Friday, January 19, 2018

ONE OF THOSE THINGS 1971

Given the number of films in existence about colorless middle-aged men who have their lives and (reasonably) happy marriages 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 the “homewrecker.” 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 early—entry in the “domestic stalker” cycle of thrillers that hit their popularity stride in the early 1990s following the success of 1987’s Fatal Attraction. But lurking behind what at first glance appears to be just another post-sexual revolution cautionary tale for the Viagra set, is in fact a psychologically complex, 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 the 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.

For in reality, Henrik’s wife Berit (Zena Walker) is a dipsomaniac suffering from neglect born of Henrik's wholesale absorption in his work; Melchoir (Frederick Jaeger) Henrik's co-worker and friend narrowly passed over for the very promotion Henrik bagged, rarely misses an opportunity to passive-aggressively vent his professional jealousy; 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 of his profession 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 shift in culture brings 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. Women’s sexual license was represented as 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 strong women as threatening women.
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

Henrik’s life path takes a fateful detour one night when, despondent over his wife bailing on an important business dinner, Henrik accepts an invitation from a beautiful young woman named Susanne (Geeson) to attend a “hippie” hash (hashish) party on the outskirts of town. Before long, 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 return home.
Alas, the combination of low visibility, a malfunctioning automobile, and an unseen bicyclist result in a fatal hit and run. Instead of 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, instead returns to his life; shaken, but indiscernibly so. In the realm of moral displacement, feelings of remorse, guilt, and the fear of detection all 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 that 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 that 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 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 Accident 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. Considered something of a “lost film,” I first 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. But while I enjoyed the suspense and melodramatic elements of the film a great deal, I was 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, 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: If 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 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 caught 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 they are emotionally alienated from. 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 the automobile company. His pathetic attempt to conceal his identity 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 to be 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 Daniel Oliver astutely observed, “didn’t do ‘dumb’” and brought considerable intelligence and emotional heft to many an underwritten part.
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 too often crosses over into incomprehensible. 
I'm less familiar than I should be with the work of the late Tony, BAFTA, and Grammy-winning Shakespearean actor Roy Dotrice (Amadeus), 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. Both are quite impressive in this film. 
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 flawed but a film 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 wish would get 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.)

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Sunday, December 31, 2017

MORTAL THOUGHTS 1991

Warning: Possible Spoiler Alert. Care has been taken to conceal as much as possible, but as this is a critical essay and not a review, some plot points are referenced for the purpose of analysis. 

“Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here and fill me from the crown to the toe, top-full of direst cruelty!”    Lady Macbeth

Just as we know, with reasonable certainty, that Shakespeare didn’t have in mind two New Jersey hairstylists when he wrote Macbeth in 1606; it’s also an odds-on bet that said beauticians Cynthia Kellog (Demi Moore) and Joyce Urbanski (Glenne Headly), the morality-challenged friends at the center of Alan Rudolph’s skittish Mortal Thoughts, wouldn’t recognize a Shakespearean quote if it was set to music and sung by Billy Joel.

Yet Lady Macbeth’s impassioned plea to the gods to divest her of her feminine compassion and intensify her ruthlessness—the better to realize her homicidal musings—has within it the self-same dueling conflicts of violence/guilt/gender aggression/betrayal/loyalty/survival and desperation fueling the tinpot stratagems that set into motion the fatal events in this nifty ‘90s neo-noir. The castles of medieval Scotland may have nothing in common with the brownstones of 1990 New Jersey, but when it comes to survival, woe betide the woebegone male who dares underestimate what a woman is capable of when her thoughts turn to matters mortal.
Demi Moore as Cynthia Kellogg
Glenne Headly as Joyce Urbanski
Bruce Willis as James "Jimmy" Urbanski
Harvey Keitel as Detective John Woods
John Pankow as Arthur Kellogg 
Billie Neal as Detective Linda Nealon
Mortal Thoughts is an atmospheric suspenser of doggerel Shakespearean plotting and betrayals played out in the baseborn haven of Bayonne, New Jersey. Robert Altman protégé Alan Rudolph, who engagingly contemporized the tropes of film noir in his films Remember My Name and Trouble in Mind, again delves into the realm of the character-quirk crime thriller; this time having dark thoughts motivate the actions of a motley assortment of essentially non-thinking characters, all late-1980s time-piece artifacts depicted in finely-observed detail and only the most garish of local colors.

