Summer Under the Stars Guide: 8/27-8/31

Well, here we are. It’s the last week of Summer Under the Stars. August is flying by. Here are my picks for the last few days,

Day 27-Leslie Caron

I could have picked any of the musicals from Caron’s filmography. But my pick is actually one that will be a first time viewing for me: Father Goose. The film co-stars Cary Grant, as a beachcomber in the South Sea who is persuaded to spy on planes passing over his island. But things get complicated when a schoolteacher (Caron) arrives on the island fleeing the Japanese. Grant ends up being responsible for the teacher and her pupils who are on the run with her. Sounds like some action-packed comedic fun to me.

Day 28-Slim Pickens

Slim Pickens is probably best remembered for his performance in Stanley Kubrick’s dark comedic masterpiece Dr. Strangelove. While that was inexplicably left off the TCM programming that day, his other scene-stealing performance was not. And that’s my pick for day 28: Blazing Saddles. Mel Brook’s irreverent send up of westerns is simply one of the most hysterical comedies ever to be filmed. Here’s a quick breakdown of the plot.

A town where everyone seems to be named Johnson is in the way of the railroad. In order to grab their land, Hedley Lemar (Harvey Korman), a politically connected nasty person, sends in his henchmen to make the town unlivable. After the sheriff is killed, the town demands a new sheriff from the Governor (Mel Brooks). Hedley convinces him to send the town the first Black sheriff (Cleavon Little) in the west. Bart is a sophisticated urbanite who will have some difficulty winning over the townspeople.–IMDB

Pickens is brilliant as one of Korman’s henchmen. And the film also features a great performance by the late Gene Wilder. The film is an equal opportunity offender. And that’s part of why I love it.

Day 29-Marion Davies

My pick for Marion Davies’ day is Show People. It’s a great satire on show business and a fun romantic comedy.

Colonel Pepper (Dell Henderson) brings his daughter, Peggy (Marion Davies), to Hollywood from Georgia to be an actress. There she meets Billy (William Haines) who gets her work at Comet Studio doing comedies with him. But Peggy is discovered by High Art Studio and she leaves Billy and Comet to work there. For her new image, she is now Patricia Pepoire and ignores Billy when he sees her on location. When she is not longer wanted by the little people who do not understand “ART”, she plans to marry Andre (Paul Ralli) to get a fake title. Billy will not let her go without a fight.–IMDB

Show People is a great silent comedy directed brilliantly by King Vidor.

Day 30-George Sanders

I must admit that I did a happy dance when I saw George Sanders’ day on the schedule. He’s not only a brilliant actor, but he has one of the most gorgeous voices in film history. He normally plays cads, but my choice is actually a film where he plays a good guy. It’s Hitchock’s brilliant thriller Foreign Correspondent. In the film, Sanders teams up with a reporter played by Joel McCrea to expose enemy spies in London on the eve of World War II. In addition to Sanders and McCrea, the film features a brilliant supporting cast that includes Laraine Day, Herbert Marshall, Robert Benchley, and Edmund Gwenn. It’s a taut thriller that is one of Hitchcock’s best. And that is saying something.

Day 31-Elizabeth Taylor

The last day is devoted to Elizabeth Taylor. And while she is largely remembered from her roles as an adult, especially Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Giant, my choice is actually one of her earliest film roles. It’s National Velvet from 1944. In the film, Taylor plays Velvet Brown, a young girl who dreams of riding her horse in the Grand National steeple chase. This film has a special place in my heart, because Velvet was a teen who was more interested in riding horses than chasing boys, a girl after my own heart. It’s an inspiring film that’s great for all ages. And Anne Revere is brilliant as Velvet’s mother. You’ll see why she won an Oscar. Also look for character actor Donald Crisp as Velvet’s stern but caring father and Mickey Rooney as a drifter who helps Velvet train her horse and live her dream.

That’s it for my Summer Under the Stars picks. Enjoy the last week of the festival!

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Summer Under the Stars Guide: 8/20-8/26

It’s that time of the week again. Here is my viewing guide for this week’s Summer Under The Stars programming on TCM.

Day 20-Cary Grant

You can’t go wrong with any Cary Grant movie. The man was talented in addition to being devilishly handsome. But if I had to pick one film from his day, it would have to be The Philadelphia Story. In addition to Cary Grant, the cast also includes Katherine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart, was directed by George Cukor, and features some of the best screwball comedy writing in the history of cinema. The plot, about a rich woman (Hepburn) about to remarry and having it sabotaged by her ex (Grant) and a tabloid reporter (Stewart) is a comic gold mine. This is one of the best ensemble comedies ever filmed.

