The past is the past. I almost can’t think of anything but the past when I watch WORKING GIRL, particularly the opening shot of the Staten Island Ferry heading towards lower Manhattan but I suppose this is one example where lots of people would have certain reactions. I remember going back to see the film multiple times after its release in December 1988—at least in New York it played for months and the six Academy Award Nominations (Picture, Director, Actress, two for Supporting Actress and winning for Best Song) certainly didn’t hurt. That part of it is maybe a little surprising now considering how this film is probably thought of as ‘just’ a romantic comedy, an 80s relic of the Reagan era and that period when Melanie Griffith starred in films. Maybe it wasn’t until years later that I realized deep down I was kind of studying the film each time I went to see it again and deep down I’d have to admit that whenever I write some kind of meet cute in a script I’m really trying to emulate Melanie Griffith and Harrison Ford bonding over ‘lust and tequila’ during their first scene here. A lot of good it’s done me. But, yeah, I still have an attachment to the film. WORKING GIRL is dated, unavoidably. Hard not to watch the early shots of people streaming into office buildings down in lower Manhattan and notice how none of them are talking or texting on phones. The world has changed, the world always changes. I guess I’ve changed too. For the better, I hope. Maybe I don’t really care. I still have an attachment to this film and probably always will.
Staten Island secretary Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith), burning bridges at lower Manhattan financial firm Petty Marsh while desperately trying to find her way in, is assigned to Katherine Parker (Sigourney Weaver), a statuesque rising young exec with all the confidence that Tess lacks. When Tess comes to her with a surefire idea Katherine tells her the board voted it down but when she gets laid up out of town after breaking her leg on a ski trip Tess learns the truth about her boss attempted to claim the idea as her own. Also feeling burned from finding her boyfriend Mick (Alec Baldwin) with another woman Tess quickly takes advantage of her bosses’ absence and empty townhouse by enlisting finance ace Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford) to help her put the deal together. The plan is soon complicated when the two of them begin to fall for each other but things become even more problematic as Katherine’s return fast approaches and certain other truths begin to come to light.
Directed by Mike Nichols, WORKING GIRL in its own way displays the most confidence as well as the most inspiration of any of his post 70s films. The more I watch it the more aware I become of the degree of exaggeration evident in both production design and the costumes, from the female execs done up a little too much in that “woman dressed like a man would dress if he was a woman” style as Jack Trainer calls it and the secretaries who all seem just a little too outer borough in comparison with all that jewelry and eye shadow. But Nichols doesn’t seem particularly interested in emphasizing this through his deceptively relaxed mise-en-scène, instead making everything flow together seamlessly just as he makes the first shot inside the Staten Island Ferry a continuation of the opening helicopter shot. Instead of dwelling on those secretaries too much keeping much of this away from the primary story so it doesn’t seem to enter the sphere of his lead character and even when the setting of a sequence is somewhat heightened, like the tropical-themed wedding reception crashed by Tess and Jack he doesn’t dwell on that aspect very much at all.
Every beat of WORKING GIRL moves along expertly with the screenplay written by Kevin Wade (which surprisingly wasn’t Oscar nominated) which features reams of dialogue that I still admire in addition to how it’s flat-out beautifully crafted in how deceptively simple it is. It doesn’t even need to be all that complicated with the way it attempts to emulate a certain fairy tale quality from Tess helping Katherine on with her ski boots to how Manhattan (the Twin Towers always prevalent from way out in Staten Island) is clearly meant to be this shining castle surrounded by a moat, only letting certain people in to serve as underlings. Maybe it’s a lightweight story on the surface but everything about it manages to defy that term--as Carly Simon’s inspirational theme song “Let the River Run” repeats throughout, incorporated into the score by Rob Mounsey it becomes clear how much to Tess McGill that this all matters. It’s her life, that 30th birthday she celebrates at the beginning giving her own ticking clock along with the obvious one of Catherine’s return and that feeling takes this comedy beyond just the laughs.
Along with his willingness to focus on the story as opposed to what surrounds it, Nichols’ direction is totally unfussy, apparently seeing nothing wrong with playing minor lines of dialogue here and there from a distance, as well as always looking for moments where his camera hold on what’s going on and add to the story whether it’s Sigourney Weaver’s ultra-confident stride through the office in her introduction or, in Harrison Ford’s own first scene, that movie star grin in close-up as he makes his way towards Tess at the bar, not yet knowing that he’s the one she’s looking for. It allows the world to seem that much more real as well as letting the actors work with each other that much better in the moments when they really do need to connect with each other in close-up, which they do— sometimes just the glances between the characters are all the complications it needs. Scenes between Griffith and Ford feel like they’re shot in a slightly closer style and feel more intimate than such alternating shots normally would be, connecting the characters together in their love story all the more. In spite of Jack Trainer’s name, his role isn’t to tutor her and instead it’s like the characters wind up bringing out the best of each other. It almost adds a certain level of maturity all by itself—the title comes off as slightly ironic in the end, especially compared to leads in romantic comedies today, considering how Tess isn’t a girl at all but someone who’s trying hard to be that much more of an adult, in a film which looked at now is almost surprisingly casual about what is causing it to be R-rated (Griffith’s nudity was probably more surprising at the time to anyone who hadn’t seen SOMETHING WILD or BODY DOUBLE), earning that rating more than I probably remembered.
