Friday, July 31, 2020
Well, we didn’t know this was going to be the future. Stuck like this, away from the people we’ve known and care about. But even now they stay with us as we close our eyes, wishing we were back with them. It’s the naiveté of youth, I suppose, the dream that you grow up and as the future appears the world will grow with you, eventually turning things into that life one dreams of. But the real future, the one we’re going to get, is always closer than we think and those people just get further away. So by the time we actually get there, it’s too late to do anything about it. That’s when we realize there’s no one else around.
Brian De Palma’s 2000 film MISSION TO MARS is set in what was then the future. But revisiting this film during its 20th anniversary is not simply about addressing when it opened but how it actually begins in the year 2020, on June 9th to be exact although the preciseness of the date serves little purpose. It’s still a pretty familiar looking future except that people appear to be drinking boxed beer at a crowded barbecue which, boxed beer aside, hasn’t been happening or at least it shouldn’t—I was going to add that we’re also not going to Mars anytime soon but there’s actually a mission happening, go figure, even if there won’t be any humans onboard. Living in this actual time as we are, if you call this living, we already know that the 2020 of this film has little to do with the reality we currently know even if the film doesn’t spend much time on Earth. My main recollections of seeing this film opening night way back in March of that year at the El Capitan on Hollywood Blvd. are that the packed house violently booed when the end credits rolled and someone threw what looked like a Snapple bottle at the screen. But time changes things. For one, this is a film where a character gets marooned all alone and who the hell knew back then that the very idea of isolation would turn out to have the most to do with what life in 2020 really is. Like many films that have been loudly rejected on opening night, MISSION TO MARS is more interesting than that initial response indicated and even though it does still have more than a few issues, it’s a film striving to be about hope and connection in a way that makes me think a little more fondly about it these days. There’s a lot to figure out right now about the way things are going and even if there aren’t any real answers in the film I’m watching, there’s always the dream that maybe something can still be found there.
As the first ever crew on the surface of Mars explores the red planet, they discover the possibility of water which would allow for earth colonization. But when they try to investigate, the entire team except for Commander Luke Graham (Don Cheadle) is wiped out by a mysterious vortex of massive size leaving the lone astronaut remaining stranded there. When news of this reaches the World Space Station via a message that indicates Luke is still alive, plans for the next ship for Mars are changed to turn it into a rescue mission which will include Commander Woody Blake (Tim Robbins), wife Terri (Connie Nielsen), Phil Ohlmeyer (Jerry O’Connell) and Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise), who gave up his own shot at commanding Mars One when his wife Maggie (Kim Delaney) fell ill and soon died. But months later when their ship begins to orbit Mars things immediately don’t go as planned and once the team reaches the ground to search for Luke, they soon discover the existence of a massive stone face which may lead to the answer of what sort of life once existed on that planet and what may have really happened to it.
For one thing, it’s definitely the second best Brian De Palma film with the word “Mission” in the title but this is of minor importance. Even after all this time MISSION TO MARS is still a tough one to figure out, a film which on the surface doesn’t seem to be anything other than a showcase for spectacular digital effects but somewhere deep down feels like it has other goals in mind that it hasn’t entirely worked out. Maybe it wants to be more of an interior journey into outer space but even with several big names in the cast the characters are never interesting enough to warrant this approach so what’s left becomes the focus on those effects and the way De Palma builds his own visual methods around them. Right from the very first moment as the title flashes onscreen a rocket blasts off, only to be revealed as a toy in a suburban backyard giving the impression the film wants to play with our expectations, finding a way to turn kid stuff into the adult regret of lost dreams and back again, to understand what the dream in those toys meant in the first place. It’s an idea that doesn’t feel entirely formed and the film is forced to pay more attention to all that hardware while still looking for ways around all the expected tropes, like how in place of the expected spectacular launch sequence is a simple transition to the surface of Mars done with a cut from a playful footprint in a backyard on Earth. This is an attempt at hard science fiction which at times seems more interested in finding unexpected ways to tell the story rather than acclimating us to the drama at hand and plays at such a distance that it’s a little too easy to check out early on. There’s no mission control populated with familiar character actors, no cutaways to worried loved ones back home, no bogus conflict between the astronauts played by big names and even an early sequence involving cross cutting that plays with notions of time within the narrative for reasons that still seem a little hazy.
A few plot points, like how Cheadle’s command will presumably be joined at a later date by Mars II commanded by Robbins, seem vague in the way they’re casually discussed but I’m not sure it matters and I’m not sure the director really cares about making such generalities clear. Complicated exposition gets doled out in a way that hasn’t taken into account what anyone watching the film doesn’t know so not enough of it registers, lost to whatever De Palma is actually interested in focusing on. Even when the film opens with one of his patented endless Steadicam shots it’s not about the technology surrounding a Mars launch but the simple act of the astronauts socializing at a farewell barbecue, giving us more info about the relationships than the actual mission which is fine but the mundane setting doesn’t seem to warrant such a complex visual approach (which features a cut partway through as if a decision was made in editing to rush things along) and it also makes the film feel unexpectedly small with the interactions never registering all that much as the camera swirls around them. There’s so little drama in the friendships of the main characters which means right from the start we’re facing a Brian De Palma film where everyone gets along, no ominous foreshadowing in the air, so earnest that the scenes barely seem about anything.
The way the writing credits read (screenplay by Jim Thomas and John Thomas & Graham Yost, story by Lowell Cannon & Jim Thomas and John Thomas) along with the very nature of the project (presumably inspired by the Disneyland ride that closed back in ’92 but it has the Touchstone Pictures logo) one imagines many, many drafts of various scripts written but the story still feels either not quite smoothed over or maybe had whole sections deleted for whatever reason. One major plot point is even relayed via news delivered remotely at another location and there’s something to be said about how the film seems more interested in dwelling for a long moment on the sight of Armin Mueller-Stahl silently drinking a cup of coffee than the spectacular landing we didn’t get to see. But the question is are there really plot points to this film or just several specific events leading up to the final revelation. So much of what appeals about films directed by Brian De Palma more than the necessities of story structure is his portrayal of the madness that surrounds the main characters as they try to make sense of this increasingly insane world while the plot happens around them. The characters in this film are all good and pure, which makes sense since they’re astronauts, but the earnestness doesn’t feel all that fleshed out as if he doesn’t quite know how to make it ever seem genuine. They can each be described simply via who means the most to them, nothing more; Woody and Terri are the happy couple, Jim is sad because his wife died, Luke misses his son back on Earth and Phil is the joker who constructs the DNA of his dream woman using M&M’s in zero gravity. There’s no real conflict between the characters at all beyond how to address whatever any given immediate issue might be, saying things like “Let’s work the problem” as they get to it, all of them so idealized as heroes that there isn’t much else to them beyond the perfection. These are the types who normally get sacrificed, if not totally destroyed, in the cruel world of De Palma films so maybe in being forced to portray people without flaws it removes all the fun and doesn’t replace it with anything particularly interesting.
