Friday, April 30, 2010
Within the past week I unfortunately had to deal with some serious computer issues so there were some stress-filled days. It’s all taken care of now and luckily everything worked out fine but it still slowed me down quite a bit and I was unable to finish a few pieces like I had planned. There will be more to come but for now here are a few thoughts on a recent event that took place here in L.A.
In case you follow this sort of thing, the very first TCM Classic Film Festival was recently held in the heart of Hollywood, garnering a fair amount of press coverage as well as huge crowds. That’s very nice to hear, and I’m grateful to have TCM at home these days but since the whole thing was, shall we say, fairly pricey—several hundred for passes, $20 for single tickets—and I’m still a man without employment I didn’t spend much time there. I don’t think that I wasn’t the only person who felt that way about the prices but judging by the large numbers of people who apparently came from out of town to attend it could be said that the festival wasn’t really designed for people who live in L.A. anyway. I doubt another year will pass before the likes of IN A LONELY PLACE shows somewhere in this town and I’ve been fortunate to see people who appeared like Tony Curtis and Martin Landau speak at various screenings in the past but people who don’t live here don’t get quite so many opportunities.
That said, I’m a little jealous of anyone who got to see SABOTEUR with Norman Lloyd present. But fortunately the amount of choices we have to see films projected in theaters lately here in L.A. is fairly wide-ranging on any given weekend, even the one when the festival was going on. On that particular Friday night I drove out to Santa Monica to see an American Cinematheque screening of Alan Rudolph’s hard-to-see WELCOME TO L.A. and I also went to the Saturday midnight screening of TERROR IN THE AISLES (Really, why are NIGHTHAWKS and THE SILENT PARTNER in there?) but that obviously wasn’t TCM related either. And events were also happening elsewhere--a few thousand miles away in Illinois at the exact same time was the annual Ebertfest with certain panels that looked pretty amazing. And none of this even takes into account the wide amount of non-repertory film festivals being held these days. But as far as the TCM festival up in Hollywood goes I couldn’t help but notice that at least one person I know who sees movies practically every day and is always at the New Bev didn’t attend at all to the best of my knowledge, I’m guessing mostly because of the high ticket prices. Maybe there’s a tinge of jealousy, but it just makes me think that this whole show was really for the tourists with the money to spend more than it was for the true believers down in the trenches in this town who will go to the Silent Movie to see some little known thriller from the 70s or LACMA to see the Jean Renoir series or Joe Dante's Movie Orgy at the New Beverly or to the Egyptian to see some small noir that hasn’t played theaters for fifty years. If you were at that WHISTLER double bill several weeks back or at the WELCOME TO L.A. screening you’re probably ok in my book.
But points to TCM for this festival which seemed extremely well-organized when I was there and it was exactly what it promised to be—a tribute to the love of film. Maybe what I’m also dwelling on is how some of the press coverage like a haphazardly researched post on the Los Angeles Times website seemed to treat the large crowds as some sort of surprise, an anomaly, a shock that people actually wanted to see films in black & white that weren’t in 3D. Interestingly, I got word from the New Beverly that when they showed GONE WITH THE WIND beginning on the Sunday of the festival was that it packed the place just like the over-three-hour LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS did when I saw it there last December, to just name a few titles. The regular midnight shows there have been drawing good crowds, last year’s temporary announcement that LACMA would be ending their film series sparked a virtual uproar and the recent Cinematheque noir fest at the Egyptian packed the place regularly with well over 100 people being turned away on opening night. It’s not getting much coverage in the Times but something seems to have clicked with people, like there’s suddenly something in the air that has led to a desire to see films in the theater, at least here in Los Angeles. We’ve got both locations of the Cinematheque, the New Beverly, LACMA, the Silent Movie, the Nuart, the Billy Wilder Theater and others so it really is a wonderful time in this town for that. The article claims that it took these old films and made them fresh. Maybe it did, but they’re certainly not the first around here to do that, unless you weren’t paying attention. It also suggests a sort of traveling TCM festival to with titles—including recent ones, which seems to totally miss the point—screened digitally, something that doesn’t bother to take into account how that the vast majority of the festival was very deliberately not done in some scam-artist digital projection format like is the case so much these days. With a few key exceptions—and I only heard good things about the digital projections—most of the films shown by TCM were in fact on 35 mm as they should be, as well as 70m in a few cases. This is something that the people who traveled from afar, the ones who were actually paying those prices that I didn’t, care about and deserve. I’m a member of the American Cinematheque but when the Egyptian showed some titles on digital a few months back I heard a number of people out there saying “Well, I would have gone if it wasn’t digital…” These are films. We need to see them on celluloid, with the flicker of the projection there as it should be and presented in the best way possible, something which is possible if attempted otherwise what’s the point? It brings to mind New Beverly owner Quentin Tarantino’s recent comment about how he’ll “burn the place down” before allowing digital projection to be the norm there, but the specifics of this issue apparently allude the Los Angeles Times, which only seems interested in how new and shiny things like digital can be, particularly if they’re in 3D.
So the festival seems to have been a success with a return next year already announced and I’m glad for that, even if I did feel a little excluded from all the fun. Maybe I’ll be in better financial shape next year. As it was, the only time I decided to break my self-imposed rule and not spend any money on this thing was on the Sunday morning of the festival. That was the occasion of the Grauman’s Chinese screening of THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY with none other than the 94 year-old Eli Wallach in person. When I thought about it for ten seconds I realized that there was no way I was going to miss this if I could help it. And can you blame me? As far as I’m concerned for that one day, for those few hours, the Chinese was a cathedral. And a crowded one too, filled with people very excited to give Eli Wallach what turned out to be several standing ovations during his appearance. His sitdown with TCM host Robert Osbourne before the film covered various points of his career including the film we were about to see (“I didn’t know I was going to be The Ugly”), turning down the role in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY that won Sinatra the Oscar, working on THE MISFITS with Marilyn Monroe and reuniting with Clint Eastwood decades later for a cameo in MYSTIC RIVER. Ninety-four years old (“When I die, I’ll stop,” as he put it) he’s already been seen in Polanski’s THE GHOST WRITER this year and this autumn he’ll be in WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS. There’s no other way to put it—the combination of hearing Eli Wallach speak before us to be shortly followed by the legendary shriek of the Ennio Morricone theme moments later brought tears to my eyes from the beauty of all this, from being in the legendary actor’s presence and seeing this brilliant film in this wonderful place. It was really just a taste I got of this festival but in this case it turned out to be all I really needed.
