Tuesday, December 25, 2012


Late in the summer of 1973, just around the time I and most of America were in the throes of a pop-cultural mania sparked by the powerhouse release of The Exorcist, the delectably tense drawing-room thriller Night Watch, was sneaked into Bay Area theaters without benefit of fanfare or much in the way of advance publicity. 

This was at the height of Elizabeth Taylor’s and Richard Burton’s waning relevance as both movie stars and tabloid darlings, theirs having been a ten-year reign of bad publicity, bad behavior, and bad films together the sublime Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? notwithstandingculminating in a final tandem screen appearance in the 1973 two-part TV-movie “Special Event” prophetically titled: Divorce His – Divorce Hers (their 10-year marriage would end the following year). Like most everyone else at the time, I had grown pretty tired of hearing about the ubiquitous “Liz & Dick”Hollywood’s answer to Orthrus, the mythological two-headed beastwhose conspicuous private life excesses had long overshadowed any merit I once accorded their professional talents. Off my personal radar for some time, I hadn't seen Elizabeth Taylor in a movie since 1968’s Secret Ceremony (which I loved), but when I saw the newspaper ad for Night Watch, I knew I HAD to see this movie.
I'm sorry, but how was it possible for anybody to resist this image of a windswept, heavily-mascaraed, Liz Taylor melodramatically clutching her head while lightning flashed overhead and two shadowy figures appear in spooky silhouette in the windows of a creepy Gothic mansion? OMG! This is marketing perfection! I practically camped out in front of the theater waiting for it to open.

Based on playwright Lucille Fletcher’s (Sorry, Wrong Number) moderately successful 1972 Broadway play starring Joan Hackett and future Taylor co-star Len Cariou ( A Little Night Music - 1977), Night Watch, on the surface, treads territory familiar to those acquainted with George Cukor’s Gaslight (1944) or any of those “Is she crazy or is she being driven crazy?” thrillers like Midnight Lace (1960), Diabolique (1955), and Sudden Fear (1952).
Elizabeth Taylor as Ellen Wheeler
Laurence Harvey as John Wheeler
Billie Whitelaw as Sarah Cooke

Idle and wealthy Ellen Wheeler (Taylor), the neglected wife of loving but desperate-to-prove-he’s-not-living-off-her, workaholic husband, John (Harvey), is still, after eight years, haunted by memories of her first husband’s death: a violent automobile crash that also took the life of his 20-year-old mistress. After suffering a crippling breakdown, Ellen has since been plagued by nightly bouts of insomnia, and subtly treated as a mentally fragile time-bomb by both her husband and her visiting girlhood friend, Sarah (Whitelaw). 
On one particularly stormy night vigil, with too little sleep and too many inner demons to battle (and there are a LOT of rainstorms in this London-based thriller), Ellen glances out the window to the abandoned house across the courtyard and sees, in a flash of lightning and flurry of storm-tossed shutters, the horrifying image of a man with a slashed throat propped grotesquely in a wing-back chair situated close to the window. When a police search of the old dark house fails to unearth even a trace of habitation, let alone evidence of foul play, John and Sarah’s concern for Ellen’s mental state intensifies. Meanwhile, Ellen herself grows increasingly convinced that what she saw was real.
I don’t tend to think of myself as someone drawn to a particular type of film, but truth be told, I confess to having a decided weakness for suspense thrillers. Unfortunately, the flip side of being a film fan any length of time is a growing over-familiarity with certain narrative tropes and plot devices. A too-steady diet of suspense thrillers can wreak havoc with the ability to find a film you can't second guess or stay one step ahead of. As movie genres go, the suspense thriller (and its attendant sub-categories: the psychological thriller, the mystery, the whodunit, the erotic thriller, the sci-fi chiller) is one of the last strongholds of cinema amazement. Thus I really relish it when, as is the case of Night Watch, a movie so narratively conventional on the surface can still have so many sinister surprises up its sleeve.
"That's what the watchers of the night are for. Things that in daytime are unknown and unremembered."

