Friday, August 30, 2013

Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie

In the retrospective documentary included on Universal’s DVD of Marnie, production assistant Hilton Green remembers that President Kennedy had been assassinated during production. That means ‘Tippi’ Hedren is mistaken when she says that Sean Connery came to the Alfred Hitchcock production after wrapping Dr. No, his debut as James Bond. On November 22, 1963, the second 007 thriller, From Russia with Love, was already a hit in Europe, and it is commonly believed that it was the last movie that the 35th president watched, in a private White House screening, before he left for Dallas. According to The New York Times Directory of the Film, the “paper of record” reviewed the sophomore Bond movie on April 9, 1964, two months before it went into general release throughout the U.S. Marnie was given its due by the Times on June 23. It was a big year for the Scottish actor who had four films reach U.S. screens in 1964, the biggest of which, Goldfinger, would elevate him and James Bond to superstar status at Christmas.

Although he is second-billed to Hedren (who has the title role), Connery is the main attraction of Marnie even if he’s miscast as an American aristocrat whose Scottish ancestry is never mentioned (well, you see, his character, Mark Rutland, has no Scottish ancestry). He hires Marnie (who is using an alias) to do secretarial work knowing full well that she’s a thief who emptied the safe of a previous employer. After attempting to rob her latest benefactor, she’s given a choice: she can be turned over to the police, or she can become Mrs. Rutland.

Rutland is determined to get to the root of his bride’s problems. Why is Marnie a thief? Why is she so terrified of thunderstorms? Why is she appalled when a man attempts seduction, another of her quirks that comes to light on their honeymoon?

The screenplay by Jay Pressen Allen (from a novel by Winston Graham) never sheds much light on Marnie’s psychological problems, but they are miraculously solved in the climactic flashback (featuring a young Bruce Dern). It helps explain her aversion to men and thunderstorms, but not her attraction to thievery.

Marnie is an oddball movie, a rather modest one for Hitchcock after the technological sophistication of The Birds and the grisly thrills of Psycho. There are few of his suspenseful touches, no moments that really startle, and the use of fake process shots is more obvious than in his earlier films.

It is Connery who holds the attention with a performance that might have made it easier for him to shake off the image of Ian Fleming’s superspy had it come a little later in his career, after "Bondmania" rather than six months before it. He shows real vulnerability in his scenes with Hedren, and one can easily imagine him (as some cannot) cradling the corpse of James Bond’s murdered wife in the denouement of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, a scene in which George Lazenby seemed to be more at home.

Connery is also amusing, especially in the scene where he is driving Marnie home after a storm that destroyed a cabinet in his office containing the pre-Columbian art that his late wife had collected.

“I’m really sorry about the cabinet,” Marnie says.
“Why should you be?” asks Rutland.
“You said it was all you had of your late wife.”
He corrects her: “I said it was all I had left that had belonged to my wife.”

Watch Connery’s eyes and the hint of an ironic smile on his lips as he says the latter line. On repeat viewings, the moment stands out as a subtle comic gem.

Hedren is merely adequate, and it’s no surprise that once Hitchcock got over his infatuation with her, she disappeared from the screen until being cast in a supporting role in Charlie Chaplin’s disastrous A Countess from Hong Kong in 1967. Lovely Diane Baker as Lil, a sort of rival to Marnie, is terrific and might have been a better choice for the lead.

Bernard Herrmann’s score sounds dated, more appropriate for a film from the ‘50s than from the era already being dominated by James Bond and the Beatles. After replacing Herrmann on 1966’s Torn Curtain, Hitchcock would not work with his greatest collaborator again.