The media landscape out in the real world has changed enough by now, almost a quarter of a century since this film began shooting, that I suspect a purchase of a radio network wouldn’t garner the same degree of intensity (then again maybe it would, how should I know?) but it never overwhelms this story taking place in the world of the 80s—maybe it’s the Twentieth-Century Fox logo but I sometimes think about Charlie Sheen’s Bud Fox in the middle of his own tale of trying to get to the top happening right down the street. Certainly some sections of lower Manhattan are different now even as the Statue of Liberty is forever out there watching over it all, just like in this film. Not to mention that in watching this film clearly shot during winter months I get certain vague flashbacks of days long ago when I would walk down the streets of Manhattan and nothing imaginable seemed cooler than how I was getting to do that—maybe that sort of saxophone-infused score which seems to be genetically attached to every N.Y.-set romantic comedy of that decade forever adds to the feel. Like in this film, the vivid memories of doing it in my own winter coat. I actually still have that coat, hanging in my closet. It may not fit so well anymore, but I actually had it recently dry-cleaned. I don’t have any plans to visit New York any time soon, but maybe I want to keep it around in case I’m needed back there to play a supporting role in this kind of story. Hey, just in case. Bottom line is that the film remains hugely enjoyable, funny, intelligent and, for me, endearing, enough so that I’m somehow able to wipe from my brain whatever ugly eighties-ness should flow out of it and somehow never really does.
Considering how many times I saw this film back in the day it seems a little odd how in my mind it’s gotten slightly pushed aside in favor of what maybe are more iconic Melanie Griffith performances, the ones I’ve written about before and might be more apt to gravitate towards late at night. Maybe I just saw it too much back then. Maybe it’s because the film is set in a world I don’t have much of an interest in. Either way, her Oscar-nominated work here is her best all-around performance, nailing the flightier screwball scenes yet always making them go along with the moments when her character is determined to take everything seriously even if no one else around her will and the occasional awkwardness that shows in the performance her character is trying to give is utterly endearing. Not even appearing until 35 minutes in, Harrison Ford’s performance as Jack Trainer is the closest he ever came to that perfect Cary Grant vibe and he just nails it, enjoying the chance to act goofy with timing beyond the pale. He totally pulls off that balance of someone who comes off as smart yet scatterbrained enough to not know how his apartment’s going to look before he opens the door and when he gets his ‘little piece of tape’ speech explaining himself he’s totally willing to not just spit it out casually but also play the moment with a bit of souvlaki sauce on the side of his mouth. Seeming totally relaxed and ok with not having this entire movie on his shoulders it’s almost like this is the end of golden age ‘fun’ Harrison Ford which is both a joy to see now and also a little sad. He’s just so much fun here.
Also nominated, Sigourney Weaver delivers one of her most phenomenal performances as Katherine Parker, coming off as quietly ferocious and she she doesn’t have a moment where she leaps out, fully embracing the callow selfishness of her character and looking pretty fantastic as well. She’s maybe sexier than any woman has ever looked with a cast on her leg, much as that broken leg indicates how rotten she really is inside, right down to when we last see her and she absolutely refuses to acknowledge her loss. All credit should go to Mike Nichols for his direction of this fantastic large cast, some still rising and some then already known—Joan Cusack as best friend Cyn with her memorable Madonna speech was also nominated, Alec Baldwin brings just enough shadings to Mick as well as Kevin Spacey, Olympia Dukakis, Nora Dunn, Oliver Platt, Philip Bosco, Caroline Aaron, Barbara Garrick, Timothy Carhart, Ricki Lake and Amy Aquino, one of those people who have been in a hundred things and who I always associate with her one scene here at the end. She’s just right too. Pretty much an extra, David Duchovny can be spotted during a few scenes as one of Tess and Mick’s friends.
The much-discussed final shot of WORKING GIRL of course has many more implications looking at it now than it did then and it already had a few. Leaving some of that aside for me it serves as a reminder, maybe not quite as cynical as it once seemed, that the path that led Tess McGill to this ending is just one story out there, in some ways an acknowledgement of the ugly Reagan-era 80s side of it along with it also being its own version of the end of THE CROWD, whether that’s what we want it to be or not. And having an office of your own is nice, after all. Regardless, I still love the film anyway. Just as I love many films. So I’ll keep it to myself. Anyway, since the past is over and only the future lies in front of us I guess that about does it. Let the river run. Zei Gezunt.
