Saturday, March 31, 2012

Straight From The Shoulder

So it’s happened again. I’ve gotten in the habit of staying up late watching movies, seeing how much later I can push it to the darkness. One problem in all this is that at the same time I’ve been trying to make it a habit to get up early every morning so I don’t find myself still lying around at 11 AM, trying to convince myself to finally go shower. So it’s not an ideal situation. Some nights it’s like a movie where at the end the hero is left by himself, wandering into the night wondering about the woman who left him high and dry, the sort that should be only 75 minutes long but instead it just goes on and on. That’s the world. That’s the way it works.

I could believe that if DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK had been included in the Fox Noir DVD line it would probably be considered the surprise of the bunch but as fate would have it the 1952 film features Marilyn Monroe in an early starring performance so naturally it’s always packaged in with those titles. Except for the occasional SOME LIKE IT HOT viewing it’s actually been some time since I’ve seen any Monroe film but, her talent aside, in my head I always wind up lumping several of them in together in a 50’s-Fox-CinemaScope-gaudy color sort of way, which isn’t always where my interests lie. And really, is there a more agonizing experience imaginable than sitting through THERE’S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS? Even if some of the imagery is iconic, would anyone place THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH among Billy Wilder’s best? Are you really going to try to convince me that there’s much of value in LET’S MAKE LOVE? The reputation of DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK has never made it seem all that notable, with some Monroe biographies barely spending a page on the picture. Not much praise is offered either—even Norman Mailer called it “a slow and disappointing piece of cinema” in his bio “Marilyn” while adding that it’s worth a look if only for the chance to see the actress give a serious performance, a take which seems more than a little dismissive of the rest of the film, but far be it from me to pick a fight with Norman Mailer.

The more noirs I see the more it becomes clear that it’s almost impossible to find one that isn’t at least a little enjoyable in some way. Sure, a few wind up disappointing and some simply don’t work but they almost always provide some sort of pleasure, if only at luxuriating in that smoke-and-booze filled black & white world for 80 minutes. The reputation of DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK seems to have improved over time, maybe because people are discovering the noir angle in it but there’s also the genuine surprise of seeing the normally bubbly Monroe in a role like this. And the film works extremely well in its own small way partly because of how effective she is in this role but also because of the elements that surround her, including Richard Widmark as cool as he ever was, as well as the sight of Anne Bancroft in her first film, displaying a huge amount of cool presence in not much screen time, playing an ingénue part that doesn’t quite fit her talents but even that makes the atmosphere all the more unique. The compact narrative, set entirely in a hotel in one night with the key ingredient of two hotel rooms that look out at each other via courtyard is another element that is well utilized and watching this movie makes me want to go stay in a hotel for a week or so to soak in some of this environment, preferably one that has an Automat (also mentioned in dialogue) across the street. Even an early bit where Anne Bancroft chats with a bartender then suddenly turns around into her spotlight to begin singing “How About You” makes me wish that sort of thing would happen more often at the Dresden, but I doubt the world is like this anymore, if it even ever was. Did I ever tell you my own story about a girl in the other room across the courtyard? I probably shouldn’t be writing about it here. DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK has to be a case where the people involved make the end result a little more than the simple B it would have been if that right sort of talent wasn’t there. And as I drift later into the night, maybe I’ll put it on once again.

Nell Forbes (Marilyn Monroe) who appears at first glance to be a shy, quiet young woman, has been brought down to the McKinley Hotel by her elevator operator Uncle Eddie (Elisha Cook, Jr.) to babysit for a couple going to a banquet in the hotel that evening. Down in the hotel lounge, singer Lyn Lesley (Anne Bancroft) has decided to break it off with her boyfriend of six months pilot Jed Towers (Richard Widmark), saying that because of his cold nature she sees no future for them. Back up in his room brooding over what’s happened, Jed spies Nell across the courtyard and decides to give her room a call. Soon enough he’s over in her room on the make and with a bottle of rye, not aware of the little girl in the next room who Nell is supposed to be watching and with no idea of how unstable Nell really is.

Considering how much is known about Marilyn Monroe by now it’s almost hard not to watch the increasingly unstable character she plays DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK and wonder about its relation to the real thing. At the very least it seems like a better use of Monroe’s talents than the material she was sometimes given to play in frothy comedies—maybe those were the films that helped develop her forever-iconic stature more than this film did but a few were still a waste when it came to what she was clearly capable of. DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK was directed by Roy Baker, later commonly known as Roy Ward Baker, notable for directing A NIGHT TO REMEMBER along with what were some of the better later Hammer films including QUATERMASS AND THE PIT and DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE. One of several films he made for Fox during this period, DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK has the basic feel of other such films from the studio around the time, down to the blaring trumpets over the opening titles which seemed to be in every single one of their movies, whether they fit or not. But Baker brings a swift approach to the material, establishing the atmosphere of this hotel (a slightly out-of-fashion hotel as indicated in some dialogue) in broad strokes, offering a subtly effective job in laying out the corners of the place along with the views across that courtyard and legendary cinematographer Lucien Ballard certain helps with this evocative atmosphere.

