Friday, June 29, 2012

FUNNY GIRL 1968

Pleased to be posting this as part of my participation in the William Wyler Blogathon hosted by The Movie Projector . Click here to read more entries about Wyler and his films.
I've always been a big fan of movie musicals, but enjoying them often requires a kind of dexterous agility when it comes to the suspension of disbelief. I learned long ago that if I really want to surrender myself to films in which ordinary people in natural surroundings spontaneously burst into fully-orchestrated song and dance, well…it’s just best I not hold too tight a tether on reality. 
In the patently false world of movie musicals, believing in impossible things is, as the White Queen explained to Alice in “Through the Looking Glass,” not so very difficult to do. What poses a significantly greater challenge is that hybrid genre of musical fantasy that also purports to be rooted in fact: the musical biopic. For years, movies like The Great Waltz (Johan Strauss), Gypsy (Gypsy Rose Lee), and the 1955 Ruth Etting saga, Love Me or Leave Me (penned by Funny Girl screenwriter Isobel Lennart), have been tunefully blurring the lines between truth and myth, gleefully playing havoc with audience suspension of disbelief...all just part of Hollywood's long history of playing fast and loose with - history.
Funny GirlWilliam Wyler’s big-screen adaptation of the smash 1964 Broadway musical based on the life of Ziegfeld Follies star, Fanny Brice, is one of the more successful stage-to-screen translations of a musical to come out of the 60s. It's colorful, vibrant, funny, with a score of hummable songs marvelously rendered by an engaging, highly photogenic cast. In short, it's a great deal of old-fashioned fun. And yet, in its own way, it's also rather perplexing. As the film is structured - the movie gently shuttles aside the character of Fanny Brice at some point and becomes a Barbra Streisand infomercial - I'm never quite sure what myth I'm supposed to be following. Like a cinematic dissertation on the Wormhole Theory, Funny Girl's fictionalized depiction of the life of Fanny Brice feeds into the real-life Brooklyn-to-Broadway legend of Barbra Streisand the stage star, which in turn funnels into the from-obscurity-to-fame mythologization of Streisand, the movie star. Whew! Streisand's image hews so closely to Funny Girl's representation of Brice, small wonder then that as a kid I used to think Brice's signature song, "Second Hand Rose" (written in 1921) was actually introduced by Streisand.
"Hello, gorgeous!"
I know, I know. It's trite, cliche, and been done to death. But you knew it was going to crop up somewhere. Better now than leaving you in suspense...looking for it...wondering when it was going to spring out at you.
Fanny Brice, née Fania Borach, was one of four children born to New York saloon owners Rose and Charles Borach in 1891. Fanny, who changed her name to Brice in 1908, was a plain-but-talented burlesque comedienne/singer who rose to international stardom as a headliner for Broadway impresario, Florenz Ziegfeld in the early 1900s through the mid-1930s. In 1912, the already once-married Brice found her true love in still-married con man/ex-convict, Jules “Nicky” Arnstein, and after six years of cohabitation (Nicky’s divorce was a tad slow in coming) they wed. Their tumultuous union lasted nine years— at least three of which Arnstein spent behind bars for bond theft— producing two children: a boy and a girl. Along the way, Brice got herself a nose job, unsuccessfully tried her hand at dramatic roles, and made a few modest forays into film. A third marriage and greater career triumphs were to come…but that's venturing into Funny Lady territory. So there you have it, the Fanny Brice story. 
Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice
Omar Sharif as Nick Arnstein
Funny Girl, on the other hand, is about a charismatic, extraordinarily talented, exotically beautiful, ragingly self-confident woman with dragon-lady nails, Cleopatra eye-makeup, and immense, gravity-defying, 60s-type hair. Coincidentally—and only by coincidence—also named Fanny Brice. Set in a picture-postcard, quaintly ethnic New York during a historically imprecise era in America’s recent past (where 1910 showgirls look like moonlighting taxi-dancers from Sweet Charity’s swinging 60s Fandango Ballroom), Funny Girl is the rags-to-riches chronicle of Brice’s rise to fame as star of The Fanny Brice Follies (mis-identified in the film as The Ziegfeld Follies, although it's made abundantly clear it's her show and she calls all the shots) and her ill-fated marriage to the dashing and ethical gambler, Nick “Too-proud-to-be-Mr. Brice” Arnstein. 