The last time I ever saw my grandfather, my mother’s father, was way back near the end of ’95. He was in his late nineties then. And he still remembered lots of things. Sure, not everything, but that’s understandable. And I learned a lot from him then, like how apparently my grandmother was the very first musician to ever perform on WOR radio back in New York. He still kept her violin by his bedside. One detailed story he told me wound up rambling all over the place but was never anything but fascinating, with some blind alleys popping up in mentions of people who disappeared through the doors of memory to slight revelations that were enough to make me wonder what else he had seen and done in his life. But what I learned on that trip was about all I learned. “There just wasn’t enough time,” said Vito Corleone to his son Michael. You could say that about much of life.
Memory of films is something as well. Maybe there are minor films that we encounter and what if you see something for the first time in years that you remember with some fondness and discover some sort of odd connection to it deep within you? Even if that connection really has nothing to do at all with the film? I recently found myself pulling out an old VHS of Martin Brest’s comedy GOING IN STYLE, first released on Christmas Day 1979. While watching George Burns in the lead role I couldn’t help but start thinking about how much he resembled my grandfather. Of course, he probably doesn’t very much at all. Maybe it’s the glasses Burns wore for this role. Maybe it’s the uncharacteristically stoic expression that remains on his face through much of it. Maybe it has to do with the hints the character gives out of what happened in the past, a past that will never be known about because there will always be things about your grandfather, your grandparents, your family, that you’ll never know. And maybe Art Carney in the film reminded me somehow of a long gone Uncle who the memories I have of are even more distant. Speaking of distant memories, I actually do remember seeing GOING IN STYLE on a Saturday evening with my parents at the long gone Scarsdale Plaza, a place I’ve written about before. Maybe it’s kind of a mature, introspective film for someone my age at the time to see but it was marketed as a goofy comedy so who was to know? I’m glad I returned to it now.
Three friends Joe (George Burns) Al (Art Carney) and Willie (Lee Strasberg) share an apartment somewhere in Queens living off their Social Security, doing little but sitting on a nearby park bench as they watch kids play and life go by, lost in their own thoughts. One day Al, fed up with how little money they have as well as the aimlessness of it all, comes up with an idea: how about pulling a stick-up? Even if they get caught, they won’t do too much time and there’ll be plentiful Social Security checks waiting for them when they get out. And besides, it’ll give them something to do. The two others soon agree and before they all know it, wearing Groucho Marx glasses as disguises, they’re knocking over a bank in midtown Manhattan. Things go much easier than they ever could have imagined but soon an unforeseen development changes their new direction in life even further.
The first feature directed by Martin Brest who also wrote the screenplay (based on a story by Edward Cannon) GOING IN STYLE does its job with a minimum of fuss within 98 minutes yet is surprisingly warm and completely human in a low-key way that allows it to have staying power past the end credits, making it more than just a caper film. Even though Joe denies it when he speaks of his life there’s a certain feel of regret hanging in the air and while it’s clear that each of the three men has a past few specifics are ever given to. Burns’ Joe, ever stoic even when a sly grin comes to his face, mentions stealing during the war but little else about it, making me wonder if he passed up on some big chance long ago that he’s somehow trying to make up for and it all adds to his canniness in setting all this up whether working out their transportation or his reasoning for why they need to use real bullets. Carney’s Al, always willing to go along with whatever anyone says, is the very definition of jovial in almost everything he does whether happily singing along with doing the dishes or gazing at girls on the street. Strasberg’s sadsack Willie doesn’t have any ideas at all, content to do nothing more than feed the pigeons from his bench while lost in his regrets of long ago, particularly the memory involving his long-gone son that he speaks of in the film’s most devastating scene.
Only the present seems to matter fully with the spectre of that giant, overflowing cemetery seen at one point hanging over the three of them every time they walk down the street with an air of inevitability whether pulling this job gets them to feel forty again for a few minutes or not. What’s the difference, Joe asks, when Willie expresses concern they could get shot pulling the stick-up. And, for them, what is the difference, right? Even when it feels like things are about to go full-on maudlin when Joe looks at some old photos (presumably of Burns when he was younger, possibly with Gracie Allen) the film doesn’t let him have it. Often in life you don’t get to have it either. Sentimentality gets you nowhere. It’s in these moments with the characters where the film is strongest whether the single lines of dialogue from them that say so much or when it just holds on their faces—it makes a simple scene where the three men buy hot dogs into something meaningful and the opening shot alone is a model of economy not in terms of plot but in giving us a few moments to observe who they are and what their body language says.
Everything surrounding the big hold-up maybe moves a little too fast for credibility but there’s still a lived in feel throughout the whole thing that makes it undeniably affecting so such issues don’t really matter, particularly when there are scenes like a particularly heartbreaking tableau framed against a group of kids playing in the park sprinklers nearby in the foreground. There are laughs but they’re almost secondary--just about the broadest joke in the film, not counting the presence of those Groucho masks, is something I remember bringing the house down way back when (it still gets a laugh out of me actually—the way Burns is walking is so crucial in selling it) but the film is willing to let that stand aside in favor of simple things like the close-ups of the actors as they head towards the big robbery, giving us more in their faces than we ever need to know otherwise either from exposition or prolonged speeches that offer more details about their lives--kudos to composer Michael Small for his score here as well, expertly balancing the various elements throughout. One other big gag late in the film involving what’s ordered at a fancy Las Vegas restaurant reminds me of something I heard that my grandfather did long ago. There are things in there like that too. It’s also kind of fascinating to me now how much of the film just holds on the characters without stirring up a fake ticking clock or outside threat--none of the guys have just received bad news from their doctor and there’s no landlord threatening to evict them. It’s just boredom. They need to do something as long as they’re still alive, even if the rest of the world barely seems to think of them that way. When something does happen near the end it comes practically out of nowhere which seems believable too.
