Category: alfred hitchcock

Suspense and/or the Lack Thereof

The Usual Suspects (1995): written by Christopher McQuarrie; directed by Bryan Singer; starring Stephen Baldwin (McManus), Gabriel Byrne (Keaton), Benicio Del Toro (Fenster), Kevin Pollak (Hockney), Kevin Spacey (Verbal), Chazz Palmintieri (Dave Kujan), Pete Postlethwaite (Kobayashi), and Giancarlo Esposito (Jack Baer): Still the best thing writer Christopher McQuarrie and director Bryan Singer have ever done, 21 years later. 

And that’s OK because among the peaks and troughs of the Tarantino Wave of the early-to-mid-1990’s, The Usual Suspects is a very high peak indeed. A delightful, violent romp that also serves as a meditation on the telling and receiving of stories, The Usual Suspects never lags and gets the best out of both able actors (Gabriel Byrne, Kevin Spacey) and otherwise undistinguished actors whose best work appears here (Stephen Baldwin, Kevin Pollak). Benicio del Toro is nearly unrecognizable physically and, thanks to some extremely odd speech patterns, aurally. Highly recommended.

Don’t Breathe (2016): written by Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues; directed by Fede Alvarez; starring Stephen Lang (The Blind Man), Jane Levy (Rocky), Dylan Minnette (Alex), and Daniel Zovatto (Money): Admirably tense, terse thriller set in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of present-day Detroit. The creative minds behind the solid remake of Evil Dead go with a bit less gore and grue here, though more than one scene is Not For The Squeamish

The young actors are good as three sympathetic burglars who pick the wrong house, while Stephen Lang (Avatar‘s nutty Colonel) is extraordinarily menacing as the blind, buff homeowner whose house our unfortunate trio break into in search of a hidden cache of Get Out of Detroit cash. The movie may invert the central premise of classic 1960’s thriller Wait Until Dark, but it’s also a horrifying reimagining of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Brutal but never exploitative. Highly recommended.

Black Sabbath (I tre volti della paura) (1963): adapted from works by Ivan Chekhov, F.G. Snyder, and Aleksei Tolstoy by Mario Bava, Alberto Bevilacqua, and Marcello Fondato; starring Boris Karloff (Gorca/Narrator) and others: Something of a stinker of an Italian anthology horror film from the early 1960’s, redubbed for English-speaking audiences. Boris Karloff is fine as both frame narrator and Vourdalak in the third segment. 

The first segment actually goes pretty well until the film-makers unwisely over-use their initially effective Dead Witch Dummy (TM). The second sequence sucks. The third sequence, in which a vampire-like Vourdalak terrorizes a travelling nobleman and a family of peasants, is utterly ridiculous in its plot. It’s like a training film on what not to do when menaced by the Undead. Or a cautionary tale about the plague of narcolepsy that ravaged Eastern Europe in the early 19th century. Not recommended.

Spectre (2015): written by John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth; directed by Sam Mendes; starring Daniel Craig (James Bond), Christoph Waltz (Blofeld), Lea Seydoux (Madeleine), Ralph Fiennes (M), Ben Whishaw (Q), Naomie Harris (Moneypenny), and Andrew Scott (C): Spectre is a lot like the Roger Moore Bond movies, except for the fact that it’s grim rather than light-hearted. And perhaps even more improbable than even the last couple of lousy Moore Bonds. Daniel Craig looks ready to quit the role, and the film-makers don’t seem to have written a movie so much as hastily assembled a series of flawed action sequences. 

This lumpy, careless James Bond moves through a world which is either intensely over-crowded or populated by no one but himself, his unlikely love interest, and whoever’s trying to kill him. Christoph Waltz does his best to menace in a non-menacing role as an unconvincingly retconned Blofeld, while Andrew Scott, so great as Moriarty to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes, is mostly wasted as a nefarious British bureaucrat/technocrat. If I never see another climax to an action movie that involves doing something with a computer, it will probably be too soon. Though I did like an earlier action sequence that terminates with the fiery revelation that the bad guys have built their secret HQ out of gas pipelines and exploding wood. Not recommended.

