Archive for Psycho

Grabbed by the Balsam

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 18, 2022 by dcairns

“I used that in THE EXORCIST. There’s a shot of, uh, well, frankly it’s a shot of a character being grabbed by the scrotum.”

William Friedkin, speaking in PSYCHO extra feature In the Master’s Shadow: Hitchcock’s Legacy, comparing Martin Balsam’s death scene in PSYCHO to a shot in his own shocker. His use of the word “frankly” I find, frankly, hilarious.

But he’s wrong.

This is a passable doc — what’s frustrating is they have people of the calibre of Scorsese, Carpenter, Friedkin, but they have to make room for Eli Roth and the composer of BASIC INSTINCT 2. There’s an assortment of editors and sound designers, and they mainly earn their presence by saying interesting or amusing things.

There’s also a colorized shot from Alfred Hitchcock Presents where they give Hitch a hideously crimson, ready-to-burst head, which looks set momentarily to take flight from his collar and go off to star in an Albert Lamorisse short. Or like somebody’s grabbed him by frankly the scrotum. My photo off the TV screen does not capture the full horror.

Friedkin tells us that he “found out” how Hitchcock filmed Balsam’s topple down the Bates house stairs, and duplicated it by attaching the camera to his scrotum agony man. Which isn’t what Hitch did at all, so I wonder what the “finding out” consisted of.

Hitchcock achieved his shot with rear projection, which most viewers can tell, I think. It looks as if Balsam is attached to the camera because he doesn’t move in relation to it. He’s sitting on a gimbal so he can sway from side to side but nobody seems to have thought of sitting that on a dolly so his distance from the camera can vary. The unreality of the effect is dreamlike, and Friedkin seems to have latched onto this bug and treated it as a feature.

The moving background was shot with what Hitch called “the monorail,” a kind of STAIRLIFT OF TERROR attached to the banister which let the operator slide smoothly down from landing to hallway.

The shot in THE EXORCIST always struck me as a bit of a blunder. It’s the kind of tricksy effect Friedkin normally eschewed in the name of realism. Screenwriter William Peter Blatty stuffed his first draft with fancy effects, and Friedkin tore them all out. A particularly extreme or striking shot should accompany important dramatic moments, I feel. Well, THE EXORCIST is full of traumatic stuff, but it seems to me that a mere ball-crushing, inflicted upon an insignificant character whose testicles play no further role in the story, doesn’t rate this kind of splashy treatment.

The shot goes by really fast, though, so I don’t think it does much harm. I mean, I would say that, they’re not my balls.

Supposing Hitchcock HAD attached a camera to Balsam, though. He’d still have had to devise a way to get his actor to stumble backward downstairs without breaking his neck (or the camera), so he’d still have needed a monorail. But a bigger one. And the resulting movement of the actor would be just as unreal, although I guess he’s have been more IN THE SCENE, instead of the sort of Cocteauesque feeling we get. Which would have been even more of a mismatch for THE EXORCIST, so in a way Friedkin misinterpreting or being misinformed about the PSYCHO shot worked to his benefit.

In the same piece, Scorsese talks about being influenced by the shower scene for the bit in RAGING BULL where Sugar Ray delivers an apocalyptic pounding to Jake LaMotta’s face-bones. And nifty intercutting of the two sequences creates a real sense of connectedness, with many shots appearing like exact analogs of one another. PSYCHO, of course, has no counterpart to the brief shots where DP Michael Chapman attached his camera to Sugar Ray’s arm, so that his boxing glove sits in the foreground, a leathery planetoid, a spherical scrotum agony man locked in position, while Robert DeNiro’s spurting face seems to lunge forward for a violent collision. This kind of FREAK SHOT is, again, a little much, but Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker cut the shots so tight you can’t quite register how odd it is, and it pretty much scuds by as just part of a generalized onslaught. Scorsese had a similar angle in LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, the camera mounted on the arm of the cross as Christ hauls it along, but he didn’t use it. Too wacky. The only comparable angle is the view from the top of the cross as it’s raised into position — which he nicked (honourably) from Nick Ray’s KING OF KINGS.

Of course, LaMotta on the ropes is another Christ-figure, in the classic aeroplane pose.

(In framegrabbing that shot, I realize it’s a very different angle, though with the same crosscam effect, and there’s another shot moments earlier where the camera is attached to a hammer nailing Willem Dafoe or a disposable body double to the crossbeam. Also, arguably, too wacky, but again it’s quick and also we can at least agree that the moment is an important one, worthy of special effort.)

Catalogue of Cruelty

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 17, 2022 by dcairns

I picked up secondhand Blu-rays of THE SHINING and PSYCHO and decided to look at the extra features, even though I think they’re basically the same as the unwatched ones I had on my DVDs. Well, I’d watched Vivian Kubrick’s The Making of The Shining. But not with her commentary.

