Monday, February 27, 2012
I tried to get Angelina’s right leg to write this piece with me but it was off doing a podcast. Oh well.
The oncoming rush of time is something I find myself thinking about on occasion which is probably why at one point during this year’s Academy Awards it occurred to me how the first time Billy Crystal hosted the show, way back in 1990 when DRIVING MISS DAISY took Best Picture, George Clooney who is now firmly established as The Most Respected Hollywood Star wasn’t on the radar, wasn’t anywhere close to being on the radar. But there he is at this year’s ceremony in the front row where we used to expect to see Jack Nicholson and time keeps moving, unstoppable, and in some ways that was what I kept thinking while watching Billy Crystal host the 2012 Oscars. Even in the much anticipated opening montage that would insert him into some of the nominated films (cute, but nothing all that surprising) I briefly mused, “Hmmm, blackface in this day and age, I don’t know,” upon his appearance as Sammy Davis, Jr. Of course I recognized it as a bit he used to do on Saturday Night Love but it didn’t hit me until later on when I saw a few mentions on my Twitter feed that there are probably more than a few twentysomethings out there who had never seen him do Sammy, who were just seeing this as, well, somebody doing blackface. In 2012. I’m not even sure why it was ok back in the 80s but, hey, with Reagan and all that cocaine around most people weren’t in their right minds.
Whether it was part of the design or a frenzy to whip something into shape after the whole Brett Ratner/Eddie Murphy kurfuffle the overriding feel this year’s show seemed to have was to just keep this thing moving, do what had worked before and the things that work can maybe be expanded on next time around. Maybe. Things felt efficient, moving along at a decent pace with Billy Crystal offering a comfortable old chair quality to his presence, a favorite uncle showing up at Thanksgiving for the first time in a while, that sense of Academy Awards of the past which may never have lived up to their best moments (or maybe just our memories of those moments) but was still kind of pleasant. The theme of the show, I guess, was “Let’s Go To The Movies” and the joy that experience can provide but, putting aside the fact that the glory of going to the movies doesn’t really mean all that much to most people anymore, what about the actual movies? Which seems to be something I wind up asking about every year. Instead of sitting through all the red carpet nonsense I spent much of the pre-show coverage taking a walk and then when I returned home realized that FATAL INSTINCT was on HBO so I watched some of that. Seemed like a good use of my time. So I missed seeing Sasha Baron Cohen spill those ashes on Ryan Seacrest live but I did see enough on ABC to just assume that Tim Gunn has never seen a movie in his life. Funny thing is, this is one of those years where there are various nominated and winning films I still haven’t seen. Maybe I never will. And remember that MELANCHOLIA, which really was the best film of the year, got zero nominations so there was very little point in getting upset about any of the results. Anyway, thoughts:
Putting aside the questionable taste of the Sammy appearance as well as the later line about having to drive 45 minutes out of Beverly Hills to find any black women I thought much of Crystal’s material was…ok. The sort of stuff that put a smile on my face at least partly because it was nice to see him even if I wasn’t always laughing. Doing a song parody involving EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE isn’t something I’d advise someone to try to do anyway but it was nice to see how much Martin Scorsese seemed to enjoy the HUGO bit. There was also a refreshing lack of “How could THE ARTIST be nominated for screenplay? It had no dialogue!”—level gags that you wouldn’t blame anyone for expecting and you could sense at times how much Crystal really wanted to make the audience laugh, like his line about Tom Sherak whipping the audience into a frenzy, a pretty old joke because, hey, why not, right? But a little too often what he had to work with seemed to be missing the punch it needed while some of the rest of the comedy bits seemed to be just kind of there. I’m still not sure what Tom Hanks talking about a veteran seat filler was all about and I forgot all about the Robert Downey Jr. annoying Gwyneth Paltrow with his documentary shoot until I was reading some reviews of the show. Will Ferrell and Zach Galafanakis presenting Best Original Score was cute, but not something anyone’s going to be looking up on Youtube.
Oh yeah, there was a montage showing the history of the movies and how great they are, or something which was not only a little confusing and poorly organized but also didn’t include anything made before 1969 (MIDNIGHT COWBOY, if you were paying attention), basically saying that anything before then has been shoved into irrelevancy, old, forgotten, which seems all the more ironic considering how the two presumed front runners were about that past and it’s easy to imagine that something could have been done with that. It’s too bad they didn’t try.
As for Jennifer Lopez and Cameron Diaz, what can I say. Cute giggling girls are sometimes cute but I’m still not sure what they were trying to do.
There’s Melanie Griffith, sitting in the audience, practically not even noticed by the camera. Kind of sad.
Well, at least we got to hear from movie stars about how much they like older movies. Incidentally, did you notice that Streisand was sitting at the Streisand-approved side angle, not directly facing the camera like everyone else? I catch these things, what can I say.
Sandra Bullock standing in front of a giant world map showing where the foreign films came from made in look like she was in a Bond villain’s lair.
Jessica Chastain sure is fetching. I hope she’s in a dozen movies this year too.
And I still haven’t seen THE HELP but congratulations to Octavia Spencer whose win has to have been the most emotional moment of the whole night which makes it all the more of a shame that they played her off so fast.
Sheila E.! Sheila E.! She’s just about my favorite thing on this show.
Nice to see a Christopher Guest short and a Fred Willard appearance is always welcome but it should really be said: All Hail Bob Balaban.
And I loved those GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO editors who clearly weren’t expecting to win and just decided to get out of there. This show needed surprises. Every David Fincher movie should probably win for editing anyway.
There’s a joke somewhere in how HUGO, so hyped as being in 3D, won awards for sound but I haven’t quite figured it out yet. And due respect to Mr. Scorsese, I preferred seeing the movie in 2D.
I was hoping that someone would start live-tweeting WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? on TCM when it started during the show. Didn’t happen.
That brief bit with the Muppets felt like the equivalent of the Academy saying, “Happy, Pappy?” to the internet campaign of people trying to get the Muppets to host. I love the Muppets but don’t think I’d need or want three hours of them on this night.
The one time the program seemed to acknowledge Hollywood history with clips of older films was, um, Cirque de Soleil. Better than nothing, I guess, although I’m still not sure what Cirque de Soleil has to do with movies.
Seeing Max Von Sydow out there in the audience it struck me that he should be one of the leads in HANGOVER 3. Just because.
No Jude Law mention from Chris Rock, which seems like a missed opportunity.
Emma Stone is awfully cute but I hope they’ve surgically removed that thing from her shoulder by now.
So RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES lost effects to HUGO, another one of the few surprises. Between this and the snubbing of TINTIN (which turned up in the opening anyway, making me wonder if work on the sequence began when they just assumed it would get a nomination) maybe the Academy really does have a problem with mo-cap. Or maybe HUGO just got a trickle down effect from its other nominations.