Even though it starred the screen’s “Man of the Year” (as Connery was touted in some of the film’s advertisements), Marnie was something of a dud upon its initial release. It’s obvious that Universal had little faith in the film since the studio paired it with a Pat Boone B flick when opening it in New York. The film's reputation has improved through the years, and it is definitely worth seeing, particularly for Connery, but it remains second-tier Hitchcock.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Rosemary's Baby: The devil is in the details

“He has pierced ears,” Rosemary Woodhouse says of her neighbor, Roman Castavet. “Pierced ears and piercing eyes,” says Hutch who is alarmed at his pregnant friend’s emaciated appearance when visiting her at the Bramford, the luxury apartment house where she and her husband, Guy, have moved despite its dark past.

“Are you aware that the Bramford had a rather unpleasant reputation around the turn of the century?” Hutch asks. “It’s where the Trench sisters conducted their little dietary experiments. They cooked and ate several young children, including a niece.” It was also home to Adrian Marcato who announced to his neighbors that he had “conjured up the living devil.”

Later, after Hutch’s suspicions mean he must be removed from the scene, Rosemary reads the book he had arranged for her to receive, All of Them Witches. “The name is an anagram,” he told her, the name in question being that of Adrian Marcato’s son, Steven. When rearranging the letters in the name with a Scrabble set, Rosemary learns that they spell “Roman Castavet.”

You can do a lot with names in Rosemary’s Baby, not only the names of characters but of the personnel behind the 1968 film. William Castle, the schlock merchant who produced the film from Ira Levin’s novel, but was forbidden from directing it by Paramount’s Robert Evans, called director Roman Polanski by the same name that Guy uses to address Rosemary: “Ro.” Roman is also the first name of the head witch played by Sidney Blackmer. His surname, Castavet, is not far from Cassavettes, as in John, who plays Guy. It may not mean anything, but you might suspect that it does because Rosemary’s Baby is that kind of movie: eerie, thought-provoking, and filled with quietly disturbing moments.

Of course, we know (or I do, anyway) that Polanski’s wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered, along with her unborn child, by Charles Manson’s gang approximately one year after Rosemary’s Baby was released in summer 1968. And the Bramford is actually the Dakota, the spooky New York apartment house where John Lennon spent his final decade and where he was murdered in December 1980. These are eerily creepy sidebars to this story of a young woman who unwittingly gives birth to the son of Satan.

Director Polanski also wrote the screenplay and was slavishly faithful to the novel even in the minor details. When Guy returns home unexpectedly to do the witches’ bidding while Rosemary is entertaining Hutch, he brings out a carton of Pall Mall cigarettes. “Loot,” he exclaims as the packs fall on the table. The scene exactly mirrors the one in the book. In the novel, Guy mentions buying an Arrow shirt that was advertised in The New Yorker. Polanski tried to hunt down the ad in back issues until Levin informed him that the ad, like the shirt, was just a detail he had invented.

Knowing that he director paid such attention to the details makes the more attentive viewer pay close attention to the details, as well. When Guy takes that book about witches away from Rosemary, he slides it on a shelf, right on top of Yes, I Can!, the Sammy Davis, Jr. autobiography that Rosemary had been reading earlier. Is it coincidence or a sly wink to the viewer who knows that Davis once dabbled in Satanism (“for the sexual kicks”)? Also on the shelf are hard copies of Alfred Kinsey’s studies of human sexuality. Kinsey was another dabbler in the Black Arts. Oh, and is that the Eye of Horus we see in the window that is given a pyramid shape when the curtains are parted?

(At least one detail is wrong. When Rosemary wanders the streets of New York after Hutch has failed to appear for a meeting, we can see Radio City Music Hall in the distance. The film at that point takes place in 1965, but the marquee advertises Fred MacMurray in The Happiest Millionaire, their Christmas attraction in 1967, the year of the filming.)

It’s said that the devil is in the details, and some of Rosemary’s Baby’s most effective moments are small ones that might escape the attention of the viewer who only focuses on the big picture.