It’s practically a three-character piece all the way through with no unnecessary side characters, with the key exception of Al’s working class nephew Pete played by Charles Hallahan. No one else is needed. Brest wasn’t even thirty when he made this film and the film displays utter confidence in its willingness to keep things simple, especially considering how a few of his later films like SCENT OF A WOMAN certainly didn’t scrimp when it came to running times. GOING IN STYLE is a gentle, endearing reminder that we’re all stuck where we are in one way or another with our own ticking clocks prisoners so we should be willing to do certain things whether it’s flying off to Vegas at a moment’s notice or just putting onions on your hot dog. Not to mention robbing a bank. Because, what the hell, right? Who knows how much time we have. What the hell could we lose? The film doesn’t underline any of this too much. It doesn’t really need to.
It’s almost easy to forget how the film features two leads who at time were recent Oscar winners and a third who had been nominated. Easily the best performance of George Burns’ late career it’s also the one where every ounce of his famous personality seems to be shred away. Part of it is the glasses, part of it is simply the way he’s willing to carry himself—they seem to be confident that since he’s George Burns we’re going to like him anyway so the movie doesn’t try to add anything to that and as a result it makes the character he plays into more of a human than at any other point in his career. Whether dancing in the street or playing with his nephew Pete’s little girl Art Carney is always delightful but in a grounded way, coming off as a person who’s joking around as opposed to just comic relief with a certain amount of sadness that comes from what ultimately happens. Playing the most reluctant of the three at first Lee Strasberg is quietly wonderful, showing how his former cab driver stopped trying years ago—the actor’s eyes during his big speech pierce my soul and it makes the moments where some light come into his eyes mean that much more. It never really occurred to me that this film features the sight of Hyman Roth laughing with undeniable joy. That’s just goddamn beautiful. For all three actors every gesture is just right, even the way they walk down the street seems genuine. As the one other key character, Charles Hallahan gives off a sense of decency that makes it little surprise why they would confide in him and he quietly plays very well off Burns and Carney.
As the real lead of the film Burns keeps his stoicism going through much of it all right up to the very last moment where he allows that to break, an ideal note and last line to end things on not to mention a final shot where the end credits roll that has always stayed with me ever since seeing it in the Plaza long ago. That smile he gives there reminds me of my grandfather as well, particularly as he said something to me during that visit about my grandmother, one of the most beautiful declarations of love for someone departed I’ve ever heard anyone say. But I don’t want to share it. It’s for me. Some things I have to keep to myself. Just like I need to have certain movies continue to matter to me and never let anyone ever take that feeling away. No matter how old I get.
If you’re watching a film released by Columbia Pictures in the late 70s that comes with the sunburst logo I’d say the odds are pretty good that it was written by Neil Simon. Probably even better that it was produced by Ray Stark. Maybe they’re both the same thing. I was reminded of this recently when one night for the first time I watched 1967’s BAREFOOT IN THE PARK (released by Paramount) of course based on Neil Simon’s play and starring Jane Fonda. I was looking through some boxes close at hand for something else to watch when I noticed my DVD of CALIFORNIA SUITE. Immediately I was intrigued since it also comes from a Simon play and features Fonda. Why do I own a DVD of CALIFORNIA SUITE, you may ask? In all honesty I’m really not sure. My guess is that I saw it cheap somewhere and picked it up, figuring I’d want to write about it one day. That’s how my brain works. Well, you can’t say I don’t sometimes act on these impulses.
Released in December 1978 (same day as SUPERMAN), CALIFORNIA SUITE was based on Simon’s Broadway hit, a sort of followup to the successful PLAZA SUITE of several years earlier. In the case of that adaptation the film version replicated the structure of the three act show and kept things mostly confined to the titular suite with Walter Matthau going the Peter Sellers route by playing the lead role in each part. While the four act stage version of CALIFORNIA also had actors playing multiple roles the film mixed things up not only by having different people (including Matthau) in the various sections all playing guests of the luxurious Beverly Hills Hotel, it is clearly trying to make itself more cinematic not only by intercutting the four stories throughout but by also opening things up beyond the hotel rooms that everything is supposedly centered around. Like any anthology movie of this sort certain parts work better than others but, actually, even the weaker sections of CALIFORNIA SUITE aren’t entirely without interest within the body of Neil Simon’s career. I’m not sure that the entire film works—to be frank, I’m not even sure if half of the film works—but a portion of what is here may be some of the best material he’s ever had in a film. Some of it is borderline hysterical. Some of it maybe isn’t so great at all. Like any number of films that contain the Columbia sunburst logo I suppose it’s pleasant enough to have on in the background as a 70s flashback, a feeling that’s only amplified by the light jazz score by Claude Bolling (performed by ‘the California Suites’) that appears throughout so the experience of watching it is certainly never a chore. For the most part.
