North By Northwest (1959) – Alfred Hitchcock

northNorth By Northwest is my favorite of all of Hitch’s films. I was quite delighted to come across it on the 101 Action Movies list. It’s fun, charming, and races along full tilt right to its climax.

It has an iconic score by Bernard Herrmann, and a top-notch cast featuring Cary Grant (I love his turns in Hitchock films), Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, and Martin Landau.

It’s a classic case of mistaken identity as Grant’s Roger Thornhill is believed to be a spy by the name of George Kaplin (a man who doesn’t even exist) and then is also accused of murder. Picked up by a couple of hired thugs who mistake him for Kaplin, Grant is pulled into an adventure of international intrigue, double-agents, and some of the most iconic moments in film history.

Grant is chased by a crop-dusting bi-plane, fights atop Mt. Rushmore and disrupts an art auction, all while keeping his cool, being charming, and falling for Eve Kendall (Saint).

ARCHIVES ON ALFRED HITCHCOCK.The film is an all-out high-octane romp which is still captivating and enthralling half a century later. It’s characters are smart and witty and trade verbal jabs as easily as they chase one another across the country.

Mason is the villain Phillip Vandamm, and Landau plays his rather creepy, cold, calculating and threatening right hand Leonard.

And poor Grant, whatever he tries to do to prove he’s not Kaplin just misfires, simply cementing the belief that he is the spy he says he isn’t, until as the film closes in on the final act he gets into some double-crosses and spying himself as he races the clock to rescue Kendall from Vandamm.

Everything works in this film, the cast, the light-hearted tone making it a fun-filled adventure, the script, the brilliant score… there’s a zest to this film that is rather lacking in a lot of films these days. This is the kind of film movie houses were made for, a larger than life picture.

Cary-Grant-and-Martin-Lan-001The pacing and the story doesn’t let up until the final frame… no sooner do the opening credits end, with Hitch’s cameo missing the bus, than the audience is thrown into the film feet first, as Grant is kidnapped, had a bottle poured down his throat (which then features a hilariously drunk Thornhill), and trapped in an ever-expanding mystery over the non-existent Kaplin.

This is a film that you don’t want to give too much away for, as the twists, turns, revelations and sheer fun would then be lost. The climax atop Mt. Rushmore is tense, and nail-biting as Herrmann’s score swells around you.

This for me is one of the films that proves Hitchcock is a master filmmaker, though I like all of the ones featuring Grant, this one has been and I think always will be my fave of his.

It’s a wonderful classic with a style and flair that doesn’t seem to exist in movies anymore. You know going in that the guy is going to get the girl, that there is going to be a happy ending, but it’s all about the hows, and the journey…

What is your favorite Hitch film?

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Hitchcock (2012) – Sacha Gervasi

Good evening.

I love movies. I love movies about making movies. I also quite love Hitchcock movies. So this one seems like a winner all around, and I was not disappointed.

Featuring a script by John J. McLaughlin working from the book “Alfred Hitchcock and The Making of Psycho” by Stephen Rebello, Gervasi, marking his first feature film directorial effort, has weaved together a mature love story set against the backdrop of one of Hitch’s most famous and enduringly popular films.

The film is a pure delight. There’s playful humour, a little tongue in cheek, drama, angst, and there is a look at how the film Psycho was brought to life, financed completely by Hitch, fantastically portrayed by Anthony Hopkins, and his wife Alma, the always (and I do mean always) enjoyable and supremely talented Helen Mirren.

Coming off his biggest and most succesful film yet, and my personal favorite, North By Northwest, Hitch is looking for his next project, and is intrigued by a pulpy horror by Robert Bloch, loosely based on the heinous and disturbing crimes of Ed Gein (Michael Wincott). He’s found his new project, but can’t seem to find the backing for it. No one wants to see a horror movie. The press launch he holds at his own house seems to be a complete disaster, people are offended and disgusted by the idea of the film, but as Hitch points out… they can’t stop looking. It follows the course of the film, adapting it, shooting it, the fact that Paramount was so distrustful of the finished product they only released it to two theatres to start and it was up to Hitch and company to market it, and drive up word of mouth (which is awesome!).

