Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Dialogue Written By Kafka

Richard Lester directed such films as A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, THE KNACK and PETULIA. They are three films which I can love as much as any film I have ever felt passionate about and all three are a pleasure to revisit multiple times, providing richness and layers, revealing much to say about them. So naturally, I’m choosing to look at another Lester film, the little-seen comedy FINDERS KEEPERS.

Released to little notice in May 1984, FINDERS KEEPERS was discovered by me on cable. Now, I love train movies, which this is a terrific example of and much it is very funny, but I think it was its intricate structure that led to me viewing it multiple times. It received a surprisingly positive review from Vincent Canby in The New York Times, who called it “unexpectedly satisfying,” with a cast that included “as talented group of comic actors as has been collected in an American film since Jonathan Demme’s MELVIN AND HOWARD.” The run in theaters was brief but it remains surprisingly enjoyable and should be a pleasant surprise for anyone out there still interested in Richard Lester.

The tightly-packed plot packs a lot of incident into 96 minutes so any summary might ruin some of the fun but to give it a try: Somewhere near Oakland in 1973, heiress Georgiana Latimer (Pamela Stephenson) fakes her own kidnapping with the help of her cohort/lover (Ed Lauter) while at the same time stealing several million dollars from her father’s safe. They plan to sneak the money out of town on a train in a coffin. Meanwhile, roller-derby manager Michael Rangeloff (Michael O’Keefe) finds himself on the run from the cops--it's too complicated to explain, but it involves the wife of the Chief of Police--and hops a train to get out of town, soon finding himself mixed up with that coffin. Other characters who get involved on or around that train include an actress in the middle of a nervous breakdown named Standish Logan (Beverly D’Angelo), Rangeloff’s con-artist foster father (Louis Gossett Jr.) who is disguised as a priest, an FBI agent (Jack Riley) investigating the kidnapping, an extremely old train conductor (David Wayne) who won’t stop talking about past presidents, a small-town mayor (Brian Dennehy) and a surprising revelation about a soldier who was reported missing in action. Whew.

The script is credited to Ronny Graham, production designer Terence Marsh and Charles Dennis, based on Dennis’s novel “The Next-to-Last Train Ride”. That it’s based on a novel may account for the slightly oddly-jointed structure. It’s rather relaxed for a farce and occasionally pauses for a sepia-toned flashback to Rangeloff as a child being raised by Gossett. These scenes don’t really add much to the story, though they do add some screentime for the Oscar winner who otherwise makes his first appearance rather late, but they do help us get to understand the characters a little more. Much like that other train film SILVER STREAK, FINDERS KEEPERS was primarily shot in Canadian locations, some of which will be familiar from having served as Smallville in Lester’s own SUPERMAN III from the previous year (of course, Pamela Stephenson appears in both films as well). The eccentric group of characters also brings to mind several Preston Sturges films, most particularly HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO and the genuinely funny climax, centered around a house that is being moved, feels like it came from Lester and his love of silent film more than any other part of the movie. There’s clumsiness—the plot really doesn’t kick in correctly until O’Keefe boards the train, a few scenes aren’t as funny as they’d like to be and the use of period songs doesn’t always work but the lightness of its farce overrides any problems I have with it. It makes me wish more comedies like this were attempted these days. I’ll take more train movies, too.

Playing characters working outside of the law O’Keefe and Gossett are so enjoyable to watch that it’s easy to imagine them returning in other adventures. Beverly D’Angelo’s wonderfully named Standish Logan is described as having “the mind of a maniac and the mouth of a longshoreman”, possibly says the word ‘fag’ more than any other screen character I can think of and yet her performance is another reason why I’ve been crazy for Beverly D’Angelo for years now. Almost everyone else in the movie has something to hide except her—she’s a nutcase of a person who just puts everything out there and she’s crazy sexy while doing it. Even Ed Lauter’s nasty bad guy is allowed enough comic moments for me to like him a little as well—after all, he’s caught up in all the same farcical complications that all the other characters are. Brian Dennehy, John Schuck and David Wayne as “the oldest train conductor in the world” are all fantastic in their twisted-authority roles and each is well-used. Jim Carrey turns up as well in his first film and gets several laughs. In her first and last film appearance the strangely funny Barbara Kermode is Dennehy's daugther and I should mention Jack Riley as “Ormond, FBI” who has what is probably the best film role he ever had. Anyone who became more interested because of that sentence should probably seek out FINDERS KEEPERS.

Way back in 1991 the Museum of Modern Art ran a pretty massive “Trains and Film” series and actually showed FINDERS KEEPERS as part of the festival (on a double bill with SILVER STREAK, of course). There was something kind of terrific about hearing the laughter which emanated from the audience during the screening and realizing that I wasn’t alone in my enjoyment of the film. It should in no way be ranked among Lester’s best and even the book of interviews with Steven Soderbergh, “Getting Away With It”, dispenses with the subject in only a sentence or two. It's not even on DVD and I don't expect it to be any time soon. But the off-kilter approach of its farcical structure and likable, eccentric characters continue to make it endearing and if anyone ever enjoys this film because I recommended it then that’s ok with me. And I promise I’ll write about THE KNACK one of these days.


Ivan said...

Love the poster! (Mort Drucker was only surpassed by Wally Wood for drawing slinky vamps.)

Remember when movie posters were sometimes drawn? I don't recall Drucker's posters as much as do Jack Davis', though: The Bad News Bears, The Long Goodbye and Bank Shot come to mind.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

It's a sad thing, but the concept of the wacky-group-of-characters-all-doing-something-wacky as film poster seems to be a lost art.

Anonymous said...

I'm just reading the book and was thinking it might make a pretty good movie. Thanks for the heads up; now I don't have to make it.

Coyote said...

It makes me so sad that Lester's been retired for the last twenty years (essentially, since Roy Kinnear's accident). At his peak, he was magnificent.