Friday, January 31, 2014

Another Man's Poetry

And so HOUSE CALLS starring Walter Matthau & Glenda Jackson begat HOPSCOTCH directed by Ronald Neame and starring Walter Matthau & Glenda Jackson which begat FIRST MONDAY IN OCTOBER directed by Ronald Neame and starring Walter Matthau & Jill Clayburgh. Well, I guess Glenda Jackson wouldn’t have been ideal casting to play a Supreme Court justice. Released in August 1981 (same day as AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, speaking of films you’d think I would have written about by now), FIRST MONDAY IN OCTOBER had its release apparently pushed up several months when the selection of Sandra Day O’Connor as the first ever female Supreme Court justice rendered its storyline somewhat out of date or at the very least fortuitously timely. Based on a stage play which was first produced at the Cleveland Play House in 1975 starring Melvyn Douglas and Jean Arthur (“Within the province of dramatic jurisprudence it is a draggy, flaccid unconvincing brief” so said the Time Magazine review) the film followed a mere six years later yet it feels like a case of an adaptation that was already a little behind the times. The result is 98 minutes that feel sporadically engaging yet I wish it were sharper, I wish that its characters had more interesting and clever things to say during their bickering when the points being made should have all the fire imaginable. When the play premiered on Broadway in 1978 it starred Henry Fonda and Jane Alexander but didn’t run more than a couple of months and hasn’t been revived very much since. It’s not exactly a dinner theater-ready evergreen like a few of the Neil Simon adaptations Matthau starred in during this period and it’s also very much a product of its era, just barely anyway—this film could be the answer to a trivia question, ‘Name another Paramount release that opened the summer of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK’ and that right there is maybe an indication of how this sort of thing was quickly going out of style as the 80s progressed. Like HOPSCOTCH, which came out less than a year earlier, it manages to be pleasant but is also somewhat strained, never as much of a smoothly enjoyable easy listening piece of music the way that earlier Matthau-Neame collaboration is.
When the sudden death of a Supreme Court justice causes a vacancy on the bench, Associate Justice Daniel Snow (Walter Matthau) is thrilled to learn that a woman will finally be appointed to the court. His enthusiasm is tempered, however, when the longtime liberal learns that the woman in question is the Honorable Ruth Loomis (Jill Clayburgh) a staunch conservative who he dubs ‘the Mother Superior of Orange County’. Though the two find a way to clash on every possible issue almost instantly on both their methods and their ideals circumstances cause them to soon find some common ground and develop a certain fondness for each other.
I suppose that any movie in which we get to watch Walter Matthau struggle with using chopsticks can’t be all bad and one can appreciate the Tracy-Hepburn approach taken to the relationship between the two leads, skirting the edge of possible attraction yet wisely leaving the matter hanging with only the hint of possibility. But there’s not much that catches fire in FIRST MONDAY IN OCTOBER (screenplay by Jerome Lawrence & Robert E. Lee based on the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee) and the things that do get my attention are almost accidental, byproducts of watching this thirty-plus years on. Walter Matthau certainly doesn’t have a dull moment, playing an intellectual who seems to like nothing more than getting his hands dirty while arguing over the future of the country and the movie convinces me that his Justice Snow would be an engaging person to have a conversation with which makes the fireworks we anticipate all the more promising. Let’s say he’s ‘crusty but benign’ to quote the oft-used character description in NETWORK. Jill Clayburgh doesn’t have quite the same kind of flair for this material—she comes off as more of a puzzled wet blanket rather than annoyed in a persnickety way (which brings how Glenda Jackson approached their sparring to mind) that would add to the humor although the words she’s given don’t really help. Sure, I’m going to agree with what a liberal judge has to say over the conservative one but the specifics of what she argues doesn’t help to bring me around to her side and there’s an edge missing from her portrayal which would help make her case more persuasive. Because of the side she’s on I don’t agree with a lot of what she has to say but that still doesn’t mean the film should make it so easy. But more than that there’s no real spark to their debates, not enough real chemistry between the leads.
What they’re arguing over is never as interesting as it should be anyway and a subplot about exhibition of a porno film (called THE NAUGHTY NYMPHOMANIAC, described as “an educational film” so when we finally get a look at the movie in question it’s supposed to be a joke) feels at least several years out of date for ’81 becoming all the more annoying that the film spends about twenty minutes on a first amendment argument related to it never develops into anything more than platitudes so when Justice Loomis delivers her final comment on the matter the moment doesn’t land like it should. The other major case that figures in is more interesting, again almost unintentionally, since it seems to anticipate the growth of multi-conglomerates of the following decades involving a company named Omnitech buying up patents only to bury the products and even has the arch-conservative judge played by Clayburgh plead its case by arguing “Aren’t corporations people?” in a way that would surely please the likes of Mitt Romney but too much of this plotline feels muddled and the revelations of Loomis’ own possible connection to it are humdrum with a twist that strains credibility, never feeling appropriately explained or clarified.
There are all sorts of interesting possibilities with FIRST MONDAY IN OCTOBER, like the comical awkwardness of the other justices in dealing with this woman as well as Snow’s obsession with mountain climbing and how that relates to his job. This feels like it should mean something, a metaphor for this self-proclaimed king of his own mountain but it really doesn’t and ultimately just feels like a way to open things up for the start of the film. It would be interesting if the appointment of Loomis brought out Snow’s own inadvertent misogyny going beyond his disagreement with her political beliefs and I guess that’s sort of in there, with runners about women noticing wallpaper and the benefits of a messy desk but it’s not enough. One of the best examples of this sort of thing in the movie doesn’t even feature Clayburgh but rather when Matthau’s Justice Snow and his wife played by Jan Sterling seemingly have two separate conversations at once and the moment plays as totally natural—when she finally asks him a question in response to what he’s actually talking about he doesn’t even get what she’s referring to. But all too often it becomes way too pat, too easy.