Mortal Thoughts evokes classic film noir in both the use of a narrative framing device recalling Mildred Pierce (a loutish man is found dead, a woman interrogated, a mystery unfolds via flashback), and in the cunning application of a crisscross murder threat redolent of the unarticulated alliance that got Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train off on the right track (an amusement park even figures significantly in both films). But for all its shrewdly effective nods to the tropes of the genre, Mortal Thoughts, in training its lethal eye on the relationship of its two female protagonists, achieves—much like that other, significantly more popular 1991 release, Thelma & Louise—a kind of mordant unpredictability.
There’s a lot of tension and wit in the convincingly conveyed cronyism of Demi Moore and Glenne Headly (the latter, hands-down, this film’s MVP), making Mortal Thoughts feel like a welcome female-centric variation of all those macho “neighborhood buddies who go way back” crime thrillers of the sort beloved by Martin Scorsese and John Cassavetes (whose Mickey & Nicky this film recalls). 
"Your wedding was great. Except your husband...is such a...I don't know.
 I mean, what groom sells tools at his own wedding?"

Cynthia and Joyce have been friends since childhood. Each now married, they work at a beauty salon where, along with several pounds of permed hair and shoulder pads, they balance friendship, husbands, work, and children. 

Amiable opposites, Cynthia (Moore), the level-headed one, is married to Arthur (Pankow), a wheel-spinning go-getter type always on the hustle. Arthur is a kind and considerate spouse, but casually dismissive of Cynthia in that way common of fast-track husbands more in need of a “supportive wife” than an equal partner in life. One senses Arthur tolerates Cynthia more than he understands her, an observation driving home the equally strong impression that Cynthia’s always-in-tow children are where her chief familial priorities lie.

The emotionally volatile Joyce (Headly), has an obvious taste for Bad Boy types; explaining, but not excusing, her explosive marriage to James (Willis); a physically abusive, drug-dealing, macho hot-head. An accident waiting to happen, Joyce and James, who couldn’t even make it through their wedding day without a fight, are one of those couples for whom passion and erupt-at-any-moment violence are but interchangeable sides of the same dysfunctional coin. It’s in their marital DNA. So frequent and public are their contentious outbursts, the patrons of Joyce’s Clip ‘n’ Dye hair salon, situated just below the cluttered apartment Joyce and James share with their infant son, barely bat an eye when granted ringside seats to the duo’s regular-as-clockwork bouts. 
About now Joyce's thoughts are turning to ways of unsexing James with a pair of thinning shears

Events reach a crisis when Arthur, impatient with Cynthia’s de facto role as peacekeeper to the dysfunctional duo (and none too fond of the battling Urbanskis to begin with), begins pressuring his wife to stop spending so much time with her erratic girlfriend. Cynthia, feeling the stress of playing moderator, conciliator, and referee both at home and in the workplace, responds by doing more of what she already does far too much of: spreading herself thin trying to appease everyone.  Meanwhile, nobody seems to have taken notice that Joyce’s once easy-to-laugh-off threats to kill her husband appear to be graduating from thought to action.


Mortal Thoughts, in depicting the feminine side of all those urban buddy movies, does a good job of subtly drawing attention to the boys’ club network of protection that makes abused wives feel they have no options. Call the cops--they have no interest in punishing a man for what they see as “letting off steam”; appeal to the husband’s relatives--they see him as a good boy with a wife who provokes him; leave or get a divorce--invite stalking and jealous retribution.

