Wednesday, November 30, 2011
One day just a few years ago at the entertainment news program where I was still employed at the time I was walking outside the offices at CBS Radford in conversation with one of the show’s producers about who knows what. I was following along with her but as it turned out she was headed to speak to someone in particular—namely, a well known actress who was there that day to shoot something for the show. Not just any well known actress but one who, in addition to various other credits, had starred in a James Bond film. I stood there quietly while they talked, with no one acknowledging my presence in the slightest and afterwards it occurred to me that if the same thing had occurred with just about any Bond Girl other than this one I would probably have been upset not to get an introduction. I mean, really, why haven’t I ever gotten the chance to meet Famke Janssen or Rosamund Pike? Or even one of the other actresses from the particular Bond movie she was in? Not to mention Diana Rigg, but that of course goes without saying. Life is unfair. This time, however, it didn’t really bother me since the actress in question is somewhat infamous as being one of the worst Bond Girls ever (she was appearing on the show for Dancing With The Stars-related reasons, to make it really obvious who I’m talking about) and, besides, there wasn’t exactly any Ian Fleming-type magic swirling through the air at that moment in Studio City. So the occasion of my sort of brushing elbows with her ended without incident—I think I even mentioned my mixed feelings to that producer, not that she seemed to have much of a clue about what I was getting at. This actress really can’t be blamed for all of the problems of this particular James Bond film but that occasion has always seemed like a reminder to me of how the ultimate fantasy of these films you obsess over just wind up falling short. Even in real life.
The argument could be made that THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH is actually the high point of Pierce Brosnan’s tenure as James Bond but it’s almost impossible to make a definitive statement to that effect. For one thing, I’m sure plenty of people would disagree. For another thing, I’m not even entirely certain that I feel this way myself—some might argue for GOLDENEYE, but it feels a little too prefab to me now and also has one of the very worst scores in the series. TOMORROW NEVER DIES hasn’t dated all that well and is so action heavy that there’s almost nothing to dramatically dig in to once the noise has died down. DIE ANOTHER DAY contains a story which feels like it had potential at one point but it all gets lost in a sound-and-fury swarm of CGI and Halle Berry. As for THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH, Brosnan’s third in his run, it’s also tough for me to state flat-out that it’s his best since that crushing feeling of disappointment when I saw the film on opening night way back in November ’99 still remains vivid in my head. My opinion has admittedly mellowed over time and unlike TOMORROW NEVER DIES, THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH does at least have a certain amount of dramatic substance to dig into which has allowed it to hold up pretty well on repeat viewings. As far as screenplay structure goes it’s not exactly CHINATOWN but at least the movie feels like it’s trying to do something more this time out. The greatest irony to all this, as well as being one of the film’s biggest drawbacks, is how with one key exception the expected overblown action scenes are also some of its weakest elements. The way the plot is laid out isn’t without a few problems either and ultimately it feels like a film that continually veers wildly back and forth between elements that work well—a few surprisingly well—and others which feel like the result of endless script notes that no one was ever able to reconcile with the story they were telling. It works better for me than it did on opening night…but enough of it still falls short to make it a forever frustrating experience (Or “Close, but no cigar,” as Bond says to Moneypenny early on). Either way, any Brosnan Bond that’s going to be called his best is never quite going to be good enough, which will always be a shame.
After a money retrieval in Spain goes wrong for James Bond 007 (Pierce Brosnan) he returns the cash to London in order to deliver it to oil magnate Charles King. But when it turns out the money is booby-trapped the resulting explosion causes King’s death and an attempt by Bond to chase down the assassin (Maria Grazia Cucinotta) connected to the act results in his shoulder being seriously injured. His personal investigation in the aftermath leads to being assigned against medical advice to protect King’s daughter Elektra (Sophie Marceau) from further reprisals, but he is also aware of the guilt ‘M’ (Judi Dench) still feels over what transpired years ago when the young heiress was kidnapped by terrorists, an event which Bond believes may be connected and leads him to believe the new King pipeline under construction may be in jeopardy. As he begins to get personally involved with Elektra, Bond’s path leads to notorious terrorist Renard (Robert Carlyle), a madman who feels no pain due to a bullet lodge in his brain and may possibly be after a stash of plutonium for his own nefarious purposes. When Bond, chasing his trail, gets mixed up with nuclear physicist Christmas Jones (Denise Richards) he begins to suspect what the truth of Elektra’s allegiance may actually be and what Renard might really have planned for that weapons-grade plutonium.
Way back when Roger Moore was playing the part it was almost as if Bond was sometimes an observer in his own movie, a stand-in for the audience moving from place to place in a travelogue, sometimes allowing himself to get concerned but if a beautiful woman was killed in front of him more often than not he would exclaim a grave, “Goodbye, Countess,” before moving on to the next plot point and one liner. Somewhere along the way a shift occurred in an attempt to raise the personal stakes for the character, I suppose beginning during the brief Timothy Dalton era, and during the Brosnan run there was always an attempt to shove this sort of thing in there as if to keep the actor happy whether it was really needed in the film or not. In GOLDENEYE it was Bond’s guilt over what he assumed was the death of 006, in TOMORROW NEVER DIES it was his past relationship with Teri Hatcher’s Paris Carver—hey, I didn’t say these were successful attempts, just that this added element seemed to become part of the formula. THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH (Screenplay by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade, Story by Purvis & Wade and Bruce Feirstein) seemingly attempts to double down on this by not only providing Brosnan with a strong female lead character in Sophie Marceau’s Elektra King but also allowing for more involvement by ‘M’ as played by Judi Dench, then fresh off winning an Oscar for SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE and very clearly a commodity that the producers wanted to capitalize on. As much of an attempt as there seems to have been at putting together a more emotional plotline this time out, something that would do more than just provide connective tissue between the action scenes, as I was writing out the plot summary above it occurred to me how unwieldy some of it plays. It’s as if while the script was being worked on nobody ever bothered to ask, what is this story really about? Which character is being affected by the events of the narrative the most and who should it really be focusing on?
