Monday, March 17, 2014

Few And Far Between

You can’t always get what you want, as Hugh Laurie says to Lisa Edelstein in the pilot episode of HOUSE, that’s for sure. Life isn’t fair that way. We go to the movies to forget sometimes. We also write films where we wind up with the girl we always wanted, win the race that we never could, to be as good as we always want to be in what our dreams are, all that Heroes Journey nonsense and all that. But it doesn’t happen in life. Sometimes the films that stick to the ribs the most remember that they’re not trying to spoon feed us that sort of nice, pleasant, hopeful story, instead providing something bitter that makes us think about all the things we presumably go to the movies to forget about. Sometimes we don’t want those films. But sometimes they’re what we need.
I’ve always wondered what Billy Wilder thought of A SIMPLE PLAN, assuming that he saw it of course. He was still alive when the film was released in December 1998, after all, and it always seemed to me that it might be right up his alley, a portrayal of humanity at its bleakest and most pessimistic. It’s even the sort of film I could imagine he would have wanted to make, not that I can picture that director willingly spending much time in rural Minnesota in the dead of winter at whatever age he was then. The immortal DOUBLE INDEMNITY is of course the obvious comparison point for Wilder’s career as is ACE IN THE HOLE but I also think of the ever-increasing layers of pure, uncut cynicism that encroached on his films as he got older, even the comedies, in a way that made it sometimes seem like an all-encompassing view of humanity as he moved towards his winter years. Though directors including Mike Nichols, Ben Stiller and John Boorman had been attached to the project over the years, A SIMPLE PLAN was ultimately directed by Sam Raimi and it arrived in theaters almost four years after his previous film, the western THE QUICK AND THE DEAD. It had been even longer than that since I had sold him a copy of the paperback of the novel “A Simple Plan” by Scott Smith at a bookstore I was working at I Brentwood back in those days, as I’ve written about before. THE QUICK AND THE DEAD was not a box office success and this return to directing (the intervening years saw him working in television including executive producing the HERCULES and XENA shows) was a drastic departure from his previous films, dialing down the stylistic extremes of his visual style known from the all-holy EVIL DEAD series to practically nothing, essentially plunking the camera down on sticks and simply photographing the actors.
It was almost as if making this film was an experiment Raimi chose to conduct on himself to see what else he had to offer if his bag of tricks was taken away, making it not the Sam Raimi film for people who don’t like Sam Raimi films so much as Sam Raimi trying to find out what would happen if he tried to not make a ‘Sam Raimi film’. It also seems notable that once when asked to name his favorite film in an interview he chose John Huston’s THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, the influence of which can most definitely be seen in the film he made. What he accomplished was better than might have been expected, showing that he really did have something more to offer than the (admittedly brilliant) visual insanity of his earlier films which contained a feel of genuine, unmistakable humanity surrounding its darkness. Revisiting A SIMPLE PLAN after a number of years away I found myself having a complicated response to the film, as if now that I’m older some of the conclusions it reaches are that much more unpleasant to face. But the story still contains an enormously potent sting along with an undeniable power within its own simplicity.
During a cold rural Minnesota winter Hank Mitchell (Bill Paxton) is paying a New Years’ Eve visit to his parents’ grave with his brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jacob’s friend Lou (Brent Briscoe) when after a truck mishap the three chase after Jacob’s dog into the nearby woods. Soon they come across a small downed airplane which contains the body of the dead pilot and, more surprisingly, a bag containing over $4 million dollars in cash. After arguing over what to do with their newfound, and very probably stolen, riches the three agree to hold onto the money until the inevitable time the plane is found by the authorities and see who, if anyone, might be looking for the money. Hank shares the secret with pregnant wife Sarah (Bridget Fonda) but things begin to go wrong almost immediately resulting in a further cover up of what they’ve done, an insistent Lou demanding his share and the ever watchful eye of the law represented by the local Sheriff (Chelcie Ross) as well as a suspicious FBI agent (Gary Cole) looking for a plane he’s heard went down in the area for reasons that he won’t reveal.
An offhand moment close to the midway point has Jacob enter the wrong hospital room when he arrives to visit Bridget Fonda’s Sarah who has just had her baby. None of these people are any different from each other, the moment seems to indicate, and it’s a key theme of A SIMPLE PLAN (screenplay by Scott Smith adapting his own novel) but of course Bill Paxton’s Hank discovers pretty quickly that he is different from others, just in the worst possible ways. A SIMPLE PLAN, like George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, begins with a trip a few siblings take to visit a parents’ grave and in both cases what occurs as a result is a complete and irrevocable break of that family unit, even if that family unit wasn’t very strong in the first place. And in this film the appearance by literal zombies aren’t necessary for this to happen. Hank expresses surprise that brother Jacob has been out to the cemetery recently, leaving Jacob to point out that nothing ever says that they only can go out there on the specific day tradition dictates. Hank, smart as he thinks he is, figures everything always has to go according to plan and that the rules state things are always going to get better as if just waiting while letting out the air out of his car’s tires as he demonstrates to Jacob in one scene, is going to make it all work out. No one emerges from A SIMPLE PLAN unscathed. Not even a kind thought or noble gesture comes out of it in one piece, no attempt to make things better works out. You can’t lose anything by trying, a character states at one point, and if A SIMPLE PLAN reveals anything it’s that can be all you really need to lose.
It’s a harsh and bitter lesson that the film passes along about what money does, what lying does to the soul, with a little bit of GREED along with TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE as well. To be honest that lesson has more sting for me now than it once did and returning to it now I’m not only struck by that realization but also in wondering if maybe a few of the more drastic actions barely even a half-hour into the film are a little too much to swallow at first, even in the context of a dark crime drama, to the point that I almost found myself briefly checking out this time around while wondering about certain characters’ immediate acceptance of such horrific events. But as the film goes on and the quicksand they’re caught in gets increasingly deeper I find myself accepting what they wind up doing even more, cringing as I become all the more aware of the desperate humanity evident in even the most horrific moments as they turn on each other. And these aren’t even just moments of extreme jeopardy but when Hank learns the truth about certain things, about his families past, as wife Sarah plots their next move while holding their newborn and the desperation just zeroes in on their faces. It’s those faces that the film pays attention to. Very little else about A SIMPLE PLAN tries to be particularly distinctive visually outside of the oppressive feel of all that snow, very few images seem designed to call attention to themselves outside of those crows flying over the plane (maybe a bit much, actually, revisiting the film now).
More than anything in directing the film Raimi seems to be paying attention to the text and through that paying attention to the actors saying those lines and performing those horrible actions, almost making them as responsible for the film as he is. Instead of the elaborate camera moves he is so known for in the past, here a simple cut to a close up of characters at certain points saying all that needs to be said with Danny Elfman’s score trickling around the edges of scenes with Hank not knowing exactly how much he should be worrying at one time or another along with subtly effective camera work by DP Alar Kivilo (who also shot Harold Ramis’ THE ICE HARVEST, another dark tale co-starring Billy Bob Thornton about people in wintery conditions scrambling after stolen money). With the exception of a few very specific moments it’s maybe the one Sam Raimi film that doesn’t feel prepared within an inch of his life (a reminder that I must revisit his 2000 film THE GIFT which was co-written by Billy Bob Thornton) and he seems more willing to let its actors move around the edges of the frame than ever before. A few scenes feel almost a little too loose as a result, as if he maybe could have gotten more coverage from other angles but chose to go with a simpler overall approach with his pleasure at suspense coming through on occasion like getting the pleasure out of being stuck in that plane or fumbling around looking for the right sort of bullet for a gun. And he pulls off a few confrontations that are almost unbearably tense in their messy realism, even on repeat viewings, as a result. Almost most surprising about this very dark film is how it feels like he made a decision to not go overboard on the blood at certain points, as if he wanted to focus on the performances in the midst of this carnage as opposed to setting up the squibs for the takes with even certain particularly grisly moments occurring in partial darkness.