As a lifelong insomniac familiar with the kind of subtle disquiet that can creep into the soul in the wee small hours of the morning, I have to say first and foremost I love the film’s title. To “Night Watch” is a perfect description of what it feels like to be wide awake when the vast majority of those around you are asleep. It feels like you’re standing metaphysical guard against your id playing havoc with all those subterranean thoughts and repressed terrors your ego holds so reliably in check during the daylight hours. Secondly, I found myself totally caught up in the way Night Watch uses the conventions of the Modern Gothic to construct a persuasively suspense-filled thriller built around the uncertainty of perception. This film is full of games of truth and illusion more deceptive (and far deadlier) than any of those employed by Albee’s George and Martha. 
"If the mind is obsessed enough with something it can actually produce an image on the retina. 
It has a name...it's called an 'eidetic image'."

With but a few exceptions, most of my favorite actresses have tried their hand at the suspense thriller. Meryl Streep – Still of the Night; Audrey Hepburn – Wait Until Dark; Sandy Dennis – That Cold Day in the Park; Julie Christie – Don't Look Now; Jane Fonda – Klute; Lauren Bacall – The Fan; Susannah York – Images; Faye Dunaway - Eyes of Laura Mars; …even such unlikely candidates as Goldie Hawn (Deceived) and Twiggy (W). In this, her sole foray into the world of scream queens, daggers, and red herrings, Elizabeth Taylor is to the manner born. 
Movies like this tend to fall apart if the audience is unable to identify with or relate to a character's dilemma. Elizabeth Taylor, an actress of fragile appearance masking a steely core,  brings a considerable amount of verisimilitude to her character, making Ellen's deteriorating mental state both believable and compelling. She is given solid support by the talented, exclusively British, cast, but Taylor holds the whole thing together by making her terror seem debilitatingly real. Perhaps this is due to Taylor, an actress who has played characters created by Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, and Carson McCullers; not being an individual we consider to be a stranger to hysterics.
Cracking Up

Reunited with her Butterfield 8 co-star, Laurence Harvey (only 45-years-old at the time, but exhibiting the wasting effects of the stomach cancer that would take his life only four months after the film’s release), Taylor is simply terrific as the high-strung witness to a possible murder no one believes really happened. Like late-career Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, late-career Elizabeth Taylor is often a matter of taste. Those having a problem with her impossible-to-ignore star persona, fluctuating weight gain (sometimes mid-film), designer caftans, and unique vocal style (she’ll insert pauses and stress emphasis in the most unexpected places) are not likely to be persuaded by her work here. Me, I think she’s the tops, and in Night Watch she gives a spellbindingly intense performance that's revealed to be even sharper and subtler upon repeat viewings.
The icy reserve of Billie Whitelaw (who would later terrify as the menacing nanny, 
Mrs. Baylock, in The Omen) contrasts effectively with Taylor's more earthy vulnerability.
Suspiciously conciliatory neighbor Mr. Appleby (Robert Lang) directs Ellen's attention
 to something in the window of the abandoned house next door.

At first glance, Night Watch looks like a derivative catalog of hoary horror film clichés. And, well…it is. There’s the woman in distress; the incessant thunderstorms with well-timed lightning flashes; the old dark house; the ludicrously skeptical friends and annoyingly unhelpful police; the red herring assortment of suspicious characters with dubious motives; the non-stop entreaties to “calm down” or “get some sleep” - they’re all there.
Bill Dean as Inspector Walker
It’s only later, when you start to realize how much your expectations have been intentionally manipulated, does it begin to sink in how cleverly Night Watch works audience familiarity with the conventions of the genre to it its advantage. It's a tight, well-paced thriller that deftly builds its suspense by playing with the audience's mind as cleverly as it plays with that of Taylor's character. 
Things That Make You Go Hmmm
Why would someone be digging a hole in the garden in the middle of the night? Night Watch takes
fiendish delight in throwing traditional horror film elements into the mix of a suspense thriller.

