Wednesday, January 27, 2010

More Than Most People Would Do


Since the triumph of L.A. CONFIDENTIAL in 1997 it’s safe to say that director Curtis Hanson has focused on films that could be considered more character-oriented than anything else. I don’t have any real complaints on this point, particularly considering how much I love WONDER BOYS. Hell, I think that IN HER SHOES might be one of the most underrated films of the Aughts. But I can’t help but wonder what sort of films we would have gotten if Hanson had chosen to focus on the sort of thrillers that came from him during the early years of his career. Some of these films work so well that I can’t help but wonder if he wouldn’t have had any strong objection if someone told him that he could only make that sort of film for the rest of his career, be it Hitchcock-type thrillers or some kind of down and dirty noir tribute. The little-known THE SILENT PARTNER from 1978 which he wrote the screenplay for is excellent and in the early 80s he even wrote WHITE DOG for Sam Fuller which certainly must have been some kind of dream come true. Around this time he also directed Tom Cruise in the teen-sex comedy LOSIN’ IT which seems like some kind of bizarre joke now (they should do another movie together) but I think everyone in the world saw that one on cable at some point during that decade.


By comparison, almost forgotten now is Hanson’s 1987 thriller THE BEDROOM WINDOW, released by the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group. Very obviously an attempt at making something worthy of being called Hitchcockian, that the film isn’t better known is unfortunate and undeserving but may have something to do with how it stars Steve Guttenberg whose prominence in the 80s maybe also seems like a bizarre joke. The actor appeared in five movies in 1987, including THE BEDROOM WINDOW, one more than Michael Caine. He was everywhere. Even stranger is how the film also stars French actress Isabelle Huppert in one of her only English language appearances during this period aside from HEAVEN’S GATE—year later she had a major role in David O. Russell’s I HEART HUCKABEES. Hanson, a well-known cinephile, was no doubt aware of Cimino’s epic so I wonder if he was an admirer or if he just wanted to work with Huppert. Maybe he was forced to take Guttenberg, a box-office name then if anything, by De Laurentiis and wanted to make sure some class got injected into this. I’m just guessing here. Either way, Huppert’s casting is one of a number of elements that makes THE BEDROOM WINDOW more intriguing than it might have been in other hands not as interested in the genre they were paying tribute to. The final product has its problems, but it certainly displays the considerable talents of the writer/director in development and deserves better than whatever limbo that it’s been tossed into.

Late one night after an office party Terry Lambert (Steve Guttenberg) has a rendezvous with his bosses’ wife Sylvia Wentworth (Isabelle Huppert) at his apartment. With Terry in the other room for a moment after they make love, Sylvia witnesses an assault on a woman in the park below outside his bedroom window and gets a good look at the man (Brad Greenquist). He gets away with the woman unharmed but word of a woman killed later that night hits the papers Sylvia wants to do the right thing and come forward but hesitates for fear of her husband learning where she was. Not wanting to be found out either, Terry reports the attack to the police himself, saying he was the one who got a look at the man even though he never saw a thing. When circumstances cause his story to break down and Denise (Elizabeth McGovern), the woman who was attacked, begins to suspect the truth Terry finds himself a suspect in the murder and soon realizes it’s up to him to catch the killer himself.


“You’re either a romantic fool or you’re an idiot,” McGovern tells Guttenberg at one point, trying to figure out his motivation, and that’s one of the problems in THE BEDROOM WINDOW. For a long stretch of screentime during the first hour it’s tough to figure out exactly why the lead character is acting with such little common sense unless he just knows that he’s in a thriller and needs to behave this way. After all, if he were at all smart would he really decide to lie to the police? Didn’t he have any idea he might be called in to look at a lineup, let alone have to go and testify in a trial? Maybe the character is suddenly feeling more alive by such an affair with this beautiful woman who inspires him to begin drinking white wine (Huppert is three years older but seems decades more worldly—she couldn’t find someone more interesting to have an affair with?) but Guttenberg isn’t enough of a presence to make that register. Fortunately the exceedingly clever plot machinations of THE BEDROOM WINDOW (screenplay by Hanson, based on the novel “The Witnesses” by Anne Holden) begin to kick into gear soon enough displaying a great amount of awareness of why this sort of film works and what can be done to correctly keep all the balls of the plot in the air. It certainly has a few problems—a few sections could be tighter, the lead characters are thinly drawn (what does Guttenberg’s character do? Maybe he's some kind of architect but it doesn't matter), the character of Huppert’s husband played by Paul Shenar isn’t enough of a presence, a preponderance of offscreen dialogue looped in feels placed to clarify things, it feels like Hanson’s direction isn’t as adventurous as it might have been several years later—but the cleverness and unpredictability is good enough to overcome any issues that are due to its leading man. It’s a considerable stretch but you could almost say that by a certain point the miscasting almost becomes a part of the very subtext of the film. The character is a fraud, which makes it difficult to sympathize with him, but in some ways Guttenberg isn’t up to this either and it gives an interesting extra layer to numerous scenes. All throughout the lead is opposite fellow actors, even some who are only onscreen for a few minutes, which manage to make more inventive use of their minor roles than he ever does and you could almost believe that’s exactly what they’re thinking as they’re in frame with him. The considerably more experienced Huppert even gives him a kiss-off line late in the film (I’d quote it but it’s a spoiler) that the actress seems to infuse with the awareness that she can’t believe she’s lowered herself to sharing the screen with this guy and just wants to get back to Europe to work with Godard or Chabrol again as soon as possible.