The picture painted is bleak, but as many film noirs have illustrated in the past; a woman without power is not necessarily a woman without recourse.
“An accident, Dolores, can be an unhappy woman’s best friend.”  
Dolores Claiborne - 1995


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS MOVIE
Mortal Thoughts lets us know from the outset that someone has been killed, but only by the 30-minute mark do we discover who it is (no big surprise there, nor do I suspect it’s supposed to be). The lengthy setup is devoted to establishing the characters, relationships, and setting (late-‘80s working-class New Jersey lovingly, painstakingly captured in all its cringe-inducing glory); the remaining body of the narrative devoted to unearthing the reverse-order specifics of the crime: the motive, the means, the when, and by whose hand.
In the book Flashbacks in Film: Memory & History, author Maureen Turim cites film noir flashbacks as being of two basic types: the confessional and the investigative. The confessional (as exemplified by the films Sunset Blvd. and Detour) has the lead character looking back over the chain of events which led them to their current (often dire) circumstances. The investigative (Laura, A Woman’s Face) has a law official piecing together the puzzle of a crime through means of examination and interrogation.
Mortal Thoughts employs both methods. In present-time, narrative flashbacks are triggered by the questions posed by two investigating detectives (Harvey Keitel and Billie Neal) to the fidgety, on-the-defensive Cynthia regarding the murder in question. 

Keitel’s Detective John Woods makes a big show of being the good listener just there to take down whatever Cynthia has to tell; but his piercing eyes (taking on a mischievous glint when one of his verbal snares yields prey) tell another story. He’s conducting a full-scale murder investigation without leaving his chair.  

With a video camera trained at her anxious face, Cynthia gives what can best be described as cathartically frank answers to their questions, these somewhat guarded responses delivered with a studied directness intended (one assumes) to convey an eagerness to unburden herself.
Unfortunately, Cynthia’s recollection of events, while superficially appropriate of an individual claiming innocence and who, as she puts it, “Didn’t do anything to need an attorney,” has a nagging habit of getting away from her. In attempting to provide the detectives with “just the facts” objectivity, Cynthia's subjective impulse to protect and/or conceal tends to result in her providing considerably more detail and backstory than necessary. Always volunteering a little more than she’s asked, Cynthia’s testimony takes on an involuntarily confessional tone, her account of the past frequently being at odds with what we’re shown.
Cynthia, distracted by troubling thoughts

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
It’s precisely when Mortal Thoughts tipped its hat to the unreliability of Cynthia as its narrator (especially since hers is the sole perspective we share) that the film really clicked for me. The doubt cast on the veracity of events depicted had the effect of shifting my focus from the story to the storyteller, at which point I found myself enjoying Mortal Thoughts not only as a mystery thriller, but as a sly dramatization of the threat of female alliance.

It’s telling that Mortal Thoughts is bookended by home movie footage depicting the friendship of Cynthia and Joyce from toddler to teens. These women grew up as sisters. They are closer to each other than they are to their husbands. At first glance it appears as though the film’s central conflict is the detrimental effect Joyce's toxic relationship with James on the marriage of Cynthia and Arthur; but one is reminded that nether woman is in a marriage they deem particularly satisfactory.

No, with the most intimate relationship in the film is the sisterhood friendship of Cynthia and Joyce. With this in mind, dramatic tension arises out of the film’s many subthemes: the inequity of marriage; macho as the flip side of male inadequacy; how women’s relationships are devalued by men and how easily women internalize and adopt these same attitudes—making the film’s central conflict the threat that female solidarity represents to the male.
“I fear for my life when the two of you sit down together.”  

For example: James and Arthur both have scenes where they vent their jealousy of how close Joyce and Cynthia are, each resentfully alluding to their wives prioritizing their friendship above their marriages. These scenes are echoed in additional sequences wherein the men are shown undermining the women's loyalties or encouraging one to betray the another (Cynthia’s rebuff of James’ crude sexual advances is met with “What are friends for?”), or trying to undermine the women’s loyalties.

