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Happy 50th Anniversary Psycho!

The 50th anniversary edition Bluray for Psycho (1960) is being released tomorrow (10/19) and I for one, will be picking it up.

I’m almost scared to write about this one – so much has already been said and I’m also afraid I may not do it justice. You see, I once didn’t get it. For me, and probably most people I’d guess, when you see a movie, either you like it or you don’t and that’s really all there is to it. For some reason, Psycho didn’t make that much of an impact on me at first and I really can’t remember why I gave it another chance….and then another and another. But I’m glad I did. The first time I saw Psycho, I was 14 or 15. I passed it by many times at my local video store sort of afraid to see it. All I really knew was that it was terrifying – so terrifying that even though so many years had passed, people still felt haunted by it. I’m a big wimp about scary movies and the only appeal to me was its status as a classic and that it was directed by Hitchcock.  So finally one evening I decided it was time. So I sat down with my mom to watch it…one of my rules about scary movies is never watch them alone. If you watch scary movies alone that’s the exact time weird noises start emerging from the basement and you start wondering if you remembered to lock your front door….at least for me.

I get why I didn’t get it and I think I understand why others don’t always get it. At a glance and perhaps after a first viewing, Psycho appears to be a B horror movie. Seeing it 50 years after its release and so many movies later, at first, it might not seem so special. It’s hard to see what’s special after years of seeing hundreds of movies that incorporated its techniques and ideas. Its originality fades away because we’ve seen all the copies. A brutal murder, a man dressed as a woman, all the psychology – none of that is surprising to an audience today. Turn on the TV between the hours of 8 and 10pm and you’re likely to see all of the above. So, for modern viewers, Psycho can seem tame (a horrific stabbing is still shocking to us – but now we’d expect to see it in color and in more vivid detail).

So if you want to watch Psycho to understand what the big deal is, I recommend two initial viewings. First, if you’ve never seen it before: just watch it like you’d watch any movie. It’s meant to be enjoyed that way. Analyzing and dissecting a film can give it deeper meaning but first, you’ve got to watch it at face value. First and foremost, as Hitchcock himself would say: “It’s only a movie.” Next, watch it again – but this time, every time you see something you’d consider cliché, remember that odds are, Psycho came out years before whatever it is that you’ve “seen before.” It is considered the grandfather of the horror film and with good reason. While others continue to take the elements of Psycho to other levels – for better or worse – it’s good to appreciate where it came from. Furthermore, while critic’s lists aren’t the be-all, end-all of film value, there’s a reason why Psycho is always lumped in with the movies considered to be the best ever made. It was a rule-breaker – it was a huge experiment and a big risk and it succeeded beyond everyone’s wildest expectations.

By 1960, Hitchcock was at the top of his game – the pinnacle of his fame and career. I mention this to explain just how different and risky Psycho was. Hitchcock was an “A” director much like Steven Spielberg today. When Steven Spielberg makes a movie, before you even go see it, you have an idea of what it’ll be like – a big budget, big stars and usually bound to be successful. That’s kind of how it was for audiences going to see a Hitchcock movie. His movies were suspenseful, thrilling and were backed by talent and money. Throughout the 1950s, many B films made very cheaply were also very profitable. This gave Hitchcock an idea. What if a major director like himself made a B movie? It was a creative challenge. With a limited budget and less time, how good of a movie could he make? No one, not even Hitchcock himself had any idea just how successful his experiment would be. In fact, he had a hard time getting the kind of support he usually got on his projects. His home studio Paramount even refused to finance it. Only after Hitchcock agreed to pay for it himself and film it at Universal (where his TV show was filmed), did Paramount agree to distribute it. This wound up being a great blessing for Hitchcock because when he put up the money, he also was given 60% ownership of the film in his contract and he made more money off of Psycho than any other film he ever made.

Psycho didn’t just break one or two conventions – Psycho was a game-changer. The studio system was already beginning to crack and little by little, allowance by allowance – the censors were also beginning to lose their tight grip on what the public should and should not see. Psycho, for these reasons, was a product of perfect timing. America’s moral views were beginning to shift – audiences might not have been prepared but apparently, they were ready to see what Psycho had in store for them. Hitchcock knew he was dealing in some controversial images and ideas, so rather than try to play them down – he played them up. He got the public very curious about Psycho.

His marketing campaign was like no other before. It was all about secrecy – the only way you’d find anything out about his film was to see it. Even the preview showed no footage of the film. Instead, Hitchcock took the audience on a tour through the Bates Motel and he barely reveals anything. The cast and crew were sworn to secrecy. Even the stars were kept from doing the typical interviews to hype the film. Normally, critics get to see films before they’re released to the public so they can help advertise the films in their columns. Hitchcock would not allow a single soul to see the film ahead of time. The critics who gave bad reviews were believed to be punishing Hitchcock for this. Then, once the film was released, Pinkerton guards were hired to enforce the rule that no one be admitted to see the film once the film began. Today this seems kind of strange but the movie going experience was different at this time. It was very common for people to show up after a film started, watch the remaining portion and then just wait for it to begin again and leave once they caught up to the part they walked in on. Hitchcock had enough popularity with theater-goers that the theater owners actually agreed. This could have backfired – essentially, Hitchcock was telling them to turn away business if the customers showed up too late. Luckily, the gamble paid off. When Psycho was released, there were literally lines stretched around whole city blocks. People waited in line for hours to get into the next show. While audiences waited, they got to see the promotional posters politely requesting that no one discuss the “secret” of Psycho with their friends until they’ve seen it. The public played along – who doesn’t like knowing a secret? It worked.

Then that long line of people got to see the film…

There are many reports of audience members running screaming from the theater. This only excited the lines of people outside…what could possibly be going on in there to cause that!? Well, Hitchcock was very smart when it came to getting his way with the censors. He was known to put in a few things he knew they’d tell him to take out just so he could keep the stuff he really wanted. He gave them bargaining chips he didn’t care about. One of my favorite stories about Psycho is how one of the censors swore he saw an exposed breast at the end of the shower scene. Hitchcock promised to edit it. At the next screening (where literally nothing had changed), the censor who saw it was now pleased that it was gone. However, another censor now claimed to see the same thing. Hitchcock accused him of having a filthy mind and imagining things…and so it stayed in.

Psycho is a personal movie to watch – it’s meant to evoke an emotional response. When you consider that audiences had never seen something quite like it before, it’s no wonder it was a little too much for some of them. It makes us watch things that make us uncomfortable – like the proverbial train-wreck, we may want to look away but we just can’t. Even more unsettling, it takes us beyond the role of passive observer. With Marion out of the picture, we have no choice but to follow Norman. We’ve just been shocked and we have to cling to whatever makes sense. Norman is troubled but he makes sense. When he tries to cover up his mother’s crime, we don’t just watch – we’re engaged in it. When he almost forgets the newspaper in Marion’s room we think, “No, wait – look at the nightstand.” When the car stops sinking in the swamp and Norman looks worried, we worry with him. We’re not condoning murder but right now, to us – Norman is a victim too. We can easily understand him wanting to hide his mother’s crime and protect her. We know from what we’ve been told and what we’ve just seen – his mother is mentally ill. Of course, now we know it’s a little more serious than going “a little mad sometimes.” But she’s his mother and he loves her (even if he also hates her).