That bit with mentioning the HARRY POTTER series had ended leading into something completely unrelated was a little weird, as if maybe at one point there was actually going to be a section paying tribute to it but it got cut. Just an observation.
Melissa Leo does a lot of acting, even when she’s just presenting.
Christopher Plummer is simply cool. I can’t think of a single problem with him winning or his speech.
Proving that I’m just easy when it comes to these things sometimes, Billy Crystal revealing what Martin Scorsese and Nick Nolte were thinking honestly gave me some of the biggest laughs of the night.
If Uggie the dog got to be there, then there really should have been an appearance by one of the dinosaurs from TREE OF LIFE.
I hope everyone watching the show over at Kim Novak’s house enjoyed themselves. I imagine the set was shut off for a few moments while Best Score was presented.
Worst part about the Best Song nominees not being performed: makes it more difficult to go make food in the middle of the show.
Jason Segal, sitting there desperately waiting to be thanked as Bret McKenzie gave his speech.
Incidentally, Bret having an Oscar but not Jemaine should make an awkward band meeting for Flight of the Conchords. I wonder what Murray’s gonna do about that.
Popcorn girls! Because….I’m really not sure.
And here comes Angelina and her leg.
Alexander Payne won another Oscar! Not only that, Dean Pelton won an Oscar!!!! That makes me happy. Everyone watch COMMUNITY when it returns.
We all know Woody doesn’t care but I think his getting Best Original Screenplay for MIDNIGHT IN PARIS was my favorite win of the night.
After Angelina left I still kept thinking of her leg.
I know it's what everyone's thinking but here goes--Werner Herzog should host next year.
Hey, Milla Jovovich. How YOU doin'?
I liked BRIDESMAIDS the movie. The bits that the Bridesmaids do during awards shows, not so much.
What do you think Dick Smith and Oprah Winfrey were talking about while they were seated up there together?
I guess I need to do my annual complaint about the Montage of Death. First the good: I would never in a million years have expected to see George Kuchar here. And if they were going to give only a few of them a few extra seconds for a sound bit I’m glad one of them was Sidney Lumet. As for the rest of it, the simple Apple Store-level quality to the design seemed to lack any sort of feeling or emotion as opposed to the film clips which have come to be the norm for this segment. And the people who were snubbed: the great Harry Morgan, Michael Sarrazin, Bill McKinney, Michael Gough, costume designer Eiko Ishioka who won the Oscar for Coppola’s DRACULA and none of the people who may have missed the cutoff date a year ago like Maria Schneider, Kenneth Mars and Betty Garrett. Plus no Charles Napier. I’ll repeat that—NO CHARLES NAPIER. Nothing more needs to be said.
Anyone else surprised that Natalie Portman didn’t mention THE PROFESSIONAL when she gave her testimonial to Gary Oldman? (Yes, everyone. EVERYONE)
Jean Dujardin is terrific. Go see the OSS 117 films.
Since I haven’t seen THE IRON LADY or THE HELP and don’t have much of an opinion on what went down there all I’ll say is: Roooooooooney. LOOK AT HER.
As we moved into the end I suddenly found myself wondering if this show had been missing a surprise appearance by…somebody. I’m just not sure who.
THE ARTIST won. I like the movie. It didn’t even make it on my ten-best list but I like the movie. And director Michel Hazanavicius thanked Billy Wilder at the end so he’s a-ok with me. I’m good. And let’s not forget that Jean Dujardin thanked Douglas Fairbanks in his own acceptance speech. It seems likely that if Martin Scorsese had won he would have done his part by prominently mentioning Georges Méliès in his speech but either way, the director and star of the film that won Best Picture did what the rest of the Academy Awards didn’t do. Honor the past.
And with the end of the show, I opened up the hard liquor. I don’t think this Academy Awards ceremony was a train wreck at all. By now the show is what it is so maybe we may as well accept it and the sense of comfort it gives us. You can certainly give it credit for not trying to pander to the younger demographics the way it has in the past, cameo by Bieber which was joking about this very thing aside. The Oscars are what they are. And the past is gone. You can’t stop what’s coming. I just wish the show would be willing to take an extra moment to remember that past, remember that glamour, remember some of those films and the people who made them which is such a big part of why we’re watching in the first place. And to see Billy Crystal do that song and dance at the beginning. The rush of time can’t stop everything. Now if you’ll excuse me, Angelina’s leg cancelled our date to have drinks at the Dresden so I’m going to sit down and watch my Blu-ray of KISS ME DEADLY again. Somebody needs to remember these films.
Saturday, February 25, 2012
Even after all this time, I still get a tinge of excitement when it comes to the Academy Awards. Every single year on the morning the nominations are announced I set my alarm for 5:30 and wake up to watch. My habit of writing down what’s announced in bracketed lists goes back to the pre-internet days and even though I know I’ll be able to get it all on line about a minute later I still perform this ritual so I’m fully prepared to have what’s been nominated there in front of me from the very first moment. Though I’ve gone to other people’s houses in the past to watch the show by this point I choose to decline all invites, stay home so I can actually watch and not have to deal with snark. And yes, I’ll argue about what’s nominated and have definite opinions but at the same time I’ve come to care less about the actual results. Really, until they burn the negatives of all the losing films in the parking lot immediately after the ceremony I’m not going to cry that it’s a ‘crime’ that a particular film or person wasn’t nominated or didn’t win. But I watch the show. And I still have opinions about it. I can’t help myself. And having said all this as a way to help celebrate this most important time of year in Hollywood I truly believe that the American Cinematheque should make it a tradition to show THE OSCAR at the Egyptian during that weekend every year to help celebrate the show going on right down the street. Because, really, that film is what the Academy Awards deserves. I mean, they give Best Picture to things like CHICAGO and THE KING’S SPEECH and I’m supposed to maintain respect for them? Sure, the Academy also gave it to UNFORGIVEN but what have they done for me lately? And I could definitely believe that THE OSCAR would draw a crowd. I know that I’d be happy to bring people. Hell, I’ll introduce the thing if they want. They’ve screened it a few times before and maybe the print has gotten too faded by now, but it’s a nice fantasy to have. In bringing us behind the scenes of the glamour of Hollywood this film asks the key question of just how far you might go to make it in this town. In a weird way I’ve come to love watching this film around this time of year, as absolutely terrible as it is. Either way, more people should have a chance to see THE OSCAR.
