Monday, June 22, 2020
But the question is, does anyone anywhere think about HOUSESITTER for any reason these days? Possibly not. I put it on late one night just figuring it would at least be relaxing and, truthfully, halfway through I got one of those panic attacks I’ve been having on occasion through this whole thing. But eventually I finished it, so let’s not blame that on the film. Directed by Frank Oz, it strikes me how this is neither the best nor the worst film ever made by the people involved. Definitely not the worst for the director, not when he did that STEPFORD WIVES remake and as far as Martin & Hawn go they even had their own lousy update with the 1999 version of THE-OUT-OF-TOWNERS. Compared to these, HOUSESITTER isn’t badly done at all but it’s just missing some sort of comedy X factor that would help it pop and make a real impression. At the very least it’s pleasant, not a bad thing right now and in the way it adequately cruises along the film even manages to provide a smile here and there. It’s so much the very definition of adequate that it might even be the most average Hollywood movie ever made. Something has to be, right? May as well be this one.
Three months after Newton Davis (Steve Martin) had his marriage proposal to longtime love Becky Metcalf (Dana Delany) rejected after building her a beautiful new house in their hometown, he is back at the Boston architecture film where he works in a minor capacity. At a work function Newton, called Davis by pretty much everyone, meets a waitress named Gwen (Goldie Hawn), a drifting free spirit who he spends the night with but sneaks out before the next morning. When she awakens to find Davis gone, Gwen gets the idea to travel to his hometown and find the abandoned house he spoke of so she can stay there which very quickly leads to introducing herself to people in the town, including the infamous Becky, as his wife. When Davis finally shows up and is shocked to discover what’s been going on, which has included Gwen getting to know his parents, he agrees to keep the charade going in exchange for her help in using the troubles their ‘marriage’ is going through as a device to help him reignite Becky’s interest in him and finally get her back.
After some fairly simple white-on-black opening credits, the first shot of the film is Dana Delany wearing a blindfold which in the film serves as a symbol for the careful way she proceeds in life, unable to respond to the bravery Steve Martin’s Davis as displayed in building a house for her, itself a symbol of how much he wants to stand out in the world but is unable to commit in a way that would get anyone to notice. And, yes, digging this deep into a film as mild-mannered as HOUSESITTER may be a little silly but that’s what you start to do at times like this. The film tries to make the point of Davis being open to original thought, objecting to the sort of cookie cutter office buildings his firm designs, he’s just not the sort of yes man who can make that approach stand out which the free spirit played by Goldie Hawn picks up on right away. She even calls him average right to his face which is an ideal designation for someone to be named in this film and it seems to wound him considering he’s trying so hard to be more than that even if from our perspective, the most unique thing about the character is that people refer to him by his last name. So it’s basically a film about how there’s a way towards happiness to remove the fear and help you stand out, even if it means making up the truth as you go along. Or something like that.
Somewhere in that theme is a concept but the execution is a little too freeform which means there’s a looseness to HOUSESITTER that fits the plot almost as if it’s a movie about someone making things up as they go along which itself was being made up as it went along, but that approach really amounts to only so much. Frank Oz’s directing style is consistently assured with lots of long takes and elegant camera moves thanks to the great cinematographer John Alonzo which lends a sense of grace to the film that it wouldn’t have otherwise, going nicely with the bucolic setting of the town. But the story never really winds up going anywhere, missing the big laughs that could be built out of the solid structure in something like the previous Frank Oz-Steve Martin teaming DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS. This script plays out in a way that sort of makes sense but it all comes off as pretty inconsequential, more about the characters trying to determine what each scene is going to be during the scene and the sense of them interacting with their surroundings which at least gives it a style but it becomes about that more than actual jokes.
HOUSESITTER, screenplay by Mark Stein from a story by producer Brian Grazer and Stein, plays at its most promising as a screwball update with a setting that brings to mind a sort of generic Golden Age of Hollywood feel. In my mind all those films seemed to be set in Connecticut (I’m either thinking of MR. BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE or something else I can’t remember) but this one moves the story further up north to Boston and the nearby fictional town of Dobbs Mill, all the better for the occasional New England accent, I suppose. The basic concept has potential but it really just cruises along so it never becomes more than a middling early 90s studio comedy with a couple of big names. Those two stars bounce off each other pretty well in each scene but I never really believe them as these characters they both seem maybe ten years too old for, not that the age thing matters very much. Their interplay at least feels well utilized with a cleverness to the beats of their arguments and how far each one of them pulls the other further into the improvisation of all those made up stories. Structurally, the screenplay comes off as neatly organized as it moves from one giant lie to the next with Davis’ parents played by Donald Moffat and Julie Harris, both excellent, acting concerned and Peter MacNichol’s co-worker/best friend serving little function but to give Steve Martin someone to clarify plot points to. The real set pieces come out of those lies thought up by the ‘Ernest Hemingway of bullshit’ as Davis calls Gwen and the way they work out as they get told; Hawn making up the story for the first time in the grocery store, the various scenes with the parents, Newton’s anguish as he realizes he can only do so much as long as Becky thinks he’s married. And for all the effort the film seems to be putting in to finding things for them to argue about, nothing is really ever at stake which means that it doesn’t really do much but bounce from one scene to the next, looking for a reason to keep going and never reaching any comic boiling point.
That low-key vibe at least keeps the tone consistent from scene to scene and the small town feel offers a nice, laid-back energy while also making me think of how excited people in the real town likely were to have movie stars hanging around for a few months. Even the layout of the all-important house that gets the plot going adds to this, based on a design that was named House Beautiful’s Best Small House of 1990 so at least it’s a nice movie to linger in. And it’s almost as if Oz knew that the high concept was missing something so a number of scenes play like he encouraged the actors to do whatever they could to add their own bits of business to moments with elements tossed in like a giant sheepdog at the house who runs through things but is almost never mentioned. The way this is all staged feels like he correctly knows that the best way for such scenes to work is to keep the shot on Martin and Hawn as they each flail in tandem with each other, searching for the next part of the lie. Even the bouncy score by Miles Goodman (who was really good at this sort of thing and died way too young) adds to this elegance along with how the camerawork seems to glide along in unison with an added beat sometimes to punctuate a laugh. When Steve Martin takes a spectacular pratfall that ends with him perfectly straightening up again it’s a sharp piece of timing but maybe almost too rehearsed and the overall schematic of the film is as well so all that work by everyone to give extra life to scenes makes the film amiable but not much more than that. Maybe because of this, the best moments seem to slip in almost unannounced like when Moffat lapses into his high school principal mode to lecture someone or a scene with Martin and Dana Delany, which is maybe the best moment in the film, when the two of them almost finally start to play out their hoped for romance. The physical interplay between each of them slowly turns into what he desperately wants in a shot that goes on longer than you’d expect and their chemistry is almost too good here but in that moment the movie briefly comes totally alive.
Such moments like this where comic gold turns up feel like they’re made out of very little in the best way which makes them stand out all the more, as if somehow the movie could have gone further. There’s something darker that could be done with this basic idea of this woman who is a con artist but really a free spirited manic depressive with a propensity to take all these games way too seriously in her desire to put roots down somewhere, the way she mentions the dream of belonging somewhere as part of the desire to live in the picture of the home that Davis scribbled on a napkin. If the part was played by an actress who really stuck out in this sort of small town it might have had some teeth but, of course, that’s not the movie any of these people were making. Which is fine but the approach they went with is pretty surface, groping around for a theme in how the way to live is not about logic but the sheer feeling of passion whether it’s true or not. The lies get rid of the fear and allow you to really experience things and it doesn’t matter what the truth really is, I suppose. Fight for what you want, be brave and take that step to do something to stand out. Which is all well and good but if only the film has that sort of courage.