One of the things I love most about Hitchcock films is that every single detail is worth paying attention to – the art on the walls, the colors, room numbers, license plates, names, dates, the camera angles, the music, the costumes, the moments of silence as well as the dialog – everything was on purpose – no details were ever overlooked. As a result, his films can be watched over and over again with the possibility of noticing something new every time.

He was famous for pre-planning his films so meticulously that he liked to say actually shooting them was the boring part – he was also famous for how adeptly he kept control of his projects. He “edited in the can.” Meaning he would only shoot exactly what he wanted and not leave any extra footage to be used by studio executives to alter his films. Not only did this help him get his way, it saved money. Knowing all these little tricks to save money served him well on Psycho.

Psycho was done for a very small amount of money (by film-making standards). It cost roughly $800,000 to make. Times have changed so to put that into some perspective, the film North By Northwest, which Hitchcock directed one year earlier had a budget of $4,000,000. Psycho didn’t even cost one quarter of that. Hitchcock spent that $800,000 where it counted most. He made sure to get the right actors and essential crew members. They were worth their high prices. He tended to work with the same people over and over again. So he kept the ones he couldn’t do without but he also used his TV crew from his show to fill in the gaps, for less money. He spent wisely.

Even people who have never seen Psycho, know exactly what its music sounds like. Psycho’s musical score was experimental too. It was composed using only string instruments. It’s haunting and scary and intense. Bernard Herrmann was worth every penny as the composer. Next, Saul Bass’s title sequence is also quite remarkable. So many movies (even today) don’t take advantage of the title sequence. They just sort of tell you the name of the movie, who made it and who’s in it. Psycho’s sequence does all that but it does it in a way that keeps jarring the words and splitting them in two with black and white bars coming in and out of the screen. It gets the viewer on edge before the film even starts and fits with the film’s motif of split personalities. Lastly, Anthony Perkins did such an incredible job as Norman that from that film on – he was Norman to the public. Quite like Sean Connery is James Bond – Perkins forever will be remembered as Norman. He even played him several more times in the follow-up sequels.

 

Here is the great title sequence accompanied by Bernard Hermann’s unsettling score. It’s just the title sequence but it sets up the movie perfectly. (No detail was overlooked.)

It’s likely that whoever reads this already knows Psycho’s secrets but rather than getting into the plot too much, I’ll just mention a few motifs to look out for.

Split images are prevalent throughout the whole movie. Many scenes contain mirrors in them and we often see a character and a reflection of that character. Also, sometimes shots are somehow cut in two. For example, when Norman backs Marion’s car up to her room, he parks in front of one of the hotel’s support beams. This beam is in the background but it draws a line down the center of the screen. Norman’s not the only one with split personality issues. Marion “goes a little mad” when she steals the money and takes on an assumed name when she registers at the motel. She’s not used to a life of crime and isn’t any good at it. As we continue to see her reflection, we’re seeing that she’s conflicted.

Birds are continuously referenced in this film as well. The story begins in Phoenix, AZ. We follow the story of Marion Crane. Norman’s hobby is taxidermy – specifically with birds and his parlor is full of his birds. When Norman discovers what his mother has done, he accidentally knocks a picture of a bird off the wall. Norman tells Marion that she eats like a bird. At the end, Mother tells us that she’s as harmless as her son’s stuffed birds. There have been a few interpretations of why…including the thought that it was some sort of precursor to Hitchcock’s next film, The Birds. Another way to interpret the birds in the film is the predator versus prey angle. In the photo on the right, Norman is shown surrounded by predatory (scary!) birds. Norman wasn’t able to handle the women around him, until they became as passive as his stuffed birds. Since Marion eats like a bird and his mother is as passive as one of his birds – I think it can be inferred that birds can be symbols of women in this film. I’ve also read that “bird” was a slang term for girl in England around this time.

A note on the 1998 Remake –
Recently, I finally got around to seeing the Gus Van Sant (GVS) 1998 remake. After reading, the Alfred Hitchcock Geek’s defense of it, I decided to get off my high horse, keep and open mind and give it a try. I had no idea what to think when it was all over. I literally had no opinion right away and it took a day for me to figure it out. GVS attempted a shot-for-shot remake. He kept the same screenplay with as few tweaks as possible, the score was the same, the opening credits were faithful to the original. The most obvious differences were the unavoidable ones – the passage of 38 years, it was filmed in color, the crew was different and the actors were different. I knew all this going in and was prepared for it.

First, I’m not offended by it as some Hitchcock purists are. In no way does it insult the Master nor was it intended to be “better.” I even recommend seeing it – only after you’ve seen the original first. It’s extremely interesting to see such a copy. I’ve seen many remakes but I’ve never seen a remake that actually imitated exact camera placement, the exact score, the exact screenplay. It was almost surreal. In the end, to me, it has served an unintended purpose. There are new things I appreciate about the original, after seeing the remake. First, I now have a new admiration for Janet Leigh’s performance. Don’t get me wrong, I never thought she was bad or wrong for the role. I think I was always so impressed with Anthony Perkins performance that I wasn’t appropriately impressed with hers. I have nothing against Anne Heche – but when it comes to Marion Crane, Janet Leigh’s version is far superior. I know that now in a way I didn’t before. Next, I don’t know quite how to describe this because I don’t know enough about editing. Something just seemed off. I know editing can give a film a certain pace. I’d be interested to know what others think because maybe I’m wrong – I just felt like GVS’s Psycho was a beat off. Like it was a little more sluggish in comparison.

Whatever it is that’s different, and I’d say with any remake – give the original a try. Remakes by their very nature imply that there was something special about the original. I don’t hate the remake. It actually made me appreciate the original in new ways, so for that alone, it was worth seeing.

I’m glad I gave Psycho another chance. Maybe at 14 or 15, all I really paid attention to was the shower scene because that’s what everyone always talked about. I don’t know. For some reason, I liked it well enough but it didn’t stick with me. Now it does. I always enjoy watching it because even if it’s some tiny little detail, I always feel like I see something new each time. I also began reading books about Psycho which gave me an even deeper appreciation for the film and of course for Alfred Hitchcock. I agree with those who call him a genius and think he was ahead of his time.

Here are two books I read recently that I’d recommend if you’re interested in learning more about Psycho.

Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello gives a ton of great details about the making of Psycho – far more than what I’ve just given here. If this post has increased your interest in the back story of Psycho, this is the book you should read.

A Long Hard Look at Psycho by Ramond Durgnat.  This book is incredibly dense – and I mean that in a nice way. It gives an extremely thorough analysis of Psycho. It can be a little hard to get through in some spots because it’s written more for a scholarly audience but it’s still incredibly interesting. You’ll find yourself wanting to go back and re-watch scenes because you learn about something new you never noticed before.

There are several other books out there too. If anyone has a book recommendation, I’d be happy to hear it. These are just the ones I’ve read recently and know they’re both crammed with great stuff for anyone interested in Psycho. I know there are many things I did not cover, or did not dig deeply into. This movie is just so rich, and I don’t want to pretend to compete with the books I listed above. I just wanted to throw my two cents worth out there in celebration of one of my favorite movies.

Thank you for reading!! :)

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Out of the Past (1947)

I originally wrote this post for Noir Journal as a guest writer. It’s a great site to check out Noir literature and film.

There is no way to dig into this film’s juicy noir center without giving away some of its surprises so if you’ve never seen it before: some spoilers follow.