The film tells the stories of four sets of guests at the Beverly Hills Hotel. “Visitors From New York”: No-nonsense Hannah (Jane Fonda) has just flown in to confront her ex-husband Bill (Alan Alda), now a successful screenwriter as well as content transplant to L.A., about their daughter who wants nothing more than to get away from her mom. “Visitors From London”: Academy Award nominee Diana Barrie (Maggie Smith) has arrived with husband Sidney Cochran (Michael Caine) for the ceremony. Up for a role in a light comedy no one considers her anything more than a dark horse but when things turn out exactly as expected certain tensions both of them have been holding back discussing finally come out during the early morning hours after they return to their room. “Visitors From Philadelphia”: Marvin Michaels (Walter Matthau) has flown in for his nephew’s bar mitzfah, totally unprepared for the prostitute his brother leaves in his room late that night and when he wakes up in the morning has to figure out what to do about the unconscious girl just as his wife Millie (Elaine May) is arriving. “Visitors From Chicago”: Drs. Chauncey Gump (Richard Pryor) and Willis Panama (Bill Cosby) along with wives Lola (Gloria Gifford) and Bettina (Sheila Frazier) are on a vacation together which has quickly escalated from bad to worse leading to all tensions between the couples coming to a boil when they meet at the hotel tennis court for a long-awaited doubles match.
I’m not sure why, but somehow it feels like the DVD should come with an alternate version that replicates when it first aired on (I’m going to guess) the ABC Sunday Night at the Movies. It’s tempting to say that CALIFORNIA SUITE plays like a fairly effortless-seeming job by all involved with director Herbert Ross whipping this all together in his workmanlike sort of way that he seemed to pull off for a good amount of his career. The expected bouncy, airy feeling is maintained by all that light jazz with David Hockney paintings over the opening credits adding class but the strain shows in CALIFORNIA SUITE, almost sooner than expected. The film bounces back and forth through the various stories, planting itself down in long stretches for the meat of each of them with the ‘serious’ acts kept mostly in the first half and the ‘funny’ ones in the latter. Maybe it pulls off the conceit about as well as it could—the two alternatives would be to do the whole thing as a straight anthology piece or just bounce all around throughout with no particular emphasis at any time (basically how Woody Allen’s recent TO ROME WITH LOVE handled this) but to do it that way would possibly rob the individual stories of dramatic momentum which wouldn’t have been a problem on stage. CALIFORNIA SUITE tries to keep a semblance of the roots of the piece but also seems determined to keep from coming off as too stagebound, maybe in the wrong ways.
When we settle down with ‘Visitors From New York’ early on for a long stretch not only is there a certain jarring effect in terms of the pacing there’s the feel that however much of the dialogue may have been maintained it’s almost trying too hard to feel not like a play, continually changing the settings from the hotel room to the car to the restaurant to walking back to the car to the beach (I guess an excuse to show off Fonda in a bikini) to Bill’s house. The overall effect is almost too cutty, too jumpy, unwilling to breathe and not really helped that the drama being played here comes as a little too grating with the great emphasis placed on these two unpleasant people so early on almost winds up dragging the whole movie down before the end of the first half-hour. Alda’s screenwriter has become one of those Tony Roberts characters who change completely when they move to L.A. and Fonda’s ex presumably as bitter as she always was made all the worse by how unwilling he is to fight with her. In the material is an interesting example of the New York-Los Angeles dichotomy that Simon explored at other times like in I OUGHT TO BE IN PICTURES—back when the two places probably seemed much further away from each other than they do now in the days when it was a big deal what the movie shown on a flight was going to be or before people actually knew what guacamole was—but moving out of the hotel to other locations in such rapid fashion helps insure that it never achieves any real rhythm, just coming off as bitter and not in a good way. Maybe Simon was all too close to these types of people and it seems notable that “Visitors From London” doesn’t feel at all like characters from the Neil Simon universe which may be why it all seems that much more fresh and mature in a way that is a little surprising now. Even if it is just his stab at writing an English drawing room comedy in some kind of Noel Coward vein he still maintains the perfect balance between the barbs and the more serious declarations both characters make throughout while apparently drinking all the alcohol in California with every single line flat-out flowing helped immeasurably by two actors that are perfect for each other. As a result, it’s the only part of the movie that contains any real emotion. The story does move out of the room down into the hotel bar and briefly towards the award ceremony but it’s more willing to keep the characters isolated from everyone in their suite and the flow is simply better. Possessing an almost unexpected level of maturity, the piece seems to know that there’s no way to tie a box on this conflict that would be neat and easy, simply willing to find a way for both of them to be content for the time being and it lets the two characters linger even when their story has finished.
