Dressed to Kill
Throughout his career, Brian De Palma has been said to mimic Hitchcock, either as praise or as derision. Yet that conventional wisdom does a disservice to the unique cinematic language showcased in films such as Carrie (1976), Scarface (1983), Sisters (1973), and Blow Out (1981). Perhaps no other work comes closer to epitomizing the director's obsessions and sensibilities better than Dressed to Kill (1980), a sexy, bloody, and at time darkly humorous thriller that borrows heavily from Hitchcock but is quintessentially De Palma.
Those who have not seen Dressed to Kill should stop reading and save its surprises for the first viewing. The film bears many similarities to Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece Psycho, with echoes of Vertigo (1958) and Spellbound (1945). It opens with a dream sequence in which Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson), an emotionally dissatisfied housewife, sensually showers while watching her husband shave. Suddenly, the hand of an unseen attacker grasps her mouth, and we come to realize the sadomasochistic undercurrent of her fantasy.Continue Reading
Before film books exploded as a genre in the 1970s, the most significant published books about the art of film were James Agee’s two volume Film I & II in ’48 and ’52 and Pauline Kael’s works on late '60s film criticism, I Lost It at the Movies and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. But the most relevant book on film -- the one that is still of major importance today -- was Hitchcock/Truffaut by the great French filmmaker Francois Truffaut. Starting his career as a very influential film critic and essayist for (among other publications) Cahiers du Cinéma, he is usually cited as the inventor of the “auteur theory,” which gave the director the final artistic credit for the merits of a film (as opposed to the producer, who in Hollywood was just as often considered a film’s true maestro). He, along with other young French film fanatics, would begin to branch out and direct their own movies; they became the group now known as the French New Wave (or The Nouvelle Vague), which includes Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Demy, Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and Agnès Varda. This crew of filmmakers can be considered the original movie brats, as opposed to the generation of directors before them. They were raised on movies and cinema culture and also were keenly aware of a director’s body of work as a whole instead of by individual movies. (The American generation that came to prominence in the '70s was actually called “the movie brats.” This term was applied to Coppola, Spielberg, De Palma and Scorsese, who were obviously deeply influenced by their French forerunners).
Another major influence on Truffaut and his friends was an appreciation for Hollywood B-Movie and genre directors, who were under-appreciated in America: journeymen and mavericks like Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller, Budd Boetticher and strangely, Frank Tashlin. And while Truffaut also adored the acclaimed masters like Ford, Hawks, and Welles, his favorite was Alfred Hitchcock. Though his career went back to the silents (he made the very first feature-length British talkie), and he was usually considered box office gold and was as famous a director as there was, in the early '60s Hitchcock was still usually dismissed in American and British critical circles as strictly a popcorn director. Truffaut single-handedly set about changing that. Beginning in ’62 he started recording long, in-depth conversations with Hitchcock (aided by his American collaborator and translator Helen Scott), covering his entire body of work. He spent years compiling and editing them, and adding intricate frame-by-frame photos from his films. Finally, in ’67 the book Hitchcock/Truffaut was published and helped to change Hitchcock’s reputation from a pure entertainer to a true artist and is still today considered a bible for filmmakers and movie geeks.Continue Reading
Plan 9 From Outer Space
In the world of bad movies, most are boring and just unwatchable - lazy filmmakers just trying to slap something together to make a buck or ambitious filmmakers overreaching and missing, big time. Every once in a while a movie comes along that splits the difference and is so bad it becomes a wonderful experience. Director Edward D. Wood Jr.’s now legendary would be sci-fi flick Plan 9 From Outer Space has become the Citizen Kane of bad, so amazingly inept, yet so innocently earnest and good-natured that it’s not hard to kind of love it. Literally every scene in its 79 minutes is filled with amazingly laugh-out loud, quotable dialogue, horrible acting, ridiculous special effects and utterly inane directing. Ben Hur might have won the Best Picture Oscar in 1959, but Plan 9 From Outer Space is way more memorable and special.
Originally titled Grave Robbers from Outer Space, a plot recap goes something like this, bear with me now...The film opens with a narrator ("The Amazing Criswell") telling us, among much gobbledygook, that what we are about to see is true. Then in a cemetery two gravediggers are killed by the zombie corpse of a woman they just buried. She is played by the thin-wasted, TV personality Vampira; her still living husband, known as the “Old Man,” is played by the half-dead looking, one time Dracula sex-symbol, Bela Lugosi (unfortunately he died after shooting just a few minutes of random footage, strangely he was wearing his Dracula costume for some of it). Then a few moments after being introduced, Legosi’s "Old Man" character is hit by a car and killed (we don’t see this, the narrator tells us). Later in the cemetery Vampira and her husband,...
