Monday, July 16, 2018

THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT - CRITERION CHANNEL


I’ll admit, until the Criterion Channel paired Wes Craven’s 1972 debut The Last House on the Left with Ingmar Bergman masterpiece The Virgin Spring, I had no idea it was a remake of the Swedish original. Upon learning this, the fact that one of the more influential touchstones in modern horror had been inspired by an allegorical art-house flick suitably intrigued, and I had to give it a try.

The Last House on the Left firmly positions itself between the radical culture of the 1960s and the more straight-laced older generation that would have never allowed such a film to be made and likely still railed against it once it was. Craven at once indicts and satirizes both sides of the divide, while maybe tipping his hand toward the establishment just a teensy bit. He may not approve of all the old folks’ choices, but they at least still had a moral center and can get shit done.

Mari (Sandra Cassell) is the young daughter of an upper middle-class couple. When she and her friend Phyllis (Lucy Grantham) want to go see a rock concert, the parental units aren’t exactly for it, but given that it’s Mari’s birthday, they decide to extend her the trust and let her go out on her own.


Big mistake. On the way, the girls stop to buy some marijuana from the wrong dude. Junior (Marc Sheffler) is really procuring the girls for a trio of fugitives looking to get their murderous jollies. They kidnap the girls and eventually take them to the woods, where they intend to rape and kill them. Ironically, they do so just down the hill from where Mari lives, and where her parents wait with a birthday cake for a party she will never attend. So close, and yet...not.

Craven’s production is a ragged affair, shot on a shoestring and featuring mostly untrained actors. This lends The Last House on the Left a griminess that helps the horror by offsetting some of the writer/director’s more indulgent elements. Namely, the ineffective police officers who serve as comic relief in a movie that maybe shouldn’t be going for laughs. Especially since their presence in the story never really pays off.

Far better are the characters the writer/director takes seriously. He has three main bad guys--David Hess, Fred Lincoln, and Jeramie Rain--all of whom manage a distinct menace, each different from the rest, but all serving their purpose. They very nearly step over the line into broad caricature, but Craven grounds his actors in their particular kinks--Hess’ Krug is a brute, Lincoln’s Weasel is a knife-wielding sadist, and Rain’s Sadie is just plain crazy. The true MVP of The Last House on the Left, however, is Grantham, who as the more worldly best friend tries to steer the violence away from her innocent pal. It’s a smart, tough performance, and one that rings true.


Craven himself tiptoes up to the edge of exploitation in this picture, catering to the grindhouse and drive-in crowds while still trying to adhere to something more substantial. He doesn’t play the assaults as sexy, nor does he linger on the victims’ naked bodies. In a way, his use of the setting--particularly the lake where both girls meet their fate--and contemporary music that celebrates the outlaws reminds me of Sam Peckinpah, specifically Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. One could even compare the loaded gender politics that often make Peckinpah a bit harder to grapple with.

That all said, The Last House on the Left hasn’t really aged that well. Its queasy shocks don’t quite shock anymore, and Craven never captures the gravitas of his source. The last act turn where the parents have their revenge heats up the proceedings by a couple of degrees, but that’s actually because Craven unleashes a bit more of his gonzo instincts. The talent and the vision is there, it’s just going to require a little more experience and even a little more budget to fully mature.



Saturday, June 30, 2018

CAT PEOPLE - #833

Is simplicity best

Or simply the easiest?

The narrowest path

Is always the holiest

So walk on barefoot for me

Suffer some misery

If you want my love
                 - Martin L. Gore, “Judas


It’s kind of nuts how well that opening verse from Depeche Mode’s 1993 album track “Judas” so fits what is going on with director Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past) and producer Val Lewton’s 1942 black-and-white horror film Cat People. It’s not just thematically accurate, but it’s also descriptive of the aesthetic technique. Cat People is about as unfussy a film as there has ever been. It’s the perfect example of how a filmmaker can effectively stoke the audience imagination by showing less, rather than more.