I blame Tom Cruise for getting Vivian “Squirt” Kubrick into Scientology, and I blame Scientology for her now getting into crazy rightwing memes including antisemitic shit. If you want to have The Great Stanley K’s most misanthropic views confirmed, just look at how short a span it took for the progeny of JEW SUSS director Veit Harlan to get back into Nazism — two generations. With a Jewish son/dad in between. [CORRECTION – Stanley married Veit’s niece.]

In her commentary, VK sounds incredibly young, which she was when she made the doc — just finished school — but couldn’t have been when she recorded the VO. So maybe she’s just preternaturally and eternally young and naive. Whatever, she’s gone down a very nasty rabbithole (or into a sinister maze) since then. Her commentary is fairly informative.

Steadicam inventor/operator Garrett Brown’s commentary on the main feature is super-informative — it really illuminates SK’s process, in a sympathetic way. Kubrick (and everyone else) biography John Baxter’s part of it is less so. He starts off by asserting that the rolling credits are an oft-used Kubrick trope — I struggle to think of any mature Kubrick film outside of THE SHINING that uses them.

I *think* Brown may be mistaken when he explains the impossible high-angle shot of Wendy and Danny in the maze. I’d long puzzled over this, and found the explanation in a later SHINING doc not on this disc — Kubrick moved the entire full-scale maze to a plaza in front of a nearby tower block. Brown claims instead that he only moved the centre of the maze, and optically inserted it into a shot of the miniature. This is what a reasonable person might do, but I don’t see strong evidence that Kubrick was entirely reasonable.

Firstly, the model maze Jack’s looking at does not resemble the maze in the aerial shot. Apart from the fact that it’s clearly been rotated 90 degrees, it’s just a different maze. Totally different layout. Which ties in with the geographic tricksiness of the Overlook sets and lends weight to those who see the “bad continuity” as part of a deliberate scheme, its origins and purpose still a total mystery. (It would not have been more work to ensure the model of the maze matched the full-scale one. The map of the maze is completely different also.)

To zoom in on an optically combined model and life-sized maze, Kubrick would have had to optically enlarge the film, with resulting increase of grain (which would already have been amplified by the necessary duping) which I don’t see. The matching of the shadows is perfect — well, Kubrick would certainly have gone to that trouble. But since he had built a full-size maze out of wooden frames and chicken wire and real leaves, moving it to another location would not be hugely expensive or difficult, so I can easily imagine him doing it. Sure, it’s an insane amount of work for one shot, but Stanley’s not the one doing the work. And the shot is worth it.

Seeing Wendy Carlos and her cats was fun, and hearing unused tracks from THE SHINING and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE was illuminating — one piece, “Boulderado”, written in advance of the shoot, intended to convey the majesty of the Rocky Mountains, has a Miklos Rozsa BEN-HUR feel (only on the Moog) wholly out step with the finished film. Delightful.

But my favourite extra was the documentary View from the Overlook — costume designer Milena Canonero says something that genuinely made me see the film anew. Kubrick didn’t want a lot of wear and tear on the costumes, which good designers usually apply to make them look used. She got the sense that he wanted a sort of catalogue model look.

Somehow it’s there. You can’t unsee it. THE SHINING takes place in a leisurewear universe. This mainly feels true of the early scenes, before the Torrences take up residence.

Oh, Vivian Kubrick points out the nasty seventies carpets in the Gold Room (along with her own presence as extra, the girl in black to the left of Jack’s butt, below). Which raises a point. The carpet is still there when Nicholson strolls into a party from the 1920s. And when Wendy sees the party comprised of skeletons. So the room hasn’t reverted to the past, which would be one possible interpretation of what’s going on. THE SHINING projects a kind of time-warp vibe, all but confirmed in the closing shot (top). But here we see the room populated by celebrants of a bygone era, but the room itself is anachronistically late-70s. It ties in with Kubrick staging Alex’s biblical fantasies in CLOCKWORK ORANGE in cheesy Hollywood manner, down to Alex’s centurion speaking in an American accent, “because I thought that’s how he’d imagine it.” So the Midnight and the Stars and You party imports a whole crowd scene of bygone guests and staff, but doesn’t remember to redesign the carpet, because Jack wouldn’t think of that detail.

Or, you know, you can consider it an oversight. At the Overlook.

I might have something to say about PSYCHO’s extras too…

Beck 7: Call the Shots

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 27, 2022 by dcairns

With an extremely strong reputation in its native Sweden, MAN ON THE ROOF, adapted from the seventh Martin Beck novel, The Abominable Man, is not only the most faithful adaptation thus far, but certainly the best. And the two qualities are not unrelated. While it’s possible to adapt a book with fidelity to its events and still get the tone completely wrong — see the first version of THE MALTESE FALCON for evidence — it doesn’t hurt if the person doing the adapting has some trust in the original work. The second necessary quality is understanding. Bo Widerberg, writer-director of TMOTR, has both.

The novel risks repeating the premise of the previous entry in the series: a man, pushed beyond endurance by social forces, takes an insane and bloody vengeance on those who personify said forces. In Murder at the Savoy, the victim is a businessman who embodies the worst qualities of Swedish capitalism. In The Abominable Man (Den vedervärdige mannen från Säffle) the victims are the police, who, as an institution and a few individuals, have comprehensively destroyed a man’s life until he goes full Charles Whitman.

