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.


Spotlight on Hitch and Alma in the New Film “Hitchcock”

28 11 2012

Anthony Hopkins portrays Alfred Hitchcock in his own way in the new film “Hitchcock,” which opened last week in limited release. The movie looks at Hitchcock’s difficulties in making the movie “Psycho,” while also delving into his relationships with actors, writers, studio executives and, most importantly, his wife, Alma.

Without creating a slavish recreation of Hitchcock’s drawl or picture-perfect likeness, Hopkins breathes life into the Master of Suspense, whether he is being charming or petulant, commanding or obsessive. Helen Mirren’s portrays Alma as every bit Hitchcock’s equal, returning his cool remarks with her own withering sarcasm. And yet there is a real affection behind their barbs.

Alma stands by Hitchcock throughout the arduous task of making “Psycho.” When he selects the project; she gets on board despite her distaste for the subject matter, and later she lends her expertise to sharpening up the final product after a screening goes badly. Despite his suspicions about her work with another former collaborator, writer Whitfield Cook, Hitchcock implicity trusts her, both as a soulmate and filmmaker.

“Hitchcock” is very enjoyable look at the creative process; one wonders, however, if it could have been sharper. The flirtation between Alma and Cook feels almost trite, and the specter of serial killer Ed Gein overstays his welcome. Also, this Hitchcock seems far more open with his feelings than the real one was; he acts explicitly where the real McCoy would likely not have. And as much as Hitchcock liked to say that he played his audience like an orchestra, it’s hard to believe that he would have acted that out so literally as he does in one scene here.

James D’Arcy and Ralph Macchio each have one great scene as Anthony Perkins and Joseph Stefano, respectively; each gives viewers a chance to see the voyeuristic component of Hitchcock’s personality, as he perks up at their mentions of their own neuroses. Scarlet Johannson and Jessica Biel, too, as Janet Leigh and Vera Miles (also respectively) serve to illuminate aspects of Hitchcock’s way of dealing with others. While Hitchcock has all but dismissed Miles for having dared to get pregnant when she was slated to star in “Vertigo,” he dotes on Leigh, his blond of the moment. There are glimpses, too, of composer Bernard Herrmann and designer Saul Bass, as well as censor Geoffrey Shurlock, and even Hitchcock’s beloved dogs, Geoffrey and Stanley.

The opening and finale may be the two most satisfying moments of the movie; first, Hitchcock introduces the proceedings directly to the camera, in the style of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” And the end hints with great humor at what is come next, acknowledging that “Hitchcock” portrays (and expands upon) just one episode in a tumultous career; indeed, Hitchcock says as much, first by promising that “Psycho” is going to be bigger than “North by Northwest,” and later fretting that it could be another “Vertigo.”

You can read my take on the source material, Stephen Rebello’s “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho,” here.

The Persistence of Hitchcock: For the Win!

27 04 2011

Tonight let’s take a look at another aspect of “The Persistence of Hitchcock,” namely, Hitchcock’s continued popularity and influence.

Alfred Hitchcock continues to be one of the most revered and studied directors of all time. Movies as recent as 2010’s “Shutter Island” and “Inception” are called “Hitchcockian” for their suspenseful plots.

Hitchcock’s presence in film and on TV continues to this day in other ways as well. Anthony Hopkins is currently in talks to play Hitchcock in a film version of the 2001 book “Writing with Hitchcock,” by Stephen DeRosa.

More than 30 years since his death, Hitchcock’s films still dominate best-of lists.

  • Roger Ebert lists “Notorious” as one of the “10 Greatest Films of All Time.”
  • The American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Movies,” compiled in 2007, lists “Psycho” as the #14 film of all time.
  • AFI’s “Top 10 Mystery Movies” list includes:

#1 – “Vertigo”

#3 – “Rear Window”

#7 – “North by Northwest”

#9 – “Dial M for Murder”

  • AFI’s “100 Years…1000 Thrills” list includes:

#1 – “Psycho”

#4 – “North by Northwest”

#6 – “The Birds”

#14 – “Rear Window”

#18 – “Vertigo”

#32 – “Strangers on a Train”

#38 – “Notorious”

#48 “Dial M for Murder”

#80 – “Rebecca”

  • AFI’s “100 Years…100 Heroes and Villains” list includes

#2 – Norman Bates from “Psycho”

#31 – Mrs. Danvers from “Rebecca”

  • The New York Daily News list of “The Top Ten Best Spy Movies Ever Made” from June 2010 includes:

#2 – “North by Northwest”

#4 – “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1934 version)

#8 – “The 39 Steps”

  • The British Film Institute’s “Top 100 British Films” includes:

#4 – “The 39 Steps”

#35 – “The Lady Vanishes”

  • The Time Out London list of “100 Best British Films” includes:

#13 – “The 39 Steps”

#44 – “Sabotage”

#59 – “Blackmail”


“Psycho” Comes Alive with the Minnesota Orchestra

1 11 2010

A special report by Keating DuGarm, our midwestern Foreign Correspondent:

On October 30, 2010, the Minnesota Orchestra performed for one time only the score to Alfred Hitchcock’s fifty-year-old “Psycho,” which was composed by Bernard Herrmann. By the time of “Psycho,” Bernard had already scored five Hitchcock movies including “Vertigo” and “North by Northwest.”

