Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Films # 9 & 10: Hitchcock Double Feature (Jun 1st)

1960, 109 min.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

1972, 116 min.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

The beginning of each month is seldom very fun. First of all, there's usually bills to be paid (yippee!). Then there's the disorientation involved with marking the calendar. "Where the heck did last month go? How the heck did the time go so darn fast?" I guess these thoughts are the norm for most all of us. It's a general malaise that's just accepted. However, there was a special thing about the first of this month that I was looking forward to. A circled date when I knew I could look up outside The Paramount and see this:

You see, ever since I was selected as a publicist and reviewed the dates of the summer series films, I've been plotting these events and screenings on my calendar like Patton planning the campaigns of the European theater. Ok, that's a bit dramatic. Instead, maybe like a kid planning strategy in a game of Risk. That seems more apt. Point is, there were dates I've been waiting for. June 1st was one of them.

It was this Alfred Hitchcock double feature that caught my eye. To explain the why, one needs to go back to my youngest summers (cue flashback sequence...).

Summer vacation growing up in South Texas meant high temperatures. Check that, make it extreme temperatures. During my elementary school years I did most of the same things all little kids do. I went swimming, played outside, read books, went to the movies, etc, etc. But what I most remember are the summers when we got to stay inside the air-conditioned house and rent movies. Most significant were the times my parents (Mom in particular) rented the cinematic classics and exposed me to a world of film beyond Lucas and Spielberg. During those days I was introduced to the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, Natalie Wood and Orson Welles (still my personal favorite after all these years). Movies like Casablanca, Citizen Kane, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, The Universal Monsters series and The Third Man shaped my artistic tastes and my very personality.

I've viewed most of Hitchcock's filmography by now, but the most impressionable has always been Psycho (my personal top three of Hitch also include Vertigo and Notorious). It was my first Hitchcock movie, first viewed probably around age 8 (and if you've seen it, you know it DEFINITELY makes an impression), and reinforced to this kid WHY we lock doors. Over the years I've seen Psycho dozens of time, and I still marvel at how well constructed it is. I was dying to see it on the silver screen. It was the one experience with this classic that I was lacking. So you can imagine my level of glee when I finally arrived at the theatre that night.

Wasting no time, I darted up the stairs and took my seat. Again, just in time. The music playing was "All of my Love" by Led Zeppelin. Ha! You're telling me, Robert Plant. With the happiness I was feeling, I felt it appropriate for the night. As the song ended and the trailers began, a late-arriving couple sat down directly behind me (Remember this; I'll get to them later).

Kudos to whoever selects the trailers to play in front of the films this summer. I've been finding that the trailers have been setting the ambiance of the screenings perfectly. The first trailer was for Breathless again. I love the playfulness of that one, and I love that every audience I've been a part of laughs and murmurs at the same parts. "Le derriere..." in particular always cracks everyone up. Visually, it's perfect in setting the look of a black and white Hitchcock film.

The second trailer, however, sets up the mood in a more pertinent manner.

It was the first teaser trailer to Ridley Scott's Alien, and I don't think I had ever been deathly afraid of an egg before this. The teaser makes one grab their armrests in terror, and the screeching sounds intercut with the music's tempo quickens the pulse and shortens the breath. It's sooo well edited. Now that my nerves were on edge, the film begins immediately. Bernard Herrmann's famous Psycho score jolts the audience and made me jump up in my seat.

This was going to be a heck of a ride...

I realize I can't add much more to what's been said about this classic. After all, this film (and the shower scene in particular) has been referenced in dozens upon dozens of movies and television shows over the decades. Its parodies are likely equal in number. Yet only one, I think, can count as both. Naturally, I'm talking about the 1998 remake starring Vince Vaughn (!?) and Anne Heche (?!?!?). Yeah, I'm about to go there.

I know a LOT of people hate on Gus Van Zant's remake. And rightfully so. I'm not here to defend it. It is the very example in pointlessness. However, I've always thought Van Zant meant for it to be bad. I believe his intention was to state that some films weren't ever meant to be remade. He did so by taking one for the team. It's a shot-by-shot remake that proves you can't catch lightning in a bottle twice. A team of monkeys can't crank out Shakespeare over a long enough timeline, and one can't duplicate the magic of Psycho. Ever.