I was 15-years-old when I saw Night Watch, and even after the nerve-wracking horror of The Exorcist, the PG-rated Night Watch scared the hell out of me. Seeing it now some 30 years later, not only does it really hold up as a crackerjack thriller that plays fair with its surprises and twists (it’s one of those rare thrillers – like Hitchcock’s – that keeps paying dividends the more you see it), but there’s the added bonus of the whole '70s feel of  it. 
La Liz, not having an easy go of it

For those uninterested in taking either Elizabeth Taylor or the film seriously, Night Watch has much to recommend it in camp appeal for the terrifically glossy '70s look of the whole thing. There's Taylor at her 1973 diva best, photographed flatteringly and sporting a host of conceal/reveal '70s finery. There is much to take in visually, from big hairstyles, glam makeup, bulky jewelry, turtlenecks, positively enormous sideburns, wide ties, and even an ascot.
Though rarely referenced and seen by very few, Night Watch is one of my favorite thrillers. I'd recommend it to anyone with a fondness for the magnificent Elizabeth Taylor, or for anyone interested in atypical curios from this favored actress's career.

Happily, the Warners Archive Collection DVD has been beautifully remastered and is a huge improvement over the exceedingly dark, pan and scan VHS release from several years back. Scenes once taking place in near-total darkness (those who've seen the film know what I mean) are startlingly clear. Also, and I might be misremembering here, but I thought there was once a terrible George Barrie / Sammy Cahn theme song played over the end credits that has since been removed (hooray!). I see the song exists in the IMDB credits (title: "The Night Has Many Eyes") and I seem to recall it being sung by a Tom Jones sound-alike. In any event, my recollection of it was that it was 100% not the kind of MOR Sinatra-esque ditty you wanted to be played after the jolting finale of this thriller. It reminds me of Henry Mancini's equally mood-killing and inappropriate "love theme" from Wait Until Dark.
Night Watch reunited Taylor with her Butterfield 8 (1960) co-star, Laurence Harvey.

Note: I usually try to mix up the kind of films I write about each month, but in looking over my posts for December, I'm pretty sure the preponderance of thriller/suspense films represented this month (Carrie, Eye of the Cat, Night Watch) is in direct response to all that sugary, family-oriented programming one is subjected to on television during the holiday season. However, the highlighting of two Elizabeth Taylor films (A Little Night Music and Night Watch) is without a doubt an attempt on my part to divest myself of the memory of that Lindsay Lohan  "Liz & Dick" TV movie which aired on Lifetime last month. Boy, talk about your horror films! 
They cast WHO to portray me?

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2012

Friday, December 21, 2012


Why this nifty little thriller is so forgotten and nowhere to be found today is a mystery. It's really a rather intriguing, if sometimes uneven, attempt at mixing Hitchcockian suspense with the kind of supernatural theater of the macabre one might associate with an old episode of Night Gallery. Prior to its release in theaters, Universal Studios generated considerable public interest with TV ads which prominently featured a scene depicting a little old lady in a runaway wheelchair careening helplessly towards traffic (backwards yet!) down a particularly precipitous slope of one of San Francisco's many hills. As a San Francisco resident at the time, these commercials made Eye of the Cat the must-see movie of the summer of '69 as far as I was concerned.
This one scene, which owes more than a passing nod to Hitchcock, is enough to make Eye of the Cat a must-see

