Thursday, January 31, 2013

GAMES 1967

Sometimes being a movie star just means having enough “brand name recognition” to bring to each movie a kind of distinct, firmly established name-association (a personality cachet, if you will) fully-formed and locked in place from a previous film. 
For example: to a large segment of the population Mia Farrow was and always will be Rosemary Woodhouse of Rosemary’s Baby. The films See No Evil (1971), The Haunting of Julia (1977) and the 2006 remake of The Omen all banked on the public associating Farrow with the macabre and horrific. None perhaps so blatantly or swiftly as Joseph Losey’s difficult-to-market 1968 psychological thriller Secret Ceremony, which was released only four months after Rosemary’s Baby opened. Although the film starred Hollywood heavyweights Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Mitchum in their only screen pairing, ads emphasized what was then the film’s one sure-fire property: Mia  Farrow - “More haunted than in Rosemary’s Baby!” the posters screamed.  
Satan Place
 Occult rituals are just one of many perverse diversions in Games

After the success of Halloween (1978) critics began hailing director John Carpenter as a worthy successor to Alfred Hitchcock. Hoping to further encourage such comparisons, Carpenter cast perennially Hitchcock-associated actress Janet Leigh in a thoroughly arbitrary role in his 1980 film The Fog. Janet Leigh, who should be commended for not having turned the entirety of her latter years into one long series of stunt-casting parts cashing in on her iconic Psycho role, did allow her image to be exploited just one more time - in the 1998 Halloween sequel, Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (check out IMDB’s Trivia section for details) although it must be said these nothing roles at least afforded her the opportunity to appear onscreen with real-life daughter Jamie Lee Curtis.
A well-appointed game room features violent Roy Lichtenstein pop-art and a pinball machine that awards points for driving fatalities

In 1968, if American audiences knew much about French film star Simone Signoret at all (and they didn't) it was on the strength of three films: her Oscar- winning role in Room at the Top (1959); her Oscar-nominated turn in Stanley Kramer’s prestige flop, Ship of Fools; and… most popularly and most likely, the highly acclaimed and influential thriller Diabolique (1955). Internet sources maintain that the starring role of Lisa Schindler, the mysterious visitor in Games, was originally written for Marlene Dietrich, and when producers balked, the role was offered to Jeanne Moreau, who also declined. All of which may well be true. But after looking at this clever thriller full of twists and mysterious turns, the overwhelming evidence leans towards my belief that Games was conceived and written expressly to capitalize on and exploit the American public’s familiarity with Signoret’s starring role in Clouzot’s bloodcurdling French chiller.
Simone Signoret as Lisa Schindler
Katharine Ross as Jennifer Montgomery
James Caan as Paul Montgomery
Like most good thrillers, the premise of Games is marvelously simple. A well-to-do but eccentric young couple  who like to engage in elaborate games and practical jokes (Caan and Ross) meets their match when a mysterious French stranger (guess who) enters their lives. The couple, both blasé dilettantes dabbling in chic nihilism, prove no match for the genuine article.
Brando-ish 70's TV stalwart, Don Stroud (who five years later would appear as a nude centerfold in Playgirl magazine) plays Norman, the oversexed box boy. Another player in Games 

Compensating perhaps for all those years of hyperactivity in my youth, I’ve discovered of late that I’m remarkably adroit at being sedentary. It's a revelation to me that in my dotage I find I no longer go in search of thrills, but prefer instead for my thrills come to me. Ill-disposed as I am to amusement park rides, fast cars, or any activity calling for the deployment of adrenaline, I have become a huge fan of armchair adventure. I love mysteries, suspense thrillers, horror films (horror as in dread, not gore) and movie plotting that stays one step ahead of me. Even when a film has plot twists which can be figured out if one really puts their mind to it (as some claim to be the case with Games), I so enjoy the big “reveal” in these kinds of movies that I've learned over the years how not to spoil my own fun. I employ a subtle form of self-hypnosis, allow the plot to unfold before me and just let myself surrender to the director’s pace, trying not to put the pieces of the puzzle together unless the film leads me there first.
Identity and Illusion
Games is almost theatrical in its construct, as it’s sparsely populated (four principal characters) and takes place primarily in a single location (the tony townhouse of Paul and Jennifer Montgomery). Tension is derived from the uneasiness of having a cast of characters, none of whom we’re told very much about but all overtly fond of playing mind-games, interacting in both real and contrived situations. As it becomes increasingly difficult to ascertain whether a game has begun, ended, or is underway, it soon dawns that the film itself is but another of the games. One that we in the audience (like several of the characters in the movie) weren't aware we were playing.

