The Noir File: Six gems by the all-time master of suspense

By Michael Wilmington and Film Noir Blonde

The Noir File is FNB’s weekly guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir on cable TV. All the movies below are from the current schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

PICK OF THE WEEK

Six by Alfred Hitchcock (1941-59) Friday, Nov. 23, 6:30 a.m. – 6 p.m. (3:30 a.m.- 3 p.m.)

Hitchcock was the movies’ all-time master of suspense – the supreme chronicler of wrong men on the run and notorious ladies in distress, of psychos and vertigo, of scenic spy chases and excruciating murder scenes, of shadows and strangers and suspicion, and most of all, of expert suspense movies, pulse-pounding pictures that got you on the hook fast, and kept you there until the last minute.

He was also the master of film noir, as this six film mini-marathon of movies proves. Dating from the heyday of both Hitchcock and classic noir (1941 to 1959), they’re films that you may have seen before, but that are always welcome for a fresh viewing. Hitchcock was one of the most punctilious, painstaking and brilliantly inventive of all major movie artists and that’s why you can see these pictures over and over. While you’re in the mood, you’ll probably also want to catch the opening of the new movie “Hitchcock,” Sacha Gervasi’s bio-thriller about the making of “Psycho,” with Anthony Hopkins as the master of suspense himself.

Friday, Nov. 23, 6:30 a.m. (3:30 a.m.): “The Dick Cavett Show” (1972). Cavett interviews Hitch, for the release of “Frenzy.”

8 a.m. (5 a.m.): “Under Capricorn” (1949). In this somewhat stiff Australian-set period romance, Ingrid Bergman plays a reclusive alcoholic torn between bad-tempered husband Joseph Cotten and charming visitor Michael Wilding – with Margaret Leighton a scene-stealer as the obsessive housekeeper. One of the director’s rare commercial flops, “Under Capricorn” is still notable for its complex, long-take moving camera scenes (like the ones in “Rope”).

10 a.m. (7 a.m.): “Strangers on a Train” (1951).

Vera Miles and Henry Fonda star in “The Wrong Man,” which is based on a true incident.

11:45 a.m. (8:45 a.m.) “The Wrong Man” (1956). Hitchcock takes a real-life episode –the arrest and conviction of New York musician Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) for a robbery he didn’t commit – and squeezes out as much suspense as he does from his fictional thrillers. Co-scripted by playwright Maxwell Anderson; with Vera Miles and Harold J. Stone.

1:45 a.m. (10:45 a.m.): “North by Northwest” (1959). One of Hitchcock’s two great spy-chase thrillers (the other is “The 39 Steps”), “North by Northwest” follows a suave but beleaguered Manhattan advertising executive (Cary Grant), who’s mistaken for a spy who doesn’t exist, charged with a murder he didn’t commit, pursued by bad guys (James Mason, Martin Landau) whose machinations bewilder him. Oh and he’s involved with a blonde beauty (Eva Marie Saint) who may want him dead. And then there’s that pesky crop-dusting plane “dustin’ where there ain’t no crops.” One of the best, most typical and most beautifully made Hitchcocks. Ingeniously scripted by Ernest Lehman.

4:15 p.m. (1:15 p.m.): “Suspicion” (1941).

6 p.m. (3 p.m.): “Dial M for Murder” (1954).

Sunday, Nov. 18

2 p.m. (11 a.m.): “Casablanca” (1942, Michael Curtiz).

Tuesday, Nov. 20

4 p.m. (1 p.m.): “Bonjour Tristesse” (1957, Otto Preminger). Smooth as silk and cool as champagne, Preminger’s adaptation of the young French writer Françoise Sagan’s cynical novel, focuses on a brainy young belle (Jean Seberg), whose intense relationship with her playboy father (David Niven) is disrupted by his perceptive fiancée (Deborah Kerr) – a clash that leads to darker currents and conflicts. Seberg’s chilly performance here inspired her role several years later in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless.”

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Still crazy about iconic, scary ‘Psycho’ after all these years

Psycho/1960/Universal/109 min.

For a 51-year-old, “Psycho” looks fantastic.

The 1960 masterwork, perhaps the most famous of all Alfred Hitchcock‘s movies, is still smart, funny and beautiful to watch.

Janet Leigh

A low-budget, experimental film for Hitchcock (he was greatly influenced by Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “Diabolique” from 1955), “Psycho” wasn’t well received by critics. But the movie was a huge hit with the public and has remained popular ever since. Norman Bates, played by Anthony Perkins, is No. 2 on the AFI’s list of greatest villains, second only to Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter. “Psycho” singlehandedly spawned the slasher genre and, together with Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil” from 1958, also starring Janet Leigh, marks the end of classic film noir.

Leigh plays Marion Crane, a secretary at Lowery Real Estate in sunny Phoenix. On a whim, Marion leaves town with a load of cash – $40,000 from her firm’s client, wealthy good ole boy Tom Cassidy (Frank Albertson). She’s hoping it will pave her way to the altar with her delectable but debt-laden boyfriend Sam Loomis (John Gavin).

Not far into her road trip, she feels pangs of guilt, but before she can turn around and give the money back, she stops at The Bates Motel where she meets uber-polite proprietor Norman and hears his mother screeching from the old dark house next door. After sharing sandwiches with Norman, Marion takes a shower and Norman’s gray-haired mother suddenly appears, knife in hand. It’s one of the most iconic scenes in cinematic history.

Later, Sam, Marion’s sister Lila Crane (Vera Miles), and Detective Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam) launch a search for Marion. Arbogast perishes as he puzzles over the secrets within the Bates Motel, but eventually Sam and Lila unravel the core of the family craziness. Here’s a hint: It was all Mommy’s fault. Still, she’s a survivor, you might say, who gets the last laugh.

Hitchcock took a chance with first-time screenwriter Joseph Stefano who worked from Robert Bloch’s novel “Psycho.” The book was loosely based, many feel, on real-life Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein. Stefano, a psychoanalysis aficionado, borrowed liberally from Freud 101 to write his script. (Stefano later became the head writer for the classic TV horror show, “The Outer Limits.”)

Because he worried that the audience would get impatient with not seeing Norman’s mother for so long, Stefano peppered the dialogue with references to mothers so that at least the idea of Mrs. Bates was present. Sam refers to turning a picture of Marion’s mother to the wall; Marion’s office colleague Caroline (Patricia Hitchcock) mentions her mother twice in a brief conversation at the office. [Read more...]

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‘Psycho’ quick hit

Psycho/1960/Universal/109 min.

One of the most famous movies ever made, Alfred Hitchcock’s experimental masterpiece immortalizes messed-up man-boy Norman Bates, chillingly played by Anthony Perkins. Janet Leigh stars, though her screen time is brief, as the good girl who gives into temptation. Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsam and Patricia Hitchcock round out the cast. A must-see!

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