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Review: Psycho

Psycho‘s power is not just that of a showman’s calibrated scare machine.

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Psycho
Photo: Universal Pictures

After 50 years, is there anything new to see or hear in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho? A landmark in film history as well as a monument of cinephilia, it has evolved from the cause célèbre that shocked its initial audiences with a murder that upended expectations laid out by its narrative’s first 45 minutes to a creation whose details—its quick production utilizing Hitchcock’s TV show crew, the storyboarding of the shower scene by “visual consultant” Saul Bass, composer Bernard Herrmann settling on strings-only “black-and-white” orchestrations so his brilliantly effective score could match the gothic monochrome of the visuals—have been recounted to the point of mythologizing the movie’s birth. Both credited and blamed for the ensuing five decades of slasher and torture-porn thrillers whose clinical mayhem make Psycho‘s look quaint, the saga of solitary motel manager Norman Bates, perfectly embodied by the boyish and sympathetic Anthony Perkins, and his domineering, hidden-from-sight mother, would have long ago lost its capacity to be reconsidered and re-watched if its fascination depended solely on its carefully doled-out jolts of terror (three or four, by most counts). Beneath Hitchcock’s conjuring of fear and dread via calculated exploitation of the spectator’s assumptions, the themes and vision of this seeming funhouse exercise in what the director termed “pure cinema” are bleak, tragic, and in keeping with the great critic Robin Wood’s appreciation of Psycho as “one of the key works of our age.”

The film’s first half-hour, through which the audience is thoroughly enmeshed in the point of view of Phoenix real estate office staffer Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and her flight from the city after absconding with $40,000, establishes the motifs of voyeurism and imprisonment that continue at the Bates Motel and beyond. Marion and her lover, Sam (John Gavin), are discovered, with a series of dissolves inexorably closing in on a hotel window, in the wake of a furtive lunchtime lay, and the dominant mood is desperate, not erotic; he’s paying alimony and the debts of a dead father, she longs for marriage and “respectability” as their affair seems at a dead end. Upon Marion’s return to work, a leering millionaire client waves his roll of 40 grand at her in the midst of a horny boast about unhappiness: “I buy it off. Are you unhappy?” Once she hits the road with the cowboy’s bankroll, Marion is trailed by a highway cop whose sunglasses peer at her with pitiless judgment; when she trades in her vehicle with suspicious speed at a used-car lot, the episode ends with cop, salesman, and mechanic all staring after her in a tableau of joint accusation. Leigh, frequently in silent close-up (save for Herrmann’s anxious violins) as she determinedly motors on, is both vulnerable and steely. Her nerves, resolve, and mischievous smile when she imagines the discovery of her crime all linger after she’s departed.

Given Hitchcock’s much-quoted cheeky remark that “actors should be treated like cattle,” it’s perhaps fitting that the underappreciated fulcrum of Psycho—which lays the groundwork for transferring the audience’s empathy from Marion to Norman—is the beautifully played and paced scene in the parlor behind the motel’s office, where the Boy Scout-polite young hermit treats his newly arrived guest to a sandwich, and they slowly discuss their demons; obliquely in her case, forthrightly and with spasms of disturbing distemper in his. As David Thomson wrote in his recent book on the film, Perkins plays this tightrope-precarious role with “a startling balance of camp and pathos.” Hitchcock accepted and encouraged the actor’s input in bits of business like Norman’s munching on candy corn (one of the movie’s plentiful bird references), and he and screenwriter Joseph Stefano give Perkins most of the sly laughs, as when Norman, amateur taxidermist and peeping Tom, bristles that the dampness of bedsheets has “a creepy smell.” In the supper scene, Norman’s lines about the universality of “private traps” and the futility of struggling against them (“We claw, but only at the air, only at each other”) are as close as Stefano comes to telegraphing a message, but Perkins’s guileless delivery sells the moment. The imminent, brutal turn of the plot in Cabin One’s bathroom is the film’s most celebrated fillip, but this quiet, subtly ominous dialogue between Leigh and Perkins enriches the film’s texture and raises its emotional stakes.