Echoing the themes of countless other “There’s a broken heart for every light on Broadway” musical made since movies first found their voice, Funny Girl ends with Brice reaching the pinnacle of success only to discover (to no one’s surprise but her own) it’s lonely at the top. Our final image: Brice onstage— get it? It’s the only place she can find happiness — symbolically bathed in a solo spotlight, looking like a million bucks, resplendent in her noble suffering.
Fame - Gotta Get a Rain Check on Pain
Aphoristically speaking, I think Billy Dee Williams said it, if not best, then certainly cheesiest, when he informed the candle-wax-encrusted Diana Ross in Mahogany: "Success is nothing without someone you love to share it with."

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
Sure, in many ways Funny Girl is corny, derivative, and certainly not the direction movies were headed in the Bonnie and Clyde late-60s, but given how leaden and flat similar big-budget musicals of the era had turned out (Camelot, Finian's Rainbow), it’s rather amazing that Funny Girl came out so well. Doubly so when you realize that it is the only musical ever made by the veteran and versatile director, William Wyler (65 at the time and hard of hearing, yet). Seriously, Funny Girl’s opulent sets, sparkling cast of character actors, and seamless blending of music and narrative has the look and feel of classic Vincent Minnelli. Perhaps maybe a little too classic.
For all the pleasure I derive from the film, I'm the first to concede that Funny Girl feels altogether too familiar in its telling and is so much the archetypal show- biz biopic that it seems to have been cobbled together from bits and pieces of every backstage Hollywood musical that came before (especially A Star is Born – both versions!). Its plot, an equal parts mélange of ugly-duckling fantasy, rags-to-riches fable, soap opera, hagiography, tearjerker, and paean to noble female martyrdom - unfurls as predictably and without incident as a morning train commute, with nary a surprise or unanticipated curve along the track. It's blessed with a sprightly score of songs by Jules Stein and Bob Merrill, and several, by-now iconic musical setpieces (who today can look at a tugboat and not think of Streisand?...I mean in a good way), but there’s nothing in Funny Girl that I haven’t seen a half dozen times before. Except Barbra Streisand.
Make that the phenomenal Barbra Streisand. A new kind of movie star for new kind of Hollywood, Streisand’s thoroughly one-of-a-kind, 900 megawatt star quality has the effect of single-handedly wresting Funny Girl from its wholly traditional moorings. Just a decade or so earlier, Streisand's unconventional beauty would have relegated her to a career of Nancy Walker-type supporting roles in MGM musicals. But in 1968 her look was the new glamour, her voice the new sound, and her talent the singular spoonful of sugar that made this at-times antiquated musical medicine go down.