One of the most disturbingly quiet moments in a film that is filled with them occurs after dinner in the apartment of Roman and Minnie Castavet. Minnie (Ruth Gordon in an Oscar winning role) is washing dishes while Rosemary stands nearby, her offer of help having been politely refused. Rosemary then glances uncomfortably into the doorway of the living room where the men's cigarette smoke lingers in the air. Next we turn the corner and see Guy, staring intensely, spellbound by whatever Roman is confiding in him. The sudden appearance of Rosemary and Minnie startles Guy who quickly rises to his feet, looking not unlike a little boy whose mother has entered his bedroom and caught him ogling Playboy. It’s clear that something unpleasant is in the works, and Guy is a willing participant.

Rosemary’s Baby remains one of the most effective horror films with a letter perfect cast. Mia Farrow, so sweet, so vulnerable, and sympathetic, should have won the Oscar (but failed to even earn a nomination in a year when Katherine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand tied for best actress). Cassavettes has just the right arrogance and contrived charm one might expect in a man on the make who is willing to sell his soul, as well as his wife and their child, to further his career. Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, Maurice Evans (as Hutch), and Ralph Bellamy as the Park Avenue obstetrician who delivers the demon child are all exceptionally cast.

The dream sequence (which isn’t a dream at all) is a knockout, a surreal nightmare that haunts the imagination. The revelation at the climax is all the more effective for what it doesn’t show. Rosemary’s Baby is Polanski’s masterpiece and one of the greatest of all horror films.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


Saturday, August 24, 2013

Revenge of the Creature: Pasty-faced sequel

In their smirky, disrespectful and often dishonest book, The Golden Turkey Awards, the Medved brothers stage a mock competition in which John Agar, Tony Curtis, and Richard Burton duke it out for the title of the world's worst actor. Burton won, of course; after all, to choose a genuinely bad actor wouldn't give the authors an opportunity to shock and outrage their readers.

As a great actor, albeit one who frequently descended into hamminess, Burton was a controversial choice. No one, however, would doubt for one minute that John Agar is the most worthy recipient of the "honor." His performance in Revenge of the Creature alone should convince even the most skeptical that Mr. Agar has no rival in this contest.

Writing about a rotten Richard Burton performance is easy. The late Welshman's style is often described as "bravura." Liz Taylor's favorite hubby (she married him twice) was not shy about showing emotion. A John Agar performance is more elusive. The man doesn't really do anything. Agar shows all the emotion of a department store mannequin and has less personality. He reads his dialogue as though he forgot he was in a movie and was suddenly reminded, perhaps by the sight of one of the many monsters with which he so often co-starred. "Let's see," Agar seems to be thinking. "Do Gill Men exist in real life? Nah. This must be one of those movies. Now, what is my dialogue?"

Actually, Revenge of the Creature is the perfect movie for Agar's non-talents. A sequel to The Creature from the Black Lagoon, it's a pasty-faced shadow of its excellent predecessor even though Jack Arnold who directed the original, as well as the classic Incredible Shrinking Man, is at the helm once again. In a bad movie like this one, Agar's monotone line readings and complete lack of anything resembling charisma or presence don't ruin anything. Besides, with foxy Lori Nelson on hand as the damsel in distress, who'll notice Agar?

The most interesting scene in Revenge of the Creature has nothing to do with a monster or any unconvincing dramatics from Agar. In the scene, a pair of teenagers are driving along when one of them says, "My father told me that these days a Bachelors degree from college is what a high-school diploma was when he was young." I've heard that in the 90's, and I believed it, too, although hearing it in a 1955 monster movie makes me wonder if it's not one of those "I walked twenty miles to school in the snow" stories. Those teenagers don't have to worry about high-school diplomas or Bachelor degrees, though, since the Gill-Man gets them only minutes after their conversation.