To clarify, said “little old lady” is three-time Oscar-nominee Eleanor Parker, who was just 46 at the time. Although unfamiliar to me then, Parker, this being just four years after her glamorous turn as the Baroness inThe Sound of Music, was another talented actress "of a certain age" (a la Jennifer Jones, Joan Crawford, Lana Turner, Bette Davis, and Tallulah Bankhead) who found herself prematurely relegated to “horror hag” roles in youth-centric '60s thrillers that took as a given audiences finding women over the age of 30 to be as grotesque as Hollywood apparently did.
Eye of the Cat was one of the earliest films to exploit the subtle malevolence and flagrant creep-out factor of packs of animals. A trend that blossomed into a full-blown horror sub-genre in the '70s with films like Willard, Empire of the Ants, Kingdom of the Spiders, and the laughably non-threatening Night of the Lepus (giant bunnies!). I saw Eye of the Cat at San Francisco's Embassy Theater on Market Street, and could hardly contain my anticipation. Not being much of a fan of cats (that has since changed) the movie fairly gave me the willies, and, in short, scared the hell out of me...but that didn't stop me from sitting through it three times.
Gayle Hunnicutt as Kassia Lancaster
"Just another beautiful girl with all the wrong values."
Michael Sarrazin as Wylie
"In good mirrors you can see that once I was disastrously beautiful." 
Eleanor Parker as Aunt Danielle (Aunt Danny)
"Nowadays you can't depend on natural causes."
Tim Henry as Luke
"It's not a good idea to take cats lightly."
Joseph Stefano, screenwriter of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, penned this original screenplay about feline seductress Kassia Lancaster (“It sounds like a cell door slamming shut.”) and her plot to secure the fortune of an ailing San Francisco matron (Parker) by returning to the lonely dowager her beloved derelict nephew, Wylie (Sarrazin), and arranging for her subsequent murder once her will has been altered in his favor. Danielle (or Aunt Danny as she's affectionately/derisively known) is a near-invalid suffering from acute emphysema and lives in a cavernous San Francisco mansion with Wylie’s younger brother, Luke (newcomer Tim Henry), who waits on her in apathetic servitude, and roughly a hundred overprotective cats, the sole benefactors of her will. Kassia's diabolical plan hits a major snag when it's discovered that Wylie, the linchpin of the whole operation, is plagued by crippling ailurophobia: a deathly fear of cats.
In addition to this feline homage to Psycho, Eye of the Cat features an atmospheric
score by Lalo Schifrin (Cool Hand Luke) with Bernard Herrmann overtones

Eye of the Cat is not really the “When Good Animals Go Bad” creature-features thriller its title would suggest (a plus, I might add) but rather an intriguing attempt to modernize those murder and passion crime thrillers that once typified film noir (Gayle Hunnicutt, with mounds of big, '60s hair, is a terrifically ruthless femme fatale) combined with the supernatural chill-thrill of say, classic horror of Val Lewton (Cat People). I’d like to report the experiment was wholly successful, but it kind of loses steam in the middle, only to end just as it’s becoming the shuddery thrill ride it should have been all along. Perhaps in more resourceful hands than those of director David Lowell Rich (The Concord… Airport ’79, need I say more?), Stefano’s somewhat colorless script could have lived up to the promise of the film’s sensational (silent) pre-credits sequence.
Eye of the Cat gets off to a very winning start by way of a stylish expository pre-credits sequence that mirrors the
collage/split-screen opening sequence of The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) and predates Brian De Palmas's subsequent appropriation of the stylized visual device

The raw material is certainly there: an enigmatic villainess; the San Francisco setting (a wonderful city for thrillers—the picturesque angles of all those hills never fails to unsettle); the misleadingly simple murder scheme; the probable subterfuge and concealed motives behind virtually each action engaged in by every character at all times; and the fascination of cats and their inherent mystery. But perhaps it's because there IS such a rich mine of suspense/chiller material to vein that makes one wish Joseph Stefano's script were more up to the task set forth by the premise. Luckily, Eye of the Cat's gratuitously cryptic dialogue is delivered by a better-than-average cast, all of whom appear gleefully game for this kind of psycho-fright stuff; and the enjoyably peevish malevolence at the heart of the story greatly mitigates Mr. Stefano's penchant for trying to generate mystery by leaving his characters and their motivations underdeveloped and unexplored to a maddening degree.
A Way With The Older Ladies
That's Mark Herron, Judy Garland's 4th husband (2nd gay husband, for those keeping score) sporting the ankh pendant and parakeet green Nehru jacket. He has a small role as Belomondo, the owner of an elite San Francisco beauty salon