Regrettably, for all the fun to be had in watching Games (like the 1972 film adaptation of Anthony Schaeffer’s Sleuth, its pleasures don’t diminish even after its surprises are revealed) I can’t say it’s a film one is likely to remember for the performances. In just a few short years the producers of Games probably wouldn't have been able to afford either Katharine Ross or James Caan, but at this point in their young careers the future superstars are shown visibly trying to find their footing in this stylish thriller. Though falling short of making me really feel for the plight of the caracters, I've no real complaint with the beautiful Katharine Ross who is always an appealingly natural presence and is, I think,  actually better here than she is in The Graduate. She definitely comes off much better than Caan, who seems a tad stiff trying to play an urbane sophisticate who's still a little rough around the edges. 
Simone Signoret claimed responsibility for bringing Katharine Ross to the attention of director Mike Nichols when he was casting The Graduate
The ever-watchable Simone Signoret has had many finer moments on the screen and has certainly been photographed to better advantage than she is here, but for me, she is a dynamic screen presence and gives the film the garvitas it most certainly needs. Acting-wise, little is demanded of her save to appear mysterious and give off an air of European ambiguity in the face of Yankee frankness; but she's one of those less-is-more actressess who don't require showy display. She's fine as she is merely exuding style and a kind of debauched regalness.
Something Wicked This Way Comes?
Oddly unsettling artwork (Roy Lichtenstein?) dominates this shot and adds a sense of apprehension and danger to the scene

Paul and Jennifer Montgomery are the idle wealthy. A little too much money and too much time on their hands extends to their eccentric collection of modern art. The pieces, whimsical and absurd works displayed throughout their spacious New York townhouse, create the effect that we are watching events play out on an oversized game board or inside a pinball machine.

The first time I saw Games was when it aired on NBC-TV back in the early '70s. I recall I'd found it to be very much the unsettling suspenser, keeping me on the edge of my seat as the swift turns of plot not only taking me by surprise but scaring the hell out of me. No longer a kid and revisiting it on DVD some 30 years later, I was prepared for it to be a nice, tame nostalgia trip with maybe the distraction of camp taking the place of the suspense.
Not the case. The years may have shaved a little of the originality off its plot, but the effectiveness of the film itself - the sustaining of mood, the building of suspense, the unforeseen twists - it all worked for me just as persuasively as when I first saw it in my youth. In fact, much of the film played better in some instances; particularly in my taking note of all the foreshadowing in events, and the allusions made to the articficiality and contrivance of pop-culture,  pop-art,and pop-amorality.
Although the term hipster didn't exist in 1967 in the context it's used today, James Caan and Katharine Ross play a 60s version of just the kind of obnoxiously trendy urban couple you might find yourself rooting for something bad to happen to.

Games is no classic, and to some it will look a great deal like a well-made '70s TV movie. But as suspense thrillers go (and when was the last time a good one of those appeared on the horizon?), I have to say, flaws and all, Games comes out looking like a winner.

Copyright © Ken Anderson     2009 - 2013

Thursday, January 24, 2013


Amongst the glut of socially satirical black comedies that came out of Hollywood in the post-Kennedy years, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1963) has the respect, and Tony Richardson’s The Loved One has the classy pedigree (a screenplay by Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood adapted from an Evelyn Waugh novel). But the only one I find to be even remotely funny is George Axelrod’s strenuously off-beat (and unrelentingly hilarious) skewering of '60s Southern California culture Lord Love a Duck.

Thier obvious filmic merits aside, I just personally have no taste for Strangelove’s brand of paranoiac political lunacy, nor do I find much that amuses me in The Loved One’s theater of the grotesque lampooning of the Los Angeles funeral industry (although I do adore Anjanette Comer's performance and Rod Steiger’s Mr. Joyboy has to be seen to be believed). In all aspects relating both to my peculiar sense of humor and uniquely twisted world-view, Lord Love a Duck (an expression of surprised bemusement much like, “I’ll be damned!” or Fred Mertz’s exasperated, “For corn’s sake!”) hits me where I live. Choosing for its satirical targets the idiosyncrasies of '60s American pop-culture that are near and dear to my kitsch-loving heart (celebrity worship, youth culture, beach party movies, consumerism, the California school system, pop-psychiatry, religious attitudes about sex…and that's just for starters), Lord Love a Duck is virtually made-to-order for a guy of my retro-centric sensibilities. Of course, what really pays dividends when a satire is as perceptive and acerbically witty as Lord Love a Duck (adapted from a 1961 book I haven't read by Al Kine) is that you can look at it some forty-plus years later and marvel at how the jokes still hit home and maintain their relevance because people (God love 'em) really don't change all that much.
Tuesday Weld as Barbara Ann Greene
Roddy McDowall as Alan Musgrave
Ruth Gordon as Stella Bernard
Lola Albright as Marie Greene
Lord Love a Duck is a sun-baked Faustian farce about Southern California teen Barbara Ann Greene (Weld), one-time Head Cheerleader and most popular girl at Longfellow High School, now facing an uncertain future of dreaded anonymity as a senior at the ultra-modern Consolidated High. The day before school is to start, Barbara meets the mysterious Alan Musgrave (McDowall), a transfer student from Irving High School with a checkered past. Calling himself Mollymauk (the name of an albatross-like bird, a replica of which Alan has hanging from his keychain as a kind of hypnosis charm) Alan professes to have the ability to make all of Barbara’s deepest desires come true…she need only give voice to them.
"Barbara Ann. Whose deepest and most heartfelt yearnings express, with a kind of touching lyricism, the total vulgarity of our time."  
Change the name and this 47-year-old quote could apply to anyone who has ever appeared on American Idol, America's Got Talent, The Bachelor...or any reality TV show today.

