Armchair Oscars – 1960

Best Picture

The Apartment (Directed by Billy Wilder)
The Nominees: The Alamo, Elmer Gantry, Sons and Lovers, The Sundowners

Psycho (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
My Nominees: 
The Apartment (Billy Wilder), Two Women (Vittorio de Sica)


There are only six comedies in the 8-decade history of the academy awards that have won an Oscar for Best Picture: It Happened One Night, You Can’t Take It With You, Going My Way, The Apartment, Tom Jones and Annie Hall. There are probably others that would qualify but most are diluted by music or heavy melodrama, and these are the six that I count. One of those six was the product of Billy Wilder who had been denied an Oscar the previous year for his comic spectacular Some Like It Hot and was honored with a Best Picture win for his follow-up film, The Apartment, a dark serio-comic look at the romantic adventures of a hapless office middle-man.

There is sadness and charm to The Apartment, the story of a man (Jack Lemmon) who is doomed to spend his entire career standing in line for a promotion. He wants it so badly that he rents out his apartment to upper-level execs so they can have a safe house in which to conduct their extramarital affairs. I can never discredit this film because it is so beautifully made, Jack Lemmon plays a sad-sack to perfection and finds a perfect romance with an elevator girl (Shirley MacLaine), who is the boss’ current fling.

Yet as much as I love the film, I wouldn’t want to spend an evening watching it over my choice for Best Picture because of all the films released in this decade, few movies have a larger impact than Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Of all of his films, only the respectable but unworthy Rebecca from 1940 was named Best Picture. I have tried to figure out why the academy wanted to pass on Psycho, and I think the reason may be that it wasn’t slick, it wasn’t one of his more sophisticated efforts. Compared with the work he had been doing, this one seemed more like a B picture.

If you follow the chronology of Hitchcock’s work, Psycho seems like a step backwards. It comes right after North by Northwest and Vertigo, two sophisticated, big-budget efforts that were shot in color. He doesn’t start with an idea and lead the audience through with his usual hero, rather he breaks the pattern by leading us down one path and then taking a sharp left turn into another. For this film, he went back to black and white. Long sections of the film pass with no dialogue. The movie is more violent than most of Hitchcock’s other works and the subject matter is closer to Gothic horror than suspense.

For those reasons, if you ask anyone to name a Hitchcock film, this is the one they are likely to remember. I think this movie works on a buried personal level. I think it taps certain levels of fear that we all have: the fear of how easy it is to become a criminal, the fear how easy it would be to become prey to a psychotic, the fear of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, the fear of being dogged by a curious policeman. Watching the film, we also find how easy it is to become a voyeur. We know that “mother” has committed unspeakable crimes and that Norman has covered them up but we find ourselves concerned for him as the outside world gets closer and closer to his misdeed. It is not that we could murder someone, but we identify with how easy it is to get caught. He plays with us by showing a brutal murder and then immediately spending the next 15 minutes with Norman cleaning up the bloody mess. He does exactly what we would do and, in the end, our eyes search the room trying to see if he forgot anything. Then the payoff: He puts the body in the trunk and pushes it into the lake but halfway the car stops sinking and we fear that he will be caught.

Hitchcock’s brilliance here is that he plays with our expectations. The heroine, Marion Crane, is stuck in a dead-end job and steals $40,000 from her boss’ client and leaves town to help out her debt-ridden boyfriend. Then, getting off the road in a storm, she meets Norman Bates, an odd little fellow with a twitchy manner and a kid’s smile. Talking to him she realizes that they aren’t that different. He tells her that he is stuck in a trap, having to take care of his invalid mother who berates him fiercely. He tells Marion his story while having dinner in his parlor decorated with his stuffed birds that loom over the proceedings as if ready to swoop down (and it is odd that the whims of fate have found a fugitive named Marion Crane in the same room with a man whose hobby is stuffing birds).

Our expectation is that Norman and Marion will help each other escape their private traps (perhaps a rehash of Strangers on a Train). When Marion is killed in the shower, it throws off the pattern and the rest of the film is anybody’s guess. There are more surprises to come and they keep coming as the outside world swoops around Norman’s private island like a bird threatening to pull the lid off his secret.