The casting is perfection. The screenplay is clever, and the music... oh that music (those strings still give me the chills)! It's fantastic. And of course, Hitchcock is the chef that mixes it all together inimitably. Psycho thrives on the very atmosphere it creates. This is some of the very best direction I've ever witnessed. Every shot, every edit, every actor's expression is arranged just so. He plays the audience like an orchestra. It's a prime example of the movie's sense of execution (no pun intended).

Only one thing prevented my 100% enjoyment of this movie, and it had nothing to do with the film, the venue or the atmosphere. The distractions were from the couple behind me. Now, I'm NOT the nosy type. If you know me, you know I respect everyone's privacy. But these two... Sigh.

Evidently, they met online and this was their first date. I'd have thought it was sweet if it wasn't do frackin' annoying to hear them whisper their stats to each other during the first reel.
"Where are you from?"
"How old are you?"
"Have you lived in Austin long?"
"Where do you work?"
"What side of town do you live on?"
"What do you think about living in Austin?"

Seriously, folks. This is what Instant Messaging is for, isn't it? Nevertheless, I remained focused on the movie and resisted the urge to turn around and become one of those "shush people." I waited it out; but they tested my patience. Unfortunately, they were also those kind of audience members who laughed at scary moments. You know the type, I'm sure. It's like they're embarrassed (or too cool) to be scared by a movie, so they have to laugh at everything. The guy, in particular, was chuckling like Burt Reynolds every few minutes. We get it, bud, you ooze machismo. Now shut the hell up. Worse, she evidently smuggled snacks into her giant Carrie Bradshaw handbag and brought a candy store. The first half hour was a parade of crinkling cellophane noises behind me. Dude. Did she bring a huge box of Little Debbie snacks from Sam's Club or Costco? Ugh. I rolled my eyes and wondered why they had to meet here. Wouldn't a screening of Sex and the City 2 be a more suitable location for this type of behavior? It does one no amount of good to go for a first date at a classy venue when that person is, in fact, devoid of class.

During the intermission between the two films, their exchange escalated. Clearly, these are the very demographic Facebook covets: they share ALL information with no regard for who has access to it. I made a mad dash to the restroom and to the concession stand; to give them time to get acquainted. I walked ever so slowly, browsed the merchandise cart, checked in on the girlfriend at home, anything to avoid going back up there and listening to the couple upstairs. All the while, hoping and praying that they had left after the first feature. So I made the climb upstairs like I was walking the Green Mile. Head lowered, I was doing the sad Charlie Brown walk upstairs. I turned the corner, and... they were still there. Good grief.

As I sat down, they were still going on like two geese. In the few minutes that I was trying to ignore them before Frenzy started, I absorbed a significant portion of their respective life stories. I learned what their jobs were, where they went to school, who smoked and drank, etc. After a while, I began to daydream a scenario that was itself rather Hitchcockian. It was of a serial killer, perhaps one who finds ladies online and takes them to movie theaters where he charms them... until one day a movie reviewer sitting near them overhears something he shouldn't have... and is pulled into a web of murder and intrigue. Hmmm.

(If someone reading this does write a treatment or screenplay and it gets greenlit, I want a cut and a producer's credit. I mean it.)

Thankfully, the lights dimmed and the second set of trailers began. First was The Adventures of Robin Hood, and the second was for Giant. I'll be honest, I've never been enticed to see Giant (I think it's the billion minute running time that ran me off), but this actually looks promising. Can't wait to see this later this summer also.

I was curious to see what the second feature would be like. I've purposely avoided Hitchcock's films from the end of his career, mostly because I've heard they're not very good. My curiosity was in its pairing with Psycho on Tuesday. After all, each of the double features at The Paramount are thematic. And Psycho is a masterpiece; a challenge for anything to follow.

Alas, Frenzy is not very good. One of the last films of Hitchcock's career, many refer it to as a "return to form." Perhaps that's just because it's more of a murder mystery than the political thrillers he was making before Frenzy was released. It's set in London, and deals with a serial killer who rapes then murders his victims with a neck tie. Okay. I see the theme now. I'll take "Cinematic Serial Killers" for 500, Alex.

