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FILM SERIES : MASTER OF MYSTERIOUS : Alfred Hitchcock's Inventive, Classy Works Will Play at--Appropriately--an Art Museum

October 27, 1994|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lance writer who regularly covers film for the Times Orange County Edition.

Most movie terror is built on a worry most of us share--that the ordinary can turn strange and dangerous in an instant. Bad filmmakers may blunder along, but the good ones massage us with hints of the unexpected, then come up with a move nobody saw coming.

Alfred Hitchcock had some of the best moves in the business. His pictures were like smooth card tricks: You could see the ace heading that way, but damn if it didn't end up over there. Hitchcock could both tickle and thrill.

Take "Psycho," which launches a three-week/three-film tribute Friday at the Newport Harbor Art Museum. The famous crazy-Oedipus thriller looks like a straightforward crime flick at the start. There's Janet Leigh, on the run after embezzling money from her boss. Hitchcock creates suspense by getting us to wonder about her ingenuity and her luck, if she can make her getaway.

But the movie takes a nervy turn at the Bates Motel. Anthony Perkins' Norman, who looks as creepily lifeless as the birds he stuffs, enters the scene and madness enters with him. We weren't predicting any of this, and Hitchcock takes us down one of the weirdest, most eerie paths in film. "Psycho" is a horror flick hooked to the fragility of the mind, and what could be scarier than that?

There's insanity in the series' next offering--"Strangers on a Train" (Nov. 4)--as well, but of a different sort. Guy (Farley Granger) and Bruno (Robert Walker) meet by accident on a train. Good-natured and hopeful Guy doesn't realize he is dealing with a dreamy-eyed psychopath in a three-piece suit. What appears mundane soon becomes hazardous, and Guy gets sucked in by the evil that Bruno generates around him.

Hitchcock's inventiveness in this film is clear from the opening passage, as he and cinematographer Robert Burks follow the legs of Guy and Bruno as they move from their cabs to their train to their seats. Then, their shoes bump under a table and the camera jumps to their faces--Guy a little confused and vulnerable, Bruno calculating and predatory. The game begins.

Even when everything gets risky, there's a calming layer of sophistication to "Strangers on a Train"--another Hitchcock trademark.

Likewise, "North by Northwest," which closes the series Nov. 11, gleams with class, but there's nastiness just under the surface.

This one stars Cary Grant as an advertising executive caught in a double case of mistaken identity: He is being chased by cops who think he's a killer and by spies who think he's an enemy agent.

Although Grant and co-star Eva Marie Saint look a bit wooden (Hitchcock never was known for deep characterizations; he moved his actors around like props), they bring the requisite suave touches to belie the rising peril.

Each film will be introduced by Arthur Taussig, an Orange Coast College instructor and publisher of "The Film Analyst" newsletter. More movie talk will follow each screening.

* What: A three-film tribute to Alfred Hitchcock.

* When: "Psycho" (1960), Friday, Oct. 28; "Strangers on a Train" (1951), Friday, Nov. 4; "North by Northwest" (1959), Friday, Nov. 11. All screenings begin at 6:30 p.m.

* Where: Newport Harbor Art Museum, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach.

* Whereabouts: Take Pacific Coast Highway to Jamboree Road and head north to Santa Barbara Drive. Take a right to San Clemente Drive and then a left.

* Wherewithal: $5 per screening ($3 for museum members, seniors and students).

* Where to call: (714) 759-1122.

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