Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Works Every Time
I’ll always have a fondness for those genre films that open in the first few months of the year, the ones way outside of award contention that almost seem to be only appropriate for cold weather and you go see them at a theater in some suburban shopping mall on a cloudy, freezing Sunday afternoon. You know probably know what I mean, the thrillers that are set in a house up in some deserted rural area with snow on the ground and the opening credits are set to some deceptively gentle piano theme as one of the main characters drives up to where the whole movie will be set. Obviously I’ve got some rose-colored memories of doing this sort of thing back in the day when I lived in a place where the temperature dipped below freezing and maybe not all of these films are good or even worth remembering but part of the pleasure of all this is how you never know when you’ll get a nice surprise, making it worth that trip out into the cold. In my mind I think this is all a combination of various films lingering down in my memory but one of them is certainly Arthur Penn’s DEAD OF WINTER, which appropriately came out in the dead of winter way back in early ’87 but no one seems to remember it anymore (with a gross of $2.4 million, not many people seemed to know it at the time). It’s not at all a great film and a fair amount of the setup’s inherent absurdity alone might be too much for some people to swallow but there are times when you find yourself just willing to go along with these things almost as if the movie has put you into some kind of trance. Within it you find the right kind of twisted suspense that this sort of film should always have and allows it to be as effective as it still is when watched now. Maybe if you don’t want to swallow any of it and just take the whole thing as a joke it’s still a cleverly told one with a few extra twists of the knife in there for good measure.
Soon after a mysterious woman who has received a satchel of money from a train station locker on New Year’s Eve is strangled to death in her car we meet Katie McGovern (Mary Steenburgen) an actress in New York who attends an audition for an independent film where the casting director Mr. Murray (Roddy McDowell) hires her almost immediately to audition on tape for the lead role. Leaving behind her live-in boyfriend Rob (William Russ) who is laid up with a broken leg and her visiting brother (co-screenwriter Mark Malone) she travels with Mr. Murray to a secluded house in upstate New York where she meets Dr. Lewis (Jan Rubes) the elderly wheelchair bound producer of the film where she is made over for the videotaped audition, an unusual speech that seems to indicate the film is a thriller and which greatly impresses the two men. But soon enough, with the phone lines down due to the ongoing blizzard and with nothing to do but wait, Katie spots her drivers license burning in the fireplace and quickly begins to realize that she is a prisoner in this place, one who may not be able to escape from the house alive.
The harsh wind heard blowing through the bitter cold night in the opening shot is combined with a joke that won’t be evident on first viewing and the two elements together display state right up front a genuine sense of perverse humor that will mix in with the suspense all the way through. A mixture of such tones can sometimes be fatal but in this case it turns DEAD OF WINTER into not a piece of camp but a nastily clever ride that enjoys turning the screws on both the viewer and its lead character however it can. Because of the first scene we know something is amiss right away with Katie being hired so quickly by the avuncular Mr. Murray, we just don’t know exactly what (makes more sense than spending forty-five minutes pretending this is some other kind of movie) and the narrative gambit adds an extra level of suspense to every scene as we wait for the other shoe to drop, something the movie seems to gleefully resist doing for as long as possible. Nowadays that slow burn might seem about a reel too long but for me the steady buildup felt genuinely elegant in its effectiveness and the film goes through a nice, steady striptease of unveiling small clues for Steenburgen’s heroine that are clearly not quite right. They’re just never enough for her to actually realize she’s in genuine danger, not until she finally reveals how grave her situation is in the most unambiguous way possible, prefaced by an excellently sustained shot where it is revealed in one elegantly simple set up something about her room that she hadn’t yet realized.
Directed by the great Arthur Penn who just died in September 2010 (this was his penultimate theatrical feature—I wonder how his last one, PENN & TELLER GET KILLED, holds up now) he keeps the tension building all the way through with just a few characters—I shouldn’t say how many—along with a steady pace, continually displaying a great amount of subtle cleverness in exploring the layout of this single house. The script by Marc Shmuger and co-star Mark Malone (apparently based on the 1945 noir MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS though this is never indicated in the credits) knows how to set everything up without ever letting things fall into Idiot Plot territory unless, of course, you count Katie driving up to this house in the middle of nowhere to begin with but considering she’s getting into a car with dear, sweet Roddy McDowall can you really blame her? What happens to her winds up going to some surprisingly twisted ends and maybe the worst of it is nothing all that shocking anymore but pretty far for what you’d expect to be a standard damsel-in-distress thing, something that a much more benign version of which could have been done as a TV movie in the 70s. In spite of some blatant nods to Hitchcock—a woman’s lookalike double, a photographer’s leg in a cast holed up in his New York apartment, a sinister glass of milk being carried upstairs on a tray—the suspense is never really that type approach at all but rather a modern day version of an old B movie with a strong female lead, always knowing how to walk the fine line between awareness of how ridiculous it is and being keen enough to keep the suspense going just right. It maintains a sharp, almost gleeful sense of pleasure to all the danger in an old fashioned popcorn kind of way which I say with the highest possible praise.