Hitchcock plays with our expectations in another way too. All of the characters are guilty of one sin or another (a few of them pay the price). There is no hero: Not Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane, she is a thief who is sleeping with a married man; Not Arbogast (Martin Balsam); the nosy police detective; not Lila and Sam who go looking for Marion under the guise of a married couple; Certainly not Norman. The characters in Psycho are guilty of one thing or another, do things they shouldn’t do and go places that they shouldn’t go.

One of the biggest changes from Hitchcock’s other films is that he didn’t work with his regular film crew and instead chose to work with the crew from his television show. George Tomisini’s brilliant editing suggests more than it shows. Look at his work in the shower scene in which we never see the knife pierce flesh and he cuts so much and so often that we almost miss the fact that “mother” is out the door. There are moments of suggestion that leaves the audience to think for itself – did anyone notice that the killer managed to get into Marion’s hotel room through the window that Norman earlier left open?

I also love John Russell’s use of black and white photography which suggests the terror lurking just under the surface. Look at the birds in Norman’s parlor with the shadows behind them they look poised to strike. There are shots and camera angles that are set up to conceal crucial details. Example: There is a brilliant unbroken shot during the scene in which Norman moves mother to the fruit cellar as the camera slowly moves up the stairs then up the high ceiling and twists 180 degrees. in an effort to hide mother’s face as Norman carries her down the stairs.

Bernard Hermann’s legendary score gives us the chilling knife-edged screech rather than just a bombastic orchestral overkill. The music gives us one of the biggest red herrings in the entire film – the music over the opening credits would lead us to believe that we’re in for a fun mystery by giving us a suspense-type music that subconsciously reminds us of the opening theme from North by Northwest. It leads the viewer to think that this will be reminiscent of that earlier film, but take note that none of the music after Marion’s death sounds anything like it.

Then there’s the set decoration by George Milo (who later worked with Hitchcock on The Birds) which creates the Bates house as a large, Gothic manor, hulking on the outside but cramped on the inside. We see mother’s garish bedroom with this over-sized bed, enormous wardrobe and multi-angled mirrors. Compare that with Norman’s room which is tiny, cramped like a servant’s quarters or the lodging of a gnome. It is a child’s room with a corner bed and a record player (A bit of trivia: the record on his record player is Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony “Eroica” which the composer famously dedicated to Napoleon, another man trapped on a private island). The house is small, tight without much visible comfort. And then, of course . . . there’s the fruit cellar.

The script by Joseph Stephano contains wonderful little touches, suggestions and forecasts that we miss the first time around. I love the scene that immediately follows the clean-up of Marion’s murder in which a woman stands in a store asking if insect poison is painless. I like the touches in Norman’s dialogue as he talks about taxidermy “I hate the look of beasts when they’ve been stuffed” then we see what it has done to his mother.

Hitchcock orchestrates every facet of Psycho like music, he pulls the strings, hides clues in plain sights, slips in red herrings and uses his canvas to present a story that keeps us guessing.  This is truely the work of a master in control of his work.

The only real flaw in Psycho comes near the end, after Norman has been arrested. A psychiatrist wanders around a room full of onlookers and goes into a tiresome analysis of Norman’s psychosis. It is unnecessary. He goes on to explain what the viewer has already figured out. Get on with it, already.

Despite that flaw, Psycho remains a superior work that would fix for the rest of the century the way horror movies were made. Before Psycho, most horror movies were simply a meeting of one literary creature with another (Frankenstein Meets Dracula or Godzilla and Kong flattening their respective terrains). Psycho changed all that, bringing the genre a little closer to ground-level, working with inner terrors (it was made at the height of Cold War paranoia).

For better and for worse it established the genre of slasher movies and ushered in the subversive terrors found in The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby and The Silence of the Lambs. But none have the impact or touch the central core that Hitchcock’s movie has, none have found a way to tap into our fears of murder, crime, private traps or the terror of what lurks just beyond the shower curtain.

Best Actor

Burt Lancaster (Elmer Gantry)
The Nominees: Trevor Howard (Sons and Lovers), Jack Lemmon (The Apartment), Laurence Olivier (The Entertainer), Spencer Tracy (Inherit the Wind)

Anthony Perkins (Psycho
My Nominees:
Burt Lancaster (Elmer Gantry), Jack Lemmon (The Apartment)


If I had been able to vote among the Best Actor nominees of 1960, I would have picked Jack Lemmon for his performance in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. As C.C. Baxter, a bottom-feeding executive forced to spend his life waiting in line for a promotion from the weaselly execs that he allows to use his apartment from their extramarital shenanigans, it is his most complete performance. Lemmon, for me, represents us guys who don’t have extraordinary luck with girls or on the job. He represents those of us who have to struggle more than the jocks who block out our sun. He represents those for whom life is a long slow climb to the middle. Plus, he looks like the rest of us. Most of us don’t look like Clark Gable or Charlton Heston or Gregory Peck and neither does Lemmon, for that reason we identify with him a little more.