In some ways the film for Raimi seems to be as much of an attempt as what his old friends the Coen Brothers did with the snowbound setting of FARGO and the kidnapping-gone-wrong plot in the background of this film seems like some sort of mirror of that film’s inciting incident—another time and another place maybe the Coens would have been the filmmakers to attempt the more sober version of this sort of story. Even a few specific moments here oddly correlate to FARGO, as if attempting to provide a non-arch mirror to the earlier film – Paxton trying to deal with an irate customer (trying to truthfully explain something illogical to an irate customer) recalls William H. Macy and his sneaky unloading of the Truecoat as does a moment of Paxton collecting himself before calling the police after something horrible has happened, not trying to feign tears but silently rehearsing for the lies that have to come. The intent is different of course, just as where the two films resolve themselves. FARGO finds some sort of redemption in its carnage, delicacy in the lead character played by Frances McDormand, the impending arrival of her baby and her husband with the 2 cent stamp. A SIMPLE PLAN has a pregnant character as well only any sense of purity and innocence that we got from a glimpse of her belly early on is gone by the end. Also unlike FARGO, the baby has already arrived when it ends but there’s no sense of redemption coming from the cries heard in the next room.
The original novel is arguably even more cynical and any film made from it could have taken things to further extremes. One character exits the book much earlier and this adjustment to the film seems correct in how it makes it much more about the two brothers and a liquor store climax in the book which takes everything to its logical, most horrific extreme, read as vividly cinematic (it wouldn’t have been at all out of place in the blood soaked Tarantino 90s) and yet I can understand why it was left out. Maybe someone felt that it was a few steps too far but more than that as things have played out once the films key relationship reaches its climactic point the story is in effect over. Nothing else really matters.
A TV news report early in the film pertaining to the plot is followed by a lighter item in which the onscreen anchor opens with ‘playful pooches or killer canines’, a question that seems like an editorial comment from the film on the characters of Hank and Jacob. This bit of dark humor almost feels like one of the only blatantly Raimi-like touches in the film, instead focusing on how horrific it all is. It’s those close-ups that linger, the questions of what it really costs to have a life, to be happy—Hank repeatedly telling Jacob that it’ll be ok and just stick to the story, Jacob’s admission that he’s never kissed a girl, Sarah stating flat out to Hank what their future holds if he lets this slip away, Hank realizing in his own face what he has to do at the very end. There’s no chance for hope and although no one wanders off into madness like Edward G. Robinson after his crimes in Fritz Lang’s SCARLET STREET maybe the punishment here is worse. No one else is going to come after the characters who remain technically unscathed after the end credits roll. They just have to live their lives.
In some ways it’s hard not to think of Bill Paxton in this film as partly also about Paxton wanting to be the leading man, correctly coming off as ‘normal’ and eager (this reminds me of how good he was in last year’s 2 GUNS playing a, well, supporting role), trying to get everyone to go along with his plan but things just can’t go in a straight line. He imbues the role with a sense of decency that gets totally misplaced before the character even realizes it and gives a solid performance but is still overshadowed by his two main co-stars. Billy Bob Thornton, playing a role that caused someone I saw it with at the time turn to men forty-five minutes in asking when Billy Bob Thornton was going to show up, takes this goofy looking guy with barely a decent idea in the world and infuses him with not just an unexpected layer of intelligence, like during a key scene where he lays in on his brother for a reason that it isn’t entirely clear right away, but also laying clear how much Jacob is just a bottomless soul of pain that can never fully be cleared out. In the end, Thornton’s performance is devastating and unforgettable.
Bridget Fonda (I miss her) is also extremely powerful, taking a role that seems designed as ‘the wife’ and quietly laying the groundwork for her most devastating moments late in the film with the tone of her voice as she spits out the phrase “checking out books” coming off as if she’s giving herself a lifetime sentence. There’s also strong supporting work from Brent Briscoe, Chelcie Ross (recently Conrad Hilton on MAD MEN) and Becky Ann Baker (currently seen on GIRLS) plus I’ve always particularly liked Gary Cole’s complete poker face as FBI Agent Baxter which doesn’t reveal his true motives until the last possible second.
A SIMPLE PLAN was released by Paramount, just as some of Billy Wilder’s most acclaimed films in the 40s and 50s were, but it didn’t receive the same sort of attention (only $16 million at the box office), even with a favorable critical response and two Oscar nominations for Billy Bob Thornton and Scott Smith’s screenplay—did Wilder mark it down on his ballot? But it did help to revive Sam Raimi’s directing career and by the time it was in theaters he was already in production on his next film FOR LOVE OF THE GAME starring Kevin Costner. And a few years later there would be SPIDER-MAN, a film where he seemed to have figured out a way to fuse his style with paying attention to the actors caught up in and reaping the benefits of what he chose to experiment with here. But I have a fondness for late 90s Raimi, a brief spurt of films where it was like he was trying to do something different, testing himself, pushing himself, something that I wish directors like him did more. It was a while since seeing A SIMPLE PLAN when I pulled it out to write this and I imagine that it will be a long time before I revisit the film again. It’s just too sad, too disturbing, much more than it was for me at one time. We all need money. Hey, I could use some right now. Plus some of its emotions make me think of some of my own family-related matters that sometimes pop up in the back of the brain, like an abandoned house that lingers as a part of your past, a past which will never really die. A lot’s changed for me over the years, but some things never change at all. And you still can’t always get what you want, let alone what you sometimes need.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Not With The Eyes But With The Mind

The lyrical melody of the song “Crazy World” plays over the opening credits of VICTOR/VICTORIA and like so many other pieces of music for films directed by Blake Edwards it was composed by Henry Mancini. It’s a surprisingly gentle melody to open such a big and boisterous musical comedy and while the viewer may not know the title of the song that goes with the music just yet it manages to announce a certain affection for its main characters right from the start so we almost like them even before they’ve appeared. They’re caught up in all this insanity just like we are and seen through the eyes of Blake Edwards it would probably be best to relax along with them to simply let the inevitable madness happen since, after all, it’s only natural in such a crazy world.
Released in March 1982, VICTOR/VICTORIA is the great triumph of the latter stretch of Blake Edwards’ career, a film which feels like nothing less than a culmination of the writer-director’s ambitions and thematic preoccupations. Overflowing with style, it’s a Lubitsch-inspired pastry of wit and music brought together in a way that only Edwards seemed to know how to do when he was at his best, framed through his Panavision eye while always ready with the next pratfall as someone crashes to the ground. It serves as a tribute to the type of comedy he clearly loves while also a chance to put onscreen some of the most successful musical numbers he ever pulled off. Considering how much I’ve written about Blake Edwards in the past even I’m a little surprised that I haven’t written about this film until now considering its ongoing popularity (looks like from his last fifteen years of directing only THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN still remains for this blog). Of course, many others have sung its praises through the years so you don’t exactly need me to repeat what’s already been said about it but I also suppose somewhere deep down my Blake Edwards fantasy world has more to do with the Bel Air-Malibu Southern California anarchic malaise of the likes of “10” or S.O.B. rather than the fantasy Paris of the 30s depicted here but in revisiting it now I’m reminded how the accomplishment that is VICTOR/VICTORIA really does represent one of his finest achievements. It’s a tremendously entertaining film featuring some of the most well-executed gags of his entire filmography, excellent music and an undeniable air of sophistication to it all. The film does fall short in a few ways that have always bugged me a little considering how good so much of the film really is, small issues that make me feel like it doesn’t entirely have the courage of its own convictions all the way to the end and my overall fondness for Blake Edwards means that I feel a little bad bringing them up at all. They’re ultimately minor points, I suppose, and for the most part this really is the Blake Edwards film where just about everything comes together. With an extremely strong screenplay his direction displays total confidence and it’s a truly lovely production made even better by several actors doing some of the best work of their career.