One correct choice that the film does make is to separate the drama and comedy just enough so the biggest laughs are paid off after the buildup of the first hour, probably the best way to avoid distracting tonal shifts. “Visitors From Philadelphia” is the slightest story of the bunch and plays a little like the most neutered version of a 70s sex farce imaginable but the over the top reactions from Matthau played against the dry befuddlement of May wind up making me laugh out loud much more than I probably want to admit no matter how many times I watch it. Placed alongside how all this works surprisingly well the Pryor-Cosby section of “Visitors From Chicago” instead just comes off as loud and unpleasant. Pauline Kael accused the hijinks of the two bickering African-American married couples as playing somewhat racist, as if to say that they don’t belong in such a tony environment, something Cosby objected to (incidentally, is this film the biggest hit Cosby ever appeared in?) saying he and Pryor had as much right to do a Laurel and Hardy bit as anybody. Which they do, but for the most part it all still plays as crassly unfunny in a particularly sour way, coming off as more mean-spirited than anything.
Essentially a look at marriages in various states and the relationships that surround a few of them while in an environment that is essentially artificial, CALIFORNIA SUITE is mostly about trying to connect with the person you’re with and raising the question of how willing we might be to change into the person we’re meant to become as we age, especially when shut off from everyone else in the world other than the one who knows us best. Thing is, the film doesn’t really do all that much cinematically with any of these ideas outside of having the characters leave their hotel rooms on occasion. On a basic cinematic level you can’t really say that the setting ever really becomes a character the way you’d expect a film set around a hotel to be. Since this is a film based on a Neil Simon play I doubt that making it pure cinema was ever any sort of goal but it still doesn’t keep the whole thing from being just ok. Maybe it needed to do more with the setting or add a few other side characters or even maybe have a few of the main players brush past each other in the hallway in an Altmanesque sort of way which would add at least a slightly looser feeling. Placed up against any number of other films based on Neil Simon plays I suspect CALIFORNIA SUITE is exactly what it’s supposed to be. How good that is may depend on how well this sort of thing has aged for you.
Maggie Smith won the Supporting Actress Oscar for this role of someone who doesn’t win an Oscar which is little surprise, giving a performance that is undeniably affecting, both funny and moving in all the best ways. Michael Caine wasn’t even nominated, go figure, but he’s every inch his co-star’s equal tossing off sly one-liners at her followed by the most offhandedly passionate declaration of love without missing a step. Alan Alda and Jane Fonda never really connect but even they have their moments if you look for them—Fonda’s own frustration seems believably live in and I have a fondness for a tiny moment where Alda, seeing her before she notices him, has a brief wave of affection come over his face that she never gets to notice. Walter Matthau and Elaine May are totally believable as a married couple which is little surprise (this is as good a place as any to mention that you really need to see A NEW LEAF if you never have), playing their roles with absolutely expert timing that elevates the slightly thin material as if they’d been expertly honing their scenes together for years even though they never played it on stage. I’ll admit it, seeing Matthau pull panicked faces to cover up his indiscretion can pretty easily send me into hysterics but May’s low-key nature is just as good, particularly when she ‘says nothing for ten seconds’ and silently mouths counting to ten. It seems a little special now to have Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby in the same frame as well as the chance to observe how they attack their roles differently—Pryor seems to go right for the laughs while Cosby emphasizes the straight anger a little too much—it’s an interesting combination but, again, nothing about what they’re playing seems to go together. There’s no subtlety to any of it, just shouting. Almost in the background of it all, Sheila Frazier as Cosby’s wife has some of the best moments of the four of them in trying to project flat sanity while everything around her is crashing down. James Coburn cameos as Diana’s co-star in a scene from her nominated film, Army Archerd appears as himself at the Oscars and Dana Plato plays the daughter Hannah and Bill are fighting over, getting a completely superfluous scene near the end.
Speaking of those moments at the end that are clearly attempting to wrap everything up in a way that they didn’t get to do on the stage it’s hard not to wonder, wait a second, shouldn’t Jane Fonda have left the day before? Oh, never mind. CALIFORNIA SUITE doesn’t really have the sort of verisimilitude where that matters. In addition to Smith’s win at the real Oscars, Simon was nominated for adapted screenplay and the replications of the hotel (largely shot on stage) were nominated in the Art Direction category as well. I can remember Richard Donner in an old issue of Cinefantastique complaining about this when the production design in his own SUPERMAN (SUITE’s opening weekend competition, if you remember) was ignored but, well, that was where the acclaim went to at the time. It was the 70s. People crowded the theaters to see Neil Simon films, including this one, one after the other. That doesn’t happen anymore and there isn’t really a present-day equivalent—Simon’s later iteration of the format LONDON SUITE didn’t last long on the stage and the filmed version wound up being made for NBC in 1996. I doubt the networks would be all that interested now either. Things change, as always. As for the present day, why did I even pull out CALIFORNIA SUITE to watch late that evening? Maybe because that damn Columbia sunburst logo has the ability to hypnotize me, however briefly, into thinking that it’s long ago and things will seem just a little more carefree. I suppose there are worse reasons.