The print screened of THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY at the Chinese seemed to come from the film’s 2003 restoration which restored nineteen minutes to the running time so, not new, it did bear it’s share of scratches at points but so what. I’ve watched this version numerous times on DVD and never grow tired of it with that massive screen putting the spotlight on all those huge Techniscope close-ups with a particular reminder of how cool it can be to watch Lee Van Cleef move through the frame with that angular face of his. There’s very little I can add to everything that’s been written about this film that Quentin Tarantino has called “the best film ever made” and right now I’m not sure that he’s wrong. Even running three hours in the restored cut the film doesn’t have a single dull moment--I may think that the restored grotto scene where Tuco recruits his old friends feels slightly out of place but I'm going to complain about more Tuco? And for all the visual mastery it’s easy to forget how well the story is laid out with several of the additions—such as Angel Eyes’ considerate treatment of the confederate soldier—adding considerable depth to this tale of these three bandits making their way through the civil war in search of the gold, floating above it all but each one pausing at different times to reveal how aware they are of this madness, of so many men wasted so badly. And I found myself wondering about the backstory of these three guys who each seem to know, or at least be aware of each other. Tuco even knows that Blondie knows Angel Eyes when he points him out. It may simply be a storytelling shortcut but it also implies a rich history of this universe around them. Clint is so cool. Van Cleef is too. And it can probably never be overstated how important the feisty humanity that Eli Wallach brings to the nasty Tuco really is. In the end, maybe all I need to say that I can now die having seen and heard the “Ecstasy of Gold” sequence of Eli Wallach running around that enormous cemetery at Grauman’s Chinese.
Yes, the Chinese, which hasn’t been one of the hotter spots in town lately, hurt by possible mismanagement by Mann Theatres, the white elephant nature of the Hollywood & Highland complex, not to mention how most of the good bookings have gone to the nearby Arclight lately. A few months back THE BOOK OF ELI ran in the main theater for nine weeks, something I doubt was very profitable. Since I hadn’t seen it I went one lazy afternoon in the middle of that ninth week out of curiosity as well as to see if I’d be the only one there. As it turns out, I wasn’t—there were two other people there. But while watching a movie in that massive, empty palace was enjoyable, there’s no doubt about that but it does feel like there’s a valuable resource being lost in that theater these days and whatever my other feelings about all this it was wonderful to once again be part of a packed audience at that place which represents an important piece of Hollywood history and used right can be a truly magical place.
Just over an hour into THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY those heavenly voices of Ennio Morricone’s music gradually appear on the soundtrack as that fateful stagecoach makes its appearance for Blondie and Tuco to find. It plays as a form of divine intervention, sent from the Gods, just as this film with this score playing in this place plays like that to me. As long as celluloid still flickers through a projector this feeling will hopefully still be possible. I look forward to the second TCM festival, which I hopefully will get to spend more time at than the first, but more than that I look forward to the next year of seeing films at my favorite haunts around this city, the ones that are always there. At times like this when I sometimes feel like I’m drifting I need those places more and more to show me films that I love and films that I have yet to discover, never being certain when I’ll once again stumble across a hidden treasure. I’m very fortunate to have them nearby.
Friday, April 23, 2010
It’s about nine years now since a new Warren Beatty film has opened in theaters and as time goes on with the actor heading well into his seventies it’s looking increasingly likely that we’re not going to get any more. It’s a shame, not only because I don’t want to see the guy go out with the disastrous TOWN & COUNTRY but because it would be nice to think he’d have at least one more home run left in him. Doesn’t he ever look at somebody like Clint Eastwood and get inspired? It makes sense that he would have had something in the pipeline during the past several years but maybe it wasn’t something that he wanted to go through the struggles of getting made in this business that has changed so much. Maybe he’d called in all his favors already. Maybe he just felt like staying home with his kids. He’s hardly a hermit and clearly leaves the house every now and then like if Annette has a premiere or something. He’s older, sure, but still looks ok if you ask me. Maybe he just doesn’t want to do it anymore. Hey, he’s allowed.
BUGSY was released at Christmastime 1991 and came at a period of surprisingly heavy activity for the star as if he’d realized that after sitting out much of the 80s he finally needed to make sure that people remembered who he was. Along with Oliver Stone’s JFK, also released that month, BUGSY was considered to be one of the front-runners for the Oscars until both wound up sideswiped by the sweep of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS which had come out way back in the previous February. The film received widespread acclaim but only really did middling business, maybe becoming better known in the long run as the film where Warren met co-star Annette and lived happily ever after. Directed by Barry Levinson with a screenplay by James Toback that was years in the writing and Beatty serving as one of several producers, BUGSY is a film that I’ve always admired but have never felt particularly passionate about. It’s definitely good enough to warrant repeat viewings over the years, which is something I’ve done, and there are strong moments throughout but I always feel kind of lukewarm to it in the end as if the passions felt by its characters never manage to translate for me. The scenes play, the images hold, the dialogue crackles and the Morricone score lingers in the brain but something always feels like it just misses greatness. I still like it watching it now and there’s certainly nothing wrong with saying that a film is simply good, not in this day and age. I suppose that to me the final result just feels too much like an attempt to cover a lot of narrative ground with something getting lost along the way and it comes off feeling maybe a shade too polite.
In the 1940s famous gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel (Warren Beatty) takes a trip out to California to take care of some business, at the firm instructions of old friend Meyer Lansky (Ben Kingsley) to be back in New York in a few weeks. Attracted to the Hollywood scene, as well as to beautiful starlet Virginia Hill (Annette Bening) he impulsively buys a Beverly Hills house and decides to stay awhile, ignoring his wife and two daughters. Joining up with famous movie star buddy George Raft (Joe Mantegna) and local enforcer Mickey Cohen (Harvey Keitel) Siegel makes his presence known in the L.A. scene while ultimately winning Virginia over when on a trip to Nevada to check on a local concern, gets what he believes the ultimate idea, ‘the answer to the dreams of America’: a hotel and casino in Las Vegas named the Flamingo designed to cater to anyone’s desires and though the project is budgeted at $1 million it soon becomes clear the extent to which Siegel, with Virginia by his side, will go to realize his ultimate goal.
BUGSY is completely and totally exquisite in every single scene, with an immense degree of confidence evident in the filmmaking, beautiful dialogue by James Toback (make no mistake—this is the best work of his career) as well as an always intriguing chemistry between the two leads, yet I still feel kind of cool towards the whole thing. Barry Levinson is wonderful with actors and there are sparkling moments throughout like Siegel watching closely as George Raft shoots MANPOWER or his attention to detail as the Flamingo is built but it at times feels like a film that is being directed by someone sitting in an easy chair, or maybe in the back of a stretch limo, and there’s an undeniable distance I feel in the way things are often staged. Looking at it now with some distance the degrees of stylization makes me wonder what kind of job Coppola might have done as director—perhaps during his for-hire years when he dropped the ‘Ford’ from his name—with even the eccentricities of some of the casting coming off as similar to his approach to things. This brief daydream makes me imagine how Coppola could have even used this as an opportunity to do right what went wrong with in the final result of THE COTTON CLUB but in 1991, fresh off THE GODFATHER PART III, I imagine that the man was done with gangsters by that point. Reading a simple article on Bugsy Siegel would reveal how many deviations from fact this film takes but it could be possibly seen as more a story about Warren Beatty and his pursuit of perfection, as represented by the Flamingo, while finally finding his perfect partner in the person of Virginia Hill/Annette Bening who the casino in question is essentially named after.