Putting aside the impatience that arises during some of the actions of the lead during the first half (not helped by the actor, but not his fault either) THE BEDROOM WINDOW is extremely well-assembled and even manages to use what has already been developed in the plot to totally pull the rug out from under us at the midway point (no spoilers, I promise), a surprise tactic that works expertly. Maybe this turn gives everything a jolt of adrenaline but as constructed much of the second half works considerably better, leading to a climax that hits all the right notes in how it’s assembled—if one test of a good director is in the clarity of how he stages a suspense scene in an enclosed space Hanson passes with flying colors (there’s also some liberal use of male and female nudity including, yes, from Huppert which gives the whole thing a considerably more adult feel). Keeping in mind the old Howard Hawks line about a good movie having three good scenes and no bad ones, THE BEDROOM WINDOW certainly fulfills that rule, with moments big and small throughout that work extremely well—when Guttenberg is found with a dead body and blood on him it plays like some sort of NORTH BY NORTHWEST/MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH mashup but Hanson stages it so while we’re very aware of the homage he never lets it get in the way of the scene, clearly knowing how to make these elements work in the best way possible. And maybe he wasn’t just thinking about Hitchcock—interestingly, the way Guttenberg realizes a key piece of information late in the film gives the impression that Hanson has studied his Dario Argento as well (though, it should be said, he holds back on the violence). The film was released by DEG back in the dead of January during 1987 (I didn’t see it then), a dump that wasn’t deserved but maybe appropriate for the sort of film that one should discover during the cold winter months. You don’t expect anything from it and what you get turns out to be an extremely rewarding surprise.


You could make the argument that Guttenberg’s lightweight nature works in his favor in this wrong man scenario. At least, you could try. The thing is, the actor just isn’t skilled enough to make that approach work. He can’t do much beyond playing happy-go-lucky and in a scene where he’s looking for someone and demands, “Damn it, where have they gone!” he doesn’t seem capable of even giving that line any real conviction. Even the bit player in that scene gives off more of a presence. In fairness to Guttenberg, he does seems fully committed to making the film work and maybe the fact that he really does seem to be trying actually is helpful to the snowballing momentum. Elizabeth McGovern, a pretty dependable face in films around this time, brings spunk and intelligence to her underwritten role which gains in prominence as the film continues. While the gorgeous Huppert seems to have some problems working in English the glamour and intelligence she brings to the role, as well as how she gives an extra level of depth to everything around her, is undeniable. Brad Greenquist, resembling a cross between Dennis Christopher and David Caruso, is very well-utilized in his mostly silent role of the killer. Other actors who make a strong impression in their scenes opposite Guttenberg include Carl Lumbly as the investigating police detective, Robert Schenkkan (whose head once exploded on an episode of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION) as the state attorney, Kate McGregor-Stewart as a downstairs neighbor who seems strangely turned on by the possibility that a killer lives in her building and familiar face Maury Chakin as a sleaze in a bar. In just a single scene as Greenquist’s attorney, the always-great Wallace Shawn kicks all kind of ass during his few minutes onscreen (“Don’t trifle with the court, Mr. Lambert”), a hugely enjoyable update of one of those minor roles that Hitchcock always seemed to love having take over his films if only briefly. Hanson, in the way he uses Shawn, seems to know how unexpectedly effective such a personality in this sort of film can be.