It may not be an unreasonable comment to make that if the high point of a Bond film (or any film, for that matter) is the pre-credit action sequence then something has to be wrong. But in the case of this particular film even that issue feels compounded in how the pre-credit setpiece is allowed to be made somewhat lumpy by having another full sequence set in Bilbao, Spain come first. It’s a nice place to start the film and even a pretty good scene on its own topped off by a particularly cool stunt but it still makes the beginning a little structurally wonky (plus it makes THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH the rare film where the opening credits don’t come until after the first reel) and it feels indicative of how the film doesn’t always compartmentalize its strongest points in the right way. In fairness the opening once we get to London is pretty awesome, building to a phenomenally rousing, hugely exciting chase down the Thames (is this the first major Bond action scene to actually take place in London?). Watching it now the undeniable level of clarity brought to the scene by all involved is almost astonishing compared with many other action scenes nowadays and it could very well be the single best sequence during the Brosnan era. The absolute rush from it all gets things off to a terrific start but unfortunately none of the attempts to top it that follow come anywhere close. With the respected Michael Apted (a long, varied career ranging from GORKY PARK and GORILLAS IN THE MIST to the UP series) directing this time out I imagine that the added focus on the drama was part of the basic intent behind the film, to attempt a story on the level of ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (where the phrase “The World Is Not Enough” originates, not that I need to tell you that) that would, I suppose, shed some new light on the Bond character. Even the occasional one-liners are fairly mild as these things go and the dryness of Brosnan-impersonating-Russian stating, “I don’t know any doctor jokes” is the sort of humor these films don’t go for enough.
But it almost feels like there was a breakdown in communication between the first and second units so whenever the action starts up, somehow playing as lackluster and overblown at once, it seems to always bring any building momentum to a grinding halt, maybe a little bit more each time so when the film hits the third act it just becomes exhausting. Along with this is a ski chase which is not only the dullest of the series (where have you gone, Willy Bogner?) even with the addition of armed paraglider-equipped snowmobiles but also one in which it’s never all that clear why the chase is even occurring. There just never seems to be a decent reason even in terms of action movie logic why the characters are up on this mountaintop even if you want to backtrack after certain plot revelations (Elektra needs to check the survey lines? Huh? Is that really the best she/the movie could come up with?) and for years this would always be the point where I would mentally check out of the film for a long stretch--this time it happened several minutes ahead of time because I was so bummed about what was coming.
An extended list could almost be made about the pros and cons of any given scene, sometimes what happens within the space of a minute’s screen time. Pairing Brosnan up with the elegant Marceau is an excellent idea and their chemistry has a gravity missing from the other actresses he was paired with up to this point but the relationship never carries the emotional impact the film seems to be going for. I enjoy the cool pulp vibe of the casino setting but the ‘high card draw’ that Elektra walks in there quickly to do feels like a case of dumbing things down, as if an actual card game would be too difficult for people to follow. The return of Robbie Coltrane as Valentin Zukovsky in an expanded Karim Bey-type role is a big plus, and it’s nice to see that they’ve figured out what to do with the character this time, but the overblown pre-climactic action sequence at his caviar factory featuring helicopters equipped with massive chainsaws doesn’t add much aside from noise and makes me wish they could have gone with a tense confrontation that could have been more fitting for the movie. Moving MI6 headquarters to Scotland after the terrorist attack allows for an evocative setting but the wishy-washy way of how ‘M’ and her guilt are written weakens the character as well as the credibility of what she has Bond do. There are some well-chosen locations used throughout ranging from Spain to Turkey but when it’s time for the climax things just move to what feels like yet another dull, boring submarine setting. Maybe due to Apted’s approach to the material, too much of the film just feels shot in a listless manner as if unsure which precise tone to take, how serious or fanciful. People are always complaining about how ludicrous Denise Richards is as nuclear physicist Christmas Jones and they’re right but the character doesn’t seem to belong in this movie anyway, just as Pussy Galore or Tiffany Case would have been out of place in FOR YOUR EYES ONLY. You get the feeling that it’s a film being directed by somebody who is engaged with working with some of his actors—particularly Brosnan and Marceau—but not particularly interested in the film that’s happening around them. Apted never seems excited by any of the exotic locales and it’s as if he doesn’t wish to be bothered by the gargantuan scale of it all.
There clearly was a goal to give Brosnan much more to do with the character this time out which is a good thing but while it feels like there was an attempt to play against some of the expectations of the formula they hesitated to mess with things too much so the movie tries to have it both ways, combined with plot gaps where things just get confused--when ‘M’ is kidnapped the logistics are so odd it’s as if the movie is trying to cover it up (Fun with script structure: screenwriters Purvis & Wade seem to have taken one bit of plot business here involving wordplay and used it again in the 2003 remake of THE ITALIAN JOB). Frankly, and I’ll try to avoid spoilers, some of what occurs near the end doesn’t really have all that much of an impact, whatever sort of Mickey Spillane frisson they’re trying to bring to it. Placing Bond into a garroting torture device works well but the relationship in question hasn’t meant as much as the movie seems to think it has, one of several areas where the film hasn’t lived up to its potential. The gimmick of Renard not being able to feel pain because of a bullet in his brain never really matters much at all (I once asked my brain surgeon brother-in-law what sort of basis in reality this has. Apparently not very much) and if they were trying to set up a parallel between his lack of pain and Bond’s injured shoulder, that doesn’t really matter either. When Renard is finally introduced it’s as if the movie decided it may as well get that taken care of before the hour mark but as those who’ve seen the film know, he isn’t exactly the major villain he’s been set up as anyway--as the submarine climax plays out (not as long as the stealth boat showdown in TOMORROW NEVER DIES but I still spaced out for a few minutes during this climax anyway—maybe it’s setting all this stuff in water) it still behaves as if he is. When Bond does a swan dive towards the submarine at the hour fifty mark the real drama of the movie is pretty much over anyway, even if there is the matter of saving Christmas Jones and disposing of the plutonium. By that point, the bombast is all pretty much clinical. It’s not that I don’t want lots of action going on, but it just helps when a James Bond film knows how to correctly mix the two. The final scene does have a nice echo of the past as M exclaims “007!” upon realizing what he’s up to which is one of a number of signs that THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH has good intentions that it doesn’t quite pull that off. There is something to be said for a film that has an opening that’s as good as it is here, as well as at least the potential chemistry that can be found in Brosnan and Marceau’s best scenes together but it needs more. Maybe it really is Brosnan’s best in the series but, of course, it’s a pretty weak curve.
The script and direction may be uncertain but Pierce Brosnan exudes more confidence as Bond in this film than ever before. It might very well be his best work in the part as he glides through scenes owning whichever set he’s in and knowing exactly how to take command. Sophie Marceau exudes the right sort of 60s glamour as Elektra King that these films don’t always provide anymore and she knows just how to play off Brosnan in their scenes together. She may not be the revelation that Eva Green later was in CASINO ROYALE, but it is an honorable attempt and she’s the best female lead that the series had in a long time at this point. Denise Richards, as I mentioned already, isn’t very good at all but I don’t really know what to say to add to all the ‘Worst Bond Girl’ lists that she’s been put on—it’s just a case of the wrong actress in the wrong movie. Of course, she seems to have such little idea of how to play this part that I’m not sure what the right movie would be. A few of her most relaxed moments almost feel like Apted just let the camera run until she wasn’t even trying to act and he used those takes. Hey, she clearly had to get really wet under treacherous conditions while shooting the climax so I’ll leave her alone.