HOUSESITTER climaxes at a party. Well, of course it does, what better way to get everyone together at once and bring all the farcical complications to a head. For whatever reason it feels like the party being ridiculously overcrowded should be part of the joke but it never really is and the ultimate effect of the whole sequence is Steve Martin flailing around from one group to another, doing everything he can to stay in control. There are some nice beats in the staging thanks to the way Oz and editor John Jympson (who also cut A FISH CALLED WANDA and LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS but also Hitchcock’s FRENZY and A HARD DAYS’ NIGHT) make it all go together, serving as a reminder that this sort of thing is hard to pull off even when it only sort of works but like so much of the film the overall effect is…fine while never really landing on a satisfying payoff. I can’t remember which critic back in ‘92 was appalled at the way the film used a couple of supporting characters who are homeless as a punchline which isn’t too unfair a slam even if the tone of the film has so little to do with the real world they may as well be called hobos like in the old screwball days but I get the point being made even if I can’t bring myself to get too upset over that. This almost brings a sour tone to things but in the end, the film isn’t significant enough to get upset over and manages to stay likable most of the way that it doesn’t ruin the momentum even if I still get the issue. The thing about HOUSESITTER is that maybe there is only so much to squeeze out of this premise, either comedically or otherwise. It wants to be about that freedom of succeeding through impulse and fantasy in a world of logic, how in the end certain things matter more than the truth. You have to fight for what you want, be brave and take that step although even as a formulaic romantic comedy it never quite breaks free of its own chains, or blindfold, as it were. It’s still a pleasant 102 minutes and, these days especially, I suppose there are worse things.
For both of the stars, HOUSESITTER comes in the middle of a surprisingly heavy period of activity. Steve Martin was making one or two of these movies a year with this coming six months after both FATHER OF THE BRIDE and Lawrence Kasdan’s GRAND CANYON. Goldie Hawn, who apparently was a late replacement for Meg Ryan on this, always had long stretches without working yet this one oddly comes during a twelve month period that included four new films after which she didn’t do anything for another four years. All of this is a reminder that HOUSESITTER was one more comedy made along the Hollywood assembly line back in the days when they did these things, just not remembered as much as some of the others these days (Hawn’s other summer ’92 comedy, DEATH BECOMES HER, is the one with the cult). But the chemistry between the two leads pops just enough with them always in synch with each other, giving the performances just enough of an edge. Steve Martin grounds it all with excellent timing through his growing anxiety and little moments throughout like when he gropes for a single word to describe Gwen’s effect on him, all a reminder of how much better he got as an actor over the years. Goldie Hawn’s best moments are when she’s performing the high wire act of all those stories being told to people unaware of what’s really going on and the energy she gives off clicks even if the character sometimes feels a little too familiar so the effect she has keeps the movie going. Dana Delany, particularly good as a sort of preppie Gail Patrick, continually gets laughs out of small moments while balancing out the farce with just enough real world skepticism, making her almost more appealing than she’s supposed to be. It’s the sort of performance which feels that much freer since the movie isn’t on her shoulders and there are lots of strong work from the various supporting actors who each get moments to stand out—Donald Moffat has what is maybe the one true emotional moment in the entire film as well as Julie Harris along with Richard B. Schull and Laurel Cronin in the problematic roles as Gwen’s pretend parents. One surprise appearance looking at the film now is Cherry Jones who turns up in an early role as a waitress at the Hungarian restaurant and looking it up this wasn’t even her first film.
HOUSESITTER is pretty minor stuff made by some very talented people, a film that makes me smile more than ever laugh out loud but it’s harmless enough, a reminder of studio comedies which feel like such an endangered species now, for better or for worse. And compared to films like it that do get made now, HOUSESITTER is practically Lubitsch. Maybe there isn’t really that much to say about it in the end but for a film where I had a panic attack midway through this time around it’s not that bad and this is one of those cases where writing about the film itself is secondary. This sort of thing is comforting for me right now and I’ve been watching so many of them lately in search of something, I’m just not sure what. It’s like I’m trying to make my way back to a simpler time and start over although it’s possible my recent revisit of BETSY’S WEDDING may have been taking all of this a step too far. Maybe while stuck in this limbo I’m simply trying to figure out my own past, why I went to see these films in the first place and what they really meant to me, whether I liked them or not. Sometimes I think I liked all of them anyway, regardless of what the truth really was. I suppose if HOUSESITTER has to serve any sort of purpose at this point in time, it may as well be that.
Wednesday, June 17, 2020
Part of me dreams of traveling back even if I don’t really want to. But at least the past has movie theaters. Trapped here staring at these four walls right now you could hardly blame anyone for wanting a little comfort. The sort of film that makes us feel better, one we wish we could live in for a little while. This isn’t so much about nostalgia, which is a nice feeling but a limited one. You can’t stay where you once were, after all, you have to move on from those memories whether your joyous triumphs or bitter regrets. You have to grow. And films shouldn’t just be about their comfort level but there’s nothing wrong with sometimes attaching yourself to a feeling that reminds you of the good things. Still, there has to be more. So much in Alfred Hitchcock’s films, for example, hold onto their vibrancy which even now makes them much more than simple Hollywood classics to fall asleep to. These are films that allow us to dig as far as we want to go, to break down everything beyond the simple mechanics of Plot to help us understand why they work as well as they do. That obsession never goes away, helping us to see what the director was revealing about how he saw the world through each new shot and to really learn what films are to begin with.
And considering how much I’ve been cooped up in a modestly sized apartment lately, the most famous film involving that comes to mind. REAR WINDOW was basically the first Hitchcock I ever saw, during the theatrical re-release several of his 50s titles had in the early 80s when Universal put them back into circulation for the first time in years. And that afternoon, which looking it up would have been at some point in late November-early December ‘83, was probably a very important day for me in a Film 101 sort of way, making it a key moment at the start of my film education. To this day it’s still my favorite Hitchcock movie, the one that says the most about what his films were while also being the most entertaining. Notice I didn’t say best. For the moment, that doesn’t matter since this is all about what certain films mean to us and why. This is the one of his that means the most to me which is really the only issue.
The plot of REAR WINDOW does matter so to get it out of the way, news magazine photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart) is entering the final week of being confined to his tiny New York apartment with a giant cast on his leg after breaking it while taking a photo from a precarious angle on a race track. In between physical therapy sessions with insurance company nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) and dinners with visiting girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) who wants more of a commitment, Jeff is still feeling antsy after being cooped up for so long staring out of his window for hours on end at all the people who live nearby in his courtyard. The resulting curiosity leads him to believe that one of those neighbors, a certain Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) has murdered his wife who suddenly seems to have vanished. The circumstantial observations get Lisa to be curious as well although old war buddy/police detective friend Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey) doesn’t believe it. But Jeff is soon convinced and even more determined to uncover the truth before Thorwald disappears.
Moments stick out. Images stay with me. Jimmy Stewart as Jeff awakens, presumably from a dream during a late afternoon nap, to find Grace Kelly there, leaning in for the kiss. So much of what we’re living through right now feels like a dream, a reminder that the moment of her first appearance really is everything, the fantasy breaking into reality as her shadow drapes over him prefiguring all sorts of things to come and the perfect symbol for the Hitchcock world of this courtyard. This is all a reminder of how at its core REAR WINDOW is about a relationship, it’s a romantic comedy when you come right down to it, one about the fear of marriage or at the very least any kind of commitment, even if it seems crazy that anyone would hesitate to commit to Grace Kelly’s Lisa who with that slight inflection of a z in her name each time we hear Jimmy Stewart say it reminds us each time just how special she is. Because if the opposite of commitment is the freedom to go anywhere in the world, what Jeff seems to desire more than anything, who wouldn’t want to do that? He’s understandably going a little stir crazy when the film opens, itching to get back to his job and the world that he can just barely make out across the way so each of those neighbors reflects back at him with another element of that lifestyle he yearns for, that reminder of what he’s forced to put off. The tortured composer who is clearly a man about town but none of it gives him any satisfaction, the carefree sculptor without a worry in the world, the lonely soul who more than anything wants companionship, the newly married couple on their honeymoon, the popular girl who could have anyone. Jeff is trapped with just about the most beautiful girl in the world who wants nothing more than to be with him and all he can do is watch and wait and dream of doing what he really desires. But until then there’s nothing for him to do but look out the window and wait for her to show up again to continue the debate over that future, with the feeling that there’s nothing else pressing, nothing at stake.