As it turns out, there is indeed something awful about Alan, especially in the way he goes about (without benefit of making explicit either motivation or method) seeing to it that each and every one of Barbara Ann’s tinpot dreams come true. Unfortunately, in the grand tradition of fairy tales and aphorisms that warn “Be careful what you wish for, for you will surely get it,” Barbara Ann’s dreams consistently fail to measure up to her expectations. A lamentable realization for the not-very-bright baton-twirler, one compounded by the fact that the undisclosed “cost” of each wish (a sacrificial disaster or tragedy befalling someone in Barbara Ann's orbit) seems to escalate exponentially.
High school "fast girl" Sally Grace (the marvelous Lynn Carey, right) humiliates Barbara Ann into joining the Cashmere Sweater Club ("All you need are  twelve cashmere sweaters to join!") when she makes mocking reference to Barbara Ann's sweater being made of the moth-proof, rust-proof, fireproof chemical Acrison Silipolatex.

If at the start it looks as though the selfless Alan is but a tool to be used by the self-interested Barbara Ann to achieve her ambitions, toward the end it begins to dawn that perhaps Alan is harboring a secret agenda of his own and it's in fact Barbra Ann who's been the dupe. (Alan, like an asexual Myra Breckinridge, appears to be on some kind of personal crusade to dismantle and subvert the fabric of American culture one myth at a time.)
Lord Love a Duck not only uses its fairy-tale structure as a framework on which to hang a broad array of satirical jokes and sight gags, but as a device to dispense with anything resembling world-as-we-know-it realism. A scathing, surreal, jet-black comedy baked under a smoggy Southern California sun, Lord Love a Duck is a film I only recently discovered (thanks again, TCM!) but has fast become one my favorites.
The Devil You Say?: Mollymauk vs Pazuzu
Above, Barbara Ann signs a Faustian "pact" in cement with Alan (Mollymauk) Musgrave, a possibly Satanic character who represents himself with a drawing of a creature that looks alarmingly like the evil demon Pazuzu, replicated in poster-paint and clay by a pre-possession Linda Blair (below) in The Exorcist (1973)

As I commented upon in an earlier post about Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc?, I don’t really understand comedy well enough to know why it sometimes works and why at others, it falls flat on its face. Satire, in particular, seems a peculiarly dicey realm, given how important a role the establishment of tone and balance plays into the comedy payoff. If the world presented is too lunatic, there’s no reality in which to ground the humor and everything just comes off as silly. Lord Love a Duck wins points by giving Los Angeles and '60s pop-culture (and its already built-in absurdities) just enough rope of verisimilitude with which to hang itself. 
Lord Love a Duck's Drive-In Church (presided over by Rev. Phillip Neuhauser and his wife "Butch") spoofs the real-life Garden Grove Community Drive-In Church of former televangelist Robert Schuller (The Crystal Cathedral) which opened in Orange County in 1961.
Alan and Barbara Ann A-Go-Go
The teenage Beach Party movies of the '60s are a major target of Lord Love a Duck's scorn. The fictional titles of which don't sound very different from the real thing: Bikini Vampire, I Was a Teenage Bikini Vampire, I Married a Teenage Bikini Vampire, The Thing That Ate Bikini Beach, Cold War Bikini, Bikini Countdown, and Bikini Widow.