Doing a smooth job at staging so much of the film in a single setting so it never feels like just a programmer being made on a budget, director Baker clearly knows how to always keep what’s going on in the various places active in relation to each other, aided by how Bancroft’s crooning (well, I’m assuming she’s dubbed) is piped into the various rooms. Cleverly, doing this keeps her character alive when she isn’t seen for a long stretch in the middle. And he arranges the elements in ideal fashion so when everything happening in this hotel room all finally bubbles over, leading to the phone ringing at the most inopportune moment imaginable, the moment pays off extremely well. The screenplay by Daniel Taradash from the BLANK by Charlotte Armstrong contains a good amount of snazzy dialogue, particularly during the stretch when Widmark gets to know Monroe (one favorite exchange: “I like you. I’ll probably dream about you tonight.” “Don’t be rash.”) which maybe falters a little when it tries to get more serious, like some of what Bancroft is handed, but this is almost a minor quibble. The genuine tension that comes from both the cross-cutting of various parts of the hotel along with characters who have been allowed to develop even within a brief span of time makes it clear just how strong some of this film is. Running just 76 minutes DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK is tight and fast, not wasting time for a second—I think we spend about twenty seconds with the parents down in that banquet because there’s no point in staying away from the likes of Monroe and Widmark any more than is necessary. Of course, this is fitting for a film set within the span of just a few hours, but the pairing of the two works so well that it makes me wish they could have worked together again.

DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK may be noir but Nell isn’t some sort of femme fatale to be cruelly vanquished, just a girl who’s been damaged by the past, by the war, by the night and set off again at the most inopportune time through no fault of her own. Sex doesn’t even seem to be a part of what’s going on in her head—when she dresses up in the wife’s clothes and jewelry she’s almost doing it as a little girl would, not even seeming to comprehend how attractive she might be. As things play out it’s a film where the most interesting character is really a catalyst for the conflict the lead is going through with his own love interest, moving Widmark’s pilot from a smooth operator looking for nothing more than a drink, a kiss and a laugh now and then who uses a bit of trickery to coax a dog into an elevator to realizing that he has to find a way to genuinely connect with Nell somehow in order to help her. The smiles that do occur at the fade-out feel a little obligatory considering what’s just happened and after one character’s anguished exclamation of, “I guess we’ve never seen anybody like her,” in relation to Nell (makes sense in relation to the actress being referred to as well) nothing else sticks quite as much. Watching Marilyn Monroe as she baffles Richard Widmark and almost everyone else around with her genuinely unexpected behavior has had that sort of lasting effect.

That effect results in what is certainly one of Monroe’s strongest performances and, even if it has gotten more attention in recent years, one that remains one of her most underappreciated. Her approach is not to play instability in a big movie-star sort of way but as if she’s actually turning into this damaged person, imploding into her very being. Not only does the grief she feels seem genuine so does her instability, how clear it becomes that she shouldn’t be anywhere near this girl she’s supposed to be taking care of. That mechanical yet haunting way she reads that story to the girl or how she calmly, eerily, tells the girl (played by Donna Corcoran) what the people across the courtyard are doing and, in her interactions with this guy she’s invited over, the ‘happily ever after’ in her head that she seems to be deluding herself into thinking is there. Richard Widmark, the one who does get the movie star role, is Mr. Smooth and in every movement sells this guy who in one evening gets how he’s set in his ways shaken up from several directions, eyes darting at someone who he thinks is lingering a little too long and completely baffled at how to handle this unstable person he’s gotten mixed up with after being cooped up with her for a few minutes. Anne Bancroft (only about 22 here, which seems impossible) doesn’t have as much screentime and I could believe she seems visibly uncomfortable done up as a nightclub singer in an ingénue role but the mature glamour she exudes is undeniable, turning a role that would be an also-ran in other hands into someone who matches right up with the marquee stars. When she finally shares the screen with Monroe it’s like two constellations are meeting. Lurene Tuttle and Jim Backus are the parents of the girl (not much of a part for Backus, actually) and the great, jittery, overly talkative Elisha Cook, Jr. as Nell’s uncle is basically playing the Elisha Cook, Jr. role but, frankly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

As I write this I’m sitting, glancing at the window across the way which is dark right now. The girl in particular hasn’t been in there for a long time anyway. Instead, I’ll focus on DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK, the sort of film that I’ve found myself liking more and more as time has gone on. Because it’s the sort of film that works so well I feel more people should know about it but also because it’s the sort of film, the sort of surprising genre piece, I’ve found myself becoming increasingly attracted to as time as gone on. Films like this don’t get made anymore, at least not like this, any more than this sort of hotel life goes on either. But it did get made and it’s still around now for me to watch once again in the dead of night and dream of going down to a lounge where Anne Bancroft is crooning for hours on end. Or dream about the girl across the way. As long as I love them, maybe they won’t be old movies. Maybe they’ll just be the movies that I love.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Not All Habits Are Bad

