Friday, July 22, 2011

REFLECTIONS OF MURDER 1974

Like most people my age (never mind), I harbor fond memories of that boom product of early 70s television that was the "made-for-TV-movie." Specifically, The ABC Movie of the Week series. For kids too young to experience firsthand the often "R"-rated revolution in cinema that was exploding on movie theater screens across the country, The ABC Movie of the Week offered a somewhat toned-down, parent-sanctioned taste of just what the New Hollywood was all about. Anti-heroes, counterculture politics, sexual liberation, violence, and the phenomenon of the  unhappy ending, were gently ushered into American households thanks to the 70s TV movie.
Though many of these 90 minute or two-hour films were cheesy and interchangeable "B-movies" offering steady employment to marginal TV actors and not-ready-to-retire stars of yesteryear, an exceptional few were surprisingly accomplished motion pictures equal to and exceeding their theatrical counterparts.
It's not my intention to broaden the scope of this blog to include TV movies, but in any realistic exploration of films that have been "the stuff that dreams are made of" in my life, there's no way I could not acknowledge this rarely seen, probably-forgotten, little masterpiece from the director of Saturday Night Fever 
Tuesday Weld as Vicky
Joan Hackett as Claire
Sam Waterston as Michael
Lance Kerwin as Chip
John Badham's  Reflections of Murder premiered on The ABC Movie of the Week in November of 1974 and simply floored me. I couldn't believe that this unsettling and atmospherically creepy thriller wasn't a feature film released to theaters. The splendid performances, sensitive characterizations, and deft handling of suspense were far more sophisticated than what I had come to expect from TV movies. Wasting no time in setting the cunning narrative into motion, the film nevertheless manages to carve out incisive moments where the relationships between the characters are explored and delineated.
The plot: The wife (Hackett) and mistress (Weld) of an abusive headmaster at a boy's school (Waterston) conspire to murder him and have his body discovered in a manner that suggests accidental drowning. Things swiftly go awry when the body fails to materialize and the presumed-dead man is not only observed around town by others, but possibly baiting the would-be-murderesses in a revenge plot of his own.
Claire- "Well, I can't do it and I won't!"
Vicky- "You will surprise yourself."
Those familiar with the work of French director Henri-Georges Clouzot will recognize Reflections of Murder as an updated remake of his influential 1955 French thriller, Les Diaboliques. I hadn't seen that classic film at the time, so the twists and turns of plot that were undoubtedly familiar to some took me completely by surprise. Understatement. I was devastated. I didn't see ANY of that coming and the shock of it blew me away.  Even with the annoyance of commercial interruptions, Reflections of Murder (a truly terrible, lazy, meaningless title that sounds like one of those straight-to-DVD sex thrillers of the 90s) was one of the most effective suspense thrillers I'd seen since Rosemary's Baby and Wait Until Dark. Even now, after having seen the Clouzot original many times and loving it as I do, Reflections of Murder still remains my favorite adaptation of the source novel, Celle qui n'├ętait Plus by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (the authors of the novel upon which Alfred Hitchcock based his film, Vertigo).  
"I fear for my life when you two sit down together."

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
Subtext, intentional or otherwise, is often one of those things that can make the difference between a film being one that's merely entertaining to one that you never forget. In Reflections of Murder the unlikely friendship between a wife and a mistress— which, in the French context, had a decadent, continental air—takes on a tone both sinister and dangerously sexy when viewed from the American perspective which, as a rule, tends to be less forgiving of the husband/mistress arrangement.
There's an empathetic intimacy shared by the wife and mistress, notably absent from the film's male/female encounters, that fuels a subtle lesbian subtext (exploited to tedious effect in the abysmal 1996 Sharon Stone remake). Reflecting the times, a women's lib subtext is introduced in that, save for the sweetly doting attentions of a serious-faced student (Lance Kerwin), the school's all-male faculty and student body consistently relate to Vicky and Claire in scornful or sexualized terms. In the face of both physical and emotional abuse, Vicky & Claire's homicidal solidarity looks like feminist survival.