Hitch on the other hand becomes obsessed with the book, so much so that he dreams and imagines conversations with Gein, which provide some of the darker parts of the film.

The emotional side of the story comes from watching the love story between Hitch and Alma, this is a couple who have been together seemingly forever. They know all there is to know about one another, and yet, through miscommunication, lack of conversation, and Hitch, honestly, not appreciating what he has. Dissension begins to arise as Alma decides to go to work on a script with Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who though married as well, may have romantic designs on her.

And it was with Whitfield’s and Alma’s first restaurant scene together, that I realized something, something that was prevalent right from the beginning of the film, and something that made me smile…

No one talks like that any more.

Conversation as an art form, is dead.

In this film, however, it is gloriously resurrected, it is the sharp plunging knife of Norman Bates while modern conversation seems to be a blunted butter knife.

A lost art. The dialogue, the words, are succulent, and I feasted on this entire film.

I can also say everyone brought their game as well.

Hopkins simply is Hitch in this film. There were times, especially around the eyes, when you could remind yourself that “Oh yeah, that’s Anthony Hopkins,” but this consummate actor literally buries himself under prosthetics to bring our corpulent friend to life. Hopkins, as always, is simply brilliant, playing the wicked humor, the aching heart, and the driven artist that was Hitch. There’s a brilliant, brief scene, where Hitch is so frustrated over the progress of the film, so worried about Alma having an affair with Whit, that he simply stands in front of the fridge shoveling food into his mouth. It’s a recognizable scene to anyone who’s heartsick, and it made this legendary larger-than-life man, all the more human.

Helen Mirren is a blessing. She’s lovely, graceful and so incredibly expressive in her acting talents. There is no doubt in her heart, or ours, that Alma loves Hitch, but you can see that she longs for the attention from him that Whit seems so ready to lavish upon her. She stands by him, whether he sees it or not, working to get his labor of love to the big screen, and to see these two stellar performers exploring and exposing the dynamics of the relationship is amazing to watch. It’s the little things that make it seem all the more real, even Alma refers to him as Hitch, but when she’s angry, you can hear her call him Alfred.

Toni Collette as Peggy, Hitch’s long-suffering secretary took me completely by surprise. I didn’t even realize it was her until her character removed her glasses. I always enjoy seeing Toni show up in films and television!

Anthony Perkins is played by James D’Arcy with a geekish mother’s boy bent, as someone who’s being forced to be someone he really isn’t which of course makes Hitch think he’s perfect for the role. Perkins anxious and self-consciousness is brought to life amazingly well, more so for Sue and I, because the last time we’d seen D’Arcy, he had taken a rather unnerving and villanous turn in the thriller In Their Skin which we saw at Toronto After Dark.

Jessica Biel takes on the role of Vera Miles, one of Hitch’s leading ladies, who he felt left him to have a family, when he could have made her a star. He feels betrayed, and takes it out on her in terms of costuming and coaching her on set, or lack thereof. It’s shown through his treatment of Biel, and through stills of his other leading ladies, that Hitch has a type, and always seems to indulge in a fantasy romance with each of them. Vera, in Psycho, fulfills her contract with Hitch and is quite happy to leave him, and all of his promises of fame behind.

It’s easy to dismiss Scarlett Johansson as just a pretty face and a smidgen of talent, but this time, she seems to have really done her homework, bringing Janet Leigh to life with all the little physical nuances and intonations that you would expect. Scarlett, it’s no secret I have a bit of a crush on her, looks great in period attire, and is a ringer for Janet. As Janet, she maintains a professional demeanor on the set at all times, and the dinner scene with Hitch, Alma and Janet where they discuss how the infamous shower scene is going to be shot is one of my favorites. She doesn’t steal any scenes from Hopkins of Mirren, but she’s not lost in the background either.

Danny Huston is one of those actors that I feel doesn’t work enough. I always like to see him show up in films.

Kurtwood Smith is hilarious as one of the Motion Picture censor board members, Geoffrey Shurlock. Hitch and Shurlock have a rather argumentative relationship at best, and watching the two verbally joust is a lot of fun.

