COSTUME IN CRIME: The Cinema Version

As the Tuesday Night Bloggers devote the month of October to the subject of Costume in Crime, it would be remiss of me not to discuss some of the great costumed characters in the world of cinematic mysteries, many of them based on literary heroes and villains. I mentioned last week how unbelievable it might seem to a reader that your uncle could disguise himself as a milkman and successfully fool the family at breakfast time long enough to sprinkle arsenic on your cereal. Imagine the challenge of making such a stunt credible on the big screen! Granted that film stars in disguise have the benefit of professional make-up artists with years of experience or, in some cases, the use of a stand-in (a cheat, if you ask me!). The theatricality of disguise tends to work better onstage, where the distance between the actors and the audience tends to render a good make-up job more believable.

Still, there are a few cases where movie mysteries that depend on one or more characters donning a costume and/or artfully applying make-up have been successful. I offer here a baker’s half dozen of them. Of course, discussing the use of disguise in any of these films is problematical because . . . well, it tends to give away the ending. I’ve tried to be appropriately vague in most cases, but I urge you to approach with care if you have not yet seen any of the following films: Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), Psycho (1960), Homicidal (1961), The List of Adrian Messenger (1963), Sleuth (1972/2007), Don’t Look Now (1973) or Dressed to Kill (1980).

Gender Bending Slayers

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Psycho is a brilliant and frightening portrait of madness, designed to scare the pants off people even if it is not quite the gore fest that people who have just seen it swear it to be. That makes it a horror film, but it is also a terrific murder mystery and one of director Alfred Hitchcock’s few whodunits. In Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel upon which the film is based, the revelations of the culprit’s life and crimes are even more hard-hitting, so in retrospect, Hitchcock did make some of the nastier aspects of the novel more palatable for audiences. At the time, however, he succeeded in shocking packed crowds with a film that flirted with censorship issues right up to its release.

The novel concerns a young man named Norman Bates who lives with his elderly and – to say the least – cantankerous mother in a small town. They run a motel that has been steadily losing business due to a shift in the local highway’s direction. Into Norman’s lonely existence comes a young woman named Mary Crane who has stolen some money from her job so that she and her boyfriend Sam can afford to get married. Mary rents a room, Norman invites her to have supper with him, and this simple connection stirs up jealousies in his mother, resulting in multiple brutal murders.

I’d like to invite those of you who have never seen the movie to pause here. Go and take a nice warm shower while the rest of us discuss.

A R E   T H E Y   G O N E???????

We veteran viewers of Psycho (I have watched it dozens of times and taught it to my film class for years) know the chilling secret about Mrs. Bates: she is a long-dead, preserved corpse, and Norman lives as a split personality as himself and “Mother.” The old woman inside him is flipped on whenever he feels any sexual interest in a young, pretty female, causing her to inhabit Norman’s body and eliminate the competition.

Hitchcock made the savvy choice of casting Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. Perkins had been, up to that time, an attractive romantic lead playing shy but appealing young men who easily attracted sexy young girls. That shyness served Perkins well at the start of Psycho. Hitchcock had built up the part of Mary Crane (now called Marian in the film) and cast a star, Janet Leigh. The first forty minutes of the movie suggest that this is Marian’s story and that her love affair with Sam will be complicated both by her poor decision to steal from her company and from an unexpected romantic complication in the person of Norman. He seems to be a good influence on Marian and thus a possible rival to Sam for Marian’s affections, for after dining and sharing intimate talk, Marian decides to return the money.. Perhaps she will return the favor by helping to separate Norman from his domineering mother.

But it doesn’t turn out like that. Obviously, Norman can’t be separated from “Mother.” Yet for the longest time, even after Marian’s horrible murder in the shower she took to cleanse herself of her sins, we believe that we are dealing with two distinct personalities and hope Norman will escape that horrible woman. And we do this because Hitchcock deftly film “Mother” in silhouette, in bird’s eye angles, and from a great distance so that we are convinced that Norman and “Mother” are distinct characters.