This has never been a director known for showing much interest in healthy relationships between men and women (maybe with the exception of Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness and Patricia Clarkson as “Ness’ Wife” in THE UNTOUCHABLES) which makes it feel like there’s not much to portray here beyond the simple idealization. Tim Robins and Connie Nielsen are played as being totally devoted to each other, such a mirror image of Gary Sinise and his late wife played in flashback by Kim Delaney that it almost feels a little confusing as if husband-wife missions have somehow become a NASA requirement in the future. But even if the perfection plays like a neon sign that something bad has to happen, this is still a rare Brian De Palma film with next to no cynicism, no irony or real sense of the fates conspiring against all the goodness in the universe. Even when a sacrifice has to be made, even when an American flag is planted upon arrival at the new planet, it seems to insist on holding onto some kind of optimism so the movie is never embarrassed by its own inherent dorkiness coming out of the science fiction technobabble or how much these people love each other as if it wants to actually believe in this dream of everything being ok.
In spite of what feels like his reputation as a director only interested in the camera, dialogue does matter in De Palma films but in a very musical sense so if the words and images don’t go together then there’s no way for it all to flow. Here it feels like a lack of drama coming out of all that vaguely specified scientific exposition and declarations of friendship, some of which is at least partly necessary but too often gets me to zone out so not enough of it registers and even some of the big statements in the dialogue that are clear don’t seem to matter beyond the moment they’re spoken. In some ways the framing of how people are placed together in a given shot becomes what matters more than the words, as if all the main audio were shut off the film would make about as much sense as it does now. But the narrative by itself remains a little too thin, a novella slotted into what needs to feel epic so clocking in at a fairly brisk 113 minutes, which includes a lengthy end crawl, the film always moves but sometimes a little too quickly from one incident to another with occasional fades to black to divide each section that play a little as an excuse for leaving out bits of connective tissue. But it’s not the amount of plot that matters as much as the pacing which gives the feeling that the movie could use more breathing room, more moments of the characters simply getting lost in the majesty of it all and maybe even one or two scenes of non-cryptic exposition to really clarify things. The few moments the film does dwell on the Mars landscape feel right for the dissonant alien feel particularly when it pauses to reveal the scale of the massive vortex and as always De Palma, with editor Paul Hirsch (whose work with the director goes all the way back to HI, MOM!; to date, this is their last film together), knows how to maneuver his pieces into place but there’s an elegance missing, no way to enjoy the small touches in between the big moments which gives the pacing a stop-start quality. The purest De Palma films often flow beautifully from shot to shot with grace notes that could only come from this director but maybe with all this reliance on technology, effects and a plot which doesn’t feel entirely formed that just can’t happen as much as it should. Even when there’s a sense that it wants to linger within the imagery a little more to get lost in the vastness of space the film resists, maybe to avoid playing as too similar to 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY or maybe just a desire to simply keep things moving.
It’s the score by the great Ennio Morricone (RIP) that gives the film much of the soul it does have, while maybe overreaching in assuming any emotional connection we have to these characters. It’s a little ONCE UPON A TIME IN SPACE in the way it searches for the emotion found through the discovery in a different way than the usual John Williams majesty and the overriding emotion that it projects feels like it’s about yearning so the film becomes about yearning as well, the hope of what can possibly be found out there supplanted with suspense music that features a prominent haunted house organ underscoring the danger always nearby. These emotional touches lend a humanity to the thinly drawn characters, a reminder of how Morricone never scored simple plot beats and even when working on undeniably trashy films he always went beyond simple emotion and beauty into examining the very idea of how the characters are affected by Fate. His music always played like it was what he responded to in a film deep down in his soul, using the themes he created to infuse the religion that is Cinema and transform it into something greater. What he brought to MISSION TO MARS is almost too noticeable at times and in some ways the old-fashioned quality clashes with the futuristic setting but it doesn’t hold back in its quest to provide a clarity to the answers that are beyond anything one could imagine and in helping us begin to actually understand those emotions maybe that’s as close as we’re ever going to get.
But to bring up music that has nothing to do with Morricone, the zero gravity sequence with Van Halen’s “Dance the Night Away” playing as the Mars II centrifuge spins serves as a break from those more stately moments. It’s the sort of long take we want from this film, done with just the right sense of the old De Palma funkiness that lets him play with the three-dimensional quality to bring something extra to the Kubrick nature of the moment as if pausing the movie just for the sheer pleasure of doing it. The staging during moments like this is impeccable in the way only he knows how to do but the film still feels like it’s missing a human connection between those shots. De Palma’s visual approach over the decades has often been about pure emotion, not logic, which is when his films work best but this one has to spend time on the science of all that hardware whether it interests him or not and the balance feels lost more than it should. At times those darkly comic touches come through, particularly during the nastiest death early on that has just the right kick, but too often it doesn’t feel like there’s enough inspiration to the way scenes are staged; an early conversation between two people is shot with simple, dull over-the-shoulder angles and one later moment even pulls out the old visual trick of a character suddenly revealed to be standing behind someone else in the immediate foreground likely cribbed from Argento. It was also used in RAISING CAIN and FEMME FATALE but the giallo-styled frisson of the moment here feels strangely timed wrong as if the gimmick just didn’t fit the scene, no matter how the staging was adjusted and it becomes another one of those occasional touches that don’t quite belong.
The effects driven plot points that lie within the sometimes iffy, circa-2000 CGI have a largely ‘shit happens, then more shit happens’ approach to the storytelling which at times feels too mechanical, things going wrong before it’s been made clear what’s supposed to go right. But during the big midpoint setpiece when Mars II has to be abandoned as it attempts to enter orbit and the disaster which follows this all comes alive, finding the balance between the technology and what the director knows how to do. Shot by shot it’s easily the purest De Palma sequence of the entire film, building to a literal cosmic joke (plus answering why one of the presumed leads gets an “and” billing in the credits), and the whole sequence even feels more like a dream than anything else in the film in showing the helplessness of trying to reach something that is so close yet so far and there’s not a thing you can do about it. And in many ways the scene is not about trying to reach Mars at all but a reminder of how little power love has in the grand scheme of things even as you hold onto it as tight as you can, desperately looking for the right answer when everything else is falling away and if only this could have been fleshed out more. In our real 2020 it feels like loneliness is unavoidable but this is a film that wants to reject that through the pure love it portrays and even the way Don Cheadle compares the union he creates with the plant life on Mars to a marriage, that companion who gives you oxygen. And when they’re gone you gasp for air, wondering how to breathe. Deep down the movie wants to find a way to fight through that loneliness, even in the way Mars and Earth ultimately depend on each other, with the planet that could rightly be called the younger sibling arriving in search of all the answers to be found.
The year it was released, the main competition for MISSION TO MARS was the Val Kilmer-starring RED PLANET, a more straightforward genre piece (ok at best) which wound up not opening until November and didn’t do as much business but then again neither one could really be called a box office success. This film is definitely the more ambitious of the two even if what finally gets revealed makes me wonder how much was cribbed from whatever science fiction novels by Clarke or Asimov or whoever that I never got around to when I was reading this stuff in my pre-teen years. The climax makes sure to spell everything out as clear as possible, no Kubrick ambiguity here and all presented in the style of a three dimensional IMAX museum film complete with narration that the film would have been better off without (or, to bring up a movie that came out over a decade later, maybe done more in the style of TREE OF LIFE) to make sure everyone in the audience gets it but of course that was never going to happen. Then again, it took several viewings for me to get a handle on another plot point involving the key to establishing communication with life on the planet, again zoning out during more of that exposition, so what do I know. The action taken by Sinise to embrace his destiny after learning the truth is also somewhat reminiscent of the denouement of STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, another film with considerable flaws but its own charms that always makes me want to try to accept the film a little more. It may seem strange to have Kim Delaney receive prominent billing for playing Sinise’s wife in such a tiny part, seen more or less entirely in flashback, but she does get the big speech seen on an old video, to say that the answers we’re looking for are not about chaos but connection, how life reaches out for life and accepting that idea can allow us to finally move forward. The moment seems deliberately tossed off but it is the main verbal expression of the film’s theme along with a simple but emotional expression of thanks between two people at the end that echoes an identical beat in the closing moments of THE UNTOUCHABLES.