Yes, THE OSCAR, released in 1966, that tale of Frank Fane and his climb up the glass mountain of success, all the way to the top of the motion picture industry as one of its biggest stars, just about the biggest creep ever to be the lead character in a major motion picture, skulking his way through each scene as the lilting sounds of Percy Faith waft through the air during every single moment. It’s notable for featuring the beloved Tony Bennett in his one and only dramatic role but it also has the legendary Harlan Ellison as one of the credited writers, something he’s had to live down ever since—when the film screened at the Egyptian in 2000, the writer appeared for a Q&A after the film, gave us all the finger as he was introduced mere moments after the final moment as we cheered him while cresting on the wave of the film’s unforgettable finale and, if my memory is right, after listening to all the screams of laughter coming from the proceeding two hours told us that he would like to bash a baseball bat over all of our fucking skulls. It was a glorious evening. THE OSCAR inspires that kind of passion in people.
It’s the night of the Academy Awards. Movie star Frank Fane (Stephen Boyd) is nominated for Best Actor and is considered by all to be the favorite. As the show begins, hosted by Bob Hope of course, Frank’s old friend Hymie Kelly (“Introducing Tony Bennett as Hymie Kelly”) is sitting nearby and begins to reminisce about the long road they took to get there. We flash back (how far back? Who knows?) to the old days when Frank worked as a spieler for stripper girlfriend Laurel Grey (Jill St. John) and after some trouble with the law forces them to blow town fast the three of them take off for New York where Frankie tosses Laurel aside for the beautiful rising fashion designer Kay Bergdahl (Elke Sommer). Soon enough he’s discovered by talent scout Sophie Cantaro (Eleanor Parker) who sees great acting potential in Frankie, insisting that she hasn’t seen anyone as exciting as him in years and sets him up with agent Kappy Kapstetter (Milton Berle, and what is the deal with these character names?) who gets Frankie signed up at big Hollywood studio Galaxy Pictures. In spite of the hesitation of studio head Kenneth H. Regan (Joseph Cotton) Frankie quickly becomes a rising star, stepping on anything and anyone who stands in his way. He sends for Hymie to be his publicity man and, engineering things so she gets hired as a designer, marries Kay while still keeping up his philandering ways. Frankie has been turned onto the the wildest narcotic known to mortal man—success! And he needs larger and larger doses. But the path to fame and fortune comes to a crashing halt when Frankie’s bad behavior and low box office grosses lead to the studio deciding to pass on picking up his option. Worried about his house and yacht Frankie in dire financial straits is about to accept the lead in (GASP!) a television pilot when as he’s in the meeting to take that job all of a sudden his fortunes change with one phone call and he’s not dog meat like he was a minute ago. One phone call. So just go sliding back in there and tell ‘em game called on account of Oscar. That’s right. Oscar! A surprise Academy Award nomination for Best Actor alongside the likes of Burton and Lancaster. And you can bet that Frankie, lacking the capacity to understand that when you lie down with pigs you come up smelling like garbage, is going to do whatever possible to make sure that the Oscar goes to him and no one else.
Frankie and Hymie enter a swinging rent party somewhere down in the village with lots of chicks where they’re told to help themselves to all the chili and spaghetti they can scarf. “Man! What a scene! Forget it!” declares Hymie. Frankie makes a beeline right for the ultra-glamorous Kay, standing by herself for some reason and for his opening line goes with, “Are you a tourist or a native?” Without missing a beat Kay responds, “Take one from column A, two from column B. You get an egg roll either way.” Now, do you really need to know anything else to want to watch THE OSCAR right now? I truly subscribe to the theory that if you can’t sometimes enjoy a really bad movie then you don’t really love movies. You don’t pay good money to see A SOUND OF THUNDER or LOOSE CANNONS in the theater otherwise in a desperate attempt to absorb these things, to try to figure them out. The thing is, a little bit of laughing at bad movies can go a long way and just doesn’t hold much interest for me by a certain point. Besides, some bad movies don’t even deserve such hysteria--I’ve seen THE LOVE MACHINE which is terrible but also just kind of sits there in spite of whatever camp appeal it has. In other words, sometimes a really lousy movie is just a really lousy movie. Having said that, I don’t think I can express enough just how juicily entertaining THE OSCAR really is in all its unrelenting badness and how I’ll always be willing to show it to a roomful of people if the opportunity ever presents itself. I’m not even sure where to begin although this could almost be a piece that is nothing more than just quoting dialogue from the film that goes by as I write about it, like how Elke Sommer’s Kay Bergdahl explains to Frankie a minute after meeting him that she’s “not the kind of woman who uses sex as a release or even as a weapon.” She goes on that way until Frankie offers, “You make my head hurt with all that poetry.” THE OSCAR makes my head hurt with every single line in the best way possible.
Part of the thing about THE OSCAR (Screenplay by Harlan Ellison, Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene, based on the novel by Richard Sale) is that it apparently means every single overblown moment of its overblown narrative, packed to the gills with overripe dialogue that feels like it’s trying way too hard to be it’s own “What Makes Sammy Run?” or THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, but almost none of it works, at least not in the way it’s meant to. It’s so deadly serious so even the few moments peeking through that seem to indicate an intentional sense of humor about it all just come off as odd digressions. Whole reels seem to go by with scenes that are structured as if they had to choose between three or four uses of colorful slang so it decides to just go with all of them packed in to endless monologues as characters look at each other with steely determination and proclaim everything imaginable that’s wrong with their character. You could try to compare it to SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS but of course that film is a masterful piece of filmmaking with actors who fall right into that dialogue effortlessly, as if this is exactly the way the world really is. THE OSCAR, in comparison, comes off as somebody trying way too hard in an effort to construct meaningful ‘colorful’ dialogue being shrieked by these actors non-stop. “You represent everything I loathe!” “You mean everything you love!”
And along with Hymie’s endless narration are ludicrous scenes, absurd moments, all as ham-handed in their obviousness as that empty seat next to Frankie at the Academy awards—the scene where he catches the talent scout’s eye by leaping onto the stage at a rehearsal to show some actors how to really hold a knife or the moment that goes on forever as Frankie and Kay meet again in Hollywood and begin dancing without a word between them as the main love theme “Maybe September” plays, endless arguments between Frankie and, well, just about everybody. I could go on, I really could. And it’s also terribly directed, set on spectacularly over-ostentatious sets that never feel anything like sets (although the modernistic design of Frankie’s Bel Air mansion seems kind of interesting), made up with the most lavish props imaginable including what seem like a hundred chandeliers spotted throughout and you could probably open an entire museum based on the paintings that are seen on the walls of these houses. Director/co-writer Russell Rouse actually did win an Oscar for being one of the writers of PILLOW TALK and his credits also include writing the original D.O.A. as well as directing some pretty good films like the noir tinged WICKED WOMAN, NEW YORK CONFIDENTIAL and HOUSE OF NUMBERS which has Jack Palance in a dual role as brothers—maybe he went mad with whatever he was trying to do with THE OSCAR but he certainly wasn’t a director without talent. Visual and dialogue recurrences that occur indicate an attempt at a thematic goal but they’re never anything less than ham-handed and never really amount to much of anything, each one just sitting there like a matzo ball in the middle of a scene.
