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MUBI Presents: “Bastards of Hitch” in New York

This August in NYC, a program of six films influenced by the Master of Suspense by such directors as De Palma, Saul Bass and Fincher.


Alfred Hitchcock. First, his name became synonymous with suspense. Then, his carefully cultivated and marketed brand of storytelling grew into its own veritable sub-genre of psycho-sexual thrillers. Today, his uniquely recognizable personal style and tone continues to influence generations of filmmakers’ tendencies as well as filmgoers’ expectations.

For this coming August, I programmed six movies influenced by the Master of Suspense to be screened at 92YTribeca (all on 35mm film): Jonathan Demme’s early exercise in paranoia amidst a world of double-crossing special agents; Richard Attenborough’s distorted reimagining of Psycho with a terrifying ventriloquist’s dummy sitting in for Norman Bates’ mother; Saul Bass’ sole directorial outing about a killer swarm (ants, not birds); an eminently elegant and dryly sardonic neo-noir mindgame from David Fincher; Nicolas Roeg’s own take on a story by frequent Hitchcock inspiration Daphne du Maurier; and a mid-career classic of voyeurism and murder from the most devoted heir to Hitchcock of them all, Brian De Palma.  (Special thanks to 92YTribeca's Cristina Cacioppo and MUBI's own Danny Kasman for their help and for the Last Embrace and Dressed to Kill blurbs, respectively.)

Last Embrace (Jonathan Demme, 1979)
Fri, Aug 3, 2012, 7 pm

Jonathan Demme’s delirious Hitchcock riff rivals the work of Brian De Palma in its dazzling technique and power to transcend borrowed storytelling.

Following his wife’s tragic death and a stay in a sanitarium, secret agent Harry Hannan (Roy Scheider) tries reentering his life but can’t shake that a conspiracy is afoot. As Hannan is thrust into a world of deadly games, backstabbers and Aramaic death wishes, Demme executes several thrilling set pieces (from a crowded train station platform to the edge of Niagara Falls) and evokes nearly every one of The Master’s films for this veritable amusement park of a thriller. Features an excellent cast that includes Janet Margolin, Charles Napier, John Glover and Christopher Walken.

Magic (Richard Attenborough, 1978)
Fri, Aug 3, 2012, 9:30 pm

A primary inspiration for this series, Magic plays like Psycho distorted through a funhouse mirror, plunking Anthony Hopkins down to tread water in the same sea of sexual retardation Anthony Perkins swam and swapping out the infamous specter of Norman Bates’ mother for an overbearing ventriloquist’s dummy who has a penchant for murder.

William Goldman’s bold, lunatic script (adapted from his own novel) giddily demands that the audience join him in demented leaps of logic while Richard Attenborough’s complimentarily assured and controlled direction makes it at all possible for the viewer to buy in for the ride. A virtuoso dual-performance by the young Hopkins as both the shy, nebbish ventriloquist Corky Withers and his uncontrollably obscene, foul-mouthed puppet Fats (alongside amazing turns by Burgess Meredith and Ann-Margaret) make every moment in this dark satire of fame and madness worth watching. Ted, eat your heart out.

Don’t Look Now (Nicholas Roeg, 1973)
Tue, Aug 7, 2012, 7:30 pm

Nicholas Roeg adapts Daphne du Maurier’s (Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, The Birds) chilling and grief-stricken psychic thriller about a British couple relocating to Venice to heal in the wake of their young daughter’s tragic drowning.

But a killer is stalking local women, bodies are surfacing in the canals and a ghostly figure bearing the telltale red raincoat of the dead child haunts the decadent, labyrinthine alleyways of this relentlessly unnerving masterpiece of Trauma Cinema. When the couple becomes separated and the husband reports his concerns to the police about his wife’s whereabouts, elements of the classic Hitchcockian wrong-man scenario become refracted through the kaleidoscopic lens of nightmare illogic championed by Italy’s contemporary Gialli film culture. Out of print on DVD in the U.S., Don’t Look Now still holds the honor of including the most cathartically humane sex-scene ever put to celluloid, an experimental, fragmentary, achronological hyper-montage set-piece that brought as much notoriety upon having orgasms as Psycho did upon taking showers.

Phase IV (Saul Bass, 1974)
Thu, Aug 9, 2012, 7:30 pm

From Hitchcock’s long-time poster- and titles-designer comes an insectoid response to the Master’s own famous avian thriller.