Now, more than four decades after its release, Revenge of the Creature is best known, not for dialogue that may cast doubt on things your father tells you, but as the film that introduced Clint Eastwood to movie audiences. In his brief amusing scene as a lab assistant who misplaces a mouse, Eastwood has the presence that Agar lacks, but his acting is just as wooden. There is no indication that, in another twelve years, the tall, soft-spoken actor would be on his way to becoming one of the great icons of the cinema, not to mention an Oscar winning director. Eastwood's name cannot be found in the credits, but it's doubtful anyone would remember Revenge of the Creature at all today if not for his appearance.

© 1995 Brian W. Fairbanks


Quiz Show

He’s won $50,000 as a contestant on the TV game show Twenty-One, been immortalized on the cover of Time, and celebrated as the perfect role model for the school children of America. But late one evening while sitting in the kitchen of his Connecticut home, Charles Van Doren tells his father that he doubts he could ever be happier than he was when, as a boy, he’d return from school to find chocolate cake and an ice cold bottle of milk waiting for him. “It seems so simple,” he says, and at this time, his life is anything but simple.

Quiz Show, Robert Redford’s Oscar nominated drama, isn’t simple either. It examines greed, dishonesty, family ties, academia, and the whipping boy of the 20th century, what else but television? The fact that Redford and his screenwriter embellished the facts somewhat and compressed time to bring this true story to the screen has caused some to wonder if they engaged in the same kind of deceit for which they condemn the lead characters.

The quiz shows secretly fed answers to the contestants, and the winners became national celebrities. Herb Stempel (John Turturro) is the reigning champion as Quiz Show opens, but the producers think a new winner is needed to maintain audience interest, preferably someone more handsome, and a gentile to boot.

Enter Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), the son of a Pulitzer Prize winning poet and professor at Columbia University. Exit Stempel, who agrees to take a dive, but only after he’s been promised a spot on an upcoming panel show. When the promise proves empty, the vindictive Stempel, who has gambled away his winnings and resents Van Doren’s popularity, craves revenge. At the same time, Richard Goodwin (Rob Morrow), a Congressional investigator, is looking into the show’s background, convinced that something dirty is going down.

The script by Paul Attanasio compresses the time frame, turning several years into several months. The role that Goodwin played in the proceedings is also expanded (he wrote the book on which the film is based). These changes were made to strengthen the dramatic impact, but some critics have charged the film with hypocrisy. Hey, this movie is doing the same thing the game shows did: creating drama, contriving suspense, and lying to its audience.

Maybe. But the quiz shows were deliberately hood-winking viewers who were told they were watching reality unfold as it happened. The audience for Quiz Show, the movie, is hopefully sophisticated enough to know they are being manipulated by the filmmakers. A bigger question is whether the deception played on the American people in the 1950s is really significant enough to warrant a 137 minute movie?

I’m tempted to say no, but then Quiz Show deals with greater issues. The ignorance of the American people who gathered around the box in their living rooms is mirrored by Mark Van Doren (Paul Scofield), the intellectual, who, despite his Pulitzer Prize for poetry and esteemed place in the world of academia, is foolishly unaware of the impact television is having on both the culture and his son.

“Charlie’s famous,” someone tells the father, “like Elvis Presley.” But the man of letters is not impressed by this shift in the culture.

Charles Van Doren is another matter. A professor of literature, he is nonetheless a man whose identity has been overshadowed by his illustrious father’s reputation. Only by compromising his intellect is he able to come into his own. The price he pays is too steep, however, and Van Doren’s fame only serves to make him feel smaller even as the public elevates him to star status.

What is offensive about Quiz Show is its subtle yet still obvious sanctimonious undercurrents. This is where it all came undone, the filmmakers say. America, that beacon for dreamers, lost its innocence. America, it seems, is always losing its innocence. We’ve been told that America lost its innocence when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and again in Vietnam, and yet again at Watergate. Now, Quiz Show tells us, the cynicism began in the 1950s thanks to a weekly half-hour TV game show.

Sure it did. What, I wonder, was America when the Europeans came and stole the land from the Natives? How innocent was America before the Civil War that brought an end to slavery?

