Psycho (1960)

"AAAAAAH!" I'm paraphrasing, of course.

“A boy’s best friend is his mother.”

Quite a departure from the types of movies I usually review, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is one of my top five favorite films and (in my humble opinion) undeniably the best horror/thriller ever made.

What makes this film so incredible is that it completely shattered the tradition of the typical thriller. It starkly and chillingly portrays insanity; which, at the time of its release, was not something ordinarily done. Yet again, Hitchcock relies on suspense, not gore, to shock the audience. He intelligently sets up relationships, motivations, situations…and then demolishes it all. It is a brilliant and utterly original film.

Psycho was released in 1960, eight years before the end of the Hays Code (or the Motion Picture Production Code). For those of you who don’t know, the Code basically established what could and couldn’t be portrayed in American films. I’m not going to list every do and don’t; I’ll just give the three main principles:

1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.

2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.

3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.

As you can see, these were pretty strict rules. That’s not to say they weren’t good ones; only about one-tenth of the films that are released nowadays would pass the Code. The code was abandoned in ’68, in favor of the new MPAA ratings system (Psycho was re-rated M in 1968, and re-re-rated R in 1984).

Hitchcock filmed the movie in black and white, because, in color, “it would have been too gory”. There were a few shots that were left on the cutting room floor, as well as some lines that were found offensive. It’s really quite an event that this movie passed the Code. It’s not horrible, and quite tame when compared to any horror film made after Night of the Living Dead (1968), which is often credited as the main reason for the MPAA ratings system. Still, though, for audiences in 1960, it was shocking.

The ending, which I will not reveal here, gets me every time. I’ve probably seen this movie six times, but the end always gives me chills.

This is probably Hitchcock’s most intense, frightening film, and his first American film to be labeled a “horror” instead of just a “thriller”. It’s unlike any of his previous films, yet it keeps that wonderful Hitchcockian flavor. The first half-hour of the film is more of a thriller, or a drama. Nothing particularly exciting or frightening happens. That’s not to say it’s not interesting; I was enthralled from the minute the opening credits began. As Hitch himself said, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” Don’t be put off by the somewhat slow-moving beginning. Promise?

One last thing. The score for Psycho is one of the greatest ever written. Of course, everyone knows about the screeching violins during the infamous “shower scene”, but the entire film is full of masterful music by Bernard Herrmann. The opening credits begin with the pounding, pulsing, deep strings, which are soon joined by terrifying strings of a much higher pitch. It’s enough to put you on edge before even a second of film has been shown.

Watch it with the lights out. Turn the volume up. It’s awesome.

Summary

Arizona officeworker Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) cannot marry her lover, Sam Loomis (John Gavin), because most of his money goes towards alimony. She is exasperated with having to meet Sam during her lunch breaks. After one such meeting, Marion returns to her workplace, where her employer asks her to deposit $40,000 cash in a local bank. Desperate, angry, and impulsive, she leaves town with the money and heads toward California, determined to make a new life with Sam.

Night falls, and so does rain. This causes Marion to drive off the main highway, and to happen upon the vacant Bates Motel. She stops there for the night, where she is met by the shy and peculiar Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). Marion discovers that poor Norman is dominated by his mother, and she agrees to eat dinner with him in the motel’s office. After dinner, she returns to her room, where she reaches a decision. She undresses and steps into the shower.

Information

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock;

Written by Robert Bloch (novel upon which it was based), Joseph Stefano (screenplay);

Starring Janet Leigh as Marion Crane, Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, John Gavin as Sam Loomis, Vera Miles as Lila Crane, and Martin Balsam as Detective Milton Arbogast;

Produced by Alfred Hitchcock;

Music by Bernard Herrmann.

Facts

Martha Hyer, Eva Marie Saint, Piper Laurie, Hope Lange, Shirley Jones, and Lana Turner were all considered for the role of Marion Crane.

Alfred Hitchcock bought the rights to the novel for just $9,000. He then bought as many copies of the book as he could, to keep the ending a secret.

During filming, Psycho was referred to as “Production 9401” or “Wimpy”. The latter name came from the second-unit cameraman, Rex Wimpy, who appeared on clapboards and production sheets, and some on-the-set stills for Psycho.