Day 21-Ann Harding

For the day dedicated to Ann Harding, I’ve chosen It Happened on Fifth Avenue. I don’t normally watch Christmas films until after Thanksgiving. But here (and for one other pick this week), I’m breaking that rule. Christmas in this film is the backdrop for zany antics involving how a random group of people end up living in a mansion.

A homeless New Yorker moves into a mansion and along the way he gathers friends to live in the house with him. Before he knows it, he is living with the actual home owners.–IMDB

It’s a breezy comedy that earned an Oscar nomination for its screenplay. Just sit back and enjoy the lunacy and the heartwarming message underneath it all.

Day 22-Glenn Ford

Glenn Ford’s day features some great films, especially Blackboard Jungle and the noir classic Gilda. But my choice is the underrated Experiment in Terror. It’s a convoluted but fascinating thriller involving a woman being forced to pull off a bank heist.

Kelly Sherwood (Lee Remick) is terrorized by a man with an asthmatic voice (Ross Martin) who plans to use her to steal $100,000 from the bank where she works. He threatens to kill her teenage sister Toby (Stefanie Powers), if she tells the police. However she manages to contact F.B.I. agent Ripley (Glenn Ford).–IMDB

This film is suspenseful and beautifully acted. It also features a score by the wonderful Henry Mancini.

 

Day 23-Greer Garson

Greer Garson is quickly becoming a favorite of mine thanks to many of her films being shown on TCM. For Garson’s day, my choice is Madame Curie. It’s part biopic and part romance. In the film, physicist Pierre Curie (Walter Pidgeon) falls for student Marie (Garson), and the two embark on a quest to discover uranium. This isn’t just a soap opera romance. It gives equally time to the scientific aspects and gives Marie Curie, a trailblazing female scientist, her due. The chemistry between Garson and Pidgeon makes the film a must-see,

Day 24-Dennis Morgan

And here is the other day I break my no Christmas movies until after Thanksgiving rule. For the day of programming dedicated to Dennis Morgan, my pick is Christmas In Connecticut. It doesn’t get as much attention as Christmas classics like It’s A Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story. But it deserves to. The film features Barbara Stanwyck as a writer who is a Martha Stewart-type in her magazine columns, but is far from it in real life.

Journalist Elizabeth Lane (Stanwyck) is one of the country’s most famous food writers. In her columns, she describes herself as a hard-working farm woman, taking care of her children and being an excellent cook. But these are all lies. In reality she is an unmarried New Yorker who can’t even boil an egg. The recipes come from her good friend Felix (S.Z. Sakall). The owner of the magazine she works for (Sydney Greenstreet) has decided that a heroic sailor (Morgan) will spend his Christmas on *her* farm. Miss Lane knows that her career is over if the truth comes out, but what can she do?

This is another great ensemble comedy. In addition to Stanwyck and Morgan, there’s a great supporting cast. S.Z. Sakall and Sydney Greenstreet are priceless in this gem of a film.

Day 25-Simone Signoret

Simone Signoret is an actress I’m not all that familiar with. But the one film of hers I saw is one I have never forgotten, and it’s my pick for day 25: Diabolique. To cut to the chase, this is a thriller that is up there with the best of Alfred Hitchcock.

In a French provincial town, Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse), a sadistic headmaster of a school belonging to his wife Christina (Vera Clouzot), a fragile young woman with a weak heart, carries on an affair with Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret), a strong, forceful teacher who has been his mistress from the day she arrived. He has, however, treated her as badly as his wife, and the two women have been driven into an alliance against him. Together they work out an elaborate plan to rid themselves of their common tormentor. Luring him away from the school to Nocole’s cheap lodging house, they induce him to drink some doctored whiskey – and drown him in a bath. The body is later wrapped in a nylon tablecloth, packed into a laundry basket, taken back to the school, and at dark tipped into the grimy water of the school swimming pool. When, shortly after, the pool is drained, watched in anguished expectation from a window by the women, no corpse is there. Soon other mysterious events begin to occur..–IMDB

If Psycho made you afraid of showers, Diabolique will make you afraid of baths.