Canines (the four-legged kind) can be scary in real life, but for a dog to scare me onscreen, it has to be either one of those dogs with a face like a fist (a Rottweiler or a Pit Bull) or one of those wolf-snout dogs like in Samuel Fuller's White Dog. Cats, on the other hand, merely have to be themselves. Cute or creepy, cats introduce an element of uncertainty just by showing up, and they always appear to be operating under their own mysterious, sinister agendas. This calls to mind a Night Gallery episode I once saw that made use of a quote from Samuel Butler’s novel, Erewhon: “Even a potato in a dark cellar has a certain low cunning about him which serves him in excellent stead.” If ever two words perfectly summed up my impression of cats, it’s the words “low cunning.”
 Pussy Galore
The animal wrangler/trainer for the armies of felines used in Eye of the Cat is the late Ray Berwick, who also served as the bird trainer on Hitchcock's The Birds. In 1986 Berwick shared his techniques in the well-received book The Complete Guide to Training Your Cat.

My long-held distrust of cats played into the effectiveness of Eye of the Cat the same way a childhood spent in Catholic schools played into my enjoyment of Rosemary’s Baby the year before: it wasn't compulsory, but it helped. And what I like about both films is that in their basic structure, they work perfectly fine whether one buys into the supernatural angle or not.
Eye of the Cat generates genuine tension as a crime caper thriller, keeps you guessing as a psychological suspense flick, and works your nerves as a supernatural horror film about potentially pernicious pussycats. With so many plots to juggle, Eye of the Cat can perhaps be forgiven the mood-killing miscalculations of throwing in an obligatory '60s party scene and a lengthy “love montage.” (For some reason, the '70s was the era of the romantic montage. This cheap and economic go-to device for writers unable to plausibly convey a developing romance has ground many a promising film to a grinding halt. Perhaps the worse offender being Clint Eastwood’s 1971 directorial debut, Play Misty for Me, in which a pretty good suspense thriller takes a 20-minute nap while Clint gives us a Carmel, California travelogue and infomercial for The Monterey Jazz Festival.)
What's New, Pussycat?

As a longtime fan of glamorous tough broads in movies, it’s obvious why Gayle Hunnicutt’s Kassia Lancaster is my favorite character in the film. She states early on, “I’m not afraid of anything!” and spends the rest of the movie proving it. Dangerous, self-assured, authoritative, and without a doubt the strongest, smartest character in the film; female characters of her stripe would become extremely rare in the '70s as male-dominated “buddy films” grew in popularity. The fantastic-looking Gayle Hunnicutt gives an assured performance whose measured severity plays nicely off of Michael Sarrazin's more easygoing passivity.
I love that we're introduced to Kassia as she's licking her fingers
 and grooming herself like a cat

Eleanor Parker looks wonderful and is very good in an underwritten part which casts her unsympathetically with little foundation. Typed as a salacious older woman, Parker certainly doesn't embarrass herself as Jennifer Jones did in a similar role in Angel, Angel, Down We Go that same year, but in having already played a horny older woman on the make in 1965's The Oscar, one wishes the ceaselessly classy actress had found something else to do if this was the only kind of role Hollywood was throwing her way.
The loss of two-thirds of her lung tissue barely puts a crimp in Aunt Danielle's libidinous, incestuous urges. Here she's seen languishing in that oxygen tent from Harlow in what appears to be the bed from (I'm sure intentionally) Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

I love a thriller that keeps me guessing, and Eye of the Cat is splendid at throwing so many red herrings and false clues into the pot that no matter where you think the film is headed, it veers elsewhere. But as good a film as it is, and as much as I found it scary and suitably creepy as a pre-teen, I'd be lying if I said that the prodigious amount of male flesh on display in Eye of the Cat didn't in part inspire those multiple viewings at The Embassy back in 1969.

