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The AFI Top 100 Films: Psycho (#18)

Entertainment 150Psycho (1960)
Starring Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles and John Gavin
Written by Joseph Stefano (screenplay) and Robert Bloch (novel)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

There shouldn’t be a need to tell you that this review will be discussing spoilers for the movie Psycho, but just in case you weren’t expecting it — this review will discuss spoilers for the movie Psycho. If you haven’t seen this grand-daddy of all horror movies, you should definitely do so at your earliest convenience. The rest of the review will be here when you’re done!

I was one of those people who thought they knew the story; it’s been discussed at length in our popular culture, and I had seen the first season of Bates Motel. I assumed that the story hinged on the relationship between motel owner Norman Bates (Perkins) and his lodger Marion Crane (Leigh), with the climax being that infamous shower scene. Imagine my surprise when that scene happens a third of the way into the film; there was a lot more about Norman and his motivations to uncover.

That’s what makes Psycho so great; it sets up your expectations and then subverts them gleefully. Just when you think you have a handle on where the story is going it takes a hair-pin turn and you’re left reeling to get a handle on your new surroundings. And when you get the lay of the land, another whiplash turn, another disorienting layer with which to familiarize yourself. Alfred Hitchcock, working from a screenplay adapted by Joseph Stefano, does a masterful job with pacing here, smashing down his dominoes as soon as he’s set them up.

The initial part of the story focuses on Marion Crane, an office worker for a real estate company. One day, her boss entrusts her to deposit $40,000 to the company’s bank account. Instead she steals it, hoping to start a new life with her long-distance boyfriend, Sam (Gavin). She ditches the car she left town in, buys a new one and flees down the California coast. Forced to stop during a heavy rainstorm, she finds herself in the Bates Motel.

By now, you’re invested in her story and where it’s going. While she’s clearly not a good person (she stole a pants-load of money from her trusting employer after all), she’s our protagonist. We’re invested in seeing whether or not she succeeds; if she doesn’t, we want to know how she’ll get caught and what the consequences are. This feels like a story about her theft and what it will do for her and her lover.

Then we meet Norman Bates, the proprietor of the Bates Motel. He has a series of small conversations with Marion that reveal his character and history, including a troubled relationship with an overbearing mother. When Norman’s mother decides that he’s gotten far too close to Marion, she decides to take matters into her own hands; while the lodger is in the shower, Mother storms in and stabs her to death with a knife.


So much for Marion’s story. Her employers have noticed her absence as well as the missing money by now, however, so they’ve reached out to her sister Lila (Miles), who in turn reaches out to Sam. Together they track Marion’s steps along with a private investigator, and are eventually lead to the motel. The P.I. gets too close, so Norman’s mother kills him too. Meanwhile, Lila and Sam go to the Sheriff’s home and discover there that Norman’s mother has been dead for some time.

What?? What in the world is going on? The answer to that question leads to one of the craziest scenes in cinematic history, a terrific double-whammy of reveals that quite frankly astound. The denouement where Norman is psycho-analyzed goes on a little longer than it needs to, perhaps, but I suppose that was necessary for audiences of the time to even wrap their minds around what they had just seen. Nowadays we’ve become so familiar with abnormal psychology that Norman may seem almost pedestrian by comparison.

But there’s no doubt that Psycho had a tremendous impact on movies, almost single-handedly creating the horror genre as we know it today. Norman’s story is the template for so many slashers who’ve come in his wake — the Freddy Kreugers, the Michael Myers, the Jason Voorhies. Bates is the first of their kind, a monster preying on the unsuspecting pretty blondes of the world.

Hitchcock keeps us in suspense by constantly toying with us. He presides over all of the surprises he has in store with the supreme confidence of a master storyteller. The reveals happen exactly when they’re meant to, deployed for maximum effect, keeping us on our toes. The conversations between Norman and Marion are slow burns, setting us up with context to make the impact of the revelations meaningful while misdirecting us on what’s really going on. Anthony Perkins plays Norman with such layering that you’re quite intrigued by the obvious tension his various feelings towards his mother creates. You get a sense that he’s a bit fucked up, but the surprise is in revealing just how fucked up he is.