Hitchcock takes the time at the start to introduce us to the courtyard in two stages, the geographical layout and then the people, both equally important in his eyes for us to pay attention to. Raymond Burr plays Lars Thorwald—has there ever been a better character name?—and the sight of him directly across the way is of course the nightmare mirror version of Jeff’s dilemma. Since he’s a jewelry salesman that even makes him sound a little like a similar sort of nomad, only without the creative angle, and one who seems to be regretting what he’s gotten himself into. Like each of the other windows facing Jeff it seems to reflect a possible future, one that he’s so fearful of diving into even if he knows deep down that it’s the right thing. Almost all of those windows, anyway; up in the corner of one of those buildings is a couple with a child but we barely see them during the film, no apparent story to reflect back as if the thought of kids with Lisa is so far off and the implicit message is that life stops once they come into the picture. There’s a little bit of a fantasy role play with Lisa as she pretends to introduce herself while they ease into their nightly patter, fitting for such a romance but we can feel Jeff starting to resist going beyond that in his realization of how that dinner she has brought over from “21” is perfect but he doesn’t know what to do with perfect. Even the simple, pragmatic reasoning offered by Thelma Ritter’s Stella during the morning rubdown she gives him does nothing to change any of this and all it does is make him try harder to convince himself of what he doesn’t really want.
A little bit of nostalgia is unavoidable in this case but to this day watching REAR WINDOW again is one of the most relaxing things I can think of, as comfortable as those neatly pressed pajamas that Jimmy Stewart spends the entire film in. With a screenplay by John Michael Hayes based on the Cornel Woolrich story “It Had to Be Murder”, the concept could have been played as noir, the story of a man whose curiosity leads him towards doom, but that doesn’t generally go with the more lighthearted Hitchcock approach, especially when he worked in color. As easygoing as that genial feeling is, the film always compels me to pay attention and watch each moment with the intensity Jeff does while it still contains that undeniable sense of upscale politeness found in Hollywood films of the 50s. When I randomly put the film on late one night recently, because time has no meaning at the moment, there was no way to simply drift off with REAR WINDOW playing since even at that hour it demanded my attention and total focus, every moment there for a reason with dialogue that sounds better each time I hear it, more laid back than the elegant quips of NORTH BY NORTHWEST in a way that goes perfectly with the Greenwich Village charm of it all. The way Jeff’s growing suspicion of Thorwald builds the exposition gets laid out beautifully, always getting us to want to hear more. But it’s also the purely visual storytelling angle of each new cut to one of the neighbors, each still so vivid from far away without any dialogue to help. All this is balanced out so well that even when the film casually stops worrying about the plot for a few minutes to let Jeff and Lisa talk a little more about their own issues it never goes afield, it always sticks close to the subject at hand and the answers they can never agree on.
All of this is on the inside but on the outside of REAR WINDOW is that sense of life going on, the life Jeff isn’t supposed to be paying attention to but it’s impossible not to keep watching and listening to it all, the soundscape of that courtyard, the parties from across the way, the jazzy Franz Waxman theme which is never treated as traditional scoring along with the simple passage of time as day turns to night as well as the romantic aspect of a couple working together which turns out to make them more in synch with each other as the man begins to see what he really loves about this woman. It brings them closer together away from that potential loneliness they might find themselves in if this doesn’t work out so if that’s not being willing to go anywhere and do anything and love it, I don’t know what is. To mangle a certain famous Godard quote, Hitchcock is basically saying all you need to make a movie is a man, a woman, a single location and a murder. As much as Jeff and Lisa question the ‘rear window ethics’ of what they’ve been doing the film takes voyeurism as a given, reflecting back to how the film affects us in the first place. Voyeurism isn’t all that different from watching a film, after all, and just as the various people across the way are still continuing with their lives at the end no one in a film ever seems to realize they’re being watched. And since no one in the film seems to have a TV, maybe it takes place in an alternate universe where the invention hasn’t yet taken hold. Which makes it more interesting for us, anyway, every frame that Jeff peers into its own film with its own genre.
So much of Jeff and Lisa’s conversations-slash-flirtations seem to be about money, directly or otherwise, so it becomes a question of if he’s really that attached to that magazine job or if he’s just insecure about the possibility of being part of some other world. Based on what we hear Jeff could probably make a decent living as a photographer who never leaves the island of Manhattan, settling into a life of luxury somewhere on the Upper East Side with Lisa, even there’s only fifty cents in her purse so she’s likely living beyond her means anyway, just like most people. But in the baffling way he insists to Lisa that there’s no way this can go anywhere Jeff seems to feel like their dinner of romantic bliss is just as phony as the one Miss Lonelyhearts is pretending to have with someone across the way but the passion is what matters. Thorwald, meanwhile, insists that he doesn’t have any money and seems to have based what he’s done on various other reasons of passion which in the Hitchcock world would qualify this murder as a sort of art, just not one of the more defensible ones. The question is more or less dropped in the end in favor of that passion and the love Jeff has for Lisa so the subject of money ultimately becomes as irrelevant as the infamous $40,000 that winds up in the swamp in PSYCHO.
Even the deceptively casual sense of the film doesn’t rob it of all that intensity and the way each scene is shot whether the surprising energy of certain camera movements when it does spring into action or that crucial moment taking Jeff’s point of view from Miss Lonelyhearts to the wider shot of Lisa upstairs and the impending return of Thorwald, essentially giving us three cuts within two shots right then a perfection of the form and the pure cinema Hitchcock was talking about. This, along with certain elements peeking through the sound like the timing of the music heard nearby with Doyle’s proclamation about the suspect’s innocence, an audio beat that I can hear that in my sleep, and of course the unrelenting feel of the montage of the final confrontation which looks forward to the PSYCHO murder with an unexpected intensity in how it’s more of a clumsy struggle than a skillful fight. The view from the apartment shows off the details in that massive set that in my dreams I show up to the Paramount lot in the early 50s to take a tour of. So much of the film is about that basic concept of point of view and how we perceive other people whether from close up or far away even if Hitchcock doesn’t stay entirely in that vantage point, moving outside for a few key shots when the one neighbor cries out to everyone after discovering her dog has been killed, an oddity brought up in the famous interview book “Hitchcock/Truffaut” without the director ever getting into the specifics of why although his discussion of “dramatic purposes” in a point related to this gets at it and it makes these neighbors human, this is where they stop being an abstraction, answering the question of what is cinema in way that also involves removing the coldness from the schematics of it all.
Going to the movies is nothing more than a memory right now and thinking back on that day long ago I still remember the gasp heard as Raymond Burr glances up looking towards a certain direction, one of the great moments of audible audience response ever, implicating us for any part we've been playing in all this peeping tom action throughout the entire running time and a reminder of how seeing a film like this in a theater can force us into paying attention to what’s happening, to be that much more committed to what is seen. “What do you want?” asks the killer with desperation. What do any of us want when we see a movie? Or when we attach ourselves to another person, looking for love, for that matter? Maybe we’re looking for a way to feel alive, to do something, to make us feel whole, even with the guilt that can often be attached to it. Noticing the way Thorwald’s wife discards the flower he kindly brings her with dinner one wonders about the valiant efforts he’s made towards the woman in the past before deciding on that whole murder thing and Hitchcock’s comment to Truffaut about how Stewart’s character “deserves what’s happening to him” in the climax points to his own sympathies. He knows how guilty we all are through our own actions and, besides, the killer’s chief motivation is to somehow get out of the life he’s been trapped in so to the director this is at least doing something about such a problem. But working as a costume jewelry salesman indicates something about his own emptiness, his lack of ability to understand what’s really around him, and though even Jeff is a little puzzled by all those fashions Lisa twirls around in for his benefit but he’s patient, he wants to. The desire is there, just the fear of what may come next.
