Dev Patel & Radhika Apte

Jay (Dev Patel) is a quiet/mysterious Muslim man who travels from London to the Punjab region of Pakistan, supposedly to attend the wedding of a friend. He brings along duct tape, guns, several cell phones, and a plan to kidnap the bride-to-be, Samira (Radhika Apte). Despite his cold efficiency, the plan quickly gets out of control, sending Jay and his hostage on the run across the border and through different parts of India. Jay has various names and identities, so carries several passports and credit cards. He was hired by a wealthy man who is now nervous to meet up and pay. The kidnapping and fallout make international news (Samira is a British citizen). The story evolves into a road trip, but w/ settings we usually don’t see in movies.

The film (which I saw last week free On Demand) has British and Indian producers. It has some twists and turns, but isn’t a typical thriller. It seems to me like a neo noir (in some aspects). The British writer/director, Michael Winterbottom, is known for out of the box films; I’ve seen Jude and The Claim. The cinematographer, Giles Nuttgens, has shot several films in India (incl. Earth, Fire, Water, and Midnight’s Children w/ director Deepa Mehta). The music, composed by Harry Escott, is unique and helps to create tension. The attraction between Patel and Apte develops as they open up to each other (slowly); they have good chemistry together.

[1] The movie benefits enormously from Dev Patel’s excellent work. He is in virtually every frame of the movie. Indian actress Radhika Apte… turns out to be a worthy sparring partner for Patel.

[2] You’ll like this movie if you like human characters, feelings, & relationships, along with a “slice of life” style, where you witness the characters move through a time & set of shared experiences together & may end well, badly, or anywhere in between.

Patel is now a mature leading man — in this movie, a bit of a Jean Reno type. He’s deadpan, but I like it.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Art, Gender, & Desire: “Venus in Fur” (2013) starring Mathieu Amalric & Emmanuelle Seigner

Based on the Tony-winning Broadway play by American writer, David Ives, Venus in Fur is a 2013 French film by famed/controversial director Roman Polanski. Alone in a Paris theater after a long day of auditioning actresses for his new play, writer-director Thomas (Mathieu Amalric), complains to his fiancee (on the phone) that no actress has what it takes to play the lead female character. Thomas is about to leave the theater when actress Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) bursts in, a whirlwind of energy. At first, she is pushy, desperate, and not prepared- or so it seems. Under her coat, Vanda wears a risque black leather and lace outfit (w/ a dog collar). Thomas reluctantly agrees to let her try out; he is stunned by her transformation. Vanda is perfect (even sharing the character’s name); she obviously researched the role, learned the lines by heart, and brought along some props! As the audition continues, Thomas’ feelings go from from attraction to obsession, and Vanda takes on a more dominant role in the story. Vanda comes to tower over Thomas as she becomes stronger.

This was Polanski’s first non-English feature film in over 51 yrs; I saw it several years ago (and didn’t realize he was the director). I re-watched it on YouTube (it’s available for rent). The lighting is superb and the music (composed by Frenchman Alexandre Desplat) is used very well. He moves the story from NYC to Paris, b/c Polanski wanted to work w/ his wife in her native language- French. Originally, Vanda was a 24 y.o. actress (thus her short resume) and Thomas was a young playwright (w/ a few plays under his belt). On Broadway, then recent NYU grad- Nina Arianda- made a name for herself (2010-2012) as Vanda opposite Wes Bentley and Hugh Dancy. In London, Natalie Dormer (The Tudors; Game of Thrones) played the role opposite David Oakes. Louis Garrel (who is young and conventionally handsome) was originally cast as Thomas for this movie. Amalric is middle-aged, w/ a small build, and dark/intense eyes. As some viewers noted, he resembles a younger Polanski. Amalric’s mother comes from a Polish/Jewish family; she was born in the Polish village where Polanski lived w/ his family before WWII. Directors don’t make decisions w/o a reason!

Forget that badly-written and adapted Fifty Shades trilogy! There are several layers to this clever story of power imbalance: woman vs. man (in the play set in 1870), actor who wants the role vs. director who decides who gets the role (in the theater), and man vs. goddess (Venus AKA Aphrodite). It’s also about life imitating art, hidden desires, misogyny, and role playing. Thomas has to read w/ Vanda b/c none of the actors are there; it turns out that he’s really into it. Thomas starts out directing Vanda, but later she doesn’t hesitate in directing him. She even knows how to adjust the lights in the theater- hmmm. They put on and take off clothing to create these characters, as is common backstage in the theater. They quickly and easily switch from being themselves to the characters in the play!

