Saturday, January 17, 2009

A Positive Reflection of Yourself

ALL NIGHT LONG was apparently a pretty notorious flop for Universal when it was released in 1981, but it’s really not a bad movie at all. Minor, yes. Slight, yes. A few problems, maybe. But there are enough good things about it that make it a nice little surprise and it’s also nice to see what is, for all intents and purposes, a “Gene Hackman movie” since it’s doubtful at this point that we’re going to get any more of those. The films where the actor plays the true lead are a select group and seeing something like this is a real reminder of just what a great talent he was to have in movie theaters as long as we did. For anybody who is a fan, this would be worth seeking out.

When pharmaceutical salesman George Dupler (Gene Hackman) finally cracks and throws a chair through a window after being turned down for yet another promotion, instead of being fired by the corporation he is instead demoted to a night manager job at Ultra Save, one of their drug stores. When he and wife Helen (Diane Ladd) attend the funeral of a relative who is roughly George’s age he discovers that son Freddie (Dennis Quaid) is involved with the married Cheryl Gibbons (Barbra Streisand), Freddie’s ”mother’s sister’s late husband’s brother’s wife”. When he tells his son to knock it off, Sheryl herself comes to the store seeking out George to talk it over with and the two naturally hit it off, with her being fascinated by his all night job, thinking he lives “on the edge” and George just being fascinated by her and what she represents that isn’t in his life in general. George soon not only falls under her spell, but also starts to take action to actually change his life.

Directed by Jean-Claude Tramont and written by W.D. Richter (the ’78 INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, among others), it’s a very light comedy with an undeniable amount of depth brought to it by a relaxed, confident performance by Hackman, playing somebody who has already reached the end of his rope--now that he’s cracked as much as he ever will, he’s just trying to figure out what he’s supposed to do with the rest of his life. A great amount of the notoriety of the film comes from the slight miscasting of Barbra Streisand who replaced actress Lisa Eichorn after several weeks of shooting. It’s a supporting role that feels transferred into a lead just from her presence, presumably engineered by Tramont’s wife, legendary agent Sue Mengers who was also representing Streisand at the time. For this extremely modest film, the star received $4.5 million, a huge amount at the time, for 27 days of shooting. Streisand isn’t bad but while the issue isn’t that she shouldn’t be playing a character part, it just doesn’t seem like she should be doing this particular role, which is kind of meant to be the Marilyn Monroe role in the scenario—she even wears a Marilyn-type dress in one scene. Married to a jerk of a fireman (Kevin Dobson) she rides around on a motor scooter and even aspires to being a song writer, meaning we even get to see her sing a terrible song at one point. The scene almost comes off as self-parody but it would probably have worked better with somebody who didn’t need to pretend to be a lousy singer. There are actually a few scenes like this one which feel like they may have been added to beef up her part after she joined the cast and it’s the sort of thing that slightly makes the movie feel like it loses focus for brief periods.

ALL NIGHT LONG (no relation to the same year’s slightly similar George Dzundza sitcom OPEN ALL NIGHT, which is thought of fondly to this day by the seven people who actually remember it) is never quite what I expected it to be and I mean that in the best possible way. Despite the above synopsis, it’s not a farce about a father and son sleeping with the same woman, or a romantic comedy about Hackman and Streisand and never really becomes a wacky comedy about people working late nights in a drug store. Maybe because of this when it seems to try to be one of these things—like a few sections with “zany” goings on in the store, I found myself losing interest. It’s almost a frustrating film in this sense, particularly in the cutting which at times seems to both start and end scenes before we expect it, possibly an attempt to make us feel as at sea as George Dupler, whose name is consistently mispronounced by people, does in his life. At its best, at its core, ALL NIGHT LONG is a story of a guy at sea in his life, feeling he has it in him to do more than he’s being allowed and he’s just trying to figure out what to do about that. The film has a slightly odd feel to it, which may be its own storytelling approach or may just be a result of a troubled production. The sense of humor coming from Richter’s script is slightly screwy, like how Hamilton Camp appears briefly as the same bit character in two separate locations and the dialogue has small gems throughout like when Quaid tells his father that somebody died of a “brain hemorrhoid.” Some of its story seems to fit in with the recession that was going on in the days when things were changing from Carter to Reagan—interestingly, there also a few nods towards computerization and corporations taking hold of things which makes it all feel somewhat prescient. But tonally it feels like it would have fit in much more if it had been made five years earlier during the looser seventies (it actually feels like it would make a good second feature to the Hackman private eye film NIGHT MOVES--even the opening credit sequences are similar). What Hackman’s character is looking for in life might have worked better than as well, not that this is a significant issue watching it now. “Everybody’s looking for the easy way out,” he muses at one point to Streisand who, getting him, replies, “Except you.” His character aspires to be an inventor and his big idea is for a mirror that gives you a positive reflection, one that “allows you to see yourself exactly the way other people see you.” Looking around him he sees people moving up in the world based on nothing and he’s just looking for a small piece of what may be genuine in the world. It does feel problematic at times even during the good sections—there seem to be multiple composer credits during both the opening and end crawl, a good indication of troubles. It also only runs 88 minutes and throughout I had a sense that offscreen lines for Hackman were being looped in after the fact either to connect scenes or to cover up some holes. Possibly a clashing of differing sensibilities coming from the script and director (and possibly other hands who were involved), even at it’s best ALL NIGHT LONG feels tonally stranded somewhere between a Neil Simon-type comedy and a mild character piece that maybe would be more at home in Europe.

With more emphasis placed onto Streisand’s character a few of the other actors seem to lose out on screen time, possibly resulting in Diane Ladd not seeming to be able to bring much to her one-dimensional role as Hackman’s wife. Dennis Quaid makes a strong impression early on (he gets a very funny moment when he tries to express condolences at a funeral when his mouth is full with food) but soon seems to disappear from the film with some beats for his character near the end feeling like they’re missing. Chris Mulkey from TWIN PEAKS appears as the overeager Ultra Save security guard and the husband and wife team of William Daniels and Bonnie Bartlett, later on ST. ELSEWHERE together, both appear here but separately. More surprisingly, at least for me, I think one restaurant scene may have been shot in what is now my neighborhood and my building may even be visible in one shot.

The pleasures in ALL NIGHT LONG are minor, but they do creep up on you. At one point when I realized that certain supporting characters were exiting the picture I found myself a little bummed that we weren’t going to see more of them. Even a few days later I find myself remembering certain elements about the film that I realize I genuinely liked. They may have been small things, but they were potent. The very end holds on a long shot of Hackman as he regards what has happened to him and the feeling is that both the character and actor have earned this moment. It’s a reminder of how films used to pay much more attention to these simple grace notes and since nobody seems to have any memory of what a big flop ALL NIGHT LONG was anymore, it’s worth it to remember the film for something like that.


Flickhead said...

The ad's amazing: Babs pole dancing!

Mr. Peel said...

I don't know how representative of the film that poster really is. Well, she does slide down a fire pole at one point so it gets that much right.