And when Thorwald at long last enters Jeff’s apartment it’s on a Raymond Burr close-up that makes this character who is only seen from far away for so much of the running time forever memorable. At specific moments of this film that spends so much time on relaxing distant and medium shots of the action each of the three leads receive extreme close-ups that instantly define them—Burr has it there, Grace Kelly when she first appears and Stewart when he seems to see Lisa with new eyes after she’s proven herself. Up until that moment Jeff doesn’t want to lose the life he has but once he sees her that way he has a reason to love her now and he stops trying to figure out if the woman he loves has any place in it by not really doing much of anything, hoping that they can just go on as they’ve been doing, as he puts it. For him, not doing anything is the best answer of all but eventually he realizes you have to and the very end of the film proves that life goes on no matter what, past the heat wave of Jeff’s curiosity just as the wistfulness of the song that composer spends the whole movie on then gets to play for Miss Lonelyhearts, sounds like a romance that you’ll never fully achieve, even as it brings them closer together. The shades are drawn when ‘The End’ appears onscreen but that’s outside of the body of the film and the actual final moment of Lisa picking up her issue of Harper’s Bazaar when she sees it’s safe isn’t really an ending, of course, the battle between the two has to continue. We already know that they love each other so it’s an upbeat ending but one that is under no illusions about what has to be done for the feeling to continue. What is life, after all, if it doesn’t involve that question?
We always think of them as Jimmy (not James, no matter what the credits say) Stewart and Grace Kelly, that’s just the way it is. Stewart’s voice and his growing determination combined with how much of his body language is taken away is which means that so much of it in the eyes, whether settling in for the evening with Lisa or his growing awareness of how right he really is, that natural authority we’ll believe no matter what. And though it can be tough to know what to say about Grace Kelly other than some ‘cool elegance’ statement she’s a dream girl we want to be a dream girl while still displaying her sad vulnerability. She’s life. Thelma Ritter’s unapologetically straightforward nature bounces off of them just as easily as the cool humor of Wendell Corey with how much of his exposition is given while glancing around Jeff’s apartment. And now that I’m familiar with Raymond Burr from so many noirs he made during his pre-Perry Mason years it makes the sheer nastiness he projects stand out all the more as well as how afraid he always really is. The various neighbors each make an impression but especially Judith Evelyn from THE TINGLER as Miss Lonelyhearts and Georgine Darcy as Miss Torso each so vivid and so human, letting us know what they want without much audible dialogue just their actions to show who they really are.
Having said all this, REAR WINDOW remains one of the best films ever made to watch over and over to take away something different from it each time. It doesn’t just have to be about the romance, of course, but that desire for connection is what I’m thinking about right now. Naturally, this is one of the more obvious films to think of at this point in time considering it’s a film about someone confined to a single tiny space for six weeks with nothing to do…well, we’ve long since passed that number in the real world by now. My shades are mostly kept drawn but I’m still here, watching a film about the way people live when they’re alone, even when others are close by. It’s a long way from the Fine Arts Cinema in Scarsdale, which closed way back in 2006, where I first saw this film. For the past several weeks someone across the way has been practicing the cello (Is it the cello? I’m never certain) during the day which is such a soothing sound so that’s helped and I wish I could thank this person for helping out here and there through all this. The girl across the hall from me sometimes leaves her door open. Is that a good idea right now? She’s nice and I miss talking to people like we all do, but really? It’s not an easy time to be a neighbor. So trapped here I think of the past, of all those films, of a life that led me to this temporary version of solitude. But if recent history tells us anything it’s that nostalgia needs to die, that this isn’t about enshrining certain films but keeping them alive to really understand them. Jeez, L.B. Jeffries not only had Thelma Ritter for those rubdowns, there were all those nightly visits from Grace Kelly and he still got bored. But this movie is like an old friend and these days we need friends. They remind us of how good things can be. How much better they can get. And all the things we tell ourselves to convince us those things might be able to someday happen if we're with the right people.
Tuesday, April 28, 2020
None of us are going to the movies right now. That sentence has to be one of the saddest things I’ve ever written. Maybe all we can do as far as that goes is take care of ourselves and the ones we love, looking forward to the day we get to go back. Maybe talking about how much I miss it is a little overly dramatic but that’s the sort of time this is and it really is truthful so even watching a movie a night, or two or three, on DVD or Amazon Prime or wherever, doesn’t fill the hole. Sure, I’m discovering lots of films I’ve never seen before, some good and some bad as well as a few I never thought I’d give a second look. But it’s no substitute for seeing a film the first time in a theater, for that feeling of walking in with your popcorn and hopefully discovering something with the crowd all around you, the joy of that giant image flickering and no matter what else there is to say, it’s missing. Considering everything else that’s going on this is secondary, of course. But it still matters and everything feels incomplete.
Now, whether people care about any of this is a debate for another point in the future. And we don’t know what’s going to happen or how long this is going to go on for. But the desire to return is there. And to bring up an example, one of the several times I went to the New Beverly Cinema over the final weeks before the world changed was to see THE HOT ROCK, my first theatrical viewing of this film directed by Peter Yates with a screenplay by William Goldman from the Donald Westlake novel. Released in early 1972, it’s one of a number of well-regarded Robert Redford films from the period, never one of his most popular but definitely with its devoted fans. I've even met a few of them. As an honest admission, I’ve always been somewhat lukewarm on it over my handful of viewings through the years, at least until now. Because it was at this screening that I suddenly found myself getting caught up in the casual rhythm and charm felt in every scene so as a result the film totally clicked for me. Oddly, this was exactly the same response when I saw BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID at the theater in late 2018 so maybe it’s a Redford-Goldman thing, but for whatever reason this was a film that really came alive in a theater with a crowd around me. Funny thing, the print of BUTCH was absolutely gorgeous and the one for THE HOT ROCK wasn’t in that sort of shape at all, a little scratchy and faded and, since it came all the way from the UK, even featured the alternate title HOW TO STEAL A DIAMOND IN FOUR UNEASY LESSONS (as a comparison the print of the second feature, Aram Avakian’s COPS AND ROBBERS, was flawless). But none of this mattered. The film just put a huge smile on my face in every scene. As 70s heist movies go it’s pretty mild, no sense of fatalism you’d expect from the genre and no heavy body count. In the end, it’s basically a comedy so the way it takes a cockeyed view of the crime and how the scattered precision becomes such a crapshoot makes it totally endearing. And now it’s a movie that helps puts me in a better mood. Sometimes that’s ok. Right now that’s even better than ok.
It takes no time for career thief John Dortmunder (Robert Redford) to be released from his latest stint in prison than for his friend Andy Kelp (George Segal) to instantly show up with a new scheme, having been hired by one Dr. Amusa (Moses Gunn), United Nations representative for the African nation of Central Vatawi, to rob the Sahara Stone from the Brooklyn Museum in order to return it to the rightful place of his homeland. With getaway driver Stan Murch (Ron Leibman) and explosives expert Allan Greenberg (Paul Sand) brought onto the job, the heist goes off but not without a hitch, leading to multiple attempts to steal the diamond again only with something else unexpected going just a little wrong each time. And when Greenberg’s lawyer Abe (Zero Mostel), who also happens to be his father, gets involved with his own agenda Dortmunder and his crew have to resort to more extreme scenarios to finally retrieve the rock from where it is.
The depths of cynicism found in 70s films not only becomes more apparent for me as time goes on, what those films are saying means more as well, a feeling that goes perfectly with the decade and certainly means something now which makes a movie like THE HOT ROCK, which contains none of that, play as even more of a surprise each time out. Characters in heist films never seem to spend much time going over the possible ways things could go wrong, not because of double crosses, although there always seems to be some of that, but because of the plain fact that, well, shit happens, no matter how well the plan might be executed, no matter how ultra-cool the crooks are. This is a film where those unexpected developments happen and instead of staring into the pits of what crime has led these people to it’s a breezy, enjoyable caper film that deals with the expected twists of the genre but always in a surprising way as the layers of the plotting are peeled off to of course reveal that what’s done isn’t really done. None of this makes these guys want to stop, of course. Dortmunder couldn’t do anything else if he tried and is always confident on the surface even with some nasty stomach issues, but he at least takes solace in how his inevitable ulcer is still years away. Kelp, with a nasty habit of freezing up in the middle of a job, doesn’t mind failure and seems to be as much about putting on the act of doing the job no matter what happens even as things go wrong, never knowing for sure who they can trust.
