Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ – 60 Years Later and Shower Curtain Sales Have Still Not Recovered

I did not become aware of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” until its first sequel, “Psycho II,” was released back in 1983, 23 years after the original. Of course, I didn’t watch this sequel at the time as I was just a kid, but I do remember its movie trailers and the title cracking up on the big screen as it played before the feature presentation of “Return of the Jedi.” This image really freaked me out, and it was just as well I didn’t see the classic film which inspired it until many years later. When I rented and watched it on VHS with my older brother, we did not  see what the big deal was as we had long since been spoiled by the “Friday the 13th” and “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies with all the blood and gore a hormonal teenager could ever want or endure.

Well, it turns out watching it once was not nearly enough. Whether or not you think “Psycho” is Hitchcock’s best movie ever, it is often the one he is remembered best for making. After 60 years, it remains a great study of how a director can maintain suspense throughout the entire running time of a movie, and of a master playing the audience all the way up to the last frame. This becomes even more apparent when you watch it for a second and third time. Hitchcock puts you into the mindset of Marion Crane as she drives out of town after embezzling some money, and then he completely changes the dynamic of the story once Norman Bates arrives.

With “Psycho” now at its 60th Anniversary, we have another chance to go behind the scenes to see how this horror classic was made. It also represents another opportunity for Universal Pictures to release a new digital edition of the movie so they can fleece a few more dollars from our wallets. There has already been a Blu-ray release which made it look exquisite, and there has got to be a 4K Ultra HD version at some point. Anyway, looking back at the history of this classic proved to be one of the most interesting research projects I have taken on in years as there is much to be said about what went on behind the scenes.

“Psycho” originated as a novel written by Robert Bloch which itself was based on Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein, a man whose horrific exploits would inspire many horror movies to come. Hitchcock acquired the film rights through his agent for $9,000, and he chose to film it after two projects he was working on for Paramount Pictures, “Flamingo Feather” and “No Bail for The Judge,” fell through. But Paramount did not want to help Hitchcock out on this one either as they were quoted as saying they found Bloch’s novel “too repulsive” and “impossible for films.” The executives refused to finance the production, and they even went as far as telling Hitchcock their soundstages were unavailable because they were being used for other projects. Of course, this proved to be a bold-faced lie as their production schedule was already in a slump at the time.

Undaunted, Hitchcock was still determined to bring “Psycho” to the silver screen, and he even offered to defer his normal director’s fee of $250,000 in exchange for 60% ownership of the movie’s negative. Still, executives would not grant him the financing he desired, so he continued to go through several different cost-cutting measures before getting a budget of no more than $1 million to make the movie his own way. Hitchcock had planned to make the film fast and cheap anyway, and he employed the crew members of his television series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” who were already skilled at doing the same. He also succeeded in casting proven stars Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins at a quarter of their usual salaries.

Bringing down the budget also meant shooting the film in black and white, but this was fine with Hitchcock as he wanted to film it that way as to make the shower scene come across as less gory, and he was also a big fan of “Les Diabolique” which was also shot in black and white.

Like “Psycho,” “Les Diabolique” was remade many years later. Unlike the originals, both were filmed in color. Even more unlike the originals, they received mercilessly scathing reviews upon their separate releases.

In filming “Psycho,” Hitchcock started off by making it as objective an experience as possible, and we feel what Marion goes through as the voices in her head fill her with guilt and doubt over what she has done. To help emphasize this effect, Hitchcock shot much of the movie with 50 mm lenses on 35 mm cameras. By doing this, the camera was said to mimic normal human vision. As a result, you are not just watching the movie, you are experiencing it. This even goes on after Marion has gone and the story turns its focus to Norman Bates. When he pushes her car into a nearby swamp, you share in his anxiety when it does not completely sink. That’s the thing; like Norman, you want the car to sink, and it makes one feel like a voyeur just as Hitchcock intended.