If The Birds proposed global annihilation by an irrational swarm, Phase IV imagines our apocalypse via an ultra-rational force of hyper-intelligent ants. One computer-logician races to crack the hive’s language in time to avert mankind’s doom, but he’s deterred by an increasingly mad scientist and a beautiful naif during the unpredictable course of this underrated sci-fi thriller in which each image is more graphically striking than the last. What else would you expect from one of the most renowned visual geniuses of the century? A calculated use of color and a groovy electronic score round out a cinematic package surreal enough to live up to its Dali-inspired promotional imagery (of a single drone burrowing forth from a pained, clutching hand). If Bass’ heavy reliance on unsettling Macro photography of the colony doesn’t leave your skin crawling for weeks afterwards, the hive-mind has probably already subsumed your brain!

The Game (David Fincher, 1997)
Tue, Aug 14, 2012, 7:30 pm

What do you get for the man who has everything?

For zillionaire investment banker Nicholas Van Orton, a surprise birthday visit from his prodigal younger brother yields the unwanted gift of invitation into an ultra-exclusive alternate reality “game” offered by the deeply mysterious Consumer Recreation Services. Prideful curiosity becomes begrudging involvement for Van Orton until the purportedly interactive entertainment gives way through ever-increasing hostility to an apparent criminal manipulation of him, a potentially lethal set-up to gain access to his fortunes and reduce him to nothing. David Fincher masterfully pulls the strings in an increasingly destabilized narrative about existence-as-pyschological-thriller whose rules grow less and less clear by the minute. Featuring a hairpin plotline with as many oscillations as the vertiginous San Francisco escalations that provide its topography, The Game combines the reliably unexpected twists and immaculate formal showmanship of a Hitchcock classic with Fincher's own updated palette and wickedly deadpan humor. Michael Douglas, Sean Penn and Deborah Kara Unger are in on the joke with fantastic performances.

Dressed to Kill (Brian De Palma, 1980)
Tue, Aug 21, 2012, 7:30 pm

“There's all kinds of ways of getting killed in this city—if you're looking for it.”

In Brian De Palma's 1980 re-imagining of Psycho, the story's iconography has shifted to the city (New York) and its simultaneous promise—and threat—of romance and violence. Angie Dickinson portrays a trophy housewife cruising the metropolis to augment her unsatisfying marriage with a casual tryst, and attempts to explain the city's coiled, seductive but terrifying energy—first by her psychologist (Michael Caine), then by her amateur sleuth son and finally by a blonde hooker drawn into the plot (Nancy Allen)—fail in the face of an urban vulnerability that conducts a pervasive sense of both potential... and fear. Each space (public and private) might be observed, spied upon. From each personal encounter might spring excitement or horror, a meet-cute or an irrational murder. De Palma's mid-career classic represents the 2nd generation of Hitchcockians—a loose group which includes De Palma, alongside Claude Chabrol, Dario Argento and David Lynch—who were directly inspired by Hitch's hybrid explorations of perspective, psychology and perversion. 

Interesting series. I’ve never heard of Last Embrace or Phase IV. If you talk Chabrol as a bastard son you also have to talk Truffaut. But I think both would maybe be considered 1st generation?
I don’t think Truffaut is as directly a Hitchcockian as Chabrol, though obviously the influence is evident. I feel like Chabrol is in some ways continuing a project begun by Hitchcock (as with the others I mention). Perhaps Chabrol is part of a “1st generation” too, but I imagine that as a phantom generation that existed nearly simultaneously with Hitch in the 40s and 50s, his younger peers, and who were influenced by him in less direct ways.
I don’t really know Chabrol’s cinema, so I can’t comment on it. Truffaut was clearly a reverential imitator. This phantom generation you speak of would perhaps include Joan Harrison.
Truffaut’s Bride Wore Black is more of an overt Hitchcock tribute than anything by Chabrol. But one could program a great series of double features that paired Chabrol films with thematically related Hitchcock titles.
That’s true, but I think Mississippi Mermaid is even more of a direct homage. The Bride Wore Black is more of a pulpy B-film at the core.
The Bride Wore Black is currently touring with a restored version. Phase IV is interesting, but not particularly good. Parts of it are great, but it’s ultimately pretty empty. I was hoping for more from Saul Bass. The film is akin to the Birds in that nature is out of control, but it’s doesn’t really have the same atmosphere. The current crop of French thrillers owes much to Hitchcock, in my opinion.
Truffaut’s “The Soft Skin” is in my opinion one of the best homages to Hitchcock. In fact, Truffaut made this movie after completing the series of interviews he conducted with Hitchcock, which would later become the seminal book on the Master of Suspense.

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