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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Chuck, amuck

Chuck Jones and friend
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, famous for its annual bestowals of the Oscar awards, maintains ongoing informational and educational programs all year long.

There will be two tributes to animation this week.

On Thursday, August 19, there will be a panel discussion of voice talents in animation. This is part of the ongoing lecture series sponsored by the estate of Disney animator Marc Davis.

Friday, there will be a tribute to Warner Bros. animator Chuck Jones, with all nine of his Oscar-nominated shorts (three of which won) playing.

Both shows will be at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater at the Academy's headquarters at 8949 Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills. Tickets are a bargain-basement $5 and last I looked, tickets were still available.

Movies You Should Watch: PSYCHO

Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 film PSYCHO is, perhaps, the most influential film of all time. It has been studied, dissected and analyzed in books and magazine articles — both for academic and mainstream readers — since its release.

Its audacity in killing off its nominal heroine at about the 45-minute mark still shocks today, even among young filmgoers who don't have the reflexive "They wouldn't kill Janet Leigh" reaction. (This is the same reaction that people had some 30 years later watching SCREAM, when they thought that Drew Barrymore wouldn't get killed.)

PSYCHO has been referenced in dozens of other movies, from Brian DePalma's 1976 CARRIE (set at Bates High School) to John Carpenter's 1978 HALLOWEEN (where a character is named Loomis after John Gavin's stoic hardware store owner) to Quentin Tarantino's 1994 PULP FICTION (where a driver gets recognized by a person crossing the street).

The shower murder scene is a classic of filmmaking, with its dozens of shots cut together to give the impression of a violent stabbing.

And, arguably, it killed off the mom-and-pop roadside motel.

Ignore all that for the moment. PSYCHO wasn't made to be studied by film students, it was made as an entertainment. And it's a good movie.

It draws you in from the first frame, when the Paramount Pictures logo is uncharacteristically presented in horizontal black-and-white lines. This is followed by two blasting chords from Bernard Herrmann's driving all-strings music and the opening credits scurrying across the screen led and followed by grey horizontal bars. After the credits it settles down, and fades into a view of a city. The camera aimlessly pans as titles specifically delineate the place and time. PHOENIX, ARIZONA. FRIDAY, DECEMBER THE ELEVENTH. TWO FORTY-THREE-P.M. Could be any place, could be any time. The camera moves forward, pans, picks a building, moves toward a
wall, picks a window, goes in. Could have been any of maybe a hundred windows we've already seen.

It could have been you.

The tale weaves its way around a woman who steals $40,000 and what happens as the people who lost the money try to find it. The $40,000 is a classic Hitchcock plot device known generically as the "MacGuffin": it drives the story and motivates the characters but the audience doesn't care about it.

The movie broke with a number of traditions, including killing the heroine off in the first hour and showing a flushing toilet. Because Hitchcock didn't want people walking in to the middle of the movie and wondering where Janet Leigh was, he instituted a policy that said moviegoers had to watch PSYCHO from the beginning, unlike the then-common practice of letting people wander in whenever they arrived and leaving when they reached the place where they came in.

Paramount didn't want Hitchcock to make PSYCHO at all, pointing out the shady nature of the characters and the events (including two brutal stabbings) but Hitchcock had script approval and really wanted to make a low-budget horror movie like the ones that were so successful at the time, especially Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1955 DIABOLIQUE. When Paramount said they didn't have studio space for Hitchcock to use, Hitchcock said that was OK, he would shoot it at Revue studios with the crew that shot his weekly TV show.

When Hitchcock offered to buy the film back, Paramount agreed (that's why the opening slide says "A Paramount Release" instead of "A Paramount Picture") and the copyright is held by Hitchcock's Shamley Productions, which also produced his TV show. The deal made Hitchcock a wealthy man. Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut in 1966 that PSYCHO cost "no more than $800,000 to make" and grossed $15 million in its two releases in 1960 and 1964, when movie tickets were $1 or less.

But best of all, the movie still holds up. The situations transcend time (although you can't buy a house in Phoenix for $40,000 any more) and the tension still stands. People still hold their breath when Vera Miles goes into the basement and approaches Norman's mother. And although the psychiatrist's explanation of Norman's problem is long and pedantic, the 1960 audience needed five minutes of calm explanation after the adrenaline rush of that last scene.