Inspired by the critical and commercial success of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s arthouse shocker, Les Diabolique, Alfred Hitchcock took a break from his big budget Technicolor thrillers to make a little horror film called Psycho. Like the French film, he would shoot on a shoestring budget and in black & white. After the massive success of his previous film, North By Northwest, most of the suits at the studio thought their cash cow was off his rocker. Forgoing most of his big money crew he had worked with for years, he used the team from his anthology TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, knowing they could work fast and cheap and would be more open to some of the new radical tricks Hitchcock was hoping to try out. With no one understanding what the master had up his sleeve, in the end, Psycho has proved to be one his biggest hits and one of the most influential films of all time.
Perfectly taut and compact, every line of Pyscho's dialog, every camera movement, and even the casting is all carefully constructed for the scare and suspense payoffs to come. Based on a then little read novel with the same title by Robert Bloch (Strait-Jacket), Hitchcock burned through a couple of screenwriters before Joseph Stefano got the vibe he was looking for. Bloch was inspired by the horrific true-life serial killer Ed Gein (whose ghastly crimes would inspire a number of films from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Motel Hell).Continue Reading
The Trouble With Harry
If it’s not Alfred Hitchcock’s most underrated film, than The Trouble With Harry is certainly his most unusual opus. In 1955, Hitch was in the midst of his unprecedented commercial and artistic hot streak; from '51 to '63 - Strangers on a Train through The Birds - he directed twelve films, a run that also included unquestionable masterpieces Rear Window, Vertigo, North By Northwest, and Psycho (as well as a couple misfires, most disappointingly I confess). Somewhere in the middle is this odd little black comedy about murder, shot in lush autumn Technicolor by the great Robert Burks. It feels like both an Ealing comedy (the little English studio that made stars of Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers) and a precursor to the lighter fare of the French New Wave. It’s both romantic and filled with a sort of light suspense. Though very much American, the film is based on a British novel by Jack Trevor Story and that quirky '50s English humor is evident (think of The Lady Killers). It’s not a style you see very much on this side of the Atlantic in that decade.
Besides the lush photography, The Trouble With Harry has two very special tricks up its sleeve:Continue Reading
Easily the most underrated film of the great Alfred Hitchcock’s massive career, Topaz is a perfectly constructed little cold-war thriller with many cool little filmmaking flourishes. It’s truly a wonder why this film has not been rediscovered by Hitchcockian enthusiasts and given its proper due. As a follow-up to his other cold war thriller in the '60s, the Paul Newman dud Torn Curtain, perhaps audiences were just weary of the subject matter. Perhaps because it had no stars it wasn’t taken seriously. Or maybe by the late '60s audience tastes had changed and by then the Grand Master was considered "old hat." Of course he would follow it with another often over-looked gem, Frenzy, which was his chance to finally go balls-to-the-wall with the sex and violence (and no stars). Like Billy Wilder’s cold-war comedy One Two Three, another lost gem, both films were financial flops, but both are actually great examples of what the two directors do best. In Wilder’s case, of course, it’s cynicism (though One Two Three was more slapstick than his usual cool) and with Topaz, Hitchcock again demonstrated how to create suspense with just camera pans and small pieces of information.
Based on a novel by Leon Uris (Exodus) with a script by Samuel A. Taylor (Vertigo), Topaz jerks around in different directions and, at 143 minutes, is Hitchcock’s longest film. It opens in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1962 (pre-Cuban Missile Crisis), with a Soviet military bigwig, Boris Kusenov (Per-Axel Arosenius, a Swedish actor who in real life died setting himself on fire as a tax protest), his wife and teenage daughter sightseeing and are being followed by their KGB handlers. Aided by an American spy, Michael Nordstrom (played by John Forsythe who would become a big star on TV’s Dynasty), they make a daring escape, defecting and getting shipped out to Washington, DC. While debriefed the Americans learn of a pact between the Soviets and Cuba. Nordstrom hooks up with his French counterpoint, André Devereaux (Frederick Stafford), who is vacationing with his wife Nicole (Dany Robin), daughter and her UN reporter husband (Michel Subor) in New York. Here the film totally shifts and becomes Devereaux’s. A classically suave spy, he seems to be cozy with the Soviets but is still willing to help the Americans, even when his wife objects. In a great scene, Devereaux enlists the help of an undercover French florist, Philippe Dubois (Roscoe Lee Browne), to steal some incriminating papers from a visiting Cuban delegate, Rico Parra (John Vernon, Dean Wormer of National Lampoon’s Animal House, here doing his best Che). In an effort to find out what’s really going on Devereaux jets off to Cuba where his beautiful mistress (Karin Dor, a Bond Girl in You Only Live Twice) also happens to the widow of a Cuban Revolutionary hero and secret leader of the anti-Castro forces. The two work to get evidence of Russian missiles and for a while the film becomes an escape from Cuba adventure.Continue Reading