I am quite sure that the pandemic will change some of our long-standing habits, an obvious one requiring employees to go to an office on a daily basis. Another shared routine, going to movie theaters, is also changing. I, like so many other movie buffs, was saddened with the news that the ArcLight Hollywood and its Cinerama Dome, along with its theaters in other locations, would not be reopening after the long shutdown from the pandemic. Part of really experiencing a new film is seeing it on the big screen with other people in your presence. I get that some films are not worthy of the cost and effort to make it to the cinema house. But I am not talking about those. So, allow me to share the cinematic power that three films had on me when they were first produced, and I experienced them with the kindred crowd in the theater.
In 1959, upon turning 14, my mother asked me what I would like for my birthday. I had read that Alfred Hitchcock’s, North by Northwest, was soon to open at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. I asked her if she would take me, and she agreed. Because I was a fan of Hitchcock, who already had gained celebrity status in directing his television series, I was eager to see this much talked about movie when it came to New York. I remember seeing the Rockettes, an all-female dance group give a brief but most enjoyable performance before the movie. The theater was a complete sell out as early reviews had said that Mr. Hitchcock had directed another gem of a thriller. As the curtain slowly opened, the widescreen cinematography appeared stunning. From a child’s perspective, I viewed the film with a certain eeriness inasmuch as I knew the action was occurring very near to where I was watching the film. There is Hitchcock making his personal introduction in the film, as the door of a NY bus he tries to board, slams in his face. It all seemed enchanting going from the Rockettes stage performance to the opening credits of the film.
Part of the grandeur of the movie are the unforgettable scenes that are played over and over again in the media and in our minds. I can still see Cary Grant with the fright in his face running from what had appeared to be a crop duster, but is really a biplane spraying bullets at him. The fact that you are not ready for it adds to the suspense that builds from scene to scene. It doesn’t matter that you suspect Cary will survive all the attempts on his life because you can’t help but root for him. Who would not root for Cary Grant? Actually, if Grant and the character he portrayed, Roger O. Thornhill, an advertising man, did die, I may have reacted differently to the film.
About one year later, the next Hitchcock movie, Psycho, that I saw when it opened, did exactly what it hadn’t done to Cary Grant. Only about one third of the film has elapsed when Janet Leigh, who appeared to be the main character and therefore star of the movie, is murdered. No prior Hollywood film had killed off the apparent star so early in a movie. As Hitchcock put it: “The suddenness of the murder in the shower, coming as it were, out of the blue.” How could this be happening to Janet Leigh? Yes, she was taking money that didn’t belong to her, but she certainly did not deserve the end she met. The horror on the actress’s face as she is being attacked, the blood, and the last terrible scene, where her eye floating in the bathtub takes up the entire screen, shocks the spectators. I remember the cries of the audience. This was not a film I would have wanted to see at home, especially, if I were alone. Part of the experience of looking at the film with others was that you were not alone in seeing some very gruesome scenes.
Hitchcock understood the meaning of less being more. Nowadays movies have long drawn-out bloody scenes that never appear to end. In Psycho, there were only three very scary scenes with each of them lasting a very brief time: 1) Janet Leigh in the shower; 2) Martin Balsam, the detective, investigating what had happened to Leigh who had been missing and 3) The chair in which “mother” swerves revealing her frightening skull. What adds to the film’s intensity on the viewer is that the apparent “good guy,” Martin Balsam is also killed. Insofar as the movie proceeds in a totally unpredictable manner, the suspense almost becomes too much to handle. The unique and chilling cello and violin arrangement that Bernard Herrmann created further intensified the horror of the violence on the screen.
Hitchcock anticipated problems with the censors. It is interesting to note they had little objection to the very evident violence in the movie, but rather were concerned with the nude scene of Janet Leigh in the shower. Perhaps it was Hitchcock’s fame or his coolness in dealing with the board of censors from Paramount. Initially, they sent a message to the office of Hitchcock: “Please take out the nudity.” Hitchcock, in feigning contrition, repacked the film without editing any of the scenes in question. He then cannily bargained with the censors, saying he would cut an earlier scene with Janet Leigh in bed with John Gavin, clothed, if they would allow him to leave the shower scene untouched. When Hitch and cast rescheduled the reshoot that the censors were supposed to clear, they never showed up. However all ultimately agreed, to Hitchcock’s delight, that they did not see any nudity in the shower sequence.
The final film I wish to discuss is Death Wish. At the time of its release in 1974, I was living in Manhattan and saw the picture, the week it first opened, in Times Square. What I remember most about watching this film was the way in which the audience, multiracial, reacted to it. For those not familiar with this film (that had several sequels), Charles Bronson plays a New York City architect, Paul Kesey. His mild-mannered nature snaps when intruders break into his home raping his daughter and murdering his wife. When his daughter is committed to a mental hospital, Paul takes a revolver given to him by a client and goes on a late-night walk in which he is mugged at gunpoint. He reacts automatically in shooting the mugger but, upon realizing what he has done, throws-up. Subsequently, Paul walks through dangerous areas such as Central Park at night, with the intention of luring muggers and then silencing them with his pistol. Meanwhile, no matter whether the mugger was white, black or Hispanic, when Kesey killed him, the movie audience broke out into loud cheers.
Because the film made Bronson, an anti-hero of sorts by his eliminating the bad guys, it appeared to support vigilantism. In 1974, the rate of crime in New York and other cities was much higher than it is presently. I viewed the shouts of approval by my fellow moviegoers as releasing their own hurts and pent-up frustrations from very possibly being victims of crimes. Although film critics had mixed reactions to the film, the public sentiment was different leading to a discussion on how to deal with the increasing level of crime.
I am sure all of the above three films have been available for home screenings. However, I can’t imagine experiencing these movies at home, in the same way I did as a member of an audience, sharing the event in common with others. I am quite sure that the powerful impact I felt could not be viewed at home. Often the time and cost it takes to go to a movie theater takes priority over the convenience of staying at home and seeing it there. Hopefully, enough others will both consider and support these benefits allowing the movie house to stay with us as an integral part of our culture.