Universal's latest DVD release of PSYCHO also includes, on the second disc, an episode of the "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" TV show directed by the Master Of Suspense himself, called "Lamb to the Slaughter." To say anything besides "You have to see it" would risk spoiling the surprises.

You have to see it.

Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO — a movie you should watch.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Let's go to the movies

I had never heard of the 1971 film "The Mephisto Waltz" until I read a review of it online and then I watched it on HBO 91 or some other three-digit movie channel and BOY HOWDY is it something. Alan Alda (at the time a working actor and not yet sanctified as St. Hawkeye of the 4077th) is a music journalist who interviews way-creepy classical pianist Curt Jurgens who we can all see (except Alda, of course) has made a Dracula-style deal with The Bad Guy to live forever and be a world class pianist and Alda follows him down the twisted path BUT Alda's wife Jacqueline Bisset, who really loves the guy, sees what's happening and takes some steps of her own.

It has the brightly-lit ambience of a TV movie (it was the only theatrical film produced by TV producer Quinn Martin) and the production values, frankly, suck because if you ask me movies in the '70s were more about the ideas than the special effects but "The Mephisto Waltz" will haunt you long after you've forgotten the summer blockbuster with perfect special effects you saw last week at the 26-screen megaplex.

"The Mephisto Waltz" is playing at the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian theater in Hollywood on Wednesday as a tribute to director Paul Wendkos, who died last year, made more than 150 movies and TV shows and I never heard of him and maybe you haven't either.

Monday, August 16, 2010

It's in the book

A while back I decided I wanted to get a copy of the Hugh Hefner autobiography "Mr. Playboy" so I went to my online used bookstore of choice and found a copy for a buck so I ordered it. I paid more for the shipping than the book.

When it arrived, I was disappointed to see that it was not the hardbound book I had expected, but a paperback review copy.

Uncorrected, yet, so it wasn't even the final version.

My displeasure was mounting until I got to the title page, where I saw this:

And I figured if the uncorrected paperback version is OK with them, I can certainly live with it.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Movies you should watch: MIDNIGHT

1939 was a high-water mark in movie history. Some of the greatest films of all time came out in that year, including THE WIZARD OF OZ, GONE WITH THE WIND, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and STAGECOACH.

Hidden among these giants is a little gem called MIDNIGHT. Don't feel bad if you haven't heard of it, nobody has, not even me when I saw it the first time. (And when you look for it, as I hope you will, there are about ten other movies called MIDNIGHT you could confuse it with.) It has a script by the team of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, whose witty, sophisticated screenplay for NINOTCHKA was another highlight of 1939.

MIDNIGHT stars the beautiful Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche. And if, when you hear "Don Ameche" you think of that wizened little gnome you saw in COCOON, think again. This is Ameche in 1939: Youthful, studly and with a full head of jet-black hair.

The story begins one rainy night at the Paris train station. Eve Peabody (Claudette Colbert) arrives from Monte Carlo in a shimmering evening gown. She has no luggage, and her beaded purse has a pawn ticket (she pawned her clothes in Monte Carlo to get money for the train ticket) and one coin. She meets taxi driver Ameche outside the station, and tells him if he'll help her find a job, she’ll pay double the meter and a big tip.

He's not buying it, and sends her on her way. But when she heads out into the rain, he relents and waves her into the cab.

"Now you don't get the tip," she says as she enters the cab.

She hopes to find a gig (as "Eve Peabody, the famous American blues singer... confidentially, she didn't get to be a blues singer until she stepped in your cab.") but her hopes plummet as the meter goes up, and the taxi driver calls it off at 80 francs and takes her out to "a cheap dinner."

They go to a taxi drivers' hangout and talk. His name is Tibor Czerny ("I'm Hungarian. Where I come from, they think 'Eve Peabody' is a funny name.") and he is a proud, no-nonsense member of the working class: "I'm a rich man. I need 40 francs a day, and I make 40 francs. No real estate, no bank account, no possessions, three handkerchiefs, two shirts, one tie -- no worries."