But it all starts with a script, and DeWitt Bodeen’s screenplay is itself spare. There isn’t much plot here. A young man meets a young woman at the zoo, and a romance is ignited. Oliver (Kent Smith) is intrigued by the pretty lass who is sketching cats outside the panther cage. Played by French movie star Simone Simon (La bête humaine [review], La ronde [review]), Irena is a strange girl, a Serbian immigrant who clings to folklore from the old country. Specifically, that once upon a time her people were vanquished by a righteous King, and those who escaped his wrath scattered across the world, their wickedness taking feline form. Even after they are married, Irena keeps Oliver at arm’s length, believing should they so much as kiss, she will transform into a leopard and tear her husband apart.


At first Oliver indulges these fantasies, but once he starts to worry she is taking these fables too seriously, he connects Irena with Dr. Judd (Tom Conway), who doesn’t believe these supernatural tales, but may not be on the up-and-up, either. And adding to this love quadrangle is Oliver’s co-worker Alice (Jane Randolph), that annoying sort of do-gooder who tamps down her own desires to make sure that the man she wants does what is right. Too bad she didn’t figure for the complicated, sociopathic emotional range of a jealous kitten.

Much of Cat People smolders slowly. In the early stages of their union, Irena’s wild stories don’t carry much threat. That’s because Tourneur withholds anything that would concretely suggest her claims are more than delusion. He ties the revelations of Irena’s truth to her jealousy. The more heated she gets about Alice, the closer we get to seeing her claws come out. In many ways, this little monster movie is a modern stalker story, the good guy unable to shake the troubled woman, and she strikes out at the one who would replace her.


Yet, that in itself is maybe too simple a reading. For as little as goes on above the surface, plenty can be gleaned from what lies underneath. Bubbling through all of this is a commentary on puritanical values, and particularly how they affect young women. Irena’s fear of her own sexuality is only warranted if her beliefs turn out to be true, but she has good reason to be scared of the masculine sex, and her fighting back against Dr. Judd is inarguably a justified defense. Here is a man in a position of trust who betrays the social contract. In the #metoo era, many might also gravitate to the fact that Irena is not believed, and that prevents her from finding a less deadly solution or obtaining real help. Wrapped up in all this, we can see a certain xenophobia, as well: Irena is different, and perhaps if she had embraced a more modern American lifestyle and been more like Alice, she’d be more comfortable in her own skin. Which is somewhat contrary to the beliefs of the time, but Hollywood was always progressive in its morals.


Good horror should be malleable in this way and stay relevant to contemporary issues, but I suspect Tourneur and Lewton were less high-minded than all that. Their primary focus was more likely just to scare filmgoers, and they seized upon relatable primal urges to create a vehicle for that. Most of the frights here are more unnerving than terrifying--though there is one pretty good jump scare, where the orchestra provides a screechy sound effect when the bus pulls in to pick up a nervous Alice*--but that’s okay. Tourneur is experimenting with the horror of the things that exist just beyond the reach of our senses--the things we can’t see, but think we do; the things we aren’t sure we hear. One of the most effective scenes is when Judd gets his comeuppance. Irena’s transformation happens entirely off-screen, but the doctor’s reaction tells us all we need to know--even if once again we only think we know what he is seeing. The tussle itself appears merely as shadows cast on walls, including one with a mural of a menacing panther (lest we forget, Irena is a cat!). We hear more than we see. Same with the earlier scene when Alice is at the pool. The echoes of her screams are more chilling than anything that might jump into the water with her.

It’s underkill, not overkill. It’s simplicity. Compare how light on its feet this Cat People is to Paul Schrader’s overdone, moronic 1980s remake for a quick object lesson in why less is more.


Or skip Schrader altogether and go with something more akin to a middle ground: the 1944 “sequel” The Curse of the Cat People, recently re-released on Blu-ray by Kino. In terms of follow-ups, Curse is in the vein of The Bride of Frankenstein for how it expands on the original and becomes its own weird thing. We can chalk some of that up to the movie originally being intended as a stand-alone feature with no connection to Cat People at all. It only morphed into a second entry in a series when Cat People became so successful.

Pretty much everyone except Tourneur returns for The Curse of the Cat People. Gunther V. Fritsch originally took charge of the director’s chair but himself was replaced by Robert Wise (The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story). The new story features Jane and Oliver as the concerned parents of a young daughter, Amy (Ann Carter), who lives more in her imagination than she does in the real world. There is further cause for worry when Amy befriends the disturbed neighborhood dowager (Julia Dean) and starts talking to an imaginary friend that just so happens to be Irena.