Time keeps moving forward. I want it to stop, but it doesn’t. And there’s nothing I can do about it. Often looking for any kind of tradition in Hollywood films can be a losing battle but since I’m weird that way I wind up doing it regardless. The old 70s-era Saul Bass Warner Brothers worm logo is used at the beginning of the enjoyable ARGO which got me to think about how over his long career co-star Alan Arkin has starred in several films for that studio and a few are definite favorites of mine. FREEBIE AND THE BEAN, THE IN-LAWS, THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER. All right, GET SMART maybe not so much. But any association he has with the studio and their myriad logos through the years goes all the way back to 1967’s WAIT UNTIL DARK, a film which I revisited not long ago and was very impressed by, almost surprisingly so considering its reputation as what on the surface seems like the dullest of concepts, a filmed stage play. Something that feels very much a product of the time it was made in while also managing to anticipate the extremes the suspense/horror genre would eventually arrive at in the years ahead, WAIT UNTIL DARK also marks the end of what can be considered the golden age of stardom for Audrey Hepburn who after this didn’t make a film for another nine long years and even after that only worked sporadically. In some ways playing as the most extreme terrifying end of a light and frothy thriller that would have featured the star such as CHARADE it combines the warmth her screen presence gives off with co-star Arkin playing one of his first leading roles, a character absolutely nothing like what his screen persona generally is. And with its various pieces WAIT UNTIL DARK plays extremely unified and tight, taking what feels like could simply be a gimmicky stage piece and making it into an actual movie. In some ways it feels like the most ideal movie to watch on a cold, snowy Sunday afternoon ever made.
When a beautiful woman named Lisa (Samantha Jones) smuggling heroin from Montreal to New York hands the doll containing the drugs for safe keeping to unknowing photographer Sam Hendrix (Efram Zimbalist, Jr.) the doll winds up his apartment. After the drug smuggler in charge of the operation who refers to himself as Harry Roat Jr. “from Scarsdale” (Alan Arkin) catches on to what she’s doing he kills her, leaving her to be found in the photographer’s apartment by his cohorts Mike (Richard Crenna) and Carlino (Jack Weston). Certain that the doll is in the apartment but with no idea where, the three men hatch a plan to find the doll taking advantage of Sam’s temporary absence with the unknowing help of the photographer’s recently blinded wife Susy (Audrey Hepburn). Mike pretends to be an old Marine buddy of Sam’s and Carlino claims to be an investigating policeman while Roat takes the guise of several people in search of the doll. As their charade continues they cause Susy to suspect her husband may have been responsible for the death of Lisa but they don’t anticipate what might happen when things go awry and Susy begins to catch onto them.
Never trust anyone from Scarsdale. You don’t want to go there. You definitely don’t want to live there. I say that from experience. But back to the movie. With a screenplay by Robert & Jane-Howard Carrington from the stage play by Frederick Knott, WAIT UNTIL DARK contains elements familiar from other Audrey Hepburn vehicles of the 60s—cinematography by Charles Lang who also photographed her multiple times before in films like SABRINA and CHARADE, a score by Henry Mancini which veers from suspense (actually, some of the most effective straight scoring of his long career) to an easy-listening version of the main theme heard in the background and even the star’s early comment to her onscreen husband blithely asking ‘What if I get chopped up in little pieces and dumped in the river?’ wouldn’t be at all out of place in something like CHARADE either. And yet as the tension slowly rises throughout the film towards the fever pitch of its famous climax it’s almost as if the actress herself is as thrown for a loop by the developments as the character she’s playing is and as a result WAIT UNTIL DARK becomes genuinely gripping to an almost surprising degree, all boosted along by what was then that universal fear of something unspeakably terrible happening to Audrey Hepburn, one who is even more vulnerable than usual.
It would be a stretch to say that the direction by Terence Young (best known for helming early Bonds DR. NO, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE and THUNDERBALL) transcends the material and in fairness it really doesn’t—like any number of other films based on stage plays it contains a few scenes up front filmed in various locations as if to pull a bait & switch followed by staging in the main set that doesn’t do all that much to remove the proscenium arch element from how the apartment is presented. It doesn’t really need to be more than it is anyway--this looks to be the only non-Bond film directed by Young that I’ve ever seen (there are always more films out there to discover) and considering how much of the story was already laid out all set in one location it might be tempting to dismiss his work in a keep-the-trains-running-on-time sort of way, but Young continually makes use of the space he has to work with in unexpected ways, sometimes having one or more of the bad guys silently doing something in the background unbeknownst to Susy or just the strangeness of her first appearance when she enters as the three men are there, already putting us on edge. The point when a certain something gradually comes into frame behind Richard Crenna at around the fifteen minute mark, giving an idea of how nasty things might turn, is one of those shots that is probably looks easier to do than it is and works expertly, giving off a frisson of timing and composition that far sleazier giallos several years later would strive for but not always achieve. What matters within the frame seems to be only what exists within this apartment, a world unto itself, and even when we briefly leave the apartment things never feel all that real as if there really is an active world out there--twice characters step out from a building to a nearly empty street to find a cab coming along for them to immediately hail and the New York location work of the row of brownstones Susy lives on (looking it up, St. Luke’s Place down in Greenwich Village which is also mentioned in dialogue) feels so deserted in such an unreal way it’s as if the film is trying at times to seem like the whole thing was really filmed on the Warner backlot when at least some of it clearly is out on location anyway.