This is the last film Hitchcock did for Paramount. By the time filming started, Hitchcock had already moved his offices to Universal, and the film was shot on the Universal backlot. Universal owns the rights today, though the Paramount logo still appears on the film.

Vera Miles wore a wig for this film, because she had shaved her head for her role in 5 Branded Women (1960).

Psycho is the first American film to show a toilet flushing on-screen.

Anthony Perkins was paid $40,000 for his role. Hee hee.

Psycho is ranked #1 on AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Thrills list.

The shower scene has over 90 splices in it. Hitchcock spent nearly a week shooting this scene, making sure no nudity was shown and that the knife never actually penetrated the skin.

The score is played entirely by stringed instruments.

As part of publicity campaign prior to release of the film, Alfred Hitchcock said: “It has been rumored that ‘Psycho’ is so terrifying that it will scare some people speechless. Some of my men hopefully sent their wives to a screening. The women emerged badly shaken but still vigorously vocal.”

Hitchcock thought it would be amusing if theaters would prohibit patrons from entering the film late. Surprisingly, theater managers went along with this, and it proved to be an extremely successful marketing gimmick. At one point, a man and his quite pregnant wife were deliberately sent to test the theater managers’ strictness. The man and his wife not admitted. Hee hee.

(When you watch, try to spot Hitch’s cameo! I’ll give you a hint: it’s near the beginning of the film.)

-luke

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A Quick Quiz

What does L.S.M.F.T. stand for? Write your answer in the comments!

UPDATE: All right, everyone, time’s up. Whoopee. This was fun.

The Answer! L.S.M.F.T. stands for “Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco”. It was a slogan of Lucky Strike cigarettes, along with “It’s Toasted (to Taste Better)”. Both slogans were introduced in 1917.

-luke

Published in: on July 22, 2010 at 5:05 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Five Greatest Noses of Entertainment

Well, folks, as a change of pace, I thought it would be nice to create a list. Everyone makes lists of favorite movies, or greatest actresses, or greatest moments in film… Bah! It’s time to review the five most iconic noses of entertainment history.

5. Danny Thomas

Amos Alphonsus Muzyad Yakhoob, better known as Danny Thomas, was primarily a TV actor (The Danny Thomas Show ran for 11 seasons). However, he was known mainly for his schnozz.

4. Barbra Streisand

Easily the greatest currently active nose in Hollywood, Streisand has made nearly 20 films, including Funny Girl, Hello, Dolly!, and Yentl, and has sold 70 million records worldwide.

“I hate tooting my own horn, but after Steven Spielberg saw Yentl (1983), he said, ‘I wish I could tell you how to fix your picture, but I can’t. It’s the best film I’ve seen since Citizen Kane (1941).'”

Oh, we understand. You can’t let a horn like that go to waste.

3. W.C. Fields

A striking resemblance.

Making a huge mark on Hollywood in hilarious shorts such as The Dentist and The Fatal Glass of Beer and in classic full-length films The Old-Fashioned Way, The Bank Dick, and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, comedy great W.C. Fields has one of the grandest honkers in film history.

“I never drink anything stronger than gin before breakfast.”

2. Bob Hope

Earning the nickname, “Old Ski Nose,” America’s favorite comedian has been the butt of innumerable schnozz jokes. And with good reason.

One of my favorites (paraphrased): “Pardner, I would shoot you right between the eyes, but it looks like you’ve had enough trouble there.”

1. Jimmy Durante

He’s the guy that found the lost chord and the winner of SC’s Greatest Nose Contest. You didn’t expect any less, did you?

I mean, what can be said about this landmark, this monumental proboscis? It’s awe-inspiring.

As Durante himself ad-libbed to Bob Hope, “When it comes to noses, you’re a retailer; I’m a wholesaler!”

-luke

Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

The willing vagabond.

“There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have?”

Recently, I’ve found myself unwittingly watching ’50s movies. All. The. Time. Not to say that there’s anything wrong with ’50s cinema; some of my all-time favorite films were made during that glorious decade. However, I chose to explore the true “Golden Age” of Hollywood, and found that my ’40s binge was more rewarding than I could’ve hoped.