In 1934 Paris, impoverished soprano Victoria Grant (Julie Andrews) is about at the end of her rope, penniless and jobless, about to be thrown out of her shabby hotel room when fortune smiles in the form of her meeting nightclub performer Carroll Todd, better known as Toddy (Robert Preston), who is in need of money as well due to losing his own job. Knowing how good Victoria’s voice really is and fully aware that no one is looking for such a singer, soon enough circumstances give Toddy an idea: have Victoria masquerade as a man who masquerades as a woman in a nightclub act, in effect being a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman and they’ll have a female impersonator act like no other. Victor/Victoria’s undeniable talent turns the show into an immediate smash but on opening night the visiting King Marchand (James Garner), a nightclub owner from Chicago with mob ties immediately becomes at once fascinated and flummoxed by him/her and is determined to figure out exactly what the truth really is.
Confusion regarding sexual identity is a running theme in Blake Edwards’ films from a key plot point in 1967’s GUNN to men dressed as women baffling Inspector Clouseau in several PINK PANTHER films all the way through to the 1991 comedy SWITCH starring Ellen Barkin as a male chauvinist turned into a gorgeous blonde. While it’s easy to imagine that the worldwide success of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES at the time helped to get VICTOR/VICTORIA green lit, the film (based on the 1934 German film VIKTOR AND VIKTORIA written by Reinhold Schunzel—Edwards wrote the screenplay for his version by himself) feels like the director’s own ultimate examination of sexual identity and just about every shot, every line of dialogue, seems to address the thesis somehow. One musical number in particular speaks to this, a line of four dancers at the Chez Louise nightclub, all appearing as men on one side and women on the other with every other dancer the ‘real’ male or female version. The music changes tempo continually through the routine, fast to slow, manic to serene, in a way that makes it an encapsulation of the very film it’s a part of, complimenting the farce in just the right way. Coming immediately off of S.O.B., which even now plays as one of Edwards’ most bitter films (in all the best ways, of course), VICTOR/VICTORIA is one of his most completely endearing, displaying a true love for the characters who are involved in their own version of this nightclub dance routine. Even with the continual appearances of physical humor that are fully expected from this director (“That stool is broken.” “It is?”) it has a true lyricism not often found in his films, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S aside.
Impeccably plotted, luxuriously paced, VICTOR/VICTORIA is the sort of movie where a half-hour seems to go by in the blink of an eye, where even minor characters feel fully fleshed out on our first glimpse of them, where a sequence feels almost like an entire movie within itself but still is a key part of the overall design. A visit to a restaurant which serves as the centerpiece of the film’s first half-hour where Andrews’ Victoria plots to get a free meal out of the place and she first meets Preston’s Toddy lays out all the elements perfectly, each line in place, the continual hangdog glares by the great Graham Stark as the hapless waiter adding to it all. Incidentally, from the first moment he walks in from the kitchen this role is Stark’s immortality—a few bits from the PINK PANTHER films may be more famous, particularly “That is not my dog” in STRIKES AGAIN, but this film is the pinnacle for him and he’s a perfect complement to everything around him. Every beat of the sequence flows beautifully from every time he emerges from the kitchen with another plate of food with the Mancini score in the background even down to a shared laugh Victoria and Toddy have at one of the waiter’s retorts which quickly gets across that they’re becoming instant friends. And it builds up to the wide shot looking into a window from outside into the madness that has just erupted from a certain cockroach which feels like an absolutely perfect capper to it all. That view is an encapsulation of the world Edwards is depicting, the shot of the restaurant spanning the full 2.35 frame with a few incredulous extras passing by playing the role of the audience—Edwards films are filled with incredulous extras unaware of the chaos they suddenly find themselves in the orbit of—as Victoria and Toddy make a run for it. Once when I saw Edwards speak many years ago this scene came up in relation to the subject of improvisation in his films and he used this shot as an example of something that he couldn’t simply come up with on the spur of the moment, that it had to be planned well in advance. For all the freedom that he famously gave his actors this gives an indication of how much the director always had his eye on the pure construction of the piece, knowing exactly how long certain scenes needed to be and what would be just the right beat to go out on. He didn’t always get the timing right but on occasions like this few have ever been able to do it better.
I suppose it should be mentioned, as many have before, that Julie Andrews isn’t particularly convincing as a man or, as it should be said, someone who is meant to be convincing as a man. (Or, for that matter, whether the term ‘gay’ in this regard was part of any sort of nomenclature in 1934, in Paris or elsewhere.) It could also be argued whether this really matters in the slightest particularly considering how good the actors are in responding to this, not to mention that it’s all set in this stylized fantasy Paris of the 30s anyway. Plus this is, after all, Blake Edwards indulging in the chance to provide his wife with a full-blown musical to star in, providing the actress with one of the very best roles of her career. Over a decade before this he had directed her in DARLING LILI, another lavish musical which while maybe not the washout that its reputation has indicated, was enough of a flop that the go-for-broke nature of the musical numbers here gives the impression that he somehow wanted to make up for what happened with that film and direct his wife in a memorable musical once and for all. The “Le Jazz Hot” number introducing Victor/Victoria to the world feels like a career highlight for all involved—it’s a dynamite piece of work in every regard, really—but it also succeeds as a metaphor for the film itself which involves characters finding their own ‘new kind of music’ for their lives. When Victoria corrects Peter Arne’s nightclub owner Labisse as to the type of singer she is he first responds with a “Whatever you are…” before dismissing her and VICTOR/VICTORIA is ultimately about whatever a person is in the end, finding out what sort of person you really are, finding out that the people closest to you aren’t at all what you thought in the first place and how much any of that really matters.
So much of it goes together just right, down to every beat, so even what would normally be the purely shoe leather scene of introducing powerful agent Andre Cassell (John Rhys-Davies) is played in the most delightful way complete with yet another elaborate physical gag. Edwards’ knack for staging his scenes in long takes, cutting only when necessary, has just about never been better than here, particularly during scenes with Lesley Ann Warren’s moll Norma yammering on nonstop, something that wouldn’t have anywhere near the same effect if broken up. Filmed in England entirely on soundstages at Pinewood Studios the look of the film with cinematography by Dick Bush and sumptuous production design by Roger Maus is fully in the spirit of the famous Ernst Lubitsch quote, “I’ve been to Paris, France and Paris, Paramount. Paris, Paramount is better.” Even the way characters seem to breeze from Paris to Chicago and back seems like something that could only happen in a 30s movie set mostly in a world of fancy gowns & tuxedos and several times we get the welcome reminder that Blake Edwards never met an elegant nightclub that he didn’t want to destroy by having a fight break out in it.