Then, of course, you have the famous shower scene, and after all these years it remains one of the most talked about and heavily dissected moments in cinema history. I am sure you all know the details regarding it: it was shot over six days from 77 different camera angles, and the scene features around 50 cuts in the three minutes which it lasts. Not much is shown as you never see the knife penetrating Marion’s flesh, and there is no gore other than the blood (chocolate syrup was used) going down the drain along with the water. Indeed, it is what you do not see which makes the scene feel so violent. Like Spielberg later did with “Jaws,” Hitchcock dared the audience to use their imagination in regards to what they thought they saw here. This is one of many reasons why this scene has stood the test of time, and it was also the first time a director killed off his leading lady in the middle of a movie. Back in 1960, audience members could not help but wonder where things could possibly go from there, and shower curtain sales have never been the same since.

I also cannot go on without mentioning the infamous score composed by the great Bernard Herrmann, and it remains one of the scariest pieces of music ever applied to a motion picture. Throughout his career, Hermann proved brilliant in composing film scores which really captured the psychology of the characters. This proves to be as true about “Psycho’s” score as it was with Hermann’s work on “Cape Fear” and “Taxi Driver.” It was a surprise to learn how this score almost didn’t come about as Herrmann balked at Hitchcock’s request to take the job on a reduced salary. Somehow though, Herrmann agreed to the terms and ended up writing music for a string orchestra as opposed to a full symphony which would have included brass and woodwind instruments. This is now clearly seen as a masterstroke on his part as the screeching of violins captures the sheer terror which overtakes Marion and the audience during the infamous shower scene.

Although “Psycho” is now recognized today as a classic, it actually received mixed reviews upon its release. Some admired the buildup of tension, but others questioned the psychological elements as being less effective. It even made one critic, C. A. Lejeune, so offended to where she walked out of the movie before it was even over, and she soon after resigned from her position as film critic for The Observer. Looks like Norman’s mother did not just claim victims onscreen!

When you look at the history of cinema, it is important to keep in mind how movies we see these days as classic were not necessarily treated this way upon their original release. It is over the passing of time where movies get re-evaluated or seen in a different light, and none can ever truly be perfect (although some do come very close to it). “Psycho” was a game changer as it came about during the Motion Picture Production Code which was heavy in its censorship of violence and sex in American films. With “Psycho,” Hitchcock flirted with showing nudity as well as gore, and this later opened up doors for filmmakers to exploit these elements with far more detail. Without “Psycho,” there may never have been a “Halloween” which by itself inadvertently sparked a whole wave of slasher movies. And without “Halloween,” there certainly would not have been a “Friday the 13th” as Jason Voorhees, like Norman Bates, also had serious mommy issues.

The cultural impact of “Psycho” lasts on to this very day. There are only so many movies which could have a sequel made to it several decades later. “Psycho III” followed a few years later, and a prequel came about because some just thought it would be a good idea to show how Norman Bates got to be the shy psycho we know him to be. There was even a failed television pilot called “Bates Motel” which starred Bud Cort as Alex West, an asylum inmate who befriends Norman and later inherits the motel and the house where mother lived (Anthony Perkins wanted nothing to do with that one). It also inspired a shot-for-shot remake by Gus Van Sant which seemed almost every bit as odd as Norman himself. The only purpose of it seemed to be proof of how remakes will never be able to recapture what made the original so good. But if they make money, the studios will clearly not mind the critical bashing even if it proves to be justified.

Television would later take another shot at the “Psycho” franchise with another version of “Bates Motel,” and this one starred Freddie Highmore as Norman Bates and Vera Farmiga as his mother. This version ended up lasting five seasons and proved to be very compelling as our fascination with the dark side of human nature is always stronger than we ever bother to realize. While some may have said enough already with “Psycho,” this show proved there was more life to it than we cared to initially realized.

Even today, you cannot hear screeching violins and not think of “Psycho.” Filmmakers reference it today like Wes Craven did in “Scream,” and there are dozens of movies out there which have done the same. That shower scene has been spoofed lord only knows how many times, my favorite being on “The Simpsons” where Maggie ended up attacking Homer with a mallet after watching one Itchy & Scratchy cartoon. Another great one came about during one of Billy Crystal’s Oscar montages where he was in the shower and ends up getting accosted by Kevin Spacey who plays his “American Beauty” character of Lester Burnham. Turns out it was not the same shower Marion got stabbed in, but instead the one where Lester often experienced the highlight of his day.