As long as one overlooks these pretensions, Quiz Show is an engrossing film. The era is eerily reproduced (although the Time cover featuring Fiennes as Van Doren looks too contemporary by using a photo instead of an illustration as the news weekly did during the ‘50s) right down to the vacant eyes of the game show host who is more mannequin than human being. The performances, with the exception of Morrow, who affects an annoying and unconvincing Boston accent, are as good as can be. Turturro is gawky, caustic, and intense as Stempel, Fiennes is smooth and superficially secure as Charles Van Doren. Best of all is Paul Scofield as the condescendingly erudite senior Van Doren. Redford’s direction, so flat and undistinguished in The Milagro Beanfield War and A River Runs Through It, finally shows some force.

© 1995 Brian W. Fairbanks


Bob Dylan is Masked and Anonymous

Bob Dylan once said "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows." I'm no weatherman, and I can't say with any certainty which way the wind is blowing, but I know I'll want to avoid any breeze emanating from the cinema showing Masked and Anonymous, a movie starring and co-written by the rock 'n roll bard himself.

One of the characters, a network television executive, warns us early on when he says, "Something's starting to smell here." Dylan himself may have been aware that an odor was present when he decided to use a pseudonym, Sergei Petrov, in the screenplay credits. Director Larry Charles, the co-author, is billed as Rene Fontaine. Sadly, the all-star cast attracted to this project because of Dylan's involvement are not "masked and anonymous," except, perhaps, for Ed Harris whose brief, amusing cameo is performed in black-face.

Did I say "amusing"? I'm not sure if this is meant to be a comedy or a drama. It may have been intended to work like one of Dylan's songs from the ‘60s, you know, a surreal masterpiece like "Desolation Row" whose brilliant lyrics imply depths of meaning but are open to endless interpretation. But Masked and Anonymous is too haphazard and too pretentious to warrant much analysis.

Dylan plays Jack Fate, a now forgotten rock star released from prison to perform a benefit concert for an unidentified, fictional country racked by war and civil unrest. John Goodman plays the promoter, Uncle Sweetheart, a sleazy Colonel Tom Parker wannabe who hopes to pocket the profits for himself. The movie only comes to life when Goodman is on screen, but that's like saying an exhumed corpse seems to have been alive after burial because its hair continued to grow (an illusion resulting from the skin's having shrunk).

Jessica Lange is the representative for the skeptical TV network that plans to televise the concert. She furiously smokes cigarettes while pacing madly and looking frazzled. That's better than furiously praying which is what Penelope Cruz is required to do, unless she's praying for deliverance from this movie. Jeff Bridges, as a journalist named Tom Friend, seems intent on trying to actually deliver a performance, but that's impossible when acting with Dylan who is less animated than Elvis in the notorious "last photo" snapped while the King was at rest in his coffin.

This man who has made such imaginative use of language in some of the greatest songs ever written merely mumbles a few sentences of unremarkable and usually pointless dialogue, and offers an occasional voice-over that never succeeds in explaining anything. In one scene, Bridges as the journalist, harangues Dylan, saying "You're supposed to have all the answers" and compares him unfavorably with the late Jimi Hendrix. "Hendrix let it all hang out at Woodstock," he says without explaining what that means. Dylan defends himself, saying he's been letting it all hang out all along. If so, there's nothing there. In one of his voice-overs, Dylan himself says, "Maybe I'm just a singer and nothing more."

Of course, Dylan's statement is correct, or at least close to the truth. He is a singer. He's also a great songwriter, maybe even a poet, whose songs continue to dazzle and inspire music fans of many generations. He's nothing more than that, but that's more than enough. But many of his more ardent fans, especially those who discovered Dylan at the same time they stopped shaving and let their hair grow, consider him a guru who does indeed have all the answers.

If so, he's saving them for another project. There are no answers here, only questions, the most obvious of which is "Why bother?" Why bother making such a meaningless, deadening film, and why should anyone bother to see it?

