Christopher Reeve Stars in “Rear Window”

16 06 2013

“Rear Window,” my contender for best Alfred Hitchcock film of all time, starred James Stewart as a photographer confined to a wheelchair while recovering from a broken leg; in this version, Reeve put his own paralysis onscreen as Jason Kemp, an architect who was injured in a car crash.

The movie spends a significant amount of time on Kemp’s difficult physical rehabilitation and his hope to one day walk again; Reeve clearly was inspired to air some of the issues he had been exploring in his own life, in which he had become an advocate for victims of spinal cord injuries. Confined to his own Soho, NY, apartment, Kemp attempts to get back to business as usual, but during the months he spent in recovery his pet project was handed over to a young architect played by Hannah. Together, they continue to work on Kemp’s building, but it is during the long stretches of time he spends alone and looking out his window that Kemp realizes the sculptor across the alley may have killed his own wife.

With help from Hannah, as well as his nurse, a philosophically inclined Jamaiacan man, and a crusty cop played by Robert Forster, Kemp uses his wits and his computer to unravel the mystery. And while he and Hannah begin to forge a relationship by the end of the film, the story’s conclusion disappoints, as the body is never found—and without that, the police can’t prove that a murder occurred.

rear-window-1998-1The film is very much a product of its decade: Email is considered fancy and new, and the murderer is a sculptor, reflecting Soho’s booming gallery scene. Also, Kemp’s voice-activated computer is so good it’s comparable to the computers on “Star Trek.” Still, “Rear Window” relies on suspicion of wrongdoing that builds to suspense, and here the suspense comes from Kemp’s seeming helplessness when he’s confronted by the killer.

Even in a wheelchair, Reeve remains boyishly charming, and it’s particularly poignant to watch “Rear Window” and realize that the cure he hoped for would not come in time for him. Christopher Reeve died on October 10, 2004.





Checking into “The Bates Motel”

19 03 2013

bates-motel5 Who is Norman Bates? That’s the question raised by the new series “The Bates Motel,” which made its debut on March 18. Pitched as a prequel to “Psycho,” the show stars a 17-year-old Norman, played by Freddie Highmore, as he and his mother (Vera Farmiga) try to restart their lives together after the sudden death of his father.

“TBM” tries to play things both ways: Yes, it is a prequel to a movie that’s over a half century old, but Norman has a smart phone and is lured to a party where teenagers smoke pot and drink beer. Yet there’s something old fashioned—and creepy—about the little town where Norman and Norma make their new home. The local law is a sheriff (played by “Lost” alum Nestor Carbonell), and, outside 04-freddie-highmore-norman-bates-bus-stopof the school, the town looks quaint, even sleepy, in a Bodega Bay kind of way.

The show wastes no time in revealing its threats and mysteries. After buying the defunct Seaside Motel for a song, along with the gothic house behind it, the property’s former owner comes calling, and he is not happy to find the new folks settling in. In the show’s most jarring moment, that former owner returns and brutally attacks Norma (really, did it have to be that violent?), setting in motion events that reveal the first of the motel’s dark secrets.

It’s clear that the show’s creators are building a deep mythology here. Norman’s mother is demanding and intent on isolating her son from his new friends, but the bizarre item Norman finds in one of the hotel rooms shows that his young psyche will be warped by more than just his mother.

Norman longs to find friends, and is quickly accepted by a bevy of teenage girls who give him a ride to school and invite him to a party. There’s a refreshing lack of bullying in this episode: At school, when Norman throws up, a group of jocks laugh at him until one who met Norman at the party tells them to lay off. Another girl who befriends Norman hints at the strangeness that’s to come: She has cystic fibrosis, wears an oxygen tube under her nose and has a quirky fashion sense, all of which scream that she is a better match for Norman than any of the pretty people he’s met so far.

02-the-bates-motel-signOf course, as a Hitchcock fan, I couldn’t watch the episode without comparing it to “Psycho.” The people behind the series, including Executive Producer Carlton Cuse, have taken fewer liberties with Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” than Hitchcock took with Robert Bloch’s novel. And as much as I love the original film, it’s probably good thing that the TV series is finding its own way rather than remaining faithful to the movie. The main difference in story detail that I noticed was that Mrs. Bates purchased the Seaside Hotel, while in the movie Norman explains that her boyfriend had talked her into building it. And in the TV show, Norman and his mother have to row a boat into a bay to dispose of some incriminating evidence rather than using the marsh behind the motel from the movie—although it could be that they just haven’t discovered it yet.

“The Bates Motel” gets off to a strong start, full of the kind of darkness and violence you’d expect from a modern take on a horror classic. I’ll look forward to seeing where it goes once it finds a better balance between creepiness and violence.