Leigh never looked at taking showers the same way again, and it would be ages before she ever took one. Perkins would forever be typecast in roles similar to Norman Bates, but he said he would still have done “Psycho” even if he knew this would be the case. Many filmmakers (Brian DePalma especially) have tried to use the tricks Hitchcock employed in this and his other films to varying degrees of success. Still, there is no topping what Hitchcock did with this classic 1960 movie, and it remains the one so many other suspense and horror movies are judged by. Hitchcock’s powers of manipulation remain very hard to duplicate after all these years, and this illustrates what he meant when he was quoted as saying, “I enjoy playing the audience like a piano.”

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Mel Brooks Unveils ‘Young Frankenstein’ Mural at Fox Studios

Mel Brooks Young Frankenstein mural

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is about an event which took place in 2014. I am presenting it here in honor of Mel Brooks’ 93rd birthday. Happy Birthday Mel!

The career of iconic filmmaker Mel Brooks was celebrated at Twentieth Century Fox Studios on October 23, 2014, and it was done in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of one of his best and funniest films, “Young Frankenstein.” This event brought out a big crowd on the Fox Lot and Jim Gianopulos, CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment, introduced Brooks by saying he is one of 12 people to win an EGOT (an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and the Tony) and that the 80-year-old studio was welcoming back its 2,000 year-old-man.

To commemorate this occasion, the studio painted a mural on Stage 5 where the movie was shot, and it features stars Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Teri Garr and Peter Boyle in a scene which depicted them re-animating the creature. On the other side of the mural was an illustration of Mel Brooks who looked over the proceedings with a big smile on his face. This made Brooks remark amusingly, “That’s a beautiful, beautiful mural, really. I wish we were in Italy, it would last forever. They keep them on church walls in Italy. This will be good for 18 months and then they will get something else.”

Young Frankenstein mural

After all these years, Brooks remains a consummate storyteller, and the was delighted to hear of how the idea for “Young Frankenstein” first came about.

Mel Brooks: While I was doing “Blazing Saddles,” Gene Wilder, who played the Waco Kid, was in a corner of the soundstage scribbling on a legal pad. And I said, what are you doing? And he said I have an idea for a movie. I’ve always wanted to play this nutty, wonderful character Frankenstein, and in my concept I call him Frankenstein because he’s ashamed of the family fooling around with occult nonsense, trying to take dead tissue and turn it into living matter. He says that’s my story, sucked in again to the Frankenstein destiny.’ I said that’s a good story, do you need any help?’ He said well, I don’t know how to write. So, we wrote it together while we were filming “Blazing Saddles,” and most of it while I was in the editing process of “Blazing Saddles.”

Brooks’ first pitched the idea to Warner Brothers, but the studio was ultimately not interested. Keep in mind, this was before “Blazing Saddles” was released. Brooks said if he pitched the idea after “Blazing Saddles” came out, there’s no doubt Warner Brothers would have made any movie he offered them. So instead Brooks and Wilder took it over to Columbia Pictures, but it resulted in a rather strange situation.

MB: So, Columbia liked the idea and they said they would make it, and we made a deal for roughly $1,750,000, not even $2 million to make “Young Frankenstein.” And as I left the room at Columbia, I said thank you, this is wonderful! We’ll start Monday. Just one thing, just one little thing – we’re gonna make it in black and white, and then I left. Down the hall after me were a thundering herd of Jews screaming, “PERU JUST GOT COLOR!” So, we went back in the room for six hours of arguing about black and white or color and finally they said, we’ll compromise. We’ll make it on color stock and we’ll diffuse the stock and it’ll be in black and white, and those countries that are up to color like Peru will issue it in color. I said, well it’s a good compromise, and then somebody told me it’s never black and white. It’s blackish like the show, actually bluish. I said no, it has to be on Agfa black and white thick film. They said that’s a deal breaker, and I said break the deal. So that night Mike Gruskoff (the movie’s producer) got the script over to Alan Ladd Jr. who was running the feature aspect. We met with Ladd and he said, we’ll do it. What do you need? We said about $2 million. He said I’ll give you $2.2 (million). So, Fox bought it and no interference, just support, and I have tried to be at Fox ever since.”

