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Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho set into motion a fad for thrillers about baby-faced killers that seem normal but (sigh) just have to keep killing people. The best-known are William Castle's Homicidal and, to some extent, Robert Aldrich's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, but there were plenty of others here and overseas. Original Psycho author Robert Bloch became a household name, and began a prolific mini-career as a screenwriter specializing in macabre subject matter. His very first post-psycho screenplay was for a 1962 Warners release produced and directed by Owen Crump, a former director and writer of short subjects and documentaries. Crump became a producer for Blake Edwards, and the two men share a co-story credit on The Couch, a Los Angeles- based story of a personable psychopath who uses his psychiatrist's visits as protective cover for a series of cruel, random killings.
A man dials the police and reports that he will commit a murder at 7 p.m., in just a few minutes. In the middle of a crowded sidewalk, Charles Campbell (Grant Williams, The Incredible Shrinking Man) stabs a man through the heart with an ice pick, and a couple of minutes later arrives for his appointment with psychiatrist Dr. Janz (Onslow Stevens). Charles tries to pretend that all is normal but Janz knows better -- he raped a woman two years ago and the state wants to know if he should be allowed to remain free. In his sessions "on the couch" Charles betrays a great deal of pent-up rage. But he masks this inner disturbance while courting Janz's niece-receptionist Terry Ames (Shirley Knight). On "surprise" car trips to lonely parking spots, Charles tells her that he's an aspiring businessman with big deals breaking soon. She doesn't know that his Thunderbird convertible is borrowed, and that he lives in a boarding house.
The Couch is a true obscurity. I've seen it referenced only in a couple of articles on psychological "horror of personality movies", some of which pre-date the Psycho craze. The mad killer of Val Lewton's The Ghost Ship (1943) calmly admits that he can't control his murderous obsession. Abner Biberman's noir The Night Runner (1957) is a very similar story of a pathetic mental patient that can't take the pressures of the social environment. Charles Campbell in The Couch considers himself a worthy underdog; he's in total denial as regards his criminal background. Terry is attracted to his good looks and friendly, uncomplicated manner; enough to turn away from another suitor, the handsome psychiatrist down the hall, David Lindsay (William Leslie).
The Couch enhances its realism with sequences shot on downtown streets at night. Charles pretends to window-shop while watching the clock, so he can strike as promised at exactly 7 p.m.. Charles's weapons are speed and calm; he depends on the fact that pedestrians don't observe their surroundings very closely. He strikes on crowded sidewalks and even in the middle of a crosswalk, and is able to just walk away. The fact that his victims are chosen completely at random taps into the "anonymous terror" sold by today's
Although Bloch's script isn't particularly polished, the relationships are sound and the growing threat to the vulnerable Shirley Knight grips our attention. Back before the violent wave of the 1960s took hold (think 1966 and Richard Speck) a woman could get into a car with her date with a reasonable assurance that he isn't a mass murderer. Knowing little about Charles except that he's her uncle's mental patient (!), Terry Ames takes drives with him who-knows-where, with nobody else knowing that they're together. She isn't perturbed when he steers away from the city lights and onto dark and lonely roads.
Charles Campbell's sessions with Dr. Janz aren't particularly sophisticated, in that the patient's behavior is just too extreme. Charles lets his rage come forward once or twice, and he squirms like a child when Janz insists on digging into his troubled past. The visual gimmick to cue flashbacks to Campbell's traumatic childhood (brutal father, adolescent crush on his sister) is a modest zoom-in on his eye. Laughable screen psychiatry turns many 1940s thrillers into unintentional comedies (even one by Alfred Hitchcock). The Couch is no different. (spoiler) As it turns out, Charles has replaced his hated father with Dr. Janz himself, and the string of 'random' killings, all announced in advance to the police, is part of Charles Campbell's scheme to kill his confessor with impunity.
Block's story has some odd turns. Although Dr. Lindsay is a fellow psychiatrist, the ethics seem wrong when Dr. Janz tells his colleague details about his patient in a personal rather than professional context. The cops don't tape incoming phone calls, which would have made it easy for police consultants Janz and Lindsay to identify the killer. When seeking to kill a victim who survived one of his stabbing attacks, Charles dons surgical garb and just walks into a hospital operating room. It's assumed by all that he is a doctor. I believe that in real operations, a supervising or lead nurse is in charge of little details like strangers wandering in unannounced. Charles would be instantly challenged.
Considering the vintage of the movie, those snags aren't total deal breakers. But the showdown on the top floor of the hospital contains a real howler. 1
Fine actor Grant Williams made his mark fighting giant spiders and colossal crystals in '50s science fiction, yet rarely scored above small parts in later pictures. He's perfect for Charles Campbell, who works overtime to project a healthy attitude and to feed poor Terry the lies he thinks she wants to hear. The talented Shirley Knight is the best thing in the picture. Her serene Terry is the sort of kindly woman who is far too trusting, an angel that doesn't deserve Charles's brand of aggravation. Miss Knight would move directly from this show to Sweet Bird of Youth and from there to occasional winners like Dutchman, The Group and The Rain People.
Isolated in scenes in Charles's rooming house is the batty Mrs. Quimby (the delightful Hope Summers) and her daughter Jean (gorgeous Anne Helm of The Magic Sword). We wonder if landlady Quimby will become a "Mrs. Bates" character, and Jean initially has "future victim" written all over her. But their entire subplot is a dodge. They're only there to be frightened by the radio reports of random victims on the street, and to generate tension in their trusting relationship with the deadly Charles.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Couch, a Remastered Edition, is in perfect condition. The enhanced transfer (at the 1:66 aspect ratio) was done specifically for home video. Harold Stine's cinematography is fairly flat and over-lit in the studio interiors, but nicely judged for the night exteriors and the conclusion in the hospital. When a nighttime freeway provides a background for Charles and Terry's chat, I believe we're looking at a rear-projected Cahuenga Pass, or maybe part of the Pasadena Freeway. The scenes shot on the downtown streets are particularly good. This was before outlying shopping malls took over the landscape, and many Angelenos drove to the center of the city to shop. The marquee of the Los Angeles Theater advertises the Robert Wagner movie The Hunters, which might make viewers think that The Couch was filmed much earlier in 1958. No, by this time more than one downtown theater regularly showed older double bills, anything that hadn't been on TV yet.
The film's original poster, reproduced for the DVD art, contains an involved spiel claiming that the movie is some kind of forbidden item that was filmed in high secrecy. It may be by the same designer for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, that came out later in the same year. The general layout and graphic scheme looks somewhat similar.
The Couch is an early role for popular TV actor Harold Gould. It isn't a big part -- he sits in a chair and sadly tells detectives that his brother, one of the killer's random victims, was a swell guy.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Couch rates:
1. It's a spoiler. Charles has an unreasonable hate/fear for "the couch" in the psychiatrist's office. During the hospital escape Charles flees to the top of the building. When the elevator door opens onto an airy patient sunroom, it reveals rows and rows of chaise lounges. Charles reacts as if he's witnessing The Invasion of the Couch Creatures.
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T'was Ever Thus.