The camera focuses in on what is a homemade time bomb. A young unidentified man carries it to a car placing it inside the trunk. Unknowingly, an American with his bimbo girlfriend gets into the car and drives off. The camera pulls back; we are in a sleazy Mexican border town. The camera follows the car. Coming in to the moving camera’s ranges is Vargas (Charlton Heston), a Mexican police officer and his newlywed American wife, Susie (Janet Leigh). They cross the street heading toward the American side of the border. We pass one bar and strip joint after another, the music, jazz, rock and roll, blaring out from each one. At the border, Vargas stops and talks with the border guards, the two Americans in their car pass through, the girl mumbling something about hearing a ticking sound but no one pays her much attention. Moments later the car explodes into a fiery ball. With the strategic assistance of cinematographer Russell Metty, Welles frames this opening all in one astounding continuous long running brilliant shot. Continue reading
In the late 1940′s, director Fred Zinnemann made a loose trilogy of films depicting the effects of the post war aftermath. First up was “The Search” (1948) with Montgomery Clift as an American soldier helping a young boy search for his mother. The last film was “The Men” (1950) with Marlon Brando, in his film debut, as a paralyzed G.I. attempting to adjust to his new post war life. In between these two works came the noirish thriller,” Act of Violence.”
“Act of Violence” explores the choices one makes creating the sometimes thin line between being a hero and an informer. Frank Enley (Van Heflin) is a war hero, maybe. He has a beautiful wife, (a young fresh faced, Janet Leigh), a young boy, a thriving business, a house in the California suburbs and is well respected in the business community. He goes on weekend fishing trips with his neighbor while the wives are happily at home. Into this tranquil and serene world comes Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan), a limping, gun carrying, revenge seeking former army buddy who is dead set on killing Frank. Parkson is sinister looking, seething with hate. Joe cannot forget or forgive what happened back when they were prisoners of war in a Nazi stalag camp. Continue reading
Anthony Mann’s “The Naked Spur” is a dark western that ranks up there with Ford’s “The Searchers”, Hawks “Rio Bravo” and Zimmemann’s “High Noon”, an exquisite study of character relationships, cynicism, betrayal and redemption with the added scenic beauty of a master painting.
The plot is simple, Howard Kemp (James Stewart), a bounty hunter running from his past is hell bent on bringing outlaw Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) in for reward money. Unwillingly he accepts the help of two men he meets along the way, an old out of luck prospector, Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) and a dishonorably discharged unbalanced soldier, Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker). When they catch Vandergroat, he has with him the pretty Lina Patch (Janet Leigh), the young daughter of a pal who professes her love for him. On the long road back Vandergroat makes multiple efforts to divide up the loyalty of the three men splitting them apart and turning them against each other, hopefully long enough so he can escape.
It is Robert Ryan’s twisted outlaw Ben Vandergroat who drives the film and Stewart’s Howie that reacts. Vandergroat’s divide and conquer policy is relentless, the men switching loyalties, shifting sides. He entices the old man Tate telling him how splitting the reward money two ways is better than three. Vandergroat continually attempts to pit the men against each other and displays an almost superior arrogance at times, for example when he smugly instructs the lone female character to “do me Lina.” While it is meant to rub his shoulder, it comes across as a more overtly sexual demand especially considering the salivating Roy Anderson is standing by watching. Mann’s westerns are dark conflicted works with characters whose seem to be at a crossroad in their life.
Stewart’s Howard Kemp is an unhinged anti-hero determined to get the $,5000 bounty money on Vandergroat’s head so he can buy back the ranch his fiancée sold from behind his back. Still he cannot do it without the help of his two untrustworthy partners. Early in the film his attempt to scale a rocky mountain where Vandergroat is held up fails, burning his hands as he falls. He succeeds in capturing Vandergroat only with the assistance of the unstable but younger Anderson.
