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Posts Tagged ‘Janet Leigh’

A couple of years ago I signed up for an online course on narrative structure and plotting, with the idea of redrafting the results of my most recent dabbling with NaNoWriMo. Well, needless to say it was not a great success; the successful and published author running the thing tore it to pieces, thought all the things which I liked and made it distinctive were horribly ill-conceived, and basically assured me it was No Good. I haven’t written any substantial fiction since, to be honest, because what I came away with was a deep sense that I do not have any affinity for narrative structure.

We discussed this (narrative structure, not my own hopelessness) now-and-then on the course and one of the stories which came up fairly often was the movie version of Psycho, directed (but of course) by Alfred Hitchcock and released in 1960. One of the things this film is notorious for is the way in which it cheerfully takes a knife to many of the established tenets of narrative form – it’ll be quite hard to talk about this in detail without spoiling the plot, but surely everyone knows more-or-less what Psycho is about by now, don’t they?

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Janet Leigh (the only performer to appear in three films on the AFI’s Hundred Best Movies list, and also Night of the Lepus) plays Marion Crane, a Phoenix office worker who is unhappy with her lot in life. All her pleasure comes from her illicit liaison with a small-time businessman from California, and they can’t marry due to his sizeable debts. However, when unusual events at work leave her momentarily holding $40,000 of someone else’s money, she thinks she spies an opportunity to make a change in her life, and hits the road with her ill-gotten gains…

It is perhaps indicative of what makes Psycho so unusual that one can summarise the opening twenty or thirty minutes of plot in considerable detail without really giving away what the film is actually about. Certainly, this was one of the things that my structure tutor took grave exception to – a competently-shaped narrative indicates from the very beginning exactly what kind of story it is going to be, thus setting up audience expectations. (A good example of this would be the opening of Predator, which opens with a shot of a spacecraft approaching Earth before launching into what looks like a straightforward jungle action movie.) It occurs to me this is very similar to the concept of musical key – the first note played establishing the parameters of everything that is to follow.

If we’re going to stick with this musical metaphor, then Psycho is an unbalanced, atonal work, because what initially looks like it’s going to be some sort of torrid melodrama suddenly transforms into a vicious horror movie with virtually no warning being given (although the fact that Leigh, the apparent protagonist, has the ‘and’ slot in the credits  could be construed as giving the game away). The transition has the potential to be joltingly odd and alienating for the audience, especially as it accompanies a shift in the focus of the film from one character being central to another, and it’s a mark of Hitchcock’s skill that this is as deftly handled as it is.

And this is not a transition which is derived from Robert Bloch’s original novel, either, which is fascinatingly different from the film in many ways. Most notably, it adheres much more closely to the ‘establishing key’ theory that my tutor was so fond of – Norman Bates and his mother appear in the opening chapters of the book, much earlier than they do in the movie (although this is partly due to the nature of film as a medium: showing us a scene from Norman’s point of view gives Bloch many more options for misdirection than is the case in a more objective movie scene). The novel is also much more upfront about being a horror story, with the viewer being invited to assume at one point that Mother is actually some sort of undead creature conjured up by Norman (more misdirection by the author, though I suppose on some level it’s symbolically true).

Psycho‘s weirdness goes beyond this, of course, partly tying into the darker aspects of the storyline – the two most fully-developed, arguably most sympathetic characters are both morally highly suspect, while the putative ‘good guys’, Sam and Lila, are almost minor characters, scarcely more than two-dimensional figures. The degree to which the film invites you to identify with the dark side is significant: Norman is a voyeur, and so implicitly is Hitchcock’s camera, from the opening where it lazily swoops over downtown Phoenix until finally selecting a window through which to peer.

Hitchcock’s skill is, of course, consummate, but also essential to the success of the undertaking is Bernard Herrmann’s score – not just the manic strings underscoring the title sequence and recurring throughout the early section of the film, but the slower, more ominous cues later on. Is it perfect? Well, certainly not to a modern audience – at the screening I recently attended there was some sniggering at a key revelation during the climax, and a lot of amusement at the rather talky closing scene where Simon Oakland comes on and theatrically explains to the audience just what’s been happening.

However, the success of this film is, of course, considerable – both financially and in terms of its influence. None of the various sequels and remakes are particularly distinguished, to be true, but the film itself is genuinely iconic in terms of both its visuals – the brooding Bates house, for example – and specific sequences – most obviously the plumbing-based interlude. It’s possible that its artistic success may in fact be due to the fact it plays fast and loose with traditional structure, thus alienating and unsettling the audience, and if so then this can only work because Psycho is, at heart, essentially a horror movie, where this is the intended effect. The fact that it’s the great horror movie that no-one really thinks of as a horror movie says more about sniffy attitudes to the genre than Psycho itself.

