The Art of the Sell: “Psycho” trailer

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

There’s so much that’s marvelous about the original trailer for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. The virtues begin with the auteur himself, genially leading the viewer through a tour of the film’s sets as if they are real places, all the while alluding to grave horrors that took place within them. And then there’s the pleasant music that accompanies Hitchcock’s ambling, like the soundtrack from Leave it to Beaver was misplaced there. And its six minutes — six minutes! — all builds to a droll gag utilizing a shot from what would prove to be the most famed sequence in a career that had no shortage of contenders for that designation.

The hackneyed phrase “they don’t make ’em like that anymore” isn’t even accurate in this instance. They didn’t make ’em like that back then. How could they? Aside from those directors who were also major actors, there has surely never been another person who took up residence behind the camera who had the kind of immediate stature and inherent charisma to effectively serve as a tour guide in such a promotional effort. As with so many of his other cinematic triumphs, only Hitchcock could have pulled this off.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Art of the Sell” tag.

Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Twenty-One

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#21 — Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock, 1943)

Family is a twisty, tricky thing. For Charlie (Teresa Wright), a cheery teenager in a small California town, the imminent arrival of her uncle, also named Charlie (Joseph Cotten), is cause for rejoicing. The two have an obvious connection through their shared nickname (he’s Charles, she’s Charlotte), but there are hints at other parallels, with director Alfred Hitchcock framing them in similar ways in their respective introductions. The connection is positioned as profound, which of course only serves to make an eventual spiritual betrayal all the more harsh. Shadow of a Doubt might be the first full and proper manifestation of Hitchcock’s worldview.  It’s not his first great film — there are at least three or four other titles that can vie for that honorific — but if offers a shrewd, potent version of the thesis of lurking discontent that would shade the best of his work in the decades to come, along with a view visual precursors of the greatness to come. Towering achievements like Psycho and Strangers on the Train hold echoes of shouts first issued here.

Young Charlie quickly suspects that her namesake relation is hiding dreadful secrets, specifically of murderous crimes. She begins investigating, consistently worried that Uncle Charlie is onto her, perhaps putting her own well-being at risk. This is where Hitchcock’s masterful ability to orchestrate scenes comes into play. There’s not a lot of trickery nor manipulation to the storytelling. Instead, Hitchcock coaxes maximum menace out of the slightest of reactions. Cotten doesn’t particularly play Charlie like a looming threat. Indeed, it’s the casual calm of the performance that instills so much menace, making Charlie unpredictable. Wright is similarly contained in her anxiety, depicting the character as trying her level best to keep her composure lest it trigger further suspicions. Hitchcock loved his cat and mouse games, but Shadow of a Doubt has a defter touch than that. Overt gamesmanship is replaced by a mutual effort to avoid stirring worry, which is of course a more realistic depiction of how such a scenario would play out. Though Hitchcock’s instinctual playfulness is one of the great pleasures of classic cinema, watching him master a tighter, more intensely focused tone raises a different sort of joy.

As usual with a Hitchcock film, several different writers received credit for the screenplay, including his spouse and most invaluable collaborator, Alma Reville. It’s the fingerprints of Thornton Wilder, five years past the seminal play Our Town, that give Shadow of a Doubt one of its most intriguing elements. Hitchcock had previously played with the idea of evil shadowing a supposedly safe relationship, but this film plays up its invasion into an idyllic corner of America. That incursion is not simply from the visitor from a big, Eastern city (Philadelphia, to be precise), but in a odd morbidity that swirls around like dizzy gnats, exemplified by the conversations between young Charlie’s father (Henry Travers) and a neighbor (Hume Cronyn), fellow fans of crime story magazines who openly speculate about how to commit the perfect murder. The constructed safety of Americana is a canard. There are any number of individuals looking at the white picket fences and ruminating on how easy it would be to impale a person on one of the slats. In part, Shadow of a Doubt is about unwittingly inviting danger in through the front door. More than that, it’s about how evil has been inside all along.

Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Twenty-Eight

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#28 — Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock, 1946)

It seems Notorious began with a desire on the part of director Alfred Hitchock to cast Ingrid Bergman as a woman involved in deceits and duplicitous machinations at the highest levels. This inkling would have come to him at right around the time Bergman was collecting accolades and a bright, shiny Academy Award for her work in Gaslight and as he was on the cusp of working with the actress on Spellbound, a film similarly preoccupied with the way madness can infiltrate as person’s psyche, including through the manipulations of others. Whether or not Hitchcock was primed to give Bergman a little bit of relief from those heavy, demanding roles, that’s exactly what happens in Notorious. Yes, the film is awash in suspense and scored with the director’s famed psychosexual fascinations. It also provides Bergman a chance to deliver an atypically loose and liberated performance, taking hearty swings at her character’s glum hedonism as she endures the unwelcome attention that comes with having a father who’s been convicted of spying for the Nazis.