Well, there is the concert footage, including a memorable rendition of "Dixie" and a tender "I'll Remember You." Here and there, you'll hear snatches of Dylan's studio recordings such as "Blind Willie McTell," a song that managed to convey more in five verses than Masked and Anonymous does in 104 minutes. But most of the soundtrack is devoted to cover versions of Dylan classics by everyone from the Grateful Dead to the Magokoro Brothers and Los Lobos. There's some fun to be had from a scene in the boardroom of the TV network where a wall-sized schedule of programming reveals titles taken from Dylan songs. Maybe someday, someone will make a TV series out of "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)." It's bound to be better than Masked and Anonymous.

© 2003 Brian W. Fairbanks


Night and the City (1950)

Night and the City is a classic film noir based on the Gerald Kersh novel with Richard Widmark as Harry Fabian, a two-bit hustler scheming to become a big-time fight promoter in London.

Widmark is superb in what may be his best performance. He brings to mind James Cagney at times, but he’s actually more like Bugs Bunny, full of bravado and nervous energy.

And let’s not forget Mike Mazurski as the Strangler, as brutish as he was playing Moose Malloy in Murder, My Sweet but with a hint of more intelligence, and portly Francis L. Sullivan, a “fat man” in the style of Sydney Greenstreet, but more tragic. Herbert Lom, Googie Withers, and Stanislaw Zbyazko, once a real star of Roman-Greco wrestling, are also excellent. Gene Tierney, however, is superfluous as Widmark’s girlfriend, and Hugh Marlowe, who plays the sort of bland role he was often assigned in 20th Century Fox films, has little to do but express his disapproval for Fabian’s way of life.

The look of the film is one of its strengths with scenes cast in a luminous black contrasted with almost ghostly whites.

Dismissed as lurid nonsense about undesirable characters when released in 1950 (Variety chimed in with one of the few positive reviews), Night and the City is a masterpiece that hasn’t dated a bit. It has a modern sensibility that makes it more contemporary than its 1992 remake (with Robert DeNiro in Widmark’s role).

© 2009 Brian W. Fairbanks


Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey

As I write this, the year 2001 is a mere seven years away. Unless there are some truly astounding changes in store between now and then, Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey will remain science-fiction. This frequently fascinating, sometimes tedious, two hour and 19 minute film, advertised as “The Ultimate Trip” when re-released in 1974 (no doubt, in an attempt to appeal to those still trapped in the drug culture of the previous decade), portrays space travel as a mundane fact of life, and computers as thinking bodies independent of human thought. It’s a cold, dry impersonal world, and 2001 is a cold, dry film depicting a future that I am not impatient to see arrive.

The “stars” of the film, Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood, are not stars at all, so the special-effects are the most commanding presence. Chief among them is the sinister, lisping machine known only as HAL, voiced by Douglas Rain. As for the plot, there is a skimpy one, but it’s not very important. This is a film to experience, not as a story, but for its remarkable visuals and music score (one of the first to utilize previously recorded music, composed by the likes of Beethoven and Strauss).

2001 doesn't really seem to be “about” anything, which means the viewer is free to interpret it in any way he likes, in which case it could be the most meaningful or most pointless film ever made. It is justifiably a landmark in cinema, one that will leave you inspired, bewildered, or both.

© 1994 Brian W. Fairbanks


Sorry, Wrong Number

Sorry, Wrong Number is a near perfect thriller, less so for Lucille Fletcher’s story (which is very good in itself) than for its atmosphere and mood.

With the aid of some fine camera work by Sol Polito, director Anatole Litvak captures the sense of lonely desolation that marks the lives of the characters quite well. At the center of it all is Barbara Stanwyck’s Leona Stevenson, the bed-ridden heiress who overhears a telephone conversation between two men plotting what she will discover is her own murder. Then there’s Burt Lancaster’s Henry Stevenson, whose anger that his marriage is thwarting his ambition leads him into a more dangerous trap when he agrees to arrange his wife’s murder so he can pay off his debts to the gangsters he has betrayed.