Ralph Macchio appears in a blink and you miss it spot as Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano, adapting Robert Bloch’s book, although Alma later punches up the script and the dialogue herself.

Behind the scenes Danny Elfman provides a lyrical very un-Danny Elfaman-like score, which of course if occasionally tweaked by the very familair Alfred Hitchcock theme, and of course, eventually, as the film is cut, Bernard Herrmann’s fantastic, heart-in-your-throat score, which when cut together with Leigh’s death scene, makes Peggy proclaim she may never take a shower again.

Of course there has been dramatic licence taking with some things, so I get that not everything may have happened as it’s portrayed on the screen, but as it is, it’s a lovely romance, and a fantastic behind the scenes look at one of the immortal horror films of the 20th century.

And just to close out with a couple of my favorite moments, I loved the recurring silhouette in-joke, it made me smile each and every time, and the best scene for me in the movie was watching as Hitch conducts the audience’s reactions to the shower scene in the lobby.

Sue and I looked at one another as soon as the credits began to roll, and we both said the same thing…

“That was so much fun!” and “Now I want to watch Psycho again!”

It’s a great film, so if you like Hitchcock, like behind the scenes movies, or a grown-up love story… this may be the film for you.

Hitch says it best himself… “A good film is when the price of the dinner, the theatre, and the babysitter were worth it.”

This one is worth it.

Re-Animator (1985)

The 101 Horror Movies strikes again, with this cult classic, featuring genre favoourite Jeffrey Combs.

Based loosely on the original tale by the always chilling work of H.P. Lovecraft, the film, directed by Stuart Gordon, is a wonderful over-the-top gorefest.

We follow Herbert West (Combs) from an interesting experiment in Sweden back to the States where he takes up rooms with a fellow 3rd-year med student Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), and quickly insinuates himself between Dan, his future career, and his love life with Megan (Barbara Crampton) as he refines his work on a serum that brings dead flesh back to life.

Dan is drawn in to this deranged experiment although it costs him more than he realizes until the last frames of the film.

Combs is a manic delight, playing a Lovecraftian version of Dr. Frankenstein, and the film is stacked with equal parts humor and gore, as the bodies pile up, but only momentarily as they begin to stumble to their feet again.

The script is rather camp, and never seems to take itself too seriously, but it’s filled with lots of bloody gore… dead cats thrown against walls, eyeballs exploding, heads being carried around next to severed bodies, heads being crushed, fingers bitten off, and a climax involving stumblling reanimated bodies that have died from shotgun wounds to the head, burn victims, and accidents.

The film is a hoot.

It’s not pretending to be anything that it’s not, and it revels in it’s bloodiness.

I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone with a weak stomach.

Combs, always an underused actor, steals every moment that he can, and seems to be having a great time, a psychotic gleam in his eye.

I was also delighted with the film’s score by Richard Band, there are moments when it feels and sounds like a Bernard Herrmann score for an Alfred Hitchcock movie. It’s fantastic.

The cast is rounded out with David Gale, whose character has an obesession with Megan, even after he’s dead, and be-headed, leading to a rather disturbing scene of the severed head oogling her naked form, and more.

Also appearing is Robert Sampson, as Megan’s father Dr. Halsey, who joins the growing pile of walking talking corpses.

Both of these actors you may not recognize by name, but when you see them, you always say, “Hey! That’s that guy!”

The film is surprisingly solid, in spite of it’s camp nature, and if you go into it with the right mindset, it’s hugely entertaining!

Have you seen it?

Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)

I’m not quite sure how this film was missed in my upbringing, but I never saw it, though I do love Jules Verne. The man had a brilliant imagination and even today, his stories can fire us up, instill in us that sense of wonder and exploration that for me is the height of adventure.

So I settled in to watch an adventure film of the highest class, and was delightfully entertained by this film that to this day holds up, and is appropriate for all ages.

Sir Oliver Lindenbrook (James Mason) receives a clue to a lost expedition… And with a date to discover a passage into the interior of the earth!