Day 26-James Cagney

James Cagney was one of the most versatile actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age. He was equally convincing as both a gangster (The Public Enemy) as he was a song and dance man (Yankee Doodle Dandy). My pick is from his gangster films. It’s White Heat. You probably know it from the iconic line, “made it, Ma! Top of the world!” But this film is more than just that one exhilarating moment. It’s a tour de force performance by Cagney as the ruthless gang leader that makes it a classic. Here’s the plot to get you up to speed.

Cody Jarrett (Cagney) is the sadistic leader of a ruthless gang of thieves. Afflicted by terrible headaches and fiercely devoted to his ‘Ma,’ (Margaret Wycherly)¬† Cody is a volatile, violent, and eccentric leader. Cody’s top henchman wants to lead the gang and attempts to have an ‘accident’ happen to Cody, while he is running the gang from in jail. But Cody is saved by an undercover cop, who thereby befriends him and infiltrates the gang. Finally, the stage is set for Cody’s ultimate betrayal and downfall, during a big heist at a chemical plant.–IMDB

Cagney commanded the screen like few others. This film is one great example of that.

Those are my picks for the week. Enjoy the movies!

 

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Summer Under the Stars Guide: 8/13-8/19

Greetings, readers! I hope if you get TCM you’re enjoying the Summer Under the Stars Festival as much as I am. Just like last week, I have picks for the days of each featured star. Here are my must-see movies for this week.

Day 13-Barbara Stanwyck

This was one of the hardest to pick just one. I’m a huge fan of Stanwyck’s and you honestly can’t go wrong with anything she’s in. Having said that, if you watch one film on her day, make it Baby Face. It’s the grande dame of pre-code movies. It was racy in 1933 and it’s racy today. Stanwyck is brilliant in the story of a woman literally sleeping her way to the top. Don’t miss it!

Day 14-Vanessa Redgrave

My pick for Redgrave’s day is Blow-Up. Michelangelo Antonioni’s mystery movie about a London photographer who thinks he may have photographed a murder, is one heck of a trip. It’s very 60s with its costumes and music. But it’s a great thriller to be sure. It’s psychedelic as well as mesmerizing.

Day 15-Ricardo Montalban

My favorite film of Montalban’s is actually Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. While that one isn’t being shown, there are plenty of other good ones. My pick for his day is Mystery Street. On the surface it’s a simple film noir in the format of a police procedural about the investigation of the death of a prostitute. But the way it’s constructed brilliantly builds tension. The film was groundbreaking for the first real presentation of forensic evidence in a movie and it was a breakthrough role for Montalban. Up until that time he had mostly been cast as a Latin lover.

Day 16-Elvis Presley

I have to confess I’m not the world’s biggest Elvis fan. But I did enjoy one movie of his, and it’s my pick of the day: Jailhouse Rock. A film about a talented singer/songwriter who becomes a teen idol after serving time for manslaughter, Jailhouse Rock shows us that Elvis Presley had potential to really grow as an actor. Sadly he never quite got the right material. It’s worth seeing for the iconic title song and it’s groundbreaking choreography.

Day 17-Rosalind Russell

Like Stanwyck’s day, Rosalind Russell’s day made it hard to pick just one. But I have to choose my favorite film comedy: His Girl Friday. The chemistry between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, the rapid-fire dialogue, and all the physical screwball comedy, make this film a pure delight. The plot, adapted from the play The Front Page, follows a newspaper editor (Grant) as he employs one trick after another to keep his top reporter and ex-wife from re-marrying. You can’t help but fall in love with this comedic masterpiece.

Day 18-Rod Taylor

I’m a lover of science fiction. So my pick for Rod Taylor’s day will hardly come as a surprise. It’s The Time Machine. Based on H.G. Wells’ classic novel of the same name, it follows a man who travels forward in time in a time machine, hoping to see the future as more utopian. Sadly the future isn’t quite that bright. The film, wonderfully directed by George Pal, manages to capture the intellectual spirit of the novel and also dazzle with groundbreaking special effects.

Day 19-Angela Lansbury

I grew up knowing Angela Lansbury from her TV series Murder, She Wrote and as the voice of Mrs. Potts in Beauty & the Beast. None of that prepared me for her chilling performance in John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate. As the mother of a Korean War hero and Medal of honor winner, Lansbury is spellbinding as the hero’s domineering mother who is part of a communist conspiracy plot that involves brainwashing and an assassination. Mrs. Iselin belongs on any respectable list of great movie villains.