There is very little typical western action in the film except for an Indian attack early on in the film, yet Mann and screenwriters Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom (who received an Oscar nomination) continuously keep the tension high through the characters interaction filled with mistrust and the constant threat for violence. At one point Vandergroat get hold of a gun and Howard almost out of control faces him down telling him to come on and draw, knowing he can outshoot him. Vandergroat knows it too and does not take the bait, telling the enraged Howard he is going to have to shoot him in cold blood if he wants him dead. Anderson yells out to kill him saying they’ll get the reward dead or alive. The old prospector stops the mad chaos before a shot is fired.
All the men come to a violent end except for Howard. Greed does in the old prospector when he falls for Vandergroat’s story about sharing in a non-existent goldmine and is shot dead once he unties the outlaw’s hands. Anderson drowns trying to recover Vandergroat’s body in the wild river and the outlaw is deceived by Lina after she has come to grips that he is a murderer and gives Howard an assist in their final confrontation.
In the end Stewart redeems himself coming to grips with his demons after retrieving Vandergroat’s body from the river (dragging it like a beached whale); he breaks down realizing that the bitterness that has engulfed him has made him less of a person. We are left to assume he and Lina go off to California and start a new life together.
Mann magnificently uses the camera to isolate the partners depending on who is on whose side at the time. He also positions his camera in various scenes that guarantee you are certainly seeing the actors in the fight scenes and not stunt doubles. As with the black and white beauty of his film noirs this color production is beautifully scenic (mostly filmed in the Colorado Rockies), one of the most visually stunning westerns this side of John Ford. But the landscape is more than just scenic it becomes another character in the film. Mann’s west is a country of streams, mountains and wide open land. It is the landscape that determines the final destiny of Vandergroat and Anderson.
I love seeing James Stewart portraying such a multi dimensional character. Too often we think of Stewart as the guy next door yet later in his career he took on roles that challenged this perception with films like Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” and especially in the films he made with Mann. Check out this overview of Stewart’s career that was written by R.D. Finch over at The Movie Projector blog, he spells it all out for you a lot better than I can. Also check out at Wonders in the Dark Sam Juliano’s wrap of the recent Anthony Mann festival at the Film Forum in New York.
How do you write about “Psycho” and not be redundant? There has been so much written about the film, the director, and the cultural influence that one has to wonder if there are any new avenues left to explore. The number of books devoted to “Psycho” stands at least number six not including the original novel by Robert Bloch.
The Moment of Psycho – David Thompson
Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho – Stephen Rubello
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho: A Casebook - Robert Kolker, Ed.
Psycho in the Shower – Philip J. Skerry
Psycho: Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller – Janet Leigh
A Long Hard Look at Psycho – Raymond Durgnat
Add to this, the list of books on Hitchcock’s film and biographies about Hitch and well there is enough reading to keep you busy for a while.
Still, here I am writing about one of my favorite Hitchcock films. In 1960, “Psycho” was a film in the forefront. In many ways, it was revolutionary. Hitchcock slyly fought the censors managing to get more sex and violence into one film that ever before, that is at least since the Production Code came into effect in 1934. But the revolution was not just about sex and violence, “Psycho” also ground-breaking in advertising, in sophisticated filmgoers thinking about American film as art and in changing the movie going habits of the public. “Psycho” did not just break all the rules, it created new ones.
Movie going in the old days….
“It is required that you see Psycho from the very beginning!”
“No one will be admitted except at the very beginning of the picture”
No one…BUT NO ONE…will be admitted to the theater after the start of each performance…”
Before television, home video, home theater, video games and Xbox for entertainment the public went to the movies as much as two or three times a week. Local movie houses changed features at least twice a week to accommodate the ever-hungry audience. That began to change once the dreaded menace of the film studios, television, started showing up in everyone’s home. Audiences began staying home, attendance dropped dramatically. The studios fought back with CinemaScope, 3-D and epic road show productions like “The Robe” and “Ben-Hur.” One other factor also came into play, the slow and continuous destruction of the Production Code. What did not change was the habit moviegoers had of just going to a show at any time. They did not bother looking in the newspaper to see what time the feature started, theaters had continuous showings, most folks just entered the theater in the middle of the picture and stayed until that point came in the film where they arrived. It was a strange practice, kind of like starting a book with chapter five, reading it to the end and then going back and read the first four chapters.
