Friday, September 16, 2011

No Romance Of Old Money

Lately there have been more than a few nights where I’ve found myself staying awake maybe later than I should be. Not really doing much of anything you understand, just not sleeping, faced with those feelings of loneliness that come on at a certain hour, staring at the ceiling, waiting to see if the TCM Open All Night bumper has aired yet and when it does I try to force myself to shut the set off. Sometimes that happens, what can I say. Back during my extended period of unemployment I had rediscovered the pleasure of going to the Dresden late on weeknights for a drink or two, spending money that I really shouldn’t have. There was just something appealing about the old school noir vibe of being there as things were winding down, Marty & Elayne finishing up their final set as the bar emptied out and I would just sit chatting with the attractive bartender I know who works there. Of course, the irony is that now I have a little bit of money to spend more freely but since I actually have to wake up at a certain hour in the morning I’m not as willing to go out for a few late drinks. So I just sit at home brooding instead, thinking about how nice it would be to be out with someone that late, to wash away the regret I sometimes feel during those hours and wonder what I can still make of the few minutes the day has left.

It’s a safe bet that if there’s ever an Avco-Embassy logo at the start of a movie I’m going to like what I’m about to see. Someone could probably come up with an exception to that rule but regardless I always get a little tingle in the back of my head whenever I see it familiar from when I was younger, a feeling of genuine comfort that automatically tells me everything is going to be all right for the next few hours. In my dreams, I can see some of those titles. PHANTASM. MURDER BY DECREE. ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. THE HOWLING. TIME BANDITS. SUPER FUZZ. SWAMP THING. WINTER KILLS. HOPSCOTCH. Even CARBON COPY, why the hell not. It’s nice to know that there are still some other films with that logo out there that have fallen through the cracks somehow, ready to still be discovered. Better late than never, I guess. Case in point among those Avco-Embassy releases would be Harold Becker’s THE BLACK MARBLE, based on the novel by Joseph Wambaugh who also wrote the screenplay. Released in 1980 the film is so low-key it feels like a whole new word needs to be invented to describe the particular mood it gives off and combined with that is the naturally manic energy of female lead Paula Prentiss, one of my favorite actresses, who seems dialed down so much that it’s almost like more of a real person than she ever played and it gives me a whole new level of appreciation of how good she was. It’s a cop movie, yes, but one with not much more action than the average episode of BARNEY MILLER. Instead it maintains its own relaxed, oddball tone that plays as so unique it makes it a little tough to classify the film—just calling it ‘quirky’ doesn’t do the job and I’m not sure that anyone who would want the movie to have a little more oomph in the end might not be wrong. But it does have numerous charms that make it unique and, either way, I’m glad I finally saw it.

Hollywood police sergeant and proud Russian-American A.M. Valnikov (Robert Foxworth) is a mess. Drinking way too much vodka every night, barely able to walk around during the day without looking like he’s going to keel over, he’s assigned a partner in one Sergeant Natalie Zimmerman (Paula Prentiss) who knows exactly what sort of shape Valnikov is in and is none too happy about it. Meanwhile, down on his luck dog trainer Philo Skinner (Harry Dean Stanton), deep in debt to the mob, has come up with a plan to make some quick money by kidnapping a beloved show dog belonging to heiress Madeline Whitfield (Barbara Babcock) who he assumes wouldn’t have any trouble coming up with the ransom. But very quickly things don’t go as planned and when Valnikov begins to investigate just as he’s in the middle of trying to get his new partner to warm up to him, he really has no idea what he’s getting himself into.