In the end, when Norman finally dons his mother’s dress and a wig, his unconvincing disguise is more disturbing than if he had taken greater care with his appearance.. Imagine the shower curtain being pulled away and Marian glimpsing that figure raising a knife to strike. No wonder she was frozen in terror – as was the audience!

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One year later, William Castle, the schlockmeister of horror films, who never met a cheap gimmick he didn’t like, sought to capitalize on the success of Psycho with his own gender-bending horror/mystery, Homicidal. This is the story of Miriam and Warren Webster, a brother and sister with some interesting secrets. Their father died leaving his fortune to Warren because Daddy hated women. And now Miriam seems to be reacting to her neglectful upbringing with a spree of stabbings and beheadings. Somebody is in costume here, but I won’t give away the secret, although if doing so spared anyone the agony of sitting through this rotten movie, then maybe I will have performed a humane service. There is no attempt to hide the killer’s disguise with lighting or fancy camera effects. Instead, the director cheats in his casting and in his use of voice-over work, to create the illusion he seeks. It probably won’t fool too many people.

A much better homage to Psycho came about in 1980 with Brian de Palma’s Dressed to Kill. Like Hitchcock, De Palma misleads us from the start. The movie appears to be about Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson), a wealthy but sexually frustrated housewife who, in a beautifully filmed sequence, lets a stranger pick her up at a museum and engages in some steamy extra-marital sex. This proves to be a bad idea on so many levels, leading to a vicious murder inside an elevator. We see the killer in action right away: it is Bobbi, a transgender patient of Dr. Robert Eliot (Michael Caine), who was also treating Kate.

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An unlikely trio begins to hone in on the killer, often working at cross purposes with one another. There is Kate’s grieving son Peter, a hopeless nerd, Dr. Eliot, who fears his patient will not stop killing, and Liz Blake (Nancy Allen), a high price call girl, who has glimpsed the killer and thus becomes a target. Since we know the killer is transgender and that De Palma is paying homage to Hitchcock, (and because I’m including this film in this particular discussion), you can be sure that disguise plays an important role in the proceedings. If Bobbi’s “unmasking” doesn’t come as a complete surprise, de Palma proves that he has a handle on generating suspense, and the whole film is great fun.

The Phantom

When people watched Steven Spielberg’s 1993 masterpiece Schindler’s List, one of the most harrowing images they took away with them was that of a little girl in a red coat, who wandered through the horrors of the Krakow ghetto in stark contrast to the black and white photography of the film. She seems to represent a small blaze of life and innocence in the midst of these real-life terrors, and we cling to this unknown child and her red coat with a desperate, and ultimately futile, sense of hope.

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With all due respect to Spielberg, the image of a little girl in red had already been used to marvelous effect twenty years before in the occult thriller, Don’t Look Now by director Nicholas Roeg. The film is based on an equally haunting novella by Daphne Du Maurier. This is one of the best filmic depictions of grief, largely due to the amazing acting work of Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as an architect and his wife, who have recently lost their beautiful little daughter in a tragic drowning accident. In an attempt to move on with his life, John Baxter accepts a commission to restore a church in Venice, and brings his wife Laura along. Their timing is bad: a serial killer is roaming the streets of the old Italian city, and the couple’s fragile state of mind makes it difficult for them to cope both with their unstable marriage and the dangers outside.

Ultimately, John’s focus begins to move toward the figure of a child, wearing a red cloak identical to the one his daughter wore when she died, who appears to him over and over throughout his travels. Is she the ghost of his daughter, or is she a potential victim of the serial killer? John comes to believe that if he can save this child, he can redeem himself for not rescuing his little girl. As the suspense mounts, the viewer becomes bonded with John. Maybe it’s due to the years of reading “Little Red Riding Hood,” where we associate the red cloak with a damsel in distress, that this particular costume becomes such a charged symbol to us. Rest assured, Du Maurier, in her story, and Roeg, in his beautifully crafted film, plays on that association to beautiful effect.

The Masked Duel

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Sleuth started life as a stage play in 1970 and has been adapted to film twice. Personally, I think it works better onstage where the distance between actors and audience makes the secrets of the production easier to pull off. Whatever form it takes, Sleuth is an intriguing tour de force about the battle of wits between a sardonic mystery writer named Andrew Wyke and his wife’s young lover, Milo Tindle. At first, it seems that Milo is no match for Andrew, but in a series of surprising twists, we realize that we are dealing with two adversaries worthy of each other.

