Thursday, 21 June 2012

Psycho (1960)

In trepidation of my first viewing on TV of Psycho, I hid in the kitchen for the key moment of the shower scene. Cowardy custard.

Audiences of 1960 were not so fortunate.

In all his six decades of filmmaking, and for what in most of that time has generally been considered his masterwork portfolio of cinematic craft, Alfred Hitchcock is best remembered for this shocker - one of his cheaper efforts - but how rightly so. Psycho is probably not nowadays the most terrifying film ever made - time and the outside world have hardened people's resolve so much - but it still has the most terrifying music score.

From the time of the credits to the time of the shower scene, that score by Bernard Herrmann is always brimming away in the background, making you aware, particularly during the long car journey, that something is going to happen at the end of this...

It must have been bizarre to be asked to come and see a film which could only be watched from the beginning or not at all - this in the days when roving film shows allowed paying audiences to enter the cinema whenever they liked, hence the expression "this is where we came in". Added to that, there is the added tease of a plot involving stolen money from a Texas office, rashly entrusted into the hands of feisty Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), who could use that $40,000 very nicely thank you, for her potential nuptials with illicit boyfriend Sam Loomis (John Gavin).

Guilt-ridden along the long drive out of Arizona however, an almost judgmental shower (ah, the metaphor is appropriate) falls down and she takes refuge at an out-of-the-way hostel called The Bates Motel. After a little friendly talk with the young and slightly repressed owner's son Norman, Marion decides to take back the $40,000, and then have a shower...

For whatever reason - perhaps because it was deemed too shocking even for Hitchcock - the responsibility for directing the shower scene has sometimes been credited to Saul Bass. It brings into question who actually is the maker of a film? Bass's storyboards (together with his nifty title sequences that were his stock-in-trade) were used by Hitch as the blueprint for all the murder scenes, and Hitch, grateful for Bass's visual input, invited Bass onto the set (right) and gave him the generous credit "Pictorial Consultant" that started the whole controversy over 'directing' the shower scene.

As great as the shock of a vicious murder taking place before our very (perceived) eyes, is the still unparallelled shock in movie history of a story losing its central character, as well as the sub-plot that goes with her too (although the credits drop the hint with the "and Janet Leigh" at the beginning).

From that moment on, you feel anything could happen. Once the situation is set up, and the rules of storytelling defiantly broken, the Master draws you in.

A particular fine example of his craft is the long staircase tracking shot, following the mysterious Norman as he chats with Mother and drags her down to the basement, Hitch teasing the audience but knowing that they, like he, don't want to get too close to this strange family. It is the quintessential suspense of the slightly open door.

Far more shocking for me, on reflection, than the stabbing of Marion is the horrific death of the intrepid investigator Arbogast (Martin Balsam), thus breaking another rule of story telling: you don't kill off your detective before he's finished detecting! Balsam is the figure of integrity,  the one who's going to sort things out for us. It was also a death that, unlike Marion's, I wasn't expecting. Once he's gone, you don't really envy anyone who tries to go into that house.

How could Hitch have known what it would lead to? A whole spate of slasher shockers in the decades to come, including three deteriorating sequels, and most curious of all, a 1999 Gus Van Sant remake using exactly the same script, a curious case of cinematic plagiarism (or as Van Sant put, his "cover version" of a classic), whose lack of success proved that you cannot make a film any better than that already made by a master filmmaker.

One figure at the end, however, leaves audiences in no doubt that this is far from a laughing matter: that final creepy shot of Anthony Perkins is still difficult to watch without severe trepidation - even more than the shower scene - when that last sinister face reveals itself at the end of the film.

I experienced (there's no better word for it) Psycho in the cinema for the first time at long last, at the Prince Charles Cinema on a Halloween horror themed weekend (time had sanitized the horror down from X certificate to 15), of which the greatest impression felt was the sound: significantly higher on the soundtrack than usual, with Herrmann's score screeching out. Come the time of the shower scene, I was less afraid of being scared than of being deafened. At least then I was able to get some idea of what original audiences of the time went through.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Spiderman (2002)

This one's a late addition to the list, but I have to include it for all sorts of sentimental reasons. The first reason, among others, is because it was one of the last genuinely enjoyable comic book films that I saw at the old Odeon Colchester, incorporating the best elements of both Superman and Batman (whose composer Danny Elfman provides an evocative score), and its nostalgia for New York is poignant (more of this later.) It also has one of the sexiest screen kisses in cinema history.