 Perhaps in an effort to convey his character's freewheeling ways, Michael Sarrazin spends a great deal of the film shirtless or with nudity artfully concealed. Similarly, dreamboat material co-star Tim Henry (bottom pic with Eleanor Parker) adds a touch of homoerotic interest to a film already overflowing with adultery, promiscuity and possible incest. Hooray for Hollywood in the '60s!

A highlight of Eye of the Cat are its photogenic San Francisco locations. From The Birds, to Vertigo, to What's Up, Doc?, movies shot in San Francisco invariably gain nostalgia points from me. Eye of the Cat makes good use of locales that establish a dynamic sense of time and place.
A rear-projection shot of San Francisco's Market Street. To the left, the Paris Adult Theater
Vina Del Mar Park in Sausalito, just across the Golden Gate Bridge.
The park was a big hippie hangout in the late '60s

The site of the film's centerpiece scene is the ritzy Pacific Heights district of San Francisco. Specifically the hill on Octavia Street and Washington beside the landmark 1912 Spreckles Mansion. The top photo is as it appears today, below, a screencap showing how the wall looked before the overgrown hedges.

Eye of the Cat is no classic, but it's a dynamo of a thriller that doesn't deserve its relative obscurity. It certainly holds up for me after all these years, and still packs a punch despite my having overcome my own youthful antipathy toward cats.
"They do come back...."
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Sunday, December 16, 2012


My introduction to Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music came in 1973 when I blindly purchased the Original Broadway Cast LP solely on the strength of my passionate adoration for his timeless scores to the Broadway shows, Company and Follies. I say blindly because, despite my mini-fandom of Sondheim (that same year I’d dragged my family to see The Last of Sheila simply because I’d heard Sondheim collaborated on the script with actor Tony Perkins), I really knew nothing about A Little Night Music at all. I was then-unaware of the 1955 Ingmar Bergman film upon which it is based —Smiles of a Summer Night; I didn't know anything about its content or structure, or whether it was a dramatic musical or comedy; and of course, I hadn't heard a note of the music (I know it’s hard to imagine now, but there was actually a time when not every man, woman and child had a recording of Send in the Clowns in release).
A Little Night Music sets the proper fairy tale tone by using a theatrical staging of the musical as a framing device that casts the principals in the evening's romantic roundelay as "players" in a turn-of-the-century operetta. Careful attention should be paid to the myriad couplings and uncouplings in Patricia Birch's gloriously gliding waltz choreography, for it reveals the entirety of the film's plot. 

But here is an instance of ignorance most assuredly proving to be bliss, for in purchasing the cast album without benefit of foreknowledge, I was granted the ultimate gift of being introduced to A Little Night Music as a purely musical experience. And for a Sondheim fan, what could be better? As a show, A Little Night Music is a perfectly charming little sex farce, perhaps one of the best of its stripe; but for me, its strongest suit has always been Sondheim’s lushly romantic score. Consisting entirely of intricate waltz-time melodies with witty lyrics full of astoundingly clever wordplay, Sondheim’s compositions for A Little Night Music are among the best of his illustrious career.
By the time the film adaptation of A Little Night Music opened for a limited engagement at San Francisco’s Castro Theater in 1977, I had not as yet seen a stage production (that wouldn't be until some 30 years later) but having all but worn out the grooves on my Broadway cast LP and committed the entire score to memory, I would say that I was more than primed for the event. 
Elizabeth Taylor as Desiree Armfeldt
Diana Rigg as Charlotte Mittelheim
Lesley-Anne Down as Anne Egerman
Hermione Gingold as Madame Armfeldt
Len Cariou as Frederick Egerman
Laurence Guittard as Carl-Magnus Mittelheim
Like an intricate waltz in which the participants continually and imperceptibly change partners, A Little Night Music is a lyric dance of desire in which lovers, paired by fate, and with varying degrees of success, try to manipulate the circumstances of their lives.