A New Trip to “Bodega Bay” Onstage in New York City

10 02 2013

In “Bodega Bay,” the new play by Elisabeth Karlin now in a brief run at the Abindgon Theatre in New York City, the Hitchcock references fly fast and furious – but those not entirely educated in Hitchcock’s ouevre will enjoy its dark, funny story just as much as those of us who are steeped in the works of the Master of Suspense.

The play focuses on Louise Finch (played with a winning mix of timidity and determination by Susan Louise O’Connor), a woman who’s no longer young, and whose family tragedies have forced her to put her own life on hold. Caring for her younger brother (Brian McManamon), a needy addict, and clinging to a

Susan Louise O'Connor

Susan Louise O’Connor

menial job, Finch has never made time for herself. Now, with money running out, Finch decides to try and find the mother who abandoned them years before. Although she is desperate for more money, there is more to her quest, but exactly what that might be, she can’t say. Her journey takes her on a jagged route south and west, from the home of George Kaplan, her mother’s former boyfriend, to the office of a charming detective stricken with a fear of heights, and on a drive to Las Vegas with a drunk professor who will not remember her when he sobers up.

Left to right: Susan Louise O'Connor, Gerardo Rodriguez and Rae C. Wright

Left to right: Susan Louise O’Connor, Gerardo Rodriguez and Rae C. Wright

Aside from O’Connor, the other five members of the cast each play multiple roles in the play: Rae C. Wright, for example, plays a barfly, a sassy caregiver, the aristocratic Mrs. Wordsmith and more. The cast takes on these roles with complete commitment, bringing the characters to convincing life. Similarly, the small stage serves as a variety of settings; lighting, sound effects and a few bits of furniture establish each location. Karlin takes advantage of the restriction of the theater and small cast, providing updates of what is happening with those not on stage by way of phone messages and appearances by Finch’s coworker back in the office.

Although there is much humor in the dialogue, a melancholy mood hangs over the proceedings: Finch does not truly know whether her mother is even alive as she searches for her, and the dead continue to affect the living as she tries to remember her late father and their family life. And love, when it appears, is less about fireworks than the consoling warmth of commitment.

Peter Brouwer and O'Connor

Peter Brouwer and O’Connor

As a contributor to the website Alfred Hitchcock Geek, playwright Karlin knows her Hitch. I enjoyed the references to movies, characters and situations that echoed those in Hitchcock’s films (including names like George Kaplan, Marie Samuels, Carlotta and Scottie). In speaking with director Sturgis Warner, I learned that there are over 200 such references in the play. The play does not rely on Hitchcock, though; in one scene, Finch meets a couple who are committed never to be more than ten feet from one another – a situation I heard about a few years ago in another context. And while the viewer may catch on to the Hitchcock references, the characters know only their own struggles, right through to the smart, ambiguous end of the play.

“Bodega Bay” runs at the Abingdon Theatre through February 17. Let’s hope it goes on to a longer run in the future.





Alfred Hitchcock Cavorts with Dick Cavett

3 12 2012

On Friday, November 23, Turner Classic Movies ran a selection of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies in honor of the opening of the new film “Hitchcock.” TCM kicked off the day with the June 8, 1972, episode of “The Dick Cavett Show,” in which Cavett interviewed the Master of Suspense.

The breezy conversation took place at the time that “Frenzy” had just been released, and Hitchcock was in fine form. Cavett started with a tribute to “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” (see the photo below) and quizzes Hitchcock on many of his films, his background and his delightfully morbid outlook. Hitchcock makes some outrageous claims, such as insisting that he learned about fear from his mother, who said “boo” to him when he was three months old. He’s actually much more convincing later when, on the same subject, he talks briefly about learning about fear from his Jesuit teachers. Hitchcock relates many of his best known stories, such as being locked in a jail cell at age five, or about the time he told an ambitious starlet who asked which was her best side that she was sitting on it.

Hitchcock’s love of wordplay and puns (he actually claims that “puns are the highest form of literature) throws Cavett off once or twice. While talking about affairs between Hollywood stars, Hitchcock declines to give specific examples, saying that he was just generalizing—and by the way, he is not an Army man. General Ising, that is. And after showing a clip from “Frenzy,” in which the naked body falls from the back of a speeding potato truck, Hitchcock says that the most notable thing about the scene was how the taste of the potatoes was improved by the girl’s presence. I thought it Picture 5was more notable that the clip showed the actor’s naked bottom — especially since Hitchcock says that while movies have come a long way in terms of permissiveness since “Psycho” dared to show a toilet in 1960, television has not changed at all in that time.

All in all, it is a fun hour, in which Hithcock chats with great energy and animation — although he looks more comfortable seated than standing. When Cavett suggests they do another show soon, Hitchcock suggests the name “Cavoriting with Cavett,” which is the source of this post’s title. You can find several clips from it on youtube by searching “Dick Cavett Alfred Hitchcock.”