That all began to change in 1960 when Alfred Hitchcock presented a small, made for less than $1 million dollars, black and white horror film called “Psycho.” Theater owners were not happy about this forced ruling that NO ONE WILL BE ADMITTED TO THE THEATER AFTER THE START OF EACH PERFORMANCE, fearing a loss of revenue. Were filmgoers going to wait until the next starting time? Those fears were placated once they saw the lines form around the block. Hitchcock actually wanted to do this when he released “Vertigo” a few years earlier. Theater owners fought it and there was really no dramatic effect, unlike in “Psycho” that could be argued for doing so. With “Psycho”, seeing the last part of the film first would ruin the film. Besides, Hitchcock owned 60% of “Psycho” and could demand anything he wanted. It was his movie both artistically and financially. It was a slow process but audiences eventually would begin to attend movies at the starting time and not just drop in at any time.
Censorship Sex and Violence
Paramount Studios was reluctant to make the film, nervous about the content, so Hitch had to arrange financing though his own production company and shot the film on the Universal Studio lots though Paramount would eventually agree to release the film.
Hitchcock begins “Psycho” with a shot of the city of Phoenix, and as the Saul Bass credits appeared the camera moves across the city closing in as the final credit reads “Directed by Alfred Hitchcock” on one hotel window, the hotel room of two of the leading characters who are semi-dressed in bed participating in a lunchtime tryst! This kind of sensuous bare flesh eroticism was unparalleled in American cinema at the time. Right from the opening scenes Hitchcock was rocking the boat. Like Otto Preminger’s “The Man with the Golden Arm”, “Anatomy of a Murder” and “The Moon is Blue”, “Psycho” was a pioneering force in breaking through the stringent production code that had been enforced since 1934. The code demanded that punishment be handed out, sex between unmarried couples could not go unpunished. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) would meet her maker, wacko Norman Bates, soon enough but strangely, Sam Loomis is not punished for his behavior. Was there a double standard here, the woman had to pay, but the guy was off the hook? The amount of screen time Marion Crane spends in her bra and half-slip is unprecedented. Not one, but three scenes, the good Marion wears white undies in the opening scene, however after she steals the $40,000 we see her in a black bra and half-slip.
This leads us to the famous shower sequence, a Hitchcock potpourri of sex and violence. It is a visually brilliant sequence that has been written and discussed over and over. The editing of this sequence had more than 70 cuts. What did you see, what did you think you saw. Was Leigh naked? Did we, the audience, see a knife penetrate the victim’s skin? Give credit to Hitch for constructing such an intricate piece of work that here we are, almost fifty years later, still discussing it and still in awe. Despite all the blood and gore, we have seen over the past five decades, seeing “Mother” entering the bathroom, the knife coming down repeatedly, Marion in the shower screaming,. blood going down the drain, her slumped body leaning over the tub, the amazing close up of the dead woman’s eye as the camera pulls back, it is still shocking today and that may be because art conquers all. The actual shooting of this sequence in the shower was a tough one for Janet Leigh, as she could not blink though water was pouring from the shower. In the end, they had to use an optical shot. Though the shower scene runs for only approximately 3 minutes, it took seven days to film.
Then there is the toilet bowl flushing. Marion tears up her mathematical equation, subtracting $700 from $40,000 to arrive at $33,300 of stolen money remaining that she will have to return. Guess math was not her strong suit. Anyway, she tears up the note and flushes it down the toilet! OMG, a toilet flushing right there are the big screen! Does this mean movie stars go to the bathroom like the rest of us! Who knew? Yes, this was the first time a toilet bowl was seen on-screen flushing and all.
“No one…BUT NO ONE…will be admitted to the theater after the start of each performance…”
The poster for “Psycho” featured Janet Leigh, a major movie star at the time in a bra and a half-white slip.