Those are my picks for this week. Enjoy the movies!

 

 

 

Summer Under the Stars Guide: 8/6-8/12

Greetings, readers! I’m taking a break from my traditional blog entries this month to give you my picks for Summer Under the Stars. The annual tradition on Turner Classic Movies showcases the work of one star for 24 hours each day in August. Each week I’ll bring you my can’t miss movie selection’s for each respective star’s days. Without further adieu. here are my picks for August 6th-August 12th.

August 6th-Robert Mitchum

This year Robert Mitchum is getting his own day on what would have been his 100th birthday. If you’re a Mitchum fan, and especially if you’re a film noir fan, there are tons of great films to pick from. While you can’t go wrong with classics like The Night of the Hunter and Out of the Past, my pick is a noir film that has flown under the radar: His Kind of Woman. It not only features Mitchum and Jane Russell, but an absolutely scene-stealing performance by Vincent Price. Don’t miss it!

August 7th-Eleanor Parker

Eleanor Parker is making her Summer Under the Stars debut this year. If you watch one film of hers (and I hope you see more than that, because she’s so talented but tends to get overlooked), make it Caged. It’s a women in prison film. But don’t go in thinking it’s a camp fest a la Caged Heat. This is a gritty prison noir drama that is one heck of an emotional roller coaster. It makes arguments for prison reform that are still relevant today.

August 8th-Franchot Tone

On Franchot Tone’s day in the spotlight, don’t miss the underrated Billy Wilder film Five Graves to Cairo. It’s part globe-trotting adventure and part World War II espionage intrigue. The plot involves an undercover British soldier who tries to alert the Allies that the Germans supplies buried in five excavation sites across Egypt. So there are some Hitchcock and Indiana Jones vibes in this one too. A fun watch.

August 9th-Sandra Dee

My pick for Sandra Dee’s day is A Summer Place. It’s not only seasonally appropriate, but Dee’s best performance IMHO. Here’s a little synopsis from Internet Movie Database:

A self-made businessman rekindles a romance with a former flame while their two teenage children begin a romance of their own with drastic consequences for both couples.–IMDB

On the surface it sounds like an after school special or a soap opera. But it’s so much more than that. The supporting cast features the always wonderful Beulah Bondi.

August 10th-Sidney Poitier

This is another day where it’s hard to pick just one film. There’s In the Heat of the Night, To Sir With Love, etc. But out of all of them my pick is A Patch of Blue. It’s an unflinching look at racism and abuse. In the film, Poitier befriends a blind white girl (Elizabeth Hartman) and becomes her mentor/friend. He offers her a sanctuary from her abusive home life, especially her mother Rose-Ann (Shelley Winters, in an Oscar-winning performance). Be warned: this is a brutal film to watch because of the subject matter. But all the performances are top-notch.

August 11th-Ginger Rogers

While most people think of Ginger Rogers as Fred Astaire’s dance partner (something she was brilliant at btw), far too few people give her proper respect as a dramatic actress. While I was tempted to pick Top Hat, my favorite Astaire/Rogers film. in the end I chose Kitty Foyle. The film won Rogers an Oscar for best actress. In it, she plays a white-collar middle-class girl who falls for a socialite. Trouble ensues when she clashes with his family. This film could have been predictable melodrama, but the cast elevates the material. Look for Dennis Morgan, who has his own day coming up later in the month.

August 12th-John Wayne

How does one pick just one film from the Duke? The lineup is packed with must-see viewing: Stage Coach, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Quiet Man (I mean who can pass up the Duke and Maureen O’ Hara?). But my pick is The Searchers. It’s John Wayne’s most raw and real performance. In it, Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a Civil War veteran who sets out to rescue his daughter from the Comanches. Wayne’s character is cruel and openly racist. It was not an easy part to play. And it was one of many great film collaborations between Wayne and director John Ford. The supporting cast features a young Natalie Wood, Jeffrey Hunter, and the ubiquitous character actor Ward Bond. This is not an easy western to watch. But you’ll be glad you did.

Alfred Hitchcock Month: The Birds

poster-birds-the_02Last night, Turner Classic Movies aired its last slate of Hitchcock movies for their 50 years of Hitchcock class. Sadly all good things must come to an end. But fortunately Hitchcock’s films are readily available and we can continue studying the Master of Suspense for years to come. In conjunction with the class, I’ve been writing about some of my favorite Hitchcock films. The last one I will cover for my spotlight is The Birds. Far more than just a creature feature, The Birds is a chiller you can’t afford to miss.