Bergman’s character, Alicia, is drawn into an effort by U.S. government agents to monitor the actions of a group of Nazi spies that have taken up residence in Brazil after the war. Following instructions, Alicia makes romantic overtures towards Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), despite her attraction to her main U.S. handler, T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant). As opposed to the sort of spy caper that it dependent on ludicrously complex plots, Notorious builds its tension through the smallest of details — a broken bottle, a missing key — relying on the carefully developed dynamics between the characters to stir up anxiety. Hitchcock is often celebrated for his novel staging and sly innovations, the playfulness he brings to the art of shaping narrative, but his greatest skill, the one that truly sets him apart from almost everyone else who sat behind a Hollywood camera, is making the minuscule mighty in any given story. A giant splash has an impact. A well-placed pebble creates ripples that are far more disconcerting on an otherwise placid surface. Hitchcock knew that, and makes it work marvelously in Notorious. For a filmmaker known for the big and bold, he had amazing restraint.

Of course, Hitchcock was also a devilish manipulator of audiences. Notorious was released in early September of 1945, almost exactly one year after World War II officially ended with the Japanese signing surrender papers aboard the USS Missouri. The nation — the world — was still adjusting, considering the potential residual trouble that might arise from all those unaccounted for Nazi scientists strewn across nations. What might now seem like a quaint, handy means of establishing villainy in the film (and Hitchcock was certainly not adverse to short cuts in establishing the good, bad, and dangerous in his films) must have seems raw and fraught with immediate threat when the film arrived. Hitchcock takes full advantage of that, making every overture of the Nazis seem incredibly insidious, a first domino teetering before of a field of black tablets ready to flatten the world. It wasn’t a measured consideration of the geopolitical troubles of the time. It was ever better: an inspired exploitation of those troubles to concoct the highest of drama. Because, let’s face it, more than inform or inspire, that’s truly what movies do best.

Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Thirty-Two

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#32 — Suspicion (Alfred Hitchcock, 1941)

Alfred Hitchcock had an abundance of theses he kept circling around to during his career, a natural outcome of his prolific nature and usual ability to take his pick of projects. That’s a significant part of the reason cineastes tend to flip over Vertigo: it’s the one instance in which the master filmmaker took a swing at the piñata of his creative psyche and every laced candy came tumbling out. Part of the fun of examining the best films of Hitchcock’s career, then, is considering precisely where they fit into the puzzle of his whirling mind. It is one thing to look at Suspicion, a prime exhibit in the argument that marriage is treacherous territory, is riveting in its own right, a primer in taking suspense to levels so agonizing it can only provoke nervous giggles. It’s worth seeing it as a sort of response — perhaps inadvertent, perhaps not — to the same year’s earlier Mr. & Mrs. Smith, widely considered the one straight comedy Hitchcock directed in his career. In that picture, marital conflict is positioned as the stuff of burbling farce. Unsurprisingly, Hitchcock never seems fully at ease within the film, which only enhances the sensation that Suspicion as an answer meant to better express the director’s diabolically cynical worldview.

Suspicion follows the rapid courtship and tensely charged marriage of Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant) and Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine). Lina comes from money and quickly realizes that Johnnie has a flurry of bad habits and no income of his own. Though he expects that they can just live off the family fortune, Lina insists that he pursue his own career, and thus the chasm of discontent begins to crack open. Compounding the problems is Johnnie’s propensity for stretching the truth, fueling Lina’s mounting lack of trust in her husband. Hitchcock plays this out beautifully, like a dealer who’s memorized the order of the cards in the deck and gleefully anticipates every reaction as he doles out another. He keeps pushing the woeful worry of the film right to the edge, then nudges just a bit more, sending a new dusting of pebbles tumbling down the cliff face.

Based on the 1932 novel Before the Fact, by Anthony Berkeley Cox (writing as Francis Iles), the screenplay is credited to Samson Raphaelson, Joan Harrison, and Alma Reville. It is of course that last name that provides the additional bit of tempting dark speculation to the inner psychology of the film. Hitchcock’s frequent and trusted collaborator, Reville was also his wife, and the thought of the two of them working together to concoct this depiction of marriage as dangerous misery piles on the layers of splendid psychodrama to an already intellectually and emotionally potent film. All this added knowledge is hardly a requirement to understand the dark pleasures of Suspicion. Right there on the surface, Hitchcock manages to a imbue a glass of milk with pronounced menace. That’s a mighty achievement, no outside research required.

Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Thirty-Eight

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#38 — Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940)

Rebecca holds a unique place in Oscar lore as the sole Alfred Hitchcock film to nab the Best Picture trophy (or Outstanding Production, as it was still called at the time). The famously unrewarded filmmaker lost out to John Ford (for The Grapes of Wrath) the second of four Best Director awards Ford collected in his career. Of course, naming Rebecca Best Picture without similarly honoring Hitchcock is patently absurd, given the director’s always distinctive stamp characterized by a nearly unparalleled skill at the interlocking of the mechanics of narrative with a striking visual sense (to be fair, Ford may be Hitchcock’s closest rival in this inherent filmmaking talent, at least among his contemporaries). No one else could have made Rebecca, not with the same sense of elegance and psychological acuteness. Hitchcock’s first American production, it signals everything to come, all that would earn him the title The Master of Suspense. In some ways, it’s a more useful example of his prevailing preoccupations and smart storytelling tactics than some of the later, more famous works that get routinely held up for their tricky imagery and twisty razzle-dazzle. The story of Rebecca, adapted from the Daphne du Maurier novel of the same name, is direct, even simple. It’s the inner complications in the souls of the characters that give the film its heft and potency.

It’s telling that Hitchcock openly and famously discussed the use of MacGuffins in his work. He saw the largely meaningless, even somewhat undefined object that drives the plot as a useful tool to get at what he was really interest in, namely the corrosive worry, bitterness, duplicity, and suspicion that drove drama. Hitchcock may have made films that can reasonably be categorized as horror, but there were no vampires of werewolves marauding through his films. The supernatural wasn’t a requirement to make an audience unsettled. The embedded nastiness of humanity would do the trick just fine. in Rebecca, Joan Fontaine plays a young woman who meets and falls in love with a gloomy, dashing widower (Laurence Olivier). After a whirlwind two weeks, they marry and he takes her back to his country estate in England. It’s there that the new Mrs. de Winter (no other name is provided for Fontaine’s character) confronts the long, intrusive memory of her predecessor, the Rebecca of the title. The plot holds plenty of additional turns, but it’s all to stoke the blaze of the lead character’s inner turmoil as she finds herself in an increasingly dire situation. The point is not what happens, but how she reacts to it.

Gifted with a craggy emotional landscape to traverse, removed by miles from the sort of simpering melodrama more typical for the day, Fontaine is fiercely committed to the material, exploring the many shadows as they close in around her. Olivier turns his Shakespearean authority to his role, imbuing it with imperious menace. Like a pool player trying to carom off of every rail, Hitchcock also makes room for a splendidly droll supporting performance by George Sanders, an acquaintance who figures prominently in the sordid history of Rebecca. There’s a lot going on, but it never feels overwhelming. Instead, the simplicity I identified earlier is the most lasting quality of the film, a remarkable testament to Hitchcock’s impeccable sense of storytelling balance. At his best, he always seemed to know precisely what a film needed at any given moment and had the shrewd timing to deploy the vital element in just the right way. He proved that repeatedly throughout his career. Rebecca was hardly the first time he did so, but it’s a striking opening salvo as he began the fruitful phase of his career that took place in the epicenter of filmmaking.

Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Four

#4 — Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock, 1951)
The films of Alfred Hitchcock are ideally suited for clip reels, which can skew perception of them a bit. Moreso than Billy Wilder, John Ford, or any of his other rough contemporaries who presided over at least as many classic films, Hitchcock had an eye and a knack for that one master shot — often achieved through some revolutionary manipulation of the visuals — ideally suited to pulled out of context to stand on its own. By the time distinctive shots have been shown ad nauseum in aggressively stitched together celebrations of the best the history of cinema has to offer, it can start to feel like whichever Hitchcock films were the flashiest should be automatically held up as the peak of his craft. I’m probably susceptible to this trend, forgiving, say, the strained, borderline laughable closing scene of Psycho that explains Norman’s actions through a grandiose psychiatric diagnosis in part because the spectacular shower scene is embedded in my brain. And yet, when forced to name the Hitchcock film that I consider his pinnacle (acknowledging the only person forcing me is me, as these decade lists are a self-delivered assignment), I always defer to one of his leaner features: Strangers on Train.