If I had to pick one film as an example of a film noir – Out of the Past would be it. It doesn’t just graze each element; it hits all of them – dead center, point blank. When it comes to film noir, if it’s not the leader of the pack – it’s got to be in the top three.

Out of the Past is shot beautifully in black and white. The cinematography doesn’t call attention to itself but helps establish a doomed mood by playing with shadows and light in every scene. Not only will shadows cross and fall over characters appropriately but smoke is also used to create visual tension. Hardly a scene goes by without the characters lighting and smoking cigarettes.

Jeff (Robert Mitchum) and Whit (Kirk Douglas) are the heaviest smokers. Jeff especially, is often surrounded in a smokey fog which helps establish his precarious situation. The smoking isn’t always in the background either. When we first meet Joe Stephanos, he lights his cigarette and flicks the lit match at “the kid” at the gas station to get his attention. After one confrontation, Jeff tosses his smoldering cigarette onto the carpet as he leaves the room – to punctuate his exit with a badass exclamation point. At one point Whit offer’s Jeff a cigarette to which Jeff holds up his cigarette and replies, “smoking.” Which is also one of this film’s many great lines of sharp noir dialog.

As the opening credits roll away, we’re placed in the backseat of Joe Stephanos’ dark (presumably black) car. This film opens telling us, we’re about to be taken for a ride. We don’t know who Stephanos is yet but he’s clad in a black fedora and trench coat. He seems like trouble.

He pulls into Jeff Bailey’s gas station and soon, we know he’s trouble because this is when he flicks the lit match at the gas station attendant and asks, “Where’s Bailey?” The attendant is noticeably cautious and points to the outskirts of town. So Stephanos goes across the street to wait at the diner. While waiting, he gets the gossip about Jeff from Marny who runs the diner – who he calls “the ham-slinger” in a small but definitive noir touch.

Next we meet Jeff while he’s fishing with his girlfriend Ann, next to a tranquil, idyllic lake. We’re given the idea that Jeff Bailey leads a quiet peaceful life but we learn he’s traveled a lot – “one place too many.” He loves his girlfriend Ann, a blonde girl-next-door type who is so trusting and so nice that she’s almost unreal. Jeff and Ann are discussing their hopes to get married when the attendant shows up and Jeff returns to his gas station to meet Stephanos.

Stephanos is a henchman for Jeff’s former boss – Whit Sterling. Apparently, this boss just “wants to talk” but it’s clear Jeff feels he has to go back or he’ll never be free. He wants to tie up the loose ends of his past so he can move on (marry Ann, run his gas station and just be left alone). So, he meets Ann to explain the truth.. For starters, his name isn’t Jeff Bailey – it’s Jeff Markham.

Again, we go for a ride. This time we tag along with Jeff as he drives while explaining/confessing his past to Ann – on the way to see his old boss. Through flashbacks narrated by Jeff, we learn why Jeff changed his name and went into hiding. Voice-over narration is very common in noir films. (Double Indemnity, Laura and Murder My Sweet – are predecessors to Out of the Past that use this technique.)

A few years ago, as a detective in New York, Jeff and his partner were hired by Whit Sterling to bring back Whit’s girlfriend Kathie – who shot Whit, stole $40,000 and ran off. Jeff quickly locates her in Acapulco…but he falls in love with her and they run off together until Jeff’s partner catches up with them. All of a sudden, Kathie kills his partner and Jeff finds out that yes, she did steal the money. Kathie runs off leaving Jeff to bury her victim. He changed his name and tried to start over…until Stephanos stumbled upon him, pumping gas for a living in the small town of Bridgeport, CA

As Jeff finishes his story, we’re back in the present and Jeff pulls up to Whit Sterling’s mansion. His girlfriend Ann isn’t the least bit bothered by any of his story and watches pensively as Jeff walks up to the gate which, in another common noir image, looks just like prison bars.

Now we meet Whit again – for the first time outside of the flashbacks. Whit is a very rich gambler, trying to hide his money from the IRS. He doesn’t believe in paying taxes. He explains, it’s “against my nature.” He’s always smiling, even when he’s at his maddest but it actually makes him even more frightening. He seems like the type who always knows something he’s not telling anyone else.

Then, Kathie (Jane Greer) appears. She ran right back to Whit. Jeff at one point tells her she’s “like a leaf the wind blows from one gutter to another.” Kathie is beautiful but is a perfect Femme Fatale – she cares about herself and only herself and it is dangerous to get in her way. She uses her beauty and sexuality to control men and get what she wants. She lies to everyone in some way, at some point. Jeff now hates her.

As for Whit – he seems not to care about the past but Jeff knows better. All Whit says he wants is for Jeff to help him get some tax documents away from a lawyer. That’s it. So Jeff, feeling forced, agrees.

Now this is where the plot gets confusing which is also common in classic film noirs. Often, rather than being totally concerned with explaining the story, they’re concerned with showing us the dark side of people.  New characters are introduced. We meet blackmailers, more henchmen, another femme fatale – and Jeff figures out Whit’s intention. Jeff’s being set-up. Whit is going to frame him for a murder. Jeff figures it out but his “timing was a bit off.”

Jeff, like most noir detectives, is very street smart and plays by his own rules. He may have been forced into Whit’s employ but he’s nobody’s fool. In the end, it’s Kathie who really screws things up for him. Her quick-fix answer to everything is always murder and there’s no one left to take the blame for anything. So in the end, Kathie traps Jeff again…but Jeff has other plans. Can he escape her or his past or is it too late?

I mentioned that Out of the Past hits every mark when it comes to being a film noir. But there is one area some critics and historians have called attention to as being atypical. They bring our attention to the multiple settings and say that most noirs take place in the gritty, dirty underbelly of a city. That is often true – but Out of the Past is bookmarked by two of the most common noir cities of all – New York and San Francisco. All of Jeff’s troubles begin when he meets Whit for the first time as a detective in New York. Later, Jeff’s old partner, Fischer, stumbles into Jeff and Kathie in San Francisco. This leads to the murder of the partner, Jeff’s escape into hiding and Kathie’s return to Whit. A few years later when Jeff is called back into Whit’s service – he spends one chaotic night in San Francisco – trying to stay one step ahead of the frame Whit’s constructing around him. Maybe it is odd to see idyllic settings like Acapulco or the sweet, small town of Bridgeport, CA in a noir – but they serve an important purpose that goes straight to the core of noir values. No matter where you are – bad things can happen and no one is to be trusted.

The dialog in this movie is exceptional for noir style. Rather than a few great lines, every scene has something cynical and gritty to take away from it. Someone could probably write a noir quote book just from this film.  This exchange is not only a great example of Out of the Past’s noir script; it is also a good illustration of the perspective of so many noir “heros.”

Kathie: Oh, Jeff…I don’t want to die.

Jeff: Neither do I baby, but if I have to I’m going to die last.

This is a great film for anyone who loves Noir and/or classic film – it’s a wonderful example of both.

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Strangers on a Train and Happy Birthday Mr. Hitchcock

Yesterday was Alfred Hitchcock’s birthday. To celebrate, I submit this post to the blogosphere.

A couple of fellows meet accidentally, like you and me. No connection between them at all. Never saw each other before. Each of them has somebody he’d like to get rid of, but he can’t murder the person he wants to get rid of. He’ll get caught. So they swap murders. – Bruno Antony

I chose Strangers on a Train because I think it could use a little more attention. It was well-received when it was released and it’s certainly not unheard of but it doesn’t get as much attention as some of Hitchcock’s other films. To be fair, there’s reasons why some of his other films get more attention but this one should get its share of the spotlight too…

As the title suggests, two strangers meet on a train by cooincidence. However, one is a madman…so, you know this is going somewhere delightfully devious.