But even now in a time when the concept of a film version of a stage play probably seems as antiquated as possible and even more difficult to make cinematic (this was something Polanski recently succeeded at doing with CARNAGE but even that was relegated to art houses) yet the way things are filmed keeps the pace going the mood going the screws tightening and the level of confusions of the doll plot to confuse Hepburn are that but with ‘the doll’ said so many times it begins to have a hypnotic effect. Keeping its lead character offscreen for much of the first half hour WAIT UNTIL DARK carefully lays out its cards—the interplay between the three men, the backstory of Suzy and her husband (Zimbalist in what has to be the most thankless role of all time—he’s not even allowed to be the one who figures out where his wife is at the very end). Much of the story is frankly a gimmick with some of the drama early on not doing much beyond giving the actors something to play before the suspense really kicks in, like Susy’s frustration to her husband about having to be ‘the world’s champion blind lady’, the red herring quality of that mysterious safe in the middle of the room or the early tension with brat-who-proves-herself Gloria (Julie Herrod) forgotten about pretty quickly and getting lost in the mechanics of the ‘plot’ being devised to trap Suzy that it’s all just a smokescreen as if the film is also trying to convince us as that things are more complicated than they seem.
Placed up against the tough but slightly more sympathetic Crenna whose Mike follows an arc out of James Mason in THE RECKLESS MOMENT and the loutish thug (possibly a disgraced cop) played by Weston who just skirts the edge of being comic relief Arkin’s Roat is something else altogether—not a Hitchcock villain, not a Bond villain, he’s pure evil, not even human, the middle ground between Ross Martin terrorizing Lee Remick several years earlier (also to a Mancini score) in EXPERIMENT IN TERROR and Andrew Robinson’s total monster later on in DIRTY HARRY. Roat’s appearances in the apartment sporting other guises unknown by the blind Suzy only adds to the gimmick, maybe watering down when he finally reappears as his true self just a little--Roat Sr. comes and goes so fast it works as simply being disorienting but when he turns up as Roat Jr. the performance being given by the character is almost too mannered and anyone would be justified in wondering if Roat had spent some time training for this scheme at Second City.
But none of that really matters beyond how it keeps the gears clicking as Suzy pieces together what’s going on and finally taking action, building to the famous climax where she breaks every light (she thinks) in the apartment to get her on equal footing with her attackers which on initial release apparently had the gimmick of the theater turning out every light possible that contains a now-legendary jump scare which has borrowed a thousand times by now. Here it works beautifully. The final image before the ‘THE END’ title card is almost a reminder that the ultimate goal of it all is nothing more than to have Audrey Hepburn feel safe again, along with the satisfaction that this poor blind woman who was once terrified of a tiny little flame could take total care of herself in the end. The soothing lyrics of the theme song are a way back into the elegance she projects, as we return to the real world, making us think that all the real Roat Jrs. From Scarsdale can never harm us. Not exactly true but Henry Mancini is always good at making us forget things like that for a few minutes.
The cast is excellent and as I rewatch certain sequences I find myself admiring how much more they bring to it than what is presumably on the page. The always endearing Audrey Hepburn’s determination when she’s all alone, Crenna’s eyes darting around when he’s speaking to her, Weston’s slovenliness, Arkin’s madness. There’s particularly good chemistry that comes from the developing relationship between Hepburn and Crenna, almost more insinuated than anything in dialogue, and when Arkin is in his ‘real’ guise as Roat, Jr. the weirdness he gives off during every single moment is unforgettable. The film was produced by Mel Ferrer, Hepburn’s then-husband—apparently their marriage was in the process of falling apart at the time—and I always find myself thinking of Zimbalist as a sort of surrogate for him in the small role of Sam which almost lends an extra level to the whole thing as if the husband really is the one pulling the strings behind it all. It’s reading much more than necessary into the film which really is an extremely slick, well-made thriller that maybe doesn’t have much in the way of subtext to it, but nevertheless remains effective on its own.
Of course, maybe we wind up bringing our own personal subtext to things anyway. I’ll admit to a strange attachment to Alan Arkin throughout his long career, here in a role unlike any other he ever played. And yet, here he is playing against one of the most beloved woman in screen history who ultimately is absolutely terrified of him. Plus he’s from Scarsdale and I definitely have some experience with women wanting to stay the hell away from me so there you go. And, just like always, there’s nothing I can do about any of those things. Very recently I spotted someone I went to high school with in my office building. An actress who I’ve spotted in one or two things she was going to an audition but didn’t appear to know who I was when I walked past. I doubt she would have had any memory of me anyway. Just as well. Once from Scarsdale, always from Scarsdale, I suppose. That’s the way it is as time moves forward.