We begin with the murder of a senior copper in hospital, a chilling and ultimately exsanguinary scene — there’s a long-held static shot just staring at a corridor, mostly empty, waiting for something awful to happen, that puts me in mind of EXORCIST III. The music, resembling an emphysemic bumblebee playing a folded paper and comb, is unsettling. The eyeball staring from between the curtains, a swipe from Argento’s DEEP RED, is alarming — and arguably wrong for this kind of realist film. And then we’re in a handheld, fast-cut assault, blood slathering every surface, as the killer strikes with an ex-army bayonet (a device seldom exploited in horror movies, oddly enough). There are some prosthetic effects here, I think, but rather than lingering on them like Lucio Fucki, to get his sadistic money’s worth, Widerberg cuts so rapidly we’re not quite sure just what we’ve seen, which makes it much more powerful — overwhelming in its speed and savagery. Janet Leigh’s rubber stomach in PSYCHO, penetrated by kitchen knife with subliminal brevity, is probably at the back of his mind. One might compare it to the icepick slaying that opens BASIC INSTINCT, but there the strictures of the MPAA shifted things from full-on Fulci mode to a more Hitchcockian swiftness, so we don’t see Rob Bottin’s effect of the steel point going up the victim’s nostril, emerging at the top of the nose and reentering the eye, for which I am grateful personally.

Widerberg’s handheld approach, a mere documentarist tremor elsewhere in the film, becomes a frenzied set of lunges here, and enables us to feel that WE are slipping chaotically in the murderee’s spilled gore. It’s characteristic of the film that the vaguely vérité observational style becomes something more furious and expressive/expressionistic during instances of violence.

Widerberg is in take-no-prisoners mode. Though his source novel is frank and bold, he does tend to amp things up, stressing the disgusting details, even everyday ones like a toddler with a filthy backside (in the book, a throwaway line of dialogue, now a disgusting chocolaty image). And Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s deadpan, low-affect dryness, though still admirably present, is joined by a sometimes startling intensity.

The casting is tip-top. There’s nobody I objected to. Almost nobody, except the mousy Ronn and the gruff Hult (above), is the way I pictured them from the book, but I didn’t mind. They were close enough. Beck (Carl-Gustaf Lindstedt) is older and fatter. Larsson (Thomas Hellberg) is more rock ‘n’ roll — but a goofy Swedish rock ‘n’ roll. Kollberg (Sven Wollter) is slimmer. But they’re all fine. Torgny Anderberg, who plays the ineffectual police chief Malm here, plays the series’ other ineffectual police chief, Hammar, in the nineties series with Gosta Ekman. He’s very effective at being ineffectual.

I note with satisfaction details like Beck building model ships, and sleeping on the couch (he’s gradually withdrawing from his marriage, in a very passive way). While the books stress that Stockholm is polluted and falling to bits, Winderberg’s camera can’t help but see how colourful and attractive much of the city looks. Oh well, you can’t do anything about photogenics, unless maybe you’re Tom Hooper.

The only characters not present are Krisitiansen and Kvant, who make their final appearance as a comic team in the novel. Since setting them up would take too much time and be a distraction, Widerberg quite sensibly replaces them with some anonymous cannon fodder. It’s the kind of tweak I can cheerfully allow.

It’s a film of two halves — the typically plodding initial investigation yields to a full-on siege situation as the vengeful gunman takes to his rooftop. Then we have helicopter assaults, tear gas, all kinds of mayhem, presented on a spectacular scale and with rather disconcerting relish by the director.

An oddity of this book is the way it features several gory cop-killings, while the authors insist that the dangers of working for the police force are routinely exaggerated. In the interests of drama, Sjöwall and Wahlöö have done quite a bit of that exaggeration themselves: an undercover policewoman is endangered in Roseanna, a junior detective murdered in The Laughing Policeman, Kollberg gets stabbed in The Fire Engine that Disappeared, and this one is the bloodiest yet (but Widerberg adds even more carnage). So the point is worth making, and over the next couple of books they make it repeatedly: it’s in the interests of the police to exaggerate the dangers of their job, and by citing “assaulting a police officer” as the reason for their own violence, they get to fake the statistics with impunity.

The only thing that doesn’t quite come off in this one is the very ending. Like Capra’s MR. SMITH, Beck ends the novel unconscious, and things are concluded with a strange, funny line from Larsson (he’s a strange, funny man) — its abruptness is the whole point in the book, but it must have seemed TOO abrupt for the film, and Widerberg adds a zoom-in and b&w freezeframe on the slain killer, mistimed to make things both abrupt AND fussy. But this is a quibble: the film is a rarity (my first Widerberg, though): everything seems loose and free, and at the same time JUST RIGHT.

THE MAN ON THE ROOF stars Valle Munter; King Hrothgar; Mr. Big; Inspector Andersson; Dirch Frode; ‘Mandel’ Karlsson; Linus; Märeta; Evald Hammar; and Jean Sibelius vanhana.