Guy…yes, his name really is Guy and it fits him. He’s good looking and knows prominent people but he’s a fairly average guy. He’s a semi-famous tennis player who has ambitions to get into politics, is seeing a senators daughter but…he also happens to be married to a two-timing woman who doesn’t love him and is pregnant with another man’s baby. Still with me? Ok…the bottom line is – he doesn’t like his wife but he’s a decent guy. As Guy takes his seat on the train, his foot accidentally grazes Bruno Antony’s…

Bruno…he’s the mad man. It’s pretty clear from the start that this guy is a little weird. He strikes up a conversation with Guy and seems to know everything about him from newspaper articles. He knows who he is, that he’s dating a senator’s daughter and that he has an estranged wife. It’s creepy right off the bat. Bruno comes from money and hates his father because his father wants him to get a job…Bruno would rather just live off his dad’s money. We learn he has been kicked out of several colleges and that he basically does nothing but come up with wild theories about life and here’s the kicker – he’s planned how two people could get away with murder.

Guy listens politely and some people interpret his side of things a little differently but I think he doesn’t really take Bruno’s insane rantings too seriously. Bruno proposes a hypothetical plan that he and Guy should swap murders – so no motive could be tied to the killings. Since they’re complete strangers, they wouldn’t be connected. Bruno says he could kill Guy’s wife and Guy could kill his father while they each have alibies. They pull into another station and Guy needs to switch trains. As he leaves Bruno asks if Guy likes his idea. Guy says, “sure Bruno” but he says it as if he’s just patronizing Bruno and finds him harmless. But as we can guess…Bruno’s not harmless. He’s a total whack-job….but he’s also a charasmatic and charming whack-job so he’s enjoyable to watch.

As you’ve probably guessed, Bruno keeps his end of the bargain and kills Guy’s wife and shows up at Guy’s house like a cat trying to show off that he killed a mouse…He’s proud of himself and wants Guy to be proud of him too. I should probably mention now that Bruno is likely gay – he’s trying to please Guy so Guy will like him. Guy is surprised but doesn’t exactly seem to care that his wife is dead. As they’re standing across the street from Guy’s house, a police car arrives to deliver the news to Guy. Now this is where Guy becomes an idiot. Rather than telling the police that Bruno killed his wife, he hides in a shadow until the police leave. The rest of the film is kind of like a game of cat and mouse. Guy just wants everything to blow over and for Bruno to go away.

That’s just not going to happen though…

The police suspect Guy because his aliby is shakey and Bruno becomes more and more insistant that Guy keep up his end of the bargain…all the while the police have round the clock surveillance on Guy. As usual, I won’t give away what Guy does or what happens in the end — you’ll have to see it! :)

The major motif of the film is pairs or dopplegangers. Just about everything in this film has a pair or an opposite to go with it. The most obvious pair is Guy and Bruno. While Guy is not totally innocent – Bruno can be considered to be his dark side that acts out what Guy only thinks about.

Next is the pairing of Guy’s wife, Miriam and Barbara – the senator’s younger daughter. They look alike and when Bruno meets Barbara, he goes into a kind of trance, remembering his killing of Miriam.

And all throughout the film you’ll see or hear other smaller examples of doubles. For example, when Bruno and Guy first meet, Bruno orders two ‘double’ drinks. Also, Guy’s lighter has two tennis rackets crossing each other.

As with any Hitchcock film, there several very artistic shots. When Guy murders Miriam is the most famous: we see the murder in the reflection of her glasses that have fallen off. Also it’s a Hitchcock touch to show us that evil can happen anywhere – since Miriam’s murder takes place at a small town’s carnival. At the carnival, Bruno stalks Miriam like a cat, never taking his eyes off of her. She even notices that he’s watching her but it seems her vanity makes her assume that he finds her attractive. Miriam and her friends take a boat ride through the “Tunnel of Love” – and Bruno’s in the boat right behind them. Look closely at his boat – it’s called Pluto. In Roman mythology, Pluto is the god of the underworld.

This movie is not only entertaining – it is rich in artistry and symbolism. It’s the kind of movie that you can see a few times and notice something new each time. Bruno in particular is a great character – he’s a bad guy but you’ll get the impression that he doesn’t realize he’s bad. This is not my absolute favorite Hitchcock movie but it’s in my top 10 and definitely worth checking out if you like his films.

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Oh No! It’s the end of the world….quick, grab your DVDs!

First, I’m sorry it has been so long. Nothing bad going on – I’ve just been up to other hobbies and somewhat lazy about posting. But to get back into the swing of things I thought I’d do something a little different. So, here goes…

I’m about to be marooned on the proverbial desert island and can only take 5 movies with me…the last 5 movies I’ll ever see again….(wipes tear from eye wistfully).

I know this blog is all about the classics but if we’re talking about a lifetime of just 5 movies – I’m probably going to throw in one or two newer ones. Be ye warned.

In no particular order – just the list of 5 movies I would grab first. This is a sort-of favorite list but it’s really a 5 movies I never get sick of list.

1.) The Maltese Falcon

I don’t exactly know why but whenever I decide to watch a movie but can’t really decide which one, this one usually winds up in my hands and on the way to my DVD player. It’s sort of my go-to movie. Even though the surprises are gone for me, I still love the dialog and watching Sam Spade unravel the clues. Were I stuck on a desert island, losing my mind….I think I’d like to remember how the ‘real world’ wasn’t always so nice and maybe I’m better off.

2.) Psycho

Now I know you’ll think I’m some weirdo…who wants Psycho to be one of their only movie options? Well…I do. Here’s why: Like The Maltese Falcon, this is one of my go-to movies. It didn’t used to be. I’m a huge Hitchcock fan so of course, I always liked it. But for some reason, in the past few years I’ve watched it a lot more and came to understand why it’s the masterpiece it truly is and the incredible impact it had on film history. I almost always notice something new or find another reason to appreciate it even more every time I watch it. I definitely plan on dedicated a post to this movie someday. I just know as I’m sitting in my palm frond hut I’ll want to remember I’m not alone….”we all go a little mad sometimes.”

3.) It’s a Wonderful Life

If you’re feeling down or like the whole world’s against you, this is the cure. I would need this movie for a few reasons. First, Christmastime is my absolute favorite time of the year and Christmas isn’t Christmas without this movie…. and Miracle on 34th Street but I can only pick one and It’s a Wonderful Life has to be it. The second reason I’d need this with me – it’s just so darn nice. It’s the ultimate story of a nice guy who doesn’t finish last and I think I’d want to see that as I build my rickety raft.

4.) Forrest Gump

I just like this movie. In a strange way, it’s a little bit like It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s just a very hopeful kind of movie. It shows that no matter how bad and mean people can treat you that you can turn the other cheek and go on to great things. Even if it is in a haphazard, just fall into it sort of way. When I need to calm myself down and hope for the best, this is what I’ll watch.

5.) Singin’ In the Rain

It’s just happy. I love a lot of musicals but I think I’d want this one because when hurricane season rolls around, at least I can think about dancing and singing in the rain…no one’s there to see my feeble attempt anyways!

Since I feel like Ill be cheating on my other favorites…Here’s the top movies I’ll inevitably miss and wish I managed to take with me too….