Robert Carlyle, now doing excellent work on ABC's ONCE UPON A TIME, seems engaged and willing to be imposing as Renard, the script just doesn’t provide him with many opportunities to live up to that intensity. Robbie Coltrane is terrifically enjoyable as Zukovsky but I honestly wonder if this is Judi Dench’s weakest performance as ‘M’ to date, as if they didn’t know how to add extra shadings to the character involving her guilt over Elektra and she was uncertain how to play this material. The ridiculously gorgeous Maria Grazia Cucinotta smolders through her few lines as the deadly ‘Cigar Girl’ and her intensity is yet another plus to that opening chase. Desmond Llewlyn, who killed in a car crash several weeks after the film opened, makes his final appearance as ‘Q’ in what was clearly meant to be a swan song introducing his protégé played by John Cleese. The impressively tall Serena Scott Thomas is Dr. Molly Warmflash (oy) while the likes of Samantha Bond as Miss Moneypenny, Colin Salmon as Charles Robinson and Michael Kitchen as Bill Tanner make return appearances (“Well, at least Bill Tanner was in the movie,” went the message one longtime Fleming fan I know left on my answering machine the night it opened). The feel of a growing ensemble backing up Brosnan each time out makes it seem kind of too bad that the powers that be decided to toss all this camaraderie after just one more movie, as much of a fan as I am of Daniel Craig and particularly CASINO ROYALE but I guess that’s the way it goes. The score by David Arnold, with title song by Garbage, is terrific and builds on his TOMORROW NEVER DIES work adding techno overlays to the expected Bondian clusters of trumpets. The Thames Chase, “Come in 007, Your Time Is Up” on the album, may be Arnold’s best work in the series to date as well and he provides a similar level excitement for much of what follows, although I wonder if a more uptempo approach to that damn ski chase would have helped. But in his score he gets the action, the intrigue, the elegance, he knows when to include a wink and he knows when is the right time for the music to blare “THIS IS JAMES BOND”. It may not be John Barry but it still feels right for what a Bond film needs.
Even if the directors of James Bond films are strictly for hire, respected British filmmakers at a point in their careers where they might be open to making some money on such a potential box-office hit, the final results often reveal something of what really interests them in the character. Lewis Gilbert, based on THE SPY WHO LOVED ME and MOONRAKER, seemed to be attracted to making jokey, larger-than-life epics focusing on the spectacle. John Glen, the director-of record during the 80s, was clearly attracted to continuing the traditions of the character’s origins laid down decades before and I think Martin Campbell responded to those elements in his own way particularly considering how strongly CASINO ROYALE turned out. Roger Spotiswoode clearly saw it as a chance to make an action movie, which is what TOMORROW NEVER DIES really is. Michael Apted…well, I’m really not sure what to say about his overall approach so the film sort of stays stranded in some middle world between a thriller on the order of his own GORKY PARK and what maybe he thinks is the sort of film he’s supposed to be making. If it had a filmmaker with a stronger opinion about it all, somebody who was excited they were actually making a James Bond movie, maybe that would only have made the film stronger as well. And maybe I would have felt passionate enough about it to say something to that actress that day at CBS Radford. Even if she still wasn’t all that good in it. But hey, I love James Bond movies and regardless of all that I’ve said this is still one of those so when I think about Pierce Brosnan chasing Maria Grazia Cucinotta in that rigged up speedboat down the Thames, adjusting his tie as he briefly goes underwater, it reminds me that the film does have the occasional rush that’s going to make me want to see it again. Still, as is said in both the film’s dialogue and title song, there’s no point in living if you can’t feel alive. It’s an appropriate Bondian sentiment. I guess I just wish that THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH itself believed that as well.
Thursday, November 24, 2011
Martin Scorsese’s CAPE FEAR is now twenty years old. My memory of its release in November 1991 is that after a pretty dry fall season at the box office when this film hit the scene it was like a shot of adrenaline, capitalizing on the excitement everyone had felt about GOODFELLAS just a year before with not only critical raves for the most part but a public response that resulted in the biggest commercial success its director had achieved to date. As sometimes happens even with box office hits the film seems to have been slightly forgotten in recent years, maybe lumped in with other such thrillers of that post-FATAL ATTRACTION era and maybe even something like CASINO, which received more of a mixed response just four Thanksgivings later, feels like it’s had considerably stronger staying power when Scorsese films are talked about. I don’t want to say that Martin Scorsese looked at CAPE FEAR as just a lark or something he made solely for commercial reasons, not at all, although reading up on how he came to direct the film it feels like that may have been at least a partial factor. But maybe more than anything else he had made up to that point it really does play as a movie about movies, serving not only as an examination of the original CAPE FEAR through his own eyes but what every hyperactive zoom and crashing musical cue he’d ever seen in countless films had meant to him and what he thought he could bring to the table if he tried doing some of that himself. There’s more to the film than that of course, but I’m not sure if any of those other elements matter quite as much in the end. I’m also not sure if I really care.
In this remake of the 1962 classic directed by J. Lee Thompson, Robert De Niro of course is Max Cady, recently released from prison after a fourteen year stretch and with one goal in mind—to find his former defense attorney Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte), recent arrival to the sleepy town of New Essex, North Carolina with wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) and sixteen year-old daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis). Once a public defender, Bowden represented Cady on a rape charge in Atlanta but when he uncovered evidence that the girl in question had been promiscuous he buried it, letting his client go to prison for the crime. When Cady tracks him down it soon becomes clear that he managed to learn about this in the intervening years and has a goal in mind to make his the lawyer “learn about loss” in a way that only he can provide. After being harassed by him a few times Bowden gets the law involved but they can’t help because, after all, the man hasn’t done anything, a situation exacerbated when Cady goes after Lori (Illeana Douglas) a young associate at Sam’s firm who he had been having a flirtation with and brutally rapes her but even she refuses to press charges out of her own shame. Desperate to protect his family and aware that there’s nothing the police can do, Bowden hires private detective Claude Kersek (Joe Don Baker) to stay on top of Cady but even that doesn’t mean anything when the ex-convict gets in it mind to go after the teenage Danielle.