PERFORMANCES:
Personally, I don’t think most musicals benefit from naturalistic acting (i.e., One from the Heart and NewYork, New York). Musicals operate in a kind of theatrical hyper-reality that require the actors, when emoting in non-musical scenes, to adopt this thing called “performative excess” - a superficially broad style of acting pitched to a level so as not to render the incidental introduction of fantasy sequences of song and dance ridiculous or incongruous. It's a style most recognizably associated with farces, screwball comedies, and a good many of those those grating TV Land sitcoms.
Rumors surrounding Anne Francis (she'll always be Honey West to me) and her displeasure at finding her co-starring role (as Follies showgirl Georgia James) whittled down to nothing, are as plentiful as they are contradictory.
Bullying but delightfully erudite movie critic John Simon once wrote of  Liza Minnelli’s acting: “ [It's]...a desperate display of synthetics forlornly straining for the real thing.” Take away the malice from that statement and you have exactly what I think is most effective about Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl. The vitality of Streisand as a performer...an energy that feels at times as if it might jump right off the screen into your lap... is born of her studied artificiality. She's "on" every single minute! Self-aware and controlling every aspect of her performance down to the bat of an eyelash, with nary a move or gesture left to chance or spontaneity. Streisand is a skilled physical comedian with marvelous delivery, but in Funny Girl I think she is rather more an entertainer than actress. Hers is a synthetic method of acting that actually succeeds in conveying the real thing. The result? A stylized performance that feels sublimely attuned to the rhythms required of an intentionally old-fashioned vehicle like Funny Girl .
In a kind of meta reenactment of all those tabloid rumors that had movie first-timer Barbra Streisand squaring off against veteran director William Wyler, Follies neophyte Fanny Brice goes toe-to-toe with boss Florenz Ziegfeld (Walter Pidgeon)
Streisand is one of those stars whose movie career has been built on essentially playing herself in film after film. It may sound like a put-down to say so, but I believe it to be something of a gift to be able to project one's personality dynamically on film. Not everybody can do it...just ask Madonna. 
Streisand can be a wonderful actress and comedienne (personal faves: On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and What's Up, Doc?) but I don't believe anyone goes to a Barbra Streisand movie hoping she’ll so immerse herself in a character that they'll forget it’s her. No, when you’re paying for Streisand, you’re pretty much counting on getting Streisand...and plenty of it. (One exception: In 1981's All Night Long Streisand amusingly played against type in a supporting role as a soft-spoken suburban housewife who dreams of being a country & western star…only she can’t sing. Audiences stayed away in droves.)
12-minutes into Funny Girl, Streisand sings "I'm the Greatest Star" a tongue-in-cheek showstopper that is nevertheless (to borrow a line from the musical, Chicago), "A song of unrelenting determination and unmitigated ego."

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
If I seem to speak of Barbra Streisand to the exclusion of all else in Funny Girl, it’s just that without her, I suspect I would be rather on the fence about the film as a whole. Funny Girl is professional and competent in that way you’d expect from a big-budget studio feature, but I can't help but feel it lacks a certain distinction. The cinematography by Harry Stradling, Sr. (A Streetcar Named Desire, My Fair Lady) can’t be faulted; he turns Streisand into a goddess with each loving (and frequent) close-up. Nor do the musical numbers by Herbert Ross (later Streisand’s director for The Owl and the Pussycat and Funny Lady) come up short, being amiably witty if not particularly dance-filled. The music arrangements, while anachronistically contemporary in sound, show off Ms. Streisand’s million-dollar voice to great effect, and Irene Sharaff’s eye-catching costumes call attention to what a thoroughbred clotheshorse Streisand can be.
The pairing of Sharif and Streisand became an international incident when the Egypt/Israeli War broke out during filming. The married pair (to other partners) consoled one another...if you get my cruder meaning.
Three-time Academy Award-winning director William Wyler, in this his penultimate film in a four-decades-long career, is no stranger to divas (Bette Davis – Jezebel, The Letter, The Little Foxes), camera neophytes (Audrey Hepburn – Roman Holiday), or spectacle (Ben Hur), and as such, acquits himself nicely his first time to bat in this toughest of movie genres. Accounts vary as to whether Wyler molded Streisand’s performance or merely got out of her way, but whatever the circumstances, the result was a critical and popular success that became the second highest-grossing film of 1968, garnering Streisand her first and only Best Actress Oscar win (Wyler was left out of the film's eight nominations).