A Thorough Look at The Making of “Psycho”

18 06 2012

As you probably have read here and elsewhere, the movie “Hitchcock,” starring Anthony Hopkins as the Master of Suspense, is currently filming. Set to hit theaters in 2013, the movie is inspired by the book “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho” by Stephen Rebello, and while I’m not sure how they’re going to make the book into a work of fiction, the book itself is a fantastically detailed account of how the film was made.

Originally published in 1990, the book looks at the story of the film in a very thorough, step by step fashion. It begins with the original, horrific killings that inspired Robert Bloch to write the novel of the same name, and moves on to Hitchcock’s interest in B-movie shockers, his struggles with the studio, the writing, casting and shoot, all of which culminated in a publicity campaign that continued to mushroom as the movie became a bigger hit than anyone could have imagined. Rebello paints a picture of a director at the height of his abilities, with a commanding knowledge of every aspect of his craft. As an example, Hitchcock would tell his cameraman what lens to use to get a specific affect – without ever looking through the camera himself.

The overwhelming success of “Psycho” had a down side, though. After years of making the movies he wanted to, often surprising the rest of the world with his filmmaking prowess, Hitchcock found that the scale of his little shocker’s success increased his studio’s expectations. For the first time, the studio viewed him as a cash cow, and with raised expectations came greater pressure to make films as products for a preconceived audience. Hitchcock would experiment again with “Marnie,” but would be forced to work with less than ideal stars or properties in subsequent films.

The book draws some fascinating conclusions for the film industry. Hitchcock’s edict that no on be admitted to “Psycho” after the start of the film paved the way to the idea that for the first time audiences would have find out what time a film began and get there at that time, rather than showing up whenever they wanted and sitting through the movie and other features until they felt like leaving. It’s also very likely that the new, enforced showtimes contributed to the end of short subjects, newsreels and double features. Theater owners must have quickly realized that greater turnover meant greater profits. “Psycho” also inured audiences to a new level of violence, preparing them for films like “Bonnie and Clyde.”

You can order your own copy of “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho” at Amazon and elsewhere, although it looks like it may be out of stock right now. Rebello has announced that there will be a new edition to coincide with the movie’s release, so it’s possible that the publisher has let the book go out of stock temporarily.





Which Hitch Do You Prefer?

28 04 2012

Recently, both of the upcoming films about Alfred Hitchcock – “The Girl,” starring Toby Jones, and “Hitchcock,” starring Anthony Hopkins – have released images of their respective stars made up and outfitted as The Master of Suspense. Here they are…so now the question is which one looks more macabre to you?

Toby Jones (with Sienna Miller) in "The Girl"

Anthony Hopkins in "Hitchcock"

Of course, neither of them looks quite right in these shots, although they do look very good. Our Hitch was an unusual looking person, and finding a double for him would be nigh on impossible. Still, both of these actors have a knack for impersonation: Hopkins made a convincing Richard Nixon in “Nixon,” and Jones channeled Truman Capote in “Infamous.”

I first raised some questions about casting on these movies in this post – but now that we’re seeing images from the movies, I’ll ask again: What do you think of this casting, and who would you like to see playing Sir Alfred?





A New Perspective on “Vertigo”

4 03 2012

Authors Wendy Powers and Robin McLeod provide a new perspective on Alfred Hitchcock’s movie “Vertigo” with their novel “The Testament of Judith Barton.” Where the events of “Vertigo” (which I wrote about here) are seen through the eyes of its hero, John “Scottie” Ferguson, this novel looks at one of the most remote women in the Hitchcock canon: Judith Barton, who portrayed Madeleine Elster, whose actions helped drive Ferguson to the brink of insanity, before falling victim to forces greater than herself.

Powers and McLeod ask the questions that Hitchcock ignored: Who is Judith Barton, and how did she become involved with Gavin Elster and, ultimately, with John Ferguson? The novel lays out a rich background for Barton as she grows up in Kansas, in the shadow of her older sister, worshipping her jewelry-repairman father and getting reluctantly drawn into the theater. But after her father’s death, the two sisters decide to strike out for California, with Judy heading for San Francisco, where she studies theater and struggles to make ends meet. A chance meeting with Gavin Elster at a jewelry shop sets brings her story into sync with “Vertigo” as Elster hires her to portray his wife to throw off the man who he claims is following her.

That man, of course, is Ferguson, and while Judy never gets a clear picture of Elster’s true plan – to use Ferguson as a puppet in a scheme to murder his wife – she falls in love with the former police detective. Anyone who has seen the movie knows that there is only one possible outcome for Judy, though, and it’s not a good one. But you may find yourself rooting for Judy to find a way to escape her fate in “The Testament of Judith Barton,” as I did. You can order the book from Amazon here.








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