By Marc S. Sanders

To watch Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho today is a blessing and a curse.  You can’t take your eyes off the craftsmanship of the film.  Yet, you know all the surprises and plot twists.  There’s only so much blood you can draw from the stone. 

Recently, I told my fourteen-year-old daughter, who doesn’t like scary movies, that she needs to watch the film.  If only because she knows absolutely nothing about Psycho.  She has no idea what’s to come of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh). She’s never heard of the shower scene.  She doesn’t know about the true relationship between Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and his chastising mother.  Imagine, assuming you have seen the movie and/or know all its secrets already, watching the movie with someone who is seeing it for the first time with a completely blank canvas to go on.  Oh, the reactions you’ll get to see!!!

Hitchcock’s film, with a screenplay from Joseph Stefano, works under a lot of different dimensions.  It’s classified as the first “slasher movie.”  That may be true.  However, it’s much more intelligent than a typical Jason or Freddy Krueger fright fest.  Psycho begins as one story with a central character, seemingly innocent, carrying out a crime.  Later, it turns on itself and becomes something else altogether.

Marion Crane makes off with $40,000 in cash from a chauvinistic, obnoxious client of her real estate boss.  She hits the road, heading towards her lover’s home in nearby California.  Her impending doom is never implied.  Stefano and Hitchcock focus only on Marion’s scruples with the crime she’s committed.  She gets haunted by a curious police officer.  She certainly wonders what her boss must think when he’ll discover that she never deposited the money in the bank.  Is the used car salesman going to follow up on her after she urgently trades in her car for a new one with new plates?

Soon though, none of that will matter when she has no choice but to pull off the road for the evening to stay at the Bates Motel, currently with twelve cabins and twelve vacancies.

For the one or two readers who have never heard of Psycho, I’ll stop there with the narrative.  However, what I appreciate about the second half of the film is that the new central character, now young, quirky, altogether strange Norman Bates, seems to respond with avoidance when a private investigator named Arbogast (Martin Balsam), and then later Marion’s lover Sam (John Gavin) and her sister Lila (Vera Miles) start questioning him about Marion’s whereabouts.  Arbogast is on the trail of a thief who went off with $40,000.  Sam and Lila are also curious about the theft that seems unheard for Marion to commit.  Yet, there’s something else leaving them curious.  Norman, on the other hand, knows nothing as to what Marion was up to.  In his eyes, the only odd thing about her is that she checks into the motel under a different name.  All of these characters are coming in conflict with one another, but not for the reasons they think they are.  The fun part is that we are the only ones who know the hands that each player is holding.  Even more fun is when we uncover a secret that Norman has been hiding from the audience all along.

Hitchcock tricks his audiences with Psycho.  With its first story, we are in suspense of one criminal.  Will she get away with the theft? Rather, how and when will she get caught?  With its second story, we are unnerved by someone far worse and frighteningly mysterious.  Following the infamous shower scene, it’s a little nerve wracking to watch as Norman tries to hide the evidence in the trunk of a car that he pushes into the nearby swamp.  Any storyteller would just have the car simply sink.  Hitchcock brings in shadowed close ups (with his wise idea of black and white photography) of Norman chewing gum, and then becoming completely still when the car actually stops sinking midway through its descent.  As a viewer, your jaw drops.  What is Norman going to do if the car doesn’t fully submerge?

Later, it’s a wonder how Norman is going to circumvent around the unexpected visits form Arbogast, Sam and Lila.  Then, we are in suspense of their safety.  They’re just looking for the missing money while tracking where Marion went off to.  Unbeknownst to them, they have can’t even fathom her demise.

I was talking with one of my Cinephile brothers about Psycho, explaining how it follows a similar dynamic that the second half of Vertigo moves upon.  In Vertigo, the main characters, Scottie and Madeliene, are both in love with one another.  Yet, it’s for different reasons that they can’t explain to each other.  In Psycho, the characters are all under suspicion and even paranoid of each other, yet for all different reasons.  Norman never knew of Marion’s crime.  Though the other characters suspect that he does.  In both pictures, only we, the audience, know almost everything at play.  According to various documentaries I’ve watched, Hitchcock wholeheartedly trusted his screen writers to flesh out the stories.  He concerned himself more with constructing the film with a faithfulness to the script.  What’s commendable about the films Alfred Hitchcock chose to make is that he sought out these conundrums where his chess pieces are left bewildered or unaware of why they are sharing the stage with the other players.  The director had a way of channeling into deceiving his characters against one another, allowing the viewers to relish in their trickery.  Going a step further though, Hitchcock reveals other twists never suggested in the film to turn the audience on their ear in shock.