It’s very easy to read just about any of Beatty’s characters through the years as representing the actor and his life in some way (except for maybe ISHTAR’s Lyle Rogers and I’ll bet somebody could succeed in finding parallels even there) so seen as a Beatty-infused look at 40s Hollywood may be the best way to consider BUGSY and it’s place in the careers of everyone involved all these years later. Impeccable to look at in every possible way, I still get lost in Allan Daviau’s cinematography and Dennis Gassner’s production design which makes some use of actual L.A. locations—like the legendary Perino’s Restaurant, since torn down—as well as the immensely impressive recreation of the Flamingo out in the desert. In some ways the sublime score by Ennio Morricone—if your film is going to be high-class, why not go all the way to Rome and get the most high-class of composers?—epitomizes some of my feelings. The steady, dramatic sections go perfectly with Siegel’s obsessive behavior (it’s no surprise that both Beatty and Levinson used him on subsequent projects) making for the ideal musical counterpoint to hearing ‘twenty dwarves took turns…” over and over. But the more romantic moments, clearly meant to move me deeply, mainly remind me how I never feel particularly emotionally involved in the story of the fiery passions of Bugsy Siegel (“Ben. BEN.”) and Virginia Hill. The music is haunting, yes, but I’m not particularly haunted when I hear it in this context (it works beautifully on the album) and in the end as I try to figure out what to make of the endless close up of Annette Bening before the credits quickly roll I find myself thinking the whole thing is good, nice, smooth, a well-crafted piece of work. There’s no feeling that I’ve seen something genuinely extraordinary like what I get from a film like BONNIE & CLYDE, SHAMPOO, REDS or, yes, BULWORTH (interestingly, BUGSY is paced much more leisurely than many of the other films he was directly involved with making) something which would make me feel like those involved put their blood and sweat into this, that it mattered more than anything else on the planet. That missing passion which I find myself wishing from this movie is probably more responsible than anything for the slight feeling of emptiness I always get when the credits roll.
The most recent DVD, released several years ago, is an extended cut adding about fifteen minutes and is worth checking out for any fan of the film. None of what’s added feels necessarily like a revelation but the material, while not always crucial to the story, adds a certain amount of depth to Siegel’s behavior. With more detail given to some sections, overall the film plays a little smoother now, with the possible exception of one scene near the end that tonally just doesn’t seem right and, unless I’m missing something also seems to place Kietel & Mantegna in two different places on the same night. The film has also had some added interest for me through the years due to it’s portrayal of Bugsy Siegel’s suburban New York home in Scarsdale, the town where I grew up. This much about the story of Bugsy Siegel is certainly based in fact although unfortunately no actual filming took place in the town. I can remember the local paper reporting at the time that overtures made by the film’s producers were rebuffed (the desire possibly arose from Co-Producer Charles Newirth having grown up there as well) and the production went elsewhere—that lake Siegel drives past during the film’s opening doesn’t resemble anything I ever encountered while living in the area. But since the Warren Beatty incarnation of Bugsy Siegel is heard to be muttering “Scarsdale” over and over again at the moment when the ultimate dream of Las Vegas comes to him (I somehow doubt this incident has much basis in fact) has always struck me as particularly amusing.
Beatty is compelling every step of the way, yet I somehow still look at the most intense moments of his portrayal as coming off like eccentricities rather than the behavior of someone who is genuinely dangerous, even during his most frightening moments. But if anything, as Beatty repeats “Twenty dwarves took turns…” over and over again throughout I believe in the intensity of his obsessions, which is probably what matters most of all. Annette Bening at this point was during a hot period where she seemed to specialize as the younger love interest of older actors (playing opposite Robert DeNiro in GUILTY BY SUSPICION and Harrison Ford in REGARDING HENRY during the same calendar year) yet the undeniable maturity she possessed even at that age never really made it an issue. Meeting Beatty put an end to all that for a few years as they started their family (which included having to turn down BATMAN RETURNS) but she’s simply dynamite here, making Virginia Hill into someone you could believe would catch Siegel’s eye and make him obsessed on first glance, following through on all the promise she displayed in the previous year’s noir-tinged THE GRIFTERS. She was nominated for that film but not for BUGSY which is as much of a surprise as anything—the way she paws at Beatty as he scarfs down that Shrimp Scampi says as much about the relationship these two have as any of their impeccable dialogue ever does. Kingsley and Kietel did get Oscar nominations (so did Beatty—the film got ten in total) and they’re quite good but more impressive are certain people who pop in smaller roles. Elliott Gould is particularly excellent as Siegel’s sad sack New York associate Harry Greenberg who is forever a few steps behind everyone else and the added subtext of the one-time star Gould playing opposite a contemporary who is still big so many years later brings a great amount of resonance to their scenes. The always enjoyable Bebe Neuwirth is a lot of fun as Countess di Frasso who Siegel hoped would be the key to his plan to execute Mussolini, Wendy Phillips brings needed dignity to the also-ran role of Esta (“E-S-T-A”) Siegel and Richard Serafian (director of VANISHING POINT) is terrific as a fellow tough guy who winds up terrorized by the even tougher Siegel’s near-insanity. Rock promoter Bill Graham, who died shortly before this was released, is ideally intimidating as Charlie Luciano (he feels like one of the casting choices Coppola might also have made) and familiar face Don Calfa of RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD and “10” turns up among the hoods. Playing the legendary George Raft, Joe Mantegna is a very good actor but I’m not sure he’s good enough to convince me that he could ever be that wooden onscreen.
“Looks matter if it matters how you look,” spits out Virginia Hill at one point and, much as the tagline on the poster reads “GLAMOUR WAS THE DISGUISE” it’s a piece of dialogue that focuses on the beauty, or lack of beauty, that we are presented with in BUGSY. Even while watching some of it now I find myself drawn into that luxurious sheen, struck by how alluring some of it is. The way Siegel tells Harry Greenberg to “Bend your knees” as he jumps off the train, the huge sound of those lights being shut off on the set of MANPOWER as Virginia walks away from their first meeting, Ben Kingsley’s Meyer Lansky trying to explain the behavior of his friend, the way Beatty playing Siegel compulsively, obsessively, glares at any particular person in his sights. Am I resisting it? Am I being overly critical? Can’t I see how good this movie really is? It truly is an impeccably layered piece of work with an undeniable sense of time and place, a film everyone involved with should be proud of. If I feel like something is missing from the end result then it might just be me. It might just mean that all I need to do is see it again, to continue obsessively examining it the way I do certain other Warren Beatty movies, just as I hope that there will still be one more in the future that I’ll get to do that with. Maybe one day I’ll think that it’s a masterwork. And if I still think it’s just a very good, well-designed piece of work, well, there’s nothing particularly wrong with that. But when seeing a film about someone who refuses to allow his vision to be compromised in any way, no matter what it takes, that passion is what I wish I could take from it and that’s what I feel remains allusive to me about BUGSY, a story of passion found within glamour which feels a little too much to me like a beautifully designed museum piece.