[1] Thanks to the brilliant connections between literature, stage and reality, and thanks to the many things that remain unclear about the character’s real identities and motivations, this movie sounds much more like a question than like a an answer…

[2] The characters conflict with each other perfectly, I don’t mean that they completely disagree on everything, I mean that they disagree on a certain number of things and they agree on a certain number of things for their characters to have great chemistry.

[3] What was most surprising for me is how much we laughed during the film. It was really hilarious…

[4] The mystery of who exactly Vanda is keeps getting bigger until it reaches deific proportions…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Clash by Night” (1952) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Paul Douglas, Robert Ryan, & Marilyn Monroe

The title derives from Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach (1867):

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Mae: What do you want, Joe, my life’s history? Here it is in four words: big ideas, small results.

Directed by Lee Strasberg, Clifford Odets’ play, Clash by Night, had a short Broadway run from late 1941 to early 1942. The cast included Robert Ryan as Joe Doyle (the character who is Marilyn Monroe’s boyfriend in the film), Joseph Schildkraut as Earl Pfeiffer, Lee J. Cobb as Jerry Wilenski, and Tallulah Bankhead as Mae Doyle. Wow, how cool would it have been to see Cobb (one of Hollywood’s best character actors) perform live!? The production revolved around a Polish family on Staten Island, NY, before the US gets into WWII. In the original play, Jerry (the cuckolded husband) kills Earl (his wife’s lover) in their climactic fight; Hollywood (of course) had a different idea.

Earl: Jerry’s the salt of the earth, but he’s not the right seasoning for you.

Mae: What kind of seasoning do I need?

Earl: You’re like me. A dash of Tabasco or the meat tastes flat.

This was one of Monroe’s starring roles, she was under an acting coach (who worked for 20th Century Fox where Monroe, then only 25, was on contract) and wanted her on the set. The coach would stand behind director Fritz Lang and tell her when a scene was good enough. When Lang (known for his difficult personality) realized this, he demanded the coach leave the set. After Monroe complained and wouldn’t act w/o her, Lang allowed the coach to return, on the condition that she not direct Monroe. The actress was loaned out to RKO Pictures for this film; she shows a lot of potential here (brightening up the mood of the story).

Jerry: I like you – you know that.

Mae: You don’t know anything about me. What kind of an animal am I? Do I have fangs? Do I purr? What jungle am I from? You don’t know a thing about me.

The film noir drama is set Monterey, CA, a town where almost everyone is connected to the commercial fishing industry. After 10 yrs, Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) returns home, feeling tired, bitter, and depressed. Her macho/judgmental younger brother, Joe (Keith Andes), wonders what she’s been doing w/ her life. Mae fell for a married politician who died; she has nowhere left to go. Joe’s spunky/beautiful 20 y.o. girlfriend, Peggy (Monroe in an early supporting role), takes a liking to Mae. After a short time dating, Mae decides to marry a fisherman, Jerry D’Amato (Paul Douglas), a naive/optimistic bear-like man who feels “safe.” Of course, she isn’t in love w/ Jerry (and he knows that). After a year of domestic life and having a baby girl, Mae feels stifled. She has an affair w/ Jerry’s friend, Earl Pfeiffer (Robert Ryan), a film projectionist who is recently divorced. Jerry finds out about their betrayal- he could explode w/ jealousy and anger!

Earl: Mae – what do you really think of me?

Mae: [coolly] You impress me as a man who needs a new suit of clothes or a new love affair – but he doesn’t know which.

Earl: [stung] You can’t make me any smaller. I happen to be pre-shrunk.

There is some great scenery- the ocean waves breaking on the beach, seagulls flocking, seals playing on rocks. We see the rough-and-tumble lives of blue-collar people; Peggy works in a fish cannery while Joe works on Jerry’s boat. People in this community fight loudly and drink heavily (drowning the disappointments of their unfulfilled lives). Jerry’s Sicilian immigrant father drinks b/c he can’t get any work at his advanced age. His bachelor uncle, Vince, also drinks and avoids responsibility.

[1] The power of “Clash by Night” lies… in the no-nonsense acting of Stanwyck and Ryan, tough as nails, but raw at the core. They have an animal eroticism together between them that sparkles like fireworks, but they are also, alas, quite self-pitying.

[2] Stanwyck has never better than she is here, and she dominates the film, vanquishing such heavyweight co-stars… …she is magnificent in this movie, which seems almost to flow from her. As her simple, trusting husband Paul Douglas is almost as good; and Robert Ryan nearly steals the show as a sadistic loser who is somehow magnetic, pathetic and yet highly observant, all at the same time. 