PERFORMANCES:
An actress arguably more famous for the high-profile roles she's turned down ( Lolita and Bonnie & Clyde, to name a few) than the films she's made,  I can't recall ever paying much attention to Tuesday Weld before this film. In fact, in looking over a list of her early credits: Sex Kittens Go to College, Bachelor Flat, I'll Take Sweden, it's more likely I avoided her. But I fell in love with her in Reflections of Murder. And it's not because she looks so terrific with that fetching short haircut. She gives an assured performance that plays on so many levels of manipulation and unanticipated forcefulness that you are no more sure of her motives than the characters in the film. I've since grown into a genuine respect for her talent and number her among my favorite actresses...although I don't always "get" her choices in roles.
 Tuesday Weld, Roman Polanski's original choice to star in his horror classic Rosemary's Baby, sports a short haircut in Reflections of Murder that provides a curious glimpse of what the actress might have looked like in the role that made Mia Farrow a star.

And then there is the late Joan Hackett. From the time I first saw her in The Group (1966) she has always impressed me with the gentle, fragile vulnerability she brought to her roles. Forgetting that she was also a very gifted comedienne (Support Your Local Sheriff), studios unfortunately tended to type her as a victim. Here she gives what I consider one of her best performances, her trademark hesitations and nervous, darting movements a perfect foil to Weld's steely efficiency. Maybe it's because of their diverse acting styles, but Weld and Hackett's scenes together are really electric. They are so good that they drive each scene exclusively with the intensity of emotional interaction; you almost forget they're setting the serpentine plot along its course.
Vicky- "Why am I suddenly the enemy?"
Claire- "You're not suddenly...you always were."
THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
During its final act, Reflections of Murder may ultimately tip its hat to the genre conventions of deserted mansion, diaphanous bedgown, and a night full of thunder and lightning, but preceding that, the film has made moodily picturesque use of the lushly dank forests and overcast skies of the Puget Sound area of Washington. Damp, fallen leaves carpet every surface and the skies themselves seem to be burdened with an ominous, oppressive weight. The all-important water motif is echoed in the island locale, the ceaseless drizzle, the murky pools of standing water, and the haunting musical score (an adaptation of Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavichord) that eerily recalls trickling rain.

 THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
As previous posts have asserted, I think I'm drawn to scary and suspenseful movies for the thrills. But if the film is somehow also able to capture a sense or tragedy and emotional loss, they usually have me in their hip pocket before the end credits. Reflections of Murder is a masterfully crafted thriller, certainly among the best I've ever seen, but it's the care given the depiction of the relationships that lends the film distinction. To me, the power of the dramatic denouement is not due to mere surprise, but the heartrending preceding sequence where Chip, the aforementioned  serious-faced little boy, expresses to Claire the depth of sorrow he would feel should anything happen to her. Not a time goes by when I can ever watch that scene with dry eyes. 
The scenes between Lance Kerwin (James at 15) and Joan Hackett provide the film with a touching humanity that make the chilling circumstances of plot more than just mystery/suspense fodder
I've read that a DVD release of Reflections of Murder has been held up in a rights and licensing battle, so, for the time being, I have to content myself with my murky VHS copy. I've been told, however, that there exists a copy available for viewing on YouTube. If so, it would well be worth your while to give it a look. It's the kind of taut, finely executed thriller rarely seen these days. A real killer.

20 comments:

  1. I got to be in the background of this movie, one of the many rugrats portraying the boys in the private school where the action takes place. We were never told the storyline, we just ran here & there as directed. I remember being shocked out of my wits when I finally got to see the finished product. Yes, please get this out on DVD!

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    1. I too was in the background of this movie. Your right, we were never told the storyline. I remember they fed us well and we got 15 bucks per day. I was in one short scene showing celebrating a basketball game. My one and only time in the movies.

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    2. Another "Reflections..." alumnus! Wow! So cool to be associated with one of the better TV movies of the era. I wonder if you'd be able to find your younger self in the film (of course, that would require someone releasing it on DVD).
      Thanks for commenting!