It actually says something about how well-assembled the construction in Edwards’ screenplay is that the way pieces are moved around to allow for certain things doesn’t cause it to fall apart even if the maneuvering does result in a few problems. The lengthy sequence involving Garner’s King Marchand sneaking into Victoria and Toddy’s suite attempting to learn the truth about her is impeccably laid out shot for shot but considering what he definitively gets a look at it makes his later declaration to her, “I don’t care if you are a man” before moving in for the kiss mean absolutely nothing (It’s not all that gallant an action either—would Melvyn Douglas sneak into Garbo’s bathroom?) and the story doesn’t have as much punch as a result. The sequence could have been designed to somehow have Marchand fail to learn the truth and, really, a moment where James Garner—Jim Rockford, Bret Maverick, the Scrounger in THE GREAT ESCAPE, among many other examples—declares his love for what he genuinely believes to be a man in a major studio release in 1982 would have been truly transgressive if it had happened (“I still don’t care,” he tells her when she fesses up and that response doesn’t matter either). In Garner’s autobiography “The Garner Files” he says it originally was this way and Blake Edwards ultimately chickened out, admitting as much. Maybe it’s a minor point but it does feel like an unfortunate case of maneuvering around an issue and makes the film fall short of its own principles even if the occasional line of dialogue (“Kill him, but musn’t kiss him,” Toddy comments on what apparently are acceptable gangster activities) still has some resonance even in 2014.
One other issue, and I’m hardly the first person to bring this up, would be the final musical number (I’ll avoid spoilers but it involves an alternate version of “Shady Dame From Seville” by a different character), one which really isn’t necessary and seems designed to end things in the broadest way possible more than anything—the days of Ernst Lubitsch ending this sort of thing in the most graceful way possibly were long since gone, I suppose. Plotwise the way the chess pieces are arranged is fine (although one final exchange between Andrews and Garner would have been nice) but it’s hard not to wish that everything could be resolved in a much more succinct, elegant fashion. As things play out it just causes much of the plot stuff to simply fizzle away. The film does close out the story of Victoria Grant by a quick shot of Andrews silently mouthing along the words to the song in question as a way of saying goodbye to Victor. It’s a nice touch—awfully economical, too—and while there’s one last spectacular pratfall near the very end that I would never want to lose the close isn’t quite up to the rest of the film, congratulating itself before we’ve had a chance to do that for ourselves. Are the characters laughing? Are the actors breaking character? Have we suddenly moved into Hal Needham territory?
That shot of Andrews mouthing the words at the point of ‘the rest of the tale’s not a pretty one’ seems more interesting than the film seems to notice, as if it’s a wistful sign of regret from Victoria that this rollercoaster is coming to an end and things are returning to normalcy, even if she is better off than when she started. In some ways the climax of the film has already happened close to a half-hour earlier—the one-take performance of “Crazy World” which comes as Victoria and King decide to become a couple seems to sum up everything about the film and the lead character’s feelings about it all while also harkening back to Edwards’ gorgeous and even more ambitious opening shot of the box office disaster DARLING LILI. Thing is, there’s still another thirty or so minutes (and, yeah, in this 133 minute film you do start to feel that running time after a while) of plot and other issues to deal with at this point including how living a lie, any kind of lie, is no fun at all. I wish those strands could have been dealt with in a more graceful way but as was memorably stated in a certain classic comedy about cross-dressing made in 1959 (not to mention a few characters in other Blake Edwards films here and there), nobody’s perfect.
I vaguely recall that when I saw the film in a theater long ago it seemed like on the big screen if you sort of squinted that Julie Andrews almost, kind of, if you really wanted to go along with it, might almost conceivably resemble a very effeminate male. And that’s really giving the whole thing the benefit of the doubt but, like I said, it really doesn’t matter. Andrews is wonderful, selling the comedy beautifully—I love how she almost loses her balance after belting out that first high note—as well as every single musical number and with her performance gaining in resonance as the film goes on it really is one of the best characterizations of her career. She’s also paired up beautifully with her two main costars and as a matter of fact, it feels a little bit like Edwards has created this wonderful part for his wife while splitting the surrogates for himself into two, the loyal friend that is Toddy and the crafty but still somewhat mature King Marchand. James Garner, opposite his old THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY costar Andrews, is effortless in his charm and comic timing, about as good here as he ever was onscreen. The scene where the two of them attempt to reasonably discuss their differences is particularly good with these two characters in a larger than life world trying to face this farce in a simply human way and both actors play off each other in a way that feels completely natural. Robert Preston, no matter which of his costars he’s playing off, takes every single line that he has and makes it sing beyond all belief allowing him to basically walk off with the movie. “If Mr. Preston doesn’t get an Oscar for this film, he never will,” said Vincent Canby in The New York Times and, sadly, he was right but seeing him express such joy in getting to play this role and say this dialogue remains alive.
Lesley Ann Warren is also fantastic as moll Norma Cassidy, taking the basics of the Jean Harlow stereotype to the nth degree and imbuing it with a complete life of her own particularly in her own show-stopping musical number but also in a memorably laid out scene involving a train car. The entire cast is ideal including Alex Karras, John Rhys-Davies, Peter Arne and of course Graham Stark (can’t mention him too many times—lest we forget, the sight of Graham Stark shouting, “COCKROACH!” is one of the reasons that movies exist). Edwards regular Herb Tanney makes his usual cameo, playing the Clouseau-like private investigator hired to uncover the truth about Victor, this time billed as “Sherloque Tanney”.
In its combination of wit and style, laughs and music, character and subtext, VICTOR/VICTORIA (available on DVD from the Warner Archive) features Blake Edwards as writer and director at his very best. Upon release it was one of the most acclaimed films of his career and the seven Oscar nominations included one for his screenplay, the only one he ever received in his career. Julie Andrews was also nominated as were Robert Preston and Lesley Ann Warren but in the end the only Oscar it won went to Henry Mancini and lyricist Leslie Bricusse for the song score. One of the other films that year of course was Sydney Pollack’s TOOTSIE, a very different cross-dressing farce made by a director not exactly known for comedy but in some ways on both a thematic and dramatic level it does stick the landing that VICTOR/VICTORIA doesn’t quite nail. Again, I suppose this is a minor issue considering how much joy VICTOR/VICTORIA continues to provide to this day. In his beyond ecstatic rave in the New York Times Vincent Canby stated that the film is “so good, so exhilarating, that the only depressing thing about it is the suspicion that Mr. Edwards is going to have a terrible time trying to top it.” His immediate followups were both TRAIL and CURSE OF THE PINK PANTHER, so, well, yeah, and nothing else over the following decade approached the level of acclaim that this film received (this also included directing a stage version of VICTOR/VICTORIA on Broadway starring Andrews which opened in 1995) although I am on record already as liking a few of them, maybe more than the rest of the world does. So while the likes of S.O.B. might be the sort of Blake Edwards-infused whiskey that I prefer downing on more occasions than not and while everything in VICTOR/VICTORIA isn’t as good as its best moments it has still aged absolutely beautifully which stands as a testament to the talents of its director, talents which maybe still aren’t as appreciated as they should be. But I suppose that’s the way it sometimes is in such a crazy world.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Nothing But A Cheap Crook

Al Pacino wanted to play Johnny Handsome. In Lawrence Grobel’s book of interviews with the actor he talks about how he was going to do the film with director Harold Becker and he loved it, loved the part, that it was his favorite role ever, but as the script was worked on he felt they never got the right third act so it didn’t happen, finally saying, “Mickey Rourke did a great job on it but that didn’t matter; the movie didn’t have the finish.” On the film’s imdb page it states that Pacino dropped out because he “felt, despite numerous revisions, they had never been able to transcend the script’s B-movie qualities.” Which of course isn’t quite what he says to Grobel so maybe there’s another quote from him on it out there but, regardless, there is an interesting point to be made of what a film should be, what it can be turned into and if transcending the roots of a concept is actually a good idea. As it was finally made, JOHNNY HANDSOME which starred Rourke in the title role was directed by Walter Hill who I doubt ever had a problem with B-movie qualities and was certainly able to bring out the undeniable essence of character within a pulp framework in addition to making a full-on action film with all the energy imaginable. Hill’s JOHNNY HANDSOME didn’t do much business when it was released on September 29, 1989 but I’ve always admired its noirish stripped-down qualities and no-nonsense approach to the story, things which can certainly be said about any number of Walter Hill films. It fully embraces its roots in a way that this director seems to know how to do like few others. It still feels that way now. And you know what? The third act actually is kind of problematic. But let’s put that aside for the time being.
