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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The Music Man (1962)

I have never understood those hats.

“This is a refined operation, son, and I’ve got it timed down to the last wave of the brakeman’s hand on the last train out of town.”

The Music Man is, as one reviewer put it, what musicals are all about. It has the grand numbers, the syrupy romance, the comedy, and Shirley Jones. What more could you want? Maybe Grace Kelly and Joan Fontaine.

No, I’m kidding. This film boasts a great cast, with schmaltzy Robert Preston leading the pack. It confuses me that actors such as Paul Ford (Mayor Shinn), Susan Luckey (Zaneeta Shinn), and Harry Hickox (Charlie Cowell) didn’t enjoy a more successful film career.

Although just a supporting part (with far too little screen time), Mayor Shinn was my favorite character in the film. Nearly every line he shouted (“Watch your phraseology!”, “Not one poop out of you, Madam!”, and, of course, “Fourscore…”) made me laugh out loud. He would probably make it into my list of Top 20 Favorite Characters.

Robert Preston fits his part to a “T”. “Tee”? How do you write that? Never mind. He is the prime example, the sparkling epitome of a darn good traveling salesman. (Seriously, The Music Man should be required viewing for all persons who are considering a career in salesmanship.) His “songs” remind me somewhat of Danny Kaye’s tongue-twisters. He recites them perfectly, with unequaled enthusiasm. He’s funny, he can sing, he can dance, and he can convince every single soul in River City, Iowa that they desperately need a boys’ marching band.

Shirley Jones’s character, Marian Paroo, is wonderful. She despises Harold Hill (Preston), but he persistently lays on more and more charm until she finally gives in. Funny, he uses my technique.

Okay, so the “she-hates-him-at-the-beginning-but-comes-to-love-him-before-the-credits-roll” story line is a tad overused, but the chemistry between Jones and Preston make it seem almost new. I was amazed and amused by the intrigue of their inexplicable relationship.

The film features Buddy Hackett in a small part, and he never fails to make me laugh. That’s a bonus. The film also presents a 7-year-old Ron Howard, who sings a delightful, melodic rendition of “Gary, Indiana“.

Ha! But seriously, folks. To recap:

PROS:

1. It’s hilarious.

2. It’s innocent fun.

3. It has some GREAT songs, including “Sadder But Wiser Girl For Me”, “If You Don’t Mind Me Saying So”, “Sincere”, “Shipoopi”, and “Marian the Librarian”.

4. It has a great cast: Robert Preston, Shirley Jones, Buddy Hackett, Paul Ford, Hermione Gingold, Susan Luckey, and Ron(ny) Howard.

5. It’s filmed in beautiful Technicolor.

6. It’s one of the best Broadway adaptations ever made.

7. It’s long, but every minute is entertaining.

8. It has that sort of slightly-altered reality. It’s somewhat surrealistic.

9. It’s a bit sappy. But in a good way. A very good way.

10. It’s a “glimmering slice of Americana”. Whatever that means.

CONS:

1. “Gary, Indiana“.

Seriously, you will have that song stuck in your head for WEEKS. I suggest skipping that entire song, or at least muting it. Consider that song the film’s intermission.

Synopsis

Harold Hill (Preston), a freewheeling con man, stops by River City, Iowa, after fellow (I use the term loosely) salesmen inform him that the town is the biggest test possible of a salesman’s abilities. Hill intends to cheat the town by offering to equip and train a boys’ marching band, and then skip town with the money. Things go awry when he falls for a beautiful librarian (Jones) who threatens to expose him to the townspeople.

Information

Directed by Morton DaCosta;

Written by Meredith Wilson (play on which it was based), Franklin Lacey (play on which it was based), Marion Hargrove (screenplay);

Starring Robert Preston as Professor Harold Hill, Shirley Jones as Marian Paroo, Buddy Hackett as Marcellus Washburn, Ron Howard as Winthrop Paroo, Paul Ford as Mayor George Shinn, Hermione Gingold as Eulalie Mackechnie Shinn, and Susan Luckey as Zaneeta Shinn;

Produced by Morton DaCosta (producer), and Joel Freeman (associate producer);

Music by Ray Heindorf (conductor, orchestrator, music supervisor), and Meredith Wilson (music and lyrics).

Facts

Although Robert Preston had played the role of Harold Hill on Broadway, he was not even considered for the film until Cary Grant turned down the role. Frank Sinatra was Warner Brothers’ other choice for the role, but Meredith Wilson told them, “No Robert Preston, no movie”.

Shirley Jones discovered, during production, that she was pregnant with her son, Patrick.

The original Broadway production opened at the Majestic Theater on December 19th, 1957, and ran for 1,375 performances. The show won the 1958 Tony Award for Best Musical, and Preston received the 1958 Tony for Best Actor in a Musical. Pert Kelton (Mother Paroo) and The Buffalo Bills also reprise their roles in the film.

Before starring in The Music Man, Robert Preston had never sung a note.

The songs “76 Trombones” and “Goodnight My Someone” are the same tune arranged in different time signatures.

River City was based on Meredith Wilson’s home town of Mason City, Iowa. The movie had its world premiere there.

