Friday, January 19, 2018

ONE OF THOSE THINGS 1971

Given the number of films in existence about colorless middle-aged men whose lives and (reasonably) happy marriages are upended by the initially-encouraged/ultimately-unwelcome attentions of a comely lass with nothing better to do than wreak ‘round-the-clock havoc on said upstanding citizen's designated symbols of stability: wife, child, home, job, reputation, household pet; you’d think I’d be able to recall at least one or two of these shopworn narratives told from the perspective of said “homewrecker.” Certainly if for no other reason than to provide some insight into what these often vibrant, attractive women see in these dull, unprepossessing, ethically challenged men to begin with.

In summary, the premise of the little-seen 1971 suspense drama One of Those Things (a Danish film with an exclusively British and Japanese cast) reads like just another—albeit very early—entry in the “domestic stalker” cycle of thrillers that hit their popularity stride following the success of 1987’s Fatal Attraction. But lurking behind post-sexual revolution cautionary tale for the Viagra set is in fact a psychologically astute, unexpectedly dark examination of the principle of conspicuous ethics vs. unobserved morality. All trussed up in the melodramatic trappings of the erotic thriller and crime mystery.
Judy Geeson as Susanne Strauss
Roy Dotrice as Henrik Vinter
Zena Walker as Berit Vinter
Frederick Jaeger as Melchoir
Geoffrey Chater as Mr. Falck
Forty-something Henrik Vinter (Roy Dotrice) is the respectable, upright, newly-appointed director of a Danish automobile assembly plant. Harried and ambitious, Henrik is nevertheless blessed with a comfortable apartment he shares with his loving wife, adorable child, and cuddly dog. Best of all, hardworking Henrik’s role in his company’s merger with a Japanese car firm has afforded this devoted family man the long-hoped-for opportunity to leave apartment-dwelling behind and build a home in Copenhagen’s tony Bellevue district. Yes, Henrik is a fine figure of a decent, upstanding citizen whose life reflects the core values of the success ethic.
That is, if appearances count for anything.

In reality, Henrik’s wife Berit (Zena Walker) is a dipsomaniac suffering from neglect born of Henrik's wholesale absorption in his work; at his job his success is resentfully tolerated by friend and co-worker Melchoir (Frederick Jaeger), who was narrowly passed over for the very promotion Henrik bagged; and Henrik himself, though he doesn’t yet know it, balances on the brink of a crisis of character.

Henrik Vinter sees himself as a good, moral man, a self-image both supported and reinforced by those around him. That he unquestioningly sustains this higher sense of self in the face of moral and ethical contradictions (he dissociates himself from the “business as usual” legal duplicity he engages in on a daily basis, and is casually racist when speaking of his Asian business partners), proves to be the tragic flaw that sets in motion a chain of events which ultimately leave Henrik wondering if he ever knew himself at all.
"Can you see me?"
"Are you there at all?"
One of the wonderful things about movies is that every social movement and subtle shift in culture mores tends to bring about a subliminal, unconscious “response” in the content and focus of films. The confluence of the sexual revolution and the women’s movement in the late 1960s brought about a rash of mainstream films indicative of the middle-aged male’s unease with the shifting sexual paradigm. Where it was once common to depict men as sexual adventurers and women as passive targets of desire, the newfound sexual licence afforded women after "the pill" was represented as something threatening and destructive to the status quo in films like 1969s Three Into Two Won’t Go (also starring Judy Geeson), Play Misty for Me (1971), and Something to Hide (1972). Even a period film like Clint Eastwood’s The Beguiled (1971) succumbed to the trap of only being able to picture women with sexual agency as threats to men.
One Of Those Things definitely qualifies as archetypal male angst melodrama, but like the characters themselves, there’s more going on here than what initially meets the eye.
Heihachiro Okawa (Bridge on the River Kwai) as Mr. Kawasaki

Always known as one willing to do what's necessary to ensure the proper outcome in a business deal, Henrik’s straight-as-an-arrow life path takes a fateful detour one night when, despondent over his wife bailing on an important business dinner, he accepts an invitation from a beautiful young woman named Susanne (Geeson) to attend a “hippie” hash (hashish) party on the outskirts of town. Ultimately unable to really let himself go, it isn't long before Henrik’s judgmental instincts (“I mean, this is what it all adds up to? The hair, the pot, be neutral, be uninvolved, do nothing, want nothing, believe in nothing?”) clash with the more easygoing vibes of his impromptu hosts (Susanne dubs him “Nowhere Man”), sending Henrik out into the stormy night in a borrowed car, eager to make his way to a train station and a return to a world more familiar.
Alas, the combination of low visibility, a malfunctioning automobile, and an unseen bicyclist result in a fatal hit and run accident. But rather than going back to the house and reporting the incident (an accident, ironically, for which no blame to either party could be ascribed), Henrik, relying on darkness and anonymity to conceal the truth, chooses to continue on his course home; hopeful that the mess will somehow take care of itself, grateful to have no witnesses to the unfortunate even. If Henrik is shaken at all, which he is, it's important that it remain indiscernibly so to others. Working in his favor is the fact that in the realm of moral displacement, feelings of remorse and the fear of detection both look very much the same.  
"Remember me?"
Henrik's past catches up with him

