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

Hitchcock Takes on Psychoanalysis: “Spellbound” (1945) starring Ingrid Bergman & Gregory Peck

Title Card: The fault… is not in our stars, but in ourselves… – Shakespeare

Dr. Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman) is a young psychiatrist who has been working for 6 mos. at Green Manors mental institute in Vermont. In between dealing w/ her patients and reading the latest theories, she has to deal w/ a doctor incessantly hitting on her. The director of Green Manors, Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll), has just been replaced; his replacement is the young Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck), who has published several books (incl. one focused on “the guilt complex”). Romance quickly develops between Dr. Petersen and Dr. Edwardes, but then he starts to show strange aversions and personality traits. It turns out that he has amnesia! Could he be guilty of a crime, or is it all in his head? What happened to the real Dr. Edwardes?

Dr. Petersen: I think the greatest harm done the human race has been done by the poets. …They keep filling people’s heads with delusions about love… writing about it as if it were a symphony orchestra or a flight of angels.

Suspicion was of the first Hollywood films to deal w/ the (then popular) subject of psychoanalysis; screenwriter Ben Hecht consulted w/ several psychoanalysts of that time. Producer David O. Selznick wanted the movie to be based on his experiences, even bringing in his psychotherapist as a technical advisor. When she argued w/ Sir Alfred Hitchcock on the set, the director replied, “My dear, it’s only a movie.” Later, Hitch summed up the movie as “just another manhunt wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis.” If the psychology angle doesn’t interest you, the love story certainly will! Bergman and Peck have terrific chemistry; as a kid, I wondered if they really were in love. In 1987 (5 yrs after she died), Peck revealed to People magazine that he “had a great love for Bergman.” They had an affair for a few weeks during filming (though both were married)!

Dr. Alex Brulov: Apparently the mind is never too sick to make jokes about psychoanalysis.

The much-discussed dream sequence (designed by painter Salvador Dali) was originally 20 mins long, but ended up being 2 mins. Hitch handed over that segment to director William Cameron Menzies, who is not credited (as he didn’t like the final edit). The music (composed by Miklos Rozsa) is also a prominent aspect enhancing the story. Jerry Goldsmith said he loved the score; it inspired his own music. Some Star Wars fans have pointed out the Anakin and Padme’s love theme (composed by John Williams) sounds similar to the love theme here!

I couldn’t produce the facial expressions that Hitch wanted turned on. I didn’t have that facility. He already had a preconception of what the expression ought to be on your face, he planned that as carefully as the camera angles. Hitchcock was an outside fellow, and I had the Stanislavski training from the Neighborhood Playhouse, which means you work from the inside. –Gregory Peck

[1] Now the best thing about ‘Spellbound’ and what really makes it into a wonderfully entertaining mystery/romance is Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck. These two Golden Age superstars are both absolutely wonderful individually, but together they are magical

[2] The scenes with Bergman, Peck and Chekhov are the highlight of the film, and I have to admit that I’m even kind of fond of the hotel lobby scene, with the appealingly breezy Bill Goodwin (of “Burns and Allen” radio fame) as the house detective. Peck has never been more handsome, in a strangely fragile way.

[3] Most of the picture is thrown Bergman’s way and she is such an accomplished actress and lights up the screen with such a charismatic inner radiance

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Kiss Me Deadly” (1955)

Christina: You have only one real lasting love.

Mike: Now who could that be?

Christina: You. You’re one of those self-indulgent males who thinks about nothing but his clothes, his car, himself. Bet you do push-ups every morning just to keep your belly hard.

A scared young woman in a raincoat is running barefoot on the highway, trying to flag down a car. After some cars pass her by, the woman sees a fancy sports car approaching and stands directly in its path! PI Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) is behind the wheel, and after almost hitting the woman, he tells her to get in. The woman’s name is Christina Bailey (Cloris Leachman in her first movie role); she’s on the run from a mental institution (“laughing house”). Whoever was after her eventually catches up w/ them! Christina dies while being questioned under some sort of torture. The killers fake an accident by pushing Hammer’s car off the road; he survives and wakes up in hospital. Mike starts to investigate Christina’s death, even after told by the police (and FBI) to stay out of it.