With his companion Alec McKuen (Pat Boone!) in tow, they head to Iceland, where they scout out the location, and are immediately embroiled in intrigue when they are both kidnapped, and inadvertently rescued by a duck named Gertrude and her owner Hans (Peter Ronson) in a very funny scene that could’ve been played really poorly but was actually a hoot.

They are then joined by another explorer’s recent widow, Carla (Arlene Dahl – and what a dish!) who bargains her way onto the team because she’s in possession of all the equipment the team will need.

With a shaft of sunlight pointing the way they begin their descent, not knowing that they are being shadowed by another party.

Mason turns in an awesome performance, which could have been simply one-note, but he layers it with humor, arrogance, blissful ignorance, and the passion of an explorer.

Yes, with Pat Boone aboard, you know there are going to be a couple of songs, but they work, and it’s not like they burst into song spontaneously, there are actual instruments involved, so it seems a little more natural.

Yes, you can tell some of the effects don’t stand up, the use of rhinoceros iguanas with sails pasted to their back to play giant dinosaurs could be kind of laughable, but it works, because you buy into the story.

On top of that, there is a gorgeous score by Bernard Herrmann.

The dialogue is fun, and while sometimes there are bits that are questionable, and the interior is nowhere near as exciting and mind-blowing as you would expect, simply one rock tunnel after another, until the sweeping ocean, topped with a matte painting of a rock ceiling (and it works) and the discovery of the fate of Atlantis.

This is a film where the baddies receive their comeuppance, and justly so, I personally was a little shocked when the event causing the need for comeuppance occurred (I know the film is over 50 years old, but I still hate spoilers).

Like I said, I’m not sure why I never saw this growing up, especially when my parents were still kind of in charge of my viewing habits, but I’m glad I finally sat down and watched it.

There are so few tales nowadays that are filled with high adventure that aren’t inundated with obvious computer effects that actually seem to destroy the sense of wonder instead of promoting it that when I come across a classic like this that actually does its job, I want to share it.

So that’s what I did.

Have you seen it? What other classic adventure, or adventure films in general would you recommend next?

The Birds (1963)

As I continue through the 101 Horror Movies, and get closer to present day, there tend to be more and more films that I have already seen, but am happy to revisit.

The Birds falls into that category.

The man was a master storyteller, and while some of the contemporary horror films can barely hit the 90 minute mark, and have interchangeable characters, Hitchock always liked to establish his characters and his stories.

You get more of an emotional impact out of the horrors that befall them if you care for them.

In fact, while there are some odd occurrences with birds in the early part of the film, there isn’t a full on mass attack until an hour into the film. That is because we’re establishing characters, relationships, and hinting that something is off.

Now while it’s true some films can work by throwing us right into the action, stories like this, which take something very ordinary, something we see everyday, and make it horrific, works if you bring the story to a slow boil, and then let it simply explode.

Tippi Hedren stars as Melanie Daniels, a fun, if misunderstood socialite, who sparks with Rod Taylor’s lawyer, Mitch Brenner in a bird store, after Alfred Hitchcock has left the premises in his cameo.

She eventually follows him up the coast to Bodega Bay, to deliver a pair of lovebirds to his kid sister Cathy (played by Veronica Cartwright). She meets both Cathy and Mitch’s mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy), who eyes Melanie with a great deal of aloofness, while Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette) watches her with a measure of jealousy.

Tippi is the latest in a long line of Hitchcock blondes, elegant, clever and lovely (though I prefer Grace Kelly’s turn in To Catch A Thief). She and Taylor have some witty banter, and you get the impression that they really do like one another.

The witty banter serves it’s purpose as it always does in a horror movie, as a release valve, as the tension, reality and horror of the situation continues to grow.

Sound plays a huge part in this film, and you’ve never heard birds sound so evil, or vicious, the cawing and the screaming become almost inextricable from one another, one mass chorus of pain and hate. Something Hitchcock’s composer Bernard Herrmann served as consultant on.

There are some troubling and horrific images in the film as well, Lydia’s discovery of a body, the eyes eaten out of its skull. Melanie trapped in a glass phone booth watching the city fall apart around her, the classic playground scene with the monkey bars, and of course the last shot of the film.