During this spree, I came across some of the finest films ever made and added several to my already lengthy favorites list. However, perhaps the greatest of all the 1940s films I watched was Preston Sturges’ masterful Sullivan’s Travels. I think the reason behind its obscurity nowadays is that it is somewhat overshadowed by films such as Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, How Green Was My Valley, and Suspicion, all of which were also released in ’41. Still, for any fan of comedy, of superb acting and direction, or of stories that will leave you feeling happier, Sullivan’s Travels is a must-see.

I sat down to watch this film with, I must admit, fairly low expectations. Once it started, however, I staggered back in awe. Seriously, this is a great film.

(Dear reader, I realize that I say that quite a bit. So far, I’ve only reviewed my favorite films, and I’ve said roughly the same thing about each one: “This is a good movie!” Don’t worry; at some point, I will review some movies I hate. Won’t that be fun?)

Joel McCrea (one of my favorite actors), who has exhibited his enormous talent in nearly 100 films (spanning from the ’20s to the ’70s!), shows his comic adeptness AND his dramatic abilities in Sullivan’s Travels. He is an instantly likable fellow, and does not have too little or too much emotion. I first became cognizant of his skill when I watched Hitchcock’s early spy thriller, Foreign Correspondent (1940), in which he gives a (surprise!) great performance. And I’m not the only one who likes him; he has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Veronica Lake… *wolf whistle* I mean, what can I say about her that you can’t figure out for yourself? She’s gorgeous! (And, apparently, rather short. She measured 4′ 11 1/2″, whilst Joel McCrea was a “towering” 6′ 3″. It’s been said that, in some scenes, Lake had to be placed atop a box so their heads could be seen in the same shot.) I expected her to be aloof and seemingly unattainable, but in this film she was actually quite vulnerable, sincere, and, of course, unbelievably beautiful. Her presence is yet another compliment to an already fantastic film.

And I can’t sanely review this film without saying something about its writer/director, Preston Sturges. Sturges was the undisputed king of screwball comedy during the ’30s and ’40s (giving us films such as The Lady Eve, Miracle at Morgan’s Creek, The Great McGinty, and Hail the Conquering Hero, whose sly banter and clever storylines constantly challenged the Puritanical Hays Code). He was also THE FIRST prominent screenwriter to direct his own script.

One reason this satire of Hollywood is SO wonderful is the sincerity with which the story is told. I don’t mean it’s sappy. But it’s not just a continuous laugh-fest or a box-o’-Kleenex movie. It’s a brilliant, unpredictable mixture of both. For a comedy, it’s very moving; for a drama, it’s hilarious. I guarantee you’ll be satisfied, or your money back.

But wait, there’s more!

Synopsis

Tired of making fluffy, forgettable comedies, Hollywood director John L. Sullivan (McCrea) wants to put all his creative effort into a serious, socially responsible drama called “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” His producers point out that Sullivan knows absolutely nothing about poverty or suffering. Thus, Sullivan decides to put himself in a vagabond’s shoes (literally). However, his experiment hardly goes as planned, and he soon comes across a downtrodden aspiring actress, who longs to join him on his journey. And when the experiment seems to be nearly done, a series of events places Sullivan in a tighter spot than he had ever imagined.

Information

Directed by Preston Sturges;

Written by Preston Sturges;

Starring Joel McCrea as John L. Sullivan and Veronica Lake as The Girl (with a Sturges regular, William Demarest, as Mr. Jones);

Produced by Paul Jones (associate producer), Buddy G. DeSylva (executive producer, uncredited), and Preston Sturges (producer, uncredited);

Costumes by Edith Head;

Music by Charles Bradshaw and Leo Shuken.

Facts

Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen borrowed the title of John L. Sullivan’s fictional project for their 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou?

The author of the fake book, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, was an amalgamation of the names of Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, and John Steinbeck.

Preston Sturges supposedly got the idea for the movie from stories of John Garfield living the life of a hobo, riding freight trains and hitchhiking his way cross-country, for a short period in the 1930s.

Veronica Lake was pregnant during filming.

NAACP Secretary Walter White wrote a letter to Preston Sturges congratulating him for his “dignified and decent treatment of Negroes in this [the church] scene.”

Preston Sturges had originally intended to use a clip from a Charles Chaplin film for the church sequence, but Chaplin wouldn’t give permission. In an earlier scene, Joel McCrea does parody the Little Tramp character. The cartoon eventually used was Walt Disney’s Playful Pluto (1934).

-luke