The plot of The Birds is pretty simple. Socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren, making her film debut) pursues potential beau Mitch (Rod Taylor) to the remote Northern California town of Bodega Bay after they have a chance encounter in a pet shop. But once Daniels arrive, birds suddenly start attacking people.

That’s it. That’s the set-up. But Alfred Hitchcock takes what could have been a B-horror movie with birds as the monster of the moment and makes it an absolutely chilling thriller. Right from the start of The Birds, we know this is going to be something we haven’t seen before. The opening credits are downright scary. There’s no score. Instead it’s the credits for the film shown amid shots of swarming, screaming birds flying past the screen. It gets your attention right away. For me it’s the scariest title sequence in Hitchcock’s oeuvre.

What else makes the film scary? Well, the lack of exposition makes it pretty unsettling. There’s never any explanation given as to why the birds suddenly start attacking people. Some people may find that unsatisfying or lazy storytelling. But to me that just makes what’s going on more horrifying. Nature suddenly turning on us? That’s pretty frightening. It gives it almost the feeling of a Biblical plague. Instead of swarms of locusts we get flocks of birds. Along with the lack of exposition, there’s the fact that the birds attack at random. One of the scariest scenes in the movie is an attack on a school by some pretty nasty crow. The kids fleeing the schoolyard and being stalked by the crows is one powerful horror film moment. There’s also a scene where birds attack by flying in a house through a chimney. No place is safe.

The Birds also stands out to me because of how technically difficult it was to make the film. Back then they couldn’t bring up a million birds on a computer screen, so Hitchcock and his crew had to improvise. As Internet Movie Database notes about the attack on the school scene,

When the children are running down the street from the schoolhouse, extra footage was shot back on the Universal sound stages to make the scene more terrifying. A few of the children were brought back and put in front of a process screen on a treadmill. They would run in front of the screen on the treadmill with the Bodega Bay footage behind them while a combination of real and fake crows were attacking them. There were three rows of children and when the treadmill was brought up to speed it ran very fast. On a couple of occasions during the shoot, a number of the children in the front fell and caused the children in back to fall as well. It was a very difficult scene to shoot and took a number of days to get it right. The birds used were hand puppets, mechanical and a couple were trained live birds.–IMDB

Live birds, puppets, animatronics…imagine trying to get all those elements to work in one movie. There’s also a visually stunning birds eye view shot as the birds attack a local gas station while Melanie is trapped in a phone booth. And while I’m on the subject of technical difficulty, did you know The Birds has a Disney connection?

The use of standard blue screen techniques for doing matte shots of the birds proved to be unacceptable. The rapid movement of the birds, especially their wings, caused excessive blue fringing in the shots. It was determined that the sodium vapor process could be used to do the composites. The only studio in America that was equipped for this process was the Walt Disney studio. Ub Iwerks, who had become the world’s leading expert on the sodium vapor process, was assigned to this production.–IMDB

For those that don’t know, Ub Iwerks was one of the co-founders of Disney studios. Use that bit of trivia to impress your friends.

I love The Birds for a number of reasons, and they’re not all technical. Tippi Hedren gives a very strong film debut. Rod Taylor is solid as her love interest. There’s also a great supporting cast that includes Jessica Tandy. I also really appreciate the ending. *Spoiler alert!* Melanie, Mitch, and company leave Bodega Bay to get Melanie to a hospital. As they leave, there’s a wide shot of the countryside filled with birds. It suggests the terror isn’t over. The power of suggestion in that final shot is bone chilling.

One final note: The Birds was based on a novel by Daphne Du Maurier. She also wrote the novels that inspired Hitchcock’s Rebecca a Jamaica Inn. Du Maurier’s stories were perfect for Hitchcock.

 

 

Alfred Hitchcock Month: The Wrong Man

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This month has been an interesting trip down memory line dissecting some of my favorite Hitchcock films. While I’m guessing most readers of this blog have seen Hitchcock staples such as Notorious, Psycho, Strangers on a Train, etc., bet not many have seen my selection for this week. While it has been overlooked in the director’s impressive body of work, it is definitely worth checking out. It’s The Wrong Man from 1956. It’s not a psychological thriller, a horror film, a spy thriller, or even a dark comedy Those are all types of films we often associate with the master of suspense. But The Wrong Man is a docudrama starring Henry Fonda. But don’t let the documentary style of this film put you off. It’s every bit as impressive as Hitchcock’s other masterpieces and showcases him as not just a successful mainstream director, but an artist who time and again takes risks.