As for friend Fane and his climb to fame from the greasers in small towns to Greenwich Village all the way out to Beverly Hills and Bel Air, given a background somehow involving a mother who apparently slept around and a father who had no idea until the son squealed on her (“No woman is ever better than his mother,” Hymie states in an attempt to explain his friend) which led to him blowing his brains out. Um, ok. It may take some time to realize that Frankie Fane (“I’m me. And that’s plenty good enough.”) isn’t an anti-hero or even a relatable scoundrel in a Sidney Falco way but just a total slimy bastard, nothing sympathetic about him, nothing, forever getting dressed as the woman he just bedded continues to lounge around behind him, furious that he’s blowing the scene so soon. I mean, it’s not like this is the first movie to have a lead character without anything to redeem him but the points that try to build sympathy for his predicament become even more laughable as a result, moments where he’s scared into peering at his possible future, fears of being nothing but a big hunk of meat (“…You bring me meat like this meat. It all has different names. Prime rib of Gloria. Shoulder Cut of Johnny. Filet Fane. Meat!” as studio head Cotton declares in his mammoth office) lead to nothing and by the next scene he’s acting like the same creep all over again. I can’t bring myself to describe the legendary final moment since it really shouldn’t be spoiled for anyone who hasn’t seen this film but, trust me, you’ll never be able to get it out of your mind. Whatever the point of THE OSCAR might be is muddled further in how its pulling back the curtain of the town reveals that the paragons of virtue are really the studio heads and agents who believe in the nobility and tradition of the Academy Awards. THE OSCAR seems to endorse wholeheartedly the nature of Hollywood and the awards themselves—I suppose they wouldn’t have been able to make use of the statuette and awards ceremony footage otherwise (shots of arrivals at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium under the opening credits seem to deliberately obscure exactly which ceremony this is but a 37th seems to peek through a few times). When Joseph Cotton’s studio head defends the sanctity of the ceremony he means it and the film means it. Even Milton Berle’s agent Kappy (a lot of K names in this film, what’s up with that?) comes off as so decent like a puppy who’s being incessantly barked at by an attack dog as if the film is trying to underline how those in charge of Hollywood include some of the most decent, hard-working people imaginable and you should always play fair with them. There’s very little in the way of believable verisimilitude (beats me what the time frame of the movie is. One year? Fifteen?), no matter how many times they drop the names of people like Jack Lemmon or Dean Martin (cast in ‘that spy picture over at Warner Brothers’) to make it seem like we’re right in the thick of Tinseltown. We do see Frankie dating an ultra-vain starlet played by Jean Hale eventually giving her a needed comeuppance but he’s just as much of a jerk as she is. The entire cast is filled with creeps, no one you’d want to spend any time with except for Elke Sommer playing a character who is at least a little sympathetic even if she does get blinded by Frank and his fame and by a certain point can seemingly think of nothing to do but confront him while wearing the most ridiculous looking negligee imaginable (she’s still mind-blogglingly sexy and Jill St. John doing a striptease isn’t bad to look at either). The way she looks aside, I really can’t think of a single good thing to say about THE OSCAR. It’s a terrible film. Awful. Horrendous. And there’s barely a moment in it that isn’t totally entertaining in its own way. I can’t get enough of it.
The effect the film has is so bizarre that I can’t get over just what a piece of wood Stephen Boyd is, how he never looks at all quite human, every moment is phony and overblown yet at the same time kind of mesmerizing as this man without morals or decency who’ll do anything he can to get his hands on the Oscar. Every prickish act seems oddly genuine as if it would never occur to him to behave any other way as if he’s an alien who thinks this is how human jerks behave and I can’t help but think that he really is Frankie Fane. Somehow if I actually heard that Boyd, who died in 1977 of a heart attack, was the nicest, sweetest guy in the world I’m not sure I’d believe it. And hey, will you stop beating on his ears, he’s up to here with all this bring-down! As for Tony Bennett who has to scream “Birdseed!” at one point in defiant protest it’s pretty clear why this is his only feature appearance not playing himself—do you think he ever brought up this film while appearing on ENTOURAGE a few years back? There’s probably not a moment where he doesn’t seem to make the absolutely wrong choice in how to play a scene and by a certain point the cumulative effect of his various actions makes his character seem, well, mentally slow, for lack of a better way of putting it. Elke Sommer, asking for the ethical structure of the universe, seems like she’s convinced all her crying and emoting and speechifying will make her eligible for an Oscar herself for playing all this but she can’t quite achieve getting around all that mealy-mouthed dialogue she’s clearly having trouble with. Eleanor Parker and Jill St. John seem to spend most of their screen time either shrieking at Frankie or over emoting as if on a godawful soap opera, given no direction to pull things back just a little.
Milton Berle is one who does manage to do something with his character, giving one of the calmest, most layered performances in the whole film even while dealing with dialogue like, “You leave a man’s career like a bag of broken glass and you say, ‘Don’t, Kappy’?”, even if he’s sort of playing this high-powered Hollywood agent as a Manhattan garment worker on his last ropes. And along with him the great Ernest Borgnine as a private detective hired by Frankie and Edie Adams as his wife just about fare better than anybody since their characters aren’t handed the obligation of speechifying so they can just play part of their roles for intentional comedy. Jean Hale is selfish starlet Sheryl Barker and Jack Soo is Sam the houseboy—really, if you’re going to have a houseboy, shouldn’t it be Jack Soo? Broderick Crawford, Ed Begley (second straight appearance on this site) and Walter Brennan appear as “Guest Stars” in cameos and playing themselves in addition to Bob Hope are the likes of Hedda Hopper (who passed away right around the time the film was released), Edith Head, Johnny Grant, Merle Oberon and playing himself in the movie’s surprise twist ending is….well, I probably shouldn’t give it away but the moment is pretty unforgettable and how many takes do you suppose he did? There’s also Peter Lawford, listed among the guest stars, but instead of playing himself actually appears as a washed-up actor named Steve Marks who is reduced to working as a headwaiter. In the context of the film on first viewing it’s almost confusing considering that Lawford’s career was beginning to hit the skids around this post-Rat Pack time. You can’t say that THE OSCAR isn’t at times somewhat intriguing when it comes to these points. Maybe that’s just part of what makes it oddly fascinating in all its badness.