And there’s Harold Vermilyea's Waldo Evans, the chemist who becomes a drug thief, hoping the money can finance an idealized retirement on an English horse farm but instead plots his suicide to escape arrest by the police.

As in many noirs, flashbacks dominate Sorry, Wrong Number to suggest the characters have no escape from their fate. Many scenes are memorable for their visual qualities alone: the rain descending on the dark street when Henry Stevenson offers Waldo Evans a ride home, a gesture offered only to lure the chemist into his illegal scheme to steal drugs from his father-in-law’s company; the lonely beach on Staten Island where Sally Ford (the lovely Ann Richards) follows her detective husband to an abandoned house where the drug ring will be uncovered; the menacing shack is also the setting when Stevenson and Evans are confronted by Morano (William Conrad) and his men, the gangsters they betrayed by striking out on their own; and the darkened Manhattan hotel room from where Evans, seen only in silhouette, calls Leona and explains the events that are leading to her husband’s downfall.

The climactic murder is also imaginatively presented with the emphasis on the mystery more than the mayhem with a shadow ascending the long and winding staircase in the Stevenson home where the victim awaits in her bedroom.

A good show from start to finish.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


Friday, August 23, 2013

Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock

Anthony Hopkins drawls his dialogue and wears a fat suit, but it’s not his fault that he sounds and looks nothing like Hitchcock, the legendary Master of Suspense.

Covering the period when the portly director was making 1960’s Psycho, you have to wonder how much is true and how much was fabricated by screenwriter John J. McLaughlin and director Sacha Gervasi. This is the stuff of a great documentary, but might require some tweaking for a dramatic film.

Based on Stephen Rebello’s Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, the film suggests that everything was at stake, including the revered director’s reputation, as he becomes fixated on making a low-budget, black-and-white shocker from Robert Bloch’s novel, inspired by the true story of killer Ed Gein. Paramount, the studio with which Hitchcock was aligned, had already issued Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Vertigo, but studio head Barney Balaban was not pleased with Psycho’s grisly subject matter, and the studio agreed only to distribute the film providing Hitchcock financed it himself.

Some of the tweaking is kind of silly, such as having Gein’s ghost appearing to Hitchcock. It brings to mind True Romance in which Christian Slater gets helpful hints from the spirit of Elvis Presley. Since Elvis was probably at Paramount preparing for G.I. Blues at the time that Psycho was being edited, why wasn’t he given a cameo? He could have popped in to congratulate Anthony Perkins on his version of “Moonlight Swim” a song that the Psycho star had recorded (on one of several albums issued during his “teen idol” phase) which Elvis later covered in Blue Hawaii.

A lot of the drama relates to Hitchcock’s relationship with his wife, Alma, played by Helen Mirren. Was she having an affair with a hack screenwriter? Hitchcock suspects as much. Would she give her full support to Psycho? And what about Hitchcock’s weird obsession with his leading ladies, those cool blondes like Janet Leigh, very convincingly portrayed by Scarlett Johanssen, or Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), who he had been grooming for the lead in Vertigo, but who “betrayed” him by getting pregnant and choosing her family over stardom?

Hitchcock is good fun for film buffs, and, perhaps, a slice of movie history for the younger viewer, though some of what they’ll learn is not the truth. In the film, Hitchcock’s agent boasts that “I made a millionaire out of Jimmy Stewart with Winchester 73 and that film was a dog.” Hardly. Winchester 73, directed by Anthony Mann, is one of the great westerns, and, like his collaborations with Hitchcock, among Stewart’s best.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


Steve McQueen is Tom Horn

Steve McQueen is said to have found Jesus during the period, after 1974’s The Towering Inferno, when he turned his back on Hollywood, let his normally trim figure grow fat, and grew his hair long and shaggy. We can only guess as to whether or not Tom Horn, whose true story formed the basis for McQueen’s next to last film, was as fortunate.