Never before had a star of her magnitude been featured so blatantly in the advertising. She even appeared on theater marquees semi-dressed. Hitchcock demanded that no one be allowed into the theater once the film began. You must see it from the beginning. As mentioned earlier, theater owners were not happy about that. They worried audiences turned away would not return. For the first time many filmgoers stood in line to watch a movie.
The “Psycho” movie trailer is unusual in that it is about 10 minutes long and it consists of Hitchcock giving us a droll tour of the Bates Motel and other scenes of mayhem. The trailer was made after the completion of the film and Janet Leigh was on another assignment by the time, subsequently, Hitchcock had Vera Miles put on a blonde wig and scream in the shower for the trailer scene as it came to an abrupt end.
Some Notes on the Film
Based on a novel by Robert Bloch who used Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein as a role model for his character of Norman Bates. Joseph Stefano was hired to write the screenplay after a failed attempt by James Cavanaugh, a writer who worked on several “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” scripts. Bloch’s Norman Bates was changed from a short fat unattractive man into the tall, slim and more attractive Anthony Perkins who was Hitchcock’s choice from the inception.
Before Janet Leigh got the part, Lana Turner, Piper Laurie, Martha Hyer were some of the actresses considered or mentioned but never seriously. Leigh’s homespun image and her dramatic role in Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil” won her the role. Leigh was not the typical blonde heroine we usually associate with Hitchcock, the icy elegant style of Grace Kelly or Ingrid Bergman. Though just as beautiful, Leigh’s beauty is more down to earth and seemingly more attainable.
Bosley Crowther of the New York Times continued his misguided ways by giving “Psycho” a mixed review. However, he seemed to have a change of heart toward the end of the year when he named it as one of the top 10 films of the year. Other critics called it tasteless, cheap and exploitive; Yet Wanda Hale of the New York Daily News gave it four stars (her highest rating).
With ‘Psycho’ Hitchcock changed the perceived rules of movies. He overthrew the unwritten, though accepted parameters that were in place, the agreement between the filmmaker and the audience. He does this most blatantly with our treasured star system. The credits announce that there are two major stars, Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh. The unwritten contract is that both of these stars will be in the film for the entire length, be it one and a half hours, two hours or more. When Janet Leigh is killed after approximately 40 minutes, we the audience, are doubly shocked. First, by the sheer never before seen brutality of the attack, as we see “Mother’s” knife so violently ripping through the shower curtain and into the naked body of Marion Crane with Bernard Hermann’s screeching violins heightening the bloodcurdling moment.
In another way the killing off of one of the stars of the picture, so unexpectedly, so early on was just as unsettling. Audiences already stunned by the viciousness of the murder now are unnerved by the unexpected disposal of the star. The audience is left wondering, where do we go from here? Hitchcock made it even more unsettling because just before the horrific murder, we watched Marion having something to eat with Norman, and she decided she was going back to Phoenix, return the money, and attempt to make amends. He made us like Marion, gave us hope that somehow it will all be all right for her. We empathize with her and then Hitch pulled the rug out from under us all.
Composer Bernard Herrmann did not even receive an Academy Award nomination for his magnificent score that contributes so much tension to the film. The Oscar that year went to Ernst Gold for his score of Otto Preminger’s “Exodus.” Gold also won a Grammy for the same score while Herrmann was again denied any recognition. Try to imagine “Psycho” without the magnificent dramatic musical score and you will realize the importance of Herrmann’s contribution.
Some of Hitchcock’s favorite themes run through “Psycho.” Food, voyeurism, use of mirrors and reflective surfaces and of course birds. From Norman’s hobby of taxidermy to Norman telling Marion “she eats like a bird, to the city of Phoenix (mythical bird) and Marion’s last name Crane.
Robert Bloch received only $9,000 for the film rights to his novel. He never knew who was purchasing the book until after it was sold. By the time, Bloch paid of his agent and taxes he was left with less than $6,000.
Below are some additional lobby cards, posters and photos.