There are elements to THE BLACK MARBLE that make me like it just on principle—Los Angeles, bleakly humorous character study, Paula Prentiss. There’s a certain quiet intelligence to the way it’s all put together and maybe I found myself responding to some of these parts purely for my own reasons. Hey, look--I’m just sitting here, looking for movies that might interest me, movies with a pulse, movies with people, movies that aren’t remakes, movies that exist beyond providing an excuse to make me pay extra for a 3D surcharge. At this point it’s been many, many months since I saw a film in 3D and that’s a streak I’ll be happy to keep going. They don’t make movies like THE BLACK MARBLE anymore. It takes a pleasure in its characters paying attention to each other, learning about each other, that simply doesn’t happen. Strongly character-based (the plot synopsis above is fairly short for a reason), it’s low key and quiet as well maybe a little too sedate particularly in the first hour with possibly a few beats that feel missing—if there’s going to be dialogue where somebody complains how crazy another character is it would probably help to actually see a decent example of this since Foxworth plays Valnikov as more of a severely depressed alcoholic than a crazy loose cannon (the opening scene involving him embarrassing himself in public almost feels like an attempt to remedy this). As much as director Becker mentions the phrase ‘dark comedy’ on what I heard of the DVD audio commentary it still feels a little like a looser approach would have brought out the comic tension in a way to get to that darkness the film is going for. For a fair amount of time the tone is maybe a little too mild except for the dangerous unpredictability that comes from the escalating desperation of Stanton’s Philo Skinner and his threats over the phone to Babcock’s increasingly despondent Madeline Whitfield.

Ultimately the film finds what it needs to be which is the genuine chemistry between the two leads so it has no problem interrupting its ‘plot’ for a long stretch to do nothing but focus on Valnikov and Zimmerman as they begin to finally connect and know each other, coming alive for the first time. Placed up against this, when certain darkly comic anecdotes drift through the police station, as if part of a more ‘wacky’ 70s dark comedy about cops, they really don’t fit. Small of scale and seemingly set in a Los Angeles so barren compared with the way it is now that it feels like the entire film is taking place during a long weekend where most people have blown town (there are some nice views of what the city looked like then too--Valnikov lives up near the Alto Nido apartments, familiar from SUNSET BLVD). An often quiet movie with a lilting Maurice Jarre score poking through on occasion to underline Valnikov’s romantic notions, THE BLACK MARBLE is about people in the midst of disillusionment, drifting into middle age with not much to show for anything they’ve ever done and no longer certain where they’re going—a few of them even have children who are mentioned but don’t seem to be part of their lives at all and they’re certainly not as close to them as Madeline Whitfield is to her beloved prize dog Vicky. The closest it ever comes to an action scene is all about how out of shape the two involved are, one agonizingly chasing the other very slowly through an enclosed space and it’s an extremely well-staged, suspenseful sequence. The tone is sly, allowing us to find our way into it and even when in one scene involving Pat Hingle playing an informant whose excessive scratching gets both Foxworth and Prentiss to start scratching as well, but the movie never seems to go out of its way to underline the joke.

Becker, who made this shortly after THE ONION FIELD which was also based on Wambaugh (he’s also made the likes of likes of TAPS, SEA OF LOVE and MALICE and I may as well come clean that not only have I never read Wambaugh, I’ve never seen THE ONION FIELD. I’m sorry.), directs things in a very clean style with relaxed Scope compositions courtesy of the great DP Owen Roizman, willing to let the actors play scenes out while at the same time knowing exactly where to place his camera at certain moments to provide the maximum amount of tension where there might not be otherwise. Per an interview with Becker, it’s Quentin Tarantino’s favorite film of his which doesn't seem like much of a surprise (I can imagine the Coen Brothers being fans as well what with the whole kidnapping subplot) and a line can easily be drawn from what develops between the mature pairing of Foxworth and Prentiss here to Pam Grier and Robert Forster’s relationship in JACKIE BROWN. It’s also refreshing to see a film, and one from 1980 yet, where a cop is paired up with a woman and not only is it never an issue she’s also portrayed as having a slightly harder exterior than the male half of their partnership as well. When she does warm up to him it never comes at the expense of what’s been established while also revealing more of who she is. One character asks why some people seem to always be the ones to pick the black marble, the one that indicates bad luck. In the world as presented here, that seems to be just about everyone. Within the pokiness of its rhythms THE BLACK MARBLE maintains an affection for its characters as well as an awareness of how to change things, to let your place in the world become what you make of it—you can blame everyone else for your troubles like Stanton’s character continually does, you can curl up and hide like Babcock’s desperate heiress or you can hopefully find the right person to express yourself to, take that chance, embrace the moment when violin music swells up. It’s satisfying and I love the way that final shot holds through the credits. It helps the movie and these two people stay with me.