At the turn of the 21st century, there had been much mooted plans (as there usually are with most comic strip films nowadays) to make a new film version of the popular Spider-Man series. Up until then the character had been half-heartedly adapted for American television (and perhaps more entertainingly in a cartoon series with a catchy theme in the 1960's), but with the release in the 1970's of Superman followed a decade later by Batman, it was probably only a matter of time before Marvel's counterpart to these two icons spun his way onto the big screen proper.

When the time did come, the choice of director was unusual, but ultimately ideal. Sam Raimi had groomed his cinematic career on low-budget, high-octane zombie horror such as the Evil Dead series, followed by the violent comic book avenger Darkman (starring Liam Neeson), which, as well as dipping into the mainstream also opened the eyes of Columbia studio executives who were considering possible directors for their new Spider-Man epic.

Raimi's own enthusiasm for the original comic books helped a great deal, and his cast were near-perfect: Tobey Maguire, already an established name from acclaimed films such as Wonder Boys and The Cider House Rules, pipped contenders such as Jake Gyllenhaal for the coveted title role, and brought as fine a definition of Peter Parker as Mark Hamill brought to Luke Skywalker and Cheristopher Reeve brought to Superman. Kirsten Dunset was another "young veteran" (playing a centuries old vampire opposite Tom Cruise at the age of 12), with the perfect girl next door persona to play Mary-Jane Watson. Added to them on the other side of the coin were Willem Dafoe as egomaniac villain Norman Osborne (aka. The Green Goblin), and James Franco as his son Harry, one of the best of the new generation of young actors. If Dafoe overplays a little (though not quite in the Jack Nicholson mode), both he and Dunst are ultimately constricted by their roles.

The rest of the cast were also exemplary, borrowing heavily from Superman in style with J.K. Simmons' hack newspaper editor echoing Perry White, and Rosemary Harris and Cliff Robertson playing Peter's aunt and uncle with all the integrity of Ma and Pa Kent. To add the fun, Raimi brought in his Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell to play a bit part (who announces the title character's name for the first time.) Even co-creator of the comics himself, Stan Lee, makes an appearance (his first of many in the Marvel series).

The other major co-star of Spiderman however, and the touchstone of the film's lasting appeal, is its sentimental and heart-rendering depiction of New York: less of a modernistic, materialistic metropolis here, more of a kinder, community-based city that grew out of these hopes and desires. The timing of the film's release was fateful indeed: in the course of post-production during 2001, the twin towers of the World Trade Centre (between which one major sequence was filmed), were engulfed in the awful terrorist bombing of 9/11 - an expression which I frankly loathe as an abrupt text message style name, written by and for the low attention span modern era.

The impact of the atrocity nonetheless, and the spirit of the city that emerged through it, are imbued throughout Spiderman, such as the moving scene where firemen (who so valiantly laid down their lives for others on September 11th) try to rescue a child from an apartment block where Spidey helps out. Raimi and his collaborators developed this theme further in SPIDER-MAN 2, where a speeding subway train propelled by the evil Dr. Octopus (an excellent Alfred Molina) is stopped in its tracks by the wounded young hero, for whom the New Yorkers inside the train gratefully carry him above them Christ-like having just survived the ordeal. Spider-Man 2 was an accomplished and in some ways improved sequel, that developed the ideas of the first film and also complimented them in a similar vein to The Empire Strikes Back.

Less so for Spider-Man 3 however, a nonetheless honourable effort, but for whom the studio insisted that Raimi include a third, unnecessary villain (in addition to the Sandman and the now ascendant Green Goblin Harry Osborne) in the shape of Venom, the most popular villain from the comics. For this reason as much as any other, inexplicably within a very short space of time Columbia chose to "reboot" Spiderman all over again, with a new director, new stars, and presumably newer, "better" CGI - when in truth the story had been pretty well covered the first time.

Time I think, will be kinder to Spider-Man however. Other revisionist comic book films have since been made trying to incorporate modern war-on-terror anxieties, but posterity will remember Sam Raimi's heartening rendition for putting all (or most) of the right ingredients together, and for providing an invaluable record of the zeitgeist of - yes, I'll say it - 9/11.

100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films