CAPE FEAR was the first film that Martin Scorsese directed in the full 2.35 Scope format and, unless I’m mistaken, it remains the only one that he’s shot in actual anamorphic Panavision. It was photographed by Freddie Francis, famed for directing numerous horror films back in the 60s and 70s (some very good, particularly THE SKULL) but better known in film lore as a cinematographer extraordinaire on such films as David Lynch’s THE ELEPHANT MAN and, maybe most important, Jack Clayton’s THE INNOCENTS which I was recently lucky to see a 35mm print of--I have little problem saying that it may very well be one of the most extraordinarily photographed films that I’ve ever seen. The look of CAPE FEAR isn’t quite on that level but seemingly designed to be played on the largest screen possible with a sound system that would blow out the speakers it’s always a rich-looking film continually intent on soaking in as much of its atmosphere as possible, fireworks endlessly crashing overhead, at times playing as an ultra-violent take on the sort of juicy, sweat-infused melodrama Vincente Minnelli might have made at MGM in the late 50s. Scorsese doesn’t even seem to shy away from the limitations of the anamorphic lens which can affect the visible depth of field and there is always a conscious effort to make the fullest use possible of his wide frame—even the close-ups have an undeniable sense of bigness to them and when characters are placed in the dead center of a shot by themselves, separate from the other characters, it always feels very much a part of the visual design.
The presence of old school Hollywood craftsmen behind the scenes adds immeasurably to this feel—in addition to Francis the legendary Henry Bumstead served as production designer in addition to an opening credit sequence by Saul & Elaine Bass that aren’t just similar to SECONDS, they actually contain unused footage Bass had shot for the 1966 John Frankenheimer film. Combining these elements with the use of traditional matte effects for the rumbling clouds overhead and extensive model work used for the riverboat climax makes it feel almost as if Scorsese wanted to will this production into being the last true film of the Golden Age of Hollywood, the era in which he grew up watching movies decades earlier, and make one final version of it all while he still could for posterity. Watching the way these scenes are staged, thrusting his actors into all the sound and fury imaginable I honestly wonder if the making the movie in this style would have had the same attraction for him just a few years later when CGI began to come into play. Most tellingly and famously, it has composer Elmer Bernstein adapting Bernard Herrmann’s powerful score from the original which adds an unavoidable Hitchcockian flair to things even if that director had nothing to do with CAPE FEAR and it heightens the movie-movie nature of the entire project up to the stratosphere, infusing that feeling even further during the climax where Bernstein places the famous rejected Herrmann music from Hitchcock’s TORN CURTAIN into the action (not something I was aware of at the time, but I’m not perfect) which sounds so ideal it’s as if the famous composer whose final score was of course for Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER had really meant it to go here all along. Even the casting of Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck and Martin Balsam from the original film in cameos seems more than just providing them with token bits—that Mitchum, the former Max Cady, gets the one part which could be called an actual supporting role seems to make sense.
As much use as the film gets out of its extensive location work in Florida subbing for North Carolina and with all the talk Joe Don Baker’s private detective makes about the South having a strong tradition of fear, I never get the feeling it was something that Scorsese was all that interested in, at least to the extent of other elements. The continuous religious phrasings flowing from the lips of Max Cady and tattooed all over him to underscore his madness feel a little too constructed as part of the script although it does provide the odd effect of making the film in some ways a De Niro-infused remake of the Mitchum character in NIGHT OF THE HUNTER filtered into the plot of CAPE FEAR. But even Gregory Peck’s cameo as a hypocritical fire and brimstone attorney which feels like several in-jokes in a single scene is an element that feels overly written more than just about anything in the film, as fun as Peck is in the cameo, and maybe is an example of how the movie is slightly tone-deaf when it comes to portraying this world—then again, Sam Bowden reading USA Today as his morning paper and taking his family to see PROBLEM CHILD, of all films (well, it is Universal—and I shouldn’t bring up this scene without mentioning just how awesome it is), could very well be looked at as an indication of the outside world encroaching on these peaceful southern towns with their long-standing traditions. For Scorsese it’s combining this tribute to old Hollywood craftsmanship with his own preoccupations of these characters that ultimately seems to matter, placing the strength of their conflict in such a setting of storm clouds and screeching Bernard Hermann music. CAPE FEAR is a MOVIE in all the capital letters that can blare, as much of an examination of genre as NEW YORK, NEW YORK was of the 40s-50s musical but maybe more of a direct tribute to its type of film than that earlier film was in its muddied way. And since he may have been consciously attempting to go for making this a flat-out hit this time Scorsese seems to have been more open to making it more of an example of that genre than a true dissection of it—good or bad, extremely violent or not, there’s not much which can be said to go against the grain of what an audience might expect from such a thriller, beyond spending more time on the complications of relationships than most films usually would particularly in how it portrays this marriage still dealing with whatever presumed past indiscretion that is just barely alluded to. The screenplay which at an early stage was possibly going to be directed by Steven Spielberg is credited to Wesley Strick (based on James R. Webb’s screenplay for the ’62 film from the novel “The Executioners” by John D. MacDonald) who also was one of the writers on the Phil Joanou thriller FINAL ANALYSIS which came out several months later—it would be interesting to compare the two since the glossy ANALYSIS has little in it which might be considered plausible human behavior whereas CAPE FEAR which is filtered through the Scorsese prism, as utterly superhuman as Max Cady seems to become at a certain point, is all about the process of fully examining characters who in other hands might come off as simple plot constructions.
One thing that doesn’t get commented on very much in relation to his films is how Scorsese seems to sometimes like stopping his momentum dead in the middle of a movie for a key scene, the point where everything turns—De Niro asking Joe Pesci certain questions as they try to fix a TV in RAGING BULL comes to mind, as well as his brief meeting with L.Q. Jones in CASINO. The equivalent sequence in CAPE FEAR does just that but it also becomes a showstopper in all the best ways, taking the slow burn of Lewis’ skittish, off-kilter screen presence and odd sexuality and in an encounter with De Niro’s Max Cady, pushing it to a level beyond what we’d expect the movie to actually do. The film seems to linger on the potential of having her encounter Cady, carefully building to the point of isolating them and then…they just talk, with him carefully poking into her brain, finding out which are the right buttons to push, separated by the frames that Scorsese is keeping them isolated in during this long discussion until he finally closes in on her. Max Cady, representation of the past Sam Bowden must confront as well as the man he never quite became, the true man his wife Leigh seems to feel that he’s never been with her own vision of their marriage seen in negative form at the point of their lovemaking and, maybe most important, the frighteningly sexualized world that his daughter is just beginning to become aware of. Even the protracted climax seems to correctly balance the conflict between each of the characters with the over the top furor of the family houseboat caught in the treacherous storm. One thing which always occurred to me about bad guys is that as colorful as they may be presented at a certain point they have to receive their comeuppance. Here, it never seems quite that easy with Cady keeping his gaze on Bowden until the very end. He’s not admitting defeat. He’s just gone as far as he knows he can, at least in this world.