The direction by Ronald Neame (whose lengthy filmography also includes THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE and THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE as well as personal favorite GAMBIT) is polite and workmanlike but aside from knowing how to frame all this for 2.35 in a way that makes what comes from the stage as visually active as possible (points to veteran cinematographer Fred J. Koenekamp as well) there’s really not much to be done to make it a movie since it really is ultimately a play. It’s the sort of film where with little else to think about I find myself paying attention to what a bad job Clayburgh does parking a car in one scene, shades of Janet Maslin’s negative review in The New York Times in which for some reason she complains about a film that opens in August being set in the winter. It’s like the film rubbed her the wrong way but since it’s not quite a ‘bad’ movie per se she couldn’t quite pinpoint exactly why (going along with their review of the original stage production, Time Magazine didn’t like the movie much either). Featuring a moment where Matthau high-fives the sole African-American judge on the court, the film doesn’t seem to have much of an opinion about anything that gets discussed beyond the pomp & circumstance of the traditions of the Supreme Court along with playing variations of “Stars & Stripes Forever” over establishing shots which feels like a way to somehow try to open things up.
Maybe portraying the two political sides fighting for the glory of democracy while finding a way to work together even with their differences just feels too out of date. Things just aren’t this way anymore and maybe I doubt if it ever really was. The dialogue needs to make both their arguments stronger beyond just the boilerplate and the way Matthau’s character is portrayed sounds like he would want it that way too (in one of my favorite moments he muses, “I don’t agree with a word with it, but it’s well written,” upon reading one of Loomis’ opinions) but the movie doesn’t live up to that. And some of what Clayburgh discovers late in the film relating to the Omnitech scandal which is never very clear anyway and the conclusions she draws from that realization weakens her character as a result, leaving Matthau to talk some sense into her. It’s patriarchal and rather dull but hey, she can help him with his dumplings when he fumbles with those chopsticks. It makes this battle of the sexes unequal even if I know I’m never going to agree with her to begin with. I found myself imagining what a better version of this might be and at one point the fantasy began to coalesce—bring it back to Broadway, have Aaron Sorkin do a complete top-to-bottom dialogue polish and set it in period. Sure, some of his sexual politics are sometimes problematic as well but at least the dialogue would sing and placed in the proper context might allow us to think about how far we’ve come and how far we haven’t. This would no doubt be disrespectful to the original playwrights (who were, incidentally, also the writers of INHERIT THE WIND so who the hell am I to talk?) but now that I’ve seen FIRST MONDAY IN OCTOBER, I honestly think it’s a good idea.
At the very least, Walter Matthau making a Hitler joke is always going to get a laugh out of me. He’s a pleasure to watch even though it may not be one of his best performances, possibly due to how he sometimes doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with the words on the page, particularly during some more serious moments. But most importantly he seems to enjoy digging into playing this guy and making him as much of a curmudgeon as possible while still demanding that the person he’s arguing with make their feelings known. In contrast, Jill Clayburgh was an excellent actress and though this came during her post-AN UNMARRIED WOMAN hot streak (one film I really do need to get around to writing about is STARTING OVER) but she still doesn’t seem quite right here. As an actress Clayburgh gets you to believe what she’s saying but not enough of it sticks to the wall, maybe because she doesn’t always have faith in the words, or maybe the arguments, either so the character just isn’t as strong as it needs to be. Incidentally, Clayburgh is introduced playing tennis making me wonder if when Joan Allen does so in Rod Lurie’s THE CONTENDER if it’s an homage and that gets me to wonder how Joan Allen would been in the role if made at another time. It also occurs to me that if it had been made a few years this would have been a Meryl Streep role but she was just too young back then and not as much of a name. In 1981 Marsha Mason might have been an interesting choice as well though I wonder if she would have come off quite so regally the way Clayburgh seems to naturally carry herself. As the Chief Justice Bernard Hughes is always good for some enjoyable moments throughout and Jan Sterling from Billy Wilder’s ACE IN THE HOLE appears as Matthau’s wife in her last film.
There are certainly multiple reasons why I was curious to finally see FIRST MONDAY IN OCTOBER. Walter Matthau is probably the best of them. But more than that is because it’s yet another one of those films that I remember existing when I was a kid (here’s the trailer which I vaguely remember from way back then) and never saw because they were rated R or simply not for kids in general so for reasons that I could never possibly explain I’ve always been curious about them. More often than not they’re the sort of films that aren’t made by major studios anymore but I get to finally seek them out. On principle, I’m fine with something like FIRST MONDAY IN OCTOBER (available now from the Warner Archive if you're so inclined) and I don’t mind at all that I saw it, not one bit. But even if its premise is dated it still doesn’t have the snap that the best possible version of the storyline might have had. As a movie it’s pleasant but unmemorable and that’s really about it. So I just need to move onto the next film I’ve always wondered about, whatever that is. And it may be better, but most likely it won’t have the glorious sight of Walter Matthau fumbling with chopsticks and if nothing else at least FIRST MONDAY IN OCTOBER has that.