Because of its mediocrity, I prefer to look at Frenzy as the last gasps of Alfred's creativity. At the age when he made this, perhaps he had just forgotten how to make thrillers properly. There are a few sequences that do have that the "Hitchcockian" touch, but the rest of the film to me is Al exploring the exploitation genre. Quite badly, I might add. It feels like a movie directed by a dirty old man, or perhaps Brian De Palma.

The look of the film is, to be blunt, ugly. Cinematographer Gil Taylor, who five years later would work on the original Star Wars, evidently was experimenting with that sterile "Death Star" look here. Most every scene shot indoors or in daylight appears to be ensconced in artificial light. People aren't just bathed in light; they're soaked in it. Harsh shadows are visible on all sides; it's like a spotlight is placed above the camera. Watching this is like watching Mexican cinema. I half expected Cantiflas to be the neck-tie killer. There's no atmosphere in the cinematography, and I really wish it could've been viewed in black and white. Oddly, I was reminded of Van Zant's Psycho again. For Frenzy (as it was in 1998's Psycho), a wonderful world of color is in fact a wonderful world of yuck.

The cast is comprised of unknowns, and I found that to be refreshing. I wasn't hindered by any expectation, but I was unnerved that the killer looked eerily like Gene Wilder. I may well never be able to see Young Frankenstein again. I'd say Willy Wonka, but Tim Burton already ruined that for me. Thanks, Tim.

As "Not Gene Wilder" is on his spree, a down-on-his-luck bloke gets caught up in the mayhem and becomes the prime suspect. We as an audience know he's innocent, but the odds (and evidence) is stacked against him. After a molasses-slow first half hour or so, the film does at last gain momentum and begins to feel remotely like vintage Hitch. Or like someone imitating him (again, type "Brian De Palma" into Wikipedia for more info).

At a few key points in the movie, Hitchcock does truly evoke the feelings of old. A sequence in the back of a potato truck is rife with tension, as is a scene where we are privy to the killer's second murder. That scene in particular is my favorite of the film. Our killer lures a woman up to his flat and as we expect the camera to follow, it instead starts a slow retreat back down the stairs and out the front door. No music; just the growing sounds of a bustling London street as we get closer and closer to the outside world. Finally, it pulls back to a simple exterior shot of the building, with passersby unaware of the horrors going on inside (as we do). That is the lone moment of control that recalls the Alfred of old.

For someone with a career who has crafted moments like I just described, it's a shame that Frenzy swims in so much gratuitous violence, bulging tongues and nipple shots. A horrific scene early in the film reveals the killer to the audience as he rapes and kills one of his victims. Although not exactly tacky; it is borderline exploitative. Quieter moments of the victim trying to maintain dignity during the attack are undone by the nausea the audience feels from the monstrous act itself. It's as if Hitchcock punches us all in the gut and dares us to go on. The scene leaves a bad taste in one's mouth, and assures that we will never root for this killer like we were manipulated into by Psycho's Norman Bates.

Too much is going on in Frenzy to make a balanced thriller. There are far too many segues into subplots that, while entertaining, simply don't belong. Halfway through the movie, a new thread is picked up and we follow the head investigator's trials with his wife's cooking. He explains to a colleague that she's taking gourmet cooking classes and that the dishes are retched. In prior films, that would be enough comic relief; but here we actually follow him home and see these comedic exchanges at dinnertime. On multiple occasions. You can't make this stuff up. Sure, it's funny, but it's emblematic of the lack of focus that befalls Frenzy overall.

The film meanders its way to a great one-liner at its conclusion, but doesn't stay on point enough to be a good thriller. Watching Frenzy is like walking behind a toddler. You have to slow your pace because they get distracted by every... little... thing. A toddler, or perhaps an Alzheimer patient. Both have stunted skills, after all.

So speaking of stunted skills... Yes, Ms. Cellophane (not a character from Chicago, I mean the woman behind me) opened another half dozen treats during the first couple of reels but thankfully her date, Mr. Chuckles, kept quiet. Alas, when the house lights came back up, they scurried off before I could get a good look at them. Eh, it's for the best.

At the end of the day I finally got to see Psycho on the big screen as I've always wanted. It was a great experience and one I'll treasure until I'm blown away by another classic film this summer, I'm sure. Not even annoying patrons or the sub-par cinema of a latter day cinematic master could kill that buzz. I'm mature enough now to appreciate life's small victories, after all.

But I still lock the door when I take a shower.

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