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Once Marion’s plans to return to Phoenix and make amends are ironically snuffed out, Psycho becomes Norman’s story with his fastidious, workmanlike cleanup of Mother Bates’s horrific deed. Perkins remains riveting as he mops, stows the body and evidence in a car trunk, and feverishly nibbles at his fingers at the edge of a swamp—another tour de force of editing and allusion, as Hitchcock plants retrospectively unmistakeable clues as to what’s really up in that Edward Hopperesque house on the hill. Perkins only has one more compelling scene with another actor (his evasive cat-and-mouse interrogation by Martin Balsam’s private detective), but Norman grows darker in spirit and apprehensive of new guests as Sam and Marion’s questing sister Lila (Vera Miles, impressively severe) collaborate to locate the vanished thief.

Some complain of a letdown in Psycho‘s second half, but the audience’s knowledge that Lila, Sam, the detective, and the local sheriff are all wet in tying Marion’s disappearance to the stolen money amplifies the scenario’s fatalism; the truth eludes them because they can’t conceive of a motivation beyond cash, certainly not of the baroque psychosis in residence at the isolated motel. Intercut with Lila’s climactic exploration of the Bates house, a subjective-camera Freudian uncovering of a harrowing mother-son history, Sam conducts his own boneheaded questioning of Norman based on possession of the loot. Gavin’s superficial resemblance to Perkins works in favor of seeing the two characters as twinned figures, and his macho stiffness renders Norman as the more instinctively appealing one. (In the frequently derided penultimate scene, when Sam asks the all-knowing psychiatrist “Why was he…dressed like that?,” the practical necessity of supplying a prosaic explanation for Norman’s madness is perhaps best understood by thinking of a typical 1960 moviegoer as John Gavin.)

Coming off a plush, comedic entertainment Cadillac like North By Northwest, Hitchcock subverted his profile as a classy purveyor of suspense with Psycho, which, in laying bare sexual and scandalous grottiness kept more delicately vague in pop culture to that point, alienated a significant number of mainstream critics. (As the film and its closely related follow-up, The Birds, were big hits, it’s likely Hitch didn’t mind.) As its notoriety wore off with the heightening of graphic violence in mainstream cinema, the film lent itself to close scholarly reading, with the multitudinous cuts accompanying Marion Crane’s demise irresistible to students of montage; a book of frame enlargements published in the mid ‘70s even made shot-by-shot analysis of Psycho feasible before it appeared on tape or disc. Felt in the full impact of a theatrical screening (with the pleasure of seeing patrons reflexively kick or stiffen at the sight of Miles startled by her mirrored reflection), its power is not just that of a showman’s calibrated scare machine, but of a somber fugue on the trapped 20th-century creatures who inhabit its world, clawing but never budging an inch.

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Cast: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsam, John McIntire, Pat Hitchcock, Simon Oakland, Mort Mills Director: Alfred Hitchcock Screenwriter: Joseph Stefano Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 109 min Rating: R Year: 1960 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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Awards

2019 Oscar Nominations: The Favourite and Roma Lead Field, Bradley Cooper Snubbed for Director, & Cold War Surprises

Nominations for the 91st Academy Awards were announced today and The Favourite and Roma led the way.

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The Favourite
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Nominations for the 91st Academy Awards were announced Tuesday morning. Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite and Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma led the nomination count with 10, followed by Adam McKay’s Vice and Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born with eight, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther with seven, and Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman with six.

Cold War made a strong showing, with Pawel Pawlikowski claiming his first nomination for best director. Notably snubbed in the category was Bradley Cooper and Peter Farrelly, whose Green Book is considered the favorite to win best picture after its victory at the Producers Guild Awards. Elsewhere, Timothée Chalamet (Beautiful Boy) had to make way for Sam Elliott (A Star Is Born) in best supporting actor, while Willem Dafoe (At Eternity’s Gate) snagged a spot in the best actor race thought to be reserved for John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman).

See below for a full list of the nominations.

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Best Picture
BlacKkKlansman
Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Favourite
Green Book
Roma
A Star Is Born
Vice

Best Director
Alfonso Cuarón (Roma)
Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite)
Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman)
Adam McKay (Vice)
Pawel Pawlikowski (Cold War)

Best Actress
Yalitza Aparicio (Roma)
Glenn Close (The Wife)
Olivia Colman (The Favourite)
Lady Gaga (A Star Is Born)
Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)

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Best Actor
Christian Bale (Vice)
Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born)
Willem Dafoe (At Eternity’s Gate)
Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody)
Viggo Mortensen (Green Book)

Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Amy Adams (Vice)
Marina de Tavira (Roma)
Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk)
Emma Stone (The Favourite)
Rachel Weisz (The Favourite)

Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Mahershala Ali (Green Book)
Adam Driver (BlacKkKlansman)
Sam Elliott (A Star Is Born)
Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)
Sam Rockwell (Vice)

Best Costume Design
Mary Zophres, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Ruth E. Carter, Black Panther
Sandy Powell, The Favourite
Sandy Powell, Mary Poppins Returns
Alexandra Byrne, Mary Queen of Scots

Best Sound Editing
Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
First Man
A Quiet Place
Roma

Best Sound Mixing
Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
First Man
Roma
A Star Is Born

Best Animated Short
Animal Behaviour
Bao
Late Afternoon
One Small Step
Weekends

Best Live-Action Short
Detainment
Fauve
Marguerite
Mother
Skin

Best Film Editing
Barry Alexander Brown, BlacKkKlansman
John Ottman, Bohemian Rhapsody
Yorgos Mavropsaridis, The Favourite
Patrick J. Don Vito, Green Book
Hank Corwin, Vice

Best Original Score
Ludwig Goransson, Black Panther
Terence Blanchard, BlacKkKlansman
Nicholas Britell, If Beale Street Could Talk
Alexandre Desplat, Isle of Dogs
Marc Shaiman, Mary Poppins Returns

Best Documentary Feature
Free Solo
Hale County This Morning, This Evening
Minding the Gap
Of Fathers and Sons
RBG

Best Documentary Short Subject
Black Sheep
End Game
Lifeboat
A Night at the Garden
Period. End of Sentence.

Best Foreign-Language Film
Capernaum (Lebanon)
Cold War (Poland)
Never Look Away (Germany)
Roma (Mexico)
Shoplifters (Japan)

Best Production Design
Hannah Beachler and Jay Hart, Black Panther
Fiona Crombie and Alice Felton, The Favourite
Nathan Crowley and Kathy Lucas, First Man
John Myhre and Gordon Sim, Mary Poppins Returns
Eugenio Caballero and Barbara Enriquez, Roma

Best Visual Effects
Avengers: Infinity War
Christopher Robin
First Man
Ready Player One
Solo: A Star Wars Story

Best Cinematography
Robbie Ryan, The Favourite
Caleb Deschanel, Never Look Away
Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Matty Libatique, A Star Is Born
Lukasz Zal, Cold War

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Border
Mary Queen of Scots
Vice

Best Animated Feature
Incredibles 2
Isle of Dogs
Mirai
Ralph Breaks the Internet
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Best Adapted Screenplay
Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters, and Eric Roth, A Star Is Born
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Spike Lee, David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel and Kevin Willmott, BlacKkKlansman
Barry Jenkins, If Beale Street Could Talk
Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Best Original Screenplay
Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, The Favourite
Paul Schrader, First Reformed
Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly, and Nick Vallelonga, Green Book
Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Adam McKay, Vice

Best Original Song
“All the Stars,” Black Panther
“I’ll Fight, RBG
“The Place Where Lost Things Go,” Mary Poppins Returns
“Shallow,” A Star Is Born
“When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings,” The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

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Review: Never Fear Is Driven by Its Maker’s Personal Demons

If the film ultimately seems to question Carol’s courage, there’s at least no doubt about Ida Lupino’s own.

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Never Fear
Photo: Eagle-Lion Films/Photofest

In a 1985 interview with DeeDee Halleck conducted at the Chelsea Hotel, filmmaker Shirley Clarke stated that she made films about African-Americans as a way of working through her own ambivalence about being a woman in a male-dominated culture: “I identified with black people because I couldn’t deal with the woman question and I transposed it. I could understand very easily the black problems, and I somehow equated them to how I felt….I always felt alone, and on the outside of the culture that I was in.” One can detect a similar tendency in the work of Ida Lupino, whose independently produced dramas of the 1940s and ‘50s tackled hot-button issues such as rape, bigamy, and unwanted pregnancy. These films are no mere homilies on contemporary social problems, but complex and deeply personal explorations of what it means to be an independent woman in a world ruled by men.

Lupino’s pioneering work is suffused with a profound sense of alienation and self-doubt. Her films are about people whose conventional middle-class existence is suddenly, sometimes violently, upturned, causing them to feel completely unmoored. No longer sure of where they’re going in life or what they truly want, these people find respite away from their old life, in an unfamiliar place with a new potential lover. And Lupino tells these stories with an empathy that’s striking for its directness and lack of condescension.

