The Other Psycho

2 04 2010

Carl Boehm in 'Peeping Tom'

Two films are released this week to mark the 50th anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. The first is Psycho itself, re-released in all of its stab-happy, monochrome glory just in time for the Easter holidays. The second is Johan Grimonprez’s Double Take, a sly and elusive piece about the place of doubles both in Hitchcock’s work and in wider American culture during the Cold War.

But if Hitchcock’s most famous film is justly fêted for its innovative and visceral impact, then the work of another British director has, it seems, been overlooked. Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom was released just three months before Psycho, and covered much the same ground as the American shocker. Starring Carl Boehm and Anna Massey, it tells the story of a lonely, voyeuristic cameraman, who is obsessed with murdering women so that he can film their last moments. 

The reception that the two films received couldn’t have been more different. Hitchcock’s film played to packed houses and took a healthy 11 million dollars at the box office, while Peeping Tom was pulled from UK cinemas after just a week, in the wake of an unprecedented critical backlash.

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An Introduction to…

5 02 2010
Joseph Cotton

"Hello, Film Advice Hotline?" Joseph Cotton in 'Shadow of a Doubt'

For a long time, I resisted getting into The Fall. The band were on the John Peel show a lot during my impressionable teenage years, and I was always rather taken with their brand of angry Manc ranting. But, at the same time, I was aware that The Fall had been going since 1978 and had averaged at least an album a year, not to mention a whole mess of live recordings, bootlegs and rarities. If I started buying their records now, I thought, I’d have a whole lot of catching up to do. So, for some years, I did everything I could to ignore them. Then one day, out of the blue, I thought ‘fuck it’ and bought a CD or two pretty much at random. 

The cinema can be a bit like that too. Many of the most famous and influential directors of yesteryear have back catalogues that, to a newcomer, can be a little bit intimidating. You may have heard of Bergman or Hitchcock or Ozu and have a vague idea that their work is important in some way, but as a novice where do you start? Bergman made 44 films, Ozu more than 50, Hitchcock 57. Knowing which ones you should watch first, to get a sense of the director’s style and preoccupations, can be nigh on impossible.

Here, then, are my suggestions for the two or, at most, three films that might best introduce you to some of the most prolific Big Beasts of the cinema. 

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Talking at the Movies

15 01 2010
Eric Rohmer

'Le Rayon Vert'

Eric Rohmer, who died this week at the age of 89, made the kind of films that put a lot of people off French New Wave cinema. Eschewing formal notions of plot and dramatic structure, the director instead focused on character and, above all, on conversation. In films like Ma Nuit Chez Maud, Le Rayon Vert and his ‘tales of four seasons’, Rohmer used long, intelligent discussions between his main characters to explore certain universal themes and to lead the audience towards revelations that are on such a small – that is to say human – scale that when they arrive they might almost be missed.    

Critics of Rohmer have long dismissed his films as excessively ‘talky’. And indeed, the unprepared viewer might well be baffled and rather bored by the prospect of watching a group of middle class French people talk at length about their lives and feelings. The fact is that since the movies learned to talk, audiences have learned to search for their cinematic thrills elsewhere. Conversation is something that works well in literature, and even better in theatre, but on the screen, in excess, it risks making cinema seem downright uncinematic.

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Location, Location, One Location

3 12 2009


'Paranormal Activity'

If you’re out shopping for, say, a small car or an acre of land, then $15 000 is a reasonable amount of money to have in your back pocket. If, on the other hand, you’re planning to make a feature film, $15 000 is very little indeed.

Yet that’s the amount of money that American director Oren Peli reportedly spent on his debut film Paranormal Activity, a chilling tale of suburban demonic possession that has, in recent months, taken over $107 million at the US box office.

Peli was partly able to keep production costs so low by shooting the film almost entirely within the confines of his own home in San Diego. With a principal cast of two, Peli presents his movie as ‘found footage’ shot by a young couple trying to get to the bottom of spooky goings-on in their house at night. This device largely works, with the director using the confined spaces of his home and some unnerving night-vision footage of the couple sleeping to create a tense, claustrophobic atmosphere that’s ripe for all kinds of shocks.

But if shooting an entire film in one location is easy on the pocket of the cash-strapped film-maker, it throws up some unique challenges too. How do you hold the audience’s attention for 90 minutes or more without a change of scenery? How do you make your film cinematic as opposed to theatrical? And how do you move the camera around in what could be a pretty restricted space?

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8 10 2009
'Looking for Eric'

'Looking for Eric'

Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are standing in a movie line waiting to see Bergman’s Face to Face. Behind them, a man in a tweed jacket pontificates loudly to his date about the ideas of cultural theorist Marshall McLuhan and the failings of Fellini. When challenged by Woody, he proclaims himself to be an academic who teaches a course on media at Columbia University and who thus has plenty of valuable insights into such matters.

Woody responds by bringing Marshall McLuhan out from behind a pillar. “You know nothing of my work,” he tells the unfortunate academic. “How you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing.” 

The scene is from Annie Hall and the cameo is the way that cameos used to be: brief and to the point. Whether it was Hitchcock walking a couple of terriers in The Birds or Richard Branson being frisked at an airport in Casino Royale, the point of the cameo was to provide a little, usually comic, diversion from the main narrative.

Recently though, this seems to have changed. In films like Being John Malkovich, JcVD and now Looking for Eric the cameo has become the narrative, with stars taking leading roles in films about themselves and using the opportunity to examine, unravel and poke fun at their own celebrity status.

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