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Back Street (1961)

Monday, January 7th, 2013

Here’s a movie that wasn’t shot in Lincoln, Nebraska — but it’s set there.

Fanny Hurst’s oft-filmed tearjerker gets the ultra-sudsy, completely over the top treatment in this glossy Ross Hunter production directed by David Miller, which manages with stupefying accuracy to consist of nothing but one cliché after another, both in the dialogue and the visuals, creating an entirely unconvincing narrative centering on Rome, Paris, New York and — wait for it — Lincoln, Nebraska, all of it created entirely on the Universal back lot, with some stock footage spliced in for establishing shots. There’s more rear projection and doubling in this film than one can imagine.

The plot is both simple and predictable; Susan Hayward is an up and coming fashion designer who leaves Lincoln for New York, where she makes it big, but falls in love with John Gavin along the way, and since he’s married to Vera Miles, this creates all sorts of complications. In the 50s, the great Douglas Sirk would have directed this for Hunter, who specialized in this sort of film, but by the 1960s, the whole production had to be done relatively cheaply, with the somewhat stolid Gavin standing in for Rock Hudson.

Vera Miles is the best thing in the film, and one wonders what might have happened to her career if Alfred Hitchcock hadn’t put her under exclusive contract, and then pretty much kept her off the market — except for Psycho and The Wrong Man — but the most striking thing about Back Street is in its absolute insistence at being utterly predictable at every turn. One can literally recite the dialogue for the film without ever having seen it, and it’s hard to believe that the protagonists of the film took it very seriously; it almost defines the camp sensibility.

There’s a gorgeous DVD out on the film now from TCM; it’s a jawdropping experience.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho — Frame by Frame Video

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see the new Frame by Frame video on Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).

I’ve blogged on Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic masterpiece Psycho before, and here’s part of what I had to say back then, on October 7, 2011;

“Psycho had a curious genesis: Hitchcock was under contract to Paramount Studios for his theatrical films, but was also contracted to Universal Studios for his television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents, an anthology series of mysteries, each running roughly 30 minutes, which debuted in 1955 (the show expanded to an hour in 1962, and ended its run in 1965).

Hitchcock usually confined his input on the series to helping to select the stories for dramatization, lending his name and image to the project, and also providing a series of delightfully droll introductions and postscripts to each teleplay, which he personally delivered in his usual laconic style.

THitchcock would direct an episode of the series, and when he did, the speed and professionalism of the Universal crews astounded him. Ordinarily bored by the filmmaking process — the actual shooting seemed almost an afterthought to his exquisitely detailed storyboards — Hitchcock found himself caught up again in the excitement of actually shooting a movie.

Having known for some time that his 1950s big budget suspense film strategy was fast falling out of favor, Hitchcock cast around for some fresh material, and found it in Robert Bloch’s novel, Psycho. Using an intermediary to keep the cost down, Hitchcock bought the rights to the novel, and pitched the project to Paramount.

But Paramount found the material too exotic, offbeat, and problematic, and refused to finance the film. After much negotiation, Hitchcock struck a deal to shoot the film at Universal in black and white, using his Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV crew, funding the budget of $806,947 entirely with his own money, and also deferring his standard director’s fee of $250,000 in return for a 60% ownership of the film’s negative. Still unconvinced that the finished film would click, Paramount nevertheless acquiesced, and agreed to release the finished film.

Hitchcock shot Psycho on a very tight schedule, starting on November 11, 1959, and wrapping on February 1, 1960. When Psycho opened, it broke the box-office record of all of Hitchcock’s previous features, and signaled the beginning of the end for traditional Hollywood censorship, with its sinuous synthesis of sex, violence, and hitherto uncharted psychiatric territory — at least in a major Hollywood film.

Viewers wanted something fresh, and Psycho provided precisely that — the shock of the new. The film became an instant classic, and remains so today; the Psycho house and the Bates Motel sets still stand at Universal Studios, and remain a potent attraction for visiting tourists. More than half a century old, Psycho still has the power to shock, to surprise, to enthrall the viewer.”

Now, there’s a new Frame by Frame video on the making of the film, which you can view by clicking here, or on the image of Hitchcock himself above.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at for more details.

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