Just when it looks as though his actions will bear no consequences, out of nowhere—as if summoned by an innate need in Henrik to punish himself because no one else will—(re)appears Susanne. She knows of what he’s done (“I’d have done the same in your place”), has no interest in money (“That would be blackmail”), but is not above resorting to a bit of subtle coercion and upfront extortion to parlay the incriminating knowledge she possesses into a press secretary job at his firm.

If Henrik initially thinks the granting of a close-proximity job to this total stranger is a small price to pay for her silence, he soon comes to learn that the cost to his peace of mind is one far dearer. Susanne immediately embarks upon an aggressive, ever-escalating campaign of seduction, stalking, and harassment which appears orchestrated to bring about nothing less than the total destruction of Henrik’s marriage, reputation, and professional standing. But does her denial of malicious intent (“I don’t want to ruin you. I just want to get to know you.”) hint that perhaps the motives behind her actions have more to do with the reclamation of his soul than revenge on his actions? 
In the Middle
Perpetually guilty-looking, the object of office gossip, and suspected of not being able
 to handle his work duties, Henrik's once-stable life begins to crumble beneath him

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM 
Directed and produced by Danish filmmaker Erik Balling, One Of Those Things is based on the 1968 novel Haeneligt Uheld by Anders Bodelsen (Haeneligt Uheld roughly translates as Accidentally Accidental or Incidental Accident - which is when an accident occurs for which no one is at fault). Anders Bodelsen, who co-wrote the film’s screenplay with director Erik Balling, is a popular author of contemporary crime thrillers whose themes often involve characters grappling with morality vs. materialism. Although not particularly well-known in this country, one of his novels was the source for the brilliant but underrated 1978 thriller The Silent Partner starring Elliot Gould, Susannah York, and Christopher Plummer. If you’ve never seen it, I highly recommend. 
"I'm not a toy to be played with. And you're not capable of playing that game anyway."

One Of Those Things was filmed in 1971, but according to IMDB, it didn’t make its way to these shores until 1974. If it did, it did so way under my radar, for I have no memory of its release at all, although I recall seeing a trade ad for it in Variety or The Hollywood Reporter. Considered something of a “lost film,” I came across it just a year ago, drawn by my fondness for actress Judy Geeson (To Sir With Love, Berserk) and suspense thrillers in which women propel the action of the plot rather than serve as victims or prey.
While more of a psychological character piece than an out-and-out thriller, One Of Those Things is a pretty gripping ride as Geeson’s character (compellingly played, but no more fleshed out than the usual Destroying Angel type in movies like this) is a genuine enigma and force to be reckoned with. And while I enjoyed the suspense and melodramatic elements of the film a great deal, I was more than pleasantly surprised to find them to be in service of darker, more thought-provoking themes relating to character and the imperceptible nature of moral erosion.
Sobering News
A theme particularly pertinent in today’s socio-political climate of moral relativism and the-end-justifies-the-means self-rationalizations, One Of Those Things examines the concept of “visible morality” vs. “authentic morality”: self-identification as a moral person based on the external, superficial appearance of goodness vs. what one is genuinely capable of when no one is looking.
It’s like that old schoolbook ethics debate about the driver who claims “entrapment” when ticketed for speeding through a stop sign when a police car is concealed behind a billboard (twisted logic: Had the police car had been visible, the driver wouldn’t have done the wrong thing).

Automobiles and their potential for accidental harm serve as a dynamic visual motif in One Of Those Things, a film shot in the flat, pedestrian tile of television movies yet enlivened by a nicely-modulated tension and mounting sense of unease. The smart script, which never tells you how you should feel about these characters, engages the viewer in unexpected ways. For example, just when the film has really drawn us into the complex dynamics of the almost kinky antagonism between Henrik and Susanne, Susanne startles Henrik (and implicates us, the viewer) by asking: “Do you ever think of the man we killed?” (it was with her borrowed car). In that moment we’re caught off guard because, in allowing ourselves to be swept up in the excitement and suspense of the erotic thriller plot, have we, like Henrik, not given much thought to the fact that someone has died?
This kind of narrative slight-of-hand is typical of One Of Those Things, as our sympathies for the two not-particularly-likable leads shifts from scene to scene. 
"Getting angry suits you. It's almost as if you were here."

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
The final image in the film turns out to be a succinct visual metaphor of all that came before: a character peers through the colored glass of a bottle and looks out at a distorted, hazy image of a world from which they are emotionally alienated. For a movie this visually undistinguished, One Of Those Things is fairly spot-on in cleverly enlisting the motifs of sight, vision, and perception to underscore its themes of moral relativity.