Let’s cut to the chase (pun intended) and get the plot out of the way.

Christopher Emmanuel “Manny” Balestrero¬† (Henry Fonda) is a string bassist, a devoted husband and father, and a practicing Catholic. He makes a modest salary playing in the jazz combo at the Stork Club. It’s barely enough to make ends meet. Finances become a little more difficult with the major dental bills his wife Rose (Vera Miles) incurs. Manny decides to see if he can borrow off of Rose’s life insurance policy. But when he enters the insurance office, he is identified by some of the clerks as the man who held up the office twice a few months earlier. Manny cooperates with the police as he has nothing to hide. Manny learns that he is a suspect in not only those hold ups, but a series of other hold ups in the same Jackson Heights neighborhood in New York City where they live. The more that Manny cooperates, the more guilty he appears to the police. With the help of Frank O’Connor (Anthony Quayle), the attorney that they hire, they try to prove Manny’s innocence.–IMDB

Again we have the familiar Hitchcock motif of an ordinary person put in extraordinary circumstances. There’s also the common motif of a case of mistaken identity (Cary Grant’s character in North By Northwest is another great example of this). While The Wrong Man contains some familiar Hitchcock film elements, it’s anything but a typical Hitchcock film. What it proves is that Hitchcock can take as mundane of a setup as a police procedural and make it absolutely compelling. Let me explain why.

First of all, the casting of Henry Fonda is a stroke of genius. Like Jimmy Stewart, another Hitchcock film regular, Fonda is totally sympathetic and believable as a dogged every man. We believe Manny’s plight and root for him because he feels like a person we all know. The relatability factor is part of what keeps us coming back to Hitchcock’s movies. When the audience can easily set foot in the shoes of the protagonist, the film is already off to a good start. And in The Wrong Man, as usual, Fonda delivers a brilliant performance.

Another reason the film works is the overall look of the film. It was filmed in glorious black and white by Robert Burks. The lighting and framing give the film a stark, gritty realism that is perfect for the material. It has the feel of a great film noir docudrama. Think of The Phenix City Story from 1955, and you get an idea of what I’m talking about. One of the best looking scenes in the film is when Manny is taken to prison. Fun fact: it was filmed in an actual prison. Burks would work with Hitchcock on multiple occasions. His Technicolor work on Rear Window is absolutely exquisite.

There’s also the contribution of frequent collaborator Bernard Herrmann. Like the cinematography of Burks, Herrmann’s music gives us the feeling that everything in the film is really happening. It isn’t as showy as Herrmann’s work on Psycho or Vertigo, and that’s exactly the right call. It would take us out of the action.

I don’t want to reveal all the twists and turns of the plot. That would spoil the fun. I’m guessing many people reading this will be first time viewers. Let me just say this: you will never be bored. The story is brilliantly constructed. It was even based loosely on the true story. The Wrong Man is brilliant because of the performances of the actors, especially Henry Fonda and Vera Miles. In the hands of almost any other director, this would have been a by the numbers crime drama. But Hitchcock makes the typically mundane unfold in a way that is absolutely spellbinding.

Alfred Hitchcock Month: Psycho

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Greetings, readers! I hope you’re enjoying my July spotlight on the Master of Suspense: Alfred Hitchcock. This week I have chosen to write about his iconic film Psycho. Today there is a whole genre of Psycho rip-offs called slasher movies. While occasionally a great one comes along (Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street come to mind), few have had the imagination or artistry as the film that spawned so many pale imitators.

The story, for the uninitiated, involves a secretary who embezzles funds from work and ends up at a motel where *spoiler alert!* guests check-in, but don’t check out.

Phoenix secretary Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is fed up with the way life has treated her. She has to meet her lover Sam (John Gavin) in lunch breaks and they cannot get married because Sam has to give most of his money away in alimony. One Friday Marion is trusted to bank $40,000 by her employer. Seeing the opportunity to take the money and start a new life, Marion leaves town and heads towards Sam’s California store. Tired after the long drive and caught in a storm, she gets off the main highway and pulls into The Bates Motel. The motel is managed by a quiet young man called Norman (Anthony Perkins) who seems to be dominated by his mother.–IMDB

As you can probably guess, Marion doesn’t just go over to greener pastures and have a fairy tale ending. If you expect that, you’re obviously new to the world of Alfred Hitchcock. Now with the plot out of the way, let’s talk about why this film is so iconic.