The “cat” aspect of Cat People is completely dropped for this realm of gothic childhood fantasy, but that doesn’t make The Curse of the Cat People any less compelling. The dilemma of a child who is at odds with the world around her being put into peril by both her fantastical indulgences and the adults who won’t believe her has an inherent tension that will keep you guessing what will happen, while also hoping it won’t all go wrong. Fritsch and Gunther have a more up-front style--does Elizabeth Russell chasing Amy up the staircase remind anyone else of Kathleen Byron coming unhinged in Black Narcissus [review]?--but that works here. This time, what is “unseen” is actually witnessed by the little girl, casting the doubters in a whole different light.


Criterion’s edition of Cat People features a great cover and interior poster by influential comics artist Bill Sienkiewicz. Fans of the TV show Legion tangentially know his work as he originally created the character with Chris Claremont. And their legendary run on the New Mutants comic series is an inspiration for the movie that should be out sometime in the next year or so. Sienkiewicz’s work changed how artists approached a comic book page, combining painting and digital in fascinating ways. Look for his Elektra: Assassin graphic novel with Frank Miller, his own Stay Toasters, or if you can find it, his Classics Illustrated version of Moby Dick.


* This effect of a scare coming from the arrival of an otherwise mundane object is known as a “Lewton bus,” and perhaps the most perfect use of it was in the episode of The Simpsons where the Psycho theme is being played by an orchestra riding public transport.


Wednesday, June 27, 2018

INSIDE DAISY CLOVER - FILMSTRUCK

This review was originally part of a larger piece covering the Natalie Wood Signature Collection and published in 2009.


Trading heavily on Natalie Wood's screen persona, the self-reflexive, strange, and oft-times surreal Inside Daisy Clover, is a fictional tale about a child star in the 1930s. Wood plays Daisy, a 15-year-old tomboy who lives with her senile old mother (Ruth Gordon) on the beach, selling forged autographed pictures of movie stars to passersby. Daisy is an angry, expressive young lass, prone to cigarettes, graffiti, shouts instead of whispers, and reacting to situations with her fists. She also dreams of being a singer, and she cuts a record at a fairground booth and sends it in to Swan Studios for their talent contest, thus changing her life.

Daisy is shuttled off to the movie lot in a limousine. Her mother believes it to be a hearse and warns her of accepting rides from strangers, but Daisy does not listen. She is looked over by studio head Raymond Swan (Christopher Plummer) and his wife (Katharine Bard) and given a screen test, a musical number about stardom and ambition (and the one time in the movie that Natalie Wood sings herself). Its lyrics foreshadow Daisy's oncoming success; in fact, both of the musical numbers in the movie, "You're Gonna Hear From Me" and "Circus is a Whacky World," both written by Andre and Dory Previn, work as funhouse mirrors, meta devices that break down the movie. By the time Daisy sings "Circus," she is a disillusioned star, the magic of Hollywood having been exposed to be as fraudulent as the forged photos she used to sell. Separated from her mother, married to a philandering leading man (Robert Redford) with a dirty secret, and generally turned into a cog in the machine, Daisy has been hoodwinked.


Inside Daisy Clover was made by the director/producer team of Robert Mulligan and Alan J. Pakula, who also made To Kill a Mockingbird and another Natalie Wood vehicle, Love with the Proper Stranger. As inside-Hollywood movies go, it's as savage as one might expect, the entertainment business loves to hoist itself on its own petard. In some ways, the mysterious tone of much of the back-lot action reminds me of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Last Tycoon, though unlike that book or the Elia Kazan adaptation from the 1970s, or really any of the more famous moviemaking movies, Inside Daisy Clover lacks any sense of awe or wonderment in regards to how films are put together. Normally, the on-set re-creations are given a tantalizing surreality, life reimagined as giant spectacle. In this movie, Swan Studios--which is actually the Warners lot--is a dark and empty place. There are no huge crowds, and the few stage pieces we see are lonely and almost appear to be on their way to the junk heap, like the bizarre totem we see on a crane when Daisy first arrives. In this portrait of Hollywood, put together by writer Gavin Lambert (adapting his own novel), the heavy fugue of moviemaking is in inverse proportion to the joy the movies bring the world.