Mortality and judgment cast a heavy shadow over this western which McQueen is rumored to have directed himself (after firing several directors, including Don Siegel), but which the credits tell us was helmed by William Wiard, a veteran of TV’s The Rockford Files. McQueen was already ill with mesothelioma, the fatal lung disease linked to asbestos exposure, during production, although he wouldn't be diagnosed until completing his next film, The Hunter. By the time that Tom Horn was released in spring 1980, McQueen was denying rumors (reported by The National Enquirer) that he was deathly ill. Watching the film now, one notices that McQueen moves stiffly at times. When he appears short of breath during a chase scene, he seems to be genuinely suffering.

Tom Horn suffered, too, and there’s a sadness that lingers over this beautifully photographed film. Horn, a man of the old, untamed West, who rode with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and helped capture Geronimo (whom he praises in an early scene), is hired to protect a town’s cattle from rustlers, but his violent efficiency is at odds with the tamer society emerging at the turn of the century.

There are several episodes depicting Horn’s unforgiving nature. When a rustler makes the mistake of killing his horse, Horn blasts the guy into eternity and continues firing long after the culprit is dead. In light of this and other incidents, political forces decide that Tom Horn must go.

The supporting cast includes such welcome faces as Slim Pickens, Richard Farnsworth, and Elisha Cook, all of whom perform ably, but this is McQueen’s show all the way. This is one of the superstar’s finest performances, filled with equal parts fury and melancholy.

Tom Horn may not have been popular with critics or audiences, but this is a small masterwork, and a fitting tribute to a screen legend.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


Friday, August 16, 2013

Family Plot: Hitchcock's last

Family Plot, released in 1976, was Alfred Hitchcock’s final film. During production, he informed one of his assistants that he would be retiring because he no longer had the physical energy necessary to lead a film crew.

Family Plot suffers from a lack of energy at the beginning. It starts out slowly, too slowly, I thought, but soon picks up speed and is enlivened by a terrific cast. You’ve got Bruce Dern, dependably loony as ever, as an unemployed actor working as a cab driver hooked up with kooky Barbara Harris, a spiritualist whose powers turn out to be greater than she thinks. She’s been hired to track down the sole heir to a fortune, but the heir supposedly died years ago in a fire at age 17. Funny thing, though: his grave is empty.

The villains are played by William Devane who looks and sounds enough like Jack Nicholson that it probably hurt his career as much as it helped it, and Karen Black. There’s a “chase” scene involving an out of control car that should put you on the edge of your seat, and a lot of subtle humor.

Family Plot isn’t great Hitchcock, but it’s a respectable swan song for the great director.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


The Christine Jorgensen Story

In the capsule review in his Movie and Video Guide, Leonard Maltin’s chief complaint about 1970’s The Christine Jorgensen Story is that the lead actor, John Hansen, looks more feminine as George Jorgensen and more masculine after the sex-change that transformed him into the famous Christine. As George, Hansen is fey and wispy. He’s mistaken for a homosexual by the female models he photographs, one of whom, Elaine Joyce, mocks his limp wrist and calls him “queer.”

According to the story, Jorgensen is not “queer.” Jorgenson is a woman whose physical body does not match her true gender. Today, in these more enlightened (or more confused) times, Jorgensen would be classified as transgender.

Whatever the gender of the film's lead character, The Christine Jorgensen Story is not the movie to consult for enlightenment. Directed by Irving Rapper whose credits include such respectable films as Now, Voyager and 1950's The Glass Menagerie and produced by Edward Small (Frankie and Johnny with Elvis), it is a cheap exploitation film (inexplicably released by United Artists) that lures the viewer with its leering approach to a controversial subject. Like George after he transitions to Christine, the movie lacks balls.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks