Psycho (1960)


The scream that started it all.

The scream that started it all.

(1960) Horror (Paramount) Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, Martin Balsam, John Gavin, John McIntire, Simon Oakland, Frank Albertson, Patricia Hitchcock, Vaughn Taylor, Lurene Tuttle, John Anderson, Mort Mills, Ted Knight, Jeanette Nolan (voice), Virginia Gregg (voice), Kit Carson, Prudence Beers, George Eldredge, Sam Flint. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Six Days of Darkness 2014

Some movies transcend the genres they’re in. The Searchers is a Western that is greater than its genre. Saving Private Ryan is a war movie that sets the standard for its genre. Horror movies have a lot of films that are bigger than their genre. Arguably, the one that might make the most impact among mainstream film audiences is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

When it came out the year I was born movie audiences really hadn’t seen anything like it. Back then there were no ratings, just the Hays code that all movies had to adhere to. Psycho skirted those codes without violating them, a neat trick. It did it so well that many remember it as being more violent than it was and even remember the red hue of the blood despite it being filmed in black and white. It was a game changer and it set the stage for how the modern horror movie is made, for better and for worse.

Marion Crane (Leigh) is a secretary at a financial institution who is tired of being single. She is deeply in love with Sam Loomis (Gavin) but he lives in California, she lives in Arizona and he is barely able to make ends meet. There’s no way he could possibly take care of her.

After a lunch time rendezvous with her lover, she is given $40,000 of Tom Cassidy’s (Albertson) money to deposit. Instead, she snaps and drives off with it, hoping to run away to California and use her ill-gotten gains to start a new life with her man.

However, she is too tired to drive there all in one session, so she stops for the night at the off-the-beaten-path Bates Motel. There the innkeeper Norman Bates (Perkins) rents her a room and has a sweet but increasingly creepy conversation with her. Afterwards, she retires to her room for the night to wash the road off of her and get a good night’s sleep.

However things go horribly wrong and her sister Lila (Miles) hires a private investigator (Balsam) to check up on her baby sister. There is something going on at Bates Motel. Something terrible. Something deadly. It’s much like the Hotel California; you can check out any time you like but you can never leave.

Financed by Hitchcock himself and made at for what was even at the time a pittance, it remains Hitchcock’s classic horror movie. Now, he is the Master of Suspense – not the Master of Horror – and he is best known for films like Vertigo, North by Northwest and Rear Window but many people think this was his finest hour. It certainly is one of his most visceral films, even if by suggestion more than the actual showing of blood and carnage.

There is a scene in which a woman takes a shower that has become iconic. During the course of the scene she is attacked in the shower by what appears to be an old woman. The naked screaming woman tries to protect herself but is stabbed repeatedly in the shower and is mortally wounded. The sequence takes only 45 seconds but took a week to shoot and is as masterfully edited as any sequence in film history. It is sudden, shocking and completely unexpected. It turned horror conventions on their collective ears and paved the way for the opening sequence of Jaws among others. That it happens ten minutes into the movie completely changes the movie’s direction – and yet fits into the story seamlessly.

Based on a novel by Robert Bloch (who famously once said “I have the heart of a little boy; I keep it in a jar on my desk”) Hitchcock got the rights for a paltry nine thousand dollars and turned the story which was meant to be a kind of pulp horror story into a classic film.

Perkins entire career was defined by this role which he would reprise in future films, all of which were made after Hitchcock’s death. It would typecast the young, handsome actor for pretty much the rest of his life, but characteristically he didn’t resent being typecast in it and remembered the making of the film fondly up until his own death in 1992 (Central Florida movie fans may not be aware that he attended Rollins College at one time).

Leigh was also a presence in a brief but notable role. It is her performance that helped convince John Carpenter to cast her daughter Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode in Halloween. Talk about far-reaching influences, right? In any case, the Master of Suspense kept the tension up to maximum throughout the movie from the moment Marion Crane drives off with the cash.

Most people have seen Psycho on television or on home video. It is one of those movies that when seen on a big screen is even more remarkable. If it plays in an art house or revival theater anywhere near you, it is worth your while to seek it out, even if you’ve seen it before on television. It was meant to be seen on a big screen despite the intimacy of the setting. It has inspired a shot-by-shot remake by Gus van Sant and a hit television series on A&E. It remains for many the quintessential horror movie, one that even after half a century is still scary as hell.

WHY RENT THIS: Suspenseful and if you don’t know the twist, shocking. Career-defining performance by Perkins. Leigh brief but memorable. One of Hitchcock’s all-time greatest.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: While extreme for its day is pretty tame by modern standards.
FAMILY VALUES: Sexuality and violence, once again tame by today’s standards but shocking in 1960.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Hitchcock’s last film to be shot in black and white, and also his biggest box office success.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The two-disc 2008 release as well as the 2010 Blu-Ray release includes newsreel footage of the movie’s premiere and the special rules regarding latecomers, two different versions of the notorious shower scene including one without music (the way Hitch intended it originally), an audio interview of Hitchcock by French director Francois Truffaut,  a discussion of Hitchcock’s legacy including interviews with modern filmmakers who owe their careers to the Master of Suspense, and a full-length episode from the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $32M on an $806,947 production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (buy/rent), Target Ticket (Purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hitchcock
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Fury

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The Searchers (1956)


The greatest Western ever made.