 Note* Lightning failed to strike twice for "Funny Girl" producer Ray Stark when he enlisted the talents of John Huston—another veteran director not known for musicals—to bring the Broadway hit, "Annie", to the screen in 1982.
Funny Girl's only other nomination in the acting categories was a Best Supporting Actress nod for Kay Medford as Mrs. Brice.   (Folks of my generation will remember her as a regular on "The Dean Martin Show") 

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
Sometimes I think film is called a lively art because the longer I live, the better certain films start to look. Funny Girl was released 44 years ago, and since that time, not only has the quality of musicals drastically declined, but the only criteria for stardom today seems to be a pulse and a personality disorder. As I grow older and nostalgia gently overtakes discernment, Funny Girl’s flaws gradually diminish, born of an awareness of Streisand having, in the ensuing years, more than made good on her promise/threat of being "The Greatest Star" (minus scandals, drug busts, or rehab, I might add). 
A healthy suspension of disbelief might be necessary to reconcile Funny Girl's historical and biographical inaccuracies, anachronisms, and outright fabrications, but as a lasting record of the career genesis of one of the last of my generation’s truly great stars, Funny Girl could practically be classified as a documentary.
William Wyler and Streisand on the studio backlot
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Friday, June 22, 2012

THE GROUP 1966

The generic Hollywood “woman’s film,” those melodramatic, get-out-your-handkerchiefs – style weepies that were once Joan Crawford’s and Bette Davis’ stock in trade, underwent a colorful (that is to say, increasingly explicit) transformation during the 50s and 60s. Reflecting the changing role of women in American culture, the once romance-centric genre transmogrified into the multi-character, hand-wringing, career-girl soap-operas of the sort typified by Rona Jaffe’s water cooler drama, The Best of Everything (1956), in which Joan Crawford’s stock 40s shopgirl character gets an executive upgrade; and that deservedly iconic ode to Broadway, booze, and barbiturates, Valley of the Dolls (1967).
Jessica Walter (Lucille Bluth on my favorite TV show, Arrested Development) looks "Joan Crawford fabulous" and almost walks away with the film as Libby, the least sympathetic but most dynamic member of "The Group"
These films dramatized, in highly glamorized fashion, the challenges facing women as they strove to balance love, friendship, and the pursuit of their dreams while navigating the patriarchally hostile waters of the American workforce. Always purporting to “blow the lid off” one taboo subject or another (in George Cukor’s The Chapman Report it was the sex lives of suburban housewives) these films offered at most a cursory nod to female independence before reverting to type and getting back to the business of subtly endorsing traditional gender roles.

Valley of the Dolls, in its exquisite awfulness, remains the gold standard by which every “sex and soap” women’s film is and should be compared. But one of my favorite forgotten examples of the genre that managed to fall through the cracks due to past unavailability (it had a brief VHS life [Thanks, Poseidon3!], was never released on Laserdisc, but is currently available on made-to-order DVD) is Sidney Lumet’s lively screen adaptation of Mary McCarthy’s 1963 bestselling novel, The Group
Eight is Enough
The sparkling cast of up-and-comers that comprise The Group
I don’t know who first coined the phrase “superior soap-opera” but the term uncategorically applies to this expensively-mounted, surprisingly well-acted tale of the interweaving lives of eight friends—graduates of Vassar College, Class of ’33— as each sets out to “make her mark” on the world. The experiences of these economically and psychologically diverse heroines reflect, in microcosm, the emergent state of (white) American womanhood in the mid-20th century. Specifically, the Roosevelt Administration years from The Great Depression through to the earliest days of the outbreak of WW II.
As each woman embarks on the journey of realizing the American Dream their wealth, position, and privilege has practically guaranteed them, they discover that outside the protective bubble of college and "The Group," real life presents considerably greater challenges. 
With a cast of eight beautiful women all falling histrionically in and out of love, bedrooms, and careers, The Group basically takes the usual all-girl triad formula of The Pleasure Seekers and Three Coins in the Fountain (along with the aforementioned The Best of Everything and Valley of the Dolls) and merely ratchets up the stakes by moving it into territory first blazed by Clare Boothe Luce in The Women. All of which is sheer Nirvana for fans of camp cinema and movies about high-born women brought to low circumstances, but a headache for studio publicity departments and folks seeking economic ways of recounting the plot and summarizing the characters.  