Any film that contains Shawn’s scene here as well as the sharply executed pace of the climax is clearly put together by someone who loves engineering this kind of puzzle. It’s clear in what he does here that Hanson knows that Hitchcock’s films were not just made up of the intricate plotting and setpieces but also by their witty asides and supporting players, with everything combined in order to make them into those famous slices of cake. With the great L.A. CONFIDENTIAL ten years in the future his talent was clearly still developing at this point and maybe THE BEDROOM WINDOW needed a little more finesse in the writing and editing but its best moments are very good indeed, maybe even better than that. Seeing it on DVD and for the first time ever in Scope (like a few other well-regarded DEG films were) after seeing it maybe once on video over twenty years ago resulted in a tiny hidden treasure that shouldn’t even be called a surprise. After all, we should be very aware how good Curtis Hanson really is at what he does. There’s apparently a remake coming—what, because the title is so marketable?—with Kevin Williamson attached to write the script (he was recently quoted as calling the original ‘Curtis Hanson’s first film’ which isn’t close to being correct). Skip that version if it actually happens and just see this one since it’s all you’re going to need. And then just go through the rest of Curtis Hanson’s filmography because you can always learn from someone who knows what they’re doing.

14 comments:

Mike Lippert said...

It seems to me that, with the exception of L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys and 8 Mile that all of Hansons movies have seemed to fly by under the radar. I think Lucky You is an especially quaulity film that should have been more popular. I think your take on Hanson sticking to thrillers is interesting, although arn't the subjects of most of those films exactly the same as his latter ones: that of a person obsessed with discoverying something and thus discovering something about themsevles?

J.D. said...

I've always had a soft spot for Hanson's work and also really enjoyed BAD INFLUENCE which was unfortunately released during the whole Rob Lowe scandal but is actually a pretty snazzy thriller in its own right.

As for Hanson's career after WONDER BOYS... I felt that the scripts he had to work with weren't up to snuff. I really wanted to like IN HER SHOES but it has an uneven feel to it and tries to balance equal parts romantic comedy with drama but fails to maintain a consistent rhythm unlike, say, the films of James L. Brooks who is able to do this much more successfully. Early on, Hanson doesn't establish even a shred of love between the sisters and provides too many reasons to hate Cameron Diaz's character. So why should we care about what happens to her? Towards the end of the film, she begins to redeem herself but it is too little too late and one almost wishes that the entire film were about Toni Collette's character who is an infinitely more interesting (and sympathetic) character instead of dividing up screen time between the two sisters.

The problem I had with LUKCY YOU is the casting of Eric Bana who is pretty good as a compulsive gambler but his character isn’t all that interesting nor is his dilemma all that compelling because we’ve seen it so many times before and in better films. He has all the lingo and moves down cold but the way his character is presented feels a little too rehearsed, a little too Hollywood and not authentic enough. Also, it didn't help that he had zero chemistry with Drew Barrymore.

That being said, I'm totally there for whatever film he does next just because I think he is a very talented director. He just needs the right material.

Don Mancini said...

January-February '87 saw the release of a handful of these good, modest thrillers. In addition to BEDROOM WINDOW, there was DEAD OF WINTER, BLACK WIDOW, and of course, the best of the lot, THE STEPFATHER. Am I forgetting anything?

Joe Martino said...

Peel!!

A great choice from the vastly under-rated Hansen (although I agree LUCKY YOU suffers from a bad case of the Bana's)

I was watching MY COUSIN VINNY lat night and when Joe P cross examined witness about their eyeglasses, this movie's courtroom scenes popped into my head. TBW was fun a perfect rainy day mystery - which is how I saw it in NYC.

Don Mancini brought up an excellent roster of thrillers from 87. I'd like to jump ahead one year and add to the list Bob Swaim's 1988 mystery, MASQUERADE. A smart, sexy, well woven thriller, adapted by Dick Wolf no less.

Mr. Peel said...

Mike--

It's not a bad way to look at Hanson's films and you could even apply it to LOSIN' IT and THE SILENT PARTNER along with the later ones. I'm not sure it's really there in THE BEDROOM WINDOW however and if it was present in the script the concept seems to have gotten a little lost as the film was made. Whether he makes thrillers or something else entirely at this point (and I was really just spitballing in terms of the concept, not saying 'He should have only made thrillers!'), I'm still looking forward to his next film.

J.D.--

Glad to hear you also like Hanson but I'm embarrassed to admit, I've never actually seen BAD INFLUENCE! Yikes. I think it just fell through the cracks. Watch this space, I'll try to deal with it soon. I really did feel that IN HER SHOES was a rich, moving experience for me but agree on LUCKY YOU, which contained a sense of place that Hanson is so good at portraying but the lead character was extremely uninteresting. I hope his next film works out better.