The first shot of the film after the Twentieth Century Fox logo is wiped away says it all, showing the serenity of an empty green lawn at the prison separated from the concrete yard where everyone congregates, the peace of nature always close but just as unreachable. Dortmunder and the crew scrambling after this diamond are in the same position so no matter how close they seem to get it’s still a long way off and considering how these guys are all sort of dopes, each plan turns out better than anyone could have imagined but it never seems to be enough. THE HOT ROCK is the rare crime movie where the guy gets out of jail at the start and never thinks for a minute about going straight because even he knows there’s no way it could happen. He just needs to be talked into this particular heist but it’s really never a question for Dortmunder anyway since, as he puts it, it’s what he does, even if he’d rather not do the job with Kelp. The real conflict doesn’t come from those double crosses and fellow crooks just waiting to fuck you over but from how unexpectedly difficult it all turns out to be, how even when things go almost perfectly there’s still something you didn’t see coming. Within the very casual quality of Yates’ direction is just watching these guys figure out what the next step is going to be so in fairness there’s not that much suspense and as a director he never seems as assured with the broader comedy aspects as he is with the hang out nature of letting certain moments play, naturally letting the humor emerge out of that laid back feel. When Moses Gunn pauses in amazement to exclaim, “I’m a criminal,” as he realizes the plan really is taking shape it’s one of the best moments in the film as if he never quite believed this would happen just as later on he can’t believe the eternal annoyance it’s led to.
Even the big museum robbery which you’d think would be the centerpiece of the whole movie happens sooner than you’d expect and is done with a surprisingly tossed-off feel, as much about the silence of that huge, empty space cutting back to the carefully planned diversion outside as the specifics of the actual robbery even when the focus is the ticking clock of the moment when Kelp unexpectedly gets trapped in the very place the diamond is. The various steps to each scheme are all about the characters in one way or another, whether the way Leibman plays an accident victim for that diversion, Redford silently freaking out in the helicopter or the teamwork involving a certain elevator shaft when even we’re not sure what surprise it’s building to.
Along with the camaraderie of the four guys are the incidental sights of the location shooting, all a reminder of the panic business in New York that Kelp is so fond of and it probably only feels like half the film is set around those expressways circling the outer boroughs with one briefly used location up in the Bronx that maybe I recognize which gives a sudden rush of nostalgia. The plot also basically stops for the quick helicopter trip around lower Manhattan as Leibman’s Stan Murch tries to figure out exactly where he’s supposed to fly to with footage looking directly down on the city and at one point lingering on the incomplete World Trade Center which 10-15 years ago was unnerving, now it’s just heartbreakingly beautiful. The main cop at the precinct being raided is played by William Redfield of A NEW LEAF and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, seeming more annoyed than anything by what’s happening, just another cog in this New York who views it all as just one more pain in the ass, wondering why every problem can’t be solved by just monkeying with it.
Maybe THE HOT ROCK is one of those products of the 70s that now feels like the visual equivalent of easy listening music and the 100 minute film goes by in a flash but if I’m being honest, I can still see what maybe wasn’t clicking for me on past viewings in the way the movie cruises along instead of ever exploding. The tightly plotted story beats are so carefully laid out all through Goldman’s screenplay that I wish it could breathe a little more, maybe with a few better transitions at times to orient us better or just a little bit more bickering between the two main guys to really make those characters pop since it worked so well for Butch and Sundance, after all. Kelp, who picks Dortmunder up from prison in a stolen car, is married to his sister played by the briefly seen Topo Swope in one of those elements it feels like the film could have done more with, but none of the women in the film are around for very long, even the one who becomes integral to the final step of the plan. Looking up the extensive writings and interviews from William Goldman on his work there is surprisingly little about this film beyond a vague quote that it was “not cast well” but who knows what he’s referring to—did he think Segal was a more suitable Dortmunder than the bigger star Redford?
Even if it is maybe too laid back at times, there’s a confidence to the shots and Yates never lingers on them even when it’s a good one and the way moments are staged to place characters in relation to each other in the frame makes their dynamic even stronger. Sometimes it feels like the film is even more interested in that vibe than the plot and it’s sometimes more than willing to just let the Quincy Jones score play for a few extra beats as it goes to the next scene. That sense of seventies cool is a reminder it was likely more of an inspiration for Steven Soderbergh’s OCEANS’S ELEVEN than the film that was actually a remake of. So much of THE HOT ROCK is just going along for the ride with the star power of Redford, and Segal too, and directed by Yates a year before he made the truly great crime film THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE, this one has no bigger goals in mind with very little even to say about the racial politics of the colonial aspect but presumably all’s fair when thievery is involved, after all. For Dortmunder, being a thief is not about being tough but about being just smart enough to get the job done before the other guy does and win out over this diamond that’s jinxed him. It’s the suspense of the climax that works beautifully moving from shot to shot, each beat that leads him to the all-important safe deposit box comes off as effortless, with one particular reaction shot of Redford after he utters the infamous key phrase “Afghanistan banana stand”, not knowing for sure if what he says will work, that is basically what the movie is building to. And it earns the refreshingly offhand moment as Redford calmly walks down Park Avenue, finally getting a sense of the serenity he couldn’t have earlier. I think the movie knows this is only temporary for the guy but these days it’s a reminder that even a brief feeling is better than none.
The Robert Redford portrayal of Dortmunder is very much about the movie star quality of it all, the laid back charisma crossed with his casual nervousness and the sense that he can’t let go of something once he’s going for it. The film is light and Redford is maybe even too light for that insignificance but the way he lays out how the plan has to work and why he’s doing it along with just the sight of him thinking things over gives it much of its heft, knowing that even his smarts may not be enough to figure out everything. As Kelp, George Segal is secondary but that desperate glad-handing style keeps the energy going and it’s always just right to bounce off Dortmunder along with the sense that he knows just how to get under his partner’s skin. It’s those little character moments that make up the most idiosyncratic moments with the manic glee in the great Ron Leibman laying out the precise directions of how he got somewhere along with Paul Sand as Greenberg who always seems to be wondering what the hell he’s doing there. Moses Gunn lends the perfect amount of dry humor to his growing exasperation as Amusa while Zero Mostel always plays it as having one over on everyone which he almost always does. Charlotte Rae is Stan’s ma, Lee Wallace of THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE is Dortmunder’s doctor and Robert Weil, also from PELHAM ONE TWO THREE as well as MOONSTRUCK is the bank employee who unknowingly assists Dortmunder at the film’s most crucial moment.
But even after all this, my honest admission is that watching the film again on DVD at home, it’s still not the same. Seeing THE HOT ROCK in the theater makes it, like all films, bigger than life and allows us to focus on the sheer personality of these guys, on the charm of Robert Redford, the stalling tactics of George Segal, the toothy grins of Ron Leibman, the jittery nervousness of Paul Sand. And those New York surroundings, which right now provide a level of comfort. It’s still fun, just not the same. Moving past this film for a moment, there have been other Dortmunder vehicles taken from the Donald Westlake book series although you’d be forgiven for not knowing. Martin Lawrence played the character under a different name in WHAT’S THE WORST THAT COULD HAPPEN? a major summer release in 2001 but now forgotten and so did George C. Scott in 1974’s BANK SHOT which I recall being strictly so-so but it’s been a few years. Paul Le Mat was actually named Dortmunder in the Gary Coleman vehicle JIMMY THE KID which I recall from early 80s cable and have never seen again since. The point here is THE HOT ROCK, which I’d always thought was a nice, pleasant movie, which it is, and how much a theatrical viewing caused it to rise in my estimation. It’s one of those things I think about right now, since we can’t go to the movies. And we don’t know when we’re going to be able to go back and what’s going to change when we do, but I dream of that return when it’s safe. There’s nothing like the rush of that feeling when you’re at the movies, especially when you’re making just the right discovery but sometimes just the experience of being there to see, well, anything is enough. Maybe it’s an addiction. But even now, when staying away is for the best and absolutely necessary, it’s something I never want to give up.