Then there are those long rainy nights where I find myself thinking about some of those women even more than I usually do. And I still don’t understand them any better. Usually when I see films made in L.A. a few years before I arrived here my eyes are always darting around looking for familiar sights and the streets usually seem a little emptier than they do now, as if it’s the city I know but from my own particular vantage point the place isn’t fully formed yet. Of course, everywhere in the world probably looked a little more sparse twenty years ago. But the way the city seems so devoid of life outside the scope of the characters is one thing that stuck out for me recently while revisiting Sandra Locke’s IMPULSE, released in April 1990 just a few years before I hit the scene, but it took me a few minutes to realize that this obviously wasn’t going for an accurate portrayal of life in the City of Angels back then so much an attempt to get a certain neo-noir vibe going. An opening shot overlooking a particularly desolate Sunset Blvd. has to have been filmed around 3:30 to be that deserted and maybe for director Sondra Locke this was a film that was really meant to be experienced at such a late hour as well, the time of night when there’s the chance that certain impulses are always going to get the better of you. A few scenes are set in the rain and as I watched the film for the first time in years recently on a lonely, rainy Saturday night the mood it gave off seemed ideal. Theresa Russell never showed up at my door to complete the feeling but, hey, life isn’t perfect. It certainly isn’t these days. A film that I fittingly first saw in a mostly empty theater, IMPULSE didn’t get much attention when it was released—considering it made just over $2.5 million and never went wider than 155 theaters I don’t even think it got much of a release—and with no DVD release it’s pretty much forgotten by now but I’ve always had a fondness for what the film managed to achieve in its own low-key, no-nonsense way and it proved to be extremely rewarding to see how well it’s held up over twenty years later. Along with being a strong reminder of what a dynamic presence Theresa Russell has been in films when seen at her best, how there still really isn’t anyone else quite like her. The film has had so few people willing to say good things about it through the years that I feel a little like I’m giving away a secret. Or maybe this is just a case where I’m the only one who feels this way.

Lottie Mason (Theresa Russell) is a Los Angeles vice cop who regularly works undercover as a prostitute. Admitting to the police psychiatrist she’s being forced to go to by a department unconvinced of her stability she even admits that the work excites her, that she sometimes wonders what it would be like to lose control. Unfortunately in her job she has to regularly deal with harassment by department head Lt. Joe Morgan (George Dzunda) but she also catches the eye of Assistant D.A. Stan Harris (Jeff Fahey), busy with a case involving an organized crime figure who can’t be located, but clearly interested in Lottie in ways beyond just using her for an undercover assignment. Sparks fly between the two pretty quickly but a bust gone array sends her to the edge where on impulse she makes the sort of decision she’s been wondering about that could blur the line between the two halves of her job little too much. Before she even realizes what she’s done she finds herself at the absolute wrong place at the wrong time and needs to cover her tracks fast.

Hey, if I could figure out some of these women in my life maybe I wouldn’t have to write this stuff and maybe one thing this film does is remind me of how some of them are never going to be figured out so maybe I shouldn’t bother to try anyway. Looking up the dates reveals that IMPULSE (no relation to any other film with the same title) opened just a few weeks after Kathryn Bigelow’s BLUE STEEL, another film directed by a woman about a female cop in a man’s world. I’ve written before on my ambivalent feelings for that film, one with a narrative and characters that ultimately become both ludicrous and secondary to the sensation, regardless of the visual obsession Bigelow clearly brings to the table. In comparison, Locke’s work on IMPULSE (the second feature directed by the actress after RATBOY, which I’ve never seen) reveals that while she may not have Bigelow’s eye for pure style she’s much more interested in how the events of the film affect her lead character while always keeping the momentum building. She’s clearly doing whatever it takes to bring an immediate intensity to every sequence, aided immeasurably by a look courtesy of director of photography Dean Semler (who shot DANCES WITH WOLVES right after this) that brings a hard light, noirish tinge to this look at a rainy, slightly empty L.A. where it always seems to have the mood of darkness even in broad daylight, poking into the hangovers a few of the characters are no doubt suffering through. Locke keeps her camera focused on her leads while always cannily making use of the space around them within a given scene and she displays extreme confidence in how the various action beats are laid out even down to the smallest moments—when an undercover job is about to go bad there’s total clarity laid out through the buildup of how things are going wrong and when a phone call informs someone about another person in the room it’s done with an absolute minimum of fuss as the characters work out the chess moves of the moment and a brief shootout in a liquor store is a thing of beauty in how it resolves itself. The locations, whether grungy or upscale, feel like they’re all connected within the sleaze of the city giving a tone to the entire film which looking at it now comes off as refreshingly adult in a way that just doesn’t happen anymore.

Working from a very sharp script (Story by John De Marco, Screenplay by John De Marco and Leigh Chapman) that feels confident enough in the portrayal of its lead character that the key plot movement involving her doesn’t even occur until surprisingly deep into the running time, allowing us to get fully into her head by that point and while the impulse of the title involves a pretty big coincidence—which, as we all know, really does happen in life sometimes—when it happens everything has been built up so carefully that the point of a sudden close-up of Lottie as a certain sound rings out hits like a slap to the face. Even the little moments linger in the air, like the touch of how she’s given a fake name during an undercover job that is called out immediately as being a fake name and it’s a film that always seems interested in observing how the characters try to deal with each other—these people have histories to go with their regrets and the things they’ve never done which make them what they are, like how Lottie whose apartment seems littered with unpaid bills has never seen snow (“No time, no money”) compared with Stan who has photos and mementos of his life, like the time he climbed Mt. Hood, all around his apartment. None of the relationships are presented as easily defined and even the most unlikable person in the entire film—actually, as close as it comes to an actual bad guy—is given a moment which makes it clear that while he may be a prick he’s not a totally unredeemable bastard. Shadings like this are part of what give IMPULSE the unusual effectiveness that it has, a film where the examination of its lead character is much more interesting than plot stuff and it’s a nice daydream to imagine a version of this story made back during the actual noir days with Barbara Stanwyck or Ida Lupino, pushed as far as the code would have allowed. Even the plot point of a suitcase of money hidden in a locker at the airport could just as easily be found at Union Station as someone tries to blow town. It’s not a film about a guy saving a girl from her own darkness so much as just an acknowledgment that maybe always facing the dead of night alone isn’t necessarily the way things need to go and maybe sometimes doing a shot of tequila with somebody who wants to do it with you can be a nice beginning.