Deformed crook John Sedley (Mickey Rourke), known as ‘Johnny Handsome’ because of his appearance, is talked into pulling a job by his only friend Mikey (Scott Wilson) who is desperately in need of money. But things go wrong when they are double crossed in the middle of the job by accomplices Sunny Boyd (Ellen Barkin) and Rafe Garrett (Lance Henriksen) who kill Mikey and leave John for dead. After an attempt on his life in prison he winds up in a hospital where plastic surgeon Dr. Steven Fisher (Forest Whitaker) is looking for someone to test his new procedure on, giving John a new face and new identity but in spite of the skepticism of needling cop Lt. A.Z. Drones (Morgan Freeman) who knows what Johnny is deep down, things seem to be going well with a new job and nice new girl Donna McCarty (Elizabeth McGovern). But Johnny still has his eye on revenge and seeks out his old accomplices who don’t recognize him, with a plan for a new robbery and a ways to get back at them.
If you averaged out the running times of Walter Hill’s films you would probably come somewhere between 90 and 100 minutes (1993’s GERONIMO at 115 minutes is the exception to this). JOHNNY HANDSOME, coming in at about 93 minutes falls in the lower end of that spectrum and that lean feel of narrative economy is apparent right from the start, wasting no time with introducing us to the characters and who they are, moving quickly to the all-out assault of the initial heist. Ultimately this approach is what JOHNNY HANDSOME (screenplay by Ken Friedman, based on the novel “The Three Worlds of Johnny Handsome” by John Godey) really is, a walk down a short, dark alley where there might be some momentary respite from the nastiness of this world but ultimately it just leads to a brick wall. Everything is a given, everything is inevitable and the way Hill tells the story he sees no reason to waste time—early on once the initial heist is finished we go from Johnny’s sentencing to the prison then finally to the hospital after the attempt on his life in the space of about two minutes. The film keeps moving, placing the emphasis on the noir-soaked nature of the story and this world instead of the action although since this is Walter Hill he never holds back on the gunplay, not at all, as well as forever juicy details in the dialogue like how the guys hired to kill Johnny in prison were paid “a grand each and cigarettes”.
And each of these characters are perfect in this world—Barkin’s Sunny and Henriksen’s Rafe are soaked in their own nastiness but are really just a bickering couple dependent on each other more than they want to admit, Whitaker’s doctor and his straightforward earnestness, Freeman’s cop who’s one step of every person he’s having a conversation with and Rourke as the title character, the calm center to the film as if in his earlier life Johnny was never fully formed because the world never allowed him to be. “Johnny don’t need no mask” is the childhood taunt he remembers and now that he’s finally given a mask he’s determined to use it while the white-hatted Lt. Drones taunts him, knowing what’s coming, knowing the truth that the ultimately decent doctor can never see since he can never understand the limitations of the mask he’s giving Johnny, that this is nothing more than a ‘genetic abnormality’ that needs to be fixed. He doesn’t even understand that, ultimately, a mask is all it is with Johnny staring at the photos of his old self, wondering who he really is, nothing to be afraid of anymore since in some ways he’s already died. Freeman, with a moment I love where he bursts out into a surprised smile at seeing the new Johnny where he states, “That is fucking amazing”, thinks that Whitaker is naïve and he’s not wrong but the doctor is just as someone who wants to bring the good out and he sees no reason why that can’t happen. Much as Al Pacino didn’t want it to be, the heart of JOHNNY HANDSOME isn’t its potential as character study as much as a simple demonstration of noir allowing the characters to emerge from that whiskey soaked atmosphere, so much that if you told me it was a faithful remake of a 75 minute film made in 1948 for the bottom half of a double bill I wouldn’t be surprised (Pauline Kael in her review speculates that film would be the 1941 Joan Crawford vehicle A WOMAN’S FACE but JOHNNY HANDSOME is much more down and dirty). And I wish it was so I could watch the two versions back to back.
The opening third detailing Johnny’s path to his new face offers some of the best work of Hill’s career without a wasted frame, giving us a feel of each of the characters. The three acts of the film are more or less broken down into the path to getting the new face, living with the new face and then using the new face to disguise the old face. The approach maybe isn’t perfect—the effect of the more experimental first third is broken slightly when it moves to the next section, opening with a montage of Johnny at his new job that is scored a little like a beer commercial and while there’s no way for such a spell not to be broken but it still feels like a misstep, taking us away from his head and a little too much into the outside world. You can feel Hill letting the actors dig into their characters and there’s a certain joy in that—just looking at their faces, whatever their real faces are, becomes the movie more than anything else—with the visual style like the following year’s ANOTHER 48 HRS. directed by Hill on which Matthew F. Leonetti also served as director of photography relies more on close-ups than Hill had done earlier in his career. When Sunny and Rafe reenter the story in the second half it’s frankly a joy to watch them and I certainly wouldn’t mind a few more scenes of just the two actors playing them snarling at each other but in keeping the pace going the film doesn’t waste time moving towards the second big heist either. More than anything it’s hurt by how the final section post-heist feels like a process of moving chess pieces into place more than telling the story of the title character since while things should barrel forward at this point there are the issues of laundering the money and certain people learning Johnny’s true identity and getting everyone to the same place for the climax. If it could have accomplished all this sooner while paying attention to the arc of the title character and run only 75 minutes, like the mythical black & white verison I mentioned, it might have been better than just another cool Walter Hill film. It might have been a minor classic.
But even in the final third here there are memorable moments, such as a phenomenal scene where Henriksen’s Rafe pulls a gun on Barkin’s Sunny and she, not caring, just walks past him. He holds his gun on her, wanting to pull the trigger on her and not bringing himself to doing it. Hill holds on the shot, letting the actors play out the moment as if it’s on stage and it couldn’t be more electrifying. The director isn’t trying to find these characters through speeches that they make so everything doesn’t stop while Johnny explains more than we ever need to know to Elizabeth McGovern’s Donna. Instead much of it is about the behavior in what these fantastic actors make out of these moments. Maybe the story needed an extra beat or two so things didn’t seem quite so clinical in the inevitability of what happens, where Johnny realizes that he has no choice but to do what he’s going to do since that’s the way the world is going to be no matter what. The story doesn’t always live up to the best moments, maybe that finish the film never found that Pacino alluded to, and I haven’t spent any time trying to come up with a better third act myself but at its best JOHNNY HANDSOME feels bracingly alive in a way that maybe only Walter Hill can deliver.
What does the story of this film inadvertently say about what has happened to Mickey Rourke’s face in the years since? Since this comes at the very end of the 80s it almost seems like the very end of classic-era Rourke (DESPERATE HOURS and HARLEY DAVIDSON AND THE MARLBORO MAN came after, followed by oblivion for a few years). It’s an unusual close to that period if that’s the case considering how much the character is supposed to be a blank, with his most emotional moments coming before his face changes. At first speechless at the sight of his new face, afterwards it’s as if he allows the blank of his new face to work for him, to play off of the much bigger performances around him and it’s continually fascinating to watch. Ellen Barkin (in one of two films released in September ’89—the other was SEA OF LOVE which also starred, what do you know, Al Pacino and was directed by Harold Becker) is phenomenal here, ferociously and terrifyingly sexy, fearless, grabbing hold of every scene she’s in and biting off every last ounce of meat she can find. The name Sunny couldn’t possibly seem less appropriate for her character and Barkin plays it as if she thought Marie Windsor in THE KILLING was too nice and sweet—when she tells Rourke, her old DINER co-star, that he’s giving her bad thoughts one can’t help but wonder what sort of thoughts she’d been having beforehand. She’s absolutely fearless here, taunting Johnny with a cry of “geek” like the kids who teased him when he was a kid, and the way her voice goes down on the word ‘gave’ when she says, “Either that or I gave it away” to Henriksen makes me think statues should be erected in her honor.