The challenge presented in having to promote a film with an ensemble cast of relative unknowns is revealed in the giggle-inducing tone adopted by the film’s ad campaign; the copy of which I’ll borrow to briefly introduce the members of The Group:

Lakey: The Mona Lisa of the smoking room…for women only!
Dottie: Thin women are more sensual. The nerve endings are closer to the surface.
Priss: She fell in love and lived to be an “experiment.”
Polly: No money…no glamour…no defenses…poor Cinderella.
Kay: The “outsider” at an Ivy League Ball.
Pokey: Skin plumped full of oysters…money, money, money…yum, yum, yum!
Libby: A big scar on her face called a mouth.
Helena: Many women do without sex, and thrive on it.

If I remember correctly, most, if not all of these lines come directly from the novel (a terrific read, I might add) and several are even repeated in the film. How anyone was able to resist such sleazily salacious come-ons is beyond me, but The Group didn’t fare too well at the boxoffice at the time and slipped quietly into obscurity after that. My guess is that it’s because the film at its core wasn’t really as trashy as its hard-sell. Well, more’s the pity, for The Group, by benefit of its amazing cast and director Sidney Lumet’s deft handling of the wide-sweeping plot, is a step above the usual glossy soap opera.
Dottie (Joan Hackett) loses her virginity to emotionally remote artist Dick Brown (Richard Mulligan)
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
As a fan of both Robert Altman’s ensemble opuses and movies with overdressed women dramatically suffering in opulent surroundings, there isn’t really much to dislike about The Group. Touching on everything from politics, birth-control, lesbianism, marriage, mental illness, spousal abuse, adultery, childbirth, alcoholism, and date-rape (all in the course of 2 ½ hours) The Group has a lot of field to cover. Director Sidney Lumet (The Pawnbroker, Network, Dog Day Afternoon) keeps things moving at a rapid-fire pace that adds spark to the light comedy (Jessica Walter is a hoot as a bitchily gabby gossip) and tension to the drama. If perhaps the same tempo that spares The Group from ever being plodding or dull also undercuts the film’s overall emotional impact due to a necessary brevity (the film loses a great deal when Joan Hackett’s character disappears for a protracted time in the middle) I at least have to say it’s a flaw in the right direction. 
An example of Sidney Lumet's masterful framing and use of space in The Group 
I generally just like the propulsive feel of The Group's visual style. I can’t remember when I’ve seen a movie that handled the staging and filming of group scenes better or to greater effect, nor can I recall a cleverer employment of cinematic devices to provide plot exposition. In rewatching the film, my attention is drawn to the many subtle character interactions and small details (like the financially-struggling Kay always wearing the same hat to every wedding) easily overlooked on first viewing due to the film’s quick cutting and Lumet’s skillful use of the foregrounds and backgrounds to relay information.
When I think of what I like about The Group, the conclusion I always arrive at is, what’s not to like?

The telephone features prominently in The Group not only as a means by which the friends stay in contact but as a handy device to relate plot exposition
PERFORMANCES:
If you’ve ever harbored the notion that a film like, say, Valley of the Dolls would have been “better” with real actresses in the roles (sorry Patty Duke),seeing The Group would pretty much lay that fantasy to rest. The cast assembled for The Group couldn’t be more accomplished or better-suited to their roles, but even they can’t surmount a screenplay or the basic story construct so plot driven. The mere volume and frequency of crises and conflict in films like these reduce even exemplary performances (Hackett, Knight, Pettet, and Hartman) to “best of” moments.