This led Brooks to talk about another one of his best-known comedies which spoofed the work of Alfred Hitchcock, and of how Hitchcock himself was actually involved in its making.

MB: I made “High Anxiety” here and Hitchcock was helping me write it, and Hitchcock gave me a joke. I said hey, Hitch is pitching! Look at this! And I said what’s the joke Hitch? He said, a guy is running, he’s at the end of a dock and the ferry is about 12 or 14 feet away, and he leaps into the air and he lands on the deck of the ferry. Ah, made it! Except the ferry is coming in. That’s a great joke, and if I had the money, I would have filmed it. Hitchcock saw a rough cut of “High Anxiety,” and he didn’t say a word and he literally waddled past me (makes waddling sounds), got to the end of the aisle, walked out the door and I said, he didn’t like it? He liked it? He didn’t like it?’ I was just heartbroken and I thought it’s a failure. Next day a guy comes with a wooden box. On the box it says Château Haut-Brion, 1961. Priceless! Six magnums of Château Haut-Brion with a note: “Dear Mel, have no anxiety about ‘High Anxiety.’ It’s a wonderful film. Love Hitch.”

In addition, Fox permanently renamed the street adjacent to Stage 5 “Mel Brooks Boulevard” in honor of the director. The event came to an end after Brooks unveiled the new street sign for everyone to see, and he couldn’t help but say the following,

MB: Now that they’ve got a street named after me, people are going to walk all over me. Terrible.

Nevertheless, it was a fitting tribute to a man who has given us some of the funniest movies ever made.

 

‘Judgment at Nuremberg’ Anniversary Screening at New Beverly Cinema

Judgment at Nuremberg movie poster

Stanley Kramer’s classic movie “Judgment at Nuremberg” got a very special screening at New Beverly Cinema on October 1, 2012. At the time, the movie was celebrating its 51st anniversary, and introducing it was Stanley’s widow, Karen Kramer. She took the time to talk not just about “Judgment at Nuremberg,” but also of her husband’s other work and the impact his films have had overall.

Karen was actually at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood the night before where they were showing another of her husband Stanley’s best-known works, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”

“That film was all about greed,” Karen said. “And of course, globally we thought that was bad in 1963 when that film was made. But of course, globally now it’s become a national pastime.”

“Judgment at Nuremberg” is a different film, Karen said, and one which audiences of all kinds owe it to themselves to see again and again. Like “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” this movie is as important to watch today as it was when it first came out.

“I don’t think any of us thought that genocide would ever exist again after World War II,” Karen said. “We knew all the facts and we knew all the heinous crimes that had been committed, but genocide unfortunately is running rampant again. So, this film is unfortunately very relevant (to today’s world events).”

Stanley had made “Judgment at Nuremberg” 14 years after World War II ended, and back then no studio wanted to make it and he had a very difficult time raising the money for its production. But Karen said Stanley thought it was very interesting to explore what happened with the judicial system during that time. The movie was inspired by the trail of four German Judges at Nuremberg who were tried for crimes perpetrated by the Nazi party. The question, however, becomes one of whether or not these particular Judges were fully aware of what Adolf Hitler was doing to the Jews.

“This (trial) is the one he chose because the judicial system was supposed to represent globally men of honor, men with education, men who were supposed to be fair to humanity, and these men of the Third Reich sanctioned all those heinous crimes,” Karen said. “But then I wonder about this and I think, yes of course they’re guilty but then you think about their position which was also explored in this film; if you were a member of a judicial system of the Third Reich, what would happen if you said no, I’m not going to participate? Would you lose your life, your reputation, your financial security? I suppose there was pressure put upon these men, but it doesn’t make it right.”