Not to overstate its effectiveness, things do go a little slack at a few points (it’s only 100 minutes but maybe could have lost a few) including a climax which doesn’t feel quite there in how well it works but the whole thing maintains an admirable pitch of tension all the way through at least partly since we’re informed of just enough that we can’t be certain how many other surprises are coming—in this context, even the briefly heard voice of an annoyed telephone operator manages to be just unnerving enough so every little piece added like that manages to add to the tension. Is any of it plausible? Not really at all. And I say so what. I started to watch the movie for my first viewing in decades fairly late at night, appropriate considering this would have been right at home on the late show during another era but wound up gladly staying with it all the way through into the early morning hours so that right there has to say something. Even the absurdities never really bothered me in this context and in a weird sense almost added to its effectiveness, so just like those goldfish collected at a gas station in a patently silly plot point, I was trapped right along with the movie the whole way through and perfectly happy to be there. DEAD OF WINTER never goes far enough to be truly transgressive or anything more than what it is and I don’t think it even wants to but it is a thriller that achieves a pitch of genuine tension that it manages to sustain constantly throughout. Wisely, it picks a correct tone and knows to stick with it, not something that seems to happen nearly enough with these kind of things. It’s nasty fun, with equal emphasis on both words in the best possible way and, maybe best of all, it always seems bitterly cold when I watch it. Some might think it old-fashioned in this day and age. I liked it.
And it should be said how much the film offers a terrific role for Mary Steenburgen who ultimately gets to play several roles—for the purposes of spoilers, I shouldn’t actually say how many—and it makes for an interesting stripping away of what is thought of as her basic screen persona, introduced with that familiar frizzy hair where she seems a little flightly but still grounded then when her look gets altered as her situation becomes more grave her basic nature seems to change as well. Any more layered thread of her playing an actress who gets to be an actress seems to come more from her than the material and she does a dynamic job, achieving perfect pitch with every single tense moment that occurs. Roddy McDowall—at that point on a slight high from the success of FRIGHT NIGHT— has a slightly tricky role also because of what we expect him to be and everything that presence signifies but as much as his sly, arch nature comes through he knows to never lower things to a level of playing it as a goof or an indication that he’d never do anything all that bad. With an early likable moment in particular toying with all our expectations of him it’s a very sly example of playing with his inherent style and it could be considered a case where his secondary villain becomes so much more than the main one does. As Dr. Lewis, Jan Rubes has undeniable screen presence but I’m not sure he ever totally sheds the sort of friendly uncle nature so near the end he’s a little more of a scary old guy than a villain who needs to be vanquished. With McDowell’s Mr. Murray doing much the dirty work it’s like he’s the one that a good deal of the inherent suspense ultimately comes from. William Russ has some nice moments with his cigarette dangling from his lips as the laid-up boyfriend and the cops played by Ken Pogue and Wayne Robson are familiar from any number of other films shot in Canada over the years—Pogue was instantly recognizable to me from Cronenberg’s THE DEAD ZONE and Robson has many credits including CUBE and Richard Lester’s FINDERS KEEPERS.
It’s that wind, damn it. I think again of that wind blowing and it reminds me of this kind of thriller that doesn’t get made these days which even within its ludicrousness displays a degree of intelligence, stylishness and actual suspense. Not to mention that all of the characters are actual adults and it’s not designed to start a franchise. Crazy, I know, the things I get nostalgic for. Arthur Penn was a key figure in the rise of the New Hollywood of the 60s and 70s, directing such titles as BONNIE AND CLYDE, LITTLE BIG MAN, NIGHT MOVES and THE MISSOURI BREAKS. I won’t make an argument that DEAD OF WINTER in any way ranks among those key titles or is at all a key title in any way and I almost wonder if I’m being a little too effusive in what I have to say about it. But as Jan Rubes watches over Roddy McDowell sharpening that knife and icily stating “If you wish to master your trade, Mr. Murray, you must first master the tools of your trade,” as they prepare for what will happen, with the old man finally concluding with “Sharp knife, no tears. Works every time,” as things are ready to go. That seems to say something about Penn himself making this movie with an approach that indicates he knows it won’t live up to past glories but he’s still going to make it as cutting and effective as he knows how to do. Whatever I thought of DEAD OF WINTER back then, it’s a pleasant discovery to discover how well it still plays, even if it makes the most sense to see it in that context of a late-night viewing, when issues of hard logic aren’t always what you’re necessarily thinking about. Thrillers such as this one that we go to see on all the cold, lazy Sundays early in the year throughout our lives may not be the most prestigious we’ll ever encounter, but I’m wondering if that’s ultimately a good thing. Maybe it’s the films that surprise us, the ones that go a little further than we would expected them to when we sat down with our popcorn, that are occasionally the ones we wind up remembering with just a little more fondness than the others. Maybe sometimes those are even the films that turn out to mean the most to us of all.