Wood spends as much time with reactions as she does action in this movie, if not more. As the center of attention, she sometimes draws more by standing back and observing. She's very good at it, her doe-eyes soaking up what everyone else is doing. They are relying on her even as they demand that she rely on them. It's an important distinction, as well, because as soon as Daisy is accepted by Swan, she stops acting on her own and starts doing what she is told--even Redford's character orders her around. In the final moments, Daisy is taking back her action. She's through taking orders.

Despite the promise and the larger issues at work here, Inside Daisy Clover doesn't entirely gel. Pakula and Mulligan are maybe trying a little too hard to be anti-everything, to be too unconventional, and the forced oddness creates a gulf between the film and its audience that is never fully traversed. Even so, it is a singular enough effort to warrant a look.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

OTHELLO - #870


Anton Corbijn made a music video for Joy Division’s “Atmosphere” back in 1988 that, whether he intended it or not, is reminsicent of the opening scenes from Orson Welles’ masterful 1950s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello. Which is an odd way to enter into an old, whispery black-and-white film, thoughts of one of Ian Curtis’ most doomy and gloomy songs hanging out in the back of my brain, but such it is. Welles was goth before goth. The sequence is a flash-forward to a funeral, all pomp and dark circumstance. The slanted angles are ominous, and they let you know this is not right, this should not be happening. The quick zoom on Iago in his cage is urgent, furious, frustrated--you know immediately that he’s the villain. He did this. It’s a crazy smart way to set up a story that the filmmaker can presume everyone knows. Because now you’re intrigued. You want to know who is dead and how that evil dude got stuck in that jail.


This Othello may be the least stagey film adaptation of Shakespeare ever made. Infamous in Welles lore for being shot over three years, with Welles pausing production to rush off and take bit parts in other movies to raise cash, and then returning to Italy to resume his work. Just look at those scenes once the story proper begins. The camera moves up and over the different levels of Venice, from the canals to the windows on the upper floors, then down spiral stairs chasing an angry mob carrying torches. It’s all inertia, all movement, and at the same time, there are indications of class represented via each player’s position in the construct. Later, there are spectacular fights and chases below ground. The violence in this movie is invigorated with the chaos of its production. So much so, in fact, that sometimes, ingeniously, the dizzying pursuits hide how the disparate pieces, shot months and even years apart, are stitched together. Welles never loses the plot--neither figuratively nor literally.

The balance of setting and the use of exterior vs. interior is also a reflection of the physical and the internal. Like in Roman Polanski’s Macbeth [review], the players are tiny in comparison to the architecture (though, I guess it should be that Polanski is like Welles). And to be fair, it’s petty concerns that set the tragedy of Othello in motion. For those who don’t know the story, Othello--played by Welles himself--is a general in the Venetian army. He is also a Moor--a term for Muslims living in the area in the middle ages--a fact that sets him apart from his comrades. When Othello elopes with Desdemona (Suzanne Cloutier), a politician’s daughter, eyebrows are raised. Othello’s lieutenant, the silver-tongued Iago (Micheál MacLiammóir), sees the opportunity for advancement and takes advantage of Othello’s position as an outsider, convincing him that Desdemona is cheating on him and setting everyone on a path of destruction.


Up until Welles made this film, the tradition was for white actors in the Othello role to wear blackface, a tradition Welles upholds--albeit not to the exaggerated fashion we tend to think of when we hear the term. The irony here is that despite such a regressive decision, Welles embraces the progressive subtext in the play. There is a fascinating racial commentary at work, particularly in how Othello and Desdemona defend their marriage to her father. And already, there is a suggestion that a black man must be even better than his white counterparts.

When we consider the dynamic between Othello and Desdemona, and the violent outcome of his suspicion, Shakespeare was ahead of his time in giving us a perfect portrait of toxic masculinity. Othello’s jealousy is fueled by pride. In his performance, Welles is deceptively two-note: repression of rage and rage. Yet, there is more to his control here; again, he is the black man who has to be better, who has to always show composure, even when the façade means he can’t have a reasonable discussion and ferret out the truth. As his foil, Iago is so matter-of-fact, eschewing the obvious mustache twirling and greasy machinations, pulling off his tricks by merely being present. There is a Zen koan about how water is the most powerful force in the known world because of how it gradually erodes rock; this is MacLiammóir’s Iago. His is not as sinister a performance as tends to be the norm with this, one of Shakespeare’s oiliest villains. MacLiammóir is more considered, passive-aggressive, almost as if he doesn’t care. There’s a hint of a sociopath in the portrayal, so little moves him.