Friday, April 10, 2020
Maybe we can never fully escape the world we come from. Our parents are our parents, our siblings are the ones we can never impress, the dreams we have sometimes turn into memories of places we never want to return to. And deep down we have a better idea of who we are than we want to admit. Directed by Mike Nichols, REGARDNG HENRY was released during the summer of 1991, less than a month after the 25th birthday of its screenwriter Jeffrey Abrams, now better known to everyone as J.J. Abrams so this is an easy reminder of just how young that guy has always been. And this isn’t even his first screen credit which was the previous year’s TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS co-written with Jill Mazursky and directed by Arthur Hiller for anybody with memories of watching that one a hundred times on cable. By this point plenty of us have our opinions on the work of J.J. Abrams whether strong feelings about his STAR WARS films or even the second season of FELICITY. The slightly forgotten REGARDING HENRY (which, as a fun fact, opened the same day as POINT BREAK) hasn’t been examined quite as much but it makes sense to look at it now as a reminder of where his career path began and maybe what his point of view of the world has always been. In some ways it’s a starter screenplay, one that comes off as basic as possible while still being complete and ready to shoot to make itself an actual film. But even those are never easy. Not even as easy as getting away from the places that made us.
Manhattan lawyer Henry Turner (Harrison Ford) is successful and respected at the powerful firm where he works but cold and unfriendly to everyone in his life, even to wife Sarah (Annette Bening) and daughter Rachel (Mikki Allen). He’s seemingly willing to do anything to get ahead in his career and the society life, more interested in the big case he’s just won than anything else. But late one night Henry goes out to grab a pack of cigarettes when he stumbles on a holdup and is shot in the head by the gunman. He surprisingly recovers but along with a secondary wound that resulted in a lack of oxygen to the brain he has essentially no memory of the person he once was. After a long recovery process aided by physical therapist Bradley (Bill Nunn), Henry gets well enough to return home, getting to know his wife and daughter anew. He also goes back to work at his firm but is soon confronted with the sort of lawyer he was as well as the sort of person he was and is forced to come to grips with figuring out what sort of person he’s going to be now.
The austerity of Mike Nichols’ early films became a considerably more casual style through the 80s and one of the surprises of looking at REGARDING HENRY for the first time in years is that to a certain extent this represents a sort of return to that approach, even if the ultimate effect leads to a different place. That intent is apparent right from the start with the credits rolling on a long look at the courthouse on Centre Street in lower Manhattan over a cold grey afternoon with snow falling, perfect for the harsh world the main character is so successful in. The following extended shot introduces Ford’s Henry Turner in what is close to a full 360 as he gives the closing argument in the big case he’s about to win and knows how to win. His slicked back hair and expensive suit blend seamlessly into the background of that courtroom, inherently part of the world he occupies just like his briefly mentioned father was. The first dozen or so shots of the film spread out over the first six minutes set up this very particular visual approach aided by the great Giuseppe Rotunno as cinematographer (who also shot CARNAL KNOWLEDGE for Nichols, among many other films) which gives REGARDING HENRY what complexity it has since this is at heart a simple film in all sorts of ways, simple in plot and structure as well as how it plays out to the point it almost feels like there’s next to no drama at all. Henry is a cold, selfish prick who only cares about himself, then he’s not and everyone is either ok with that or they’re not. As a screenplay it’s a fairly straightforward telling of the story with few diversions of any kind but as a film Nichols turns it into an exploration of how we can relate to the world we occupy, how much we ever actually belong there and how much of that decision is really up to you.
It’s the burnished wood signifying wealth that seems to make up the recurring color palette of each of these courtrooms and restaurants, a signpost of the tradition all around them with the lack of color infusing how these people really feel about anything that isn’t money. The mammoth apartment where Henry lives with his family is located in a building recognizable from being prominently featured in THE FRENCH CONNECTION (“Remember Don Ameche, the actor? He lives here.”) but it also has no real color, an overly decorative dining room table that Henry hates, all contrasted with the endless green lawn of the rehab facility that gives him life again. The short, clipped scenes that detail much of this gives a no muss, no fuss feel to the storytelling so edited by Sam O’Steen there’s not an ounce of fat on the film as if nearly every moment is seemingly about getting the correct amount of plot and thematic information into a scene but maybe not much more than that, to simply follow Henry through his recovery as he tries to figure out just who he is. He definitely becomes friendlier with a newly floppy haired look to underline his innocence—some scenes aren’t too far removed from Harrison Ford playing a kid in a body switching movie—but it’s not all that interesting and when Henry gets an empty frame as a gift it’s a reminder, maybe a little too obvious, of the blank slate he is. One brief moment of some society types scarfing down spoonfuls of caviar at a party feels a little too broad to make the point (just like much of the extravagant wardrobe of Robin Bartlett as Sarah’s best friend) and such undisciplined moments feel like a broadly satirical indulgence out of step with the tone but it also feels like there’s an energy to it which at least gives some life to the scene that too much of the rest of the film is doing without.
The question of how medically accurate what happens to Henry is could be argued but it doesn’t even really matter since this is all mostly about the symbolism of that scar on his forehead so the whole movie plays as not a story of recovery but a signpost for moving from the cruelty of the Reagan 80s to what was going to be the calmer, gentler 90s. Bill Nunn infuses the stock type of his physical therapist of color with an undeniable sincerity but it’s still hard not to think of it as the stock type it is, dispensing the right sort of wisdom at just the right time. Between that and the lessons Henry learns from his helpful daughter it’s as if the wisdom he receives from these people is more important than anything his actual doctors ever did and briefly musing over what he became in life thanks to his father it feels like the message is that getting shot in the head was the best thing to ever happen to him. Through the arc of the film he basically goes from being a child, baking cookies with his daughter--the bit where he suggests making ‘one big cookie’ is cute--to essentially being forced into maturity when confronted about the truth of what his life was and how to decide which path he’s going to take, a reminder of other films from the time about a workaholic husband/dad who learns what really matters (it’s better than HOOK, I’ll give it that much). It makes me wonder how much importance the concept of intellect actually has in the work of J.J. Abrams or if it’s all just about good fortune and luck, to do the right thing with the birthright you received whether James Kirk in STAR TREK’09 (a film I still like, but that’s a discussion for another time) wrestling with the legacy of his father, Sydney Bristow and the mystery of her mother on ALIAS, all of which pointing towards the reasons for what ultimately makes the lead character so special in their world.
On the Mike Nichols side of things, some of the films that he made during the second half of his career including HEARTBURN and WORKING GIRL all have a genuine sense of living in New York and the east coast stratosphere but in the case of REGARDING HENRY it also feels like a film made by people with an undeniable self-loathing for that world, filled with society types forever wandering the streets of Manhattan clutching the Playbills of the Broadway show they just saw heading off to dinner. All this makes it feel like little more than the product of someone who comes from privilege whether that someone is Nichols or Abrams or a little of both, wrestling with that privilege and the thought of turning their back on it. Looking at it now, the film has a surprising similarity to WOLF, Mike Nichols’ next film released a few years later and at least a more interesting one, also featuring a middle-aged man going through a transformation that improves his life after an unexpected encounter late one night. WOLF now plays like a film more about acknowledging the cruelty and where the world was clearly headed, so the creature Jack Nicholson turns into in that film is the only way to fight back against it. REGARDING HENRY, clearly the more benign version of this concept, merely serves up what happens unquestionably and with kindness.