Response to the film at the time, whatever response it got from its meager release, seems to have been mixed. Maltin give it three stars (“Half-standard, half-fresh and always tough”) as did Roger Ebert while still wishing for a version of the movie that wasn’t so concerned with the plot. Caryn James in The New York Times was pretty dismissive, calling it “so generic you can practically sing along” and while I can’t agree with this at all in fairness IMPULSE isn’t quite flawless—George Dzunda’s chauvinist cop referring to women as ‘broads’ isn’t exactly subtle but even the almost-rote BIG CLOCK/NO WAY OUT story point of the second half is dealt with in a very non-showy way that respects the intelligence of the characters onscreen trying to figure it out. In how it offers the feel of dissatisfaction in life and all its predictability, what causes the character to have that impulse in the first place, the film is always probing to examine Lottie but doesn’t excuse her or make her more likable and knows enough to hold certain things about her back, even when she’s staring right at herself in the mirror. Some things need to be held back. Maybe we need those mysteries especially from those women we know we’ll never quite figure out and continue to haunt us during those late evening hours. In some ways what I responded to in this film way back when is what I respond to now—a character piece combined with a tightly executed plot, action scenes that are visceral and to the point along with the obvious ‘All you need for a movie is a girl and a gun’-ness of it all as Godard famously reminded us. Only now it feels like the reasons why I feel this way about these kinds of movies have only deepened.

Theresa Russell’s career as top-billed star ranges from strong early work in things like STRAIGHT TIME along with extraordinary work in films directed by eventual husband Nicolas Roeg such as BAD TIMING and INSIGNIFICANCE. When she’d move into more mainstream work things would be more problematic such as what I remember as an awful performance in Michael Crichton’s forgotten Burt Reynolds thriller PHYSICAL EVIDENCE (and I saw that one in the theater, too. Sheesh) indicating she was a talent who sometimes needed to be in the right hands. Here working with Locke she’s amazing, continually fearless in her onscreen energy with that enigmatic vibe she gives off with her gorgeous looks and that deep, smoky voice totally uninterested in any bullshit but one that she’s willing to let crack at certain times to let you tell what’s going on just under that cool exterior. Her presence is totally in synch with the mood as if director Locke (who it’s easy to imagine playing the part herself a few years earlier) decided to make the visual style the equivalent of the tired, boozy way she sees the world and ultimately it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. There’s also strong supporting work by Jeff Fahey (Lapidus!), George Dzunda, Alan Rosenberg and Lynne Thigpen as a police psychiatrist but this is really Russell’s film all the way. Some may remember that Fahey and Dzunda were both in Clint Eastwood’s WHITE HUNTER BLACK HEART, released later that year, and the making and release IMPULSE of course coincided with how Eastwood terminated their relationship during the film’s production. Whether his influence with Warner may have affected the sort of release the film ultimately got (for the record, his name appears nowhere in the credits) is something I’m going to pass on speculating about.

Sometimes women remain an enigma to the point that you wonder what your relationship with them actually was. Sometimes movies just fall through the cracks and stay there, with no one around to pull them out. So they remain a secret for those few who actually bothered to seek it out and saw something in there. In some ways both these films and these women stay there in your head, lingering, as you try to somehow figure them out. IMPULSE isn’t a great film, but it is a very good film well worth seeking out and if I’m going to be the only one out there with any kind of interest in it I suppose that’ll have to be ok. Revisiting a film like this one does have its rewards. Just like knowing those women.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

We Have Plenty Of Time

Time seems like more of an issue the more time that goes on. One of the pitfalls of getting older, I suppose. On my Facebook and Twitter pages I’m always posting anniversaries of various films that opened on a certain day, not for any particular reason but maybe I just think some films deserve to be remembered more than they are. Of course, some of those films I post about don’t really deserve to be remembered but maybe I just need to anyway. Maybe as time goes on I need to do it even more. And this is still the case when it’s a film I don’t really have any particular attachment to. One day recently I discovered we had hit the 20th anniversary of John Carpenter’s MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN, a film I actually saw on opening day, and for whatever reason I felt compelled to watch it for the first time in years. The early part of ’92 wasn’t even a period in my life I have any real fondness for, so go figure on why. Very little reason for any of this. Very little reason for things when it comes to time.