Actors, both comic and dramatic, attest that comedy is infinitely harder than drama, and I’m inclined to agree. I’m guilty as the next person of devaluing good comedic performances (Gene Wilder should have won an Oscar by now), but that can’t be said of my assessment of Lord Love a Duck, a film which succeeds largely due of its very talented and funny cast. While I’m less fond of Roddy McDowall in this (during this time in his career he seemed to be giving the exact same performance from film to film) Lola Albright and especially Tuesday Weld (doing her best work EVER) are pure gold. Albright brings unexpected pathos to her role as Barbara Ann’s promiscuous, cocktail waitress mother (“Honey, you know I never go out with a married man on the first date!”). Her brief yet memorably tragi-comic performance has a heartbreaking poignancy to it.
Under less than favorable circumstances, uptight society matron Stella Bernard (Gordon) meets Marie (Albright), the alcoholic mother of potential daughter-in-law, Barbara Ann.

Long one of Hollywood’s most underrated talents—her career hampered by an I-dare-you-to take-me-seriously name and a baby doll voice—Lord Love a Duck’s happiest surprise is Tuesday Weld (not really a surprise, actually. She’s splendid in the 1974 TV-movie, Reflections ofMurder, and brilliantly ups the ante on playing maladjusted cheerleaders in 1968’s chilling Pretty Poison). Lord Love a Duck showcases Weld’s talents as a truly gifted comedienne and affords her the opportunity to show what a nuanced dramatic actress she can be when given the right material.
It's a pity that Lord Love a Duck was so ignored on release. Weld is remarkable in it. In this scene in which Barbara Ann discloses to Alan her deepest desires, she humanizes and gives depth to a character that in less talented hands would be a one-dimensional cartoon.

Every film that sets out to offend (as most black comedies do) needs at least one setpiece moment of sublime vulgarity. Lord Love A Duck boasts an irresistibly over-the-top shopping spree for cashmere sweaters that erupts into a father/daughter consumer orgy.The screwball/suggestive colors of the sweaters provide as many laughs as the incestuously orgasmic reactions they elicit from Barbara Ann's father: Grape Yum-Yum, Banana Beige, Lemon Meringue, Pink Put-On, Papaya Surprise, Periwinkle Pussycat, Turquoise Trouble, Midnight A-Go-Go, and Peach Put-down. At this point in the film I was aware that I liked Lord Love A Duck, but after this scene, I knew I LOVED it. This sequence is the absolute best in mainstream cinema weirdness!
The inimitably demented Max Showalter (as Howard Greene) is the more than appreciative audience for Barbara Ann's hysterical impromptu fashion show.

I could go about Lord Love a Duck's many other merits, but in the interest of space, let me call attention to the top-notch turns by Ruth Gordon, Harvey Korman, martin West, and Donald Murphy.

Lord Love a Duck was promoted with the tagline “An act of pure aggression,” but truth in fact; it’s mostly an act of pure cantankerousness. For all its outrageousness, at its core it’s a middle-aged, middle-class diatribe by the older generation (those more amenable to the comedy styles of Alan Sherman, Ernie Kovacs, Steve Allen, or Sid Caesar) against America’s burgeoning youth movement. A movement that was swiftly rendering director/ writer George Alexelrod’s patented brand of "tired businessman" comedy (The Seven Year Itch, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? How to Murder Your Wife) old-fashioned, if not obsolete.
1965 Playboy Playmate of the year, Jo Collins, is really a hoot as Kitten, the bored Beach Party movie starlet whose dialogue consists entirely of variations on the sole retort she has for anything said to her by producer/sugar daddy, T. Harrison Belmont: "Oh,'re such a drag!" 

Forty three years-old at the time this film was made, Axelrod was well past the age of distrust for the teenybopper set, and one can almost taste his vitriolic annoyance at what had become of his world of martinis, big bosoms, and smirky sex jokes. All of which probably accounts for why I find Lord Love a Duck to be so terribly funny. There's a really pissed-off, old fart sensibility behind it all that gives each satiric barb a particularly acrid sting not possible were the film coming from a place of affection. Or even understanding, for that matter. I guess that's something I can relate to.
If you’re among those who are of the mindset that we currently live in an age of smart phones and increasingly not-so smart  people, then the hedonistic, amoral, anti-intelligence, youth-centric world lampooned in Lord Love a Duck provides irrefutable and entertaining evidence of the fact that we didn't just arrive at this state of affairs overnight. It’s a course we've been headed on for quite some time.
"Talk to me. Just tell Mollywauk."
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


