AFI #14: Psycho

psychoPsycho is the third of four Alfred Hitchcock films on the AFI Top 100 list, joining North By Northwest (No. 55), Rear Window (No. 48) and Vertigo (No. 9). I am certainly a Hitchcock fan, but I’m not as huge fan of Psycho. I’d seen it before and watching it again yesterday it felt a little dated and suffers from something that a lot of the films in this list suffer from — its reputation is better than the film itself. This has been a common theme for me on this journey. Films that are supposed to be American classics or “great” turn out to be dull, dated or flat-out bad. Psycho is a good film, but it’s not worthy of being #14 on this list and in my humble opinion it’s not even among Hitchcock’s best.

I think Psycho definitely has a place in film history, being perhaps the first successful and critically well received “horror” films. And it definitely deserves credit for its disturbing matricide theme and Anthony Perkins’ terrific portrayal of Norman Bates. Perkins set the standard for the “psycho” character and he plays it so quietly and internally that it will live on as one of the best film characters ever created. Unfortunately for Perkins he was never able to move beyond Norman Bates and the typecast despite clearly being a promising young actor. That being said, I suppose most actors would be thrilled to leave a legacy like Norman Bates.

But in terms of entertainment I really wasn’t that impressed. I am a huge fan of North By Northwest and To Catch a Thief. Vertigo and Rear Window are just ok for me, but I can definitely say I liked all of those films more than Psycho. That being said, you have to give Hitchcock credit for the creation of Norman Bates and for giving us the shower scene, which had people across the world afraid to get wet for years and has been stolen in tribute on many occasions. Few film fans will ever forget those two legacies.

I also have a bone to pick with the ending. The film should have ended with Bates’ arrest. Instead, Hitchcock takes us to the police station where the psychiatrist comes out of his interview with Bates and then tells us the whole story of how Bates ended up the way he did. The whole scene isn’t needed. It was patronizing to have someone explain the plot to us at the end — we got it without the narrative. He killed his mother and brought her back to life through his psychosis and related actions. I like it better when the  film goer is left to explore the themes on his or her own following a film. Makes for great after film dinner conversations!

Next: Star Wars

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AFI #15: 2001 A Space Odyssey

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“Morally pretentious, intellectually obscure and inordinately long … a film out of control.” — Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger

Well, it’s never a good sign when you have to go on the Internet after watching a film to find out what the hell it was about. For the second time in my life I sat staring at the screen dumbfounded at 2001: A Space Odyssey, uncertain as to why I put myself through the entire 160 minutes of torture. I’ll admit it — I don’t get it. Maybe I’m just not smart enough or maybe I’m just not into science fiction enough. All I know is that I hated 2001: A Space Odyssey when I first saw it and I hated it again yesterday!

I really think the reason this film is rated so highly by the AFI is because the academics who vote for these polls are too embarrassed to admit they hated it too (and probably didn’t understand it either). Look, I get the basics. Mankind is some kind of alien experiment and by the time we are advanced enough to get to Jupiter our alien overlords move us toward the next phase of evolution. Great. We passed Go. Move directly to the next level. Thank you alien overlords.

But why all the weird special effects Mr. Kubrick? Why did this film feel like it was filmed in slow motion? Why did you put us through lengthy segments where nothing happened set to classical music? Why the black monolith? Why did you leave so much unexplained to the point that I had to go on Wikipedia to try to decipher the damn thing. Why? Why? Why?

Feel free to disagree my minions.

Next: Psycho

AFI #16: Sunset Blvd.

Joe Gillis: “You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.”
Norma Desmond: “I *am* big. It’s the *pictures* that got small.”

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I have mixed feelings about 1950’s Sunset Blvd. On the one hand, Gloria Swanson’s performance as aging silent film star Norma Desmond was brilliant. On the other hand, the story is far-fetched and a little trite. The writing is sophomoric, yet the screenplay won an Oscar. I sort of have mixed feelings about writer/director Billy Wilder as well. I loved The Apartment, but was lukewarm on Double Indemnity and Some Like it Hot. I’d say Sunset Blvd. is somewhere in between. It certainly doesn’t belong at #16 on the list of best American films.

Sunset Blvd. is really a tour de force by Gloria Swanson. She was 50 when she played Norma Desmond, herself an aging silent film star. Given that, her over the top performance was one for the ages. The way she used her facial expressions as if she was in a silent film was wonderful, albeit really creepy. In fact, everything about Norma Desmond was creepy, which I guess was the point. She was lonely to be sure, but she was also certifiable and perhaps the only reason she wasn’t locked up in the loony bin was because she was being taken care of by her butler/ex-husband Max.

William Holden was also quite good as hack screenwriter Joe Gillis. As the narrator you initially relate to him and even feel a little sorry for him as he gets caught up in Norma’s craziness. But at some point you stop sympathizing with him because he starts to rely on Norma’s money and hospitality and whatever weird “relationship” they have. Had the film been made today we’d have surely seen some freaky sex scenes between Norma and Joe, but in 1950 it was okay for us to assume they were “lovers” without having to see the sex. In fact, perhaps they didn’t engage in a sexual relationship — maybe companionship was enough for Norma to feel like she was in a relationship. Still, it’s creepy.

Sunset Blvd. is also unique in that it’s one of the only films in history narrated by a dead person. The film starts with Joe floating in Norma’s pool having been shot and killed. I can think of only one other well-known film in which the narrator is dead — Kevin Spacey narrated American Beauty (Bruce Willis was in fact dead during the majority of The Sixth Sense but he didn’t narrate). Holden did a great job as the narrator, giving the film a noir quality (even though I found the script to be ridiculous).

Another cool thing about Sunset Blvd. is that several major silent film stars made cameos in it, including Buster Keaton. And of course, the film includes the famous line spoken by Norma as she’s about to be hauled off to jail or the loony bin, thinking the cameras are there for a movie when in fact they are there for the news of her arrest: “I’m ready for my closeup Mr. DeMille.”

Next on the list: 2001: A Space Odyssey