Based on the excellent novel of the same name by H.F. Saint, the film was a pet project of star Chevy Chase for several years before it finally got made, obviously an attempt by him to branch out beyond goofy comedies but its disappointing box office pretty much put an end to the hot streak he was on during the NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CHRISTMAS VACATION period leading to his legendarily unfortunate 1993 talk show. It’s a pretty loose adaptation out of necessity—the book takes the ‘memoirs’ part of the title literally as it covers years of the main character’s life, going into minutia of the travails of this invisible man and his discovery in how in some ways he was always invisible to the world. It’s a metaphor that is certainly there in the movie though not as much as it could have been, something which was probably inevitable—a faithful adaptation of the book would have to be extremely experimental which wouldn’t exactly fall into the heading of high concept effects driven star vehicle for Warner Brothers but it still feels like there are thematic possibilities in the material that the movie never fully capitalizes on. There’s a certain amount of NORTH BY NORTHWEST to be found in the story of an ordinary man suddenly on the run and in writing about the 1966 Gregory Peck vehicle MIRAGE recently I couldn’t help but think there were some vague similarities in its portrayal of dehumanization in the modern world to that film as well. But it never feels like MEMOIRS had as much interest as putting such thought into its themes as screenwriter Peter Stone did in writing MIRAGE and, for that matter, maybe if they were going to ape one of these films they should have taken that concept of following such storylines even further—not enough of consequence really happens during the 99 minutes of this INVISIBLE MAN so it never achieves the necessary weight, certainly nowhere near what the book achieved and as a movie it feels like the production chose to focus on the complex invisibility effects which are undeniably impressive although it feels like all that came at the expense of something.

Nick Holloway (Chevy Chase) is a stock analyst who meets the beautiful Alice Monroe (Daryl Hannah) while out at dinner with friends. Instantly in love and hungover the next day in despair at not being able to see her again for another few days, while attending a shareholder’s meeting at Magnascopic Laboratories he locates a sauna and lies down for a badly needed nap. But an accident causes some kind of computer meltdown and, after the building is evacuated by everyone but Nick, much of the structure disappears, suddenly rendered invisible. When Nick awakes he is invisible as well and must escape the clutches of mysterious government operative David Jenkins (Sam Neill) who instantly realizes the benefits of having an invisible man under his control could be. Though Nick flees to his apartment back in San Francisco, it doesn’t take long for Jenkins to track him down and soon Nick is on the run, desperate to be turned back to normal, with no one he can trust and nowhere he can turn until fate brings Alice back into his life, making her maybe the one person who won’t give him away.

MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN moves along at a decent clip and features a star who seems eager to make his performance which he’s only onscreen for part of the time work but after a promising beginning it never clicks into any sort of high gear with too much of the plotting feeling like nothing that hasn’t been done before (I almost wrote ‘hasn’t been seen before’ then stopped myself) and a slightly impersonal feel to the production as if scenes were being shot under some kind of compromise of tone that everyone involved begrudgingly approved on. In his memoir “Which Lie Did I Tell?” screenwriter William Goldman recounts his involvement with the project back in the 80s when Chase was already attached to star (even the very first paperback edition way back then mentioned such a film was coming) and Ivan Reitman was on board to direct. Goldman recalls that Reitman saw the project as a chance to make another effects driven comedy in the GHOSTBUSTERS vein while Chase was intrigued by exploring the concept of ‘the loneliness of invisibility’. Goldman saw an inevitable clash between the two coming but was onboard for several drafts and recalls he felt that exploring the loneliness of invisibility was even a good idea, maybe just not one that went well with Chevy Chase. The project at this stage eventually fell apart and he states that he never saw the final version—credited as Screenplay by Robert Collector & Dana Olsen and William Goldman, based on Saint’s novel—so who’s to say how much of whatever he provided remains.

In some ways what the film ultimately is feels stranded in between the more thoughtful version of this story found in the source material and the goofy invisible man movie with Chevy Chase that I can imagine the studio would have preferred—as a result some of those elements feel a little crammed in up alongside a conspiracy plotline that doesn’t build up quite enough steam. Even some minor points of the story feel not entirely thought out or maybe are just the result of a studio wanting to make the material more commercial—in the book the character of Nick Holloway was a blank turned into a literal blank with no one close in his life to really miss him once they wait five minutes, something the film loses by having him meet Alice before the accident and since there’s an obvious attempt to make Chase into a Cary Grant-Gregory Peck charming leading man he can’t quite be so nondescript to the world--even when he’s shocked by the callous behavior his friends display towards his disappearance nothing they say is really all that upsetting so it’s as if the film doesn’t want to deal with any sort of actual emotion that would be brought on by this predicament either. Plot strands from the book do turn up but in a different context, robbed of the minutia of detail that made it strike such a chord (seriously, it’s a excellent book that I’ve read several times over the years and I highly recommend you seek it out)—Holloway inhabiting homes of people away on vacation becomes him bunking down in a friend’s beach house for a long stretch of narrative where not enough happens and the way he invents a person who no one wants to admit they don’t remember so he can score in the stock market becomes just a mere plot point which doesn’t add much of anything beyond a convenient out for the end of the movie. By the final third it really just becomes essentially a chase picture. With invisibility effects.