This score was written for just the string section consisting of violins, violas, celli and basses. I counted 54 string musicians on stage this past Saturday night. Seeing this live production reminded me of viewing a larger version of a chamber orchestra. No brass. No percussion. No woodwinds. Since for this film Hitch confined his palette to black, gray and white, his composer chose to limit his music choices to strings alone. By 1960, When “Psycho” premiered, virtually all important films were made in color. Bernard Herrmann stated, “In using only strings, I felt that I was able to complement the black-and-white photography of the film with a black-and-white sound.”

Joseph Stefano, the film’s screenplay writer, said he had asked Bernard Herrmann what the soundtrack would be like. When Bernard told Joseph that he was only using the string section, Joseph had “never heard of anybody doing a movie score with all strings.” After Stefano saw the finished film with the music, he “realized what he (Herrmann) had done. He had just taken everybody’s guts, and used them for music.”

In the years before “Psycho,” strings were usually reserved for love scenes. The “Psycho” score, with its throbbing and screaming sounds, changed all that forever. The aggressive pluckings and bowing of the strings in this concert perfectly underscored the tension, mystery and emotions of the movie. In fact, when one considers the physical motion of the bow on string, one is reminded of a stabbing motion. A whole stage of bows moving while a giant knife moved toward flesh on the big screen above the orchestra proved to be quite an experience for the audience at Orchestra Hall. The orchestra did a fine job with their string work suggesting the shrieking of birds, the slashing of blades and frenetic action.

Arguably, this score and the one for “Jaws” by John Williams are the most well known and quoted movie soundtracks in history. In fact, John Williams used a motif from the “Psycho” score as an homage in his “Star Wars” soundtrack. According to film editor Paul Hirsch, Williams used a three note motif from Psycho at the point in “Star Wars” where Luke, Han and the others pop up through a hatch after not being discovered by storm troopers who had just searched the Millennium Falcon. Hirsch worked with both composers and he states that Williams and Herrmann were friends and colleagues.

One would think it is safe to assume that someone reading a blog called “Hitchcock and Me” would have some idea about what the film “Psycho” is about. Adam will be reviewing this film soon, but suffice it to state that “Psycho” involves killing going on in a lonely house and motel in the middle of nowhere. Major characters include motel owner Norman Bates, his mother, and Marion Crane.

Sarah Hicks conducted the piece. Surprisingly, Sarah first took to the stage dressed in seemingly nothing more than a towel when she first stepped on the stage. She then dropped the towel to reveal herself dressed as the Marion Crane character (played by Janet Leigh in the movie.) Maestro Hicks spent the first half dressed as Marion in a sleeveless shirt, blonde wig, and pants. After a twenty-minute intermission, the Minnesota Orchestra’s principal conductor of pops and presentations came back dressed as Norman Bates’ mother with old lady dress and grey wig.

Sarah had her own flat-screen monitor on which to follow the film in order to synchronize the live string players with the action on the screen. This she and the orchestra achieved extremely well. For a conductor used to slowing down and speeding up an orchestra during a symphony, conducting music for a movie being shown live is a technical challenge. To this listener, Sarah Hicks and the Minnesota Orchestra met and exceeded the technical and the musical challenges inherent in such an undertaking.

Many members of the orchestra also eschewed their normal formal dress to don Halloween costumes including clown suits and psycho killer outfits. Of course, those costumes are not mutually exclusive. A model of the corpse of Norman Bates’ mother sat on a rocking chair in the lobby of Orchestra Hall where fans lined up to take her picture. At least, I assume it was a model . . .

Keating DuGarm (right) with Mike Callies and . . . Mrs. Bates, is that you?

In addition, snacks and beverages including movie fare such as popcorn and candy were sold in the lobby and patrons were encouraged to bring these in to Orchestra Hall. Fans even laughed and gasped throughout the movie at the appropriate points. Patrons crazily crunched and munched on their snacks. This is not normally allowed during normal concerts where silence until the maestro puts down her baton rules the Hall.

The huge screen showing the film above the orchestra on the stage could be seen easily even up in the third balcony where I was. My brother and sister-in-law (Katy and Delano DuGarm) and I subscribe to a series of orchestra performances cheap seats close to these every year. After all, Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis was built to have great acoustics no matter where one sits. Normally, going to a symphonic concert is not much of a visual experience. Seeing the string players lit up below the screen from my perch on high reminded me of seeing documentary footage of soundtracks being recorded while a given film was being screened.

Next up for Bernard Herrmann fans in the Minneapolis/Saint Paul area will be the staging of his opera “Wuthering Heights” this coming April by the Minnesota Opera company at the Ordway Center in Saint Paul. More details can be found at

Meanwhile, Hitchcock fans in this area can attend the just-started Guthrie Theater production of “The Thirty-nine Steps” which runs October 30 to December 19, 2010 in Minneapolis. More can be found at


Royal D. Brown, “Herrmann, Hitchcock and the Music of the Irrational,” Cinema Journal, Spring, 1982 p. 35.

“The Making of Psycho” documentary film, 2008

Thanks to Mike Callies for attending the concert with me and making suggestions after reading a rough draft of this piece. Also, Martin Simmons for attending and for taking the picture, above.

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