For years men have benefited from pitting women against one another for the same reason the rich benefit from convincing the poor that other poor people of a different color are their barriers to The American Dream: there’s power in division. Misogyny is rooted in the male anxiety of the disposable (castrated) man, and many noir films exploit this fear. I mean, what is the noir femme fatale if not the embodiment of men’s terror of women operating under their own agency? Mortal Thoughts plays on society's limited, dual image of women, Cynthia behaving in the maternal, care-giving manner that reassures, Joyce (the breadwinner in her household) acting as feminine aggression personified. The trick up its sleeve is that it dares us to assume we know what’s really going on. 
“Everyone knows a woman is fragile and helpless. Everyone’s wrong.” 


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
A number of critics took issue with the brooding, almost operatic visual style of grand tragedy Mortal Thoughts applies (dramatic events play out with lots of slow-motion and choral accompaniment) to what is arguably a shabby homicide set in a garish world among unsophisticated people. But the film’s overemphasis on kitschy ‘80s details (and truly, you’d have to look far to find a wittier application of hair, costume, and production design) and magnification of the small lives feels intentional.

There’s nothing noble, high-born, or honorable about any of these characters. They are human in the most base, fundamental sense. But in Greek mythology when the Oracle of Delphi cryptically exhorts humans to “Think mortal thoughts,” this ethical maxim to be heedful of one’s human limitations reminds us how often it is in tragedy that characters pay a dear price for thinking they are above their mortality. In other words, acting like gods and believing they have the right to take a life or decide who lives.
That these larger-than-life themes play out in the small-scale environs of Hoboken, New Jersey, makes Mortal Thoughts one of the most intriguingly entertaining and off-beat neo noirs since Alan Rudolph’s Remember My Name.


PERFORMANCES
My fondness for the work of director Alan Rudolph is what initially drew me to Mortal Thoughts. But unlike most of his other features, Rudolph was not involved in either its writing or creation, having been brought in with only five days’ notice after original director Claude Kervin (who wrote the incredible and incredibly funny screenplay with William Reilly) was fired two weeks into production.
That being said, it’s difficult to know how different Mortal Thoughts would have been had Rudolph been involved from the start, for much of it plays out like a more coherent version of any number of his always-fascinating, albeit occasionally jumbled, character pieces.

For a director so skilled with actors and the intricacies of character, Rudolph’s has an impressive understanding and respect for the suspense thriller genre. He understands the importance of taking the time to establish atmosphere and mood, he knows how to build suspense, and (like Polanski at his best) he isn’t afraid of using humor even within the most intense scenes.  I like films with strong women protagonists and I like mysteries; so it’s no surprise that I found Mortal Thoughts to be a slick,  ceaselessly entertaining film with suspense, twists, and tension to spare. All bolstered by a uniformly excellent (and exceptionally well-used) cast.
Familiar face and frequent screen mobster Frank Vincent
(who died in 2017) appears as Dominic, Joyce's father

I’ve never been much of a Demi Moore fan and guiltily admit to never having seen her biggest hit Ghost (even after all this time I’m genuinely hard-pressed to think I’m missing anything), but she's absolutely terrific in this. My favorite performance of all (the few?) films of hers I've seen. I'm crazy about her in this. With her raspy voice (I even like her Joi-zee accent), sardonic wit, and sharp-eyed common sense, she’s like a real-life Wilma Flintstone. A pillar of rational-thinking against whom her not-wound-too-tight friend Joyce can bounce off of. And bounce she does.
As embodied by the late Glenne Headly (who passed away in June of 2017), Joyce is the quintessential Dangerous Woman. An outspoken trouble magnet, Joyce is a woman who knows how to take care of herself and get things taken care of; simultaneously the toughest and most vulnerable person in the film. Headly, a remarkably resourceful actress, is a marvel to watch from start to finish (not to mention listen to…her delivery and timing is priceless), and achieves the miracle of making her paradoxical character make absolute sense.
Bruce Willis and Demi Moore were still married when Mortal Thoughts was released, and while both were a bit off my radar at the time, I recall that they were a really annoying “power” couple in Hollywood. Both were riding high on recent successes: Moore exercising her clout by serving as producer on this film, Willis, hot off of two Die Hards (the flop of Hudson Hawk was waiting in the wings) was working off a lot of public ill-will (bad buzz from his offscreen Moonlighting behavior, a couple of ear-bleeder vanity records, and those cringe-worthy wine cooler commercials) by taking on a role in his wife’s film which played on what many thought of him anyway. It’s a film industry career ploy known as “Give the audience permission to hate you and they’ll get it out of their system.” A disliked celebrity takes on a self-deprecating or self-referential role and bingo, career clemency.
I can't vouch for those wine cooler commercial out of my system, but I do enjoy hating Bruce Willis in this.
Quick shout-out to personal fave and scene-stealer Harvey Keitel who does
wonders with his small role.  Never disappoints