Ask me the name of my absolute, #1 all-time favorite film director and I’ll say Roman Polanski without hesitation or equivocation. From the time I was old enough to know what a director was, Polanski has always been a filmmaker whose work I both related to and respected. In the trifecta of most-admired directors that form my own personal, sub-Freudian model of personality and attraction: Ken Russell speaks most eloquently to my passionate, sensual tastes; Robert Altman I love for the compassion he reveals in the absurd humor he finds in the human condition; and Polanski, more than any director whose work I enjoy, gives voice and vision to those subtle nightmares that hide out in the darker corners of my psyche. The ones so scary that you either have to laugh or scream.
No One Does It to You Like Roman Polanski
Cul-de-Sac, his 3rd feature film and a true artifact of the - “Now what was that all about?” - era of college campus cinema of the '60s, is Polanski at his quirky best. And while it's a masterfully shot confirmation of Polanski’s skill as a visual storyteller, actually describing just what kind of film Cul-de-Sac is, is another matter. Take one of those gangster-takes-strangers-hostage American noir thrillers like The Petrified Forest (1936), He Ran All the Way (1951), or The Desperate Hours (1955); cross it with a French nouvelle vague art film about marital discord and the inability to communicate, à la Jean Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963); then top it off with a dose of Theater of the Absurd tragicomedy (the film’s original title, When Katelbach Comes, being an obvious homage to Samuel Becket’s Waiting for Godot, and a less obvious borrowing of the name of an actor from one of Polanski’s early short films) - and you have some idea of what Cul-de-Sac is. Or isn't.

Polanski's trademark skill at utilizing locations as though they are integral characters in the story is atmospherically evoked by the remote 11th-century castle that serves as the fortress/prison in Cul-de-Sac. Situated high atop a craggy hill on the British peninsula of Holy Island, a major plot point has it that the access road to the castle is obliterated twice daily by high tides (a similar device that was used to good effect in the 2012 Daniel Radcliffe thriller, The Woman in Black).

In 1966 neither audiences nor critics were particularly responsive to trying to sort the whole thing out, so Cul-de-Sac’s subsequent failure at the boxoffice threatened to sink Polanski's newfound reputation as quickly as Knife in the Water (1962) and Repulsion (1965) had established it. But in the famous words of John Huston’s Noah Cross in Polanski’s 1974 masterpiece Chinatown“Politicians, old buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” And indeed, Cul-de-Sac has enjoyed a major revival over the years. Embraced by fans and Polanski himself as one of his best and most cinematic films, it's hailed by contemporary film enthusiasts for many of the very things it was reviled for back in the day.
Donald Pleasance as George
Francoise Dorleac as Teresa
Lionel Stander as Richard (Dickie)
Jack MacGowran as Albert (Albie)
Dickie and Albie, gangsters wounded during a botched “job” of an undisclosed nature, take refuge at the secluded retreat of retired businessman George, and his much younger wife, Teresa. Seeking nothing but a place to hide while awaiting rescue by the mysterious, Mr. Katelbach, the fugitive pair hold the newlyweds hostage, setting off a bizarre chain of power struggles, game-playing, and revelatory disclosures which ultimately lead each character to their personal cul-de-sac.
The brainchild of Roman Polanski and longtime collaborator Gerard Brach (The Tenant, The Fearless Vampire Killers, Tess, Frantic) Cul-de-Sac represents the specific cinematic aesthetics, sensibilities, and humor of the pair. “When we were writing this script, we simply wanted to create a movie that would reflect our taste in cinema,” said Polanski to biographer, Denis Meikle, stressing a point difficult to contest. Similar in tone to many of Polanski’s short films, Cul-de-Sac has the look and feel of an extremely accomplished film-school thesis project and is the nearest Polanski has come to making the kind of '60s New Wave art film he spent a large part of his early career ideologically distancing himself from.
Forsaken by whom? Katelbach? God? Godot?

One of the biggest thrills to be had in watching Cul-de-Sac is to once again see a motion picture that demands attentiveness. The economics of filmmaking today (to be profitable, movies have to appeal to as broad a demographic as possible) has resulted in an uptrend in cinematic obviousness. Movies today can’t afford to be misunderstood. Everything is spelled-out, underlined, and explained with such pedantic literalness, a kind of passive, dull-wittedness has replaced active engagement on the part of the moviegoing experience.
(An irksome side effect of this distrust of ambiguity can be seen on Internet movie sites like IMDB. The comment sections of these sites, meant to promote discussion, have been taken over by a combative fanboy/fangirl mentality and a zero-tolerance for differences of opinion, conflicting points of view, or multiple interpretations when it comes to sacred cows…I mean favorite films.)
In one of Cul-de-Sac's many allusions to identity and role-playing, straight-laced George reacts to his sexually mischievous wife dressing him in her peignoir and applying makeup. The gown worn by Pleasence recalls that of Catherine Deneuve (Dorleac's real-life younger sister) in Polanski's Repulsion

Movies that explain every detail do audiences no great service. In fact, I think they rob viewers of a marvelous opportunity to “experience” a film instead of merely trying to “understand” it or figure it out. Cul-de-Sac is a textbook case on how a film can be entertaining, suspenseful, touching, dramatic, and tragic (and at the same time entirely coherent) and still leave considerable aspects of the plot open to individual interpretation.