Thursday, April 22, 2010
For some time now I’ve been trying to make it a point to see certain films made way back in the seventies, some of which I have a vague memory of them opening but just never caught up with until now. In watching them it’s occurred to me that a surprising number of films from that decade have fallen into some kind of dead zone. It probably has a lot to do with what the so-called Generation X was exposed to in the early years of video rentals and cable way back then but while plenty of films from the eighties are known just as much now as they were ten years ago, except for a few evergreens plenty of mainstream 70s films, even ones that were big hits at the time, seem to be forgotten these days. They don’t show up on cable, they’re not on DVD and any video release they got was eons ago, probably in some giant clamshell casing. It’s as if there was some kind of pop culture cutoff point when Reagan got elected or maybe when MTV came on the air. This might partly be an issue of shelf life--the ones I’m thinking of may not be the blockbuster hits, auteur efforts or cult genre titles but the presumed quality works for adults comedies and dramas that were made for an audience that was definitely there at the time but isn’t anymore. I have a feeling that quite a few of these films starred Glenda Jackson. Or they came from Neil Simon plays. The film based on Simon’s play CHAPTER TWO has a Broadway pedigree, was a major release from Columbia at Christmas 1979 (“…represents Neil Simon at his big-screen best,” so said Variety), star Marsha Mason received on Oscar nomination for Best Actress and it even figured into the plot of a SEINFELD episode years later yet now it’s completely forgotten, never released on disc and it barely seems to ever turn up on TV. And while there are plenty of films out there sadly neglected just looking at CHAPTER TWO explains why it may have been largely forgotten—it’s just not very good. Maybe it was a personal work for Neil Simon, possibly one that worked better on the stage, and it certainly means well with earnest performances by the leads but too much of it just feels like a misfire. Marsha Mason did get an Oscar nomination and when you see it you can guess why but that still doesn’t make it any better than it is.
Novelist George Schneider (James Caan) is mourning the recent death of his beloved wife Barbara and confronting the daunting prospect of going back out into the dating scene. Meanwhile actress Jennie MacLaine (Marsha Mason) is also dealing with going out into the dating scene after her recent divorce. When George’s brother Leo pushes him to get back out there he slips him Jennie’s number and while George is resistant a mistake phone call leads to the two of them meeting anyway. When they do the sparks fly instantly and before anyone realizes it the two have decided to get married. But in spite of all the warnings they get from loved ones neither one expects how much George’s feelings for his late wife are still a part of him.
It’s fairly unremarkable right from the start but much of the first half goes down fairly easy in that Neil Simon sort of way with that non-stop dialogue. And there is something likable about the rapport which develops between Caan and Mason who here are reunited for the first time since CINDERELLA LIBERTY, speaking of films that don’t deserve to be forgotten these days. But all this has to lead somewhere and that’s where things become problematic. The conflict in CHAPTER TWO involving people dealing with regrets of the past and the insecurities of approaching middle age is perfectly valid yet the way the movie handles it never seems part of the real world. Both the film and play were apparently very closely based on what Neil Simon actually went through in his relationship with Mason after the death of his first wife Joan (interestingly, I realized watching this that John Williams lost a wife named Barbara to cancer in the seventies and I wondered if there’s a connection). But as much of it may be based on actual events some level of truth still feels like it’s missing—maybe he was still too close to it at this point in time (I’ve never seen or read the play) or maybe the film needed a stronger director to get the tone right but even that wouldn’t have covered up certain plot issues which caused me to check out fairly early. The two leads rush into getting married, brushing off any objections that say they’re putting off tomorrow’s problems until the day after which frankly seem perfectly reasonable. So when those problems obviously wind up happening it doesn’t seem like it would have affected the plot one iota if they’d waited six months—for that matter, if they had waited until they felt George was ready and then it turned out he wasn’t it might have played even better, more believable, more resonant. As it is now, this condensed time frame just comes off as gimmicky, wacky romantic behavior in a film where that sort of thing isn’t needed. Simon has written in his memoirs about going through the kind of implosion portrayed here by Caan’s character after he and Mason were together but the way it plays in the movie feels like the writer still doesn’t seem able to articulate what any of it meant. It winds up playing like the genuinely likable lead character from the film’s first half has suddenly been possessed by aliens with the actor not getting any help from either script or director. Caan has nothing really to play during this section beyond showing off the back of his head while listening to Marsha Mason during her big, long, massive monologue, clearly the reason she got the nomination and apparently taken directly from what she said to Simon in real life when they were going through this period (she didn’t play the role on stage but by this point apparently thought enough time had passed). It’s frustrating because seeing Caan in a role like this has its rewards—he’s too good an actor to always be considered the tough guy—but when he manages to express his feelings the way it’s written just isn’t enough. Maybe the right way to do it would have been to have the material be much more serious to really dig into the truth of this pain, but this is Neil Simon after all so the banter shows up whether we want it to or not. Much of what happens to these characters feels dramatically valid in theory but the comedy seems forced and as a result too much of the serious stuff does too.
This all may have worked on the stage in 1977 where it could have played for the crowd as a form of group therapy but on film it comes off as too stilted with little sense of actual reality and definitely very little sense of anything cinematic. Obviously there’s no point in hiring a visual stylist to direct a Neil Simon film but even the points where something might have been needed, a certain way to bring oomph to a comic or dramatic moment, director Robert Moore (mostly stage work, but also the Simon films MURDER BY DEATH and THE CHEAP DETECTIVE) mostly lets the moments sit there, seemingly content just to get it on film and it all just comes off totally flat. It probably played fine on the Upper East Side when it opened or at a Sunday matinee for old people up in Westchester County but it doesn’t do much for me today, although it is somewhat interesting seeing a film portraying people of this age (he’s 42, she’s 34) come off as much older than they would now—early on George has a date with a wild looking girl named Bambi which is kind of bungled in how it’s shot but the joke also comes off as a little too fuddy-duddy. The film is too underpopulated with supporting characters, probably because of how it played on stage, and is also possibly hurt by Simon trying to distance himself from the character obviously based on him. George Schneider is a writer of spy novels (and doing very well, from the looks of things) but considering the theater world turns up in the story anyway would there have been anything wrong with him being a playwright just as in real life, with making all this as nakedly emotional as possible? Isn’t that why Simon was writing it in the first place? His reluctance to go there just feels like he’s holding back in every way except for the big speech. Stuff just feels missing, like the lack of children (which I guess in Simon’s world would have been another Quinn Cummings-type) or how the only people the two leads seem to know are his brother and her best friend, given their own subplot which feels more tacked on than it probably should. Don’t they have anyone else in their lives they can talk to or interact with? Since this stuff doesn’t come off as real, the pain never comes off as real and all we get is a syrupy Marvin Hamlisch score with an endless lovey-dovey montage set to that score as the newlyweds take a tropical honeymoon. When everything is sorted out in the end the credits roll to one of those ‘we had it all for just a moment’ songs sung by Marilyn McCoo, set to Hamlisch music and Carole Bayer Sayer lyrics while the credits roll to freeze-frames of all the moments that made us laugh and cry for the past two-plus hours. This story of dealing with massive emotional pain features a moment when Marsha Mason is racing across town to get to the all-too-easy happy ending on time and at one point there’s a brief cameo by a wacky unicyclist blocking her way, for cryin’ out loud. That right there kind of says it all about the tone. Come to think of it, maybe the eighties aren’t so bad after all.