Here’s the thing—the book gives the reader page after page from the character’s point of view detailing his predicament, his loneliness and isolation, even down to questioning his own sanity at times but there’s not much of a way to dramatize that in a film, or at least not the version that this film is trying to be, so all we really get are shots of an invisible man wearing a hat or smoking a cigarette, as well as the discovery that what he eats isn’t going to be invisible as well. The special effects are mostly excellent but sometimes feel a little show-offy in how they’re staged as if it was felt that was the only purpose of a given scene. Too often it feels like instead of addressing story and character time on the set was spent determining how much Chase should be invisible in scenes versus how often the star, the one whose name is above the title on the poster, would be visible for the audience. It pulls off this tactic about as well as can be expected but, ultimately, so what? The loneliness the character feels, as much as you can sense Chase is putting his all into the narration, never means very much and even when Nick Holloway blurts out in anguish some of what he’s going through, like how he can even see through his eyelids when he tries to sleep, it doesn’t have any real effect. There’s also a brief dream sequence where he imagines everyone able to see him which is at least an attempt at something unusual but it still feels a little too isolated from everything. The film has parts that are intriguing but they don’t come together in a way that sticks.

Good things pop up in scenes throughout that seem like they would be part of a movie that worked better, particularly the triumph of production design that makes up the striking image of the partly gone building where the accident first occurs. And there’s pleasure of John Carpenter staging certain moments through his anamorphic prism, making full use of the Scope frame in a way that few other directors ever do but, I suppose a result of it being a director-for-hire situation, there’s never very much in the way of a Carpenteresque moment or sequence of shots edited together that click together in the way we’d expect from him. The old INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS town name Santa Mira used in HALLOWEEN III does turn up (so does a mention of Bodega Bay, the setting of THE BIRDS which actually exists but it feels like a Hitchcock reference anyway) as well as certain half baked government cover-up plot threads but not much else that feels like John Carpenter. And while it’s always nice to see San Francisco in a film (the novel was New York) it can’t really be said that the film does anything particularly noteworthy with the setting, also unfortunate considering the eye the director usually has. Too much of the script just feels not quite there yet and the plot doesn’t really build to anything, as if at the start of the third act the film lost interest in itself and simply decided to wrap things up quickly with end credits appearing before the actual fade out and, I suspect, maybe before people had realized that the film had actually ended.

Maybe part of the problem is that even more than being a Chevy Chase vehicle, even one in which he’s not wisecracking as usual, the film at times feels like a demonstration of state-of-the-art invisibility effects and since this sort of thing has been surpassed by now by the likes of HOLLOW MAN (probably a worse movie, but that’s neither here nor there) that means what the film is now twenty years after it was made just isn’t enough. It always seems interested in those effects—how the film was sold, after all—more than the potential of the story and what it all could mean, the ‘loneliness of invisibility’ and separation from the rest of the human race that apparently attracted Chase as a character study. I remember it feeling undercooked back when I saw it on opening day and hasn’t done much for how it plays two decades later. Which, considering some of the people involved, feels like kind of a shame.

If Chevy Chase wanted to do something different with this role, well, points for trying. He’s not at all bad and the nature of this partly there-partly not role would be difficult for anyone but as willing as he seems his voiceover narration feels a little bit too much like he’s trying to put a serious, film noir gruff into his voice and it makes things a little distracting, making it a little more evident that we're not getting much inner life into this guy. Daryl Hannah does her best with an underwritten role, a character who is strangely given an extensive background when she’s introduced but not very much else afterwards, so she’s really just The Girl even if she rarely ever looked better onscreen although I can’t help but think she seems visibly uncomfortable in the skimpy attire she wears during the dream sequence. Sam Neill is excellent as Jenkins, coming off as the total personification of how the character was portrayed in the book, a bad guy with his own agenda whose wheels in his head always seem to be clicking away to figure out the next move on the board. He feels like the one actor Carpenter was totally in synch with so no surprise that they worked together on IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS a few years later. Stephen Tobolowsky turns up as Jenkins’ superior with little control over his operative (if memory serves, Tobolowsky was in just about every movie released in ’92), Michael McKean is Nick’s friend George, Patricia Heaton is George’s wife Ellen, Rosalind Chao from a million things is Nick’s secretary, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA’s Donald Li is a cab driver and Carpenter himself makes a rare onscreen appearance as a helicopter pilot.

This has been a strange time for me, one where I find myself paying attention to a movie that attempts to address what sort of effect we ever have on other people and how much time we ever have in trying to make a connection before loneliness closes in. Unfortunately, what the movie turns out to be has very little to do with those promising themes. I guess there’s always the book for that. One other strange and unfortunate thing about MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN is that there is so little John Carpenterness to dig into on it, particularly when compared to a few of his films that I’ve written about in the past. I suppose that Chevy Chase is as close as this film, billed as ‘A Cornelius Production’, has to an auteur as possibly glimpsed in that dream sequence where people fawn over him as he plays the piano and the overall attempt to make him into an old-style leading man. All these years later, his film career pretty much over (his unbilled role in Stephen Frears’ HERO aside, it never felt like he never had much interest in trying the character actor route) Chase is now seen on NBC in the hugely underrated (as far as the Nielsen ratings go) COMMUNITY which thankfully returned to the lineup this past Thursday and was one of the highlights of what was an odd, intense week for me as I tried to write this. And now another week is beginning. And I feel a little invisible myself. That part of it never ends.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Sleep Of The Innocent