Things left vague or unexplained in Cul-de-Sac:
George and Teresa’s relationship.
The circumstances behind the dissolution of George’s first marriage to the unseen Agnes.
Why the couple chose to live in such a remote location.
The particulars of what actually brings Dickie and Albie to the castle for shelter.
The interrelationships of the uninvited guests (specifically Jacqueline and Cecil).
The motivation behind almost all of Teresa’s actions.
Katelbach himself.
Confining oneself exclusively to what is disclosed in the film, Cul-de-Sac supports myriad interpretations. And therein lies both its genius and its fun. It’s a film people can talk about afterward, sharing impressions and comparing notes. No two individuals are likely to see Cul-de-Sac in exactly the same way. And beware the literal-minded who insist on one "correct" understanding of the film. These are the kind of folks who can't tell you what they feel about a painting until they've read the museum card.
I'm crazy about the composition of this shot. It kicks off a virtuoso 7-minute sequence shot in one take.

Anyone familiar with Donald Pleasence’s somnambulistic performances in the Halloween horror film franchise will be properly thunderstruck by what an expressive and animated actor he can be in the right role. With his shaved head a burlesque of the hundreds of eggs on display throughout the film (the shaved head was Pleasence's idea and came as a big surprise to control-freak Polanski). Pleasence is all repressed agitation and pent-up passion. His unfocused feverishness (he never quite knows where to channel it, and when he does, it comes out all wrong) is met in equal doses by the icy assurance of Francoise Dorleac. Playing a paradoxical female with plenty of yin and yang to spare, Dorleac is the impulsive catalyst in this combustible mix of characters. Some critics have decried what they see as yet another misogynist Polanski fantasy in the character of Teresa, but I found it interesting that she is portrayed as not only fearless, but also the strongest and most resourceful character in the film. Self-servingly so, perhaps, but better that than one of those helpless, always in need of rescue types that proliferated in movies throughout the '60s and '70s.
Does Teresa feel a kinship with the survivalist gangster, Dickie?

Blacklisted veteran actor Lionel Stander, all gravel-voiced and possessed of old-Hollywood bearing, is an inspired choice for a film that derives a great deal of its tension (and absurdist comedy) from the oil/vinegar chemistry of its characters. He’s like a gangster from an old Warner Bros. movie who somehow got himself teleported into a '60s art film. There's a comical lack of complexity to this man (although there's a lovely moment when he's shown gently looking over the belongings of his friend) as he struggles to get his neurotic hostages to just shut up and do what he says.

A terrific storyteller with a taste for the idiosyncratic, Polanski is unsurpassed in mining the tension and gallows humor to be found in disparate characters forced into interaction under claustrophobic circumstances. As he does explicitly in Carnage, Death and the Maiden, Bitter Moon, and Knife in the Water, and more subtly in Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant, and Frantic; Polanski likes to have fun with the idea that anybody actually knows anything about anyone—least of all themselves.
Typical Polanski/absurdist humor: In the midst of a deadly hostage situation...uninvited guests! That's a very young Jacqueline Bisset back there radiating reams of '60s sang-froid behind those shades.

By all accounts an extremely difficult and unpleasant film to make, Cul-de-Sac was nevertheless a labor of love for Polanski, and that fact, above all, really shines through when watching it. Even without it confirmed (as it is in the Criterion Collection DVD interview with Polanski) one can sense from Cul-de-Sac that it is a film made with little thought given towards commercial concerns, and all energies trained on making the kind of film that inspired Polanski to want to be a filmmaker in the first place. It's a story about character and consequence told almost entirely through image and atmosphere. Pure cinema, as Polanski would call it.
Superficially speaking, Cul-de-Sac is just one spectacular-looking film. Every exquisitely-composed shot bears the stamp of having been labored over and lit to perfection. But it's also a marvelously layered film of the sort that keeps feeding you more information the more you see it. It's in this realm that Polanski's legendarily persnickety nature and eye for detail pays huge dividends, providing a rewarding cinema experience of the kind that grows increasingly rare. For fans of Roman Polanski, Cul-de-Sac is a must-see. What am I saying? It's a must-see for anyone who loves film!
Existential Despair