The Best Actor winner for 1960 was Burt Lancaster as the broad-lined, boisterous title character in Richard Brooks’ adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry. Lancaster is perfect in the title role as a man who knows how to sell an idea and teams up with a lay preacher to sell the good word to America while running afoul of his own temptations. Elmer Gantry is a good showcase for his talent, but I think he best performance came four years earlier as the hard-hearted gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success.  That film is Lancaster 101.  If you want to understand him as an actor, that is the film to start with.  I would say it is a better performance but that is not to downplay his contribution in Elmer Gantry, which I would prescribe as a follow-up.  He was an expert at playing men who were larger than life, who shelter hidden demons, and these two films showcased it best.

My choice for Best Actor gave new meaning to the term “hidden demons,” but the thrill of watching Anthony Perkins in Psycho is watching those demons bubble to the surface. Norman Bates is one of the most complete and original creations by any actor in film. He is a man-boy, somewhere in his 20s, who seems to still possess the hemming and hawing mannerisms of a 10-year old. He walks with his hands in his pocket and his shoulders hunched, he jitters, he stutters when he speaks. He looks nervous talking to strangers and always seems to carry the air of a child who is afraid of being caught doing something.

We don’t meet Norman Bates until at least an hour into Psycho. Until then, we have been following $40,000 stolen by Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), a desperate secretary who has taken the money from her boss to make a new life with her newly-divorced boyfriend. Driving from Phoenix to Fairview, she is caught in an unrelenting rainstorm and pulls off the main highway into The Bates Motel. She seems to be its only tenant. This is where she meets the curious little man who seems nice and helpful and even offers her dinner.

It is during dinner that Norman’s peculiar personality reveals itself. The two talk about about being stuck in private traps. “I was born in mine,” Norman says and this becomes a line that we only clearly understand later. Talking about his mother, a curious thing happens – he becomes angry when she mentions putting his ailing mother “someplace”. “Someplace?” he says “Like a madhouse? Have you seen the inside of one of those places? The laughing and the tears.” He frightens Marion a bit but just as Norman realizes that he has become too defensive, he pulls back.

It doesn’t take much to realize that Norman has fallen in love with Marion, he has developed a connection (both are in “private traps”), and he would like nothing more than to leave his mother behind and run off with this beautiful young woman. It is only after dinner, as Marion is settling in, that “mother” rears her ugly head.

The initial surprises about Norman are long gone – everyone already knows his secrets even if they’ve never seen the film (I envy the film’s original audience) but what is curious is that once you already know the secrets, it is still interesting to go back through the film a second time and spot all the tell-tale signs of his deception. We can see in his conversation with Marion there is a dual personality in his mind that is fighting for control at that very moment. He has a way of being nervous in which he tries to keep himself in check like the scene in which he talks to the private detective. His eyes dance as his voice begins to quiver. There’s a near-breaking point late in the film when he is accused of stealing the $40,000, he drums his fingers on the desk as his jaw clicks, and he suggests to the accuser: “Why don’t you get in your car and drive away from here, okay?”

There are elements of death all around him, like all the stuffed birds in his parlor and all the dead foliage down by the swamp where, twice, he rids himself of two of “mother’s” crimes. The stuffed birds are positioned in his parlor around the upper ceiling and the lighting gives us the perspective that they could attack all at once. When we understand later what he did to his mother, we see where he had practiced his taxidermy. There are signs that essentially tell us what Marion’s sister Lila will find in the fruit cellar: The stuffed birds, the dead foliage around the house, that dead tree down by the swamp, and that strange human-shaped imprint in the middle of her bed.