The marching bands of the University of California and the University of Southern California were drafted in for the final parade scene.

Gary, Indiana, Gary, Indiana, Gary, Indiana… *sigh*

-luke

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)

The Wonder Car.

“Good morning. I hope you had a pleasant journey. In a few minutes we will be landing in Vulgaria.”

It’s fantastic. It’s absurd. It’s whimsical. It’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Sure, it’s juvenile. That’s what makes it so fun!

If you’re like me, you remember this film from your childhood. And if you’re like me, you remember the undeniably singable songs, “Up from the Ashes”, “P.O.S.H.”, and, of course, the theme song. The songs in this film, masterfully created by the Sherman Brothers, are some of the rare songs you are happy to have stuck in your head.

But the songs aren’t everything. There is an exceptionally imaginative story, written by Roald Dahl (the mind behind Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and last year’s Fantastic Mr. Fox) and based on a novel by Ian Fleming (the creator of the enormously popular James Bond series). For pure, unhindered, surrealistic storytelling, there isn’t a better team on Earth.

Dick Van Dyke (who plays the eccentric inventor, Caractacus Potts, to perfection) had gotten his start in showbiz only a few years before Chitty’s release. A mere five years earlier, he had gotten his first starring role in the musical comedy, Bye Bye Birdie. In autumn of the next year, the extremely popular family film, Mary Poppins, was released, in which he played Bert/Mr. Dawes Senior. Then, of course, there was “The Dick Van Dyke Show”, which enjoyed a five-season run, from 1961-1966. Although Chitty was not well-received by critics (or audiences, at the time of its release), it remains my favorite Van Dyke film.

This film is nostalgia for many of us, but for those of you who have not seen the movie, I have a few warnings for you. Firstly, this film was made for children. However, it’s considerably more intellectual than anything you’ll find “for kids” nowadays. It’s a movie that explores imagination. Most modern children’s films ignore the miracle altogether. It’s a movie to make you wonder. It’s an exhilarating breath of fresh air. A rare find: a movie with heart.

Synopsis

In early 20th century England, eccentric inventor Caractacus Potts (Dick Van Dyke) struggles to make ends meet. He lives with his equally eccentric father (Lionel Jefferies) and his two children. When the children beg Caractacus to purchase their favorite plaything–a broken-down jalopy in a local junkyard–he does everything he can to obtain the funds with which to buy it. One scheme to raise money involves the unexpected assistance of a beautiful and wealthy young woman they have just met named Truly Scrumptious (Sally Ann Howes), the daughter of a candy factory owner. Caractacus eventually acquires the needed money and buys the car.

Using his inventing skills, Caractacus transforms the piece of junk into a beautiful working machine, which they name Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (because of the noise the engine makes). At a seaside picnic with his children and Truly, Caractacus spins a fanciful tale of an eccentric inventor, his pretty girlfriend (who is the daughter of a candy factory owner), his two children, and a magical car named Chitty all in the faraway land of Vulgaria. The ruthless buffoon Baron Bomburst, the ruler of Vulgaria, will do whatever he can to get his hands on the magical car. Furthermore, children have been outlawed in Vulgaria. Caractacus and the gang must save Chitty–and the children of Vulgaria.

Information

Directed by Ken Hughes;

Written by Ian Fleming (novel on which it was based), Roald Dahl (screenplay), Ken Hughes (screenplay), Richard Maibaum (additional dialogue);

Starring Dick Van Dyke as Caractacus Potts, Sally Ann Howes as Truly Scrumptious, Lionel Jefferies as Grandpa Potts, Gert Fröbe as Baron Bomburst, Anna Quayle as Baroness Bomburst, Benny Hill as Toymaker, and Robert Helpmann as Child Catcher;

Produced by Albert R. Broccoli (producer), and Stanley Sopel (associate producer);

Music by Irwin Kostal (conductor, music supervisor), Richard M. Sherman (music and lyrics), and Robert B. Sherman (music and lyrics).

Facts

Lionel Jeffries played Dick Van Dyke’s father, despite the fact that Dick Van Dyke is actually six months older than Jeffries.

Besides the failed Bob Hope film, Call Me Bwana, and the unfinished Nijinsky, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is the only non-James Bond film to be produced by Albert R. Broccoli.

The colors of the floating Chitty–purple, green, and white–were the colors of the women’s suffrage movement of that time.

This is the first non-Disney film to feature songs by the Sherman Brothers.

Van Dyke only accepted the lead role on the condition that he would not have to attempt an English accent.

Director Ken Hughes reportedly hated the finished film.

Dick Van Dyke’s character was named for Caractacus, the last independent ruler of England before the Roman conquest of southern England.

The role of Truly Scrumptious was originally intended for Julie Andrews, but she was unavailable. Dick Van Dyke helped choose Sally Ann Howes because he thought her singing voice was ideal for the part.

The scenes in and around Baron Bomburst’s castle in Vulgaria were shot on location at King Ludwig II’s Castle Neuschwanstein, located at the foot of the Alps on the Bavarian-Austrian border.

The musical number ‘Toot Sweets’ took three weeks to film and involved 38 dancers, 40 singers, 85 musicians and 100 dogs. How would you like to wrangle that?

-luke