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    3. I rented the VHS about 15 years ago. I was also in the bus scene but never saw myself. I remember sitting in the bus for along time. I was in third grade at the time. Its a bit of a fog now. I do remember that the pool in the movie was installed just for the film and was part of the perk the Property owners got for allowing filming. It was a retirement home for Catholic Clergy if I remember right.

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    4. That's terrific backstory! I love knowing about the installation of the pool and what the building used as a school actually was. Sort of marvelous hearing from people involved in the making of a film that made such an impression on me. Thanks for the sharing your recollections. Much appreciated!

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  2. I'm very jealous! I've often wondered if the kids in "mature theme" movies ever really know what they are appearing in until they see the completed product. Very cool to be associated with such a stellar film, and I hope perhaps you had some contact with the two stars. I've heard that Weld was kind of shy, but Hackett was perhaps more approachable. If you remember any deatils or anecdotes, please share! Thanks for commenting.

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  3. Do any of you know the location or name of the school (it was a nunnery I am told) where this was shot? Thanks.

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  4. Filmed at Rosary Heights in Woodway, Washington

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    1. Thanks, Kevin!!
      I've wondered about the location myself.

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  5. I stumbled on this thread and wanted to add a couple of tidbits.
    I attended my uncle's 25th Jubilee at Rosary Heights. It was wonderful to wander the property, both inside and out. (My uncle is a Catholic priest and the event was to celebrate his 25 years in the priesthood). I knew about the movie, and thought of it while I strolled, which made me see the grounds as incredibly creepy. Especially the pool. Inside, it was beautiful with all the carved woodwork, etc. but I doubt I would sleep well there if I spent the night. I know the nuns who lived there, though, loved it.
    Anyway, I have not seen the movie but with this review, I will definitely now hunt it down. Earlier this evening, I was driving along the road where this property is, trying to show it to my daughter(I believe it is now owned by the town of Woodway, but it used to be owned by the Catholic Church and was a convent for the Dominican Sisters). That's how I came across this thread, looking up Rosary Heights.
    Fun to read.

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    1. Thanks for contributing more information and history about this memorably atmospheric location! It sounds every bit as picturesque and foreboding as it seems in the film. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. Hope, when you track down a copy, you enjoy the film as much as I do.

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  6. Foreboding, definitely. Add to that the fact that this area has its share of dark rainy days, with winds sweeping across the bluff. The roads around the property are also dark with dense old growth evergreens. I can see why this area and this property were chosen for a suspense-thriller. The setting was perfect. Can't wait to see the movie. : )

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  7. So glad to see your review of this little gem. I've mentioned it friends over the years as something to keep an eye out for especially back when it was available on video, now of course it's much rarer to find although I did view it again recently on Youtube. Not the best quality but because of the murkiness of the story the graininess of the film wasn't a big issue. I do remember this being more of a special occasion film than a standard movie of the week when it first premiered.

    I originally saw this as you did when it first was broadcast on TV before seeing Diabolique and it stayed with me over the years. I love the Simone Signoret classic but this is my favored version too. Part of that is because of my fondness for the two lead actresses. Tuesday Weld is a wonderfully idiosyncratic performer whose probably been given more opportunities and squandered more chances to be a big name star than most actors even get close to but from what I've read it doesn't seem to be have been a big priority for her. She is terrific giving a thorny, flinty reading of Vicky which sparks so well off Joan Hackett's jittery Claire. Joan Hackett was another wonderfully individual actress with her often hyperactive nervousness that she could turn to whatever effect she wished. Because of that she's ideal as the put upon wife of a shockingly young as well as surprisingly venal Sam Waterson. I know he has had a wide and varied career but after so many years as Jack McCoy on Law & Order I had become accustomed to that persona and to see him here as a ruthless dick it took a bit to readjust but once I did he sold his part well.