As time passes I find myself becoming less and less interested in returning to films I remember from when I was a kid. There just doesn’t seem to be much point. I don’t exactly have idyllic memories of Scarsdale and I would just like the past to remain the past. Why would somebody want to be a kid, anyway? But even I sometimes find myself in the middle of one of those lonely nights where the prospect of watching some early 80s comedy that I remember seeing in the theater at a young age feels as welcome as slipping on a favorite robe. The experience might not exactly be worthwhile or rewarding but maybe it helps just a little to get just a flash of a memory from what seems like now to be a more innocent time. And as I retrieved my DVD of the 1984 version of UNFAITHFULLY YOURS out from the bottom of a steep pile on a dull Friday evening I thought of how it actually has multiple elements that are of interest to me. For one thing it’s a remake of a Preston Sturges classic and, arguably, might be the only one of his films that you could even imagine adapting to modern times (by ‘modern’ I guess I’m referring to both 1984 and 2012). There’s also the lure of early 80s New York where all the cabs, at least the ones in movies, were still checkered and there’s a particular kind of overcast feel in the air which you really only get from films of this era set in Manhattan before the cleanup happened. Oh, and like 1982’s TOOTSIE, this film features a Stephen Bishop song that plays under the credits but ultimately you may want to decide if this is actually a good thing. There’s also a very enjoyable cast which offers a welcome reminder of the several years where Dudley Moore starred in films, an early low-key Albert Brooks performance and, of course, the luminescent Nastassja Kinski who as usual makes a person remember how wonderful it is to be alive just by walking onscreen. Such actors help to make it all at least pleasant to sit through and I almost wondered if things could have been improved if the story structure wasn’t required to adhere more or less to the required plotline. Regardless, UNFAITHFULLY YOURS isn’t all that memorable but it is funny on occasion and actually sort of enjoyable to revisit for the first time in several decades. In a comfortable robe sort of way, of course.

Esteemed conductor Claude Eastman (Dudley Moore) is still practically in the honeymoon stage with his gorgeous, much younger actress wife Daniella (Nastassja Kinski) when he returns from a concert overseas only to learn that a misunderstanding has led best friend Norman Robbins (Albert Brooks) to hire a private detective to follow her while Claude was away. Claude actually has no suspicions whatsoever but that changes when the private eye Jess Keller (Richard B. Shull) uncovers evidence of an assignation leading Claude to believe that she has been having an affair brilliant violinist and ladies’ man Maxmillian Stein (Armand Assante) which sends Claude even further into a rage when Daniella seems to confirm his suspicions by saying it was ‘no big deal’. She’s referring to something else entirely, of course, but this doesn’t stop Claude from hatching a plan to kill Daniella for her indiscretions and frame Max for the crime. But his brilliant idea isn’t quite as easy to pull off as simply thinking of it is.

I should probably be more upset about the existence of UNFAITHFULLY YOURS than I am, what with the sacrilege of it being a remake of Sturges but maybe because the original film comes a little later in the masterful writer-director’s career and not part of the golden Paramount period it doesn’t strike me as quite the heresy (it’s been several years since I’ve seen the original and I purposely didn’t look at it in relation to this). You want to get me mad, try and update THE LADY EVE. Then you’ll see rage. A project that began life with Peter Sellers, after his death it came together with Dudley Moore after his stardom hit during that period in the 80s when he seemed to be doing a few movies a year. “10” and ARTHUR sent him into the stratosphere for a little while but he never really hit those heights again, much as he may have tried—for the most part the films he made during this period are barely remembered now (if anything, people seems to still know BEST DEFENSE because of how bad it is) and the broadly comic UNFAITHFULLY YOURS plays fairly well now in comparison, never reaching a peak of total hysteria but still cruising along at a pleasant pace. At the least it has the right sort of spirit to the farcical misunderstands and offers more than a few genuine laughs. The screenplay credited to Valerie Curtin & Barry Levinson and Robert Klane (based on the Sturges original) is tight and well-paced but since one could imagine a much darker approach to the basic material I wonder if a good amount of the spirit that is evident throughout is thanks to what director Howard Zieff brought to the table. Several years ago I wrote an unabashed rave of Zieff’s 1973 directorial debut SLITHER which I had just seen for the first time but some of his filmography seems to consist more of 80s star vehicles, a little like Michael Ritchie during that period only not as prolific. PRIVATE BENJAMIN with Goldie Hawn was the huge blockbuster of his career and UNFAITHFULLY YOURS, coming four years later, benefits from his relaxed style, breezing through from scene to scene.

Way down in this material is the potential for a more biting examination of the fears of middle age and the inherent distrust always there between couples but that’s not what UNFAITHFULLY YOURS is or probably what it was ever really trying to be. Instead it has Moore and Kinski, ideally cast in this sophisticated world of classical music and foreign films, of the Russian Tea Room and Carnegie Hall, of men and women still desperately looking to flirt even if they’re married, a Manhattan where L’AVVENTURA is playing at the Beekman (where I was taken to see ARTHUR, incidentally) and where it seems like everyone has a car waiting to take them where they need to go (plus some brief side nudity from Kinski—boy, PG films were different back then). Everybody seems so relaxed with each other in shots that I’m almost not sure if I totally believe some of the farcical complications stuffed with double entendres which will be of no surprise to anyone who’s seen a few THREE’S COMPANY episodes--since they all seem like such reasonable people then why wouldn’t anyone sit down to quietly talk over some of these misunderstandings? But there I go, putting too much thought into this stuff and maybe such scenes as the violin duel in the Hungarian restaurant between Moore and Assante are enough to make me feel like such questions aren’t necessary. The movie’s centerpiece—a prolonged fantasy in which Claude works out his plan in his mind as he conducts the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto—isn’t as elaborate or layered a sequence as in the original which actually offered several possibilities of his actions and omitting the alternate scenarios does remove some of the bite. But it’s the laying out of the preciseness of the scenario, with the music backing up his thoughts, and how it all goes wrong which is really what this version is building to anyway and while it doesn’t exactly build up a full head of farcical steam it does put a smile on my face and maybe sometimes a little more--a rainstorm at one point seems to come and go faster than one ever has in the history of the world but it still gets a good laugh out of me.