Hitchcock/ Truffaut (2015): written by Kent Jones and Serge Toubiana; directed by Kent Jones; narrated by Bob Balaban: It’s too short and it doesn’t name the directors who discuss Hitchcock throughout the documentary until the end credits. But it’s still great to revisit the monumental Hitchcock/Truffaut book, initially compiled and published in 1966 from a series of interviews Francois Truffaut conducted via translator with Alfred Hitchcock in 1962. Young (Wes Anderson) and old (Martin Scorsese) alike hold both the book and Hitch himself in monumental regard. 

The movie introduces the viewer to several key moments in the text, with special attention paid to Notorious, The Birds, Psycho, and Vertigo. It might help to read the book either immediately before or after seeing the documentary. It’s impossible to imagine any contemporary, commercial film-maker being as visually and thematically complex as Hitchcock turned out to be over his 50-year film-making career. He’s the Great White Whale of movies, the immensely popular and complex artist. Highly recommended.

Hitchcock, Ballard, … Gad?

Dial ‘M’ for Murder: adapted by Frederick Knott from his own stage play; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; starring Ray Milland (Tony Wendice); Grace Kelly (Margot Wendice), Robert Cummings (Mark Halliday), John Williams (Chief Inspector Hubbard), and Anthony Dawson (Swann) (1954): Mostly minor Hitchcock has the cast but lacks a top-rate script: if you didn’t know it was based on a play, you’d figure it out by the second act. Ray Milland’s cunning plan to kill wife Grace Kelly by proxy turns out to have too many moving parts — or perhaps too few. It’s a nice time waster, and all of the leads are fine, including John Williams as an increasingly Columbo-esque English policeman. Originally shown in 3-D, only the repeated establishment of an extreme foreground in most shots overtly acknowledges the process. Lightly recommended.

The Wedding Ringer: written by Jeremy Garelick and Jay Lavender; directed by Jeremy Garelick; starring Kevin Hart (Jimmy Callahan), Josh Gad (Doug Harris), Kaley Cuoco (Gretchen Palmer), and Jorge Garcia (Lurch) (2015): Sloppy but engaging buddy comedy manages to graft the narrative apparatus of a Heist movie onto a wedding scenario. Josh Gad plays a lovable, insanely wealthy tax attorney who has no friends — not even one to be the Best Man at his wedding. Enter Kevin Hart as a man who sells his services as a Best Man to the friendless. And the services of whatever people he can round up to fill the roles of Gad’s imaginary groomsmen, Gad having invented and named those groomsmen and the imaginary Best Man to his fiancee and the wedding planner prior to engaging Hart’s services. There are rough spots and sections that fall flat, but overall this is a decent, lightweight comedy buoyed by the charms of both Hart and Gad. Recommended.

The Terminal Beach (1964) by J.G. Ballard, containing the following stories: A Question of Re-Entry  (1963); The Drowned Giant  (1964); End-Game  (1963); The Illuminated Man  (1964); The Reptile Enclosure  (1963); The Delta at Sunset  (1964); The Terminal Beach  (1964); Deep End  (1961); The Volcano Dances  (1964); Billennium  (1961); The Gioconda of the Twilight Noon  (1964); and The Lost Leonardo  (1964).

Icy, engaging collection of early 1960’s short stories from J.G. Ballard. Many of the stories are at least nominally science fiction. All of them are Weird, though in several cases this Weirdness is entirely a question of tone: nothing overtly fantastic or science-fictional occurs in five of the twelve stories. Nonetheless, even those stories disturb one enough that they straddle the line between the strange and the horrific.