While I am dazzled by the filmmaking overall, one downside of knowing Welles history and struggle is I am often too aware of his technique. My eyes drift from an actor to the artfully placed shadow on the wall, for instance, or to clock the depth of field, how close one element is and how far the other, seeing how expertly the shot was constructed. And, of course, there’s how many times you note that the dubbed voice of some bit player is Welles himself, making up for perceived bad performances or just poor sound due to shooting on the fly.  I suppose this isn’t really that tough a problem to have. There’s so much virtuosity in Welles’ mis-en-scene, one should never become immune to it. Just look at the construction and the edits when Othello returns home after first being incepted by Iago. The quick cuts and askew angles pull the whole thing together with such emotional kineticism, it’s like watching Eddie Van Halen play classical music on his guitar; you can’t help but notice that human hands should not be able to create art in that way.

In that scene, and throughout the film, Welles’ montage is about scale vs. intimacy. When Othello and Desdemona go to their marriage bed, they are rendered as just shadows on the wall, but their shadows are huge. We are at once with them and outside, but the marriage consummation casts a pall over everything else. Interestingly Iago is more intimate with Othello than even his wife. The framing gets tighter the deeper we get into his machinations. When Othello and Iago make their sinister pact, the close-ups are so tight, their conversation can’t even share a frame, they are too large within their individual screens. Then the next deal is made in a sauna, arguably a place where all are vulnerable, and where trust is meant to be at the utmost. I mean, where else do you go and get naked and perfectly relaxed around total strangers? (Answers neither requested nor required.)


It’s of no small significance that it’s in the sauna where Iago actually resorts to murder himself. Welles lights his eyes almost as if to give him a supervillain mask...or to suggest he’s enlightened? I mean, Iago has a curly white dog years ahead of James Bond villains popularizing cats, and decades ahead of Paris Hilton and other modern social scoundrels carrying around their pooches in purses. It also feels like 1950s shorthand for homosexuality, which could suggest much about Iago’s true motivations were we to take that onboard. His own love of Othello is even more forbidden than Othello’s love for Desdemona.


The most intimate moment in Welles’ Othello, however, is also the most  harrowing: the murder of Desdemona. The sheet Othello wraps over her face inadvertently highlights her whiteness, an intentional emphasis on her innocence, but also a horrific reminder of how black men are portrayed in the media. The last kiss between them, passed through the death shroud, appears more to suck out her final breath than connect her with her homicidal husband. It’s legitimately uncomfortable to watch. Immediately after, Othello imprisons himself, locking the door to their chambers, speaking to the crowd through bars--Welles visually shows his guilt before the character is ready to admit it. Or to modern eyes, we can divine that he knows this is the fate society has always imagined for him...

...and if there’s one thing Shakespeare’s tragic figures can’t escape, it’s fate.



MACBETH (1971) - #726


Blunt not the heart, enrage it!

If any line from Shakespeare’s Scottish play resonated with Roman Polanski when making Macbeth, the first film he directed following the murder of his wife Sharon Tate at the hands of the Manson Family, it surely was this. Because if there is anything the director brings to the oft-told tale, it’s more passion, more violence, and definitely more blood. No dull emotions here, only fire.


It feels almost silly to review Shakespeare adaptations and haggle over the plot. The stories themselves are so well-known, we are better off looking at the choices the filmmakers settle on, the aesthetic they establish: the audacious modernism of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet [review], the remodeling of Richard III as a World War II cautionary tale by Sir Ian McKellen [review], or the outlandish whatever-it-is of Julie Taymor’s Titus [review] all spring to mind as films that dared to change the shape of the source material in ways we’d never seen. In my review of Orson Welles’ 1948 staging of Macbeth, I focused on his use of cheap sets from a cowboy picture to create a surreal horror film and a more impressionistic, pointed examination of the play.