Mortal Thoughts didn’t perform well at the boxoffice, but to me it’s an underrated, undiscovered gem. It’s a smart, well-acted crime thriller that not only delivers in the suspense category, but invites the repeat viewing to appreciate the rich characterizations, vivid production values, and sharp execution. Pardon the pun. 
Really, one of my favorites.


The film's first line of dialogue is also its last

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Monday, November 27, 2017

THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE 1972

Warning: Spoilers galore

Looking back, I still find it hard to believe that I came to know of the existence of The Poseidon Adventure only after it had already opened in theaters. It was in December of 1972, I was 15-years-old, and my folks were treating my sisters and me to our first visit to Disneyland and Los Angles over the Christmas holidays. Disneyland and Universal Studios were, of course, a blast (this was back when Universal was ONLY a tour, not an amusement park, and the main attractions were Lucille Ball’s dressing room, the props from the Land of the Giants TV show, and the bridge Shirley MacLaine got pushed off of in Sweet Charity), but that was for the daytime.
In the evenings we drove and walked around Hollywood—you could do that back then—and I was utterly overwhelmed and enthralled by this city devoted to the movies. Hollywood Blvd was always kind of tacky, but in the early 1970s, all decked out in Christmas decorations, stars in the sidewalks, and overflowing with one first run movie house after another…to my eyes it looked every bit as magical as Main Street in Disneyland.

Who Will Survive-- In One Of The Greatest Escape Adventures Ever!
Gene Hackman as Reverend Frank Scott
Ernest Borgnine as Mike Rogo 
Stella Stevens as Linda Rogo
All of the 1972 holiday movie releases had opened: Grauman’s Chinese featured Streisand’s Up The Sandbox, Diana Ross was at The Pantages in Lady Sings the Blues, the Cinerama Dome had the Patty Duke thriller You’ll Like My Mother, the Pacific was showing The Getaway with Steve McQueen & Ali MacGraw, and Paul Newman was at the Hollywood (currently a Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum) in The Life & Times of Judge Roy Bean.
Adding considerably to the excitement was the fact that movie theaters still went all out in the way of promotional materials and displays, so every theater was bathed in colorful neon, aglow with bright and flashing lights, and everywhere you looked were banners, streamers, oversized posters, and huge cardboard promotional cutouts for movies currently running and others coming soon. My eyes were popping out of my head.