Ballard was only a couple of years away from his avant-garde, experimental period. None of the stories included here are challenging in a structural sense. Several challenge the reader’s perceptions of genre, however, along with one’s ability to navigate subjective narration and altered states of consciousness. Ballard’s concern with the fragility of the human psyche manifests itself again and again in various ways. So, too, the apocalypse, always observed in a cool and somewhat detached manner by either his narrators or the third-person narrative voice. 

But as dry and cool a voice as Ballard can be, behind all those narrative masks exists the mind of an aesthete. The end of the world (if that’s what it is) is a hauntingly beautiful place in “The Illuminated Man.” Thoughts on art, and the art of Leonardo da Vinci, dominate the quietly horrifying “The Gioconda of the Twilight Noon” and the jolly fantasy “The Lost Leonardo.”   And a description of the decay of the body of a mysterious giant takes up the bulk of “The Drowned Giant,” a description that haunts and troubles even as the story questions the very nature of the fantastic and people’s reactions to unusual events. 

One could call “The Drowned Giant” a horror story about familiarization and the ever-encroaching Un-fantastic. So too “The Gioconda of the Twilight Noon” and “The Delta at Sunset” with their mentally disturbed narrators seeking an escape into a fantastically distorted hallucination that surpasses the ‘real’ world in scope and beauty, the same ‘real’ world that reduces the drowned giant to a debased and dismantled normativity. In all, a fine collection. Highly recommended.


Hitchcock: adapted by John J. McLaughlin from the book by Stephen Rebello; directed by Sacha Gervasi; starring Anthony Hopkins (Alfred Hitchcock), Helen Mirren (Alma Reville Hitchcock), Scarlett Johansson (Janet Leigh), Danny Huston (Whitfield Cook), Toni Collette (Peggy Robertson), Michael Stuhlbarg (Lew Wasserman), James D’Arcy (Anthony Perkins), Jessica Biel (Vera Miles), and Michael Wincott (Ed Gein) (2012): While it plays somewhat fast and loose with the facts, Hitchcock is an enjoyable look at the making of Psycho. The movie was a gamble at the time, which is why Hitchcock funded it himself. And he would ultimately reap the benefits: adjusted for inflation, Psycho would have a $350 million North American gross in 2015… on an adjusted budget of $10 million.

Anthony Hopkins, fat suit and all, makes for a relatively fun Hitchcock, and Helen Mirren is also good as his wife Alma, who worked on all of his films though often without credit. Scarlett Johansson doesn’t look much like Janet Leigh, but she’s fine in the role. The movie mixes the personal travails of Hitch and Alma with the challenge of adapting Robert Bloch’s Psycho when the film censors will allow neither nudity nor graphic violence. Even showing the toilet in Marion Crane’s hotel room was a scandalous deal at the time because apparently Americans had never seen toilets before. Oh, censorship board!

As with most films about artists, we never really get a particularly good sense of what made Hitchcock great other than Following His Gut and Believing In Himself. We do get a montage of Hitchcock performing montage at the end (which is to say, editing), as he whips Psycho into shape in the editing room. The artistic process is otherwise pretty much glossed over, which is a shame given Hitchcock’s meticulous nature when it came to the technical aspects of great film-making. Virtually all great directors are great technicians. But if you want to know how Hitchcock actually thought, pick up Hitchcock/Truffaut. Recommended.

Night Shift: written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel; directed by Ron Howard; starring Henry Winkler (Chuck), Michael Keaton (Bill), Shelley Long (Belinda), Gina Hecht (Charlotte) and Richard Belzer (Pig) (1982): Ron Howard’s first comedy as a director pretty much introduced both Shelley Long and Michael Keaton to the world. It also gave the Fonz one of his few good lead roles in a film, as the introverted, nebbishy night shift supervisor at a New York morgue who almost inadvertantly ends up running a prostitution ring out the morgue. Cue the montage of money rolling in, women trying on clothes, and Michael Keaton being zany.