Unknown said...

Films I'd have thought Mr Peel would've written about by now:
Irvin Kershner's Loving, Johnny Handsome, Alan Rudolph's Afterglow and Love at Large, Apartment Zero, Robin and Marian, Streets of Fire, Peggy Sue Got Married, Altman's Kansas City, Love Streams...No rush

It's a testament to your writing that now, for me, some movies, usually old VHS seem 'Peeley'...

Oh and have you've seen any early Neame? I think his best work is with Guinness in the 50s (Horse's Mouth in particular)

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Requests! This is cool. Let's go through this:

LOVING -- An excellent film that I really should write about. I need to finally get the DVD.

JOHNNY HANDSOME -- Believe it or not, this one might be coming very soon.

AFTERGLOW and LOVE AT LARGE -- I like them both but it's been a while for each. I should check them out again.

APARTMENT ZERO -- Blergh. I've never seen it. Sorry.

ROBIN AND MARIAN -- Again, it's been a long time. I should look into it.

STREETS OF FIRE -- To be honest, I'm not as big a fan as many are. I don't dislike it either, I've just always felt a little mixed and that might not make for much of a piece. Maybe it'll click for me one of these days.

PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED -- This is a good idea. Haven't seen it in about a decade, but maybe I should do something about that.

KANSAS CITY -- Not an Altman that I've revisited all that much. I think I have a half-finished piece on IMAGES somewhere in the files.

LOVE STREAMS -- Never seen this one either. Writing about Cassavetes feels intimidating!

And, yes, I need to see THE HORSE'S MOUTH. So much to see. Thanks very much for the suggestions!