In some ways the film plays like a true oddity now, a giant effects movie from a major studio without action, adventure or any sort of real antagonist and the thing that unlocks the mystery in the end comes from working out an equation. Whether because of the reliance on the visuals, the thinly drawn characters or how tight a timeframe so much of it takes place in, the desired emotional payoff at the end doesn’t really happen and yet within all the awkwardness is an optimistic sweetness about the potential of humanity that goes beyond the usual STAR TREK speechifying to make me want to defend it a little more. Part of that is because of touches that can be found during certain random moments that really feel like they come from the director, how he seems to want to express certain feelings through those long unbroken takes, split diopter shots to connect the characters and De Palma zooms that only he could be responsible for which express more humanity all these years later than the overwhelming CGI the film chooses to dwell on. And in the bookending final image really does transform the stuff of children into a realization of what can really be out there for the adult willing to strive for it. It takes us away from the loneliness once and for all while keeping the spirit of that close to be willing to go on to the next part of the adventure. And, hopefully, find a way to continue on.
All that hardware becomes a reminder that there are many wonderful performances in Brian De Palma films it’s just that, Sean Connery aside, they’re more the kind that Pauline Kael raved about than the sort of thing the Academy recognizes. So while this is a film with solid actors doing largely solid work when they can make the dialogue register, I can’t help but shake the feeling that they did this for a chance to be in a big Brian De Palma film more than anything but every now and then there’s a looseness to moments during those long takes that don’t feel entirely scripted which lets a little bit of humanity poke through. Gary Sinise finds the sad calmness in what he does as if so much of his arc has to be played out through silence and, in a way, he’s the only one who seems to be working out all those complex problems in his head. Much of the time Don Cheadle feels like he doesn’t have any real character to play at all but he also gets the one moment of true emotion in the film near the end, which plays as weirdly genuine while Connie Nielsen and Tim Robbins each project intelligence but little registers beyond a basic sense of decency. Armin Mueller-Stahl is unbilled and an odd choice for his character actor-authority figure reeling off exposition that we probably need to retain but the words never seem vivid enough. Maybe this part should have been played by more of an extrovert (now I’m picturing Dennis Franz in space) but maybe it’s an issue with the entire film that it needed to find a way for the performances to really matter even with all those effects, to find a way to make the words pop in a way that would engage with all the majesty around them and then the ending would have really paid off.
The soundtrack album featuring the Ennio Morricone score is a somewhat hodgepodge of a listening experience with one track running just over thirteen minutes but the final piece, titled “All the Friends”, is a quiet, gentle rumination that feels like what the film was really trying to contemplate. Or maybe it’s the film that I imagine is trying to poke through. The technology of the future as presented in MISSION TO MARS ultimately seems incidental but what it wants to say, especially via the ANNIE HALL-styled montage at the very end, is that what matters is the people we’ve known, the experiences we’ve had, the ones we’ve loved. I’m not sure if other composers would have latched on to this idea to such an extent which is what always seemed to give such power to the scores Morricone wrote. We can go as far as we want to in this universe, and hopefully we will, but it’s the people you’ve known that mattered and will continue to. It’s a nice idea, one that I wish really clicked in this film, and it’s what I keep reminding myself during the actual year 2020 as I don’t see any of those people, not really. It’s like what we see when we close our eyes, the flashes of our lives, the people we care about and wish were here, is what 2020 is all about. Because so much hurts right now, there’s so much emptiness without them. Admittedly, part of all this is all about finding a way to somehow understand a film made by a director whose body of work means a great deal to me. Maybe it’s a search for an emotional connection that says more about me right now than what can be really be found but there’s always the hope that the answer will present itself. Anyway, it’s a nice dream to hold onto.
Monday, June 22, 2020
But the question is, does anyone anywhere think about HOUSESITTER for any reason these days? Possibly not. I put it on late one night just figuring it would at least be relaxing and, truthfully, halfway through I got one of those panic attacks I’ve been having on occasion through this whole thing. But eventually I finished it, so let’s not blame that on the film. Directed by Frank Oz, it strikes me how this is neither the best nor the worst film ever made by the people involved. Definitely not the worst for the director, not when he did that STEPFORD WIVES remake and as far as Martin & Hawn go they even had their own lousy update with the 1999 version of THE-OUT-OF-TOWNERS. Compared to these, HOUSESITTER isn’t badly done at all but it’s just missing some sort of comedy X factor that would help it pop and make a real impression. At the very least it’s pleasant, not a bad thing right now and in the way it adequately cruises along the film even manages to provide a smile here and there. It’s so much the very definition of adequate that it might even be the most average Hollywood movie ever made. Something has to be, right? May as well be this one.
Three months after Newton Davis (Steve Martin) had his marriage proposal to longtime love Becky Metcalf (Dana Delany) rejected after building her a beautiful new house in their hometown, he is back at the Boston architecture film where he works in a minor capacity. At a work function Newton, called Davis by pretty much everyone, meets a waitress named Gwen (Goldie Hawn), a drifting free spirit who he spends the night with but sneaks out before the next morning. When she awakens to find Davis gone, Gwen gets the idea to travel to his hometown and find the abandoned house he spoke of so she can stay there which very quickly leads to introducing herself to people in the town, including the infamous Becky, as his wife. When Davis finally shows up and is shocked to discover what’s been going on, which has included Gwen getting to know his parents, he agrees to keep the charade going in exchange for her help in using the troubles their ‘marriage’ is going through as a device to help him reignite Becky’s interest in him and finally get her back.
After some fairly simple white-on-black opening credits, the first shot of the film is Dana Delany wearing a blindfold which in the film serves as a symbol for the careful way she proceeds in life, unable to respond to the bravery Steve Martin’s Davis as displayed in building a house for her, itself a symbol of how much he wants to stand out in the world but is unable to commit in a way that would get anyone to notice. And, yes, digging this deep into a film as mild-mannered as HOUSESITTER may be a little silly but that’s what you start to do at times like this. The film tries to make the point of Davis being open to original thought, objecting to the sort of cookie cutter office buildings his firm designs, he’s just not the sort of yes man who can make that approach stand out which the free spirit played by Goldie Hawn picks up on right away. She even calls him average right to his face which is an ideal designation for someone to be named in this film and it seems to wound him considering he’s trying so hard to be more than that even if from our perspective, the most unique thing about the character is that people refer to him by his last name. So it’s basically a film about how there’s a way towards happiness to remove the fear and help you stand out, even if it means making up the truth as you go along. Or something like that.
Somewhere in that theme is a concept but the execution is a little too freeform which means there’s a looseness to HOUSESITTER that fits the plot almost as if it’s a movie about someone making things up as they go along which itself was being made up as it went along, but that approach really amounts to only so much. Frank Oz’s directing style is consistently assured with lots of long takes and elegant camera moves thanks to the great cinematographer John Alonzo which lends a sense of grace to the film that it wouldn’t have otherwise, going nicely with the bucolic setting of the town. But the story never really winds up going anywhere, missing the big laughs that could be built out of the solid structure in something like the previous Frank Oz-Steve Martin teaming DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS. This script plays out in a way that sort of makes sense but it all comes off as pretty inconsequential, more about the characters trying to determine what each scene is going to be during the scene and the sense of them interacting with their surroundings which at least gives it a style but it becomes about that more than actual jokes.