The rest of the cast does quite a good job, but this is really the showcase for Hitchcock and his screenwriter, Joseph Stefano. Hitchcock went through great lengths to preserve the secret of the story — it’s rumored that once he bought the rights to Robert Bloch’s original novel he bought as many copies of it as he could. He charged theatre owners to prevent audiences from walking in to the movie after it started, so that you had to see it the way he intended.

Those extraordinary measures created a sensation, and Psycho was wildly successful on its release. Its quality is what has helped it stand the test of time. I think our fascination with crazy stalkers began here; we owe an entire facet of cinematic history to Hitchcock and company.

Rating: 9/10.

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Posted by on November 5, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews


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The AFI Top 100 Films: North by Northwest (#40)

Entertainment 150North by Northwest (1959)
Starring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint and James Mason
Written by Ernest Lehman
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Cary Grant is Roger O. Thornhill, an advertising executive who has no problem with lying. During a dinner with “friends,” he’s abducted by two thugs and driven to a grand house in the countryside. He’s met by a gentleman (Mason) who insists he’s a man named George Kaplan, beaten up and interrogated. When he refuses to give up any information, Thornhill is given a bottle of whiskey and put inside a stolen car, then pushed towards the cliff of a winding oceanside road. He barely escapes. He does, though, and when the police won’t believe his story he takes it upon himself to figure out just what the hell is going on.

That investigation takes him from New York to Mt. Rushmore, meeting a host of shadowy characters along the way. Despite the dizzy confusion Thornhill suffers and the incredibly high stakes at play here, he never loses the ability to crack a joke with his traveling partner Eve Kendall (Saint) or basically lie his way deeper into trouble. This humble Mad. man actually turns out perfectly suited for the adventure, right down to the sudden, cheeky epilogue.

North by Northwest is a much lighter film than most of Hitchcock’s work, and I’d like to think that’s mostly due to the whip-crack writing of Ernest Lehman and the wry, sharp delivery of Cary Grant. Hitchcock’s direction is as sure as ever, and he keeps things moving along at a nice, brisk pace. The movie is over two hours long, but it really doesn’t feel like it — you’re hooked from the moment that Thornhill is taken until that climactic chase and battle on the top of Mount Rushmore. It’s a small feat to make a movie that long pass the time so quickly.

What I love about the film is how comfortably Grant falls into the role of action hero. He looks about as old as Roger Moore does during his Bond run, but it doesn’t slow him down. There are a ton of crazy setpieces he has to navigate, from that first drunken car escape, to the iconic biplane attack, to running through the woods from thugs sent to kill him. He manages to keep the tone wonderfully light, so that his Thornhill is up to any challenge thrown at him. A career of lying and being forced to think fast on your feet is all he needs to get out of most jams, along with a bit of luck or two.

The story is twisty enough that you’re never quite sure of your footing, even though the plot is laid out for you in an exposition-heavy scene right after our introduction to the hero. I won’t go into details here, but I will have to say it’s just a bit disappointing — the first thirty minutes have that amazing “What the hell?” feeling, where you have no idea how this situation could have developed but an incredible curiosity about it. To have everything explained by a bunch of men in a room lets the air out of the premise just a bit, but you don’t have much time to cling to your expectation of a more measured revelation. You’re given the information and then they’re off to the races once again.

Eva Marie Saint makes an excellent foil and companion to Grant’s Thornhill. She’s smart, mysterious, elegant, delicate and a bit vulgar all in one package. It’s fascinating to watch them play off each other, and it really brings home the value of having two leads with undeniable chemistry. Even though they spend a lot of time sniping each other, you just know that they’re really having a blast. That sense of fun infuses the entire movie.

It’s quite a fun piece of popular art, and a perfect template for the Bond movies that would come three years later. I enjoyed it from top to bottom — with just a small disappointment near the beginning — and it’s made me a fan of Cary Grant, Eve Marie Saint and Hitchcock himself. The more I read about his movies, the more fascinated I become.

Rating: 7/10.