In the hands of the director Robert Aldrich, the film becomes a starting point for a delirious expression of 1950s anxiety and paranoia, starting with opening credits that run backwards…

Noir b&w has never been photographed (Earnest Laszlo) more effectively than some of those night scenes… plus the long, dark hallways and staircases that suggest an enclosed world without redemption.

Right from the electric opening scene and the audacious opening credit sequence, the audience is drawn into Hammer’s seedy world, where morality is suspended, and the credo of the end justifying the means dominates Hammer’s actions.

 The “great whatsit” which Hammer searches for is one of the great movie gimmicks…

-Excerpts from IMDB movies

Based on Mickey Spillane’s novel and adapted by Al Bezzerides, the movie has an unique style and it’s recommended for fans of film noir. The story is transported from NYC to LA; the suitcase filled w/ drugs (too controversial) becomes something more dangerous.This is one of the first instances where a car in traffic looks realistic. Aldrich strapped a camera to the back of Hammer’s car. Martin Scorcese and Quentin Tarantino were influenced by this B movie.

Velda: Do me a favor, will you? Keep away from the windows. Somebody might… blow you a kiss.

It’s implied the characters have a sex life. Some of the camera angles are modern and unusual. The supporting characters are diverse; we see Greek and Italian immigrants, a black boxing coach (Juano Hernandez from The Breaking Point), and a nightclub singer and bartender (who are also black). The acting is a mixed bag, but Meeker does a fine job as the tough, unflinching protagonist; he was a theater actor. We hear a song by Nat King Cole in the opening (“I’d Rather Have the Blues”). You can watch the movie on YouTube (for free)!

For Rom Com Fans: “The Lady Eve” (1941) starring Barbara Stanwyck & Henry Fonda

[1] Practically everyone in the film has (at least) two names: Jean/Eve, Charlie/Hopsie, Muggsy/Murgatroyd/Ambrose, Harry/Colonel Harrington, Pearlie/Sir Alfred and so on. This suggests, quite rightly, that people are complicated complex beings, and that appearances often have nothing to do with reality.

Fonda …it must really take quite a lot of true acting ability to execute the pratfalls that he does without making Charlie such a wimp that you can’t imagine Jean still wanting him at the very end.

[2] …it’s all about sexual gamesmanship, and its tone is both matter-of-fact and dizzyingly playful at the same time.

…a boudoir farce, a slapstick clinic, a cynical dialogue comedy AND a love story of great, soulful heart.

[3] This may have been Henry Fonda’s best comedy part. …Fonda does so well in the part because he plays it absolutely straight. No tongue in cheek, no winks at the audience, Fonda plays it straight and sincere.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Col. Harrington: Don’t be vulgar, Jean. Let us be crooked, but never common.

This screwball comedy was written/directed by Preston Sturges, who wrote for theater/movies, then got into directing after age 40. He wrote the screenplay for Remember the Night (1940) starring Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. Returning from a year in Amazon forest studying snakes (his passion), the heir to an ale fortune, Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), meets Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) aboard a ship. Charles (shy/nerdy) is putty in the hands of Jean (who exudes confidence/charm). His street-tough bodyguard, Muggsy (William Demarest), is suspicious of the young woman. Charles and Jean fall in love, but he breaks up w/ her after learning that Jean and her father, Col. Harrington (veteran character actor Charles Coburn), are con-artists!

Jean: You see, Hopsie, you don’t know very much about girls. The best ones aren’t as good as you probably think they are and the bad ones aren’t as bad. Not nearly as bad.

Some time later, the Harringtons run into a friend who goes by the name Sir Alfred McGlennon Keith (Eric Blore). His latest con involves cheating millionaires at cards in a uber-rich town in Connecticut, where the Pikes happen to live. Eve gets an idea: taking on the persona of an Englishwoman (Lady Eve Sidwich) who could be Sir Alfred’s niece, and seeking revenge on Charles.