Scorsese even takes the expected beat of a final scare and turns it into, not a joke, but into a necessary step in Sam Bowden cleansing himself of all his sins before he can rejoin his family for the final frame. When you hang on to the past you die, says Danielle in summing up the experience for her homework assignment at the end, an acknowledgment of the innocence the character knows she will never fully get back. CAPE FEAR is Martin Scorsese hanging onto the past, the past of what all these films mean to him, while figuring a way to still reconcile that with his new take on the material. And, in doing so, he lives. It occurs to me that in the end credits once the music fades away it’s replaced by the sounds of the swamp, presumably of Cape Fear itself, which were originally heard at the film’s beginning over the Universal logo and is reminiscent of city street noises faintly heard under the end titles of RAGING BULL. Here, those sounds continue even past when the credits end—in the DVD it goes to black but my recollection is that in 35mm prints the old “When in Hollywood Visit Universal Studios” tag appeared here at a point when we even hear the faint sound of what could be people screaming on a rollercoaster—the nightmare of where the climax takes place replaced by the theme park ride nature of it all. This isn’t usually the sort of thing he did, but maybe this once he wanted to have some fun without sacrificing the filmmaker that deep down he always has to be.
In addition to the overwhelming visualness what got people so excited at the time was Robert De Niro in full blown De Niro mode, physically massive from all his bulking up, tattoos covering his body, chomping on his cigar the size of a lead pipe and doing everything he can to correctly push the buttons of who he’s talking to with the danger of what might really happen always hanging between them. It may be over the top but it’s intentionally over the top, totally committed to his madness, sometimes terrifying, always riveting and there’s not a moment of it that is predictable. Even all these years later after countless parodies and other De Niro performances that seem meant to capitalize its memory, it remains one of his most effective characterizations. That Nick Nolte and Jessica Lange manage to stick in the memory at all placed up against him feels like a feat in itself but they’re each extremely strong—great to see Nolte as Sam Bowden fumbling in his discussions with Cady always seeming to have a reasonable answer for any desperate bargaining that Sam Bowden is trying to make and Lange’s strength insures that she never just comes off as ‘the wife’. The private arguments involving Nolte and Lange come off as their best moments but it’s almost shocking to revisit Juliette Lewis’ Oscar nominated performance here and realize just how astonishing she is, how raw, how absolutely There she is in every moment and, considering how many more actresses of that age seem to be in the spotlight now, I can’t imagine anyone who could come close to what she does with her scenes opposite De Niro particularly mesmerizing. Clearly engaged by her, they’re some of his best moments in the film as well. No one ever seems to mention the strength of a few of the other supporting performances—the legendary Robert Mitchum doesn’t have a false moment in his cameo/minor role as a police lieutenant who is in no way suggesting that Bowden go outside the law while Joe Don Baker, mixing his mixing his Jim Beam with Pepto Bismol is particularly good as Kersak, nailing the wrongheaded cockiness when going up against Max Cady, not quite as imposing as he thinks he is. Illeana Douglas also nails the effect her own offbeat attractiveness gives off and it almost feels like an entire edgily funny movie could be made of just her drunkenly flirting with De Niro or, well, anybody which makes the graphically horrible end to her night all the more shocking when it finally happens.
Since I mentioned NIGHT OF THE HUNTER in relation to this film I may as well mention that the pairing was actually the very first double bill I ever saw at the New Beverly many, many years ago which is of interest to no one but me, but still and it only adds to my own personal recollection of this movie that, ultimately, is about a memory. The framing device of Juliette Lewis’ Danielle Bowden using her recollections as a homework assignment feels a little like a key part of earlier drafts that got progressively bled out of the material as time went on but it still makes sense as part of what the film ultimately is. Douglas Sirk’s ALL THE HEAVEN ALLOWS is seen playing on the Bowden’s TV late at night at one point (well, it makes more sense than PROBLEM CHILD) and ultimately CAPE FEAR is itself a movie designed to play on some mythical late show that doesn’t really exist anymore, echoing in the background as we fall asleep to our own dreams. In its own way it’s just as much of a tribute to the history of cinema as Scorsese’s new film HUGO is. But even if CAPE FEAR isn’t anything more than a Ghost of Movies Past sent from the back chambers of a great director’s mind, it’s nice to imagine that somebody will discover it that way many years from now and allow that sense of history to infect their own dreams as well.
Saturday, November 19, 2011
It was late. I’m not sure how late it was by that point. Hell, even when she called it was already ridiculously late and, sure, I didn’t need to pick up the phone but I just wanted to. Maybe I was a little drunk. So we launched into another one of our endless talks. And then suddenly out of nowhere she asked me who my favorite screwball actress was. Somehow the conversation had gotten to this point and I wasn’t even sure how. I’m still not sure how but there probably is no reason that would make any sense. Jean Arthur and Claudette Colbert were surely mentioned by both of us and I’m positive that I brought up Carole Lombard who I sort of worship because of TO BE OR NOT TO BE but to be honest the first one that came to mind for me was, of course, Barbara Stanwyck. And mainly because of one particular movie. Now, I love Barbara Stanwyck, for all sorts of reasons. Watching as she climbs the social ladder in BABY FACE, how mind-bogglingly sexy she is with that Drum Boogie Killer Diller in BALL OF FIRE, the hauntingly beautiful Christmas-set REMEMBER THE NIGHT, the neat late period noir CRIME OF PASSION and of course DOUBLE INDEMNITY which is just about the most perfect film ever made. But maybe when put up against all of these Preston Sturges’ THE LADY EVE seems just about right. Oddly, it’s a case of a film that I absolutely love but for no particular reason I haven’t actually seen it that many times, not as much as a few others by Sturges and certainly nothing compared to the countless films I’ve watched on an eternal loop over the years. Maybe it’s just such a jewel that I don’t need to overexpose myself to it, that it’s all right to simply remember the special feeling it gives me that few others do, making me think for a few minutes that everything might be right in the world. I think it’s possible that if somebody asked me to recommend a classic film they had never seen I might make it THE LADY EVE. But I’ll go even further than that—if I was told that I was going to die in a few hours and there was time for just one more film I think my choice might be THE LADY EVE. What else would allow me to depart this world with such a feeling of joy and happiness?