Goldfinger and Casino Royale (my favorite Bond movies)

Out of the Past and Laura (for my Noir fix)

Animal Crackers

His Girl Friday

Rio Bravo

Casablanca

The Searchers

Charade

Some Like it Hot

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Film Noir

I usually write about a single movie and actually, that’s what I started with but I kept rambling on about Film Noir so I decided to dedicate the post to it entirely. Warning: This post just kept getting longer and longer.

If you’re not quite sure what film noir is or means, it’s ok. You’re not alone. Even the experts can’t seem to agree on it. Is it a style? Is it a genre? Is it a movement or a period? There are some fascinating and convincing arguments for all of the above. It’s one of my favorite film topics because no one can agree – it sparks some good articles, essays and books because naturally, everyone thinks they’re right. I’m no different…so, here’s my two cents…

First, to define exactly what a genre is. Here’s a definition straight from Dictionary.com:

Genre: a class or category of artistic endeavor having a particular form, content, technique, or the like.

Naturally, after I looked that up I was curious to see their definition of Film Noir:

Film Noir: a motion picture with an often grim urban setting, photographed in somber tones and permeated by a feeling of disillusionment, pessimism, and despair.
(This illustrates my earlier point completely – they’re technically calling a film noir “a motion picture” – they avoided the debate by not saying “a style” or “a genre” or “a movement”…cracks me up)

Anyways, I agree with their genre definition. With that said, I personally believe that Film Noir is a sub-genre. It’s not an out and out genre all by itself – like Drama, Comedy, Musical, Western, Romance, Mystery, Horror, Thriller, etc.

Instead, a Film Noir is like an off-shoot of the big genres. Using the genre definition above – a film noir does have a particular form, content and technique so it does meet the definition BUT – no one set out to make film noirs in the 40s and 50s. They were making mysteries and thrillers and detective films and dramas…no one making these films set out to make “a film noir.” That term wasn’t coined until AFTER many of the movies we call Film Noirs were produced.

So, in other words, Film Noirs can be classified as a genre because they all share specific characteristics but they were originally classified in other genres – and still hold to those other genre’s definitions. Thus, I call them a sub-genre.

Now, if you don’t know, you’re probably wondering where the term came from and why it was after many of the movies were made. This historical aspect is a big part of why I love them so much. They were an unintentional byproduct of the time and along with Westerns, are the only other uniquely American genre.

During WWII, American films were banned in Nazi-occupied France. Once the war ended, the French and the very influential French film critics got to see the whole backlog of American movies they missed during the war. Rather than seeing the movies spread out over several months and years the way American audiences did, the French saw them in rapid succession. Because of this, they picked up on something that no one in America did. During the War, many of our films became dark – and they became dark in all senses of that word. The French critics began referring to these films as “noir” which is the French word for black.

So how were these films “noir”?
These are general explanations. Obviously each film is unique and follows these “rules” a little differently or follows some and not others but, in general, this is how it is:

Topic/Story:
If you’re like your films with a happy ending, Film Noirs are not where you’ll find them. The stories always have a criminal element. Murder and blackmail are the most common plot devices. The characters are often just one step ahead of the law – trying to frame each other or come up with an acceptable ‘fall guy.’ Often, the plot in these stories can be very convoluted – the plot doesn’t always matter. In a detective story for example, traditionally the story is all about how it happened and the plot is very important. But in a detective film that’s also a noir, the story is more about why. Noirs tend to be very interested in psychology or human behavior.

Setting:
The settings are almost always urban – the cities are concrete jungles: cold, callous and unforgiving. New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco are the most common. Most scenes take place at night, in the dark because that’s when the characters of Noir come out. Their business is always transacted at night. During the day, they’re inside. The only sunlight to be seen comes in through the blinds, casting prison-like bar shadows over everyone. This leads to the next noir characteristic….entrapment.
Theme:
Noir characters are often trapped somehow. Sometimes they’re forced to do the things they do or feel they have no choice. Usually, they accept their fate – often they know or at least sense that they’re doomed.

Another popular theme is greed. People do bad things for money. These films like to show that.

Style:
Noirs have an extremely distinct style. Most of them are in black and white which adds to their sinister look and feel. The lighting is done in a way to create many shadows. Noirs are heavy on symbolism. One character might always be in the light, another might always be in a shadow. I mentioned blinds casting prison bar shadows earlier. Also, wrought-iron fences or gates cast bars over the characters – we’re constantly bombarded with imagery that tells us, they’re trapped or there’s no way out. The characters have distinct styles too. The men always smoke and usually drink heavily. The smoke adds to the visual style – clouding out whatever speck of light makes its way into a scene. The men usually wear suits, often pinstriped. When they go out, they wear a trench coat and a fedora. The women dress elegantly – gowns, gloves, jewels, impeccable hair and make-up. The script is full of razor-sharp wit, dripping with cynicism.
Common Noir Characters:

Femme Fatale: Definitely the most famous character type. So famous, the French coined a term for her too: “The Fatal Woman.” She’s beautiful, mysterious and can make normally level-headed men, fall for her instantly. She uses her sexuality to get what she wants and men are there to do her bidding. She’s cold and calculating. Every move she makes is for herself. The men who fall for her, figure it out way too late. They’re bad people but feminist film theorists make some good points that the Femme Fatales were some of the first strong women on the silver screen. When all the men were overseas, the women went out, got jobs and kept things running. They became stronger members of society than they ever were before. The Femme Fatales aren’t good but they are independent women. Some theorize, these strong women helped make these movies even more unsettling to the men in the audiences. These women were out in the world with the men – they weren’t home baking, cleaning or raising children.Duped Man: This is one of the guys that falls for the Femme Fatale. He’s a regular guy who crosses paths with a gorgeous woman. She gets him to do something for her and soon, he’s in too deep to ever get out. At first, he loves her – soon, he knows he’s been ‘a sap.’

Tough Guy: This is the other guy that falls for the Femme Fatale but unlike the duped man, this guy – often a detective, is a little too smart to fall all the way. He’s very smart. It’s clear he’s had a hard life where he needed to be smarter and tougher than the other guy. His past is always mysterious and usually implied to be questionable. He doesn’t trust anyone completely and is often a man of few words. When he does speak, it’s clear he’s not to be messed with. Deep down, he might be a good guy but something or someone has led him astray. Now he’s just trying to survive. He hopes to get out but doesn’t put much stock in hope.
Rich Sophisticated Bad Guy: The ‘boss’ of the henchmen is quite often a rich and sophisticated man. Like the femme fatale uses her sexuality, the rich guy uses his money to get others to do his bidding. He’s charming and charismatic – but definitely evil or at least no good.

Nice Girl: She’s usually the girlfriend of either the tough guy or duped man. She often represents an unattainable peaceful life. These guys love her but feel bad for dragging her into their mess of a life. Then the Femme Fatale comes along and she gets brushed aside. Ever faithful, she waits for her guy to see the light but often is left behind. She’s too good for them and they know it.

Hired Gun: Usually a very young guy – inexperienced but quick to put a bullet in someone to prove he’s tough. The real ‘tough guys’ have fun pushing this kid around. But, this kid is usually psychopathic. He isn’t really tough or smart – he just wants people to think he is and tries way too hard. He’s only dangerous because he’s trying to prove himself. If he’s not a young guy, he’s still not really any good. He’s like a big dumb henchman and often gets killed off or made to play the fall guy.