By contrast, Polanski’s 1971 Macbeth is far more grounded. Realistic locations, sparsely decorated, provide the dirt and the grime of the actual times and marries them to 1970s filmmaking. Like Welles, Polanski also leans into the spookiness of the piece, complete with a supernatural dagger and a trippy hallucination that, once decoded, ultimately hoists Macbeth on his own hubris. These elaborate visual flourishes really stand out, given more impact by the director’s restraint most everywhere else. Likewise, the gore. When violence does erupt and blood flows, it can be shocking. Yet, being a student of horror, Polanski also knows when an off-screen atrocity can be more effective. This Macbeth’s most unsettling scene is the murder of Macduff’s family. Polanski isolates us with the mother and her favorite son while they listen to the terrified screams of those being slaughtered throughout the castle.


Jon Finch, whom that same year would feature in Sunday Bloody Sunday and Hitchcock’s Frenzy, plays Macbeth. He at first appears younger than expected, his long hair and chiseled features making him appear more like a Shakespearean pin-up than a grizzled warrior. He is a brooding, romantic figure at this stage, showing flashes of ambition, but mostly indecisive. The change that comes after his murdering King Duncan (Nicolas Selby) is most pronounced. Polanski chooses to show the actual regicide here, so we can see that when Macbeth does finally make up his mind, it’s in the spur of the moment. His transformative action is not a decisive one. Even so, when we do see him wearing the crown, he is a changed man. His clothes are brighter, his grooming more considered, and even his posture is improved. It’s like a 1960s heartthrob reverting to a classic Hollywood leading man. Finch gives the elevated Macbeth more swagger, more confidence. He does, after all, believe himself to be charmed, the words of the three witches who prophesized these events giving him the false hope that all tragedies thrive on.

The aftermath of Duncan’s murder is another great moment of Polanski’s. He uses the emptiness of the castle and the quiet of night to amplify the paranoia of the Macbeths. With everyone else asleep, every stray noise, every cry of a distant owl, resonates with an undeniable volume. As Lady Macbeth, Francesca Annis (who was also Lady Jessica in David Lynch’s Dune) matches Finch’s own uncertainty to start with a single-minded drive, only to switch with him later on when she descends into madness. The framing regularly places them in the foreground, but centered and low, so that the massive stone castle that surrounds them just goes to show us how tiny this royal pair really is.

Roman Polanski’s Macbeth is real achievement. It manages to present Shakespeare’s drama as contemporary and vital without sacrificing any of the source. It’s as faithful as you’re likely to get, and yet very much it’s own thing, which is why it still remains as engrossing and disturbing even now.


Saturday, June 23, 2018

SEX & THE SINGLE GIRL - FILMSTRUCK

This review was originally part of a larger piece covering the Natalie Wood Signature Collection and published in 2009.


I liked this movie better the first time I saw it back in 2004, when it was called Down With Love. I know, I know, Sex and the Single Girl was made nearly three decades before Down With Love, but it's almost like Peyton Reed saw this flick and thought, "Good idea, but done badly. I'm going to do it right!"

Natalie Wood stars as Helen Gurley Brown. Yes, the former editor of Cosmopolitan once wrote a book using herself as an example of how the unattached 1960s woman could live a full and scandalous life. If her book Sex and the Single Girl hadn't also inspired Candace Bushnell and Sex and the City, this 1964 film adaptation would be the worst thing to come out of her publishing success. As Maxwell Smart would say, "Missed it by that much."

Sex and the Single Girl is a tedious black hole that sucks all comedy into its gaping maw and leaves only a forced, feverish mess in its stead. Not even the fine cast of Natalie Wood, Tony Curtis, Lauren Bacall, and Henry Fonda could escape its suck. Hell, so far reaching was its gravitational pull, even non-Hollywood types like Count Basie and Catch-22-scribe Joseph Heller managed get caught in the vacuum--one appearing in the film, the other actually contributing to the tepid script.

In the film, Helen Brown is a doctor specializing in women's issues who has been sandbagged by Stop magazine. The cover story on her calls her sexual qualifications into question, and to prove once and for all that the sexpert is a virgin, the rag's editor, Bob Weston (Curtis), concocts an elaborate scheme to get Helen into the sack. Pretending to be his neighbor, panty-hose salesman Frank (Fonda), he unloads marital problems on Helen to try to take advantage of her puny female brain and seduce her. Forget her doctorate, she's still a lady underneath that diploma! Innuendo and mistaken identities and even a protracted car chase ensue; unfortunately, hilarity does not.

