Archive for Psycho

Dr. Crime

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 23, 2021 by dcairns

I’m rapidly buying up all John D.MacDonald’s Travis McGee books, and almost as rapidly burning my way through the CRIME DOCTOR series of Columbia B pictures with Warner Baxter. The McDonalds are better, but the Baxters have a comforting cosiness — not noir, though they’re shadowy thrillers all right. Every one of them has a somnolent scene of WB wandering around a dark interior by flashlight or candlelight. But they’re neat and unambiguous.

Michael Gordon, whose career makes no sense, did the first, in which the character’s radio origin story is replayed, and forgotten about thereafter. Like Arnie in TOTAL RECALL he goes from being a bad guy to a good guy by having his memory wiped. Seems like the prisons could save a lot of money by reforming prisoners with a simple blow on the head.

Olin Howland as a rogue phrenologist, COME ON!

The most cinematically important film of the series — which isn’t really important at all, but bear with me — is THE CRIME DOCTOR’S MAN HUNT, directed by William Castle. One can’t imagine that the directors of this series had much script input, but it’s a curious fact that Castle’s later fondness for publicity gimmicks and trick processes went hand-in-hand with a passion for tricksy plots. It’s sensibility that makes sense, unlike Michael Gordon’s (CRIME DOC, CYRANO DE BERGERAC, PILLOW TALK?). It even fits with his rep as a bit of a con artist. Narrative tricks and pranks. Remember also that he produced LADY FROM SHANGHAI and ROSEMARY’S BABY, and imagine how prosaic those movies would look if he’d been allowed to direct them.

Oh, we also watched THE WHISTLER, another radio spin-off directed by Castle and co-written by CRIME DOC scribe Eric Taylor, which borrows the “kill me” plot from Jules Verne’s The Tribulations of a Chinese Man from China, a wild variation on which turns up again in LADY FROM S. Decades later, Marc Behm would sell that plot to the Beatles as basis for their second film, with Ringo as the depressed man who hires a hitman to off himself — but then the team found out Belmondo was filming the same storyline, though Richard Lester didn’t know it was stolen from Verne until I told him…

But back to CD MAN HUNT, which isn’t about a man hunt at all — the titles to these things are pretty random, and a couple don’t even mention the Crime Doc, Robert Ordway, in the title. This one has a story by Taylor but script by Leigh Brackett. It’s no BIG SLEEP but it’s decent. There are signs of haste, like a character’s real name being revealed as Armstrong, seconds before a reference to “strong arm men.” A reference to “the Benway house” which clashes bumpily with the lead character’s name. But it’s a neat story. Major spoilers follow, but are you really going to watch the film? If so, use the embed above.

Ellen Drew appears in an apparent dual role as sisters, one good, one evil, but after that’s revealed (and it’s not too surprising, as Drew uses the same tragic delivery whether she’s wearing the bad sister blonde wig and specs or not), a new wrinkle is added: one sister is dead and the other has developed a split personality in order to replace her. After the mystery has been solved, Warner B. delivers a dollarbook Freud mansplaining that feels very familiar, but the film it’s recalling, PSYCHO, hadn’t been made yet.

It’s really kind of touching that Castle directed a film which seems to provide a template for PSYCHO — did Robert Bloch see the movie, I wonder? — and then later be reduced to copying Hitchcock with HOMICIDAL, which reverses the gender disguise element. And, again, gives us an insight into how prosaic PSYCHO might look if Hitch weren’t directing it.

Having watched about half the CD movies now, I am resigned to running out soon, but Eric Taylor has forty-odd other credits, including (ulp) BIG JIM MCLAIN, SON OF DRACULA, a bunch of Ellery Queen pics, BLACK FRIDAY…

Cinephrenia

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , on November 6, 2021 by dcairns

Somehow, all the other times I’ve watched DEAD OF NIGHT, I haven’t thought about PSYCHO. This time, I did.

It’s Cavalcanti’s ventriloquist dummy episode. There’s a case of split personality. In the end, the dominant personality, the one that doesn’t really belong to a living entity but to a dead squatting puppet of a thing, takes over. And an authoritative psychoanalyst explains it all to us.