Karen was correct in saying Stanley explored this subject very well in “Judgment at Nuremberg.” The movie was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and Stanley himself got a Best Director nomination. It took home two Oscars, one for Maximilian Schell who won for Best Supporting Actor as defense attorney Hans Rolfe, and the other for Best Adapted Screenplay written by Abby Mann. Stanley made over thirty movies which were mostly socially conscious films, and they garnered over eighty Oscar nominations. Karen remarked how Stanley himself never got an Oscar, but that he did receive the Irving Thalberg Award which is the most important award anyone can get from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Karen went on to tell a story about Montgomery Cliff who gives an astonishing performance as Rudolph Peterson and of how he had trouble remembering his lines on the day his scene was shot.

“Stanley and Spencer Tracy (who played Chief Judge Dan Haywood) got together and they said look, I think we can handle this but a little bit differently,” said Karen. “So, Spencer went over to Montgomery and said look, I know you can’t remember the lines but you know what this scene is about. I’ll sit very close to the camera and just look into my eyes and just play from the heart, which of course he did.”

Karen also talked about Judy Garland whose performance as Irene Wallner garnered her an Oscar nomination. Clift did his performance on the stand first and then Garland did hers, and Clift came to watch Garland perform.

“I think he wanted to make sure she wasn’t better than he was, but that’s how actors were then,” Karen said. “So, he’s watching this and he’s crouching down in a corner someplace watching her perform, and he’s crying and she’s crying. He’s just undone and the minute she finished of course everyone applauded her, and he just went over to Stanley and he says, ‘you know Stanley, she played it all wrong!'”

Karen said “Judgment at Nuremberg” is one of her late husband’s better films and that he used film constantly as a tool or weapon to fight against discrimination, bigotry and man’s inhumanity. She also made it clear how Stanley didn’t make a movie unless it had something to say.

“He didn’t think of himself as a message filmmaker which is what interested him, and he took risks,” Karen said. “His life was threatened often, and when we made ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ our lives were threatened because interracial marriage was against the law in sixteen states when he made that movie. He was always questioning things like in ‘High Noon;’ he would question standing up even if you’re alone to do the right thing even if people don’t support you. He often risked his financial security and his reputation to tell his stories.”

A big thank you to Karen Kramer for taking the time to talk about her late husband Stanley Kramer and this movie of his which continues to stand the test of time. “Judgment at Nuremberg” is as riveting to watch today as it was when it first came out a half a century ago. Don’t let the black and white photography turn you off of seeing this classic film because the issues it ponders are the same ones we are forced to deal with today.

‘Cold War’ Beautifully Contemplates The Things We Do for Love

Cold War 2018 movie poster

It has now been over a week since I watched Paweł Pawlikowski’s “Cold War,” and it is rightly described in the production notes as being “an impossible love story in impossible times.” Indeed, there is something about love which forms a bond which cannot always be described in words. The two star-crossed lovers we see here share a love for music, but their differences come to the surface more often than not to where you wonder why they keep reuniting time and time again. Pawlikowski never tries to provide an absolute answer as to why these two individuals cannot end their deep affections for one another, but he doesn’t need to as some things cannot be put into words.

Thinking about “Cold War” somehow brought to mind one of my favorite songs by Howard Jones entitled “What is Love?”. This song was released back in the 1980’s which marked the start of America being seduced by infinite greed, but I was just a kid who had yet to have his innocence ripped away from him. The music really took me in as the synthesizer melodies were a big favorite of mine back then, but the lyrics have since taken on a deeper meaning for me:

“I love you whether or not you love me

I love you even if you think that I don’t

Sometimes I find you doubt my love for you, but I don’t mind

Why should I mind, why should I mind?

What is love anyway? Does anybody love anybody anyway?”