HOUSESITTER, screenplay by Mark Stein from a story by producer Brian Grazer and Stein, plays at its most promising as a screwball update with a setting that brings to mind a sort of generic Golden Age of Hollywood feel. In my mind all those films seemed to be set in Connecticut (I’m either thinking of MR. BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE or something else I can’t remember) but this one moves the story further up north to Boston and the nearby fictional town of Dobbs Mill, all the better for the occasional New England accent, I suppose. The basic concept has potential but it really just cruises along so it never becomes more than a middling early 90s studio comedy with a couple of big names. Those two stars bounce off each other pretty well in each scene but I never really believe them as these characters they both seem maybe ten years too old for, not that the age thing matters very much. Their interplay at least feels well utilized with a cleverness to the beats of their arguments and how far each one of them pulls the other further into the improvisation of all those made up stories. Structurally, the screenplay comes off as neatly organized as it moves from one giant lie to the next with Davis’ parents played by Donald Moffat and Julie Harris, both excellent, acting concerned and Peter MacNichol’s co-worker/best friend serving little function but to give Steve Martin someone to clarify plot points to. The real set pieces come out of those lies thought up by the ‘Ernest Hemingway of bullshit’ as Davis calls Gwen and the way they work out as they get told; Hawn making up the story for the first time in the grocery store, the various scenes with the parents, Newton’s anguish as he realizes he can only do so much as long as Becky thinks he’s married. And for all the effort the film seems to be putting in to finding things for them to argue about, nothing is really ever at stake which means that it doesn’t really do much but bounce from one scene to the next, looking for a reason to keep going and never reaching any comic boiling point.
That low-key vibe at least keeps the tone consistent from scene to scene and the small town feel offers a nice, laid-back energy while also making me think of how excited people in the real town likely were to have movie stars hanging around for a few months. Even the layout of the all-important house that gets the plot going adds to this, based on a design that was named House Beautiful’s Best Small House of 1990 so at least it’s a nice movie to linger in. And it’s almost as if Oz knew that the high concept was missing something so a number of scenes play like he encouraged the actors to do whatever they could to add their own bits of business to moments with elements tossed in like a giant sheepdog at the house who runs through things but is almost never mentioned. The way this is all staged feels like he correctly knows that the best way for such scenes to work is to keep the shot on Martin and Hawn as they each flail in tandem with each other, searching for the next part of the lie. Even the bouncy score by Miles Goodman (who was really good at this sort of thing and died way too young) adds to this elegance along with how the camerawork seems to glide along in unison with an added beat sometimes to punctuate a laugh. When Steve Martin takes a spectacular pratfall that ends with him perfectly straightening up again it’s a sharp piece of timing but maybe almost too rehearsed and the overall schematic of the film is as well so all that work by everyone to give extra life to scenes makes the film amiable but not much more than that. Maybe because of this, the best moments seem to slip in almost unannounced like when Moffat lapses into his high school principal mode to lecture someone or a scene with Martin and Dana Delany, which is maybe the best moment in the film, when the two of them almost finally start to play out their hoped for romance. The physical interplay between each of them slowly turns into what he desperately wants in a shot that goes on longer than you’d expect and their chemistry is almost too good here but in that moment the movie briefly comes totally alive.
Such moments like this where comic gold turns up feel like they’re made out of very little in the best way which makes them stand out all the more, as if somehow the movie could have gone further. There’s something darker that could be done with this basic idea of this woman who is a con artist but really a free spirited manic depressive with a propensity to take all these games way too seriously in her desire to put roots down somewhere, the way she mentions the dream of belonging somewhere as part of the desire to live in the picture of the home that Davis scribbled on a napkin. If the part was played by an actress who really stuck out in this sort of small town it might have had some teeth but, of course, that’s not the movie any of these people were making. Which is fine but the approach they went with is pretty surface, groping around for a theme in how the way to live is not about logic but the sheer feeling of passion whether it’s true or not. The lies get rid of the fear and allow you to really experience things and it doesn’t matter what the truth really is, I suppose. Fight for what you want, be brave and take that step to do something to stand out. Which is all well and good but if only the film has that sort of courage.
HOUSESITTER climaxes at a party. Well, of course it does, what better way to get everyone together at once and bring all the farcical complications to a head. For whatever reason it feels like the party being ridiculously overcrowded should be part of the joke but it never really is and the ultimate effect of the whole sequence is Steve Martin flailing around from one group to another, doing everything he can to stay in control. There are some nice beats in the staging thanks to the way Oz and editor John Jympson (who also cut A FISH CALLED WANDA and LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS but also Hitchcock’s FRENZY and A HARD DAYS’ NIGHT) make it all go together, serving as a reminder that this sort of thing is hard to pull off even when it only sort of works but like so much of the film the overall effect is…fine while never really landing on a satisfying payoff. I can’t remember which critic back in ‘92 was appalled at the way the film used a couple of supporting characters who are homeless as a punchline which isn’t too unfair a slam even if the tone of the film has so little to do with the real world they may as well be called hobos like in the old screwball days but I get the point being made even if I can’t bring myself to get too upset over that. This almost brings a sour tone to things but in the end, the film isn’t significant enough to get upset over and manages to stay likable most of the way that it doesn’t ruin the momentum even if I still get the issue. The thing about HOUSESITTER is that maybe there is only so much to squeeze out of this premise, either comedically or otherwise. It wants to be about that freedom of succeeding through impulse and fantasy in a world of logic, how in the end certain things matter more than the truth. You have to fight for what you want, be brave and take that step although even as a formulaic romantic comedy it never quite breaks free of its own chains, or blindfold, as it were. It’s still a pleasant 102 minutes and, these days especially, I suppose there are worse things.
For both of the stars, HOUSESITTER comes in the middle of a surprisingly heavy period of activity. Steve Martin was making one or two of these movies a year with this coming six months after both FATHER OF THE BRIDE and Lawrence Kasdan’s GRAND CANYON. Goldie Hawn, who apparently was a late replacement for Meg Ryan on this, always had long stretches without working yet this one oddly comes during a twelve month period that included four new films after which she didn’t do anything for another four years. All of this is a reminder that HOUSESITTER was one more comedy made along the Hollywood assembly line back in the days when they did these things, just not remembered as much as some of the others these days (Hawn’s other summer ’92 comedy, DEATH BECOMES HER, is the one with the cult). But the chemistry between the two leads pops just enough with them always in synch with each other, giving the performances just enough of an edge. Steve Martin grounds it all with excellent timing through his growing anxiety and little moments throughout like when he gropes for a single word to describe Gwen’s effect on him, all a reminder of how much better he got as an actor over the years. Goldie Hawn’s best moments are when she’s performing the high wire act of all those stories being told to people unaware of what’s really going on and the energy she gives off clicks even if the character sometimes feels a little too familiar so the effect she has keeps the movie going. Dana Delany, particularly good as a sort of preppie Gail Patrick, continually gets laughs out of small moments while balancing out the farce with just enough real world skepticism, making her almost more appealing than she’s supposed to be. It’s the sort of performance which feels that much freer since the movie isn’t on her shoulders and there are lots of strong work from the various supporting actors who each get moments to stand out—Donald Moffat has what is maybe the one true emotional moment in the entire film as well as Julie Harris along with Richard B. Schull and Laurel Cronin in the problematic roles as Gwen’s pretend parents. One surprise appearance looking at the film now is Cherry Jones who turns up in an early role as a waitress at the Hungarian restaurant and looking it up this wasn’t even her first film.