Eve grew up in the Bronx, she tells Czerny, and became a dancer. She went to London "in a can of imported chorines" and "landed a lord, almost, but the family came between us. His mother came to my hotel to offer me a bribe."

"You threw her out, I hope," Czerny says.

"How could I with my hands full of money?"

She invested the money at the gambling tables at Monte Carlo, bringing her to her current glamorous-but-impoverished state.

He offers her a place to stay ("Here's the key. There's a shirt drying in the bathroom, you can sleep in that. Be out by seven in the morning, put the key under the mat.") but she refuses and skips out of the cab as he gasses up.

On a sidewalk, she jumps into a group of fashionably-dressed people entering a party, one of those ultra-chic society soirees that require a ticket for admittance. Fortunately the butler accepts her pawn ticket.

The party is filled with pretentious classical music and people are seated as at a concert. Eve takes a seat by John Barrymore, who lecherously sizes her up as the hostess, bearing her pawn ticket, asks "Is there anybody in this room named Eve Peabody?"

Eve looks around.

"Does anybody here know Eve Peabody?"

No reaction from anybody.

Fuming, the hostess mutters "Somebody got in here with this pawn ticket" as Barrymore puts two and two together.

While Barrymore leers at Eve, a man approaches her and says "Madame, a word with you."

Caught, Eve goes with the man, expecting to get thrown out. She finds herself in a small study, invited to be a fourth at bridge with Helene Flammarion (Mary Astor) and Jacques Picot (Francis Lederer) -- who had been kissing and jumped apart when they entered the room -- and Marcel (Rex O'Malley), the man who brought her to the study. Marcel introduces himself as "a telephone worshipper. Whenever a day comes without an invitation I pray to my telephone as though it were a little black god. I beg of it to speak to me, to ask me out somewhere. Anywhere where there's caviar and champagne."

Eve can't say she's "Eve Peabody" so she says her name is "Czerny" and they start addressing her as "Madame Czerny."

They set the bridge game stakes at 5 francs a point. When Eve gasps, Helene offers to raise the stakes, agreeing "5 francs is a bit tepid."

"It makes no difference to me," Eve says.

Eve and Jacques, partnered at the bridge table, flirt as Helene steams. Barrymore -- who is Helene's husband Georges Flammarion -- joins the bridge party, escaping the music. He identifies the name "Czerny" as Hungarian and when Eve says it's by marriage he says "You must be the wife of Baron Czerny. The last time I saw him in St. Moritz, he talked about an American girl. Where is he now?"

"Back in Budapest," she says, improvising. "He's not very well. You know... The old trouble."

Georges excuses himself and the bridge game continues.

As the bridge game ends, Eve and Jacques are down 4200 francs each, and that's almost exactly 4200 francs more than Eve has.

"Where's my bag? I may not have that much with me," she says.

Georges brings her evening bag, and when she opens it she finds a wad of money.

All 1000-franc bills. Each one worth about $40 US at the time.

That's just the beginning. It gets even better after that.

The well-constructed screenplay is filled with witty repartee ("That hat is a dream on you. It does something for your face... It gives you a chin.") and ticks along like a Swiss watch, piling complication upon complication as Czerny organizes Paris taxi drivers to find the penniless American girl -- while Eve is relaxing at the Flammarion estate in Versailles at a weekend house party, invited by Georges to distract Jacques away from the affair Jacques is having with Georges' wife and help Georges win Helene back.

Colbert is luminous, Ameche plays the stoic workingman who rises to the occasion with wit and dignity, Astor is winsome as the spurned and jealous lover, Lederer is appropriately obtuse as the handsome-but-dullwitted gigolo and Barrymore, bless him, looks to be drunk most of the time (and in at least one scene is obviously reading his lines off cue cards) but he still has enough personality and sheer technique to dominate every scene he's in.

MIDNIGHT is a forgotten gem. A wry, sophisticated comedy, well-acted from a clever script with some of the best actors around. They just don't make 'em like that any more.

MIDNIGHT -- a movie you should watch.

Copyright ©2010 Tod Hunter