Acknowledging that the film’s reception basically killed his feature career in the crib, Harlan Ellison has spoken of how some of his work was rewritten but, to his credit, he doesn’t seem to disavow total responsibility either. One of the handful of things I remember of that night he appeared for a Q&A at the Egyptian (Edie Adams, who has since left us, was there as well) was his mentioning that he had wanted Steve McQueen and Peter Falk for the two leads—this sounds better considerably better but you’d have to remove at least half the dialogue which I can imagine would have been an improvement as well. A film that really needs to be seen to fully appreciate its madness, THE OSCAR unfortunately isn’t on DVD but TCM does run it on occasion—once it was a choice of guest programmer Bill Maher, so points to him for that, and on another occasion they ran the film opposite the actual Oscars. I wonder who watched. It’s a rotten film that I suspect is a little of what I always wish Hollywood was anyway, particularly with overdone Percy Faith playing in the background (“Maybe September” is the song that makes up the love theme) as I hang at some nightclub where everyone is done up in formalwear. Maybe I’ll need to watch it again after this year’s show. And to all winners at the Academy Awards this year and all the years to come, I do hope the Oscar keeps you warm on cold nights.
“Go on and run! Who the hell needs you? You’re too stupid to understand. This damn town wasn’t trying to pull your guts out! Nobody was trying to shove you into a sewer. Look around, go ahead, look around! How does anybody win? You’re too stupid to know that. I’m going to win and that’s what counts! I’m gonna win! Go on and run, you freeloaders! Go on, run, who needs ya? Who needs ya? Freeloaders! FREELOADERS!”
Tuesday, February 21, 2012
The passing of legendary director Ken Russell this past December was yet another signpost that the time for a particular type of challenging film is receding even further into the distance. For me, this is one of those odd cases where I wish I had more to say about a certain subject but, in truth, I’ve always felt a little ambivalent at best about some of his films, maybe having to do with a few unpleasant screening experiences in college as much as anything. As a result, I’ve always had kind of an allergic reaction whenever confronted with his work. Maybe this means I need to turn in my Film Geek card, I don’t know, but I do recognize this as a flaw in myself. Actually, my distant memories of the likes of CRIMES OF PASSION and THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM are pretty good and, so help me, I even saw his film WHORE on opening night in lower Manhattan way back in the fall of 1991. When I was waiting out on the street to go in I got approached by, well, let’s just call her a real life version of the film’s title. She seemed interesting. Much more so than Theresa Russell, not giving one of her finer performances, ever was in the film, which also had just about the highest walkout ratio from a crowd I’ve ever witnessed. That was a fun night. More to the point, I did go to the American Cinematheque for their recent memorial screening of Russell’s THE DEVILS, even though it would be screened via digital source but since with this particular film that might be as good as I’d ever get--Warner Brothers seems so intent on keeping it buried I wonder if I’ll get a chance to see it under optimum viewing conditions ever again. So over two decades after seeing it for the first time in a screening that my memory has as being populated by a snickering hipster crowd that made me truly hate what I was seeing I found myself admiring THE DEVILS immensely, becoming aware of what a truly worthy, brave work it is and admiring how much it still says about our world today.
Maybe I’ll have more to say about THE DEVILS at some point in the future but for the time being I’ll focus on what for some time has been my personal favorite Ken Russell film even if it can’t really be considered a “Ken Russell film” as we’ve come to understand them to be in spite of a considerably bizarre tonal shift that is one of the most interesting things about it—I’m speaking of BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN, the third in the famed Harry Palmer spy series starring Michael Caine, released in 1967. Now, I’m not the person to address how the film may or may not fit in with the rest of Russell’s filmography but one thing that BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN actually sort of has in common with THE DEVILS is that it was also extremely difficult to see for a long period of time (one second-hand story I’ve heard was that for a time even its star couldn’t get so much as a VHS copy from MGM) though the reasons for this were somewhat different, presumably having to do with a certain music rights issue than any troublesome political content although due to certain elements of the film I almost wouldn’t be entirely surprised if that turned out to be the case as well. Regardless, with the scene in question excised the film now airs periodically on cable and was finally released on DVD in 2005. I’ll get to the nature of what was lost, but it’s really of minor concern particularly considering what some of the rest of the film contains, one of the more surprising examples of political satire I’ve encountered. As certain factions in this world get crazier and crazier by the day some of it may even be as timely as it’s ever been.
Former MI-5 agent Harry Palmer (Michael Caine), now a civilian working as a private investigator, has turned down another overture from his former superior Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman) to rejoin the agency when he is instructed by a mechanical voice on the phone to deliver a mysterious package to Helsinki. Not until he arrives with a package contains several virus-filled eggs that were in fact stolen from the British government does he discover that he is doing a job for his old friend Leo Newbigen (Karl Malden), an American working for something called ‘Crusade for Freedom’ and totally dependant on a special computer, known as The Brain, which issues his instructions. After spending time in Helsinki with Leo and his lady friend Anya (Françoise Dorléac) Palmer is finally tracked down by Ross, who recruits him back to the secret service so he can infiltrate the organization, retrieve the eggs and find out why they were stolen. The path eventually leads him to Texas oil magnate General Midwinter (Ed Begley) a madman in possession of the titular computer with his own army as well as plans to defeat communism by invading Latvia, start World War III and defeat the Soviets but it may not entirely jibe with what Newbigen has in mind.
BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN was preceded by 1965’s THE IPCRESS FILE (directed by Sidney J. Furie) and 1966’s FUNERAL IN BERLIN (directed by Guy Hamilton) and one interesting point about the Harry Palmer series is how different each entry is even down to the basic visual style. Producer Harry Saltzman was of course also one of those in charge of the Bond films at the time but I wonder if it was Albert Broccoli, his partner on the 007 series, who insisted that the approach from one film to the next remain as consistent as possible. In contrast, the three Palmer films made in the 60s (Caine actually made a cable TV return to the character in the 90s but I haven’t seen those films and I’ll bet you haven’t either) don’t really share any major common elements beyond Caine as Palmer, a few side characters, producer Saltzman and the Len Deighton source material. Each film is different enough that they could inhabit an entirely different series. Even the ultra-cool classic John Barry score to THE IPCRESS FILE, possibly the most iconic element of the films aside from Palmer’s eyewear recognizable now from the Austin Powers films, didn’t make a return appearance in the followups. By the time of the third entry BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN (screenplay by John McGrath, from Len Deighton’s novel) the film features a majestic theme done in Grand Piano-style by Richard Rodney Bennett and even given a full Maurice Binder main title sequence treatment as if they were trying to move the character away from the very specifically English milieu of the first film into more of a Bond-type realm, something that the end result sort of does and sort of doesn’t.