HOUSESITTER is pretty minor stuff made by some very talented people, a film that makes me smile more than ever laugh out loud but it’s harmless enough, a reminder of studio comedies which feel like such an endangered species now, for better or for worse. And compared to films like it that do get made now, HOUSESITTER is practically Lubitsch. Maybe there isn’t really that much to say about it in the end but for a film where I had a panic attack midway through this time around it’s not that bad and this is one of those cases where writing about the film itself is secondary. This sort of thing is comforting for me right now and I’ve been watching so many of them lately in search of something, I’m just not sure what. It’s like I’m trying to make my way back to a simpler time and start over although it’s possible my recent revisit of BETSY’S WEDDING may have been taking all of this a step too far. Maybe while stuck in this limbo I’m simply trying to figure out my own past, why I went to see these films in the first place and what they really meant to me, whether I liked them or not. Sometimes I think I liked all of them anyway, regardless of what the truth really was. I suppose if HOUSESITTER has to serve any sort of purpose at this point in time, it may as well be that.
Wednesday, June 17, 2020
Part of me dreams of traveling back even if I don’t really want to. But at least the past has movie theaters. Trapped here staring at these four walls right now you could hardly blame anyone for wanting a little comfort. The sort of film that makes us feel better, one we wish we could live in for a little while. This isn’t so much about nostalgia, which is a nice feeling but a limited one. You can’t stay where you once were, after all, you have to move on from those memories whether your joyous triumphs or bitter regrets. You have to grow. And films shouldn’t just be about their comfort level but there’s nothing wrong with sometimes attaching yourself to a feeling that reminds you of the good things. Still, there has to be more. So much in Alfred Hitchcock’s films, for example, hold onto their vibrancy which even now makes them much more than simple Hollywood classics to fall asleep to. These are films that allow us to dig as far as we want to go, to break down everything beyond the simple mechanics of Plot to help us understand why they work as well as they do. That obsession never goes away, helping us to see what the director was revealing about how he saw the world through each new shot and to really learn what films are to begin with.
And considering how much I’ve been cooped up in a modestly sized apartment lately, the most famous film involving that comes to mind. REAR WINDOW was basically the first Hitchcock I ever saw, during the theatrical re-release several of his 50s titles had in the early 80s when Universal put them back into circulation for the first time in years. And that afternoon, which looking it up would have been at some point in late November-early December ‘83, was probably a very important day for me in a Film 101 sort of way, making it a key moment at the start of my film education. To this day it’s still my favorite Hitchcock movie, the one that says the most about what his films were while also being the most entertaining. Notice I didn’t say best. For the moment, that doesn’t matter since this is all about what certain films mean to us and why. This is the one of his that means the most to me which is really the only issue.
The plot of REAR WINDOW does matter so to get it out of the way, news magazine photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart) is entering the final week of being confined to his tiny New York apartment with a giant cast on his leg after breaking it while taking a photo from a precarious angle on a race track. In between physical therapy sessions with insurance company nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) and dinners with visiting girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) who wants more of a commitment, Jeff is still feeling antsy after being cooped up for so long staring out of his window for hours on end at all the people who live nearby in his courtyard. The resulting curiosity leads him to believe that one of those neighbors, a certain Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) has murdered his wife who suddenly seems to have vanished. The circumstantial observations get Lisa to be curious as well although old war buddy/police detective friend Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey) doesn’t believe it. But Jeff is soon convinced and even more determined to uncover the truth before Thorwald disappears.
Moments stick out. Images stay with me. Jimmy Stewart as Jeff awakens, presumably from a dream during a late afternoon nap, to find Grace Kelly there, leaning in for the kiss. So much of what we’re living through right now feels like a dream, a reminder that the moment of her first appearance really is everything, the fantasy breaking into reality as her shadow drapes over him prefiguring all sorts of things to come and the perfect symbol for the Hitchcock world of this courtyard. This is all a reminder of how at its core REAR WINDOW is about a relationship, it’s a romantic comedy when you come right down to it, one about the fear of marriage or at the very least any kind of commitment, even if it seems crazy that anyone would hesitate to commit to Grace Kelly’s Lisa who with that slight inflection of a z in her name each time we hear Jimmy Stewart say it reminds us each time just how special she is. Because if the opposite of commitment is the freedom to go anywhere in the world, what Jeff seems to desire more than anything, who wouldn’t want to do that? He’s understandably going a little stir crazy when the film opens, itching to get back to his job and the world that he can just barely make out across the way so each of those neighbors reflects back at him with another element of that lifestyle he yearns for, that reminder of what he’s forced to put off. The tortured composer who is clearly a man about town but none of it gives him any satisfaction, the carefree sculptor without a worry in the world, the lonely soul who more than anything wants companionship, the newly married couple on their honeymoon, the popular girl who could have anyone. Jeff is trapped with just about the most beautiful girl in the world who wants nothing more than to be with him and all he can do is watch and wait and dream of doing what he really desires. But until then there’s nothing for him to do but look out the window and wait for her to show up again to continue the debate over that future, with the feeling that there’s nothing else pressing, nothing at stake.
Hitchcock takes the time at the start to introduce us to the courtyard in two stages, the geographical layout and then the people, both equally important in his eyes for us to pay attention to. Raymond Burr plays Lars Thorwald—has there ever been a better character name?—and the sight of him directly across the way is of course the nightmare mirror version of Jeff’s dilemma. Since he’s a jewelry salesman that even makes him sound a little like a similar sort of nomad, only without the creative angle, and one who seems to be regretting what he’s gotten himself into. Like each of the other windows facing Jeff it seems to reflect a possible future, one that he’s so fearful of diving into even if he knows deep down that it’s the right thing. Almost all of those windows, anyway; up in the corner of one of those buildings is a couple with a child but we barely see them during the film, no apparent story to reflect back as if the thought of kids with Lisa is so far off and the implicit message is that life stops once they come into the picture. There’s a little bit of a fantasy role play with Lisa as she pretends to introduce herself while they ease into their nightly patter, fitting for such a romance but we can feel Jeff starting to resist going beyond that in his realization of how that dinner she has brought over from “21” is perfect but he doesn’t know what to do with perfect. Even the simple, pragmatic reasoning offered by Thelma Ritter’s Stella during the morning rubdown she gives him does nothing to change any of this and all it does is make him try harder to convince himself of what he doesn’t really want.