The first time I ever saw the film was all by myself way back in college somewhere in the school’s AV facility, with maybe little knowledge of who Preston Sturges was beyond the name ‘Preston Sturges’. By ten minutes in I was totally in love. In love with this film, with this plotting, with this dialogue, in love with all that black & white, with the way Henry Fonda had no idea how to respond to Barbara Stanwyck as “Isn’t It Romantic” drifts through the background, in love with Barbara Stanwyck. From then on there was no turning back from seeing every film of his I could, learning about Preston Sturges’ life and films, all the other names reading about him would lead to. The timing was also particularly fortunate that it led me to attend some of a truly awe-inspiring complete Sturges retrospective held at the Film Forum in New York the following year, the sort that I imagine wouldn’t be possible to do today (if only I could find the schedule online, but we are talking about 1990 here, after all). Was there any way to possibly explain all this to the particular woman I was talking to on the phone at three in the morning? Probably not. When it comes to the lady eves who I’ve known in the real world rarely do I ever have the sparkle of all that Sturges dialogue on the tip of my tongue and they all seem to vanish way too often. That’s just the way it goes.
Snake expert Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), heir to the Pike’s Pale (“The Ale That Won for Yale”) family fortune is returning via cruise ship from a year up the Amazon. Sitting in his chair at dinner with his nose buried in the book “Are Snakes Necessary?”, Charles ignores all the women who are trying to get his attention but little does he know that con artist and card shark Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck), traveling with her father the Colonel (Charles Coburn), already has her eye on Charles and wastes no time getting him to fall for her. But it doesn’t take long for Jean to fall for Charles as well, insisting to her companions that they’re not going to play him for a sucker. Their romance progresses and she decides to come clean but before she can Charles’ trusty and overly suspicious valet Muggsy (William Demearest) learns the truth about the Harringtons. Her cover blown, Pike heartbroken, when they’re back on the mainland Jean who “needs him like the axe needs the turkey” comes up with a plan to get back at him the only way she knows how involving a new identity known as The Lady Eve.
It’s easy to dream when you watch these movies. Easy to imagine being on the Paramount version of a luxury liner circa 1941 with the most wonderful food and drink at your disposal imaginable (if you don’t count running out of Pike’s Pale, The Ale That Won For Yale), “accidentally” tripped by the likes of Barbara Stanwyck and sent into a whirlwind romance. The movie seems to say that spending eternity in the sort of Eden that this luxury liner represents doesn’t seem like such a bad idea, a few snakes and con artists notwithstanding and it seems telling that when the story moves back to the real world the relationship between the two is never allowed to be as genuine as the falsehoods on the ship. I watch Henry Fonda’s Charles “Hopsie” Pike stammering during his early scenes with Stanwyck’s Jean, practically the first woman he’s spoken to in a year and I think, yeah, that’s me every time I talk to a girl. But I’m never as smooth as Fonda is. Hell, even his clumsiness has an undeniable elegance to it. What is it about THE LADY EVE? I mean, besides Stanwyck and Fonda. There’s the forever quotable Sturges dialogue, moving at such a fast pace commonly associated with the writer-director but there’s also the elegance of how it all flows, the back and forth quality that comes from placing a man and woman in the middle of the ocean away from the rest of the world in some odd combination of being exactly who they are and someone else entirely. Can I ever try working “Beeswax, my boy, beeswax” as Charles Coburn casually says at one point into conversation? How about if I offer a toast with “Dewey and Manila”?
“You have the darndest way of bumping a fella down and bouncing him up again.” Pike says that during one of his initial scenes with Jean, continually flustered by this woman throwing herself at him, a male lead completely obsessed with his snakes, not quite up on the lingo that everyone else in the world seems to know. He finds himself in this shell game of men and women, one of several male leads in Sturges who finds himself a few steps behind the girl in question without realizing the race has already started. In this case he only has the upper hand when it involves the truth. The woman has the upper hand with everything else which ultimately means considerably more. Of course, Sturges himself could have been writing from experience but I can’t say that I blame him. Likewise, Jean is given the key thought about women in this world offering, “The best ones aren’t as good as you probably think they are and the bad ones aren’t as bad. Not nearly as bad”. Neither person seems to fully hear these thoughts when they’re stated and in the world of Sturges people are sometimes on the same wavelength even when they don’t realize it. Sometimes when it’s just the two of you talking you’re the only ones who need to get what’s being said. And sometimes there’s no way to make that happen. “He doesn’t understand,” Charles says of a waiter with the misfortune to interrupt a conversation between him and Jean but of course Charles doesn’t get it either. I guess the film is saying that you never really do until you find yourself on a furious train ride that won’t stop until you end up in mud. In the end he seems to find himself willing to believe in the lie which, in a crazy Sturges kind of way, is where the real truth is.
For Preston Sturges THE LADY EVE came third out of eight in the legendary streak of films he both wrote and directed for Paramount in the early forties. THE GREAT McGINTY and CHRISTMAS IN JULY came first and both are very good—hell, McGINTY gave him his Oscar—but THE LADY EVE is the one where things really begin to click, leading into the likes of SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS and THE PALM BEACH STORY. It’s where an exquisitely put together arrangement becomes a glorious sonata with more highs than one can count from the dialogue to the interplay between the characters to just the way every single moment is paced with even the smallest parts of the Sturges ensemble given a chance to toss some of the wordplay into their scenes. To this day I watch the two leads when they’re alone in her cabin near the beginning and I’m shot right back to the feeling I had way back then and I wonder, has there ever been a better seduction scene? It’s not even a real seduction, of course, but this is a movie about an illusion after all. THE LADY EVE is just as much of an illusion which is fitting. The plotting. The mood. The actors. The Dialogue. The cutaway to a sign that says “PULL IN YOUR HEAD WE’RE COMING TO A TUNNEL” at a crucial point. How much it still makes me laugh, no matter what my mood. That silvery look I associate with Paramount films from this period courtesy of Director of Photography Victor Milner along with Sturges’ growing awareness of how to use his camera to show the actors in the frame through long takes and that dead-on dissolve into the close-up of Fonda when he learns a certain piece of news. The uplift of the final moments, leading to the closing line from William Demarest. I guess what I’m trying to say in a nutshell, when it comes to this film, what makes it so special is…everything. And now that I’ve been writing about it I find myself wondering what I really have to say about THE LADY EVE beyond the exquisite jewel that it truly is.