It’s not really an issue of the actors. Marsha Mason is playing a role seemingly designed to win someone in stage or film awards with that massive speech at the end. She’s believably likable, level-headed and vulnerable. She’s more of a human being than it ever seems the material actually allows her to be. James Caan’s performance is hurt mostly because he doesn’t have his own equivalent speech—Neil Simon is making it very clear how much Marsha Mason was right—so as a result his best moments are early on when he just has to be likable and charming, the sort of guy who it would be fun to play baseball with in Central Park during an afternoon in 1979 (hey, he’s playing a writer—somebody should pair this up with MISERY). Joseph Bologna kind of keeps to his one note as George’s smart aleck brother but he’s still fun to have around (it’s probably memories of MY FAVORITE YEAR) and the script does provide him with shadings which help flesh things out. Valerie Harper, always slightly underrated because everyone thinks of her as Rhoda, does some very sharp work as Jennie’s best friend making her big speech feel even more genuine and painful than Mason’s but it was hard for me not to focus on her appearance whenever she turned up—even Janet Maslin’s review in The New York Times pointed out that the actress seemed “horrifyingly thin.” Cheryl Bianchi is credited as “Electric Girl” in the role of Caan’s disastrous date but she doesn’t even get a line, presumably because that would mean that Neil Simon would have to come up for something for her to say and he doesn’t think she warrants that.
There’s very little else to say about the movie since there’s very little point to my having seen it in the first place beyond just saying that I’ve now seen it, filling in one more blank that’s been there since the days when I was just a kid, always looking at movie ads in The New York Times. And I can also say that I’ve seen one more James Caan film, so nothing wrong with that. Movies like this featuring such well-off characters (as well as these specific actors) living on the Upper East Side and dwelling on all the frustrations of their unfulfilled lives weren’t around very much past 1979 and when compared to what may have been the big releases from Columbia only five or six years later it probably seems like even more of a relic. The film ends, as most films do, with the characters forever frozen in time, totally unaware of what the eighties would bring, what the future of New York would bring. And that’s where they will always be, never having any idea that these two hours spent discussing all their foibles would one day be almost totally forgotten. The world of today probably isn’t any poorer for not being more aware of CHAPTER TWO, but after everything we see these people go through I can’t help but think that they’ve earned some relief in the end, to live out their witty banter-filled celluloid lives in a version of New York where it is forever 1979, one where the days are bright, Neil Simon plays are constantly premiering on Broadway, that Columbia sunburst logo plays before movies and there will always be the sounds of Marvin Hamlisch in the air. They deserve that much.
Friday, April 16, 2010
Not that it matters but DATE NIGHT is a loud, stupid movie created by hacks that don’t seem to have much interest in putting any effort into the film they’re making. It seems perfectly designed to emulate what’s in the title—couples can go see this on their own date night following dinner, the thing runs under ninety minutes so they can get home by a reasonable hour and there are no messy plot complications to put too much of a mental strain on things, let alone any real dimension to it. And it’s an ugly-looking movie as well, using digital camerawork—hell, since it looks this bad let’s just call it video and get it over with—that at times makes New York look more garish than it has ever deserved to. The whole thing gets as far as it does based on the two leads (Tina Fey & Steve Carell, but you knew that) who have the talent to bring some genuine comic reality to all this idiocy as well as the always welcome sight of Ray Liotta screaming at people like a maniac. The fondly remembered ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING is practically a model of intricate screenplay structure in comparison (to lift something a friend of mine said) but the people behind DATE NIGHT don’t seem interested in emulating any cleverness that film had let alone actually going for the genuinely dark comic tone of something truly memorable like, say, Martin Scorsese’s AFTER HOURS. It’s safe to say that my favorite part of DATE NIGHT was the certain girl I was sitting next to but while she seemed to enjoy herself—hell, I laughed a few times too, I’m not made of stone—I could make a guess that she would have been happier seeing AFTER HOURS again as well.
Released in the fall of 1985 the project came at a low point in Scorsese’s career following the box office failure of THE KING OF COMEDY and the plug being pulled on his first attempt to make THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. Retreating from those larger productions and looking to once again make a fast, low-budget film as he had years before the experience was ultimately a rejuvenating experience for the director and could be seen as instrumental towards him getting his cinematic mojo back that led to the career triumphs later achieved in GOODFELLAS and beyond. Several hours after sitting next to that girl for DATE NIGHT, I arrived home and slipped my DVD of AFTER HOURS into the player once again, reveling in the way Scorsese was able to suck me into his film with his masterfully crafted rhythm within minutes of hearing Mozart play under the opening credits. The girl wasn’t beside me at that point, but maybe AFTER HOURS is one of those films that you need to be watching by yourself anyway. It might induce too much paranoia otherwise.
Word processor Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) is living a dull life on the Upper East Side of New York, bored by his job, bored by his apartment, bored by all the options on cable TV. While having a quiet dinner in a small café one night he strikes up a conversation about the Henry Miller novel he’s reading with Marcy (Rosanna Arquette), an attractive woman who mentions the Plaster of Paris bagel and cream cheese paperweights an artist friend of her makes. Taking down the phone number in the pretense of buying one, he calls the number later that night and winds up with a date with Marcy. As he sets off for way down in SoHo to meet her things get off to a bad start almost immediately as Paul’s twenty dollar-bill, the only money he has, flies out the window of his cab. When he meets Marcy at the giant SoHo loft owned by Kiki Bridges (Linda Fiorentino) things don’t quite go as planned almost from the start, leading to various encounters with other locals. His continual presence arouses suspicion by people angered over a recent rash of robberies and Paul finds himself thrust into a very strange evening which he may ultimately be unable to ever escape from.
Coming up on twenty-five years (!!!!!!) after it was first released, AFTER HOURS remains extremely fresh and vibrant—considering the location it’s set there’s actually not much in the way of fashions or anything else to distractingly date things. While the existence of ATMs and cell phones might make the plot moot today (they could always contrive a way around those things I guess but in 1985 that fortunately wasn’t a concern) the nightmare logic of it all remains fresh, relatable, unnerving. And I suppose that although SoHo really is a very different place in the twenty-first century (so I hear, but even back then my forays downtown rarely took me below Houston) you could make the argument that while there’s nowhere else the film could be set the film isn’t necessarily about New York circa 1985 as much as DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN (which this shares a few cast members with) is or, for that matter, how INTO THE NIGHT seems to be specifically about L.A. in that year. Instead, AFTER HOURS takes a genuinely surreal approach to the odyssey of Paul Hackett, trapped in this late night world over a hundred blocks from his tiny apartment that he so desperately wants to get back to (there may as well be a giant moat surrounding SoHo to prevent him from ever leaving) and seemingly totally unaware of how he’s supposed to behave with anyone he encounters, never quite sure of the normalcy level of any of them. He’s obviously searching for something he can’t articulate but he’s not self-aware enough to realize just how much of a blank he is, not even able to maintain a conversation with Bronson Pinchot’s fellow office drone with his own dreams for more than thirty seconds. As played by Dunne, Paul seems reasonably intelligent and has enough curiosity to read Henry Miller but he clearly has no knowledge of how to behave in this environment, searching for some sort of connection even though he would barely know what to do with it if he found such a thing with any of these people beyond wondering, is that all there is? And the last time we see him, that’s all he’s really left with.