The tone of the movie isn’t exactly schizophrenic but it does feel a little all over the place as if Russell was desperately trying to do something other than what was expected from your usual spy caper. He certainly never goes as crazy with the camera angles as Sidney Furie did in the first film but certainly does succeed in making it all much more active than the workmanlike approach of Guy Hamilton in his entry—Russell’s direction is constantly active, darting about the frame and making every single close up count as well, with unexpected bits of humor playing off of expectations like the thugs who Palmer expects to be trouble behaving in the exact opposite way. When the story moves into Syd Cain production design territory within the villain’s lair in the second hour Russell never seems to want to stand back and let the set dominate the scene, instead moving his camera through it, not taking even a moment to linger on the sheer size of Midwinter’s lair since Palmer doesn’t seem particularly impressed by it either--the credits include a thanks to Honeywell for the use of their facilities but wherever all this was shot the place certainly has a correct Bond-type look to it. Russell always keeps things moving, even down to how this feels like an early example of a globe-trotting film that doesn’t even bother with the expected shots of planes landing and taking off and also uses the environment in seemingly every single shot particularly in the Helsinki location footage in a way that goes beyond making it a travelogue in a Bond film sort of way, adding immensely to the unique, almost otherwordly feel that comes across. Credit should also certainly go to Billy Williams for this (along with some stunningly luscious close-ups of Dorléac) and, frankly, it has such an effect that I feel much more like I’ve actually experienced some of Finland here, even if it is a version of the place that feels like out of a dream, more than I ever get with something like the way Japan is presented in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE. But I’m not sure that Russell’s abilities, or interest, extended to making sense of the convoluted story or doing much of anything with the character of Harry Palmer so after everything has been set up the second half hour is a little bit too much of the character being sent off by Newbigen on missions involving Latvian gangsters and the like for reasons that feel nebulous at best.
The icy cold of Finland, the sort of setting that feels appropriate for a late 60s Michael Caine spy film, is just about all that sticks in the brain from this half, more so than the spy machinations do anyway and for long stretches Caine as Palmer doesn’t really have much to do beyond that wandering through the snow--that glimpse of the walls of his detective office in the very first scene provides him with more characterization than anything else that occurs in the rest of the film. He’s sort of detached from the main story, not really being affected by anything and, to be honest, I lose track of the plot pretty quickly soon after Colonel Ross turns up in Finland (“It would have befuddled Einstein,” Caine says of that plot in his first autobiography “What’s It All About?”) with maybe a few too many double crosses to keep track of. But when the second hour hits and things move to Texas where the fervent anti-communist Midwinter is finally introduced it comes as a complete jolt--I can still remember being floored by it on my first viewing at an American Cinematheque Harry Palmer triple bill back in ’02 where after the dryness of the two films which came before a friend and I were stunned by what we were witnessing, particularly in the context of that point in time. The way the blustering, through the roof madness of Midwinter, a power hungry millionaire in Texas, seen at his barbecue-slash-political rally declaring love for god and country presented with absolutely unambiguous Nazi-style imagery is presented here maybe seems even more shocking today in the current political environment—you know, in the ‘21st century’ as Midwinter describes the lair where he keeps his Brain. Russell seems intent on making the insanity of Midwinter as absolute and as potentially dangerous as possible while at the same time portraying him as nothing but ludicrous, convinced that others have been brainwashed by the communists and remaining in Texas since that’s the only place where the air is pure. Even his henchmen always seem to be idiotically dressed in cowboy garb as if its part of their uniform in a SPECTRE-type way.
Through its portrayal of the cold war, remnants of post-war Europe and maybe too much of a willingness to place ones fate in the future, personified by the Billion Dollar computer of the title which is fed information then issues its orders (‘it cuts out thinking,’ as Palmer observes) Russell seems to be painting a world of three sides, none of which are to be trusted--America is too all-consumed by either greed or utter madness, Russia seems more than willing to remain jovially fixated on its past and England, while an interested party, is too ineffectual in its bureaucracy. Palmer, the one sane island in all this, barely makes it through himself. Russell keeps things all over the place through the Alexander Nevsky-fueled climax, including how I’m not sure exactly what Palmer’s plan in chasing down Midwinter and his army actually is, but the director certainly seems more interested in the absurdity of it all than in a typical spy movie climax or even in providing the feeling that this story has reached a conclusion that actually makes sense. But it’s to the credit of BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN, and maybe why I find it so compulsively rewatchable, that it never seems to want to settle down into one particular tone, veering from archly serious spy tale to genuinely manic satire in a STRANGELOVE vein and just to the edge of outright spoof, held back by the grounding of Caine and also Malden. In the end it almost feels like a Harry Palmer picture by default since there’s so little left of the character first established in THE IPCRESS FILE—you can feel Caine as an actor detached for long stretches, as if he never read the script all that closely before shooting and is realizing only when he’s gotten to the freezing location how little he really has to do. Even Malden’s part doesn’t amount to much in the end, even if he is the co-lead, and I’m still not sure if he’s meant to be considered an outright villain or corrupt scoundrel who realizes the error of his ways or what. Even the supercomputer of the title is kind of forgotten about by the end and I suppose I still have some questions about a few points. On the other hand, I do find some of the final moments oddly touching, partly because when a character says goodbye to Harry I know they’re not going to meet again in another sequel but also because what happens between Caine and Dorleac along with what she says to him only adds to her own enigmatic quality, to whatever it is that keeps some of this snow-covered imagery swirling around in my brain. The movie ends on a cheap joke that kind of disregards much of what was presumably at stake and it doesn’t really work but Caine helps to sell the moment. It’s like Palmer is finally ready to make peace with the madness that surrounds him on all sides and if there weren’t any further sequels made at the time that’s probably a good place to leave him.
There’s a trajectory in the development of Michael Caine as movie star as he emerges found in these three films and if he feels the most Palmer-like in IPCRESS but the way he refuses Ross’s overtures at the beginning makes it feel a little like the rising actor is finally through with all this silliness and not keep those glasses on all the time anymore. He’s a little too laid back at times but when he explodes at Dorléac at one point and, especially, at Begley later on (“YOU, GENERAL MIDWINTER, YOU ARE THE BIGGEST IDIOT I HAVE EVER MET!”) it’s as if the actor himself is finally releasing what he’s kept bottled up over not having much to play through much of the film. It’s not the most satisfying Caine performance, mainly because he doesn’t always have much to work with but it is fun watching him navigate this terrain. Malden attacks the role of Newbigen with complete gusto while Ed Begley gives a performance which may very well be one of the few times where I’ve wondered if any actor was going to suffer a fatal heart attack on camera before completing his role—to call it over the top would probably be overstating the matter, with him profusely sweating and bellowing through his endless monologues as loud as possible as if the fate of the free world rests on his next proclamation (“I want my country to win. And the way to win is to strike hard and strike first. I love my country and my dream is to make the thing I love strong. Do you understand me? STRONG! STRONG! STRONG! STRONG!!!”) …which, considering this is what the character believes anyway is exactly how he should be playing it. The cello playing Dorléac, making her final film appearance before being tragically killed in a car accident in June 1967 (both this and THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT were released posthumously) is never anything less than beguiling looking very much like her sister Catherine Deneuve but possessing her own particular enigmatic presence that makes me just want to gaze at her for hours on end even if her character doesn’t always make sense. Along with a few particular close-ups composer Bennett also seems to particularly embrace this aspect of her presence and his recurring theme for her character (which makes much use of the Ondes Martenot, an electronic instrument with a sound that might be familiar to some from its prominent use in Elmer Bernstein’s scores for HEAVY METAL and GHOSTBUSTERS) makes each moment of hers that much more unforgettable. I wish we’d gotten many more films with her. FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE’s Vladek Sheybal appears as a scientist and in addition to Doleman who plays Colonel Ross for the third and final time, Oskar Homolka reprises his FUNERAL IN BERLIN role as the Russian Colonel Stok. Susan George makes an early appearance as ‘Russian Girl on Train’ and Donald Sutherland, who I believe was in London working on THE DIRTY DOZEN at the time, has one line as a computer scientist.
