Is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho a Christmastime movie? We take a look at a new book about watching movies that offers new ways to think about classic films on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm. Read an excerpt from Queue Tips: Discovering Your Next Great Movie by Rob Christopher.
Psycho, and Other Surprising Christmastime Movies
The list of traditional yuletide classics is a long one. It’s A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, and Elf would all make the cut. But there’s a whole other group of movies that happen to take place in late December, consciously or unconsciously using a Christmastime setting to ironic effect.
1960, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. With Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsam
Just after the famous opening credits, designed by Saul Bass, we’re treated to a panorama of the Phoenix skyline before the camera slowly moves into a hotel room where a tawdry affair between secretary Marion Crane (Leigh) and Sam Loomis (Gavin) is unfolding. Establishing titles give the time and place: “Phoenix, Arizona,” then “Friday, December the eleventh.” Why did Hitchcock insert these identifiers? The reason is rather prosaic: when the second unit footage was being shot, it happened to be Chistmastime, and Hitchcock didn’t want the audience to be confused or distracted by the holiday decorations that can be seen in the background of several shots. Interestingly, the notorious shower sequence was also shot during Christmastime, from December 17 to December 23, 1959.
2. Rosemary’s Baby
1968, directed by Roman Polanski. With Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, Maurice Evans, Ralph Bellamy, Charles Grodin
Polanski’s shocker a Christmas movie? Indeed. In one scene, the pregnant Rosemary kills some time waiting for her friend Hutch by looking at a department store’s Christmas windows. But he never shows. The creepy music on the soundtrack tips us off that all is not well—Hutch has been stricken by a satanic curse after finding out the truth about Rosemary’s sinister neighbors.
3. Die Hard
1988, directed by John McTiernan. With Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia, Alexander Godunov, Reginald VelJohnson, Paul Gleason, De’voreaux White, William Atherton
NYPD officer John McClane picks the wrong highrise office Christmas party to crash: it’s about to be commandeered by high-stakes thieves masquerading as terrorists. Get a load of the sleigh bells Michael Kamen slyly works into his score. This high-octane action movie features a terrific script and direction, not to mention Bruce Willis’s best performance to date. Also plenty of quaint period details such as wearing a gun on an airplane, smoking in the airport, and references to Yasser Arafat.
4. The Silent Partner
1978, directed by Daryl Duke. With Elliott Gould, Christopher Plummer, Susannah York, John Candy
Die Hard wasn’t the first suspense thriller set during the holidays. Shortly before Christmas, when shopping mall bank teller Miles Cullen (Gould) gets wind of a planned robbery hatched by an ersatz Santa Claus (Plummer), he takes steps to divert some of the loot for himself. Once the bank robber realizes he’s been had, a game of wits ensues. Gould’s laconic attitude is the perfect foil for Plummer’s flamboyant psycho. The bracing moments of brutal violence are courtesy of scripter Curtis Hanson, who would later direct The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and L.A. Confidential.
5. The Thin Man
1934, directed by W. S. Van Dyke. With William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O’Sullivan, Nat Pendleton, Minna Gombell, Cesar Romero, Porter Hall
Crime and Christmas go hand in hand. While relaxing in their deluxe hotel suite over the Christmas holidays, sophisticated sleuths Nick and Nora Charles find themselves embroiled in a murder mystery. An incomparable classic that’s enjoyable no matter what time of year it is, it features a memorable scene where Nora lounges around on Christmas morning in pajamas and fur coat. Meanwhile, Nick tests out his new BB gun on some Christmas tree ornaments. Isn’t that the kind of Christmas morning we’ve all fantasized about?
6. Bad Santa
2003, directed by Terry Zwigoff. With Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Brett Kelly, Lauren Graham, Lauren Tom, John Ritter, Bernie Mac
There’s subtle and there’s . . . Bad Santa. Thornton has one of his best roles as a foul-mouthed drunken Santa who, with the help of a dwarf, loots the shopping malls where he works. This raunchy crime comedy gleefully trashes all the yuletide trappings, from sex with Santa to shotgun blasting nativity figurines. But a subplot involving a lonely kid just goes to show that even under vicious assault, the Christmas spirit is pretty darn resilient. Ritter, in his last film, has some choice moments as a suspicious mall manager.
1985, directed by Terry Gilliam. With Jonathan Pryce, Kim Greist, Robert De Niro, Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm, Bob Hoskins, Michael Palin
Santa Claus asks the little boy sitting on his lap what he’d like for Christmas. He replies, “My own credit card.” Blending Charles Dickens, A Clockwork Orange, and 1984, this dystopian black comedy about the intersection of consumerism and terrorism is a tour de force by Monty Python’s Gilliam. De Niro excels in a small role as a guerrilla heating engineer, and Michael Kamen’s catchy score (which often appears in movie trailers these days) cleverly incorporates the standard tune that shares the film’s title.
8. Eyes Wide Shut
1999, directed by Stanley Kubrick. With Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack, Marie Richardson, Todd Field, Rade Šerbedžija, Leelee Sobieski, Alan Cumming
The colorful holiday lights that appear in nearly every scene add a surrealistic flavor to this dreamlike examination of sexual obsession and jealousy. Kubrick uses the festive trappings of the season as a counterpoint to the icy and awkward encounters depicted on-screen, as Dr. William Harford and his wife Alice find their marriage threatened by secrets both real and imagined. The film’s startling final scene takes place in a busy toy store.
9. Tuesday, after Christmas
2010, directed by Radu Muntean. With Maria Popistaşu, Mimi Brănescu, Mirela Oprişor, Dragoş Bucur, Victor Rebengiuc
Most movies on the subject of divorce eagerly present simple, straightforward reasons for the dissolution of a marriage. “If only couple A hadn’t done X, Y, or Z,” the thinking goes, “they’d still be together.” But real life isn’t like that. Paul and Adriana, the husband and wife at the center of this movie, have been married long enough to create and maintain a stable, upper-middle-class existence. They both have successful careers, a circle of friends, and a beautiful daughter together. From the way we see them kid each other while shopping for a snowboard for their little daughter’s Christmas present, it’s clear there’s genuine affection between them—they care for each other, and they’re comfortable together. But Paul has fallen in love with another woman, a dentist named Raluca, and it’s equally certain that she loves him. Things finally come to a boil around the holidays, when he realizes that a reckoning cannot be put off any longer. This searing portrait of disintegration uses long takes and naturalistic sound and acting to place us in a recognizable reality that’s quietly devastating.
Excerpted with permission from Queue Tips: Discovering Your Next Great Movie by Rob Christopher, published by Huron Street Press, an imprint of the American Library Association.