Jean: He isn’t backwards. He’s a scientist.

Sir Alfred: Oh, is that what it is? I knew he was… peculiar.

There are many laughs (thanks to the snappy dialogue and physical comedy); the romance is done very well, too! The opening credits feature a grinning cartoon snake, reminding us of Satan in the Garden or Eden. Even before Charles climbs aboard the ship, Jean drops an apple (representing knowledge) which hits his head. The single ladies checking him out make Charles very uncomfortable, but Jean trips him to get his attention. Everything about Jean- her perfume, high heels, looks, and sparking wit- have a strong effect on Charles. The chemistry between Fonda (who plays his role totally seriously) and Stanwyck (who is good in every role) is electric!

“A Double Life” (1947) starring Ronald Colman, Signe Hasso, Edmond O’Brien, & Shelley Winters

[1] Electrifying suspense, laced with crackling dialogue and melodrama. Winters, in one of her earliest roles, is divine… This film gives new meaning to the phrase “disappearing into a character.”

[2] Milton Krasner’s dark cinematography and Miklos Rozsa’s dissonant score supports George Cukor’s pessimistic direction.

[3] …can an actor get that wrapped up in a role? I heard different things about this. Some actors have admitted taking a role home with them from the theater or movie set. Others have found a role they have to be stimulating, influencing them on a new cause of action regarding their lives or some aspect of life.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Anthony John (Ronald Colman in an Oscar winning role) is a successful/middle-aged/British actor whose life is influenced by the characters he plays. When he’s acting in a comedy, he’s light-hearted and fun to be around. When he’s acting in a tragedy, he becomes brooding and very difficult to handle. That’s the reason why his Swedish ex-wife, Brita (Signe Hasso), divorced him 2 years ago. They still love each other, respectfully work together, but can’t live together. One night, Anthony ends up at a restaurant in Little Italy; he meets a young waitress, Pat (Shelley Winters). He accepts the title role in Shakespeare’s Othello and devotes himself entirely to the challenging part. Anthony begins to suspect that Brita is involved w/ a press agent, Bill (Edmond O’Brien), and grows jealous!

Anthony: You want to know my name- Martin.

Pat: Thank you!

Anthony: Also Ernest and Paul, and Hamlet and Jo and, maybe, Othello. I’m French and Russian and English and Norwegian.

Pat: I got mixed blood too!

The role of Anthony John was written for Laurence Olivier, but he was unavailable when the film went into production. In real life, actor Paul Robeson (the first black actor to star in Othello on Broadway) had just completed the longest run of the play. In the movie, Anthony and Brita act in more than 300 performances of the tragedy; I assumed this was highly unlikely. I learned that most Shakespeare productions on Broadway are lucky to run several months; Richard Burton had a 4 month stint in a 1964 production of Hamlet. Director George Cukor (best-known as a “women’s director”) does a fine job w/ darker subject matter than he usually handles. The script was written by the husband-and-wife team of Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon. This talented duo also wrote Adam’s Rib (1949) and Pat and Mike (1952), which became films starring two iconic actors (Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy).

Anthony [narrating]: The part begins to seep into your life, and the battle begins. Reality against imagination.

When an actor has to play an actor, I’m sure it’s a challenge. Colman shows the character’s tortured double personality, using costumes, facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. He reveals what Anthony is going through as himself and as Othello. I esp. liked the witty banter between Anthony and Brita; they seem like a real former couple who turned into close friends. Winters looks sweet, vulnerable, yet also has a bit of toughness; this was her breakout role (after small roles in 20 movies). I learned that she was roommates w/ Marilyn Monroe when they were new to Hollywood. Though they went to a lot of parties, Winters commented that Marilyn always gravitated toward the intellectuals. If you like Shakespeare and film noir (like me), check this unique movie out!