Hitchcock was a voracious cinephage and would probably have checked out DEAD OF NIGHT out of curiosity, but the film’s inclusion of four actors from his own THE LADY VANISHES — Michael Redgrave, GoogieWithers, Basil Radford & Naunton Wayne — would have made it even likelier. If he didn’t see it when it was new, he might have been drawn to it later while getting into short story adaptation for his TV show.

But what made me think it certain that Hitchcock had seen the Ealing compendium was the dissolve/wipe at the end of the dummy story, where Michael Redgrave’s rictus grin remains onscreen, Cheshire Cat fashion, for some time after the rest of him has faded away. Well, actually, in the end it’s his haunted eyes that linger longer.

Hitchcock, of course, has refined things by having Simon Oakland, with his baby’s-knuckles face, summarise the backstory with added dollar-book Freud, BEFORE showing Norman/Norma in his blanket, and before the lap dissolve from smiling face staring right at us to Marion Crane’s car being exhumed from the swamp, with the semi-subliminal embalmed grin bleeding through the celluloid as the shots merge.

And I think it’s likely Jack Clayton was influenced by that when he made THE INNOCENTS a year later, a film with a couple instances of the unusual three-layer dissolve, none of them quite as memorable as Hitchcock’s, but very fine nevertheless. It’s a technique that could stand being used more, and the fact that it turns up in two scare films made within a year is surely uncoincidental.

Pola to Kay

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 4, 2021 by dcairns

We watched CONFESSION (Joe May, 1937) and then discovered MAZURKA (Willi Forst, 1935) on YouTube. With subs!

Fiona had done her research and knew that the Warners picture is pretty well a shot-for-shot remake of the Cine-Allianz Tonfilmproduktions GmbH one. Warners bought the distribution rights and then instead of releasing the film, they remade it. One of the few cases of a Hollywood studio finding a foreign film so perfect they didn’t change everything around. See also Duvivier’s PEPE LE MOKO becoming John Cromwell’s ALGIERS (the musical version, CASBAH, is a slightly different story). Farrow even tried to cast actors who resembled the supporting players in Duvivier’s film. Kind of a good idea, since certain shots might only make sense with certain faces. Somebody pointed out that the very weird low angle shot of Norman Bates peering over at the motel register in PSYCHO makes sense with Anthony Perkins’ long, beaky face, and doesn’t work in at all the same way with Vince Vaughn’s big meatblock of a head.

Still, a comparison of the Duvivier with the Farrow clearly shows that everything Duvivier does works better than Cromwell’s attempts at imitation.

May is better at it — he seems to really understand why everything is the way it is, so his copying is more intelligent, somehow. Both Forst and May were Viennese and may have had a shared sensibility. Forst did make a few films after the Anschluss, always apolitical, usually musical — some give him credit for “subverting pan-Germanic Nazism” with his “ardent Vienna-Austrian topos” (Wikipedia, no source given).

Cheekily, CONFESSION even directly recycles some original footage from MAZUKRA, where no actors are involved.

Joe May’s Hollywood career was a serious come-down after his German success, though one could argue that his heyday was circa 1920 when he had his own studio and exterior lot. But his best films came in the late twenties. As an emigre, having to start over in his fifties, he couldn’t get properly started, his jobs were very intermittent, and he slid towards B pictures.CONFESSION is probably his finest moment in US film, and it’s not really his.

Image 1: a seduction. Image 2: a rape. Both from CONFESSION, but exactly similar versions appear in MAZURKA.

Still, his casting choices are good — Kay Francis isn’t an obvious replacement for Pola Negri, but she’s excellent in the part. Warners gave him access to Basil Rathbone, Donald Crisp and, uh, Ian Hunter. He’s quite well-cast and does no major harm. May copies the cleverest parts — I must see more Forst! — there’s a great motif of light fittings, seen in point-of-view by girls being kissed — there’s a cunning reason for this — and enhances the odd moment with the larger resources available to him. His closing shot is a doozy, more epic and transcendent than Forst’s, though cornier —

CONFESSION is available from Warner Archive so you shouldn’t watch an old fuzzy TCM recording like we did. Even though it’s melodramatic froth, and even though it’s pretty well a clone of someone else’s film, it’s great.