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

I heard about this movie from a film noir group on Facebook; you can rent it for $2.99 on Amazon. It has some fine/memorable dialogue, which is why many people watch classics. Stanwyck (who was going through a divorce from actor Robert Taylor) inhabits her conflicted character; she is rarely at ease (note her body language, esp. in the early scenes). This is the type of role usually given to an anti-hero man in Hollywood. Instead, Mae is a conflicted woman who must choose between Jerry- the nice guy (security/respectability)- and Earl- the bad boy (danger/uncertainty). Though these are middle-aged people, they are not quite settled in their minds. Mae and Earl expected much more from life; they are drawn to each other like magnets. Jerry is content to be the breadwinner, husband, and father. The younger couple project a different energy in their scenes, but soon we realize that Joe would be a controlling husband (and perhaps diminish Peggy’s spirited personality).

Odets was born/raised in Philly and came from Jewish heritage (Russian and Romanian). He dropped out of HS to work as an actor. He was understudy on Broadway in 1929 to the young Spencer Tracy in Conflict by Warren F. Lawrence. Odets became one of the founding members of The Group Theatre, which became one of the most influential companies in the history of the American stage. They based their acting technique (new to the US) created by Russian actor/director Constantin Stanislavski. It was further developed by Group Theatre director Lee Strasberg and became known as The Method (or Method Acting). From working in the theater, Odets developed a great love of language, and was inspired to write his own plays. His socially relevant dramas, popular during the time of the Great Depression, inspired the several generations of playwrights: Arthur Miller, Paddy Chayefsky, Neil Simon, and David Mamet.

“Gaslight” (1944) starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotton, & Angela Lansbury

Named for this movie, “gaslighting” has become a recognized form of controlling and manipulative behavior. It involves an exploitative person manipulating those who suspect him/her into doubting themselves and questioning their own perceptions, so that they distrust their own suspicions of the manipulator. This behavior is now classified as a form of psychological abuse.

[1] The first scene establishes the dreary tone of the film. It is nighttime in London and a murder goes unsolved.

[2] Charles Boyer has in this film a thankless role, that of a devouring immoralist who has only two possible moods– brief burst of anger needing to be controlled and an exuded charm that must be slightly overdone at times.

[3] The actress – who would soon become blacklisted after her marriage to Italian director Roberto Rossellini – can convey every emotion and nuance of her character through her amazingly expressive eyes. 

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

The original Broadway stage play and source for the screenplay was Angel Street by Patrick Hamilton, which opened at the John Golden Theater on December 5, 1941 and ran for over a 1,200 performances! The original stage cast included Leo G. Carroll, Vincent Price, and Judith Evelyn. After the death of her famous opera singer aunt/guardian, Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman), goes to study in Italy to see if she has any talent as a singer as well. She falls in love w/ a charming/older man who works as a composer, Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer), and they return to London and take up residence in her aunt’s townhouse. Gregory limits her having visitors and going out. He keeps saying that his wife is unwell to anyone who asks. She begins to notice strange goings-on: missing pictures, strange footsteps at night, and gaslights dimming. Paula feels like she may be going out of her mind!

Bergman (who won an Oscar for her role) spent some time in a mental institution to research her role, studying a woman who had suffered a nervous breakdown. This was a suggestion from Cukor, who is known for his ability to draw out fine performances (esp. from women). As my mom commented, this was rare type of role for Bergman. I learned that the actress was initially reluctant to take on this role, as she considered herself to be very strong/independent. She worried that she’d be unable to convincingly play a timid/fragile woman.

Dame Angela Lansbury was only 17 y.o. when she made this- her movie debut! Lansbury (who was nominated for an Oscar) had never acted before her screen test, but she impressed director George Cukor w/ her natural talent. The scene in which the sassy/flirty maid Nancy lights a cigarette, defying her mistress Paula, had to be postponed until near the end of production. The social worker who was monitoring Lansbury refused to allow her to smoke (while she was a minor). New scenes not in the original play were added to this version. Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotten) was changed from a stout, sardonic elderly man to a young, handsome one (as a potential love interest for Bergman). For his part, Cotten relished the chance to play a heroic role, as he had done shady/negative roles in the few years before.

Cukor asked producers (who were reluctant) to hire Paul Huldschinsky to design the Victorian sets. Huldschinsky was a German refugee who fled his native country because of WWII. He knew much re: upper-class European decor, b/c his family had grown wealthy through their newspaper business and his wife was the heiress of a railroad fortune. When he moved to the U.S. most of that money was gone and he got by working on smaller pictures. However, his luck changed w/ this picture, and Huldschinsky won an Oscar for set design.