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Posted by on February 27, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews, Uncategorized


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The AFI Top 100 Films: Rear Window (#42)

Entertainment 150Rear Window (1954)
Starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by John Michael Hayes (screenplay) and Cornell Woolrich (short story)

There is so much that impressed me about this movie that it’s difficult to know where to begin. This was the second of four collaborations between director Alfred Hitchcock and star James Stewart, and if they’re all this good I definitely can’t wait to see the others. Hitchcock directs the movie with a wonderfully deft hand, effortlessly gliding between the inner lives of photographer L.B. Jeffries (Stewart), his girlfriend Lisa (Kelly) and the half-dozen subplots woven amongst the neighbors that Jeffries is spying on. The main plot that intersects Jeffries, Lisa and one of the neighbors is tense in all the right places, and shows off a great skill in building tension, subverting expectations and keeping the audience guessing. Still, while it’s technically impressive from a storytelling standpoint, emotionally it’s actually the least engrossing.

Jeffries is a globe-trotting news reporter who’s been confined to his apartment with an injury sustained from one of his assignments. Hitchcock spends the first minute or so of the film pausing at significant portions of his apartment, giving us a quick and efficient character study in seconds. The pictures that are lingered on tell us who Jeffries is and how he got the injury; then we see that he has a girlfriend, a high-society girl that he met on a photo shoot. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie get to the heart of its main characters so quickly; it’s simply masterful.

To pass the time while he’s nursing his broken leg, Jeffries spies on his neighbors with one of his cameras. He has names for just about all of them — there’s Miss Torso, a dancer who entertains a few men in her apartment every night; Miss Lonelyhearts, a middle-aged woman whose solitude radiates through her entire apartment; Miss Hearing Aid, an older woman whose meddling in the affairs of others is often thwarted by her inability to hear. There’s a newlywed couple, a songwriter prone to fits of depression, a strange couple obviously comfortable with each other who sleeps out on the fire escape. The people who gains most of Jeffries’ attention is a man and his invalid wife — they’re clearly unhappy, and it’s quite possible that the husband is involved in an affair.

A few friends visit to break up these bouts of spying. There’s Lisa, who brings him dinner and argues with him about their very different lifestyles. There’s Detective Doyle (Wendell Corey), a good friend of Jeffries who provides him with affectionate, breezily mean banter. And there’s Stella (Thelma Ritter), his nurse, a wisely crude woman who provides him advice whether he wants it or not. Jeffries’ relationship and conversations with each of these people are remarkably distinct, bringing out different aspects of his personality and demanding different tones in his mood. The character work here is exquisite, each exchange revealing something significant about their moods, their reaction to the plot, the way they think or feel about each other.

The story of the husband and his invalid wife takes a turn after the basic premise is establish, and Hitchcock manages to juggle five or six different subplots while letting that take up the bulk of the time. At just under two hours, the film has a lot to do in a short amount of time, and both John Hayes (the writer) and Hitchcock keep things moving along without sacrificing space to let moments breathe when they need to.

The set is just as impressive, and vital to making the whole thing work. The entire movie is shot within the confines of Jeffries’ apartment, so all of the subplots and moving pieces we see through the course of the film have to be seen from a rather limited view. Hitchcock works well within these confines, having his actors use those windows and the spaces between them to tell their stories as efficiently as possible. He uses the voyeur’s angle to ratchet up wonderfully thick tension, like when something huge goes down in the apartment of Miss Lonelyhearts and the unfaithful husband at the same time. And he gets a wonderfully creepy effect out of simply having the adulterer turn off the light and smoke a cigar alone in the dark.

Stewart, Kelly, the main supporting actors and all of the neighbors do quite well. Raymond Burr plays the adulterer in a role that flies right in the face of our image of him, and Ross Bagdasarian (the creator of Alvin and the Chipmunks) does surprisingly well as our bipolar songwriter. The scenes run like clockwork, all guided by the hand of a master watchmaker.

The character arcs mostly intersect through the main story, and a brief epilogue touches on what’s happening to the residents of the apartment complex once order is restored. A lot of things have changed, so many things remain the same, and in many cases it’s a genuine surprise what’s stuck and what hasn’t. When we last see Jeffries and Lisa, they’ve come to a much better understanding of each other and have grown closer as a result, but of course there’s still just enough tension in the relationship to keep things interesting.

Rear Window is a simply great movie. If you’re a fan of great character studies, superbly efficient use of space and time, and a mystery that may keep you guessing for a little bit, you simply can’t miss it.

Rating: 4.5/5


Posted by on February 19, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews


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