Sex and the Single Girl was directed by Richard Quine, the man responsible for the only bad movie Audrey Hepburn made in the first phase of her career, Paris When It Sizzles. That movie was a lumpen comedic deformity, and Sex and the Single Girl wades through much of the same swampy territory, right down to that car chase. The cast tries really hard, but they just can't get out from under the burden of Quine and the mishmash script. The sexy stuff isn't sexy (excepting just about everything that Fran Jeffries does in the movie; she is apparently impervious to black holes), and by today's standards, no longer scandalous; the romance is barely lukewarm; there is even a half-hearted attempt at satire regarding modern conveniences that never quite jibes with the rest of the movie. But then, why should it? No one wants to be the one guy who shows up at the nudist colony wearing a suit. What a waste of effort that would be!

Friday, June 22, 2018

CASH McCALL - FILMSTRUCK

This review was originally part of a larger piece covering the Natalie Wood Signature Collection and published in 2009.


Though billed as a romantic comedy from the writer of Executive Suite [review], one should not confuse this lightweight laugher from 1959 with Cameron Hawley's fast moving drama. Of course, that earlier effort was adapted to the screen by Ernest Lehman and Robert Wise, and Cash McCall only gets Joseph Pevney, director of Tammy and the Bachelor, and two writers with varied resumes (Lenore Coffee wrote The End of the Affair, among others, while Marion Hargrove was mainly successful in television). The hands dealt were unequal.

James Garner is the title character, a businessman notorious for buying struggling businesses, fixing them up, and flipping them for a profit. Normally, if Cash starts looking at a company, its employees start quaking in their boots for fear of losing their jobs, but this time around, Cash has a motivated seller. Grant Austen (Dean Jagger) has been bent over a barrel by his most important client, and rather than take it, he decides to unload his plastics business and retire. Cash immediately offers him his asking price, and once he's got his hands in the company, starts to build an uber-corporation.

Cash has more than money in his sights, however, when it comes to Austen Plastics. As it turns out, he had a very brief romantic encounter with Austen's daughter, Lory, the previous summer. This affair has haunted the girl (played by Natalie Wood), leaving her melancholy and broken-hearted. At first, she is angry at seeing Cash again, but he woos her in the way he would close any business deal, and just as business deals get complicated, so does the lovemaking.

The flashback to the summertime meeting of Cash and Lory is probably the best example of why Cash McCall never really gets its engines running. This event is meant to be the crux of the entire story, but Pevney renders it as a bloodless, passionless embrace. Shot with the edges blurred and full of inexplicable close-ups, the flashback is like a dream half-remembered rather than an active motivator. There is no dialogue, Cash tells the story in voiceover, and so we are cut off from Lory's perspective--meaning Pevney sidesteps the enflamed desires of a young girl, the real heat of the moment. Not even the sight of a trembling, naked Natalie Wood can bail him out--particularly since Cash covers her up and sends her on her way. Is this a romance or propaganda for abstinence programs?

Pevney's direction is equally pedestrian throughout. He doesn't make much use of his widescreen framing, using mostly static shots and only really pulling out when trying to show the full group of gathered moneymen. Yawn. If I want to see that, I'll go to a banker's convention. Most of the acting is equally one-note. James Garner is all bluster, and Wood vacillates between brooding and feisty (okay, so maybe two notes, though, honestly, she is a feisty brooder, so they kind of blend). Only the always-wonderful Nina Foch gets a show-off scene. Playing the aging assistant manager of the hotel where the tycoon lives, her spurned advances, which border on the stalkerish, earn her a harsh dressing down from Cash. In response, she gets drunk and flings herself around her pink-hued apartment, hilariously stoking the fires of suspicion in the Austen clan.

I will admit, I was a little charmed by Cash McCall by the end. As a romantic comedy, it is serviceable enough that I was rooting for Lory and Cash to get it together, but the obstacle course on the way to love lacks the challenge of superior entries in this genre. Best to look elsewhere.