As much as the beloved Sturges stock company is always focused on when his films are written about it strikes me that on this occasion, maybe more than any of the others, they never overshadow the two leads who are playing parts they couldn’t be more ideal for, displaying exquisite chemistry all the way through. Henry Fonda with his balance of someone most comfortable with his nose in that book and casual charm whenever he’s able to get over being stunned by this beauty, Barbara Stanwyck with all the vivacity imaginable that always makes you wonder what she’s going to say next. Placed up against them the ensemble of familiar faces is impeccable all the way through…but this may be one Sturges film where I’m perfectly happy to just stay with the two leads and not interrupt them with all those characters actors fighting in crowd scenes to make their way into the frame. Aside from wonderful roles particularly for Demarest, Eugene Pallette as Pike’s father and Eric Blore as “Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith” one regular who stands out is familiar face Torben Meyer as the ship’s purser who in just two small scenes gets several unexpected laughs through nice interplay with Demarest and is also allowed a moment where he expresses genuine concern for what is really going on. Dialogue. Character. Elegance. It all goes together and makes the movie sing.
As I wonder about a few of the different wavelengths we were on during our various late-night phone calls, hashing out our own feelings about various films, me often feeling like I wasn’t smart enough to keep up with her, I just think that it would have been nice if I could have said some of this to that particular woman late that night. I’d tell her some of it now if I could but, well, that’s the way it goes. I’m still a little amazed that I knew her at all. Sometimes I wonder if knowing her has been entirely in my mind. Maybe I think that about every woman I know, about all the lady eves that have stuck their foot out and sent me crashing to the ground in one way or another. Some of them are even oddly connected in a way that would sound like out of a bad nighttime soap. But that’s the way it goes. Positively the same dame, says Muggsy with no one around to hear. Story of my life.
Tuesday, November 8, 2011
At the time he made RAISING CAIN Brian De Palma had just come off the now-legendary flop of THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITITES, a huge disaster both critically and commercially of the sort that some director’s careers don’t always recover from. Over two decades later that film’s reputation hasn’t improved very much and as for me the only reason I keep putting off writing about it is because the prospect of doing that seems kind of depressing. I bring up its relationship to RAISING CAIN not because it feels like there are any direct thematic links between the two films but because getting essentially nailed to the cross for his adaptation of the Tom Wolfe novel could have maybe caused Brian De Palma to view the world as maybe a little more insane than he had ever done before. Even now, the film feels like a case of somebody throwing up their hands and saying, “Don’t try to figure anything out. It’s all fucking crazy anyway.” As the movie begins it seems like it’s going to be well, normal, following an opening credit sequence of what appears to be a father tucking in his baby girl with what seems at first is just a normal scene with two normal people having a normal conversation. That’s the way it seems…for maybe about ninety seconds, if that, after which the movie goes immediately off the deep end, never to return. And at that point you need to make the choice to either go along for the ride or not. RAISING CAIN opened on August 7, 1992 (same day as UNFORGIVEN, for those interested in such things) and it was also the day where I think my life was forever changed in a chaos theory-sort of way that probably still affects me somewhat even now. I don’t want to get into the details. I’m not going to say her name. But now that I go over the events of that particular day in my head it’s entirely possible that this film even plays a small role in all that. Does that make any sense? Absolutely not. But it does remind me of how few things in this life ever really do. There may not even be any way to adequately write about RAISING CAIN in a rational way. Guess I’ll still try.
A plot? You want a plot? Sheesh. Dr. Carter Nix (John Lithgow) who has chosen to put his practice on hold in order to focus all his attention on raising his baby daughter Amy. Wife Jenny (Lolita Davidovich), a doctor who is continuing to work, is becoming unnerved by how much attention he’s placing on Amy’s early development but finds her attention soon turning to the sudden return of Jack Dante (Steven Bauer), the husband of a woman who died while under Jenny’s care and who she also had an affair with. When Carter discovers what Jenny and Jack are up to he goes mad…not too far a trip of course since unbeknownst to Jenny he’s already in cahoots with brother Cain (also Lithgow) and his elderly father (yes, also Lithgow), a renowned child psychologist believed to be dead but is attempting to continue his work by having Carter kidnap small children for his own nefarious means. But is Carter’s father really alive or just part of his madness? Is all this, in fact, only going on in Carter’s mind? Why am I asking you?
When I wrote about the plot of FEMME FATALE earlier this year I thought that merely trying to summarize it was going to be extremely difficult but in fact the way that film seems to deliberately lay out its narrative in separate blocks made it surprisingly easy. RAISING CAIN, on the other hand, feels like kaleidoscopic madness almost from the word go with only small concessions to straightforward narrative, little attention of any sort paid to rationale and maybe a vague sense at best of who the film’s lead character might actually be—the argument could even be made that this is a film where the protagonist essentially disappears from the story over twenty minutes before the end. There are oodles of thematic layers to read into it from the passing down of madness from one generation to the next (shades of PEEPING TOM), the willful emasculation of men who have allowed themselves to be overshadowed by the women in their lives (PSYCHO, obviously) along with the guilt and paranoia brought on by adultery within the deadening air of suburbia. Such elements are all over the place and yet the film never seems to settle down enough to explore any of these concepts on a serious basis in a way that could be considered definitive subtext. By jumping into the film seemingly after the narrative has begun almost seems to take it all as a given, a world where everything has already gone mad and no attempt to understand where that comes from can do anything to prevent the insanity from overtaking it all.
The production does feel relatively small-scale but you can feel De Palma (who also has sole screenplay credit) working through the frenzy of its various sections with his camera swirling everywhere whether it’s flashbacks in dreams, flashbacks out of dreams or his careful framing of all this madness. He even eschews the expected split-screen twin effects as Lithgow plays scenes with himself in a way that only adds to the mystery of what is real and what isn’t, with sly touches I can’t imagine coming from any other director such as a bit when the camera pans over to someone who isn’t really there so naturally all we see is…nothing. And the dream logic that occurs seems absolutely right during the appropriate section of the film—what other possible reason would there be for someone to go out in the dead of night? De Palma also seems to take pleasure out of how much he can play with expectations such as an extra twist on the old PSYCHO bit of a car that may not make it all the way down into the swamp or the Simon Oakland-level multiple scenes of massive exposition that finally come near the halfway point, first from someone we’ve never met and never will again (the character in question is still given a detailed backstory) then coming courtesy of the excellent Frances Sternhagen as a doctor who arrives to inform the police of everything they need to know in an absurdly long Steadicam shot following the characters involved down multiple flights (love the tilting as they walk down those stairs), all the way into an elevator and out again. It’s turned into even more of a joke by how cops Gregg Henry and Tom Bower are trying to get the woman to follow along with them, where the camera is supposed to be going, with it all building to an equally absurd jolt at the end of the shot. The single take lasts over four minutes and it feels almost impossible to ever stop watching it.