It’s impossible to discuss Psycho without the famous shower scene. There are umpteen reasons why it’s scary. First of all, it comes out of nowhere. Marion just goes to take a shower to relax like many of us do at the end of the day. It’s so Hitchcock to take something so mundane and make us terrified of it: showers (Psycho), birds (The Birds), small town America (Shadow of a Doubt), casual conversations on public transit (Strangers on a Train)…the list goes on. Hitchcock had a real knack for showing us that the supposedly benign world around us has lots of creepy layers under the surface. The only director today who does that really well is David Lynch, especially in his films like Blue Velvet and his TV series Twin Peaks.

Another reason the shower scene is terrifying is the music Bernard Herrmann’s score is nothing short of brilliant. While Herrmann collaborated with Hitchcock on many films, there’s a good reason why Psycho is the one he’s most remembered for. His decision to use an all strings orchestra for the score was a masterstroke. The sound of the orchestra really makes the stabs of the knife feel real. The score also adds to the tension right from the opening Saul Bass titles. There’s a feel of chaos, menace, and urgency right from the word go. Bernard Herrmann was an absolute genius.

But there’s more to Psycho than just the shower scene. All the performances are absolutely stellar. Janet Leigh makes the most of her screen time, so that when she does meet her fateful end we’re terrified and on edge for the rest of the movie. If the star who got top billing is gone not that far in, who’s safe?

Anthony Perkins, in the role of Norman Bates, is simply one of the greatest screen villains of all time. When we first meet him as he’s talking to Janet Leigh at the motel, he seems like the boy next door. He’s shy, introverted, and has an every man charm. But as he strikes up a conversation with Marion over sandwiches in the parlor, we sense something about him is off. There’s the creepy stuffed birds he uses for decoration. But then there’s the dark tone that comes over him when he starts talking about his relationship with his mother. “We all go a little mad sometimes,” is not something that you expect to hear from a sane person. I also want to mention the supporting cast. It includes Vera Miles as Marion’s sister and the wonderful character actor Martin Balsam as a private detective sent to investigate Marion’s disappearance. There’s not one bad casting decision in this movie.

Psycho is also brilliant from a purely aesthetic standpoint. I could sit here and type up a laundry list of great shots from this movie. But let me just touch on a few favorites. There’s a chilling closeup of a police officer’s face when Marion is pulled over while on the run. That image really gets our attention. Even the seemingly good guys, in this case a public servant, seem like they’re not entirely benevolent. And how about all the scenes of Marion driving in the car while hearing what’s going on in her head? It creates an unbelievable sense of paranoia. And when she finally reaches the Bates motel in pouring rain, the way the lighting is done gives us a real feel of foreboding. I also like the shot of Norman Bates spying on Marion through a keyhole.

And there’s the iconic *spoiler alert!* death of Martin Balsam. It happens after the shower scene, so we’re not sure what to expect. It feels like the gloves are off. When Balsam walks up the staircase to talk to Norman’s mother, there’s a really creepy vibe from the soundtrack that makes us feeling like something bad is about to happen. But it’s not done bluntly with cymbal crashes and loud notes. It’s a gradual build up done mostly with dynamics. This technique also worked for Herrmann’s score for Vertigo, particularly in the love scene. As Balsam climbs those stairs, suddenly there’s a cutaway to a sliver of light coming from the doorway at the top of the staircase. Then we hear that music from the shower scene, and boom! Another dart to the heart. When Balsam gets stabbed, he falls down the stairs backwards, and it’s shot in a very surrealist way. The audience feels like it’s falling back with them. Very effective.

Psycho is not just a terrifying slasher movie. It’s just a brilliantly crafted movie period. The way the shower scene is shot and edited with Herrmann’s iconic score, the superb acting (not just from the leads, but all the small parts), and the way the whole movie makes us distrustful of everyday things like motels and showers. If you want to be scared, watch Psycho. If you want to see a great director in top form elevating what looks on the surface like exploitation material to an art form, also watch Psycho. In short: watch Psycho. Just make sure to shower beforehand. Afterwards you may never want to again. That’s how powerful a film this is.