The infamous deleted scene that I referred to isn’t all that important anyway, simply a brief scene involving some black marketeers arguing over a few Beatles records that are playing as Palmer walks past them, no doubt a music rights issue. Cute, but not really missed and if you’re ever lucky enough to see a 35mm print of BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN it’ll still be in there. Maybe the new availability of the film has even caused Michael Caine to change his mind since his recent autobiography “The Elephant To Hollywood” seems to treat it with more fondness than his first, calling it “a very atmospheric picture” which, after all, it is. He does still recall the bitter cold in Finland without much fondness but considering how freezing it actually was, however beautiful it looks, who can blame him on that point. I want to say that a little more discipline in the storytelling would have helped some of the political points to cohere but I suppose asking Russell to be more disciplined, even if his filmmaking style hadn’t fully developed yet, is probably missing the point in what he does like wondering why John Ford wants to make westerns or wishing the actors in a Preston Sturges comedy wouldn’t talk so fast. At the very least its madness is presented in a way that truly is unique, particularly in the annals of 60s spy movies and makes me all the more fascinated with it. Usually after writing one of these pieces I’m a little sick of the film but at the moment all I can think is how much I’d like to see it projected again right now and that gives me hope for when I summon the courage to revisit (or, in the case of a few, see for the first time) certain other Ken Russell films in the future. I mean, I’m trying, Ringo, I’m trying real hard to be the shepherd. And nobody ever said this was going to be easy. I’m not sure I’d want it to be anyway.
Wednesday, February 15, 2012
Sometimes I’m just easy to please. For example, when during the very first frames of MIRAGE with that old-school Universal logo in black & white as the first Quincy Jones sting hitting the soundtrack, I’m hooked. And I can’t imagine that I won’t like what immediately follows. Released in 1965, MIRAGE isn’t ranked among the classic thrillers of its era and it really isn’t one of them anyway. It’s safe to say that the film isn’t all that well known these days as if after opening to a decent response from the world (“…an interesting, fairly taut, if not especially credible, chase mystery” so said A.H. Weiler in the New York Times review) it then slipped away, just another film that for whatever reason hasn’t become as well-regarded as others have. I recently revisited it for the first time in about a decade—I’m pretty sure the first viewing years ago was when I was investigating the career of screenwriter Peter Stone—and found it to be even better than I remembered, the sort of film that I’d gladly recommend to anyone looking for a mid-60s thriller that they haven’t stumbled across yet. The icy cool that comes off of every frame offers a certain MAD MEN vibe in all the right ways and if AMC was a network which had any interest in programming films into their lineup that would tie into that show this would be an ideal choice. It’s not set in the world of advertising but its presentation of men in suits occupying a New York high rise in that decade definitely gives a similar impression, as well as more than a few evocative glimpses at a type of New York that feels more and more in the past all the time. There just aren’t enough black & white movies actually filmed on location there and maybe this element is something that strikes me as much as anything—even if the film is set in a city that has drained the basic humanity out of people the more I watch the film the more I desperately wish that I could step into it to wander around this Manhattan for a little while, as long as it remained in this sort of monochrome. MIRAGE isn’t a great movie and I’m not trying to make a claim that it’s anything particularly extraordinary but it is a good, slick, entertaining piece of work that feels like it’s maybe fallen through the cracks past the other films that ther world seems to remember, things like CHARADE. At the very least, sometimes it seems worth pointing out that a certain film exists.
Acting strangely when a blackout in the New York office building in which he works and after famed humanitarian Charles Calvin falls to his death from the place as well in a presumed suicide, cost accountant David Stillwell (Gregory Peck) goes home to find a mysterious man (Jack Weston) pulling a gun on him and insisting they’re going to take a little trip together. After overpowering the man and with no idea of what is happening David comes to the realization that he has had amnesia for the past two years. Several times he meets a mysterious woman named Shela (Diane Baker), one of the first people he met during that black out in an encounter involving a staircase to a basement that later disappeared, but she’s of no help to him, only making references to someone named ‘The Major’. Having no luck when he goes to the police and even a psychiatrist who insists that no one could possibly have amnesia for two years, on a whim David decides to hire novice private detective Ted Caselle (Walter Matthau) to find out who he is, why somebody might actually want him dead and what really caused his amnesia.
Writing out a brief plot synopsis is usually my least favorite part of these things even if sometimes helps me sort out the film a little better. And while a film with a plot that can be easily synopsized is by no means a prerequisite the twisty nature of this film does make it somewhat difficult since it leaves so much unspoken right from the start, set in a world where people’s names are easily forgotten what with these anonymous businessmen in suits carrying briefcases have all blended together into one inhuman mass. It’s clear that something is up right from the get go with an off-kilter opening set in a blackout with a main character who finds himself in the dark both literally and figuratively—since he knows who he is there’s more going on than a case of simple amnesia but there’s no way to be sure exactly what and almost immediately the film begins to lay out its cards in intriguing style. As the clues begin to fall into place MIRAGE forms itself into an extremely engaging thriller at its very best with a screenplay by Peter Stone (based on a story by Walter Ericson) that correctly balances the mystery and a certain strain of wit that also helps to keep us off guard. Stone’s many credits also include the romantic caper CHARADE, which does seem to be a confirmed classic for the known world as well as personal favorite THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE—of course, Walter Matthau is a common link between each of these films as well and to stretch a point MIRAGE could almost be a sort of bridge between the old-school caper qualities of the earlier film and the harsher New York of PELHAM ONE TWO THREE several years later which feels like it’s abandoned the sleek office buildings of this film for the unrelenting madness the city had found itself in by the seventies. Matthau’s introduction here actually seems like a deliberate mirror of his first scene in CHARADE, even if his character does go in a different direction, and like that other film MIRAGE also has a comically menacing trio out to get the lead here played enjoyably by Weston, House Jameson and none other than George Kennedy, yet another carryover from CHARADE.