Scorsese takes the dialogue and characterizations within this world to bring a frighteningly askew look at every single location filled with people who you can’t imagine actually existing during daylight hours—what is Teri Garr’s job at that copy place really like? Scorsese can be spotted at one point in the Club Berlin literally shining a light on the hero and the way things throughout make an impression down to the smallest details it feels like he totally relates to Paul Hackett’s fear in this scenario, trapped in this world with odd, unexplainable elements throughout from the endlessly ringing phone in Marcy’s room or the subway attendant (played by Murray Moston, who years earlier got his fingers blown off in TAXI DRIVER) rationalizing his refusal to let Paul have a subway token after the fare goes up by explaining that somebody might find out, saying, “I could go to a party, get drunk, talk to someone. Who knows?” The fare goes from 90 cents to $1.50 in 1985 New York and Paul never heard anything about it ahead of time? Only in a nightmare.
Even the music sets us on edge with Howard Shore’s score seemingly tapping on our brains as we keep imagining how much later it’s getting and some doo-wop music heard in John Heard’s bar that feels like it’s wandered over from the days of MEAN STREETS in nearby Little Italy as if it’s trying to lure Scorsese himself back to this world, one that Paul Hackett doesn’t belong in, that he’ll never belong in. The final result is so brazenly original and maintains a balance that few other dark comedies have ever managed to achieve that it was a shock to me several years ago to learn that the script written by Joseph Minion may very well have had its origins in a monologue performed by Joe Frank several years earlier. For details go here and what you choose to make of all this is up to you but in all honesty this was a pretty disappointing thing to learn about one of my favorite movies. And yet, with every swoop taken by Michael Ballhaus’s constantly moving camera as each bizarre event races by AFTER HOURS seems to get more and more under my skin each time I see it. It feels made by someone with feels completely, totally free with how they want to create this piece of genuine cinema and deep down there are few Martin Scorsese films that I love, that I relate to, that I feel quite as protective of as I do this one. It still feels as fresh, as new, as it did the night I first saw it all those years ago at Yonkers Movieland. The laughs maybe catch in my throat than they did way back then but I still love every nervous frame of AFTER HOURS even as I continually wonder how close I am on certain nights to it coming true.
Griffin Dunne, in the best role he ever had, makes for a perfect anchor in all this unexplainable madness, making Paul Hackett totally and completely relatable but never seeming to worry for an instant about making him likable. He’s backed up by a supporting cast who makes every single character completely vivid and forever unreadable at the same time including Rosanna Arquette’s temporarily beguiling Marcy, Teri Garr’s beehive-sporting Julie who wants Paul to touch her hairdo, Verna Bloom’s strangely sympathetic June, Catherine O’Hara’s truly frightening Mr. Softee truck driver, Robert Plunket’s nervousness as a street pickup who misunderstands what Paul wants as well as the Shakespearian fool crooks played by Cheech & Chong (Cheech talks about watching the painter George Segal on THE TONIGHT SHOW playing the banjo). Linda Fiorentino as Kiki Bridges is so absolutely hot that I find it intimidating just to watch her scenes and Dick Miller, in his second of two Scorsese appearances, is the one truly likable person in the entire movie during his brief role in the diner which is no real surprise. Victor Argo works there too. Wouldn’t you go to a diner run by Dick Miller and Victor Argo?
Watching the film now, I realize that I live in an area of L.A. that might be a Soho equivalent—maybe more gentrified than it once was, but whatever—and as I somehow try to figure out what that girl I was sitting next to during DATE NIGHT really thinks of me each time I see her I feel like I’m another version of Paul Hackett who has managed to convince some people that I fit in around here. Actually, I probably haven’t—I’m sure they’ve long since caught on to me. But it’s now too late for me to make my escape via subway, taxi or otherwise and I just find myself here, faced with a computer that I seem to be carrying on a never-ending conversation with. Which I guess really does mean that AFTER HOURS can’t happen anymore. Or that is always is happening, which seems more likely. All these years after it was made, maybe both worlds really have combined to make one.
Tuesday, April 13, 2010
People generally have a fixed notion of what certain movies are, what they’re supposed to be. One reason that the films of Sam Fuller have survived—hell, how the myth of Sam Fuller has survived—might be that they are constantly at war with their tabloid B-movie origins within their fixed genres in their cigar-chomping quest to sometimes become something else entirely. At their very best his work transcends its pulp origins and forcefully wrenches you out of your seat and in the faces of the people onscreen. From that point on you can’t quite shake the film you’re watching and Fuller certainly wouldn’t have wanted you to. This feverish pulp ferocity is a lost art in this day and age as the directors who I would have liked to have reached this feverish peak never did—John Sayles only gazed at the possibility from afar through films that he wrote but didn’t direct, Oliver Stone never quite embraced the notion as it seemed he might at one point and Larry Cohen’s career has been too erratic, making for productions that are more interesting to hear about than to see.
Standing out in Fuller’s lengthy filmography among crime tales and war epics that remain gripping today would have to be PARK ROW, which he directed in 1952 and maybe is the most personal work of his career. It’s a film that pays tribute to the newspaper world that he came from early in his life and career, a world he loved more than anything. It’s a no-nonsense B-Movie approach to history, an epic set on a single street, a tabloid approach to telling the tale of, well, tabloids. I’d love to show this film to my sister, who comes from a lengthy career in journalism, to see what she might possibly think of it. That special screening will probably never happen and if it did she might not see past the schmaltz, but I would still be curious to know what she thinks of this immensely personal vision of history done in pulp style that might even have to do with something she read about long ago. It means everything it says in its attempt to bring us the legend of something Fuller cared so much about—the love of newspapers, the idea of chasing the story, of forming that language, of getting that ink on your hands, in your blood, a passion this valuable film displays that is truly palpable.
New York, 1886: Hard-nosed newspaper reporter Phineas Mitchell (Gene Evans), recently fired from the powerful Star for insubordination, gets the chance to run his own newspaper, the kind of paper he thinks needs to be read by people. Dubbing it The Globe, is efforts get attention almost immediately but it also catches the eye of Charity Hackett (Mary Welch), publisher of The Star and the one who fired Mitch. When she can’t compete with the new printing press he has hired someone to develop she tries to come up with her own plan to defeat The Globe. As Mitch launches a campaign to use The Globe to help get the Statue of Liberty erected in New York Harbor even the obvious attraction between he and Charity can’t stop an all-out war eventually occurring between the two rival papers.
Sam Fuller originally pitched PARK ROW to Darryl F. Zanuck at Twentieth-Century Fox who liked the idea but saw it as a big, splashy color musical. Fuller, who envisioned his dream project as gritty, intimate, in pure black & white and as hard-nosed as anything else he’d ever made, turned down Zanuck’s offer and financed the movie himself, something he may have regretted when he would up losing every cent he put into it. At the extreme risk of angering hard-core Fullerphiles out there, I honestly think I’ve heard worse ideas than filming this as a musical with Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner—even now I think there’s something in there that might make good material for a Broadway musical, so help me—but I definitely can’t argue the passion that comes through in every frame of what he did make which is emotional, passionate and 83 minutes of intense fury of the dream of journalism, making me glad that Fuller succeeded in getting his version on the screen.