Don--

How about MANNEQUIN? OVER THE TOP? Okay, those might be a reach. THE STEPFATHER must have had some kind of staggered regional release because it didn't hit New York until around May, but I saw it in the theater--hell, I even saw STEPFATHER 2 in the theater. I also saw the others you mentioned and was thinking about revisiting DEAD OF WINTER because I remember it as being pretty twisted and enjoyable. So maybe I'll be writing about it pretty soon.

Joe--

Thanks for the comments and MASQUERADE falls right into what we're talking about. It's the sort of film that I saw then in the theater and remember liking but recall next to nothing about it--although Rob Lowe might have been a good alternate choice for BEDROOM WINDOW. Maybe I should see that one again too!

tlrhb said...

Apropos of nothing: While Curtis Hanson was down here in Palm Beach County filming IN HER SHOES, I saw him at a Prince concert. Hanson also gets points for the stills he shot on the set of BONNIE AND CLYDE.

Mr. Peel said...

TLRHB--

I may have told this already in the past but a number of years ago I spotted Hanson walking with someone across the street from my building, which considering its age could very well have been looked at during an L.A. CONFIDENTIAL location scout. He was pointing at the building and clearly saying something about it. I've always wondered what he knows about where I live.

Ned Merrill said...

Caught this one years ago, as a kid, on late-night tv and was riveted despite the (lack of) presence of Guttenberg. How this man got as much work as he did is a mystery to me. He's fine with lighter material such as POLICE ACADEMY, THREE MEN AND A BABY, COCOON, and DINER, but after that you're really stretching...

I didn't even realize this was Hanson's. Looking at his filmography, I realize I saw all of his films from HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE through WONDER BOYS in the theaters. Have seen none of the last three Hanson features. Count me among the many who have seen LOSIN' IT on cable. Never did see BAD INFLUENCE, but I had one of those big cardboard video store promo items for it for years--my 1991 Bar Mitzvah was movie-themed and I canvassed many local video stores for promo items to use as decorations.

As for TBRW, this reminds me of how much I like McGovern and miss her presence in major feature films. Very curious, indeed, that Huppert would sign up for this (not that I'm complaining). Didn't remember all of the other great character players who were in this, either.

The best of Hanson remains, for me, THE SILENT PARTNER and WHITE DOG.

Mr. Peel said...

Ned--

Thanks for your comments. Steve Guttenberg just seemed to go with the 80s I guess, then when the decade ended he couldn't have seemed more out of place. At least he was trying to branch out a little with this one.

I wouldn't have only THE SILENT PARTNER and WHITE DOG on my list of the best of Hanson but they'd certainly be on the list. In late 2008 I saw Elliott Gould speak at a screening of Bergman's THE TOUCH and Curtis Hanson interviewed him onstage. At one point in the discussion Gould, out of nowhere, said to the audience, "We made a movie together, THE SILENT PARTNER!" It actually got some applause from the crowd and it was nice to know that other people had seen it.

Will Errickson said...

I discovered SILENT PARTNER a year or so ago while on a Gould kick. Had never heard of it so I was impressed that Hanson was behind it--and then I also learned he wrote the adaptation of Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror" for the Dean Stockwell movie in '70. BAD INFLUENCE is really fun, great late '80s look to it.

Joe Martino said...

I have great love for THE SILENT PARTNER. When I worked in a video store back in the early 80's I use to rent it out constantly...little known fact - that horrible John Travolta / Oliva Newton John movie TWO OF A KIND was an "unoffical" American remake of THE SILENT PARTNER. Same plot line - minus the gore. Now I remember reading that back when the movie came out, but find no reference to it today...

Mr. Peel said...

THE DUNWICH HORROR is kind of interesting, if memory serves. Now, I haven't seen TWO OF A KIND in decades but now that you mention it I actually remember the plot point you're talking about! Why that movie has stuck around in my memory, I have no idea. But is it a loose remake or an outright steal? I don't know if I'd ever want to see TWO OF A KIND again to find out.

Will Errickson said...

Alas, I think memory serves you wrong; DUNWICH HORROR as a film is *not* that interesting, altho' it has one or two moments. All the Lovecraftian stuff disappears after the (admittedly amazing) opening credits (to the also-amazing score by Lex Baxter), save for a mention or three of the Necronomicon. We'd have to wait for Stuart Gordon to do HPL right.

Mr. Peel said...

Fair enough--I think I really just remember Dean Stockwell acting stoned and that fantastic score, which is more than I can say for some other films that I haven't seen in years and have just drifted away from memory. I'll take your word for it.