As I mentioned, Noir scripts are full of razor-sharp lines. Here are a few of my favorites:

Out of the Past (1947)

Kathie Moffat: I don’t want to die.
Jeff Bailey: Neither do I, Baby, but if I have to, I’m going to die last.

Jeff Bailey: You can never help anything, can you? You’re like a leaf that the wind blows from one gutter to another.

Kathie Moffat: I’m sorry he didn’t die.
Jeff Bailey: Give him time.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Sam Spade: When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.

Joel Cairo: You always have a very smooth explanation…
Sam Spade: What do you want me to do, learn to stutter?

Laura (1944)

Waldo Lydecker: I don’t use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom.

Waldo Lydecker: In my case, self-absorption is completely justified. I have never discovered any other subject quite so worthy of my attention.

Waldo Lydecker: My dear, either you were born on a extremely rustic community, where good manners are unknown, or you suffer from a common feminine delusion that the mere fact of being a woman exempts you from the rules of civilized conduct.

Double Indemnity (1944)

Walter Neff: Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money – and a woman – and I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?

Walter Neff: I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.

Gilda (1946)

Johnny Farrell: Pardon me, but your husband is showing.

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The Searchers (1956)

“That’ll be the day…” – Ethan Edwards

Before I say anything about the movie, I need to say something about John Wayne. Ever said, “that’ll be the day…?” Or heard the song of the same name? You know, the one that goes…”That’ll be the day..ay..ay…when I die.” Did you know, The Searchers is where it all started? Well, I bet someone, somewhere uttered those words before but I can assure you they were likely meaningless until spoken by John Wayne.

If you’ve never seen a John Wayne movie, you should. If his movies just aren’t your thing, do it just for the experience of seeing him – he’s like no other. I think he’s a great, often underrated, actor….but it’s his screen presence that is truly remarkable. He didn’t just dominate the screen because he was such a big guy. And he was a big guy. He was 6’4…and not a scrawny 6’4. But that’s really not the only thing – he had a way of delivering his lines, taking pauses in strange places…sort of drawing out every fiber of every word that makes you believe him. No matter who he shared the screen with, you couldn’t help but notice him.

He’s often associated with American patriotism, and whether you agree with his personal politics or not, he was a patriot on and off the screen. So many times, in so many movies – he stood for justice or just doing the right thing no matter what. But he had his own code and he was one of the rare few that could seem to stick to it. I’m going on and on because I think he deserves more praise as an actor than he gets. Yes, he did play similar roles – but they’re not all the same. More importantly – I can’t imagine anyone else in them. There is no other John Wayne. If you’re among the ones that doubt his acting talents, you must not have ever seen The Searchers or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – or for a different kind of John Wayne: The Quiet Man. I recommend all three….well, and a whole bunch of others.

Anyways, onto The Searchers…

I used to watch John Wayne movies growing up, with my dad – I liked them but I didn’t appreciate them until later and that’s exactly how my love of The Searchers grew. I saw it, I liked it – I didn’t understand it was a masterpiece until later. I think it might be one of those films that the more you see it, the more it grows on you and the more you love it.

The Searchers begins with Ethan Edwards appearing as a speck on the horizon – coming in to his brother’s ranch. He’s riding alone, covered in the desert dust, and we learn a little bit about him through the family conversation. He fought in the Civil War for the Confederacy but he’s showing up three years after the war ended and he’s got a lot of gold pieces. Where has he been? What has he been doing? His past is a mystery but it’s implied that he’s done some questionable things. We learn from Clayton, a Texas Ranger, that he “fits a lot of descriptions.” We also see an unspoken but obvious love between Ethan and his brother’s wife, Martha. They share a few tender moments – nothing scandalous by any means. It’s sweet in a sad way. He kisses her forehead at one point, she clearly cherishes the moment. It’s likely they never had an affair of any kind – they’re both honorable. I think they fell in love long ago but because of Ethan’s loner ways and perhaps his tendency to be an outsider, they never married and she married his brother instead.

Shortly after Ethan arrives, a neighbor’s cattle herd is run off by some Comanches and the men decide to ride off and get the cattle back…Ethan tells his brother Aaron to stay close to the ranch. He suspected the Comanches could be luring the men away. Tragically, he was right. Like my usual posts, I’m going to give away as little as possible. I don’t want to spoil it. But the men figure out too late and by the time they get back – the ranch where Ethan’s brother, his beloved Martha and their three children live is burning to the ground. Ethan calls frantically for his family – especially Martha….and then he finds her dress. He stumbles forward into the burning house and comes back out with a look of terror and rage on his face. He obviously saw the aftermath of what that empty dress just told us. But Lucy and Debbie aren’t there – his nieces were kidnapped. Hopefully, they’re still alive. Now for the search….

“Put an Amen to it! There’s no more time for praying.”

That’s what Ethan says to the preacher (also the Texas Ranger, Capt. Clayton) as he and the local ranchers are singing at the group funeral for Aaron, Martha and their son Ben. Time to find those girls and get them away from the indians before they’re “of an age” to… In 1956, they couldn’t come right out and say it but that’s the idea – he needs to find his nieces before they’re forced to “marry” their Comanche captors – that’s the nice way of putting it. There’s no sugar-coating it. He hates the Comanches and constantly picks on Martin (who is an eighth Cherokee). He was like an adopted son to Martha and Aaron. Martin, vows to find Lucy and Debbie too. He considers them his sisters. Ethan never fails to miss an opportunity to point out that Martin’s not really family. Also along for the Search is Brad – who is Lucy’s boyfriend. He’s incredibly fragile – has to be calmed down several times. Understandably so – the girl he loves was kidnapped by men who raped and killed her mother. He has a hard time but he needs to be a part of the search.

The search takes many different twists and turns – they follow any lead they get but the Comanches are a wandering tribe and they know they’re being followed. Now, this is where I need to stop sharing details or I’ll ruin it. What you can know now is, the search lasts years. Ethan will not give up. As he says at one point…

“Injun will chase a thing till he thinks he’s chased it enough. Then he quits. Same way when he runs. Seems like he never learns there’s such a thing as a critter who’ll just keep comin’ on.”

People ask him to quit but as he says several times, so perfectly throughout this film – “that’ll be the day.” He means it. While this film focuses on Ethan’s search – there are MANY little side stories. This film shows how one man’s obsession or will not to quit can effect the lives of many other people – for better and for worse. Ethan is tough and to everyone, he seems callous with tunnel vision on his mission – to hell with the consequences. But Ethan has a lot of depth. He is one of cinema’s best “outsider heroes” – the man that comes out of the desert to do what no one else can or will. He doesn’t do it for praise or money or to show off – he does it because it’s in his code. This is something he has to do – get out of his way.

While watching The Searchers, Ethan can be hard to like but it’s almost impossible not to respect him. I think that’s to John Wayne’s credit in particular. Ethan says and does some nasty things but he still manages to be the hero. Martin, who searchers with Ethan, is the voice of moral reason. He’s like the conscience we’re not sure Ethan has. Again, Ethan’s not all bad – it’s just he doesn’t quite think the same way an insider in society would think.