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The lovely old tradition of the classic cinema revival is in danger of being thoroughly smeared for the basest of motives. Seeing older movies back on the big screen has brought me some of my best moviegoing experiences, from watching Seven Samurai, The Wicker Man and Taxi Driver during my student days, to catching Star Trek II in rep just last summer. These days, alas, the revival is as often as not another mechanism used to attempt to prop up the tottering 3D edifice – last year saw The Lion King 3D, with Titanic 3D and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace 3D already on the horizon (not that I’m absolutely ruling out the possibility of seeing one of those…).

Nevertheless, proper, sensible, non-stereoscoped revivals continue to take place, which is how I was able to watch the restored version of Orson Welles’ 1958 movie Touch of Evil. Given that the director also plays a major acting role, it may, of course, simply be the case that the 3D technology does not yet exist which is capable of handling Welles’ – er – heroic physique, but the reason is insignificant compared to the result.

The plot runs thusly: night in a small town on the US-Mexican border is shattered when a car bomb kills a local American businessman and his girlfriend. On the scene coincidentally is Mexican government agent Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston, Hispanicked up for the part) and his new bride (Janet Leigh). Worried about the diplomatic implications should a Mexican have murdered an American, Vargas involves himself in the case, despite the fact he’s already mixed up in the prosecution of a local crime family.

This puts Vargas in the path of the local law, personified by Hank Quinlan (Welles), something with severe consequences for both men. Vargas quickly realises that Quinlan will go to any lengths to punish the guilty – and if this extends to roughing up suspects and planting evidence, so be it. The Mexican resolves to expose Quinlan’s methods, not realising that an alliance between his target and his own enemies may put not just him but also his wife in danger…

A summary of the plot does little to explain quite why Touch of Evil has become such a revered movie, and one of the two or three cornerstones on which Orson Welles’ legend rests. The story itself is not that special, but then if this film is remarkable it is not for the tale but the manner of its telling. Welles makes his ambitions clear from the very beginning of the film, with its justly famous, insanely complex three minute shot, in which the camera travels the length of the town as it tracks the progress of the car carrying the bomb. It’s an ostentatiously brilliant flourish – nothing else in the movie quite matches it for sheer verve, but it makes it clear that this is not going to be a run-of-the-mill production.

The camerawork in this movie is almost absurdly accomplished simply on a technical level, but what really makes an impact is the atmosphere that Welles conjures up – the film takes place in a filthy, sweaty, half-lit world of guilty compromises and dirty secrets, with the purity of classic noir becoming stained by the outriders of a new and more frantic culture – biker gangs, rock ‘n’ roll and marijuana are beginning to supplant hoodlums, jazz and cheap booze.

Quinlan is one of cinema’s great monsters: a shabby, obese, brutal racist – but never an inhuman one. Hints of a backstory suggest how this man came to be as he is, and while never sympathetic he is not quite without virtue – if he has abused his power it is not for personal ends, but in the pursuit of what he sees as his duty. If there is any real evil in Quinlan, then it is only a minor element of who he is – a touch of evil, but no more.

As both director and actor, Orson Welles dominates this movie whether on the screen or off it – his arrival as Quinlan may not be as iconic as his first appearance as Harry Lime in The Third Man, but at the screening I attended it was greeted by soft chuckling throughout the audience: this was the man we had come to see. Of course, he does not disappoint, even if his performance at times borders on being a little too mannered. As ever, one is left infuriated by both the quixotic nature of his vast talents and the shortsightedness of Hollywood in making so little use of them.

It has become something of a running joke that Charlton Heston makes an unlikely Mexican, but, oddly, this suits the movie rather well. The star is incongruous in the part, but then again everything that Heston always embodied – a kind of muscular conviction and self-assurance – is equally out of place in the world of the movie. Some of the film’s most electric moments come from the clash between Heston’s monolithic certitude and the intangible ambiguities that always seem to swirl around Welles in his greatest moments.

Elsewhere in the cast, Janet Leigh starts well but after a while simply has very little to do beyond lie around in a stupor – she has virtually nothing to do following a sequence where she checks into a remote motel with a twitchy weirdo in charge (Leigh’s career in the late 50s involved quite a lot of this sort of thing). The performances of the rest of the cast, with the exception of a luminous Marlene Dietrich as Quinlan’s old flame, are really presenting grotesques of various kinds. The only performance which really oversteps the mark is that of Dennis Weaver as the motel nightman: he really is a bit too OTT by modern standards and unintentionally funny as a result.

But, then again, Touch of Evil is really all about presenting a tale of a clash between moral idealism and corruption in an irresistibly exaggerated style – and while Heston may be victorious at the conclusion of the story, one gets no sense that he and Leigh have done anything to amend the wider world in which they live; they are the aberrations, not Quinlan. Even then, the film is too extravagantly stylish and too magisterially made to really feel downbeat. Welles’ great achievement in Touch of Evil is to transform the crime melodrama into the cinematic equivalent of grand opera – but then again, one would surely expect no less of a man who was larger-than-life himself in almost every respect.

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