But what really stopped in my tracks when we came upon the beautiful and enormous Egyptian Theater. Here, towering at least two stories high above the theater’s massive, winding marquee was the poster art for a film I’d somehow not heard a single thing about: The Poseidon Adventure. The Egyptian, every bit as ornate and elaborate as Grauman’s Chinese, was in the middle of an exclusive run of The Poseidon Adventure after having hosted the film’s premiere a week prior. Remaining evidence of the glamorous event were the massive cast portraits adorning the sprawling marquee, taller-then-me cutout posters, hanging banners, production stills, posters, and lobby cards as far as I could see. Suddenly I was surrounded by images of what looked like the most exciting film I’d never heard of.
Shelley Winters as Belle Rosen 
Jack Albertson as Manny Rosen
Red Buttons as James Martin
Carol Lynley as Nonnie Parry
To understand how a dyed-in-the-wool film fan type like myself managed not to hear a single advance word about a movie that went on to become not only one of my all-time favorites, but the second highest grossing film of the year, it helps to know what kind of year for film 1972 was. In both fan magazines and the legitimate press, the lion’s share of 1972 movie coverage/publicity centered around these high-profile titles: The Godfather (Brando’s comeback!), Cabaret (Judy’s daughter makes good!), Last Tango in Paris (Le Scandale!), Lady Sings the Blues (a Supreme film debut!), The Getaway (behind-the-scenes adultery!), and What’s Up Doc? (Streisand meets New Hollywood wunderkind!).

I don't think many other films had much of a chance of competing with the publicity juggernaut surrounding these high-profile releases. Besides, given my age and cineaste pretensions, I’m certain that had any news about The Poseidon Adventure managed to reach me in the midst of rapt my absorption in all the above titles, I most likely would have leapt to conclusions concerning the involvement of Irwin Allen (whom I associated with gimmicky, cheap-looking TV shows), and made snobbish assumptions about that film’s cast of past-their-prime notables. A roster which, with the exception of Gene Hackman, struck me less like a Grand Hotel-style“all-star” movie cast and more like a TV Guide listing of a particularly feeble week on Johnny Carson’s sofa.

But there I was, standing in the middle of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, staring up at grand-scale movie hype at its best, hoping beyond hope that my parents would decide to terminate our sightseeing foot tour on the spot and insist we all go in to see this suddenly must-see movie that very minute.
Roddy McDowall as Acres
Pamela Sue Anderson as Susan Shelby
Eric Shea as Robin Shelby
Leslie Nielsen as Captain Harrison
Arthur O'Connell as John, the ship's Chaplain 
The Poseidon Adventure opened on December 15th in Los Angeles, but by the time we returned home to San Francisco, had not yet been released. The Poseidon Adventure opened at San Francisco’s Alexandria a week later on Friday the 22nd. So, over that weekend and several more times before school reconvened, I saw The Poseidon Adventure…and what an adventure it was. For weeks afterward, I couldn’t enter a classroom, library, store, or home of a friend without imagining what it would look like upside down. 

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS MOVIE
It says a lot about the traditionalism of TV and studio-era films that by age 15 I’d already grown pretty well-versed in recognizing movie clichés. While I’d not yet seen many of the films that established the familiar tropes from which ‘70s disaster movies would later draw (The High and the Mighty, Zero Hour!, The Last Voyage); I was familiar enough with combat movies (dangerous situation + dissimilar people from all walks of life + hero = everyone discovers what they’re really made of), all-star ensemble melodramas (the aforementioned Grand Hotel), and waterlogged thrillers (Lifeboat, A Night to Remember), for the of The Poseidon Adventure’s high-concept upside-down ocean liner premise to sound both intensely original while at the same time sounding reassuringly familiar.
Reverend Scott, not looking exactly pleased to have someone besides himself talking.
Far left is actress Frieda Rentie, sister of 227 actress Marla Gibbs

On New Year’s Eve the ocean liner S.S. Poseidon (significantly, at least in terms of ironic poignancy, making her final voyage before the scrap heap) is capsized by a tidal wave. While several passengers survive the breathtakingly entertaining catastrophe; only nine of the ship’s most stock and photogenic passengers ultimately elect to follow the long-winded Reverend (Hackman) on a perilous climb to safety via navigating their way up to the ship’s bottom.
Everyone involved—save for the resourceful reverend, who oozes so much self-reliance and leadership qualities he can’t help but grow tiresome—is spectacularly ill-suited to the task, but any life-or-death struggle that begins with a ragtag group of “types” having to climb a big, tinsely Christmas tree to salvation is my kind of calamity. And so, armed with little more than pluck, guts, elderly body-shaming, and tight-fitting hot pants; our intrepid troupe begins their adventure.