The greatest Western ever made.

(1956) Western (Warner Brothers) John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Ward Bond, Vera Miles, Natalie Wood, John Qualen, Olive Carey, Harry Brandon, Ken Curtis, Harry Carey Jr., Antonio Moreno, Hank Worden, Beulah Archuletta, Walter Coy, Dorothy Jordan, Pippa Scott, Pat Wayne, Lana Wood, Ruth Clifford, Danny Borzage. Directed by John Ford

The American Experience

The Western is an American archetype, carrying values that are uniquely American – the rugged individualist who solves his own problems, the romance of desolation and a code of honesty and integrity. Whether or not these remain American values in practice are certainly subject to debate but few film genres sum up the American psyche as the Western does.

If the Western is quintessentially American, then so to must director John Ford and actor John Wayne and thus their greatest collaboration, the 1956 epic The Searchers must be as well. It begins when Ethan Edwards (Wayne) returns home to Texas after serving in the Confederacy during the Civil War; it’s three years since the war ended for the rest of the country but not for Ethan who has been up to no good since then, but he is welcomed home with open arms by his brother Aaron (Coy), Aaron’s wife Martha (Jordan) and their daughters Lucy (Scott) and Debbie (Wood).

When the sheriff and town parson Sam Clayton (Bond) drops by to see about putting together a posse to round up some cattle rustlers, Ethan goes with along with Martin (Hunter), a young man who was rescued by Ethan as a baby and given to his brother to raise. However, Ethan doesn’t like Martin much – Martin’s 1/8 Comanche and that’s 1/4 too much for Ethan.

When they discover the cattle slaughtered, they realize it was just a ruse and ride hard back to the homestead. There they find the Edwards place burned to the ground, Aaron and Martha dead and their daughters taken. Ethan vows to find the girls and Martin insists on going with him, even though Ethan doesn’t want him around. Brad Jorgensen (Carey) also goes with as he is the boyfriend of Lucy.

That search will go on for five long years and not everybody will come back who sets out on it. Martin will discover that Ethan means to put a bullet in the head of white girl who has been despoiled by a Comanche buck and aims to stop him, even though it may cost him the love of Laurie Jorgensen (Miles) who has been waiting for Martin patiently. When they finally discover that Debbie is in the hands of the vicious Chief Scar (Brandon), it will lead to an epic confrontation.

There is a great deal to love about this movie. Shot mainly in Ford’s beloved Monument Valley in Utah (doubling for Texas), the vistas here are breathtaking. Ford was fond of shots that featured vast wide angles with human subjects tiny within the frame and some of his best are found here. Wayne himself believed this to be his finest performance (and named one of his own sons Ethan after the character he played) which considering how amazing he did a Rooster Cogburn in True Grit is quite a compliment and to be honest, it’s hard to disagree with the Duke on this.

One thing that must be brought up when discussing this movie is the charges that have been leveled against it as racist against the Native American. Certainly Ethan’s viewpoint is racist; he hates all Indians and he’s not too fond of other non-whites either. He is very much an anti-hero, a model for characters that would come into popularity about 15 years later. He is also a product of his times – not just the historical post-Civil War context but also when the film was made. It was the heyday of the Western and even though film Westerns were on the decline largely due to their popularity on TV (why go pay to see a great Western when you could watch a good one for free at home) the Native Americans were generic villains, very much like Nazis in war movies. They weren’t really seen as people, just whooping savages to be shot off their horses by brave America soldiers and cowboys. Rarely were they given any sort of voice in movies and more rarely still, any dignity. While I can’t say I agree with Ethan’s hatreds and racism, I can at least dismiss them as the issues of a character, not the actor playing him nor the director filming him. Wayne was a lot of things, not all of them pleasant but he was not a racist. Ford also was a particularly tolerant man considering the era in which he lived and worked.

The plot is complex and Ethan isn’t terribly likable – this is a character Wayne didn’t usually play. There is something that is grand and epic about The Searchers. You realize you are watching something that is a lot more than the sum of its parts. It shows both the beauty of America – the natural beauty and also the beauty of that American spirit that never gives up. – and the ugliness in the way the Natives were treated.

One of the things that makes America great is its willingness to let show its flaws and warts and discuss them. We may not always do the right thing as a country but we certainly at least try to correct our mistakes. Like anything human however it takes time and will to make these changes happen. These days the movies have a different attitude towards Native culture than films from the 1950s did and in some small way The Searchers helped open up that dialogue, particularly in how the film ends. There are few films as American as this one – and few that sum up all the contradictions of our society as well as this. It’s a must-see for anyone who wants to gain insight into the American experience.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the best movies ever made. Tremendous influence on modern movies.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Definitely a film of its era. Shows some racism and misogynistic tendencies.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some scenes of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Buddy Holly saw the movie several times during the summer of 1956; he loved it so much that he took a phrase Ethan used repeatedly and turned it into one of his most beloved hit songs: “That’ll Be the Day.”

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a featurette worth noting; a series of interviews with legendary filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and John Milius discussing how The Searchers influenced them as directors, as well as some vintage promotional clips and an introduction by Patrick Wayne, son of John who had a small role as a bumbling cavalry officer.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4.8M (first run receipts only) on a $3.75M production budget; the film made back its budget and became profitable after second and third runs, home video and television sales..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Missing

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Sleepy Hollow