Sidney Lumet cast his father, Baruch Lumet in the small role of Mr. Schneider, Polly's paternal neighbor
A standout, both appearance and character-wise, is Jessica Walter (Arrested Development’s Lucille Bluth herself!) who almost walks off with the film in a showy part that is essentially the Rosalind Russell role in The Women. Also very good is the highly appealing Shirley Knight. My personal favorite however, is Joan Hackett (making her film debut along with Bergen and Pettet) whom I never tire of watching and who never seems to hit a false note.
60s lesbians were always portrayed as severe, vaguely predatory types who stood around giving each other knowing looks under arched eyebrows. Here, an admittedly outclassed Candice Bergen introduces her sorority sisters to her "friend" the Baroness (Lidia Prochnicka)
Before I finish, special mention must to be made of the men in The Group. True to the genre, the men are a pretty odious bunch. Almost to a man they are characterized as weak, bigoted, manipulative, oppressive, brutalizing, or womanizing. Some all at the same time. This is of course to be expected and goes with the soap opera territory. What surprises me most is that there isn’t a single looker in the bunch. I know it’s a matter of taste and I'm taking into account that perhaps in 1966 these guys passed for handsome (so what was Paul Newman?) but to a most distracting degree the men at the center of The Group are like a grandmother’s wish-list of desirable males. Hal Holbrook? Larry Hagman? Richard Mulligan? James Broderick? The film features such a parade of unappetizing, daddy-fixation types that after a while I actually started to take it as some kind of personal affront.
No, this isn't an image of Polly (Shirley Knight) and her father. This is Gus (Hal Holbrook) the patently implausible object of desire of two gorgeous women and one unseen wife in The Group

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
My older sister (whom I credit/blame for a good deal of my love of bad movies) got me to watch The Group on TV with her when I was a kid. A protofeminist if ever there was one, she tended to gravitate towards movies with female protagonists but lamented the fact that a great majority of these films tended to be vaguely masochistic soaps and cheesy exploitation films. 
"The Group" was Elizabeth Hartman's follow-up to her Oscar-nominated film debut in "A Patch of Blue." As Priss, she's cast again as a victim of an oppressive relative, this time a husband.
 Sloan (her physician husband, following a miscarriage): "We'll, we can't have this again, Priss. Worst possible advertisement for a pediatrician!"
My sister (who was drawn to the bitchiness of the Libby character but identified with the self-sacrificing nobility of Polly) enjoyed the camp fun to be had at the expense of the fancy clothes, elaborate hairstyles, and frankly unsympathetic milieu of the privileged classes, but what she also responded to, and in turn helped me to appreciate, was what the film was trying to say about the challenges of maturity. The idealized vision of the world (and oneself) one can safely harbor while sheltered within the walls of youth and academia can take quite a beating when confronted by the disappointments and compromises of the real world. Is a person really failing in life if they put to rest youthful dreams in hopes of achieving some unforeseen, yet perhaps more authentic, realization of fulfillment? And how much pain does one cause oneself clinging to idealized illusions of "potential" and entitled success...all the while ignoring the possibility for happiness dressed in humbler clothing? 
Have to hand it to my sister...if she could find that kind of insight within a glossy potboiler like this, I'd say I learned about the value of "bad" films at the feet of a master.
In a role rendered considerably smaller in the film than  in the book, Carrie Nye has at least one memorable scene as Norine, a low-income Vassar classmate and outsider excluded from "The Group" 

Now, I’m not going to make out like The Group is some kind of profound, unacknowledged classic, but in light of what women's films have become over the years (they proudly proclaim themselves "chick flicks" and celebrate shopping as a valid expression of female empowerment), and in our current boomerang culture that doesn't encourage young people to seek and accept struggle as an integral part of the growing-up process; well...let's just say that there's something to be said for a 46-year-old guilty-pleasure movie that comes across as more progressive and perceptive in 2012 than it did in the year of its original release.
Halcyon Days
Helena's scandalous painting of "The Group" (that's Helena as the satyress)
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Saturday, June 16, 2012

THE HAUNTING 1963

"The dead are not quiet in Hill House."

As a child, I tried watching The Haunting one evening when it aired on network television, but I don’t think I lasted more than 20 minutes…if that. Then more accustomed to the get-right-down-to-business directness of Creature Features–style horror movies, The Haunting’s deliberate pacing and leisurely approach to character and mood severely taxed my ten-year-old attention span.