You can’t take your eyes off Psycho, even with knowing all the goodies that Hitchcock provides. 

Anthony Perkins especially is a tense and unnerving menace.  He has a boyhood innocence to him that should not appear threatening to Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane.  It’s in his relaxation with the role that it feels all the more terrifying to the viewer.  Simply look at the way Arbogast pulls up to the motel and Perkins is sitting calmly on the porch eating his bag of candy.  Watch how he casually shares with Marion how he relishes in stuffing the birds he has mounted on the parlor walls, or even how he casually offers cabin number one for Marion to occupy so that she can be close to everything.  Norman Bates hides himself very well in his virtue.  A wolf in sheep’s clothing.

The Bates Motel and the large house poised behind it on the hill were set up on a Universal back lot.  It remains one of the most famous settings in film history.  When you see the silhouette of Norman’s mother in the window from afar or young, slender Norman standing in front of the house, the images of the chilling locale stay with you whether it is on a dark and stormy night or even during a sunny afternoon.  Hitchcock opted to shoot the film in black and white to taper the goriness of the piece.  Outside of the gore elements though, the black and white lends a foreboding feeling to this destination.  Even before we realize that Marion is in danger, we feel uneasy with just arriving at this place.

The shower scene of course is one for the ages.  I’m not here to discuss all of the mechanics of film’s centerpiece.  The assembly of the scene’s elements are masterful though.  Can you imagine the scene without Bernard Hermann’s shrieking score?  Hermann was to Hitchcock like John Williams is to Steven Spielberg.  The aftermath is brutally shocking as well.  The camera does a zoom out on Janet Leigh’s eye as the soaking head of her corpse lays down on the bathroom floor.  I notice the eye does just the slightest twitch.  For me, that’s all the more disturbing than just a very still open eye.  It implies the last bits of life leaving her body and consciousness.  Later, when Norman cleans up the bathroom, Hitchcock shows his process with a mop and neatly wrapping Marion in the torn shower curtain and disposing of anything belonging to her, including a newspaper that isn’t just a newspaper.  Norman is methodical.  Perhaps this strange man has done something like this before.

I do have one grievance with Psycho.  The air is kind of sucked out of the film in its last few minutes before that delicious last close up on Norman.  Stefano’s script offers up a psychological explanation for what Norman Bates seems to suffer from.  It’s as if we are given a scientific description for what ails him. This is all painfully boring.  I dunno.  Maybe in 1960, when Psycho was a pioneering kind of horror film, and moviegoers were not as familiar with the genre that seemed far scarier than Boris Karloff, and vampires and mummies, they needed a summation like this.  Sixty years later, naturally this is not necessary.  We know all to well that there are disturbed people who live among us.  We know, sometimes, to be cautious of folks like these.  For someone as reputed as Hitchcock was, being identified as the “Master of Suspense,” this long monologue, spoon fed diagnosis from the psychiatrist kills all of the horror we’ve bared witness to over the last two hours. 

Psycho was the first slasher movie.  It was the first movie to feature a toilet and have it flush on film. It has one of the most famous characters in all of film history.  It has one of the most famous scenes of all time.  It was directed by one of the greatest directors of all time.  Yet, it also has one of the worst conclusions of all time.  If ever a scene should have been cut from a finished product, it is the second to last scene of Psycho.

Now, go find someone who has never heard of Psycho, knows nothing at all about Psycho, and watch them watch Psycho.  Of course, as the famous marketing campaign for the film insisted, by all means do not start the movie or walk in the middle, and never reveal any of its secrets.


By Marc S. Sanders

People talk too much.