Such is the case with the first film Lupino directed completely on her own, Never Fear, an emotionally complex drama about a young dancer, Carol (Sally Forrest), who seems to have it all, as she’s just gotten engaged to her partner, Guy (Keefe Brasselle), and their careers are on the verge of taking off. But then, all of sudden she’s stricken with polio, and everything changes. Carol, depressed and bitter, enters a rehab facility where she eventually makes strides toward walking again, thanks in part to the inspiration of a hunky fellow patient named Len (Hugh O’Brian). As Carol struggles with her own will to get better, she grows increasingly distant from Guy, urging him to keep pursuing his dancing career rather than settling down into a conventional job selling pre-fab “Happy Homes” as he waits around for her to recover.

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Free of the noir-ish inflections Lupino brought to her other films—most notably The Hitch-Hiker, and the rape sequence in OutrageNever Fear is directed in a simple, straightforward style that bears comparison to the stripped-down neorealism of Roberto Rossellini. Lupino is captivated by the process of physical rehabilitation, offering detailed observations of Carol’s stretching routine, swim therapy, art classes, and, in one show-stopping sequence, a square dance featuring lines of wheelchair-bound patients twirling each other around in consummately choreographed synchrony. Carol is clumsy and awkward as she struggles to operate her wheelchair, a marked contrast to the film’s opening scenes, in which Carol and Guy move together with lithe sophistication as they perform a romantic swashbuckling tango.

Never Fear’s subject matter was personal for Lupino, who survived polio after an attack in 1934. But the filmmaker isn’t merely interested in the physical ailment itself, but also in the complicated pressure that recovery places on Carol. There’s a tension in the film, which was released at the height of the U.S. polio outbreak, between what Carol wants and what the men in her life want for her. When Carol begins to reject her own treatment, it’s in part because she’s rebelling against the expectations that her doctor, her fellow patients, and especially Guy have placed on her. “Be a woman for me,” Guy asks of her, but the demand is counter-productive, as Carol can only truly recuperate when she decides to do it for herself.

In Carol’s dilemma, one can sense Lupino wrestling with her own artistic ambitions, coming to grips with the reality that as the only woman director working within the Hollywood studio system in the ‘50s, she too would have to accept the guidance of the men around her, and in so doing she would be forced to bear the weight of their expectations for her—their demands, hopes, dreams, and pity. Unfortunately, Never Fear closes with a cop-out, a last-minute reconciliation that cheapens Carol’s hard-fought struggle to learn to live on her own terms by suggesting she’s fundamentally lost without a man. Almost as if the film is embarrassed by its own denouement, the final screen assures us, “This is not THE END. It is just the beginning for all those of faith and courage.” If the film ultimately seems to question Carol’s courage, there’s at least no doubt about Lupino’s own. Never Fear wasn’t the end for her either, but merely the start of one of the most unique and pathbreaking directorial careers in Hollywood history.

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Cast: Sally Forrest, Keefe Brasselle, Hugh O’Brian, Eve Miller, Lawrence Dobkin, Rita Lupino, Herbert Butterfield, Kevin O’Morrison, Stanley Waxman, Jerry Hausner, John Franco Director: Ida Lupino Screenwriter: Ida Lupino, Collier Young Running Time: 82 min Rating: NR Year: 1950

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WATCH: Stylish Queer Short Film Stay Makes Its Online Premiere

Brandon Zuck’s sexy and stylish gay thriller Stay debuts for free online.

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Stay
Brandon Zuck

Writer-director Brandon Zuck’s sexy and stylish gay thriller Stay made its premiere on the film festival circuit back in 2013, but the L.A.-based filmmaker is finally debuting it for free online. The short film, which Zuck claims is loosely based on events from his past, follows Ash (Brandon Harris) and his ex-boyfriend, Jacks (Julian Brand), on a road trip to the Florida Keys where the pair get mixed up in a fatal drug deal.

“I think maybe I was holding onto the film because it’s such a part of me,” Zuck says about his decision to release Stay on YouTube, which has been criticized by queer creators and organizations like GLAAD for ever-changing content guidelines that appear to target content made by and for LGBT people.

“YouTube started age-restricting my other LGBT films and—to be totally honest—I got furious. YouTube is this faceless behemoth and there’s nothing someone like me can do to fight any of it directly. Really the only thing I could think of was just putting more queer content out there. And Stay was sitting right there on my desktop where it’s always been. So I just hit upload. And it got age-restricted. C’est la vie. Next.”

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Watch Stay below:

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