In one of the film's many instances of black comedy, several weeks after the accident, Henrik is forced to appear on television as a representative of his automobile company. His pathetic attempt to conceal his identity is so conspicuous it turns out to be precisely how Susanne is able to track him down.
"It's strange...there you were hiding in your dark glasses. All it did was make you
 look more like yourself than ever.
"

One of Those Things's central dramatic conflict confronts how the conspicuous ethics of those society views as persons of principle can be compromised (if not outright betrayed) when unobserved. These days it has become almost a social cliche to discover that the married, anti-gay legislator is a closet case with a male lover on the side, or the bible-thumping, "family values" politician to be a morally corrupt adulterer. But this doesn't mean we've grown any more savvy in understanding human nature, nor does it explain why we so persistently cling to the false notion that anything which makes a human being valuable is something perceptible to the eye. 
Behind Closed Doors
When Susanne breaks out the party favors, Henrik's uptight neighbors 

(Ann Firbank & Frederick Jaeger) unleash their wanton side

PERFORMANCES
In speaking of One Of Those Things, director Erik Balling observed: “It did not really appeal to an American audience. It was too slow and too nice. It wore a grey suit and never went to the kind of extremes they’re used to over there. It came across a bit too serene.”  
Which, if indeed anybody in America actually got to see it, is a pretty accurate description of what might be viewed as the film’s limitations. I, for one, am grateful for the lack of boiling bunnies or butcher knife standoffs, for One Of Those Things is at its most persuasive when the camera simply captures the subtle interplay of emotions on the actors’ faces. 
Like so many others of my generation, I developed a crush on Judy Geeson when I saw her in To Sir, With Love. Since then I’ve enjoyed her work immensely over the years (10 Rillington Place), even when the material was far beneath her talent. Often categorized as the quintessential Swinging ‘60s British London dolly bird, she was nevertheless an actress who, as someone once astutely observed, “didn’t do ‘dumb’” and brought considerable intelligence and emotional heft to many an underwritten role.
Playing a role in One Of Those Things that is in many ways similar to the character she played in Three Into Two Won’t Go (in which we’re asked to endure the sci-fi absurdity of Geeson and the exquisite Claire Bloom squaring off over the pasty, dough-boy charms of Rod Steiger [Mr. Claire Bloom in real life]); Geeson gives a remarkably strong and nuanced performance, one of my all-time favorites of hers, in fact. She gets bonus points for making flesh-and-blood a character who, as written, needs to be enigmatic, but whose behavior too often crosses over into incomprehensible. 
Beyond his role in Milos Foreman's Amadeus, I'm less familiar than I should be with the work of the late Tony, BAFTA, and Grammy-winning Shakespearean actor Roy Dotrice, but if his performance here is any indication, I've been missing out on a lot. I'm astounded at the skill of an actor being able to mine the tortured humanity in such a complex and conflicted character, all the while conveying--very clearly-- the internal struggle of a Nowhere Man. The scenes he shares with Geeson are such forceful emotional jousting matches that I initially thought the film was adapted from a stage play. They make quite a tense, high-strung pair.  
Roy Dotrice is the father of actress Karen Dotrice, best known as Jane Banks in
Mary Poppins (1964)- here with Matthew Garber

THE STUFF OF FANTASY 
Someone once said that the human tendency to plan, organize and structure is but man’s way of dealing with the terrifying realization that a great many life-altering events occur by accident. These accidents are often neutral in nature, neither bad nor good, with nothing or no one at fault save for the fact that life has to be lived and life can’t be lived without error.
This theme flows like an undercurrent throughout One Of Those Things, and perhaps in the hands of a more inventive director it would have been applied in ways that enriched the storytelling and gave more depth to the characters.
One of the things the film does perfectly is establish a visual pattern of risk and potential danger. People are forever sitting on narrow ledges, near dangerous machinery, or, as pictured here, atop perilous heights. 

As it is, One Of Those Things is a structurally flawed film (it's always successful in balancing the mix of drama, black comedy, and suspense) I found to be a very effective, very welcome ‘70s discovery. A well-executed throwback melodrama of engaging period-specific details (hippies, drug use, The Beatles, and Geeson’s mini-skirted wardrobe) and considerable suspense and emotional tension. It’s no unearthed classic, and it takes a while to get used to all those Danish locations and names, yet everyone speaking with crisp, British or Japanese accents (the latter third actually takes place in Japan); but none of this distracts from One Of Those Things being a fine, thought-provoking genre film that I hope one day gets a legitimate DVD release. 
(It occasionally pops up on YouTube, or fuzzy VHS-burned-to-disc copies are available through sites like Modcinema or iOffer.)


BONUS MATERIAL
Roy Dotrice as the disapproving Leopold Mozart in Milos Forman's Amadeus (1984), 1985 Best Picture Academy Award winner.

Copyright © Ken Anderson