Meet The Players / Character Shorthand
He's a Rebel 'Cause He Never, Ever Does What He Should
In the interest of saving time, Rev. Scott--who's such a hip, throw-out-the-(Good)book type he wears a turtleneck instead of a clerical collar--simply tells us what we might have otherwise found out about him from, y'know, paying attention and following the plot
The Bickersons
Common-but decent police detective Mike Rogo and his foul-mouthed former-prostitute wife Linda, are a kind of Bronx George and Martha. Mike thinks Rev. Scott is a loudmouth, Linda refers to Mrs. Rosen as "Ol' Fat ass." Ergo, they are my favorite characters in the film. 
My Yiddishe Grandmama & Papa
As though their borscht-belt accents weren't a dead giveaway, the film makes sure we know Belle & Manny are Jewish by introducing Manny with his nose in an Israel travel brochure, and Belle knitting their grandson a sweater with prayer shawl stripes.
Coded and Fabulous
James Martin--the real hero of film, as he is the one who comes up with the idea to climb to the hull--is gay. No one can tell me otherwise. This 50-something bachelor haberdasher might actually have said something about it had Belle, the Hasidic Heteronormative Buttinsky ("It comes from caring"), not pressed that "What you need is a pretty wife" business.  However, it's not likely anyone bought his "I'm too busy" line anyway. Mr. Martin's character would essentially be out and proud in the 2006 Poseidon remake, but the movie itself was so lousy, no one cared.
Damsel in Distress
My real-life experience has been that in moments of crisis, more men & women act more like Nonnie than Rev. Scott, but that doesn't stop this fraidy-cat,  easy-listening songbird from being a bit of a pill. She's genuinely sweet though, and as one of cinema's most high-profile fag hags (you don't honestly think she and middle-aged Mr. Martin became a post-rescue romance, did you?), I like to imagine Nonnie and Mr. Martin became friends: she tagging along on his visits to The Mine Shaft, or meeting up for Sunday brunches in the Village
Susan Being Polite To Mr. You're Not Reverend Scott (Ernie Orsatti)
Although I don't ever recall a brother actually calling his sister "Sis" instead of her given name in real-life, I suppose it was important for the film to establish lovesick Susan and "all boy" Robin (so much the stereotype I expected him to say "Jeepers!") weren't some kind of Susan Anton/Dudley Moore couple.
Sure, his role is brief, but after three Planet of the Apes movies, I'm sure Roddy McDowall is simply glad to show his real face in a movie again. More a plot device than a character, what exactly is Acres' accent? I thought he was British (with a Liverpool lilt), but someone told me he's supposed to be Scots (maybe due to that bagpipes crack?)

In the 1972 shout-fest X, Y and Zee, Elizabeth Taylor has the line:“I may be the worst thing in the world, but I carry it in front where you can see it!”  Well, if The Poseidon Adventure could speak, that would be its mantra. It’s old-fashioned, schlocky, and loaded with what director Ronald Neame (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) labeled “carboardy” characters; but the film carries it all out in front where you can see. 
The Poseidon Adventure, a 20th Century Fox film, wears its corniness proudly on its sleeve. It’s a big, family-friendly film that was a conscious thumb of the nose to the incoherence (Fox’s Myra Breckinridge -1970), drugs (Fox’s The Panic in Needle Park -1971), and vulgarity (Fox’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls - 1970) of New Hollywood.
Sure, The Poseidon Adventure is hokey, soapy, cliché ridden, and a terribly contrived, but (miracles of miracles) it works. And rather magnificently, at that! I loved the premise, enjoyed the archetypal characters, and I was thrilled as all getout by the upside-down sets and the real-life special effects. Most surprising of all was that the filmmakers not only got me to care about these characters, but to also feel something about their fates. Who knew a cheesy movie could be so moving?
The terrible remake (which Carol Lynley called “The biggest piece of shit I’ve ever seen”) cost 32 times more and had CGI wizardry up the ass, but I never gave a whit about what happened to anyone in it. The Poseidon Adventure was ripped apart by many critics in its day, but it has aged well. What seemed corny in 1972 looks rather sweet today. And makers of today's disposable action films could a lesson from how The Poseidon Adventure takes the time to get us to know/care about the characters before the mayhem starts). This film is now 45 years old, and in spite of its well-earned reputation as a campy favorite, I can't help but think that in the realm of disaster movies, The Poseidon Adventure is some kind of a minor classic of the genre.
As both Beyond The Poseidon Adventure and The Swarm proved, when Irwin Allen directs, the result is a guaranteed disaster. An invaluable boon to The Poseidon Adventure was handing the directing chores over to Ronald Neame and leaving the action sequences to Allen