    Speaking of seeing this on Youtube, there is a Movie of the Week channel which is a wonderful source to see so many of the films that would be lost to the ether of time otherwise. Some would be better off that way, Call Her Mom anyone?, but there are many gems to be found as well with actors just starting out like Alan Alda (and Ruth Gordon) in Isn't it Shocking or the mature actress fest of Helen Hayes, Myrna Loy, Mildred Natwick and Sylvia Sidney in Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate.

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    1. Hi Joel
      I'm happy to hear from another fan of this film who remembers that it was kind of a special release during TV's TV movie craze of the 70s.
      Like you I adore the original version, but this is one of those rare remakes that does it right. It's my favorite.
      You description of Weld's "thorny, flinty" reading of the role is spot-on (and hilarious) and exactly why she is so aces in the role for me. And the great Joan Hackett..."hyperactive nervousness" is a perfect description of her acting style, and as contrasted with Weld, the two make for a surprisingly strong pair of female leads.
      You really take note of so many of the things I like about the film and express them so well. I do wish that someday it gets a decent DVD release. Oh, and I'm going to check out YouTube's Movie of the Week channel. Thanks for that. Memory being what it is, I'm sure I mostly only recall the exceptional films (plus, I was a kid) so it will be great to see if those forgotten gems should have remained so.
      Thanks for a wonderfully written comment!

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  8. I'm French so I take great offense at what's been written by you and the posters about this travesty! :)

    But all kidding aside, seeing Paul Meurisse with those blank eyeballs will always remain much more terrifying than Sam Waterson with any "lazy eyes" contacts.

    And the fact that Clouzot really traumatized his own wife to get that performance out of her will also forever add an extra perverse veneer on Les Diaboliques.

    Clouzot forever! If you want to enjoy some more 'high camp as whodunit', I'd recommend "L'assassin habite au 21" where Suzy Delair and Jean Tissier make mincemeat of the the scenery. And Pierre Fresnay will always have the sexiest voice of any actor...

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  9. Ha! Well, your being French certainly affords you the right to champion the superb original film. i love them both, but have a very soft spot in my heart for this Yank remake. Were someone to tout the Sharon Stone/Isabel Adjani remake over this one...WELL, then you would see what real taking offense looks like. :-)
    iam going to have to search out the film you noted, "The Murder Lives at 21". The YouTube clip looks great! Thanks very much for visiting this site and casting a well-deserved vote for your countryman. Much appreciated!

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    1. Clouzot is my favorite director in the whole world so I could not not react to your appreciation of Badham's copy.

      I love that you were a teenager when you saw most of these and have vivid memories of the conditions when first encountering these movies.

      It's the same for me and Les Diaboliques : French television was in the habit of airing 'best of' clips of famous movies in the middle of the day when I was a teen and one day aired the bathroom sequence, up until Vera Clouzot's collapse. Strong stuff for lunch time.

      My parents then very cannily refused to tell me what happened next : bam, lifetime obsession.

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    2. That's a wonderful story about "Les Diaboliques"! That sequence is still a shattering bit of filmmaking that retains its power even today. And indeed, as Clouzot is your favorite director in the whole world, your initial response is a paragon of restraint.
      I adore Roman Polanski's work, and with a TV remake of "Rosemary's Baby" looming, I KNOW I shall not go gentle into that good night. Thanks for sharing your personal history with this film!

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  10. Talking to my daughter about her "Turn of the Screw" project for school, I was suddenly reminded of this movie, which I saw just before my 13th birthday 40 years ago. It was colloquially known as "rising out of the bathtub" at our house -- it made a big impression on my sisters and me. Once I found the name (I remembered Tuesday Weld was in it), I wanted to see if it was generally thought to be as good as I remember it being. I guess it was. Too bad it's not on DVD.

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    1. Hi Chris
      Too bad the legal side of film release keeps so many interesting films out of public awareness. "Rising out of the bathtub" is a film best experienced in one's impressionable years, and possibly before one gets one's hands on "Diabolique" (although that film is far more masterful, I STILL have a soft spot for this one. Tuesday Weld is just amazing). Should you ever get a chance to see it again, I hope it lives up to your memories the way it did for me. Thanks for commenting!

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