The plotting is hardly airtight—without giving anything away it seems a little odd that nobody bothered to watch that entire tape and the issue of somebody finding out about who is really having the affair is left hanging when the credits roll. And maybe because of this the wrap up feels more than a little perfunctory but then again the natural ending to a film about jealousy and betrayal really isn’t something that a goofy Dudley Moore vehicle could do. I mean, it’s not like this is going to build to a finale reminiscent of IN A LONELY PLACE or anything. But it’s an 80s comedy with bouncy running-around-the-city music by Bill Conti, Moore does a variation on the ARTHUR/”10” drunk act and Nastassja Kinski looks gorgeous so I doubt anyone cares anyway. The tone is bright enough that I doubt anybody watching it would ever imagine that he might go through with his plan even if everything fell into place but it doesn’t really matter. UNFAITHFULLY YOURS is quick, bright, cheerful, has lots of physical humor--one bit of business on a stairway between Moore and Brooks in particular is pretty great--and watching it now for a few hours it reminded me of what I once thought the adult world of Manhattan seemed like as presented via Hollywood. I’m not sure how long it’s been since I’ve seen it and I probably don’t need to return to it again anytime soon but it did its job for 96 minutes which is more than you can say for any number of 80s movies with Dudley Moore.

Or maybe I’m just hypnotized by Nastassja Kinski, never really known for comedies, but she and Moore have terrific chemistry together. Moore seems pretty high-strung anyway since this is Dudley Moore after all so any sense of a distinguished man losing his mind over jealousy is kind of lost but he throws himself into the very physicality of it so much that it doesn’t matter. Just the sight of Moore stumbling through a movie theater annoying people is good for a few laughs, after all, and I kind of love how he lets his body language go while conducting the final moments of the concert as he formulates the plan in his head, certainly aided by his own music background. Kinski isn’t meant to play it as much for comedy and she wisely doesn’t try but she’s totally game to play things as vivacious as possible. If I really wanted to nitpick I’d offer that maybe she is a slight bit of miscasting in the part since her personality comes off as a little to sweet to believe that anyone would believe she’s been cheating and maybe something in me doesn’t entirely buy her as an Italian. But maybe I don’t fell like nitpicking. It’s Nastassja Kinski, after all. Armand Assante, likewise, is a very good straight man and seems to be playing the part as if carrying some kind of chip on his shoulder that the actor has quietly decided to give the character. Albert Brooks, also in PRIVATE BENJAMIN for Zieff, seems to be deliberately underplaying things which makes sense since it’s not his movie to steal but I suspect that a few lines that float in like a sly “This is like an airport in Budapest” might very well come from him. Richard Libertini is Claude’s Italian valet Giuseppe, the sort of role the actor seemed to be specializing in around this time but he’s so good and so funny (“I curse you…and I curse your shoes!”) that he’s ideally cast. Cassie Yates is Brooks’ wife and Penny Peyser of THE IN-LAWS (just like Libertini) plays a jewelry salesgirl, sharing the scene with Brooks who was in the remake of THE IN-LAWS. Film history is crazy. And maybe quietly stealing the film in an old-school character actor kind of way is Richard B. Shull, also given a memorable role in Zieff’s SLITHER, playing the classical music-loving private detective who uncovers the possible affair. As I remember Pauline Kael pointing out in her review at the time Shull even gets some Sturges in his dialogue and he’s so good that he deserves it.

Speaking of dialogue, Quentin Tarantino has named the original as a favorite and though I haven’t looked at it recently, weirdly, Claude’s protest here of how he wanted Norman to keep an eye on her sounds like Vincent Vega explaining what ‘take care of’ Mia Wallace is referring to in PULP FICTION. So there you go. This version of UNFAITHFULLY YOURS is probably going to remain the amusing comedy you flip by on cable it was always sort of designed to be anyway and, no kidding, if you’ve never seen any version of UNFAITHFULLY YOURS, make it the original. If you’ve seen the original and are looking for some sort of halfway decent Dudley Moore vehicle you haven’t gotten around to yet, I suppose this is the one. If anything, it’s a nice, amusing reminder of a more innocent time which I suppose even I need every now and then. I just rewatched the final moments looking for a way to summarize my feelings on the whole thing and didn’t come up with much beyond discovering, after all this time, that the love theme Claude is using to score Daniella’s movie early on is subtly reprised here as the love theme of the movie itself. It’s a reminder that, ultimately, UNFAITHFULLY YOURS really is a movie, an 80s star vehicle trying to entertain and not much else, and that it works as well as it does is almost enough. Plus I saw it a long time ago and much of whatever fondness I have for it is rooted in that. That’s the way our minds work sometimes.