In turn-of-the-century Austria, stage actress Desiree Armfeldt (Taylor), wearying of her life on the road away from daughter Fredericka (the superb Chloe Franks), hatches a plot to marry former lover Frederick Egerman (Cariou). Obstacles: Frederick has recently wed the beautiful but rather shallow Anne (Lesley-Anne Down), his 18-year-old love who, after 11 months of marriage, still guards her virginity; Desiree herself is the mistress of the jealously possessive and much-married military dragoon Carl-Magnus (Guittard), whose shrewd and embittered wife (Diana Rigg) is Anne’s old school chum; and, adding to the mix, Erich Egerman, Frederick's son from a previous marriage (Christopher Guard) is tortuously in love with Anne, his stepmother.
An orchestrated string of comic contrivances results in this amorously antsy group (which also includes a randy housemaid and a handsome manservant [Lesley Dunlop & Heinz Marecek]) converging for a weekend at the country estate of retired courtesan Mme. Armfeldt (Gingold) who just also happens to be Desiree’s mother.
Self-serious seminary student Erich Egerman struggles to resist entrapment in one of "the devil's snares" in the form of Petra the housemaid. Ironically, in real-life, actors Christopher Guard and Lesley Dunlop became a couple after meeting on this film.
A Little Night Music is the stuff of classic romantic farce played out with considerable charm and wit by an engaging cast in eye-poppingly sumptuous costumes and surroundings. And interwoven amongst the sometimes heartbreaking follies of these lost and searching fools upon whom the summer night is hoped to smile, is Stephen Sondheim’s breathtaking music (lushly orchestrated to Oscar-winning effect by Jonathan Tunick who appears briefly as the conductor for the operetta that opens the film).
In the 1978 Harold Robbins camp-fest The Betsy, British actress Lesley-Anne Down displayed her versatility in taking on a role the polar-opposite to that of child-bride Anne Egerman in A Little Night Music. Personal fave: 1981's Sphinx, where Down plays the world's most improbable Egyptologist.

Translating a beloved stage musical to the screen is largely a thankless job, for one would have to attend a comic book convention to find fans more vociferously persnickety and proprietary than theater geeks.
And while I've suffered my share of gut-wrenching disappointments at seeing some beloved stage show bowdlerized on the screen (cue Sir Richard Attenborough’s lame-legged A Chorus Line), I always concede to the fact that film and stage are entirely different mediums and a movie musical has to stand on its own distinct merits, not on how faithfully it translates its source material.
I’m in a small camp on this one, I know, but I find A Little Night Music to be a marvelous movie musical. One that I'm well aware fans of the stage show consider to be something of a disaster. I'm not denying its flaws (even the filmmakers admit that pressures of time and budget made certain compromises necessary), but for pure screen pleasure and taking delight in wonderful actors, beautiful music, and a sharp, funny screenplay, A Little Night Music is a most diverting and glorious entertainment.
"The night smiles three times at the follies of human beings: First for the young who know nothing; the second, for the fools who know too little; and the third, for the old, who know too much."

My lack of a theatrical frame of reference no doubt played a large part in why I fell so hard for this imperfect, yet thoroughly delightful film, just as did the circumstances of my seeing it (The Castro Theater was packed, the film was shown with an intermission, and applause followed almost every number). Hoping just for a chance to see what I had missed in never seeing the show onstage, A Little Night Music as a film actually exceeded my expectations in terms of cinematic style, performances, and overall panache.
It succeeded in being bitchily witty, unexpectedly moving, charmingly romantic, and at times, just gorgeously opulent and lovely. This kind of light, frothy entertainment is exceedingly difficult to carry off, but for me, A Little Night Music hit just the perfect key. An odd and perhaps unfortunate choice of words, I know, given Elizabeth Taylor’s touchingly hesitant vocalizing of Send in the Clowns (one critic’s diplomatic summation of Taylor’s rendition: “No chart-buster”).