Other than the actual story – this film is beautiful. Orson Welles once compared John Ford’s directing to poetry and it’s easy to understand when you see this film. Much of it is shot in Monument Valley – the sky couldn’t be more blue and the monuments (rock formations) almost glow orange in the sunlight. It’s gorgeous and it really makes me want to go visit someday. And then there’s the music. I’m having trouble describing it actually without simply saying, it’s perfect. The score searches on along with Ethan – follows him through all the setbacks. And then there are a few songs that are sung. I’ve learned to pay attention to the lyrics. They’re so fitting. Especially the song played during the credits – it’s about Ethan.

I know I’ve been vague at times and that I’ve rambled on for quite a bit now. But, my reasons are this – for me, this is one of the best films ever made. On one hand, I’d like to discuss every bit of it but on the other, it’s a great movie to figure out on your own. There’s a lot to it and, for me, I think it gets better and better each time I see it. I always notice more and I think everyone should see it, at least once.

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Stalag 17 (1953)

There are two people in this barracks who know I didn’t do it. Me and the guy that did do it. – Sefton

In the spirit of Memorial Day weekend, I thought it fitting to write about a war movie.

I’ll try not to make this post too quote-heavy but the opening narration explains the setting of this film best…

“I don’t know about you, but it always makes me sore when I see those war pictures…all about flying leathernecks and submarine patrols and frogmen and guerillas in the Philippines. What gets me is that there never w-was a movie about POWs – about prisoners of war. Now my name is Clarence Harvey Cook: They call me Cookie. I was shot down over Magdeborg, Germany back in ’43; that’s why I stammer a little once in a while. ‘Specially when I get excited. I spent two and a half years in Stalag 17. “Stalag” is the German word for prison camp and number 17 was somewhere on the Danube. There were about 40,000 POWs there, if you bothered to count the Russians, and the Poles, and the Czechs. In our compound there were about 630 of us, all American airmen, radio opreators, gunners and engineers. All sergeants. Now you put 630 sergeants together and, oh mother, you’ve got yourself a situation. There was more fireworks shooting off around that joint…take for instance the story about the spy we had in our barracks…”

At the opening of Stalag 17, two actions set the motion for the entire film. First, we witness an escape attempt by two of the men from barracks number four. Second, we meet Sefton who starts taking bets (paid for with cigarettes – the camp’s currency) whether or not the two men will even make it out of the forest…and he gives the odds to them not making it. The rest of the men don’t want to bet against their friends and they each pony up their smokes to bet that they will make it. No sooner do their cigarettes leave their pockets do they hear gunshots outside.

These events start the pattern of almost all of the events to come…Sefton has good luck while bad things keep happening to everyone else. As an audience, it’s even hard to know whether we should like Sefton or not. Clearly, he’s the star. We can tell because he gets so much attention (plus he’s played by William Holden) so we know he’s the one we’re following…but no one seems to like him very much. I’m all for rooting for the underdog – but Sefton’s not an underdog. He’s a prisoner just like all the other guys but he has a bar of soap to wash with, his clothes aren’t torn or dirty, he has a locker full of cartons of cigarettes which he only uses as money since he only smokes cigars. He even has a fresh egg for breakfast…the other’s just look on hungrily.

The narrator, Sefton’s most loyal friend, explains to us that Sefton’s just smart. He is always finding one way or another to get the others to trade him their prized cigarettes and other possessions. He runs a racetrack on Saturdays and Sundays using mice with numbers tied to their tails. He created a distillery using potato peels and charges the men per shot of the liquor…that’s only guaranteed not to make them go blind. I could go on, but I’m guessing you get the idea by now. Sefton has things the others don’t – and he doesn’t share.

The other guys don’t like Sefton but they tolerate him and accept his trades and bets…until they start associating his good fortune with their barrack’s misfortune. Little by little, they start suspecting that Sefton is trading their secrets for his comforts….like just how did he know that the escape attempt would fail so quickly or how did the guards find out about their hidden radio? It starts to seem like every time they have a secret – the guards learn about it and Sefton winds up with some new privilege.

At first, Sefton shrugs it off and chalks it up to their envy. But then their accusations get stronger and he starts defending himself. He tells them, “You put two and two together and it comes out four – only it ain’t four.” Next, they beat him and shun him – he’s alone and we still don’t know if he’s the spy or not. At first, we can’t even be sure if there is a spy – the evidence isn’t clear-cut.

But little by little, we’re let in on the secrets. I won’t ruin it for you if you’ve never seen it but even once we know what’s going on – the film continues to be very suspenseful. It’s still a story of “us” verses “them” during a war. Since the Americans are already in a prison camp, the odds are against them and survival is most definitely on the line.

This is a tense film but it has it’s moments of comedy. The men are bored and they find ways to have fun when they can. Sometimes, a few of the comedic scenes can seem a bit over the top in their silliness but I forgive that because I think the film would be too tense without them. Through all of this – whether Sefton’s the spy or not – they’re prisoners of war and we feel sympathy for all of them. Clearly, they’re cold, dirty, and poorly fed. The German camp commander is necessarily evil as one would expect.

There are many little side stories in this film. The one that gets me each time I see it is when one of the men reads a letter from his wife. She keeps repeating in the note, “you won’t believe it, but”…and we find out that someone just happened to leave a baby on her front porch, it looks remarkably like her, and she’s decided to keep it to raise as their own. The poor man for the rest of the film just keeps repeating…”I believe it.” He looks so sad – just imagine being a prisoner of war and finding out that not only did your wife have an affair but she’s had another man’s baby. He has to tell himself that her story is true or he’ll lose his mind completely.

These little side stories make the film richer. So many of the scenes take place inside the barracks – it’s cramped and it’s shot to make us feel like we’re crammed in there with them, getting to know all of the characters and their stories. When the men suspect Sefton, we feel it too. When he’s beaten – we’re conflicted….who’s side are we on?

There are many great war movies out there. I think this one is unique for its setting. Most war movies seem to be about great battles and heroic leaders and are full of shooting and bombs and action. In Stalag 17, the Americans might be in prison but they certainly didn’t give up and show themselves to be extremely resourceful. Their actions against the enemy are on a different scale but they’re still heroic.

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Shadow of a Doubt (1943)


“You think you know something, don’t you? You think you’re the clever little girl who knows something.”

Shadow of a Doubt is one of my favorite Hitchcock films. He often called it his favorite too. It’s the story of evil coming into a sweet little world that doesn’t see it coming. The two main characters emphasize this difference.

There’s Uncle Charlie and Charlotte “Charlie” Newton. Little Charlie is thrilled when she finds out her beloved Uncle is coming to visit and shake things up. She’s bored with her “average” life in her average town in her average home. Her uncle is a well-traveled business man. No one seems to know what his business is but he sure has a lot of money to throw around. When we first meet Uncle Charlie, he’s casually puffing away on a cigar while money litters the floor around him. How does he get all that money and why does he come to visit all of a sudden? Something’s just not right but we don’t know what yet.

Uncle Charlie is deliciously evil – he oozes charm but only as a means of glossing over his true nature. It takes little Charlie a while to pick up on the signals that her Uncle isn’t what she thought but when she does, she figures out his terrible secret and tries to get him to leave.

No one but little Charlie suspects – but she has to be careful because clearly her Uncle is dangerous. At the same time, she doesn’t want to turn him in because it would be better if he’d just leave. Then her mother doesn’t need to know the truth about her favorite brother and maybe she can forget about it…like a bad nightmare.

Little Charlie’s whole family is “average” and I use that word in the nicest way possible. They’re a nice family who eats dinner and attends church together – they’d never expect one of their own family members to be dangerous, let alone try to kill them. Such a shock, little Charlie knows, would be just too much for them.