Reading further without knowing the play will spoil things for you. It comes as no surprise that disguise plays an important part in this mystery. Those who attend the show are being played from the moment they open their programs. Here’s the cast of characters, in order of appearance, from the first film:

Andrew Wyke . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Lawrence Olivier

Milo Tindle . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Michael Caine

Inspector Doppler . . . . . . . . . . . . Alec Cawthorne

Detective Sergeant Tarrant . . . . . John Matthews

Marguerite Wyke . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Eve Channing

Police Constable Higgs . . . . . . . . . . Teddy Martin

The true nature of the cast is wrapped up in the notion of costume and disguise. I myself am a big Alec Cawthorne fan. Although his body of work was small, he always makes a solid impression. The role of Marguerite Wyke was added to the film, and personally I think it gives the game away having Eve Channing play the role. But I won’t talk about that now. Later on, I will tell you more about Eve. All about Eve, in fact . . .

Disguise as Divertissement

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Two final mystery films must be mentioned for the imaginative and amusing ways in which they incorporate costume/mask into their narrative. Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) is one of the great Ealing Studios dark comedies, loosely based on a 1907 novel, Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal. It is an inverted mystery as it tell the tale of a mass murder spree by a young man named Louis (Dennis Price) out of revenge for wrongs against his mother and, well, because he likes money, respect, and pretty girls. Louis works his way up the lineage of the D’Ascoyne family, homicide by homicide, until he becomes, at least briefly, the 10th Duke of Chalfont.

The particular fun of this film lies in the fact that the eight members of the D’Ascoyne clan are all played by Alec Guinness. Word is that Guinness was only offered four of the roles, but that after he read the script he begged to play all eight heirs. We’re all so lucky he did. My favorite character is the suffragette, Lady Agatha D’Ascoyne, who is shot down from a hot air balloon. Guinness’ portrayal of a woman is a model in elegance and restraint.

The use of costume in Kind Hearts is a joyous stunt. In The List of Adrian Messenger, (1963 – and wonderfully, it’s available to watch on YouTube) it is central to the murder plot and a highlight of a very fine film. Based on one of Philip MacDonald’s final mystery novels, the film is essentially another inverted mystery in that we see the killer in action from the very start. We don’t know who he is for a long while, or even why he is killing a whole slew of men, but we know that he dons a different costume and elaborate mask for each elaborate killing and that he is played by Kirk Douglas. The motive for the murders must be uncovered by sleuth Anthony Gethryn (George C. Scott), helped by his old war friend Raoul Le Borg (Jacques Roux). Although the novel was written in 1959, the story captures the milieu of the Golden Age of detection, with a family mansion, whose members are addicted to fox hunting, as the central locale.

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Kirk Douglas is wonderful and is clearly having a grand time with each of his aliases, but the fun doesn’t stop there. Director John Huston further incorporates the concept of costume and mask into the story with the help of some famous actors in cameo roles. One of them plays a victim, and another plays an organ grinder, a casual witness at the scene of one of the crimes. The best use of this device occurs at the climax of the film where Douglas is about to put the final steps of his plan into action during a climactic hunt. All Gethryn knows is that the killer is in disguise, and at this moment, several characters appear on the scene, all of them clearly masked. With tongue in cheek, Huston has added a nice “whodunit” moment to the film: which of these false characters is the actual killer, and which famous movie stars are hidden behind the other latex features? Be sure and watch the final moments during the credits when each cameo star gets to literally remove his mask and show his true face, all to an exuberant score by Jerry Goldsmith.

Asking an audience to accept the notion of disguise on the big screen is a challenge that the best costume and make-up artists have risen to time and again. When it becomes a significant factor in a mystery, these artists are put under great pressure to figure out how to successfully fool viewers. I recommend all these films, even one as inherently rotten as Homicidal to anyone interested in the aspect of disguise as it pertains to mystery films.

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