Filmed entirely on a soundstage with a stylized set used to represent the famous street of the title it’s tempting to think of this approach as resembling the most elaborate live television production ever produced during the golden age but to say that would probably diminish the technical achievement. While there is some slight awkwardness in the opening minutes the predominate effect Fuller’s style gives off is one of giant, piercing close-ups that emphasize the intensity of Mitch’s feelings, the long takes that observe how everyone interacts with each other and the astonishing pre-Steadicam shots that race through the sets as word of sabotage to the press comes in—it’s been called “one of the most violent tracking shots in the history of cinema” and that violence comes as much from the ferocity of the camera movement itself as it does from anything that happens in front of it. You can almost see the lightning bolt that streaks from the screen towards the young Martin Scorsese’s brain as he forever remembers these shots and eventually does his own version of them in MEAN STREETS years later (the events here are set over two decades after the riots in GANGS OF NEW YORK but I still can’t help but think the two might go together in a double bill).
PARK ROW has the tabloid B-movie sensibility that we expect from Fuller, which those who revere his films love him for, coming off as the newspaper world of CITIZEN KANE done on a budget--some of the giant close-ups and long takes throughout are framed in a way that it could very well be a sort of prequel. Along with the glory of journalism is one thing, the fascination he shows for the intricacies of how all this is put together with the printing press, typeface, ink and newsprint uses is displayed as well—you get the feeling the director may very well have wanted to make a documentary which was about nothing but that—as well as soaking us in as much as he wants to tell us about this world as possible, such as why a reporter always places “Thirty” at the end of an article. And we feel the passion, the determination of everything Mitch is striving for—when one of Charity Hackett’s men notes that The Globe is being printed on butcher paper it’s clear what that fact alone means to these people—this paper is being put together by people who care, who want to get this out more than anything in the world. It’s not something that Charity (of which she has none, as one character notes) recognizes at first and she simply doesn't have it in her to understand.
What develops is a story not just about the love of all aspects of journalism but one of love and hate between these two people, as well as between the competing newspapers they run. What Mitch requires from those who work for him and what Fuller requires as well is total reverence for this world and its history. And what, you say it’s corny when the young boy (as much of a surrogate for Fuller as anyone else in the film) begs to work on the paper because, like Mitch, he’s got “printer’s ink in me too.” Corny? Says who? The film means it. Fuller means it. PARK ROW is very obviously made on a low budget for 1952 and for Fuller these sets are the filmic equivalent of butcher paper but his blood and sweat comes through in every scene with more passion than any number of bloated epics made then or now. And it only takes him 83 minutes. Right down to its unforgettable final title card in lieu of saying “THE END” that makes me want to rise up in respect and admiration for what we’ve just seen PARK ROW is genuinely stirring to me, thrusting our faces into that nasty dialogue and harsh imagery with all the power in the world. And in those quiet moments between Mitch and old reporter Davenport who speaks truths into his ear to inch him towards what he needs to do, needs to be, the film allows us to feel the passion of people who are searching for greatness, not sure which way they’re going but fully intent on getting there.
The cast who all cram into the frame throughout works together like a finely tuned theatrical troupe—Gene Evans appeared in several other films for Fuller as well as lots of TV during his long career and he infuses his cigar chomping editor with the fury and emotion it’s needed. Mary Welch, who died during childbirth just a few years later, carefully balances the nasty side of her character always dressed in black to be an antagonist for Mitch along with just enough attractiveness to make the relationship work. The energetic Bela Kovacs is Mr. Mergenthaler who offers his new press to the Globe but no one else and Herbert Heyes of A PLACE IN THE SUN is Mr. Davenport, the angel over Mitch’s shoulder telling him that “the joy of working for an ideal is the joy of living,” and who helps turn The Globe into what he finally calls “a good newspaper”.
It’s that calm, reasoned voice of Mr. Davenport that stays with me after viewing the film, someone with enough confidence in humanity to believe in the concept of the good man, the better man, coming along and proving his belief of the glory of American Journalism. Davenport speaks of his own death that he’s not ready for yet and, indeed, there is talk of death throughout the entire film as if to remind us, to stress to us, that what we are watching in this film is history. Journalists like this once fought for this such a free press and what they did during another time still matters (maybe, as newspapers are dying all over, we need to know that now more than ever) and Samuel Fuller is going to make sure we know how important this story is. It was his favorite of all his films as well and as long as PARK ROW is around, as long as each of Sam Fuller’s films are around, we will remember what he cared about because that kind of passion can never be extinguished once it is forced into the projection booth that runs through your head.
Wednesday, April 7, 2010
In the aftermath of a midnight screening of DRESSED TO KILL at the New Beverly I feel compelled to ask one question—Great movie or greatest movie? Seriously, I’m asking. Is this an overreaction? Maybe. And truthfully, it’s probably not even my favorite Brian De Palma film, let alone the one I think is his best. But after seeing it again, after experiencing the sinuous quality of those images on the big screen and being overwhelmed by that amazing Pino Donaggio score, how can you blame me? I shot down to the theater from the Egyptian after seeing a double bill of George Raft films (RED LIGHT and JOHNNY ANGEL) at the Noir Festival’s second night and it was a good sized crowd at the New Bev, one that included a certain Mr. Tarantino sitting in the row in front of me. When Phil Blankenship made his introductions he made a point of saying that while a film like this may inspire a response in someone he asked that people hold back those responses until afterwards, which probably had something to do with the harsh words said about De Palma and this particular film on the New Beverly’s Facebook page. Which once again makes me want to ask, why are people so negative on the Internet, anyway? Do they walk around in real life this grouchy hating everything they see? Sure, being negative is necessary when you’re talking about movies directed by Michael Bay or McG but you get the feeling that some people are just looking for anything to get in a fight over. Maybe I just don’t have the energy for that sort of thing anymore. So let’s just all agree that Brian De Palma is a genius, DRESSED TO KILL has some truly remarkable stuff in it and anyone who doesn’t agree simply doesn’t like movies, all right? All right? And since I just looked to my right and saw my DRESSED TO KILL poster hanging on my wall you can probably guess where I’m coming from.
If you’ve seen the film close to as many times as I have then you know that for the sake of anyone coming to this cold I simply can’t get into the nature of the plot which involves frustrated New York housewife Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson), her psychiatrist Dr. Elliott (Michael Caine), her son Peter (Keith Gordon), Park Avenue hooker Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) and the mysterious transsexual known as Bobbi who may have stolen Dr. Elliott’s razor. Even writing something about DRESSED TO KILL feels like an impossible task to me maybe because the whole thing is so experimental, so willingly dreamlike, that to break it down in that sense feels like it would take all the fun out of it. Maybe that’s why seeing it at midnight is so ideal—after all, who needs rational thinking at that hour? Dream logic is really the only way to fully accept some of the plot turns and behavior, appropriate for a film that is bookended with dream sequences and maybe much of what happens is a fantasy that one of the characters is having anyway. Hell, maybe the whole thing is just a movie that we happen to be watching in a theater. And simply calling the director a Hitchcock imitator (as some did on the New Bev Facebook page and there were worse things said) completely disregards not only how much absolute perfection is brought to each frame, but how there does feel like a genuine tinge of the personal coming from the director throughout, whether satirical or otherwise.