Anthony Perkins was perfect for the role. In his career before Psycho, his film roles mostly consisted of shy, boy-next-door types, kind of like Jimmy Stewart without the philosophy. His best known role had been in Fear Strikes Out as Red Sox center-fielder Jimmy Piersall who, ironically, also suffered from mental illness and a domineering parent. Going by the description in the novel of Psycho, Perkins would not have fit the role of Norman Bates. In the book, author Robert Bloch portrays Norman as middle-aged, balding, and pudgy obnoxious drunk. He is described as being in a sorry state and he inspires Marion to return the money, but then “mother” cuts off her head. That would have been a mistake for the movie because we are led to think that this nice young man will be the person who will either inspire her to do the right thing or help her escape her private trap. Had we seen him as Bloch characterized him, he would have known something was up right away.

I am thrilled that Hitchcock changed the character. Perkins, young and handsome, gains our sympathy with his shyness and his good-heartedness.  We want to mother him.  When “mother” murders Marion in the shower, Norman cleans up his mother’s crime and we in the audience have found him so beloved that we want him to succeed. There is a brilliant moment, one of Hitch’s best, when Norman takes the car down to the lake and pushes it into the bog. The car sinks and just as it gets to the windshields, it stops. We gasp that he will get caught but then the car begins again to sink into the darkness. There is a small absolutely perfect moment when the car continues sinking and a very brief smile barely crosses Norman’s face. He’s caught in the moment, and so are we.

Best Actress

Elizabeth Taylor (Butterfield 8)
The Nominees: Greer Garson (Sunrise at Campobello), Deborah Kerr (The Sundowners), Shirley McLaine (The Apartment), Melina Mercouri (Never on Sunday)

Melina Mercouri (Never on Sunday)
y Nominees: Nancy Kwan (The World of Suzy Wong), Shirley McLaine (The Apartment), Jean Simmons (Elmer Gantry)


When Elizabeth Taylor won her first Oscar for Daniel Mann’s Butterfield 8, it was less for the merits of her performance than the rocky road in her personal life.  Third husband Michael Todd died in a plane crash two years earlier and in the intervening time she had developed a near-fatal case of pneumonia.  The Oscar was more for her journey back.  In the movie she plays call girl Gloria Wanderous, who has an affair with a married man who, she assumes, will divorce his wife for her.  It is an ordinary performance, nothing special and the movie delves into the kind of dated subject matter that was shocking back when talkies were new.

My favorite performance of the year was by another actress playing a call girl but this time the results were far jollier.  Greek sensation Melina Mercouri starred in the year’s indie hit Never on Sunday, directed by her then fiancé Jules Dassin. Not classically beautiful but possessing a smile and a personality that could light up Chicago, Mercouri plays Ilya, a prostitute in a small Greek village of Piraeus who brings life and music to those around her.  Surrounded by a small troop of male groupies, she is a fountain of joy and life.

Into the picture comes Homer Thrace (Dassin), an American who is smart but does not possess a great deal of common sense.  Watching her turn a local tavern into a place of life and music, he explains that he has become disillusioned by the sadness in the world and has returned to Greece, the cradle of civilization, in an attempt to discover what went wrong.  Through this woman, brimming with happiness, he hopes to find out.

Homer loves Ilya’s spirit but he’s troubled by her profession which he finds demeaning.  He also finds it a little troubling that she reinterprets the Greek tragedies she attends, having misconceptions about Oedipus Rex.  He asks for a little time to be alone with her, to educate her on the great philosophers who walked on the very same ground under her feet.  He rearranges her apartment, giving her the books to educate her and trying to turn her toward Greek intellectualism.  But, as we see, a little knowledge is a good thing but too much knowledge turns away the jollier sides of her personality.  He doesn’t realized it but by pruning her, he has cut away the bits of her mind that make her happy. She becomes modest and more serious . . . but not for long.

Mercouri gives a performance of a character we don’t see much in American films, the kind of person with a lust for life, the kind of person who absolutely lives to get out of bed in the morning.  Her looks wouldn’t get her work as a fashion model, but standing at the center of this film it is impossible to resist what she brings to the screen.  When she dances, it isn’t choreographed; it bubbles up from inside her.  When we see her in the throng of men at the tavern, there is a reverence in their eyes.  They don’t see her as a sex object but more of a fountain of happiness; they respect her even though she engages in a profession that doesn’t warrant it.  There is a moment late in the film, a beautiful moment, when we see her in her apartment.  She pulls out her record player and puts on Manos Hadjidakis’s “Never on Sunday” and dances about her apartment like she is propelled by something wondrous.  It is a moment when we see the seriousness that Homer had instilled in her, and the flower begins to bloom once more.

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