A little bit of nostalgia is unavoidable in this case but to this day watching REAR WINDOW again is one of the most relaxing things I can think of, as comfortable as those neatly pressed pajamas that Jimmy Stewart spends the entire film in. With a screenplay by John Michael Hayes based on the Cornel Woolrich story “It Had to Be Murder”, the concept could have been played as noir, the story of a man whose curiosity leads him towards doom, but that doesn’t generally go with the more lighthearted Hitchcock approach, especially when he worked in color. As easygoing as that genial feeling is, the film always compels me to pay attention and watch each moment with the intensity Jeff does while it still contains that undeniable sense of upscale politeness found in Hollywood films of the 50s. When I randomly put the film on late one night recently, because time has no meaning at the moment, there was no way to simply drift off with REAR WINDOW playing since even at that hour it demanded my attention and total focus, every moment there for a reason with dialogue that sounds better each time I hear it, more laid back than the elegant quips of NORTH BY NORTHWEST in a way that goes perfectly with the Greenwich Village charm of it all. The way Jeff’s growing suspicion of Thorwald builds the exposition gets laid out beautifully, always getting us to want to hear more. But it’s also the purely visual storytelling angle of each new cut to one of the neighbors, each still so vivid from far away without any dialogue to help. All this is balanced out so well that even when the film casually stops worrying about the plot for a few minutes to let Jeff and Lisa talk a little more about their own issues it never goes afield, it always sticks close to the subject at hand and the answers they can never agree on.
All of this is on the inside but on the outside of REAR WINDOW is that sense of life going on, the life Jeff isn’t supposed to be paying attention to but it’s impossible not to keep watching and listening to it all, the soundscape of that courtyard, the parties from across the way, the jazzy Franz Waxman theme which is never treated as traditional scoring along with the simple passage of time as day turns to night as well as the romantic aspect of a couple working together which turns out to make them more in synch with each other as the man begins to see what he really loves about this woman. It brings them closer together away from that potential loneliness they might find themselves in if this doesn’t work out so if that’s not being willing to go anywhere and do anything and love it, I don’t know what is. To mangle a certain famous Godard quote, Hitchcock is basically saying all you need to make a movie is a man, a woman, a single location and a murder. As much as Jeff and Lisa question the ‘rear window ethics’ of what they’ve been doing the film takes voyeurism as a given, reflecting back to how the film affects us in the first place. Voyeurism isn’t all that different from watching a film, after all, and just as the various people across the way are still continuing with their lives at the end no one in a film ever seems to realize they’re being watched. And since no one in the film seems to have a TV, maybe it takes place in an alternate universe where the invention hasn’t yet taken hold. Which makes it more interesting for us, anyway, every frame that Jeff peers into its own film with its own genre.
So much of Jeff and Lisa’s conversations-slash-flirtations seem to be about money, directly or otherwise, so it becomes a question of if he’s really that attached to that magazine job or if he’s just insecure about the possibility of being part of some other world. Based on what we hear Jeff could probably make a decent living as a photographer who never leaves the island of Manhattan, settling into a life of luxury somewhere on the Upper East Side with Lisa, even there’s only fifty cents in her purse so she’s likely living beyond her means anyway, just like most people. But in the baffling way he insists to Lisa that there’s no way this can go anywhere Jeff seems to feel like their dinner of romantic bliss is just as phony as the one Miss Lonelyhearts is pretending to have with someone across the way but the passion is what matters. Thorwald, meanwhile, insists that he doesn’t have any money and seems to have based what he’s done on various other reasons of passion which in the Hitchcock world would qualify this murder as a sort of art, just not one of the more defensible ones. The question is more or less dropped in the end in favor of that passion and the love Jeff has for Lisa so the subject of money ultimately becomes as irrelevant as the infamous $40,000 that winds up in the swamp in PSYCHO.
Even the deceptively casual sense of the film doesn’t rob it of all that intensity and the way each scene is shot whether the surprising energy of certain camera movements when it does spring into action or that crucial moment taking Jeff’s point of view from Miss Lonelyhearts to the wider shot of Lisa upstairs and the impending return of Thorwald, essentially giving us three cuts within two shots right then a perfection of the form and the pure cinema Hitchcock was talking about. This, along with certain elements peeking through the sound like the timing of the music heard nearby with Doyle’s proclamation about the suspect’s innocence, an audio beat that I can hear that in my sleep, and of course the unrelenting feel of the montage of the final confrontation which looks forward to the PSYCHO murder with an unexpected intensity in how it’s more of a clumsy struggle than a skillful fight. The view from the apartment shows off the details in that massive set that in my dreams I show up to the Paramount lot in the early 50s to take a tour of. So much of the film is about that basic concept of point of view and how we perceive other people whether from close up or far away even if Hitchcock doesn’t stay entirely in that vantage point, moving outside for a few key shots when the one neighbor cries out to everyone after discovering her dog has been killed, an oddity brought up in the famous interview book “Hitchcock/Truffaut” without the director ever getting into the specifics of why although his discussion of “dramatic purposes” in a point related to this gets at it and it makes these neighbors human, this is where they stop being an abstraction, answering the question of what is cinema in way that also involves removing the coldness from the schematics of it all.
Going to the movies is nothing more than a memory right now and thinking back on that day long ago I still remember the gasp heard as Raymond Burr glances up looking towards a certain direction, one of the great moments of audible audience response ever, implicating us for any part we've been playing in all this peeping tom action throughout the entire running time and a reminder of how seeing a film like this in a theater can force us into paying attention to what’s happening, to be that much more committed to what is seen. “What do you want?” asks the killer with desperation. What do any of us want when we see a movie? Or when we attach ourselves to another person, looking for love, for that matter? Maybe we’re looking for a way to feel alive, to do something, to make us feel whole, even with the guilt that can often be attached to it. Noticing the way Thorwald’s wife discards the flower he kindly brings her with dinner one wonders about the valiant efforts he’s made towards the woman in the past before deciding on that whole murder thing and Hitchcock’s comment to Truffaut about how Stewart’s character “deserves what’s happening to him” in the climax points to his own sympathies. He knows how guilty we all are through our own actions and, besides, the killer’s chief motivation is to somehow get out of the life he’s been trapped in so to the director this is at least doing something about such a problem. But working as a costume jewelry salesman indicates something about his own emptiness, his lack of ability to understand what’s really around him, and though even Jeff is a little puzzled by all those fashions Lisa twirls around in for his benefit but he’s patient, he wants to. The desire is there, just the fear of what may come next.
And when Thorwald at long last enters Jeff’s apartment it’s on a Raymond Burr close-up that makes this character who is only seen from far away for so much of the running time forever memorable. At specific moments of this film that spends so much time on relaxing distant and medium shots of the action each of the three leads receive extreme close-ups that instantly define them—Burr has it there, Grace Kelly when she first appears and Stewart when he seems to see Lisa with new eyes after she’s proven herself. Up until that moment Jeff doesn’t want to lose the life he has but once he sees her that way he has a reason to love her now and he stops trying to figure out if the woman he loves has any place in it by not really doing much of anything, hoping that they can just go on as they’ve been doing, as he puts it. For him, not doing anything is the best answer of all but eventually he realizes you have to and the very end of the film proves that life goes on no matter what, past the heat wave of Jeff’s curiosity just as the wistfulness of the song that composer spends the whole movie on then gets to play for Miss Lonelyhearts, sounds like a romance that you’ll never fully achieve, even as it brings them closer together. The shades are drawn when ‘The End’ appears onscreen but that’s outside of the body of the film and the actual final moment of Lisa picking up her issue of Harper’s Bazaar when she sees it’s safe isn’t really an ending, of course, the battle between the two has to continue. We already know that they love each other so it’s an upbeat ending but one that is under no illusions about what has to be done for the feeling to continue. What is life, after all, if it doesn’t involve that question?