It wasn’t until a 1999 screening of The Haunting on TCM (to coincide with the theatrical release of the atrocious mega-budget, CGI-laden remake) that I opted to give the film another look. Well, the passing years must have worked its alchemy on either the movie or me, for this time out The Haunting held me in rapt fascination in front of the TV set (do they even call them that anymore?), caught up in 112 of the sharpest, most enjoyably tense minutes of movie terror I can recall.
"It was an evil house from the beginning....a house that was Born Bad."
Hill House, the monumentally creepy estate that serves as The Haunting's setting. The mansion is supposed to be located in Boston, but filming took place in the UK and Ettigton Hall (now a hotel) was used for exteriors.

What was tedious and meandering to me as a child was absorbing and spooky as hell as an adult. The characters involved me, the psychological/paranormal uncertainties intrigued me, and I especially responded to the inherent risk in making a haunted house film that dares you to take it seriously. The screenplay doesn't insult one’s intelligence nor do the actors play down to the genre. Best of all: the thrills contained in The Haunting extend so far beyond its ghostly surprises that a great deal of pleasure is derived from rewatching the film just to see the interplay of the characters. The performances are that good and that detailed.

When I think of how often it is I find myself, as an adult, at the polar-opposite end of some aesthetic bias I held in my youth, I can’t help but wonder to what degree American cinema has suffered over the years in so doggedly courting the youth market (The Avengers, The Hunger Games). Movies today are bigger, louder, faster, to be sure (e.g., The Haunting remake), but how good can they be when the whole of the criteria by which they hold themselves to are the ADD standards of the texting/tweeting generation?
Julie Harris as Eleanor Lance
Claire Bloom as Theodora
Richard Johnson as Dr. John Markway
Russ Tamblyn as Luke Sanderson
Lois Maxwell  (Bond's Miss Moneypenny) as Mrs. Markway
Obviously not one to enjoy a little downtime, director Robert Wise, between the mammoth West Side Story (1961) and elephantine The Sound of Music (1965), directed two comparatively small features: the off-beat romance, Two for the Seesaw, and the modern Gothic ghost story, The Haunting. The latter, adapted from Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House, has a premise that is simplicity itself: four disparate strangers forced to spend time together in one incredibly creepy house with an unsavory past.
Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson), eager-beaver anthropologist and self-styled supernatural sleuth, invites several “assistants” to participate in an investigation of paranormal activity in what is believed to be an actual haunted house. Of the several invited to join (culled from a list of subjects “…touched in some way by the supernatural”), only two show up: stylish ESP whiz, Theodora —“Theodora…just Theodora.” — (Claire Bloom), and the emotionally fragile spinster, Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris). On hand as a kind of drowsy chaperone to the proceedings is Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), born skeptic and nephew to the owner of Hill House. What follows is as much an incisive character study or psychological thriller as ghost story. 
Cast of The Haunting

Somewhere on the path towards toward chasing the easy dollar, directors of horror films seem to have forgotten that horror is not exactly synonymous with gore. (What am I saying? Forgot gives too much credit. What we’re talking here is incompetence and a lack of talent. Gross-out horror is simply easier.) The sense of dread and equilibrium-rattling unease at the core of every great thriller comes from an understanding of that unique quirk of the human mind that makes it possible for a person to scare the hell out of themselves with just the slightest assist from outside stimuli.

The Haunting is famous (and rightly so) for being one of the finest screen examples of nail-biting terror with nary a drop of blood or ANYTHING being shown. I’ve never seen the 1961 film, The Innocents (recommended by a reader of this blog, it’s at last on my DVR queue…thank you TCM!) but I understand that it succeeds in much the same way. Through the employment moodily atmospheric lighting, evocative music, crazily subjective camera angles, and top-grade performances from its impressive cast, The Haunting builds and sustains such a high level of wariness and suspense that it fairly gets under your (crawling) skin before you realize it.
The Haunting is a great deal of scary fun
How The Haunting achieves this is rather uncanny, for I’m sure the experience is different for each viewer. In my case, returning to the film after so many years, during which time I’d been exposed to such seminal horror masterpieces as The Exorcist, Alien, The Shining, et.al., I had essentially cast myself in the know-it-all skeptic role that West Side Story’s Russ Tamblyn handles so well. I honestly didn’t think a 35-year-old horror film could pack much punch, and I was only motivated to try The Haunting again because I was so excited about the remake (mostly because of Lili Taylor. Alas, that film found a way of squandering even her talent).