So, she tries her best to outsmart her evil Uncle and get him to leave peacefully…in lies the suspense. They’re worthy opponents – and the stakes are high.

Shadow of a Doubt is an interesting film because it looks so wholesome and good. Set in beautiful Santa Rosa, California – flowers are in just about every scene as decorations in the house or outside on the trees. It looks pretty. The women are an dresses, the men are in suits. I think it’s a device used more commonly now but at the time, the idea of putting someone evil in such a sweet environment was probably much fresher and it works well. I think the point is, bad people don’t have to look like “bad guys.” Even in the nicest of places, evil can exist.

Uncle Charlie sums it up best in his snarling statement to his niece who discovered his secret…

“You’re just an ordinary littler girl living in an ordinary little town. You wake up every morning of your life and you know perfectly well that there’s nothing in the world to trouble you. You go through your ordinary little day and at night you sleep your untroubled, ordinary little sleep filled with peaceful, stupid dreams. And I brought you nightmares! Or did I, or was it a silly inexpert little lie. You live in a dream. You’re a sleepwalker, blind. How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know if you rip the fronts off houses you’d find swine? The world’s a hell. What does it matter what happens in it? Wake up, Charlie! Use your wits. Learn something.”

But Charlie’s not so ordinary – she was the smartest girl in her class at school. She may have started out wide-eyed and innocent but it doesn’t take her long to adapt and figure out how to get rid of her Uncle. She tells him, flat out and plainly…”So, go away, I’m warning you. Go away or I’ll kill you myself. See, that’s the way I feel about you.”

Uncle Charlie doesn’t take too kindly to that warning and he’s even less pleased when his niece starts falling in love with one of the detectives trying to catch him.

The ending is not as clear as it may appear. The movie has an ending – it’s not ambiguous BUT it also leaves us wondering about what else is out there that we don’t really get – just because it isn’t as it appears. It’s a little disturbing really, if you choose to dwell on it.

It’s a great movie – entertaining and suspenseful as one can expect from Sir Alfred Hitchcock. If you like his other films, you’ll probably like this one too.

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Casablanca (1942)

“I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” – Rick

First, let me start by saying – I love this movie. But, I know I’m not alone – especially when it comes to tributes and reviews. I would be in awe of anyone who could come up with something original to say about this film. I think at this point, it might be impossible. It would be hard to find a critic that hasn’t already told the rest of us how important or wonderful this film is…or I’m sure there’s a few out there who’ve focused on negative criticism for the sake of argument. Nevertheless, my round-a-bout point is: I love this movie and even though I’m not the first or last in a long line of reviewers – I want to add yet another post to the pile. This movie is great – there’s a reason why we fanatics can’t seem to shut-up about it…so, here goes…

Much has been said about the luck of Casablanca – how it wasn’t meant to be so important and how fate just seemed to work its magic when it came to the final picture – casting, screenplay, the music…all of it. But, isn’t any movie like that? I mean, I’ve never heard of a film where all decisions were final and no changes were made along the way. I think luck was on the side of Casablanca but credit must be given to the talent and thought behind it too.

Casablanca is a film full of stark opposites playing off one another. There’s good and evil and hope and despair – acts of sacrifice and acts of greed. Everyone in the film (well, except the Nazis) is stuck in a sort of purgatory – trying to get out of Casablanca or trying to make the best of it.

Casablanca is the second to last stop on the way out of Europe during World War II. Refugees pour in from all over Europe in hopes of getting the visas they need to get on the plane to Lisbon, Portugal where they can make their escape to the promise of freedom in America. We learn how hard that is to do – it takes money and most of the refugees have spent all they had just to get to Casablanca. So…as the narrator tells us…”they wait…and wait…and wait.”

In the meantime, “everybody comes to Rick’s.” Rick’s is more than a melting pot – it’s boiling. Tensions for everyone are high – our first trip to the cafe gives us a glimpse of what really goes on in there. Under-the-table dealings and bargains are taking place. One woman tries to sell her diamonds…but “diamonds are everywhere on the black market.” Another man arranges an escape for another…if the man remembers to “bring cash.” A wealthier couple is practicing their English for when they get to America. Hope and desperation are visible in everyone’s eyes.

Next we meet Rick, the “saloon-keeper.” He’s too engrossed in his game of chess, sitting alone to notice much of his surroundings…but it’s clear he’s the type to know exactly what’s going on.

I won’t go into summarizing the entire story, since it’s likely you’ve seen it…and if you haven’t I don’t want to give it all away.

What I will tell you is – we spend time getting to know Rick. He’s cynical and tough and he sticks his neck out for nobody. At least, that’s how he seems.

But Louis, the likable “poor corrupt official” suspects the truth when he tells his good friend, “My dear Ricky, I suspect under that cynical shell, you’re at heart a sentimentalist.”

You see, Rick’s not a bad guy – he does care. You’ll understand why he seems so jaded once you hear what happened with Ilsa.

In all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world…in walks Ilsa, straight from Rick’s past. We learn what happened between the two and can’t help feeling sorry for them. Clearly they love each other but can’t be together….or can they? In the end comes a choice – a big choice. Ilsa’s tired of thinking – exhausted is more like it. They’re in a tough spot and the world is crumbling around them. Rick has to make the choice for them.

The end, which you probably know – the decision is made. Like the greatest endings of all – it’s also a beginning. But I won’t give it away…just in case you’re lucky enough to see it for the first time.

Though, Casablanca is one of the best of films that gets better with each viewing. When you know the story of Rick and Ilsa, somehow it’s more moving to see their reactions when they see each other again for the first time.

Casablanca evokes emotion, you can’t just watch it neutrally – it forces you to take sides. America, around the time of the making of this film was criticized for its isolationism, much like Rick in the beginning. With all the European refugees (many of the actors were actual European refugees who escaped the terrors of Hitler and the War) – the film makes you see these people trying desperately to get to America and how much it means to them. Perhaps the most powerful scene is when Victor gets the cafe band to drown out the German’s singing their anthem with the French Anthem. Since Germany had recently invaded and occupied Paris, this is especially poignant.

This movie could have been heavy with all of it’s messages and dour situations but the script is full of some of the best lines in movie history. It’s crisp and incredibly witty. Humor punctuates the terrible circumstances.

For instance, we meet a young girl who is conflicted because she’s been offered exit visas in exchange for sex…but she’s married and is afraid and not sure if she should tell her husband or pass up the chance. But Rick saves her by letting her husband win at Roulette, chalking it up to him being “just a lucky guy.” This tense moment is eased when Rick’s bartender comically kisses Rick on the cheeks for his good deed and Rick acts annoyed…saying, “Get away from me you crazy Russian.”

Almost anytime the drama becomes tense or a tragic subject is breached, someone says something witty – and the tension is eased. It makes the movie moving and enjoyable.

And if all that isn’t enough – it’s also a beautiful film to watch. I’m glad it’s not in color – I think being in black and white is incredibly appropriate working with all the contrast in this film. It’s beautifully done – each scene could be a photograph. The smoke from the cigarettes and lights from the airport streaming into the cafe through it’s nooks and crannies casting all kinds of odd shadows, makes for some beautiful shots.

If you’ve never seen this movie, I hope you give it a chance sometime. It’s beautiful and full of action, suspense, drama and romance and a whole slew of great characters….what more could you need in a movie?

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