Really, all of these performances nail it—Lance Henriksen’s shitkicker glare, pounding down the whiskey is one of the best characters of his career, Morgan Freeman’s cockiness, Forest Whitaker’s kind nature. Looking at the film for the first time for a while I was also struck by how good Elizabeth McGovern is here. It’s not at all a showy role like the others and the good girl nature of the part is probably the weakest on the page but the actress imbues her scenes with a genuine sense of humanity without making a big thing out of it. In my imaginary 40s version I kept picturing Joan Bennett playing this part. Scott Wilson as Johnny’s one friend has a nice speech about his own desperation early on that helps make him a fully fleshed out character in just a few scenes and Peter Jason, familiar from both Walter Hill and John Carpenter films (his big screen debut was in Howard Hawks’ last, RIO LOBO) plays a boss at the shipyard where Johnny gets a job. In 48 HRS he’s the bartender at Torchy’s getting harassed by Eddie Murphy. Here, he gets full on pistol-whipped by Ellen Barkin. It’s a certain kind of filmic immortality, that’s for sure.
The issue isn’t whether or not Pacino was wrong, that doesn’t matter. And, yeah, he would have been amazing playing this role. The final version of JOHNNY HANDSOME is flawed and as much as I love just watching these actors embody these rolls in a way that is near exhilarating as a full story maybe it doesn’t entirely connect on an emotional level in the end. I don’t know if that connects so the last image we see before the end credits roll doesn’t register. The film isn’t about a lost friendship so much as booze-soaked tour of a New Orleans drenched world courtesy of a sometimes master director enacted by actors I love in which people don’t change no matter what, just frozen in themselves like a photographed carried in our back pocket until it’s falling apart. That’s a part of our dreams of the better person we’d like to be, the one we know we never will. And if that’s not noir, or at least a small slice of what it should be in the dead of night, I don’t know what is.

Monday, February 10, 2014

In A Couple Of Seconds

No way that I’ll ever forget being jolted awake in the early morning hours of January 17, 1994 when the Northridge quake hit. Even though I was living in North Hollywood at the time, not that far from the epicenter, I was lucky as far as things went so just about the most interesting part of my own experience is that I had returned from an extremely cold and snowy visit back in New York, arriving to something considerably more treacherous as it turned out. Much of that week is a blur to me now and as these things go, because I’m very strange, one of my most vivid recollections is of what came about a few days later when I went to the movies in Westwood at the National Theater (I really miss that place—demolished in ’08 and maybe now destined to be remembered as ‘the theater in ZODIAC’) for opening night of the Richard Gere-Sharon Stone drama INTERSECTION. Actually, my recollections aren’t really that strong. I’m pretty sure I must have worked at my job in Brentwood (the Brown-Goldman murders less than five months away at that point) and then driven over to Westwood that evening. I don’t remember specifics. I don’t remember what I might have had for dinner or even if I got popcorn. I wish I did, just like I wish I’d kept other pieces of time in the brain to remember what I actually did on certain days back then but those things leave you as time goes on.
I do recall that the theater was surprisingly crowded and there was an unmistakable feel in the air of relaxation as if everyone was relieved and thinking, “We made it through the week, now let’s go see a movie.” And it probably didn’t even matter what that movie was, which considering the movie in question may have been just as well. Maybe some people there even expected as much—directed by Mark Rydell and originally scheduled for a Christmas release INTERSECTION had been pushed back to the dead of January, never a very good sign, and what we got to see that night pretty much confirmed those suspicions. Ultimately it didn’t do very well, coming in third that weekend, behind the long running MRS. DOUBTFIRE and PHILADELPHIA, winding up with a gross of $21 million. Revisiting the film now my reaction hasn’t changed all that much from what it was then and it’s not so much an outright bad film as simply one that doesn’t really connect. It ends with more of a shrug than any real emotional response but it is interesting to look at again as not only a reminder of what I went to see that night long ago as well but also as being a relic of the nineties when major studios were still making star vehicles like this. I suppose lots of films from the nineties are going to look like relics sooner or later. Maybe they are already.
Speeding along on a country road, successful architect Vincent Eastman (Richard Gere) is suddenly about to be involved in a multi-car collision. Seconds before impact, portions of his life flash before his eyes, much of it having to do with wife Sally (Sharon Stone) who he’s on the outs with and journalist Olivia Marshak (Lolita Davidovich) who he’s leaving her for. As he’s faced with the two woman coming together at the opening of one of his new buildings he’s faced with the choice between the two of them that he ultimately has to make so his life can move forward.
There are a few notable points about INTERSECTION but even those aren’t really all that interesting. One might be that it’s the rare Hollywood film shot in Vancouver that actually says it’s Vancouver, not Seattle or elsewhere, and I’ll give it points for utilizing quite a bit of scenery in the areas surrounding the city. Additionally, the film is director Mark Rydell’s fourth collaboration with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, presumably after they met when Rydell acted in THE LONG GOODBYE (and if you haven’t seen their first, CINDERELLA LIBERTY, go and take care of that) and also features Sharon Stone right in the middle of her post-BASIC INSTINCT hot streak, presumably trying to play against type by taking the role of the unhappy wife instead of the flashier part of the other woman. But ultimately INTERSECTION (screenplay by David Rayfiel and Marshall Brickman based on the 1970 French film LES CHOSES DE LA VIE) is a movie where not very much happens, as indicated by the synopsis above, and even what does occur onscreen never has the metaphorical significance that the film clearly is going for.
There’s not much about it that I believe at all beyond being a movie where people have flashy movie jobs like architect and magazine columnist while wearing nice clothes and living in nice houses—the sort of people who wear expensive sweaters, although I’ll admit to being fond of the suit Richard Gere wears through the ‘present day’ portion of the flashback. It promises to be a high-powered drama about choices and fate as time moves forward and cherishing every moment but in spite of all the flash and promises it just turns out to be not much of anything, a 52 pick-up game of flashbacks divided between the present (mostly over the course of a single day before the accident) and various key events in the main character’s relationships with the two women, waffling about fully committing to Olivia, still somewhat attached to his wife, all meant to detail the path this man has taken but not much really connects. More than anything Gere’s architect seems like a guy who’s bored, unhappy because his wife chooses to answer the phone when they’re alone together, caught in a structure that is both annoying and ineffectual—a few flashbacks come past the point when they still seem necessary, so they come off as marking time while waiting for the accident to occur, and if you arranged everything in chronological order it wouldn’t be much more compelling either. None of these people do much of interest as they agonize through this drama, none of them warranting the film they’re the main characters of.