Not an actor whose film work has become the most well-known part of his career, Robert Foxworth takes on this role willingly looking as bad as possible during his first scenes but the way he’s portrayed parallels how Zimmerman comes to see him—more than anything, Valnikov’s inherent decency ultimately comes through, particularly in the kindness seen inn his eyes. Foxworth’s likability adds to how his pride over his Russian-American heritage never feels gimmicky but rather a key part of who he is. In one of her last feature appearances, and I guess you could call it her final lead role, Paula Prentiss’ more relaxed style combined with that amazing voice of hers reveals a side to her talent unlike what’s found in some of her best-known (and nuttier) roles—she feels settled in, that much more assured of herself than maybe she did earlier in her career. She sells her performance just by how her voice seems to soften every time she calls her partner “Valnikov” as the film goes on and a moment like how she insists on drinking vodka during their dinner because she’s thirty-goddamn-nine years old just reminds me how crazy I am about her. The way she looks at Foxworth as he pulls up to his place for their night together is one of those moments where I once again wish we had twenty more movies starring her. As for Harry Dean Stanton, if you’re a fan of his (and who isn’t?) and you’ve never seen this film, you really should with him turning in what is almost the definitive Harry Dean Stanton portrayal of a noir loser, as vivid as Elisha Cook Jr. in THE KILLING while selling the thin line between how desperate he is and how stupidly dangerous he could possibly be if given the chance. Barbara Babcock offers a touching portrait of genuine loneliness as Madeline Whitfield, expressing more emotion than she seems to know what to do with and becoming increasingly desperate to save the creature who means more to her than anything in the world. It’s a small cast beyond the leads but a number of familiar faces turn up in brief performances particularly Christopher Lloyd, visible for only an instant but instantly recognizable as a mob collector and James Woods, one of the leads in THE ONION FIELD, appearing several times as a street violinist who plays for the cops in what feels very much like an in-jokey cameo.

Some of the revelations which come to light involving how Valnikov is haunted by recurring dreams of a certain rabbit are very well played by Foxworth but as the film went on I found myself less interested in this background and more involved with what was currently going on around him. Ultimately it’s some of these tonal and pacing issues which make me wonder if a more finely attuned hand could have somehow made this very good, now sadly neglected film, even better (as a public service, I should point out that there are a handful of moments which would probably upset people sensitive to the treatment of dogs in films, although nothing disturbing is ever actually shown). But the best parts of THE BLACK MARBLE live up to how vivid these characters become in the film’s quiet ambitions as they try to get through their own days, making the decisions they force themselves to make. Do we pick the black marble or does it get handed to us? Which choice am I making when I lie awake late at night wondering what’s going to come next? I’m still trying to find out the answer.


Bob said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bob said...

I'm a big fan of Joseph Wambaugh and adaptations of his work are as tricky as those of Elmore Leonard. Too often filmmakers mistake & over stress the many (natural) laughs in his crime stories for out right comedy and end up with a buffoonish mess of a movie. However, "The Black Marble" is one that gets it just right. I only saw it a couple of years ago and I dug it the most. The cast is great, especially the leads, Robert Foxworth & (woof) Paula Prentiss. There's something about these '70s (1980 counts as the 70s!) L.A. crime films that really speaks to my melancholy soul and "The Black Marble" absolutely sings.

Mr. Peel you really should give "The Onion Field" a look. It's a devastating, dark L.A. crime film that is almost oppressive in its sadness. Still, it is worth a journey into the dark night to find out just what did happened in the onion field.

As always, Mr. Peel another superb write up for another unjustly lost film that deserves a new lease of cinematic life. Doubles for the house, sir!

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


I'm very gratified to hear from a Wambaugh fan who liked the piece, thank you! And it's good to find somebody else who liked the film since I really knew next to nothing about it or even what sort of rep it might have had with people.

And I want to see THE ONION FIELD, I really do. A few days ago I checked Netflix, which of course none of us are happy with these days, and they don't have it available right now. I'll do my best to seek it out.

SLY said...

terrific article on a forgotten film. thanks!

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Thanks very much for that Sly, glad that you liked it!