Unlike that film and the later ARABESQUE (also with Peck and co-written by Peter Stone under a pseudonym) the wit in MIRAGE is kept at a lower and drier key, while still very much present, and it never focuses quite so much on the romance angle--it could almost be looked at as a flaw that Diane Baker sort of straddles the line between being a romantic lead and supporting player as well as one whose behavior doesn’t always entirely make sense but maybe MIRAGE never goes down that path to keep us in the dark as much as the film’s own lead is. On first glance the entire plot seems like more of a shell game than anything which isn’t entirely incorrect since it’s the sort of mystery where everything seems more intriguing before it gets explained and never becomes quite as bizarre as maybe it could have, with simple flashes back to people saying key pieces of dialogue as Stillwell begins to make sense of them. THE CAINE MUTINY’s Edward Dmytryk directed, maybe not the sort of journeyman to go to if you’re looking for ultra-stylish Hitchcockian delirium but maybe that’s not what the film needed anyway since as things play his square filmmaking style matches up somewhat with Peck’s own personality. Another director might have played up the witticisms even more but Dmytryk keeps a hold on the main character’s desperation as opposed to observing him bemused from a distance and it keeps the suspense going, even while the genial wisecracks offered by Matthau prevent the tone from getting too weighed down as Quincy Jones’ music goes for a more menacing, jazzier feel than a Mancini score might have and it compliments the visuals perfectly with its vibe. Not everything about MIRAGE holds and maybe the deliberate coldness is part of the reason—the romance never seems to matter all that much and this isn’t the sort of film where it would make sense to stop while a Henry Mancini love theme is warbled anyway so maybe the ending comes off as a little too pat. For that matter, I just watched it and still can’t quite remember exactly what Shela’s role is when everything finally gets revealed. Maybe it doesn’t really matter. But the storyline is a grabber with a jagged uncertainty brought to Peck’s various encounters with people he doesn’t remember, particularly in the first half, and it’s a film that really deserves to be better known.
There’s also the peripheral enjoyment that comes from all that New York location work like a chase through Central Park or even just random shots of Gregory Peck wandering around the city and even from some of the extras—I’m particularly intrigued by a guy who seems to be looking right at the camera as it moves past him at 6:48-52. Released in 1965, the period does seem a little late for a back & white film which makes me wonder if that has something to do with why it isn’t better known now, like it didn’t get many TV airings as a result (Director of Photography was Joseph MacDonald whose many credits include MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, NIAGARA, PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET and WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER?)—it’s easy to imagine a color version having the same flat, faded look as most Universal films of the period so it’s dated that much better since they didn’t. Because of the nature of its look, the film’s inherent squareness feels oddly adventurous and the stark monochrome look used feels absolutely right for this world, this New York which was even then changing rapidly from the ramshackle office where the likes of Matthau’s Caselle works out of (his office is at Columbus Circle in the location where it looks like the Gulf & Western Building would be built just a few years later) to the ultra modern skyscrapers that would soon fully take over the city. It’s a place where people are more comfortable among others remaining literally in the dark, where friends don’t seem to be friends and everyone eventually becomes a part of this landscape with no one able to tell if any of these men wearing suits up in these high rises have disappeared for years or have been in the next office over the whole time. MIRAGE is set in a harsh world, a cold world, where the suits have begun to blend together and enough is starting to become automated that they’re already wondering if people are on their way out through some intriguingly prescient running comments regarding automation and globalization, where paying someone means more than actually thanking them and where anything that doesn’t seem designed to shape more people into becoming just another faceless suit is the stuff of useless trivia as well as how individuals don’t really matter anymore: “You almost got me!” shouts someone to a guman who’s on his side. “So?” is the response. How much do we want to remember? How much do we want to face who we really are in this world that seems to want to rob us of our humanity? How much do we want to admit to what kind of human being we aren’t? Even if all it feels like in the end is a series of plot devices laid out building to revelations that feel explained so literally they maybe don’t have the necessary impact, with maybe the most likable character done away with and completely forgotten about when ‘THE END’ hits the screen, well, it is entertaining and maybe even improves on repeat viewings when you can stop focusing on that shell game and just lose yourself in that sleek office building vibe.
Running around New York in his grey suit Gregory Peck isn’t quite Cary Grant in NORTH BY NORTHWEST but I suppose the comparison isn’t fair—unlike that film the character of David Stillwell is meant to be haunted by this predicament of not knowing who he is and Peck commands the screen at every moment as he tries to figure things out. With the romance not quite the focus it would be in something like ARABESQUE which teamed Sophia Loren with Peck, Diane Baker (a year after MARNIE) while always beguiling at times seems a little unsure as to just how much of an enigmatic quality the script is asking her to project but her cool demeanor fits right in to this environment and her uncertainty of this world seems projected into her own uncertainty. Coming shortly before he exploded in THE FORTUNE COOKIE and THE ODD COUPLE, Walter Matthau is dynamite as Caselle, bringing a new energy the moment he walks onscreen that makes things much more fun. He doesn’t steal the movie so much as just walk away with it in his jacket pocket along with that Dr. Pepper he orders instead of scotch, making one more wisecrack while doing so to make sure we don’t notice. It’s funny that I’m focusing on him so much since his screentime is only limited to a section in the middle of the movie and I almost wonder if his part was cut down at a certain point to keep him from overshadowing the more serious Peck too much—that’s the sort of impact he has on the film. Jack Weston has some very darkly funny moments as a surprisingly paranoid henchman, George Kennedy in his steel-rimmed glasses (“I owe you some pain, Mr. Stillwell”) is about as physically imposing as he ever was, Kevin McCarthy oozes sliminess as Josephson, the sort of corporate flunkie who calls everyone bubbie or baby or cookie as if all he’s thinking about is cocktail hour while Leif Erickson is the mysterious Major. Robert H. Harris is particularly good sparring with Peck in his two extended scenes as a suspicious psychiatrist, Hari Rhodes of CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is a skeptical police lieutenant and Franklin Cover of THE JEFFERSONS makes an early appearance lecturing a group of students who in a nice moment offers to Peck that lecturing about Mother Nature “offers no real benefit to their future as competitors in society’s marketplace.”
There’s a lot to read into the film and its overriding theme of the dehumanization that is happening in its world and is, obviously, still happening over forty-five years after it was made. Certain aspects might seem familiar to people-- Sydney Pollack’s 3 DAYS OF THE CONDOR certainly bares some similarities including a mysterious character known as “The Major” and I could also believe that some of the thematics laid out in the visual design might have been a minor influence to John Carpenter when he made MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN. And it also works as what it’s meant to be, a mid-60s fever dream made up of parts that seem specifically designed for my enjoyment, even if I can tell that it’s not quite as successful as certain other films of the era. Regardless, this is one of those movies where I’m sure I’ll always be sucked into watching the whole thing from the moment that Universal logo flashes onscreen. Sometimes it’s as if those old studio logos are just about the only things in this world we can depend on. Things like that which give us such joy can help to keep us human.