The blanks that get filled in aren’t enough, at least not enough to be satisfying. Stone’s Sally presumably turned him from the art student he once was into a successful architect who can make money in the business world she occupies, turning art into a commodity for rich people as part of their ‘corporation with a kid’ that their perfect marriage really is. There’s never much of a pulse, not even during the moments when characters are laughing about something so when Davidovich’s co-workers jokingly bow to her when she walks into a staff meeting it all just seems phony. Maybe the French version works better—maybe this is the sort of thing that works best in that language. The script seems to indicate that the other woman, the free spirit of the two, is supposed to be younger but the two women look roughly the same age anyway (Stone, who is presumably playing older, has only three years on Davidovich) so that element is lost. There are hints, intentionally or not, that things aren’t going to go much better with her and that her immaturity means he’s just going to wind up in the same place he started, like when she suggests going upstairs at a party to privately make love like he did once upon a time with his wife, but not enough is done with this and she’s too inconsistently written anyway. Much as the film is almost about its own flashback structure more than anything the story is still pretty thin and already feels like it’s reaching the climax at the hour mark but there are still more flashbacks to go (including a ridiculously ‘cute’ charades scene with Gere and Davidovich that has to be some sort of low point) as well as the business involving the accident and the visions of fantasy afterwards leading to the twist conclusion. The story wants to feel incomplete the way life is sometimes but instead just drifts off so when the credits roll there’s not a feel of the tragedy of it all so much as a shrug where you think, well, I guess that’s the whole thing. “That’s it?” Davidovich asks Gere when he describes his life, waiting for the horrible story that isn’t coming. “I must have missed something.” That’s all fine and everything. It’s perfectly believable, actually, but it doesn’t do us much good.
Nothing about INTERSECTION is really all that wrong but it just kind of drifts away in the end, not having very much impact at all. A few scenes connect briefly—Martin Landau talking about his dead wife, a post-separation Stone shooting down Gere immediately when he tries to say something nice to her. A waitress played by Suki Kaiser who serves Gere at a café asks aloud why they don’t all move to Arizona to get away from the Vancouver rain and I wonder what her story is since there’s not much else of interest to focus on. For that matter, since some of the scenes almost seem overly dramatic like a film being shot in a film a more compelling story might be a DAY FOR NIGHT style film about the making of this sort of film and what happens between the three leads. Now that’s a film I’d like to see. The big flashback scene where Gere breaks it off with Stone is pretty good all things considered, maybe even the best moment in the film and it all drifts off in a way that feels somewhat believable but the stifling feel of what leads to the eventual eruption here is emblematic of the film as well. Not enough is spoken, not enough is there. Not enough is anything, although the score by James Newton Howard features a fair amount of harmonica which is rather soothing in a 70s sort of way. Even Gere’s encounter with a little girl late in the film that’s meant to give him his ‘answer’ still doesn’t feel as emotional as it should although the way she says “Bye” to him when she leaves is awfully cute. The film means well and I can feel director Rydell trying to bring emotion to the agony the characters are all going through. Gere’s character buys an antique clock at an auction and repeated shots of a ball bearing moving through the specialized mechanisms indicating the passage of time and fate as if it’s somehow watching over everyone while waiting for him to make his big decision clearly are supposed to mean everything. But it doesn’t .You can’t stop what’s coming, went the line in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and that would seem to be part of the theme of INTERSECTION as well. But, really, the clod shouldn’t have been driving his vintage Mercedes so fast in the first place.
Some of that Vancouver area scenery is awfully nice, especially when Richard Gere endlessly drives around during the last half hour, I’ll give it that much. The age of Richard Gere’s character is my age so make me even more depressed than I already am, why don’t you. As for the performances, everyone somehow seems a little uneasy together in the frame too much of the time. Gere is playing the script so since the script is dreary, his character is dreary, spouting off things like “Norman, I loved the elevation!” to remind us that he’s a high-powered architect (based on some dialogue he’s apparently a famous architect, which is probably George Costanza’s dream) and constantly trying to remind us that he’s torn between these two women down to his very soul. Sharon Stone, trying to go full on Grace Kelly, maybe comes off best and her performance becomes more interesting the more I watch it, noticing elements she’s adding that allow her to bring shadings to this thinly written character. Lolita Davidovich has the right sort of energy but the erratic nature of her part means that there isn’t a full sense of life from the character almost as if she’s getting contradictory suggestions from either the script or the director so, again, it’s as if something is missing. Martin Landau has a nice scene early on but then disappears for most of the running time while Jennifer Morrison (billed here as Jenny Morrison) of the hit ABC series ONCE UPON A TIME plays the Eastman’s daughter. Incidentally, go and watch ONCE UPON A TIME.
If I told you that just as I was writing that last sentence Jennifer Morrison happened to walk by would you believe me? Probably not. But life is funny that way, causing your view of the world to sometimes be altered in just a couple of seconds, which is something I’ve realized many times in the past twenty years. To be honest, I’m trying to remember more details of that night at the National in Westwood but not much is coming to me, just like some of those days following the Northridge quake are now hazy to me as well. So much has changed since then. As for INTERSECTION, it’s a case of a film that only means something to me because of those distant memories that surround it. Which I suppose is what the film is about as well and while that film may not mean much of anything in the end I’m not sure if all that stuff surrounding it means anything either. But I do have those memories, cloudy as a few of them are. So they must mean something.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Another Man's Poetry

And so HOUSE CALLS starring Walter Matthau & Glenda Jackson begat HOPSCOTCH directed by Ronald Neame and starring Walter Matthau & Glenda Jackson which begat FIRST MONDAY IN OCTOBER directed by Ronald Neame and starring Walter Matthau & Jill Clayburgh. Well, I guess Glenda Jackson wouldn’t have been ideal casting to play a Supreme Court justice. Released in August 1981 (same day as AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, speaking of films you’d think I would have written about by now), FIRST MONDAY IN OCTOBER had its release apparently pushed up several months when the selection of Sandra Day O’Connor as the first ever female Supreme Court justice rendered its storyline somewhat out of date or at the very least fortuitously timely. Based on a stage play which was first produced at the Cleveland Play House in 1975 starring Melvyn Douglas and Jean Arthur (“Within the province of dramatic jurisprudence it is a draggy, flaccid unconvincing brief” so said the Time Magazine review) the film followed a mere six years later yet it feels like a case of an adaptation that was already a little behind the times. The result is 98 minutes that feel sporadically engaging yet I wish it were sharper, I wish that its characters had more interesting and clever things to say during their bickering when the points being made should have all the fire imaginable. When the play premiered on Broadway in 1978 it starred Henry Fonda and Jane Alexander but didn’t run more than a couple of months and hasn’t been revived very much since. It’s not exactly a dinner theater-ready evergreen like a few of the Neil Simon adaptations Matthau starred in during this period and it’s also very much a product of its era, just barely anyway—this film could be the answer to a trivia question, ‘Name another Paramount release that opened the summer of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK’ and that right there is maybe an indication of how this sort of thing was quickly going out of style as the 80s progressed. Like HOPSCOTCH, which came out less than a year earlier, it manages to be pleasant but is also somewhat strained, never as much of a smoothly enjoyable easy listening piece of music the way that earlier Matthau-Neame collaboration is.
When the sudden death of a Supreme Court justice causes a vacancy on the bench, Associate Justice Daniel Snow (Walter Matthau) is thrilled to learn that a woman will finally be appointed to the court. His enthusiasm is tempered, however, when the longtime liberal learns that the woman in question is the Honorable Ruth Loomis (Jill Clayburgh) a staunch conservative who he dubs ‘the Mother Superior of Orange County’. Though the two find a way to clash on every possible issue almost instantly on both their methods and their ideals circumstances cause them to soon find some common ground and develop a certain fondness for each other.