The elemental quality of Nichols’ direction means there’s that smooth sense of professionalism which makes it clear that he knows what each scene has to be about and what to focus on in any given moment. At other times he lets those moments relax and play out in a single shot to let the actors fully relate to each other but the problem is too often the scenes in question aren’t about very much. When Henry disappears to wander around New York, winding up in a porno theater at one point, nothing bad happens and he even buys a cute dog. The real drama which emerges when Henry’s daughter goes away after becoming his big human connection from his old life at first then she’s removed as the maturity comes into play all feels like it’s all easily resolved after Henry skulks around the city for a few minutes looking serious. It would be a little harsh to say that it becomes as empty as Henry’s head with what may be the most low-key Hans Zimmer score of all time to inch the scenes forward but maybe this makes the collaboration an ideal combo: a director who seemingly approaches everything from a standpoint of intellect with a writer who’s all about instinct and what happens in the moment, never thinking too far into the future.
It strikes me that a movie which explored the ambivalence of never being able to fully unlock the mystery of who Henry used to be sounds like a much more interesting one, just not as heartwarming so maybe the answer is as much of a void as that empty frame and isn’t particularly fleshed out for a reason. Even the issue of Henry’s father who apparently believed life was all about the ‘work ethic’, which is mentioned at the start and brought up again later, never becomes a touchstone of all the answers like it seems it will. And aside from a few clever foreshadowing touches in the script that stand out on repeat viewings, like the Rosebud of the word ‘Ritz’ that Henry initially responds to as well as the key piece of evidence he withheld in the big trial, there’s not much to uncover and instead it wants to be a warm blanket of a movie that never says very much of substance. Along with a few cozy expressions to help Henry out such as, “When you have enough, you say ‘When’” the overall feeling of niceness is what makes up both the text and the subtext with nothing else to read into it. The best of Mike Nichols generally offers some degree of ambiguity whether the endings of THE GRADUATE or WORKING GIRL all the way to his final film CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR and without that feeling of wondering what’s being left behind, REGARDNG HENRY doesn’t have much of anything beyond the fuzziness. At the very end the credits just roll when they’re more or less supposed to, no real crescendo given to the final moment so it’s all more of a pleasant feeling than an actual movie.
Even Harrison Ford’s crooked smile makes an appearance as Henry comes to life again and that long stretch with no dialogue gives us a look at what he can do without it, almost making him vulnerable like never before. It’s the most interesting part of his performance which by its nature feels like we’re missing a key ‘Harrison Ford’ element even if it does manage to find a balance between the adult and the little boy, playing as slightly endearing but still a little calculated. This film also comes in the middle of Annette Bening’s 1991 run, falling between GUILTY BY SUSPICION and BUGSY, and she’s terrific here bringing an undeniable strength which helps to make sense of a role where it doesn’t feel like the script has given her all the answers. Mikki Allen, who has no other screen credits, brings a totally believable sadness as their daughter but it never feels overdone, playing as totally believable as she tries to connect with her father. Bill Nunn offers a valuable directness in his scenes which gives them a focus as pat as they are and it is, in fairness, an excellent supporting cast with what feels like familiar New York theater faces or maybe just friends of Nichols meant to fill out that world including Donald Moffat, Rebecca Miller, Bruce Altman, James Rebhorn, Robin Bartlett and Elizabeth Wilson (Benjamin’s mother in THE GRADUATE). John Leguizamo is the liquor store gunman, Abrams himself cameos as a delivery boy and an unbilled Nancy Marchand gets almost the last line of dialogue.
Thinking back to when this film came out, I remember seeing it with my father who at the time was right in the middle of some of his own extensive health issues so because of that memory you’d think the film would have more pull for me now but not really and I can’t even remember what he had to say about it. There’s not really a lot to chew on here. As an honest admission, when I first had the idea several months ago to write about this film (it won out over TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS, primarily because of Mike Nichols) it was in the immediate wake of Abrams’ THE RISE OF SKYWALKER which made me think to connect the overall poorness of that film to the simplistic ideals of this one. And, in a way, Daisy Ridley’s Rey comes to the same conclusion at the end of her film that Henry Turner does in his, to reject where she comes from and find another way to move forward. All this may be valid and it’s a little hard not to look at Abrams’ work in film & TV and think that his view of the world has never been about intellect but the sheer luck of what you’re born into, what you supposedly have coming to you as destiny. Of course, a lot has happened since I had that idea and spending much time thinking about the J.J. Abrams STAR WARS films doesn’t interest me very much at the moment. As for REGARDING HENRY, I’m not in too much of a mood to strongly object to what is ultimately a ‘nice’ movie with a message of, ‘Be who you are deep down and don’t let anyone else tell you what that is’ but there’s still not very much to say about it. The question for us right now is what are we going to be in this world that we have to live in? That’s an answer we don’t have yet. We’re trapped here, after all. And, at the moment, there’s nothing we can do to escape.
Sunday, March 29, 2020
Let’s try to calm down for a moment. Pause, take a breath and remember a few good things in life. We all have those people who have meant something to us and whether they’re still part of our lives or not, what they’ve given has helped make our worlds closer to what we want them to be. People like that remind us that something close to decency still exists out there, a feeling which makes us want to strive to become better and make the world we live in just a little more serene. If only all this could be as true as we wish. Forgetting the real world for just a moment, we don’t get that feeling very much in films these days either and for a number of reasons this makes sense. The world is not in the greatest place so films are going to reflect the reality but too often they don’t do anything to fight back against that either. It’s true that kindness can be difficult to make dramatic and drama, which can’t just be nice people doing nice things for other nice people, inherently needs conflict in some form. So roughly 30 years ago in February 1990, the world got what is now the mostly forgotten STANLEY & IRIS, the final film directed by the great Martin Ritt who passed away before the year was done. I actually saw the MGM release at the time since back then I saw almost everything and even remember taking notice of a particular sensitivity to the direction but didn’t really think about it for much more than that. It’s a nice, pleasant movie, about people who struggle to move forward with their conflict coming from within as much as anything and lives in its own sense of quiet, with a craft to the filmmaking that may be subtle but is still undeniable. STANLEY & IRIS is a film about an issue that affects many people but doesn’t get discussed much at all and it could even be argued that the issue itself isn’t inherently dramatic. While it may not be a forgotten classic there’s still nothing wrong with a film that has its own ideas of how to tell a story and in doing so tries to make its world just a little better.
Recently widowed mother of two Iris King (Jane Fonda), who works on the line at a local baking factory, meets Stanley Cox (Robert De Niro), a cook in the factory’s cafeteria. After several chance encounters an attraction clearly develops between the two but after noticing his occasional odd behavior, Iris soon discovers that Stanley’s secret is he can’t read or write. After losing his job and being forced to put his father into a home when he can’t take care of him, Stanley finally asks Iris for help to learn how to read. And she begins to teach him through the various difficulties of the process and the growing awareness of what their relationship is becoming.
Maybe it’s my current state of mind, but films set in Connecticut make me think of the past. To this day, distant memories of sitting in the backseat of the car with my family as we drove through the state still linger somewhere in my head, remembering those trips when we were on the way to visit someone, passing through towns that we rarely ever stopped in. Has much of anything changed there since I lived one state over? That doesn’t really matter. Some of the most famous films that address life in Connecticut seem to focus on the wealthy, that east coast repressed old world of wealth and affluence seen in things like THE ICE STORM or THE SWIMMER, but on the opposite side of the financial chain STANLEY & IRIS is set in the blue collar world of people living paycheck-to-paycheck, if they’re lucky enough to be employed at all. The opening shots of the small city it’s set in bring up those distant memories of passing through which is appropriate for a film that, after all, is about people stuck in a place that the rest of the world just passes through and the setting may not be specified but the establishing shots are clearly Waterbury—interiors along with less recognizable exteriors were largely filmed in Toronto—which I mainly remember for the sight of a giant cross on top of a hill (apparently part of a long closed religious theme park, go figure) that can be briefly spotted here. Looking at the film again now all these years later, STANLEY & IRIS plays as the sort of quiet social drama that might have come out of Hollywood regularly in the early 60s, maybe set somewhere in New England, possibly in black & white CinemaScope with a gentle score in the TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD vein, although the films directed by Martin Ritt during that period usually had more fire than this one does.