Ten minutes into Alan J Pakula’s film, that’s all I can think about. William Goldman’s dialogue heavy script pounds away at depicting Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s uncovering of the Watergate break in, and it shows that simply, people talk too much. So much so that just a stutter or a name in passing conversation will dig the hole deeper and deeper towards self-incrimination, and that of other accomplices. Once a source trips up, then a good reporter can pounce.

Names, dates, slamming doors, rotary phones, typewriters and papers fly fast and furiously during Pakula’s film and that’s what upholds the breakneck pace of the investigative journalism. In a film like this, a crime is depicted and investigated, only the words are the real weapons.

I don’t find All The President’s Men to be a history lesson in the corruption of Nixon’s administration. Rather, I only see what was necessary for Woodward & Bernstein to truthfully prove the corruption took place. The reporters, played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, seem to run on endless adrenaline of coffee, cigarettes and fast food effectively showing their drive while donning loose ties, wrinkled shirts, and crumpled notepads amid unkept desks and apartments. It’s visually convincing. A story like this doesn’t sleep, nor does it take a vacation. A story like this makes a viewer feel like he/she is still up at 2am, catching a cab to meet a shadowy source in a haunting parking garage; thanks Hal Holbrook for Deep Throat (“Follow the money.”).

Redford has a great scene where Pakula never stops running the camera on close up for over six minutes. All that Redford is doing is dialing, and talking on the phone while maintaining two different conversations. I don’t know if this moment happened in real life but I imagine the best reporters in a pre internet phase had to hold out for opportune times like this to fall into their laps. The cut does not end and Pakula was instinctively wise to do that. The scene itself serves that harrowing pace. Less is more in a moment like this. Props to Redford for maintaining the statuesque momentum.

Equally so, Hoffman has a couple of good moments with Jane Alexander (his eventual costar in Kramer vs Kramer.). She beautifully depicts a victim of intimidating threat, and Hoffman must tread carefully with his questions by strategically letting himself into her home, puffing on a cigarette, sipping cold coffee, speaking softly and eventually getting out his notepad as she gradually breaks down her shell. Alexander doesn’t make it easy and so their scenes work so well in taut suspense of low whispers.

Nixon’s cohorts really are not the antagonists here. In essence, Goldman’s script (based on the reporters’ published book) welcomes the challenge of acquiring factual reporting as the overall conflict. This is best represented by Jason Robards’ portrayal of Post Editor Ben Bradlee. Robards won an Oscar, and he so deserved it. He wouldn’t give “Woodstein” a break until the truth willed itself out by the proper means that are necessary. He’s intimidating in the role but he’s open minded enough to not ignore the young reporters’ instincts. I love watching his scenes; the way he commands an office from a chair with his feet up or fidgets and writes with his red pen. When his boys finally get a solid piece, Bradlee’s character breaks for one moment to knock on a desk and clap his hands as he walks away from his men. They got it. He didn’t relent, and they finally got it. I love that moment. Simply marvelous.

All The President’s Men remains a favorite film of mine. The dialogue moves so fast that after seeing it a number of times I still haven’t connected all the dots, and yet that’s what I appreciate about it. I see something new every time.


By Marc S. Sanders

In the 1980s, a small production company named Cannon Films was started by an Israeli named Menachem Golan.  It churned out at least a dozen Charles Bronsan cheapy crime dramas and gave longevity to his Death Wish series of films.  Cannon also provided another franchise called American Ninja with action star Michael Dudikoff.  Dudikoff, nor any of his films won an Oscar, much less a Golden Globe or even an MTV Movie Award.  The poor guy with twenty bottles of mousse in his hair didn’t even get turned into an action figure. 

While I did see Death Wish 3, ahem…five times in the movie theatres (I mean there’s an outstanding final thirty minutes of a wall to wall shootout action in that film, and it was all a 13 year old boy yearned for at the time), Golan’s best product that I have at least seen to date is The Delta Force, featuring Chuck Norris, Lee Marvin and a host of stars most recently having been featured in every disaster film to crank out of the 1970s; Shelly Winters from The Poseidon Adventure, Robert Vaughn from The Towering Inferno and George Kennedy from every Airport movie under the sun.