Michael Keaton plays the Wacky Spirit of Life and Shelley Long plays the Hooker with a Heart of Gold. It all holds up pretty well. It should be shown whenever someone wants to make a case for legalizing prostitution. That Richard Belzer plays a gangster named Pig is pretty funny. And Kevin Costner wanders through as a frat boy at a party. Howard and his screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel would follow this with their break-out hit Splash. In any case, be prepared for casual nudity. And yes, underground sex clubs were and are a thing in New York. Recommended.

Solitary Men

John Wick: directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch; written by Derek Kolstad; starring Keanu Reeves (John Wick), Michael Nyqvist (Viggo Tarasov), Alfie Allen (Iosef Tarasov), Willem Dafoe (Marcus), Dean Winters (Avi), Adrianne Palicki (Ms. Perkins), and John Leguizamo (Aurelio) (2014): Fun revenge-action movie directed by a former stunt man/stunt director takes full advantage of Keanu Reeves’ low-key charms. 

The action sequences, whether car chases or hand-to-hand combat or lengthy shoot-outs, are all splendidly choreographed. This is in its way as pleasingly low-tech and old-school as Mad Max: Fury Road, and almost as much fun. There’s also a refreshing amount of wit in the film’s Hotel for Assassins, complete with strict house rules (Rule#1: No business on the premises!). The cast is top-notch, with Alfie Allen (Game of Thrones‘ Theon Greyjoy) as a suitably puerile and squirmy object of Keanu Reeves’ wrath. Highly recommended.

The Lady in the Lake: adapted by Steve Fisher from the novel by Raymond Chandler; directed by Robert Montgomery; starring Robert Montgomery (Philip Marlowe), Audrey Trotter (Adrienne Fromsett), Lloyd Nolan (Lt. DeGarmot), Dick Simmons (Chris Lavery), and Leon Ames (Derace Kingsby) (1947): As an experiment, The Lady in the Lake is interesting in theory: much of the movie is told in the first person (which is to say, with a first-person camera) by Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Robert Montgomery both plays Marlowe and directs.

Alas, Montgomery simply isn’t a good enough director to find ways to make the first-person camera work visually interesting, especially since the technology of the time severely limits the amount and speed of movement a camera was capable of. Montgomery’s also woefully miscast as Marlowe, whose greatest portrayer will always be Humphrey Bogart but who has also been memorably played by Robert Mitchum, Eliot Gould, and James Garner, among others.

The four types of shots we see again and again include people talking to Marlowe without moving, Marlowe getting knocked out, Marlowe looking in a mirror, and Marlowe looking at his hands so we can see what he’s doing with them. The Lady in the Lake does seem to have been watched by the Coen Brothers: a sequence in which Marlowe is chewed out in a police station by Bay City cops really seems to loom in the background of The Big Lebowski, though Marlowe escapes without taking a coffee mug to the head. Not recommended.

I Confess: adapted by George Tabori and William Archibald from a play by Paul Anthelme; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; starring Montgomery Clift (Father Logan), Anne Baxter (Ruth Grandfort), Karl Malden (Inspector Larrue), Brian Aherne (Willie Robertson), and O.E. Hasse (Otto Keller) (1953): Quebec City co-stars with Montgomery Clift in this moody, expressionistic Hitchcock thriller. Hitchcock’s shot selection when it comes to Quebec is perhaps the most impressive thing about this movie, with looming churches, the nigh-cyclopean Chateau Frontenac,  cramped streets, and all the shadows that night can provide. 

Clift is striking and mournful as a Roman Catholic priest accused of a murder he didn’t commit. But his Father Logan is royally screwed: not only did he hear the confession of the murderer, thus binding him with the Seal of the Confessional, but the murderer decides to frame Father Logan for that murder. And Logan’s pre-priesthood romance with the now-married Anne Baxter has supplied stupid-but-stubborn cop Karl Malden with a motive for Logan to murder. The cinematography and editing make this a movie to study. The ending goes a bit cuckoo and a whole lot abrupt. Recommended.