I suppose that any movie in which we get to watch Walter Matthau struggle with using chopsticks can’t be all bad and one can appreciate the Tracy-Hepburn approach taken to the relationship between the two leads, skirting the edge of possible attraction yet wisely leaving the matter hanging with only the hint of possibility. But there’s not much that catches fire in FIRST MONDAY IN OCTOBER (screenplay by Jerome Lawrence & Robert E. Lee based on the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee) and the things that do get my attention are almost accidental, byproducts of watching this thirty-plus years on. Walter Matthau certainly doesn’t have a dull moment, playing an intellectual who seems to like nothing more than getting his hands dirty while arguing over the future of the country and the movie convinces me that his Justice Snow would be an engaging person to have a conversation with which makes the fireworks we anticipate all the more promising. Let’s say he’s ‘crusty but benign’ to quote the oft-used character description in NETWORK. Jill Clayburgh doesn’t have quite the same kind of flair for this material—she comes off as more of a puzzled wet blanket rather than annoyed in a persnickety way (which brings how Glenda Jackson approached their sparring to mind) that would add to the humor although the words she’s given don’t really help. Sure, I’m going to agree with what a liberal judge has to say over the conservative one but the specifics of what she argues doesn’t help to bring me around to her side and there’s an edge missing from her portrayal which would help make her case more persuasive. Because of the side she’s on I don’t agree with a lot of what she has to say but that still doesn’t mean the film should make it so easy. But more than that there’s no real spark to their debates, not enough real chemistry between the leads.
What they’re arguing over is never as interesting as it should be anyway and a subplot about exhibition of a porno film (called THE NAUGHTY NYMPHOMANIAC, described as “an educational film” so when we finally get a look at the movie in question it’s supposed to be a joke) feels at least several years out of date for ’81 becoming all the more annoying that the film spends about twenty minutes on a first amendment argument related to it never develops into anything more than platitudes so when Justice Loomis delivers her final comment on the matter the moment doesn’t land like it should. The other major case that figures in is more interesting, again almost unintentionally, since it seems to anticipate the growth of multi-conglomerates of the following decades involving a company named Omnitech buying up patents only to bury the products and even has the arch-conservative judge played by Clayburgh plead its case by arguing “Aren’t corporations people?” in a way that would surely please the likes of Mitt Romney but too much of this plotline feels muddled and the revelations of Loomis’ own possible connection to it are humdrum with a twist that strains credibility, never feeling appropriately explained or clarified.
There are all sorts of interesting possibilities with FIRST MONDAY IN OCTOBER, like the comical awkwardness of the other justices in dealing with this woman as well as Snow’s obsession with mountain climbing and how that relates to his job. This feels like it should mean something, a metaphor for this self-proclaimed king of his own mountain but it really doesn’t and ultimately just feels like a way to open things up for the start of the film. It would be interesting if the appointment of Loomis brought out Snow’s own inadvertent misogyny going beyond his disagreement with her political beliefs and I guess that’s sort of in there, with runners about women noticing wallpaper and the benefits of a messy desk but it’s not enough. One of the best examples of this sort of thing in the movie doesn’t even feature Clayburgh but rather when Matthau’s Justice Snow and his wife played by Jan Sterling seemingly have two separate conversations at once and the moment plays as totally natural—when she finally asks him a question in response to what he’s actually talking about he doesn’t even get what she’s referring to. But all too often it becomes way too pat, too easy.
The direction by Ronald Neame (whose lengthy filmography also includes THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE and THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE as well as personal favorite GAMBIT) is polite and workmanlike but aside from knowing how to frame all this for 2.35 in a way that makes what comes from the stage as visually active as possible (points to veteran cinematographer Fred J. Koenekamp as well) there’s really not much to be done to make it a movie since it really is ultimately a play. It’s the sort of film where with little else to think about I find myself paying attention to what a bad job Clayburgh does parking a car in one scene, shades of Janet Maslin’s negative review in The New York Times in which for some reason she complains about a film that opens in August being set in the winter. It’s like the film rubbed her the wrong way but since it’s not quite a ‘bad’ movie per se she couldn’t quite pinpoint exactly why (going along with their review of the original stage production, Time Magazine didn’t like the movie much either). Featuring a moment where Matthau high-fives the sole African-American judge on the court, the film doesn’t seem to have much of an opinion about anything that gets discussed beyond the pomp & circumstance of the traditions of the Supreme Court along with playing variations of “Stars & Stripes Forever” over establishing shots which feels like a way to somehow try to open things up.
Maybe portraying the two political sides fighting for the glory of democracy while finding a way to work together even with their differences just feels too out of date. Things just aren’t this way anymore and maybe I doubt if it ever really was. The dialogue needs to make both their arguments stronger beyond just the boilerplate and the way Matthau’s character is portrayed sounds like he would want it that way too (in one of my favorite moments he muses, “I don’t agree with a word with it, but it’s well written,” upon reading one of Loomis’ opinions) but the movie doesn’t live up to that. And some of what Clayburgh discovers late in the film relating to the Omnitech scandal which is never very clear anyway and the conclusions she draws from that realization weakens her character as a result, leaving Matthau to talk some sense into her. It’s patriarchal and rather dull but hey, she can help him with his dumplings when he fumbles with those chopsticks. It makes this battle of the sexes unequal even if I know I’m never going to agree with her to begin with. I found myself imagining what a better version of this might be and at one point the fantasy began to coalesce—bring it back to Broadway, have Aaron Sorkin do a complete top-to-bottom dialogue polish and set it in period. Sure, some of his sexual politics are sometimes problematic as well but at least the dialogue would sing and placed in the proper context might allow us to think about how far we’ve come and how far we haven’t. This would no doubt be disrespectful to the original playwrights (who were, incidentally, also the writers of INHERIT THE WIND so who the hell am I to talk?) but now that I’ve seen FIRST MONDAY IN OCTOBER, I honestly think it’s a good idea.
At the very least, Walter Matthau making a Hitler joke is always going to get a laugh out of me. He’s a pleasure to watch even though it may not be one of his best performances, possibly due to how he sometimes doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with the words on the page, particularly during some more serious moments. But most importantly he seems to enjoy digging into playing this guy and making him as much of a curmudgeon as possible while still demanding that the person he’s arguing with make their feelings known. In contrast, Jill Clayburgh was an excellent actress and though this came during her post-AN UNMARRIED WOMAN hot streak (one film I really do need to get around to writing about is STARTING OVER) but she still doesn’t seem quite right here. As an actress Clayburgh gets you to believe what she’s saying but not enough of it sticks to the wall, maybe because she doesn’t always have faith in the words, or maybe the arguments, either so the character just isn’t as strong as it needs to be. Incidentally, Clayburgh is introduced playing tennis making me wonder if when Joan Allen does so in Rod Lurie’s THE CONTENDER if it’s an homage and that gets me to wonder how Joan Allen would been in the role if made at another time. It also occurs to me that if it had been made a few years this would have been a Meryl Streep role but she was just too young back then and not as much of a name. In 1981 Marsha Mason might have been an interesting choice as well though I wonder if she would have come off quite so regally the way Clayburgh seems to naturally carry herself. As the Chief Justice Bernard Hughes is always good for some enjoyable moments throughout and Jan Sterling from Billy Wilder’s ACE IN THE HOLE appears as Matthau’s wife in her last film.
There are certainly multiple reasons why I was curious to finally see FIRST MONDAY IN OCTOBER. Walter Matthau is probably the best of them. But more than that is because it’s yet another one of those films that I remember existing when I was a kid (here’s the trailer which I vaguely remember from way back then) and never saw because they were rated R or simply not for kids in general so for reasons that I could never possibly explain I’ve always been curious about them. More often than not they’re the sort of films that aren’t made by major studios anymore but I get to finally seek them out. On principle, I’m fine with something like FIRST MONDAY IN OCTOBER (available now from the Warner Archive if you're so inclined) and I don’t mind at all that I saw it, not one bit. But even if its premise is dated it still doesn’t have the snap that the best possible version of the storyline might have had. As a movie it’s pleasant but unmemorable and that’s really about it. So I just need to move onto the next film I’ve always wondered about, whatever that is. And it may be better, but most likely it won’t have the glorious sight of Walter Matthau fumbling with chopsticks and if nothing else at least FIRST MONDAY IN OCTOBER has that.