Well-suited to portraying a diva of advanced years who knows a thing or two about how to get a married man to leave his wife, Elizabeth Taylor is at her latter-career best in A Little Night Music. Not only is her much-commented upon, well-upholstered figure perfectly suited to Florence Klotz’s Oscar-nominated period costumes (although in some scenes one might wish cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson had made more of an effort to photograph her flatteringly), but is quite winning as she effortlessly glides from slightly overplayed comedy to genuinely touching drama. She’s marvelous and brings an appropriately regal star power to the film. I think she makes a fine Desiree, but in spite of her small triumphs in the role, it’s Diana Rigg who walks away with the picture.
The Ladies Who Lunch
Everyone references Send in the Clowns when speaking of A Little Night Music, but my favorite song in the entire show has always been the plaintive Every Day a Little Death. This duet by the two deceived wives is movie musical magic for me. I fall apart, it's just that gorgeous.
Listen to it Here

To paraphrase a lyric from one of the show's Second Act songs, “The woman is perfection.”  Diana Rigg, whose talent for high-style bitchery is rivaled only perhaps by Maggie Smith, is everything a film like A Little Night Music needs. She's an urbane and spirited actress with a way of commanding the screen no matter whom she shares it with. Hers is a sharp, scene-stealing performance that gives the sometimes lagging film much-needed zest and fire.
Adding to this is the brilliant Hermione Gingold who, though sadly underutilized (and denied her lovely song, Liasons), enlivens each of her scenes with her trademark droll delivery. When one is not feeling frustrated by how poorly these ladies' talents are sometimes showcased, the joint contributions of these two actresses is invaluable in making A Little Night Music such an enjoyable experience.
Laurence Guittard and Len Cariou recreate the roles they originated in the Broadway production. As fine as they are in their roles, both actors lack that intangible "something" that translates to the screen. Both tend to recede into the background and make a vague impression at best. It seems the women do all the heavy lifting in A Little Night Music.

I’m not overly fond of the arbitrary, often unimaginative “opening up” that occurs when theatrical properties are adapted to the screen, but I love it when directors discover an authentic cinematic concept for a show, justifying its transfer to another medium. The song The Glamorous Life Desiree Armfeltd's ode to the theatrical life on the road, is rewritten as the daughter's self-rationalizing boast/lament at having a mother who is wonderful to brag about, but seldom around.  The ingeniously economic number fashioned for the new song relays a great deal of backstory, plot exposition, and character information in a montage of images, both silent and sound, in a manner calling to mind the sensation of leafing through a scrapbook.
The Glamorous Life
Sondheim's brilliant song begins as a young girl's boastful paean to the life of her actress mother and ends up being a self-convincing denial of loneliness

Even those not particularly fond of the film express nothing but praise for the handling of the A Weekend in the Country number; the pre-intermission showstopper and the film's centerpiece. Shot in a series of escalating cross cuts that mirror the mounting anxieties of the two parties set to merge at the Armfeldt estate, its a bouncy and amusing number well-played by all and cleverly cinematic. It's a real highlight. Fans of Downton Abbey should really discover A Little Night Music...it has a wonderful look about it in its costumes and locations.
Considering how many people involved in the original Broadway production were involved in bringing A Little Night Music to the screen (Sondheim, director Harold Prince, choreographer Patricia Birch, screenwriter Hugh Wheeler, costume designer Florence Klotz) it's surprising the finished product pleased so few. The filmmakers cited crunched schedules, unstable financing, and the legendarily bad health of Taylor as the reasons for the many compromises undertaken.
True or not, I think all that focusing on what could have been clouds a fair appreciation for what was accomplished, which for me, a man who returned to the Castro Theater three more times to see A Little Night Music during its initial engagement, is something pretty special.

(Incidentally, these days, what with all those kids from Glee butchering one Broadway standard after another, I'm beginning to look more kindly on ol' Liz's  "no chart-buster" version of Send in the Clowns.)

Copyright © Ken Anderson 2009 - 2020