“Cold War” seeks to ask those same questions as it transports us back to post-war Poland in the 1950’s where we meet Wiktor Warski (Tomasz Kot), a musical director at Mazurek, a nascent folk arts ensemble which, as one of its instructors makes very clear, deals with the music of “pain and humiliation.” In the process of auditioning new singers, he comes across the young Zuzanna “Zula” Lichoń (Joanna Kulig) who is fearless in continuing her performance even after she is told to stop. It’s a thrilling scene as these two individuals from different parts of life are quick to lock eyes and create a connection not easily formed in the average Nicholas Sparks cinematic adaptation.

Wiktor comes from a more refined and educated world while Zula comes from, as some may say, the wrong side of town. Their attraction to one another is instant. Is it a fascination with a person’s past history? Wiktor is told Zula stabbed her father with a knife, and this of course makes him wonder why someone would do such a thing. When he asks her why, her answer is blunt and to the point, “He mistook me for my mother and a knife showed him the difference.” We never even learn which part of the body the knife pierced.

Their differences are strong, but there is an unmistakable bond between them which will not break. As “Cold War” moves on, their relationship stretches over a decade and several different locations including Poland, Warsaw, East Berlin and Paris. They become involved with others, but the love they have for one another will not die an easy death. You keep waiting for one of them to tell the other “I wish I knew how to quit you” because they cannot get themselves to leave the other be. Wiktor tells Zula to find “another normal guy” who can support you to which she replies, “Such man is not born yet.” This happens around the movie’s midpoint, and by then it is unlikely such a man will ever be born.

Is this real love, or is it just obsession? Such answers do not matter because all you need to know is how strong Wiktor’s and Zula’s bond is. You can question it all you want, but the love is there even if it exists in a state of emotional torture. John Lennon once sang of how love is real, but Nazareth made it clear that love hurts, and the love these two mismatched souls have for one another seems to exist in a space between those two thoughts.

Just like Mike Leigh did with “Mr. Turner,” Pawlikowski does a brilliant job of taking us back to a time and place to where I felt truly transported to another era. I never questioned the authenticity of what was being presented because it all felt so real to me, and Łukasz Żal’s black and white cinematography is simply gorgeous to take in. It makes me wonder why we don’t get more black and white movies these days. While the lack of colors may seem limiting to filmmakers in general, there is something about the monochrome look which gets everything just right.

What’s especially commendable about “Cold War” is how epic this love story is, and yet Pawlikowski fits everything into a running time which is just below 90 minutes. The movie felt so much longer than that, and yet I came out of it feeling like I saw something immense and wide-ranging.

Tomasz Kot is one those actors who has this smoldering intensity about him. I remember William Petersen having this same kind of intensity in “To Live and Die in L.A.” and “Manhunter,” and it’s as if he doesn’t have to do much to generate any kind of charisma. I am envious and, I have to admit, a bit resentful of actors who can pull this off, but he also lets you see what is going on in his mind as his character of Wiktor suffers through a maddening heartbreak and career setbacks which have him trading the music he loves out for something more politically friendly. You have to admire the subtle acting he does here as it is never easy for anyone to pull off.

Joanna Kulig is every bit Kot’s equal as Zula, and it is fascinating to watch her take this character from being a young student to an adult in an equally subtle way. Kulig also excels at spelling out what is going through Zula’s head to where she needs no dialogue to spell out her feelings, and she is fearless in portraying the character’s constant struggle to escape the confines of a life which keeps putting her into a corner.

“Cold War” is one of the most immersive cinematic experiences I got to witness in 2018, and I hope any phobias you have about movies with subtitles do not keep you from seeing it. The love story is harrowing, but the visuals are beautiful. It’s hard to find movies these days which suck you into their settings the way this one has, and it serves as a reminder of how powerful cinema can be.

Pawlikowski has said this movie is semi-autobiographical as it was inspired by his parents who kept splitting up and getting back together time and time again. Why do couples do this to themselves? It seems unhealthy, and yet some cannot tear themselves away from a mad love story. But once again, he is not out to answer what he believes love really is. I guess he just wanted to know their love was real in some unspoken way. With “Cold War,” I believe he has accomplished just that.

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