Movie of the Month: August 2011

On August 25, 1960, only 12 days after the director’s 61st birthday, Alfred Hitchcock released his last black and white film.  Psycho is not only his scariest film to date, but it was also his most controversial.  The movie shocked audiences for a number of reasons, the first of which was the infamous shower sequence.  After seeing the movie and recognizing how vulnerable people are in the shower, Janet Leigh reportedly took baths for the remainder of her life.  The power of Psycho doesn’t come from the music (although it may contribute).  The primary reason that we are still frightened by it today is because Hitchcock shows the characters being attacked in the moment when they are most defenseless.

Alfred Hitchcock first had the idea to make Psycho after seeing the success of William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill.  He wanted to make his own low-budget thriller.  It just so happened that it ended up being so good that it is arguably his best film.  The movie did not have the star power of his previous projects, North by Northwest and Vertigo.  Hitchcock instead used actors and actresses that required a smaller paycheck.  Each of the players ended up moving on to other notable films such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Manchurian Candidate, and Bullitt.

The final shot of Psycho stands out in my mind as one of the most haunting that I have ever seen.  I won’t spoil the ending for those who have yet to see it, but I promise that it is one worth checking into.  In fact, the whole movie is a rewarding experience.  This is one of my three favorite Hitchcock films (the others being Vertigo and Rear Window), and without a doubt, my favorite horror film.  It is a masterpiece, low-budget or not, and it contains the most shocking thrills that the Master of Suspense ever gave us.  And if you don’t believe me, watch the trailer below:

Film Review: L’Avventura (1960)

Most movies unfold before the audience while Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura evolves.  After the first hour, a jumbled mystery becomes a disturbed romance.  Audiences meet Claudia, Anna, Sandro, and their friends, all taking the day off on the shore of a barren rock island.  They swim, they flirt, they argue, and then Anna goes missing.

The island is not home to any animal life, and its only residents are thousands of rough-edged boulders.  Claudia and Sandro, Anna’s best friend and Anna’s boyfriend, both refuse to do anything until Anna is found.  But after days of searching the island and towns close to the coast, what the two are really searching for becomes more obvious.

Most would say that it is love, but in all actuality, it is really just a search for something to do.  They are searching for the sake of searching.  Along the way, Claudia falls for the charms of Sandro, but neither lover is in love with the other, whether they realize it or not.  And as both fail to do anything worth-while, we find that they seem incapable of genuinely loving anyone.

Antonioni’s skill in making this intriguing film can be caught in one shot.  When Sandro and Claudia continue their search to an abandoned town, the camera is positioned in a view that seems to be peeking out of the shadows of a hotel.  Are we perhaps, seeing the view of Anna?  Is she hiding, never to be found by her seekers?  Then we move, as their car moves out of the city, we watch longingly, but careful enough to not show ourselves.  That one, single shot may be the answer to the film’s most compelling question.

Rating: 4.5/5

Please comment.  I’d like to know your thoughts on the movie and the review…

Film Review: In the Heat of the Night (1967)

There were several legendary films to come out of 1967, but the two best known by audiences today, Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, did not take home the Academy’s Best Picture statuette.  To those who have not seen this social thriller, awarding the coveted prize to In the Heat of the Night might seem questionable.  But after watching the film’s powerful study of racism in the ’60s, it becomes clear that it best represents that year.

It tells a story of a black police officer visiting a small town in the south from his home in Pennsylvania.  His name is Virgil Tibbs and he happened to be around when a murder victim was discovered late at night in Sparta, Mississippi.  Being one of Philadelphia’s leading homicide investigators, he decides to stay just a little longer.  As he assists the town’s hot-tempered sheriff in the pursuit of the killer, Tibbs is met with constant prejudice from both the police and the townspeople.

Overtime, Virgil Tibbs has become one of the most memorable heroes in the history of the movies.  His persecution was something that every African American could relate to at that time, and his actions set an example for them as well.  This is one of the reasons that Tibbs has been ranked 19th on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Movie Heroes of All Time.

Thanks to Poitier’s firm performance, In the Heat of the Night is difficult to forget.  Not only is this a good film, but it is also an important one.  It documents a shameful time in our country’s history that should not be ignored or forgotten.  When taking this into consideration, there is no better reason for a movie to win Best Picture.

Rating: 4/5

Film Review: The Trial (1962)

Without any flashy effects, The Trial remains the most realistic depiction of a dream that I have ever seen.  If, that is, that Orson Welles meant it to be so.  Although it is not pertaining to the central conflict of the narrative, I constantly juggled the ideas that I had relating to how the film should be received. If it is supposed to have any  applications to everyday life, I must have missed them.

But it is very easy to see how I was fascinated.  The film begins with a short fable narrated by Welles.  The tale is one told by the inhabitants of the world that we are about to visit.  Once we get there, the intrigue from the very beginning carries over to our introduction to Joseph K., played by Anthony Perkins.  The scene begins with Joseph lying alone in his bed.  In any other movie, this would be insignificant, but does Welles mean it as a hint?  Could he have warned us from the start that it is all just a dream?  Dream or not, Joseph never considers the question.  This is real life to him.

We are then gripped by the revealing of a visitor in the bedroom: an inspector whose purpose is to arrest Joseph for an unnamed crime.  It all seems perfectly normal up to that point, but as we see Joseph’s workplace, his friends, and his accusers, his world begins to seem reflective of our dreams…or nightmares.

There is a scene with a wooden shack sitting at the top of a spiral staircase within a brightly lit building.  The police inspector steals Joseph’s clothes.  A man enters a doorway and later exits to discover that the door is now twice as big.  It is really very incredible that The Trial can appear so nonsensical, resembling the films of Bunuel and Lynch, yet still keep a firm grasp on our attention and emotions.

Rating: 5/5

Film Review: Yojimbo (1961)

Ten years of after Rashomon, the great Akira Kurosawa was still at the top of his game when he made Yojimbo, the darkly comical ‘samurai western’ that inspired Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars.  Toshiro Mifune stars here and he was obviously the model after which Clint Eastwood fashioned his own legendary performance.

The picture’s storyline is simple, but it is so well done that the audience might not notice.  It tells of a wandering samurai (Mifune) who stumbles on a town split in half.  Each side despises the other and hires men to fight against its enemy.  The samurai, named Sanjuro, soon upon arrival exhibits his skills with a sword and is begged by both sides to join the fight with them.

But Sanjuro is a clever scoundrel and decides to wait for the best offer.  It is only a matter of time before he has to make a choice and become part of the battle.  With his entrance into the battle comes a bloody massacre that eventually eliminates both sides.

The brutal ending finishes the film with a dark tone, but Kurosawa has sprinkled around just enough witty humor to balance it all out.  The memorable score plays a major role, making the action more excitable and the emotion more palpable.

Kurosawa’s techniques in storytelling and camera work look as masterful as they ever have.  I enjoyed this picture as much as I did Rashomon, and I highly recommend it.  Whether or not you have seen a Japanese film is irrelevant, for Yojimbo would be a great introduction.

Rating: 5/5