We always think of them as Jimmy (not James, no matter what the credits say) Stewart and Grace Kelly, that’s just the way it is. Stewart’s voice and his growing determination combined with how much of his body language is taken away is which means that so much of it in the eyes, whether settling in for the evening with Lisa or his growing awareness of how right he really is, that natural authority we’ll believe no matter what. And though it can be tough to know what to say about Grace Kelly other than some ‘cool elegance’ statement she’s a dream girl we want to be a dream girl while still displaying her sad vulnerability. She’s life. Thelma Ritter’s unapologetically straightforward nature bounces off of them just as easily as the cool humor of Wendell Corey with how much of his exposition is given while glancing around Jeff’s apartment. And now that I’m familiar with Raymond Burr from so many noirs he made during his pre-Perry Mason years it makes the sheer nastiness he projects stand out all the more as well as how afraid he always really is. The various neighbors each make an impression but especially Judith Evelyn from THE TINGLER as Miss Lonelyhearts and Georgine Darcy as Miss Torso each so vivid and so human, letting us know what they want without much audible dialogue just their actions to show who they really are.
Having said all this, REAR WINDOW remains one of the best films ever made to watch over and over to take away something different from it each time. It doesn’t just have to be about the romance, of course, but that desire for connection is what I’m thinking about right now. Naturally, this is one of the more obvious films to think of at this point in time considering it’s a film about someone confined to a single tiny space for six weeks with nothing to do…well, we’ve long since passed that number in the real world by now. My shades are mostly kept drawn but I’m still here, watching a film about the way people live when they’re alone, even when others are close by. It’s a long way from the Fine Arts Cinema in Scarsdale, which closed way back in 2006, where I first saw this film. For the past several weeks someone across the way has been practicing the cello (Is it the cello? I’m never certain) during the day which is such a soothing sound so that’s helped and I wish I could thank this person for helping out here and there through all this. The girl across the hall from me sometimes leaves her door open. Is that a good idea right now? She’s nice and I miss talking to people like we all do, but really? It’s not an easy time to be a neighbor. So trapped here I think of the past, of all those films, of a life that led me to this temporary version of solitude. But if recent history tells us anything it’s that nostalgia needs to die, that this isn’t about enshrining certain films but keeping them alive to really understand them. Jeez, L.B. Jeffries not only had Thelma Ritter for those rubdowns, there were all those nightly visits from Grace Kelly and he still got bored. But this movie is like an old friend and these days we need friends. They remind us of how good things can be. How much better they can get. And all the things we tell ourselves to convince us those things might be able to someday happen if we're with the right people.
Tuesday, April 28, 2020
None of us are going to the movies right now. That sentence has to be one of the saddest things I’ve ever written. Maybe all we can do as far as that goes is take care of ourselves and the ones we love, looking forward to the day we get to go back. Maybe talking about how much I miss it is a little overly dramatic but that’s the sort of time this is and it really is truthful so even watching a movie a night, or two or three, on DVD or Amazon Prime or wherever, doesn’t fill the hole. Sure, I’m discovering lots of films I’ve never seen before, some good and some bad as well as a few I never thought I’d give a second look. But it’s no substitute for seeing a film the first time in a theater, for that feeling of walking in with your popcorn and hopefully discovering something with the crowd all around you, the joy of that giant image flickering and no matter what else there is to say, it’s missing. Considering everything else that’s going on this is secondary, of course. But it still matters and everything feels incomplete.
Now, whether people care about any of this is a debate for another point in the future. And we don’t know what’s going to happen or how long this is going to go on for. But the desire to return is there. And to bring up an example, one of the several times I went to the New Beverly Cinema over the final weeks before the world changed was to see THE HOT ROCK, my first theatrical viewing of this film directed by Peter Yates with a screenplay by William Goldman from the Donald Westlake novel. Released in early 1972, it’s one of a number of well-regarded Robert Redford films from the period, never one of his most popular but definitely with its devoted fans. I've even met a few of them. As an honest admission, I’ve always been somewhat lukewarm on it over my handful of viewings through the years, at least until now. Because it was at this screening that I suddenly found myself getting caught up in the casual rhythm and charm felt in every scene so as a result the film totally clicked for me. Oddly, this was exactly the same response when I saw BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID at the theater in late 2018 so maybe it’s a Redford-Goldman thing, but for whatever reason this was a film that really came alive in a theater with a crowd around me. Funny thing, the print of BUTCH was absolutely gorgeous and the one for THE HOT ROCK wasn’t in that sort of shape at all, a little scratchy and faded and, since it came all the way from the UK, even featured the alternate title HOW TO STEAL A DIAMOND IN FOUR UNEASY LESSONS (as a comparison the print of the second feature, Aram Avakian’s COPS AND ROBBERS, was flawless). But none of this mattered. The film just put a huge smile on my face in every scene. As 70s heist movies go it’s pretty mild, no sense of fatalism you’d expect from the genre and no heavy body count. In the end, it’s basically a comedy so the way it takes a cockeyed view of the crime and how the scattered precision becomes such a crapshoot makes it totally endearing. And now it’s a movie that helps puts me in a better mood. Sometimes that’s ok. Right now that’s even better than ok.
It takes no time for career thief John Dortmunder (Robert Redford) to be released from his latest stint in prison than for his friend Andy Kelp (George Segal) to instantly show up with a new scheme, having been hired by one Dr. Amusa (Moses Gunn), United Nations representative for the African nation of Central Vatawi, to rob the Sahara Stone from the Brooklyn Museum in order to return it to the rightful place of his homeland. With getaway driver Stan Murch (Ron Leibman) and explosives expert Allan Greenberg (Paul Sand) brought onto the job, the heist goes off but not without a hitch, leading to multiple attempts to steal the diamond again only with something else unexpected going just a little wrong each time. And when Greenberg’s lawyer Abe (Zero Mostel), who also happens to be his father, gets involved with his own agenda Dortmunder and his crew have to resort to more extreme scenarios to finally retrieve the rock from where it is.
The depths of cynicism found in 70s films not only becomes more apparent for me as time goes on, what those films are saying means more as well, a feeling that goes perfectly with the decade and certainly means something now which makes a movie like THE HOT ROCK, which contains none of that, play as even more of a surprise each time out. Characters in heist films never seem to spend much time going over the possible ways things could go wrong, not because of double crosses, although there always seems to be some of that, but because of the plain fact that, well, shit happens, no matter how well the plan might be executed, no matter how ultra-cool the crooks are. This is a film where those unexpected developments happen and instead of staring into the pits of what crime has led these people to it’s a breezy, enjoyable caper film that deals with the expected twists of the genre but always in a surprising way as the layers of the plotting are peeled off to of course reveal that what’s done isn’t really done. None of this makes these guys want to stop, of course. Dortmunder couldn’t do anything else if he tried and is always confident on the surface even with some nasty stomach issues, but he at least takes solace in how his inevitable ulcer is still years away. Kelp, with a nasty habit of freezing up in the middle of a job, doesn’t mind failure and seems to be as much about putting on the act of doing the job no matter what happens even as things go wrong, never knowing for sure who they can trust.