Golan directed this film that was inspired by the 1985 hijacking of a TWA flight heading for Athens, Greece and he pretty much directed two different kinds of films in one.  The first hour focuses on the Libyan hijackers, led by an unrecognizable and terrifying Robert Forester, and their hostages.  A plane carrying mostly Americans is taken captive in midair and is diverted to Beirut.  Like the real-life event, a German born American stewardess is forced to select the Jewish passengers (Winters, Lanie Kazan, Joey Bishop and Martin Balsam) and separate them for an unknown fate.  An American Navy serviceman is also brutally tormented and later, an airline pilot (Bo Svenson) is interviewed by the media from the open window of the grounded plane’s cockpit, complete with a gun to his head.  All of this happened during that harrowing event.  Golan does a very good job of capturing these moments with heartbreak, fear and genuine terror.  The Jewish selection process is a scene that I take very personally, and it is not overdramatized as it glaringly hearkens back to the atrocities of the Nazis who sent millions of Jews to certain death, torture and concentration camps.  Remember, this film was released only 40 years after those terrible events.  Golan’s filmmaking makes certain the Holocaust is never forgotten.

Sprinkled throughout these first hour scenes are bits and pieces of the American strike team known as The Delta Force, led with gruff command by Lee Marvin and silent but deadly Chuck Norris.  These guys gear up, dress in black uniforms, load their aircraft carrier with motorcycles and armed dune buggies, listen to Marvin’s instructions and wait and wait and wait.  There’s something to appreciate in the wait of these skilled snipers and specialists.  Golan doesn’t rush the action.  Material is depicted showing Marvin, Norris and company exploring the options they have for taking out the terrorists and rescuing the hostages.  This is not a typical Rambo movie of destroying the village just to save it.  However, once the action starts, it doesn’t stop and Golan lets Norris do all the things he’s known for while arguably inspiring how POWERFUL Chuck Norris is compared to…well…anything else.  Don’t forget!  Inside Chuck Norris’ chin is ANOTHER FIST!  Also, Superman wears Chuck Norris underoos!  Chuck Norris can unscramble an egg!  Chuck Norris made a snowman out of rain!  It’s hard not to deny these claims when the film boasts a strike team consisting of 20-30 members, but Norris seems to do all the work and heavy lifting. 

It’s hard not to get caught up in The Delta Force.  You wanna see these terrorists get blown up real good.  You also wanna see Chuck Norris ride an agile moped equipped with an endless supply of missiles and ammunition ready to overturn enemy vehicles and bloody up a bad guy until he screams and turns on one foot before dropping dead with his eyes opened.  You also may get a jolt of energy from Alan Silvestri’s rah rah theme music that quickly stays embedded in your subconscious.  I read that his music was used for a time when the Indy 500 would air on TV.  That does not surprise me at all.  Its symphonic themes are as memorable as the Monday Night Football tune.

Unlike, other Norris films this crowd pleaser doesn’t just rely on him and his roundhouse kicks.  There’s a little bit of that schtick for the fans, but I gotta say I was truly touched by the cast as whole.  Lee Marvin (in his final film) echoes George C Scott’s portrayal of Patton.  The collective hostage cast are not overdramatized here.  Golan managed to capture a history to them.  While I thought Shelley Winters was a such joke for fodder in Poseidon, here she is truly sorrowful as she is separated from her husband played by Balsam.  Kazan and Bishop are equally touching.  Reader, this Jewish guy originally from New Jersey, who attended ten years of Yeshiva education, recognizes these folks when they are spirited vacationers early on, and then later tormented prisoners who’ve faced horrors like this before.

I know that Cannon Films also produced another favorite called Runaway Train with an Oscar nominated performance from Jon Voight.  As I write this column, I’ve yet to see that film.  It’s on my radar.  That being said, I have to wonder if Golan and company had stayed on this trajectory of genuine drama like he mustered in portions of The Delta Force, what powerfully impactful films might he also had up his sleeve.  Unfortunately, we were left with too much excess like American Ninja, I’m afraid.

Still, after watching The Delta Force you’ll absolutely believe that Chuck Norris can see things that don’t exist and that he counted to infinity…twice!