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2013

Tuesday, January 8, 2013


Beyond the obvious need to lure the American public away from their TV sets with size and spectacle impossible to match on the small screen, I’m not sure I've ever been totally clear on the thought process behind the '60s epic. I can understand when the subject’s a heroic historical figure (Lawrence of Arabia), or the backdrop is something as broad in scope as the Russian Revolution (Doctor Zhivago); but when the roadshow treatment (widescreen, two-plus-hours running time, reserved seats, intermission) is imposed upon relatively intimate stories of love, relationships, and the flaws of character that lead to tragedy (Ryan’s Daughter), I can’t help but feel that the outsized visual scale of the epic can sometimes work to undermine the effectiveness of the human drama. Such is what I find to be the case with John Schlesinger’s otherwise superior adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd.
Julie Christie as Bathsheba Everdine
Alan Bates as Gabriel Oak 
Terence Stamp as Sergeant Frank Troy
Peter Finch as William Boldwood
In earlier posts, I've expressed my weakness for visual ostentation and how readily I’m able to overlook a film’s shortcomings when its deficiencies are mitigated by a certain stylistic panache. However, the impressive cast John Schlesinger assembled for Far From the Madding Crowd is so fascinating in their own right (Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Peter Finch, and Terence Stamp) that all the pomp and spectacle of the production values surrounding them makes a perfect case against the need to gild the lily.
Far from the Madding Crowd is an outsized film of subtle emotions that might have benefited greatly from the kind of intimate style employed by Ken Russell for his adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's  Women in Love.

MGM’s handing over the reins of a $4 million adaptation of a Thomas Hardy classic to the creative team behind the modestly-funded, ultra-mod, youth-culture hit, Darling (1965), was either an inspired stroke of genius or a simple act of crass commercialism. Inspired, certainly, in conjecturing that the very contemporary talents of producer Joseph Janni, director John Schlesinger, screenwriter Frederic Raphael, and actress Julie Christie (with the added assist of her Fahrenheit 451 cinematographer, Nicolas Roeg) could bring to this Victorian-era period piece the same verve and freshness they brought to their cynical evisceration of swinging London. Crassly commercial, undeniably, in a studio attempting to hit boxoffice paydirt merely by reassembling the hot-property talents of a current success, heedless of their suitability to the material at hand.
While I tend to think MGM was thinking with their pocketbooks more than their heads (Hollywood at the time was literally throwing open its doors to any and everyone who displayed the slightest trace of knowing what young audiences were looking for), I have to also admit that in many ways, Thomas Hardy’s take on Wessex countryside life in 1874 and Schlesinger’s view of 1965 London are a better fit than first glance would reveal.
Bathsheba finds herself the focus of the amorous attentions of three men

As embodied by Julie Christie, Far From the Madding Crowd’s Bathsheba Everdine is easily the spiritual cousin of Darling’s Diana Scott. While lacking Diana’s heartlessness, Bathsheba, like Diana, is of an individualistic, determined, and headstrong nature, tempered by the foibles of pride, vanity, and a kind of reckless self-enchantment with her own powers of allure. Nowhere near as passive as Hardy’s most popular heroine, the unfortunate Tess of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Bathsheba is a non-heroic heroine of unfailingly human-sized passions and idiosyncrasies. Conflictingly led by her heart, her indomitability, and a barely-masked need to have her beauty regarded by others—for no reason beyond the immature, yet very human desire to be reassured of their worth from time to time—Bathsheba is less the traditional romantic heroine ruled by her passions than a kind of rural Circe, bewitching and dooming the hapless men who cross her path.
Self Enchanted
A landowner, a businesswoman, and an independent spirit 

I’m not one to demand that a film adaptation of a book hew slavishly to the written word. Of course, I love it when a film made from a favorite novel is translated to the screen in terms compliant to the way I envisioned it (Goodbye, Columbus), but I’m just as happy if a filmmaker deviates from the text if they are able to unearth something new, something wholly cinematic that captures the book’s essence, if not its exact plot (Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining). I only got around to reading Far From the Madding Crowd last year, some 34 years after I saw the film version, and beyond the then-controversial casting of the blond Christie in the role of the fiery brunette Bathsheba, I found Schlesinger’s film to be surprisingly faithful to the book.
A highlight of both the book and the film is the "swordplay" seduction scene

Perhaps too faithful, as the self-deprecating director indicated to biographer William J. Mann in the biographical memoir, The Edge of Midnight: The Life of John Schlesinger. In addressing claims that the film was far too long and atypically slow in pacing, Schlesinger lamented: “We didn't take enough liberty with the film because we were too worried about taking liberties with a classic.”  And indeed the film displays the kind of reverence to text that makes Far From the Madding Crowd the kind of film perfect for high-school literature classes, but for me, the movie is more atmospherically leisurely than slow. I love the time Schlesinger gives over to giving us colorful views of country farm life and the romantic quadrangle at the heart of the film (pentagonal if one includes the tragic Fanny Robin, the farm girl with just about as much luck as the traditional heroine of Victorian literature).
Prunella Ransome portrays Fanny Robin, a young servant girl in love with the dashing Sergeant Troy (Stamp). Were this an epic musical taking place in 19-century France, hers would be the Anne Hathaway role.