The first shot of the film after the Twentieth Century Fox logo is wiped away says it all, showing the serenity of an empty green lawn at the prison separated from the concrete yard where everyone congregates, the peace of nature always close but just as unreachable. Dortmunder and the crew scrambling after this diamond are in the same position so no matter how close they seem to get it’s still a long way off and considering how these guys are all sort of dopes, each plan turns out better than anyone could have imagined but it never seems to be enough. THE HOT ROCK is the rare crime movie where the guy gets out of jail at the start and never thinks for a minute about going straight because even he knows there’s no way it could happen. He just needs to be talked into this particular heist but it’s really never a question for Dortmunder anyway since, as he puts it, it’s what he does, even if he’d rather not do the job with Kelp. The real conflict doesn’t come from those double crosses and fellow crooks just waiting to fuck you over but from how unexpectedly difficult it all turns out to be, how even when things go almost perfectly there’s still something you didn’t see coming. Within the very casual quality of Yates’ direction is just watching these guys figure out what the next step is going to be so in fairness there’s not that much suspense and as a director he never seems as assured with the broader comedy aspects as he is with the hang out nature of letting certain moments play, naturally letting the humor emerge out of that laid back feel. When Moses Gunn pauses in amazement to exclaim, “I’m a criminal,” as he realizes the plan really is taking shape it’s one of the best moments in the film as if he never quite believed this would happen just as later on he can’t believe the eternal annoyance it’s led to.
Even the big museum robbery which you’d think would be the centerpiece of the whole movie happens sooner than you’d expect and is done with a surprisingly tossed-off feel, as much about the silence of that huge, empty space cutting back to the carefully planned diversion outside as the specifics of the actual robbery even when the focus is the ticking clock of the moment when Kelp unexpectedly gets trapped in the very place the diamond is. The various steps to each scheme are all about the characters in one way or another, whether the way Leibman plays an accident victim for that diversion, Redford silently freaking out in the helicopter or the teamwork involving a certain elevator shaft when even we’re not sure what surprise it’s building to.
Along with the camaraderie of the four guys are the incidental sights of the location shooting, all a reminder of the panic business in New York that Kelp is so fond of and it probably only feels like half the film is set around those expressways circling the outer boroughs with one briefly used location up in the Bronx that maybe I recognize which gives a sudden rush of nostalgia. The plot also basically stops for the quick helicopter trip around lower Manhattan as Leibman’s Stan Murch tries to figure out exactly where he’s supposed to fly to with footage looking directly down on the city and at one point lingering on the incomplete World Trade Center which 10-15 years ago was unnerving, now it’s just heartbreakingly beautiful. The main cop at the precinct being raided is played by William Redfield of A NEW LEAF and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, seeming more annoyed than anything by what’s happening, just another cog in this New York who views it all as just one more pain in the ass, wondering why every problem can’t be solved by just monkeying with it.
Maybe THE HOT ROCK is one of those products of the 70s that now feels like the visual equivalent of easy listening music and the 100 minute film goes by in a flash but if I’m being honest, I can still see what maybe wasn’t clicking for me on past viewings in the way the movie cruises along instead of ever exploding. The tightly plotted story beats are so carefully laid out all through Goldman’s screenplay that I wish it could breathe a little more, maybe with a few better transitions at times to orient us better or just a little bit more bickering between the two main guys to really make those characters pop since it worked so well for Butch and Sundance, after all. Kelp, who picks Dortmunder up from prison in a stolen car, is married to his sister played by the briefly seen Topo Swope in one of those elements it feels like the film could have done more with, but none of the women in the film are around for very long, even the one who becomes integral to the final step of the plan. Looking up the extensive writings and interviews from William Goldman on his work there is surprisingly little about this film beyond a vague quote that it was “not cast well” but who knows what he’s referring to—did he think Segal was a more suitable Dortmunder than the bigger star Redford?
Even if it is maybe too laid back at times, there’s a confidence to the shots and Yates never lingers on them even when it’s a good one and the way moments are staged to place characters in relation to each other in the frame makes their dynamic even stronger. Sometimes it feels like the film is even more interested in that vibe than the plot and it’s sometimes more than willing to just let the Quincy Jones score play for a few extra beats as it goes to the next scene. That sense of seventies cool is a reminder it was likely more of an inspiration for Steven Soderbergh’s OCEANS’S ELEVEN than the film that was actually a remake of. So much of THE HOT ROCK is just going along for the ride with the star power of Redford, and Segal too, and directed by Yates a year before he made the truly great crime film THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE, this one has no bigger goals in mind with very little even to say about the racial politics of the colonial aspect but presumably all’s fair when thievery is involved, after all. For Dortmunder, being a thief is not about being tough but about being just smart enough to get the job done before the other guy does and win out over this diamond that’s jinxed him. It’s the suspense of the climax that works beautifully moving from shot to shot, each beat that leads him to the all-important safe deposit box comes off as effortless, with one particular reaction shot of Redford after he utters the infamous key phrase “Afghanistan banana stand”, not knowing for sure if what he says will work, that is basically what the movie is building to. And it earns the refreshingly offhand moment as Redford calmly walks down Park Avenue, finally getting a sense of the serenity he couldn’t have earlier. I think the movie knows this is only temporary for the guy but these days it’s a reminder that even a brief feeling is better than none.
The Robert Redford portrayal of Dortmunder is very much about the movie star quality of it all, the laid back charisma crossed with his casual nervousness and the sense that he can’t let go of something once he’s going for it. The film is light and Redford is maybe even too light for that insignificance but the way he lays out how the plan has to work and why he’s doing it along with just the sight of him thinking things over gives it much of its heft, knowing that even his smarts may not be enough to figure out everything. As Kelp, George Segal is secondary but that desperate glad-handing style keeps the energy going and it’s always just right to bounce off Dortmunder along with the sense that he knows just how to get under his partner’s skin. It’s those little character moments that make up the most idiosyncratic moments with the manic glee in the great Ron Leibman laying out the precise directions of how he got somewhere along with Paul Sand as Greenberg who always seems to be wondering what the hell he’s doing there. Moses Gunn lends the perfect amount of dry humor to his growing exasperation as Amusa while Zero Mostel always plays it as having one over on everyone which he almost always does. Charlotte Rae is Stan’s ma, Lee Wallace of THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE is Dortmunder’s doctor and Robert Weil, also from PELHAM ONE TWO THREE as well as MOONSTRUCK is the bank employee who unknowingly assists Dortmunder at the film’s most crucial moment.
But even after all this, my honest admission is that watching the film again on DVD at home, it’s still not the same. Seeing THE HOT ROCK in the theater makes it, like all films, bigger than life and allows us to focus on the sheer personality of these guys, on the charm of Robert Redford, the stalling tactics of George Segal, the toothy grins of Ron Leibman, the jittery nervousness of Paul Sand. And those New York surroundings, which right now provide a level of comfort. It’s still fun, just not the same. Moving past this film for a moment, there have been other Dortmunder vehicles taken from the Donald Westlake book series although you’d be forgiven for not knowing. Martin Lawrence played the character under a different name in WHAT’S THE WORST THAT COULD HAPPEN? a major summer release in 2001 but now forgotten and so did George C. Scott in 1974’s BANK SHOT which I recall being strictly so-so but it’s been a few years. Paul Le Mat was actually named Dortmunder in the Gary Coleman vehicle JIMMY THE KID which I recall from early 80s cable and have never seen again since. The point here is THE HOT ROCK, which I’d always thought was a nice, pleasant movie, which it is, and how much a theatrical viewing caused it to rise in my estimation. It’s one of those things I think about right now, since we can’t go to the movies. And we don’t know when we’re going to be able to go back and what’s going to change when we do, but I dream of that return when it’s safe. There’s nothing like the rush of that feeling when you’re at the movies, especially when you’re making just the right discovery but sometimes just the experience of being there to see, well, anything is enough. Maybe it’s an addiction. But even now, when staying away is for the best and absolutely necessary, it’s something I never want to give up.