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.