Yes, you can tell in some of the attack scenes that the birds were put into the scene optically afterwards, and there are some pretty goofy looking prop birds used as well, but much like the shark in Jaws (how I love that movie) your suspension of disbelief is firmly in place, and you just go along for the ride.

And just from a geek stand point, I love his tracking shots in the movie, or anytime the camera shoots down onto a subject, like when Melanie is stuck inside the phone booth. Love shots like those!

Classics stay around for a reason, and that’s because they adhere to telling a good story, giving us characters we care about, and a director who pays attention to details and makes you buy in to the film, raising it above the level of simply another popcorn flick.

For those of you who have never seen a Hitchcock film, I really think it’s time you remedy that… There are a lot of stories for you to explore, and you know you’re in the hands of a master.

Serial Killer Double Feature – Peeping Tom (1960) & Psycho (1960)

Last night I watched two serial killer films that both seem to have voyeuristic fetishes. Both come from 1960, but are two completely differing films, dealing with murderers.

I’ll be honest, until I read the title in that wonderful little book, 101 Horror Movies, I had never even heard of  Peeping Tom.

I’ll be honest with you, it may have slipped through the cracks of films I knew about, but Peeping Tom was an interesting film. Though unlike Psycho, which stands as a classic and can even be viewed today with maximum enjoyment, there was something about Peeping Tom that made it feel dated.

It would be interesting to see a worthwhile update of this film, especially in today’s society where we are always watched by cameras. And by worthwhile I mean something that had character development, and story and wasn’t there simply for the gory kills.

Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Bohm) lives behind his camera,working at a film studio during the day, and occasionally working at a news agents photographing nudes, and erotica. He keeps the world, his fears and desires at a distance, though his lust is also served by his use of his camera, as he stalks, and films his prey, right until he slaughters them.

But Mark knows he’s mad, he’s aware that he has issues of sexuality and fear that are served by his camera, but until he meets Helen, he’s almost happy to indulge them. He was experimented on by his father, who also hid behind a camera, as he studied the concepts of fear.

Helen (Anna Massey) is the only person who is able to reach Mark around his camera, and the two of them have a blossoming romance, but things go sideways, as they do in these films, when the last film he shot of murdering a young stand-in doesn’t come out properly. He wants just one last victim, feeling that if he can make it perfect, he may be able to put it all behind.

The cops finally catch on, and begin to stake him out, but Mark has planned for this, and his final victim is himself, as he watches the terror on his own face, filming it all the while.

Despite the dated feeling of the film, one almost sympathizes with Mark, he knows there’s something wrong with him, and in his own way, is trying to get better, not like our other serial killer this evening, Norman Bates.

Anthony Perkins performance as Bates makes the character incredibly likeable, with a hint of something disturbing underneath, as well as a lot of mother issues, but we slowly start to learn that he is completely off his rocker.

Psycho is an old school thriller that still works because it has a story and strong characters, brought to life under the skilled hand of master Alfred Hitchcock. It also of course has the oft-times disturbing strings-filled score by Bernard Herrmann.

The film is filled with so many well-known moments, that even if you are watching it for the first time (I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen it), you already know some of the them by heart. That doesn’t lessen the impact of the film though. The discussion over dinner between Marion (Janet Leigh) and Norman, the immortal shower scene, the stabbing and the tumble down the stairs, the discovery in the basement.

Hitchcock crafts the film so well that all you can do is watch and not look away. You watch, while Norman plays the voyeur, spying on Marion, you watch as shadows in the imposing Bates house windows move about, you watch anxiously as the car pauses in his sinking, you watch as characters go to their deaths even as the circle is closing around Bates.

The lanky Perkins is so perfectly cast in this film, one couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role EVER (if only Gus Van Sant knew that – what a waste that remake was!).

While there are a number of amazing films in 101 Horror Movies that I have watched so far, this one is by far my favorite so far, it’s a classic. It is one of those rare films that transcends the concept of movie and becomes cinema, one you can revisit over and over again. Even knowing the ending, and all the twists and turns doesn’t spoil repeated viewings, you just take more away from it.

So check into the Bates Motel, and remember, we all go a little mad sometimes…