Information is tossed out and plot points that have been carefully built up over multiple scenes, like Carter trying to frame Steven Bauer’s character for the crimes, lead to nothing with the tension getting diffused even before we realize it. Even the murder scenes are pretty much glossed over as if De Palma is admitting he doesn’t have any new ideas of how to stage these things so he just leaps forward to the next section of delirium instead. Interestingly for this director there’s no sign of any Nancy Allen equivalent in panties and garters—even with an adultery storyline and female lead who at this point was maybe best known for playing stripper Blaze Starr in a previous film this excursion into suburbia and allegedly ‘normal’ life is actually one of the more sexless films that De Palma has ever made, maybe another example of how he’s going against expectations—just about the closest it ever gets to something happening between two consenting adults is interrupted by the screaming of a child and it almost feels like Davidovich is being driven batty by all that beige clothing she’s wearing and baby strollers she’s surrounded with, her long legs underneath notwithstanding. When she’s earnestly told by a friend (played by Mel Harris of THIRTYSOMETHING which itself feels like an odd joke although it seems strange to imagine De Palma ever watching that show) that she’s married to the ‘perfect man’ it seems like the comment is more about his qualifications as a father and stay-at-home husband than anything. The passion has been drained out of this world, along with any sort of reason. It’s never even all that clear what anyone sees in Lithgow’s Carter to ever think of him as perfect (even the hairpiece worn by the star adds to his strangeness) but of course there’s little to gain from pointing out how the movie isn’t paying much attention to realism.
The climax set in the parking lot of a motel features a truck precariously containing a sundial that takes an eternity to back its way out (“You’re gonna kill somebody with that sundial!” an offscreen voice yells), a certain bewigged individual in an elevator out of DRESSED TO KILL and, for no real reason, a couple of drunken yahoos across the way shouting at what’s going on because…I’m really not sure. Are they meant to represent the audience, wondering what the fuck is going on over the course of this film’s 91 minutes? Is anything about the plot really resolved in the end? Except for the natural ticking clock brought on by the potential fate of a few missing children was there even much of an actual plot anyway? As has been noticed by others before now the famous final shot replicates a certain trick that can be traced to Argento, particularly the end of TENEBRAE, and De Palma himself has repeated it on several other occasions by now. More to the point it’s an intriguing mirror of the moment early on when Lolita Davidovich’s Jenny is introduced. I suppose on a thematic level it’s a comment on the male half finally being forever subsumed by the maternal instincts within or maybe an acknowledgment that all this madness is an eternal cycle and no studies or scheduled quality time are going to be able to do anything about those small children endlessly crying out for their mommy. On a narrative level, it’s essentially the equivalent of Brian De Palma saying, “Fuck it, Dude. Let’s go bowling.” Which I suppose is what you need to do sometimes, whether in filmmaking or just life itself. I’ve written before of how some of the director’s later thrillers play as attempts to move beyond the cynicism and slaughtered lambs of his earlier work but RAISING CAIN feels like it came at a point before he was able to come up with those solutions. Or maybe at that point he just thought that finding such answers wasn’t going to be possible in a world where a director gets vilified for trying to make a movie. RAISING CAIN is an attempt to get back to what he maybe does best after BONFIRE, yes, but in doing it he’s also looking for a slightly different path back towards being the filmmaker he is. Maybe doesn’t arrive there in that final shot but it does show him on the way. I guess that I sort of love every second of RAISING CAIN’s lunacy even if it’s tough to rank the film alongside his best work—after all, it’s an experiment, a goof, although not in the sense that it feels like De Palma is just trying to toss this one off. Clearly he means every second of every shot he’s setting up and he doesn’t know any other way to do it.
As much as part of the film seems designed around John Lithgow’s facial ticks when he’s placed in the dead center of the frame, maybe because of the inherent archness of the material this is an odd case where an actor is essentially playing five characters in a film yet it doesn’t all seem centered around him. De Palma’s the star, not Lithgow (hey, the poster did blare “De Mented. De Ranged. De Ceptive. De Palma.” after all), but there’s never a point where I don’t hugely enjoy watching the gears shift in his performance as he moves from one persona to another. The earnestness of Lolita Davidovich’s sexual yearning is undeniably odd and at times it’s tough to tell exactly how to read her combined with the character’s actions—she’s either underplaying the part or overplaying it. Maybe both, which would make as much sense as anything. Of course, there’s not a gesture an actor makes in RAISING CAIN which doesn’t seem a part of what De Palma wants it to be. Even Bauer, playing essentially a colorless stiff seems totally right for what he’s supposed to bring to it in the true John-Gavin-as-Sam-Loomis spirit. Frances Sternhagen is just terrific as the bewigged Dr. Waldheim who thinks she looks like a transvestite, and very funny as well, digging into each piece of the puzzle she endlessly reels off with just the right pop to the words while the unforgettable pairing of Gregg Henry and Tom Bower as the investigating cops are so entertaining, particularly with all those gestures they each make during the Steadicam shot, that I wish De Palma had used them in these parts again in another movie. It’s always clear that the actors (Gabrielle Carteris, then of BEVERLY HILLS 90210, turns up in a small role) are pitched at exactly as he wants them to be with an undeniable intensity adding to the dreamlike feel. It even struck me after watching the opening scene involving John Lithgow and Teri Austin multiple times that rarely have I ever seen an actor who has been directed to behave as if they’re really driving as Austin seems to, with the actress playing the scene by simultaneously focusing her eyes on the road and silently registering just how crazy what Lithgow’s saying is. It adds undeniably to the immediate odd hold the movie is able to achieve, a sort of intensity that never quite goes away the whole way through.
Unlike a few of De Palma’s other films I’m not sure I was totally onboard with all this on that opening day long ago but after watching it countless times over the years the total insanity it projects is infectious. Maybe the film shouldn’t be thought of as anything but Brian De Palma displaying his tools for an hour and a half regardless, working on his audience the way only he knows how and staying with me in ways that I’m still surprised by. I’m even tempted to say that the music by Pino Donaggio is the least distinctive of any of his De Palma scores—which maybe it is—and yet the way the main theme recurs, also used as the song heard on a certain alarm clock is something that I find impossible to get out of my head after every time I see the film yet again. The madness lingers and I suppose that’s the way it should be. If it’s impossible to look at the film with rational eyes, I suppose I could say that about my vivid memories of that day long ago as well since that madness seems so connected to it. And maybe every day since.