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.

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Alfred Hitchcock and “The Moment of Psycho”

3 02 2013

Alfred Hitchcock may be the most influential film director of all time, but choThe Moment of Psychoosing which is his most important film is not quite so easy. The British Film Institute clearly favor “Vertigo,” as I wrote about here. And other filmmakers never seem to tire of making references to “North by Northwest.” But for influence that encompasses both film and society itself, nothing surpasses “Psycho.” Writer David Thomson looks at Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece in his 2009 book “The Moment of Psycho.”

The book begins with think piece on the state of the cinema circa 1960, and how “Psycho” transformed both the growing awareness of serial killing and Robert Bloch’s book of the same name into an unsettling film that was unlike anything else in theaters at the time. It had more in common with Roger Corman’s low-budget shockers, which played mostly in drive-ins, than with other films of the time. Indeed, to keep the studio off his back, Hitchcock invested his own money, with a controlling ownership of 60 percent of “Psycho.” As the majority shareholder, he was beholden to no one in his choices. Filming quickly, in black and white, with every scene carefully storyboarded and working with his television series crew, the shoot accomplished a hat trick that is usually considered impossible: It was fast, cheap, and good.

And it was Hitchcock’s control of “Psycho” that made it what it was. At the time, he was still seen by Hollywood as a talented journeyman director, but the French saw him differently. In the pages of “Cahiers du Cinema,” the case was being made that Hitchcock was something else: an auteur, someone whose work as a director transcended the limits of Hollywood backlots to bring a unique vision to the screen.

The real horror of “Psycho,” Thomson argues, is not mere murder and mayhem, but the way in which that bloody moment that shocked audiences follows forty minutes of the banal, depressing life of Marion Crane. It’s a life of furtive, go-nowhere affairs, sleazy clients, ill-conceived and impulsive thievery, an interminable drive, a vaguely threatening cop (whose mirrored shades force Marion to see herself), used-car salesmen and, finally, a rundown roadside motel. And while the young manager is welcoming and sweet, the motel is a place of shadows, stuffed birds and a shrill, unseen mother who’s “not herself.” Marion’s redemption is short-lived; she convinces herself that she can just return the stolen money, writing the sums earnestly, childishly, on a scrap of paper, before she takes the symbolically cleansing shower that seals her fate.

Thomson makes the case that Hitchcock planted the seeds of the story and its real intent from the very start of “Psycho,” when the credits read “And Janet Leigh as Marion Crane,” as though she were a featured player and not the star. Marion’s story is the prologue to the film’s actual story, just as the tale of the stranded passengers in “The Lady Vanishes” is the prologue to Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave’s search for the missing Dame Mae Whitty. Anthony Perkins gets top billing, even though he doesn’t show up in the film until Marion reaches the Bates Motel. And after all, the movie is called “Psycho,” not “Marion.” A few years later, Hitchcock would film a tale of a female thief and give it the more appropriate name of “Marnie.”

To Thomson, “Psycho” presages a decade of the horrors of war and the struggles of the Civil Rights movement. Popular entertainment moved away from musicals and biblical epics and toward tales of crime and violence. Following the 1940s and 50s, during which Hitchcock had kept violence at arm’s length and relied instead upon veiled threats and creeping suspense, “Psycho” pulls back the curtain on a new decade of frank sexuality and explicity violence. Hitchcock would see out the remaining years of his career with films that followed in the footsteps of “Psycho,” serving up violence and sex in differing ratios in “The Birds,” “Marnie,” “Torn Curtain” and “Frenzy.”

If you’ve just seen the movie “Hitchcock,” which of course focuses on the making of “Psycho,” “The Moment of Psycho” would make a great postprandial refresher. Rather than looking at the struggles of making “Psycho,” David Thomson takes the long view on its impact. You can order your own copy of “The Moment of Psycho” here.





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.





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.





Hitchcock from Book to Screen: “Scripting Hitchcock”

1 01 2012

In the movies “Psycho,” “The Birds” and “Marnie,” Alfred Hitchcock presented tales with increasingly complex psychological underpinnings. The new book “Scripting Hitchcock” puts these films under the microscope, examining the process by which the Master of Suspense reshaped the source material for each into three of his most debated films. Using interviews with screenwriters Joseph Stefano (“Psycho”), Evan Hunter (“The Birds”) and Jay Presson Allen (“Marnie”), writers Walter Raubichek and Walter Srebnick reveal Hitchcock’s process of adaptation from the original stories.

The writers are both professors of English at Pace University, and they take a scholarly approach to the subject, with an appropriately scholarly tone. They dissect the underlying themes of the stories, which are largely Freudian, and Hitchcock’s desire to wrap these challenging themes in exciting stories that would hit audiences on a visceral level. The book looks at each screenwriter’s background and experiences in working with Hitchcock, the development of the story treatment as each compares to the source material, and how characterization, dialogue and camera work would bring the stories to life.

Like Steven DeRosa’s “Writing with Hitchcock,” “Scripting Hitchcock” looks at a rich vein in the Hitchcock oeuvre. Raubichek and Srebnick do an admirable job in explicating Hitchcock’s aims with these movies. This is no mean task, as two of the films had their themes candy-coated by fast-paced action, while the third failed to connect with audiences. With so much going on in each film, from the sensational publicity campaign of “Psycho” to the introduction of Tippi Hedren in “The Birds” and the lack of success of “Marnie,” which could be attributed to so many factors, it would be easy to examine so many aspects of these fascinating movies. Raubichek and Srebnick stick to their guns, however, and remain focused on the writing behind the films. Anyone who enjoyed “Writing with Hitchcock” would do well to order a copy of “Scripting Hitchcock,” which you can do here.








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