Starting with the novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith, maybe the most formidable writer Hitchcock ever looked to for source material, the filmmaker and his collaborators (including, briefly, Raymond Chandler as a screenwriter) burrowed into the story’s edgy complexities, creating a intricate exploration of the way shadows can infiltrate the most comfortable of lives. It begins with a chance encounter, tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and wealthy layabout Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) meet while riding the rails to their respective homes. Some idle conversation about the interpersonal challenges in their lives inspires Bruno to share his idea about committing the perfect murder, a trading of desired victims among individuals with no known connection to one another, eliminating any evident motive. Bruno takes Guy’s polite acquiescence to the twisted theory as an official go ahead to villainously seek out the person causing the tennis player grief, his cheating wife, Miriam (Laura Elliott). The film settles into one of Hitchcock’s favorite grooves, that of an ordinary fellow desperately outmatched by the troubling circumstances he’s stumbled into.

There are a couple trick shot moments — notably, the grimmest sequence viewed largely through the reflection in a pair of eyeglasses — but Strangers on a Train mostly finds Hitchcock deploying a narrative with clockwork certainty. The Master of Suspense is preoccupied with that very quality, bringing the story along with a keen attention to every little detail and every tiny turn that will enhance the noose-tightening tension of the film. This is also one of the director’s craftier outings in terms of the performances. He plays to Granger’s limitations as an actor, heightening the stolidness of Guy. On the other side of the criss-cross, Walker develops an intense level of menace in his character more through insidious camaraderie and ease. He’s no maniac. He’s simply someone whose established comfort in getting what he wants has infiltrated the darker parts of his soul, like murky tide rushing up the beach. Hitchcock is uniquely attuned to the balance that’s needed in the film, achieving a sense of mounting trouble while also keeping it firmly grounded in the interplay between individuals, tangled somewhat in misunderstanding, but mostly engaged in a mutual triggering of base desires, some of them viciously brutal. Few other films, by Hitchcock or anyone else, get at the lurking malevolence of the human psyche.

Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Seven

It’s probably impossible to pinpoint the first Alfred Hitchcock-designed image I was exposed to, but I know the single shot that stands as the first I really saw. It’s arguably his most famous, certainly in a neck and neck race with the shower curtain being pulled back to reveal a shadowy figure with a gray-haired bun holding a knife or the blonde, drenched woman screaming in response. The shot that connected with me, for me, had a man in a suit running furiously along an expansive, arid field, a biplane bearing down on him from behind. The shot is dynamic, propulsive, beautiful framed, and intriguing in the manner of the best storytelling. I wanted to know how that situation arose. How did he get there? In truth, the eventual lesson I was able to take from the film is that it didn’t necessarily matter how he got there, with the antecedent for “he” either the character or the master filmmaker. As Paul Thomas Anderson recently observed: “North by Northwest? Tell me again how he gets to the middle of the field with a plane after him? I can’t. How does he get to Mount Rushmore? I don’t know, but it’s great.” Sometimes the art of storytelling is in making the details of the story irrelevant.

Hitchcock believed in the facility of the MacGuffin, an item that drives the plot without necessarily having a great deal of import or meaning. It is important because the story maintains it is important, because the narrative needs it to be. In the case of North by Northwest, the primary MacGuffin is microfilm containing devastating secrets that a secret organization is trying to smuggle out of the United States. In the midst of their efforts, there is a case of mistaken identity creating the favorite Hitchcockian trope of an everyday joe thrust into extraordinary circumstances. In this case, the normal fellow is hardly a schlub. Roger O. Thornhill is played by Cary Grant, and its a testament to the actor’s marvelous capabilities as a performing that he operates with his customary charm but still suggests all the ways Roger is plain as can be. As matters escalate around him — the previously mentioned biplane buzzing, a sudden knife in the back, side trips of varying intensity to the United Nations and Mount Rushmore, a bizarre scene of forced drunk driving — Grant is perfectly perplexed, always a half-step behind, his boldly unruffled demeanor showing the slightest sign of fraying around the edges.

Hitchcock delivered Vertigo one year earlier. While that is now routinely cited as the quintessential depository of all of the filmmaker’s creative obsessions, North by Northwest is the movie that was genuinely built to be the ultimate Hitchcock film. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman has said as much, noting that he did everything he could to tilt the script to every one of Hitchcock’s considerable strengths. Informing that mission, no doubt, was an understanding that Hitchcock was above all a grand showman. Yes, he tapped into something primal in the human condition and could subtly paw at the darker parts of his own psyche to find his way to a troubling universality. At his core, though, he was an entertainer, a creator who had an inherent understanding of the rhythms of the audience — their desires, their anxieties, their passion — unrivaled until Steven Spielberg explored the waters surrounding Amity Island. Lehman set Hitchcock up gloriously, giving him everything he needs to spin up a buoyant thriller. Hitchcock may have made better films or more important films. I’m not sure he made anything else that is so plainly, perfectly joyful in its mastery of every stirring part of the movies.