With his ingenious staging (shot by Ralf Bode) using a very wide Scope frame that seems to continually make use of unexpected things going on in both the background and foreground which of course adds to repeat viewings—I particularly liked getting a look at a certain individual who can be spotted in the dead center of the frame at the 21:38 mark and there was some laughter from people who obviously knew what we were seeing there as well. And as much as Hitchcock is mentioned looked at now the film feels amazingly giallo-tinged, daring to bring a true sense of art to all that sleaze in those films, elements that usually make me want to take a shower—just where this movie begins in a sequence with its famous body double, come to think of it. How many giallos had De Palma taken a look at during the seventies? What is this film’s connection to the opening scene of THE CASE OF THE BLOODY IRIS? Is there anything to be gained in pointing out the resemblance of white-clad Angie Dickinson to the also white-clad Anna Maria Rosati in TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE? So you really think that Autotron’s going up? Why can’t I stop staring at Nancy Allen as she runs through that subway station?
A sizable hit when it was released in 1980 (Vincent Canby in The New York Times gave it a near rave, concluding with “Even the title is good.”), its truly memorable imagery has resulted in it being De Palma’s most iconic attempt of the periodic structural experimentation in his thrillers which he also wrote—a form that was attempted earlier in SISTERS, possibly fumbled in BODY DOUBLE (I know, it has its defenders), taken to its most radical extremes in RAISING CAIN and maybe perfected for all time in FEMME FATALE. Such an approach often causes the plot of one of these films to reboot itself every fifteen minutes of so—this may have begun with PSYCHO, certainly not the only Hitchcock film he’s been inspired by, but certainly didn’t end there and even somebody like Dario Argento was experimenting with these concepts around this time. The way the structure of DRESSED TO KILL is laid out, maybe more than any of the others, almost feels like a piece of music in how it builds and holds back at times, starting with a nearly unbroken first half-hour that is essentially perfect followed by a series of interrogation scenes that more than make up for the lack of dialogue we once had. A brief period at the midway point may seem to run in place storywise for a few minutes (when the DONAHUE segment is seen by several people) but it also seems designed for us to pay attention to what’s being said, observe the characters at this seemingly non-dramatic point and maybe consider what’s really going on. Nancy Allen’s adventures in the subway (which also looks ahead to the chase in De Palma’s CARLITO’S WAY) comes pretty close to perfection as well with the rhythm of those cuts as certain parties make their way onto the train getting me to laugh out loud each time (glancing around that subway station reveals that THE JERK and 1941 featuring Allen were playing around this time).
And the presentation of its characters such as Angie Dickinson’s insecure beauty trapped forever in middle age and Keith Gordon’s young sleuth who practically gets his very own blowup doll in the living person of Nancy Allen, never more purely sexual in any film, somehow turns these two-dimensional figures into full blooded iconic characters. Little of it makes any real sense—hell, the final 10 or 15 minutes feel absolutely impossible as both we and the film try to figure out how all this is going to resolve itself. As it turns out, it really can’t but it doesn’t matter since we’ve already seen Nancy Allen in bra and garters with blood on her hands, a tableau which provides the sort of frisson that these films always seem to strive for but very rarely provide and since the film actually achieves this high point of absolute delirium very little is ever going to bring us down again. Logic certainly isn’t needed at any point, which is maybe best exemplified in the haunting beat of the girl who gets in the elevator with Angie Dickinson and won’t stop staring at her, only to be told by her mother that, “it’s not polite to stare.” She continues to do so anyway. It makes me wish that if De Palma makes another one of these thrillers (and I truly hope he does) that the lead is a dark-haired woman in her mid-30s who we could imagine is this little girl all grown up, forever haunted by the face of the woman she saw in an elevator long ago.
Angie Dickinson has been justifiably acclaimed for this performance and even if she hasn’t I’ll do it now—playing a part that is pretty much no dialogue for more than half of her screen time she commands every frame that she’s in at equal times sexy and vulnerable, in control and totally at sea. From the constant desperate gazes that emanate from her she brings some strangely relatable vulnerability, thanks to the script as well, to something that in other hands might come off as arch and forgettable. Clearly De Palma knew what he was doing in casting her and he completely knows how to use her, clothed and unclothed, but it wouldn’t have worked anywhere near as well if she hadn’t connected with this character as well as she does. Nancy Allen has what is probably her best role here, never more likable, never more endearing, never more sexy and I feel like I could listen to her yammer on about what stocks she wants to buy for hours. Coming off a few years of lousy Irwin Allen movies at this point in his career, top-billed Michael Caine has a role which at first glance may not be as showy as a few of his co-stars (surprising when you think about it) but he delivers some very sharp work which reveals more going on each time I take another look at one of his scenes. Keith Gordon makes his whiz-kid likable right from the start (kids can’t be nebbishes like this in movies anymore, can they?), Dennis Franz as Detective Marino brings enjoyment to every line of dialogue he has and is maybe only slightly less sleazy than his BLOW OUT role--I particularly love when he calls Nancy Allen a ‘whoor’. David Margulies, the mayor in GHOSTBUSTERS, plays a psychiatrist dealing with Dr. Elliott whose first scene probably only makes sense on second viewing and William Finley, also in SISTERS and PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, can be heard as the voice of Bobbi.
If the genuine screams heard in the New Beverly at the point of the final scare were any indication there are actually some people out there who haven’t seen this film yet and it really is a joy to experience this film with a crowd who reacts at all the right moments. The release of DRESSED TO KILL is now coming up on its thirtieth anniversary, a concept which seems as insane as the film itself but even though we leave these characters frozen in time at the point of 1980 they still stick in the brain--Kate Miller as she insecurely comes up with things to jot down in her appointment book or repeatedly pressing those elevator buttons anxious to get back to the seventh floor, Dr. Elliott’s glances into those all those mirrors he has scattered around his office, the hooker Liz Blake musing about her stock tips and the paintings on her wall which could be worth a million dollars in ten years. I wonder if in a few years she’ll receive a letter informing her of something worse than a venereal disease, just I as wonder if years after having lunch with Liz in a fancy restaurant (shot in Windows on the World, incidentally) Peter Miller will realize that he’s never going to meet another woman like her. As for De Palma, the last film he’s made along these lines (to date) has been the 2002 thriller FEMME FATALE, one of my favorite films of the decade. In many ways it feels like a summation of all of these films resolving some of the themes that had been burrowing through his head for decades and maybe providing a happy ending where his leads no longer need to wake up screaming from nightmares with hopefully someone nearby to comfort them. In that sense it could almost be looked at as a ‘final’ film which, of course, it wasn’t (I’ve sometimes thought of writing about THE BLACK DAHLIA) and I certainly would love nothing more than to hear that De Palma was making another thriller from a script he wrote--maybe even with the grown-up version of that girl. Because even if it seems like some kind of conclusion has already occurred, that doesn’t mean it has and if anyone could possibly provide us with one more jolt before the credits roll it would have to be Brian De Palma.