But what took me by surprise in seeing The Haunting again after so long was how it never felt in the least bit dated, and how the overall intelligent approach to the material struck me as almost startlingly rare. It reminded me of what I love in Polanski thrillers and typifies the best in the films of Val Lewton (Cat People, The Seventh Victim).
"There won't be anyone around if you need help. We couldn't hear you...in the night. No one could...in the dark...."
Terrifically ghoulish housekeeper, Mrs. Dudley (Rosalie Crutchley)

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
A director with a little imagination can bring quite a lot to a genre film if he/she is willing to have fun with its conventions. Horror films are notoriously plot-driven, moving its characters about like game pieces, all in service of coincidence-heavy story machinations. Although a standard ghost story in many ways, The Haunting feels like a different breed of animal entirely, due to the degree of depth it goes into with its characters. Asked to contemplate the possible connection between the escalating intensity of the “haunting” to the gradual dismantling of a character’s psychological state, it’s amazing how chilling a simple, bloodless horror film can be when we’re made aware of the vulnerable humanity of the protagonists. 
It's not difficult to take note of parallels to Stephen King's Carrie when we hear about Eleanor's back story (repressed youth, social outcast, an unexplained  hail of stones raining on the family house for several days, possible unacknowledged psychic ability). She even has a sister named Carrie!,

PERFORMANCES:
I haven’t seen a great deal of Julie Harris’ work, but from the looks of it she was the go-to-gal for repressed, emotionally delicate types. It’s certainly easy to understand why, and by no means is pointing that out a diminution of her talent. In fact, she is to be commended on her consistent ability to add dimension to roles that must appear on paper to be of a rather limited emotional palate. As Eleanor, she is, dramatically speaking, the very center of The Haunting and it’s through her touching and enigmatic performance (is she mad? Possessed?) that the film draws us in. On repeat viewings it becomes clearer what a superbly rounded a character Harris creates in Eleanor. A sad, lonely woman of bottled-up, barely understood emotions, Eleanor can be by turns charming, determined, dreamy, and petulant; all adding up to the kind of realistic characterization necessary to add verisimilitude to The Haunting’s Gothic mayhem.

"To my new companion!"
The stylish Theodora makes the first of several passes at the not-completely-in-the-dark Eleanor.
Claire Bloom is marvelously cool and feline as, if not the first sympathetic lesbian in a major motion picture, then certainly the most unapologetic and self-assured. The scenes between Boom and Harris are virtuoso.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
The Haunting is unequivocally and most emphatically a ghost story, but I like how
the film allows for the ambiguous intermingling of the psychological and supernatural. Eleanor’s precarious mental state is revealed to us through the extensive use of first-person voiceover, but this extra-sensory intimacy device only makes us more unsure about what she thinks is real and what is imagined. As Eleanor’s emotions intensify, there’s the feeling that she is perhaps suffering some kind of mental breakdown; practically willing Hill House to be the beckoning destiny she simultaneously fears and desires. Other times, Hill House (always spoken of in terms usually reserved for a living thing) feels as if it is feeding upon and growing stronger from fears and weaknesses of its inhabitants.
In balancing these complimentary/conflicting realities, The Haunting arrives at a narrative structure that mirrors the discordant perspectives of its characters—the realists: Luke & Mrs. Markway; the psychics: Eleanor& Theodora; and the scientist: Dr. Markway.

Small wonder that The Haunting's reputation as one of the most effective horror films ever made continues to grow with each passing year. Every time I watch it I discover something new. And sometimes, if I really allow myself to get swept up in the ghost story, I can still find myself experiencing the odd goosebump chill as that massive old house goes into its act.


Copyright © Ken Anderson