Starting his career in theater and live TV before being blacklisted in 1952, Martin Ritt’s films often place an emphasis on social issues alongside a strong humanist vein, lacking the pulp ferocity of someone like John Frankenheimer but instead finding dramatic power in the simplicity of how people relate to each other when they have no other choice. He’s maybe best remembered now as the director of the masterful HUD but there’s also THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, the blacklist drama THE FRONT (about as good a film on the subject as has ever been made) starring Woody Allen, the Sally Field Oscar winner NORMA RAE as well as the gentle MURPHY’S ROMANCE, which gave James Garner his one Oscar nomination, among others. Even Ritt’s first film, 1957’s EDGE OF THE CITY starring Sidney Poitier and John Cassavetes, is a dynamite noirish human drama with a hopeful tinge of yearning for the way the world, and the friendships in it, could be if it wasn’t for the hate that always beats it down. Stretching the comparison all the way to his last film, at the core of STANLEY & IRIS is a story about how people help each other to find the best of their humanity and in doing so overcome what are their greatest hurdles deep down, a victory which can matter more than anything when you’re just about ready to give up. The films he made were about how the world around people formed them and what they hopefully can do to move past their troubles to make those lives better.
The portrayal of the working class world seen in STANLEY & IRIS (screenplay by Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch, based on the novel Union Street by Pat Barker; this was the final credit for the screenwriting team who had collaborated with Ritt on multiple projects including HUD, HOMBRE and NORMA RAE) feels admirable looking at it these days but still a little idealized, spring days with clothing all neatly pressed as Iris heads to the factory with her co-workers like they’re off to camp for the day. The words the characters speak in the script make it clear they feel very different about their situation—it doesn’t seem like these are union jobs—with the dialogue underlining more than once how these people are all trapped in their own kind of prisons, accepting shoes that don’t fit because it beats having to pay for new ones and holding on to those dreams of actually owning a car. All this seems to exist in its own gentle reality with Iris getting her purse snatched at the start the only outward indication of real world hostility (which we never hear about again anyway) and the Madonna poster on daughter Martha Plimpton’s wall maybe the one sign of the late 80s in evidence anywhere else in the film. The various minor authority figures all seem a little grouchy but with kids playing ball in the streets and people calmly walking through parks there’s always a sense of tranquility in the air especially when Stanley gives Iris a ride on his bike after work one day as they get to know each other, a sequence which catches just the right tone for the start of this relationship with them both a little wary of trying to connect with someone new. The mood goes just right with such a simple, direct film about people who are lost but still trying to help each other even if the overall softness means that the film becomes a gentle stroll more than anything, the bitterness hanging on the edges in those scenes when someone chooses to simply walk away from the expected confrontation, no anger left in them, no more energy to bring out.
There’s also a feeling of regret that runs through things, with Iris unable to move on from mourning her husband so I’m guessing that’s his oversized Hawaiian shirt Fonda wears in one scene, trying not to let go. The guilt Stanley feels over having to leave his father in a modest, slightly shabby old age home stays with him as well and the sweet sadness of these scenes gets me deep down, especially when he apologizes to his father played by Feodor Chaliapin Jr., maybe best remembered now as the grandfather in MOONSTRUCK, delivered with a surprising vulnerability projected by De Niro and these moments are some of the film’s most affecting, bringing up a few regretful memories of my own father from around this period. The past affects how the characters behave in the present whether Stanley finally asking for help or the way Iris tries to pass along the right lessons to her pregnant daughter, trying to accept certain realities even with the bitterness in her voice as she says, “None of us stay cute,” while dealing with the volatile marriage between her sister played by Swoosie Kurtz and husband Jamey Sheridan. It’s a subplot that feels missing a resolution with the characters pretty much disappearing from the film but what’s left of it shows the danger of simply giving up and accepting how bad it’s going to be.
Ritt’s craft as a director always comes through even when the scenes are just a little too pat, expertly using the widescreen Panavision frame to place people in relation to each other during the teaching scenes as Iris tries to understand what happened to Stanley and the process of his learning as the words begin to come into focus. The film also occasionally pauses for those moments of daily life, showing Iris’s days at the factory, transitions held together by a lovely John Williams score to provide the connective tissue. And yes, maybe there’s not a lot of inherent drama to stretches of it since a scene where one person is teaching another to read may not have much conflict but in Stanley asking about himself, “Do I have a name if I can’t write it? Am I really a person if I can’t read it?” the simple clarity of the question comes through. Maybe the closest thing to a visual setpiece is when he’s given a test to walk to a certain intersection using a map he has to read and the trouble it causes, one overhead shot carefully laying out his silent confusion, the feeling of being completely, truly lost and alone.
The way the film cares about these people and their relationship to the world around them carries that sense of gentleness, the story of a romance which feels like it’s about the tentative nature of that romance, people who spend time feeling around each other while becoming aware of that passage of time and how they need to finally take action before it’s too late. There’s a feeling of warmth to Donald McAlpine’s cinematography that matches up with how the seasons change as the story progresses and at one point when Stanley is walking around a park with Iris’s son played by Harley Cross the scene briefly holds a shot on an odd perspective to show how dwarfed the two are by the nature around them which will be there long after they’ve gone. In another later scene Fonda and De Niro are separated by another tree in the middle of the Panavision frame, the world they share keeping them apart and this sort of lingering does give the feel of an old man’s film but looking at it as the last film directed by Martin Ritt causes every scene to play with a focus on the pure ideas of what he cared about, a way to just watch these people as they move through the world. More than a simple commercial for literacy, so much of it is about the tentative nature of holding back out of fear and what can be done to move past that, a reminder that we all only have so much time. STANLEY & IRIS may not be very much more than a nice movie with an ending that is a little too idealized, Stanley’s hobby as an inventor finally paying off almost as if to say that unless you have credit cards and a new car you’re not really a person. I don’t think that’s what the film is ultimately trying to say but it does feel like it’s an attempt to give the studio not just a happy ending but the happiest, least complicated ending possible. In the end, what sticks out is how this is a film about wanting, yearning to do more than just work and eat and sleep as Iris puts it in one scene, about the dream of making a connection and finding a way to escape from your own prison so maybe these days that message doesn’t seem so wrong.
Jane Fonda and Robert De Niro feel slightly at a remove from each other which makes sense—this isn’t supposed to be a movie about sexual tension anyway, just an easygoing tentativeness which will hopefully blossom into something else. The look in their eyes, Fonda’s yearning as she fights against the bitterness which is always about to overtake her and the look on her face as she realizes he has an interest in her. Seven months before GOODFELLAS opened, this film is a reminder of the charming awkwardness which can turn up in De Niro’s performances when he has to play an uncomplicated guy, in this case someone with a polite inquisitiveness with a lot bubbling up inside him to keep his secret and there’s a sweetness to it all so even when he shows up drunk at her house in one scene it’s never threatening, just sort of clumsy. Martha Plimpton matches up well against Fonda as her daughter, not intimidated at all and it gives an extra charge to a subplot which might otherwise just play as hackneyed. Stephen Root is the head of the nursing home while Iris’s co-workers at the bakery include Loretta Devine, Kathy Kinney, Julie Garfield and Zohra Lampert, practically extras but each giving the feeling that they’re embellishing their bit parts on the edges of the frame although if the film never stays with them for very long, but even those brief moments give the film another touch of humanity.
Where you come from and what happened to you matters. What happens now matters too. But right now my thoughts are drifting to people I’ve known and what they’ve meant to me. I’m not even sure I’d know how to tell them if I got the chance. In some cases, maybe it doesn’t matter. As a side note, STANELY & IRIS co-screenwriter Harriet Frank Jr. whose career dates back to the late 40s passed away at the beginning of 2020 at the age of 96 and not only was it the final film directed by Martin Ritt, after its box office failure it was also Jane Fonda’s last film for the next sixteen years—from this to MONSTER-IN-LAW—and is mostly forgotten now unless you happen to be digging through Amazon Prime. As I write this, our lives are on pause at best. Maybe I’m not even sure what my greater point is beyond that there’s something to be said for a film about people finding each other and using that as a path to a better version of this life. And, by the way, reading is good too. These days I have to try to remember something like that for as long as possible.