I fell in fell in love with Far From the Madding Crowd chiefly because of Julie Christie (surprise!) but also because it is refreshing to see a sweeping epic film of this type with a strong woman at its center. A woman whose agency and choices not only propel the events of the story, but whose destiny is shaped by her desires (what she does and doesn't want), not merely by the vagaries of fate.
As far as I'm concerned, the film has a tough time recovering from a huge loss of credibility when Julie Christie rebuffs the matrimonial advances of that absolutely gorgeous slab of hirsute hunk, Alan Bates. Seriously, what was she thinking?

I’m afraid if I log one more post in which I wax rhapsodic on the wonders of Julie Christie, my partner is going in search of professional help (for either me or himself), so I’ll make this brief. In Bathsheba Everdine, Christie is cast as yet another shallow petulant—a character of the sort she virtually trademarked in the '60s with her roles in Darling, Fahrenheit 451 (the Montag’s wife half of her dual role, anyway), and Petulia. Christie’s artistry and gift in being able to convey the emotional depth behind the superficial has been, I think, the obvious intelligence that has always been an inseverable part of her beauty and appeal. It takes a lot of brains to play thoughtless.
Mad Love
As good as Christie is (and for me, her star quality alone galvanizes this monolithic movie) the top acting honors go to Peter Finch who gives the screen one of the most searing portraits of tortured obsession since James Mason in Lolita. One of my favorite scenes is a silent one where the camera is trained on Finch’s face as Christie’s character rides by in a wagon. In his eyes alone you can see a wellspring of hope rise and fall in a matter of seconds. It really takes something to upstage Julie Christie, and she is very good here. But Peter Finch really won me over by giving the film's most realized and moving performance.

Scenes depicting English country life are beautifully rendered

The production values of Far From the Madding Crowd are first rate. The time and place is richly evoked in lavish costumes, painstaking period detail, and vivid depictions of rural life. Still, while the large-format Panavision does well when it comes to dramatically capturing the tempestuous forces of nature which underscore the impassioned carryings-on of Hardy’s characters, the sheer size of Far From the Madding Crowd keeps me at a slight emotional remove. Nicolas Roeg’s ofttimes astonishingly beautiful camerawork strives rather valiantly to imbue the picture-postcard compositions with as much humanity and sensitivity as possible. The story is so engaging and the performances so good that one longs to be brought closer, but too often the film leaves us feeling as if we are looking at these lives through the wide-lens end of a pair of binoculars.
Cinematographer, later-turned-director Nicolas Roeg was the unofficial caretaker of the Julie Christie "look" early in her career. He also photographed her to breathtaking effect for Fahrenheit 451Petulia, and in 1973 he directed her in Don't Look Now

Far From the Madding Crowd did not do too well at the boxoffice in 1968. Critics complained of everything from the central miscasting of Christie to the pacing, the relative inaction, and a screenplay that fails to bring its central character to life. Another factor, at least in part, is that the film was promoted as a grand romance, when the real love story begins about 60 seconds before this 168-minute movie ends. In between, it's largely a roundelay of unrequited passions and thwarted affections.  To its detriment, in hoping to be the next epic romance in the Doctor Zhivago vein, Far From the Madding Crowd wound up being primarily a drama about people who are either in love with the right people at the wrong time, or the wrong people at the right time.
The Valentine which sets the tragic drama in motion 

Far From the Madding Crowd is a movie I like to revisit because in it I find a poignant meditation on love. The three men seeking the hand of Bathsheba offer her three distinct types of love: passionate and sensual; a near-paternal adoration; and finally, the calm, even-tempered love of respect and friendship. Which is truer? Which is preferable? The film never answers, but there is much to read into the film’s final scene. Look at it carefully, there’s a lot going on. Look at the expressions on the faces, the placement of the characters in a kind of domestic tableau, take note of the weather, the significance of the color red, the recurring clock and timepiece motifs, the framing of the final shot…then draw your own conclusions. Like the ambiguously happy ending of  Mike Nichols' The Graduate, everyone seems to come away from Far From The Madding Crowd with a different impression of what the ending signifies.

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2013