PERFORMANCES
One of the peculiarities of the disaster film genre is that things don’t actually improve when “good” actors are cast in the roles. The genre doesn’t need performances, it needs personas. Nothing bogs a disaster film down more than a so-called serious actor trying to give a “performance.” For example--for all their innate talent, you’d have to look to an Ed Wood movie to find performances worse than Olivia de Havilland in The Swarm, or Jack Lemmon in Airport ’77.
Leslie Nielsen as Captain Harrison
Young viewers are surprised and delighted to see the Airplane and Naked Gun star in a serious role. However, those of us of a certain age know that for decades, THIS Leslie Nielsen was the only Leslie Nielsen there was.
No, with the genre’s emphasis on action and expediency, it’s often a matter of finding actors with distinct, identifiable, almost over-emphatic screen personas, capable of projecting a level of conviction appropriate to the arch dialogue and bigger-than-life goings on.
Much in the manner that Vincent Price became the master of schlock horror sincerity, disaster film actors who take their roles too seriously come off as ridiculous, while the most effective performances are those that seem to operate on a level of magic reality that hovers somewhere between authentic and artificial.
The distinction I'm trying to make is that while the cast of The Poseidon Adventure may all be quite excellent actors in their own right, what they're called upon to do in The Poseidon Adventure doesn't require "good" acting so much as "effective" acting. To make material like this believable, it matters more to strike the right tone; in which case performances ranging from hammy to hoary can prove to be 100% on the money.
My absolute favorite shot in the entire film, also my favorite moment.
No matter how many times I see The Poseidon Adventure, Linda Rogo's death remains for me the most shocking and heart-wrenching. Winters' Belle Rosen was set up from the beginning to be nobly tragic, but Mike and Linda Rogo were the couple I identified with. They weren't know-it-alls, they weren't noble, and they said the things I was thinking. They were funny, sweet, and a life-force in the film, and Linda's death reverberated like no other. Ernest Borgnine just breaks my heart in this scene and I always get waterworks from his reaction. To me he was always the film's most valuable player.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
By no means all, but just a few of my favorite things:
I don't care how dated the special effects are, the capsizing of the Poseidon is epic moviemaking
(Gotta love Red Buttons during this part. That's not acting)
No one on the Poseidon faced a bigger challenge than these two trying to find the beat
I love Mrs. Rosen
Even in 1972, the Hot Pants Under The Gown Reveal drew gasps and laughs.
Loving Linda's reaction
That Dive!
The biggest shock of the film. It got laughs, applause, and cheers
I love Linda Rogo

The Poseidon Adventure is a favorite. You'll never hear me call it one of the best films ever made; I don't buy into revisionist assessments ranking it a genuine classic (it's great for what it is, but let's not forget what it is); nor do I harbor illusions about its depiction of women (save for Belle and her big moment, the men are all active while the women are reactive) and lack of people of color in the major cast (Akers & Belle occupy the stereotypical roles of ethnics in action films: "first to die" and "noble sacrifice").
Yet there's no denying The Poseidon Adventure is one of those imperfect films that achieves a kind of lightning-in-a-bottle kind of excellence. From script (dialogue, primarily) to characterizations, to outlandish (albeit exciting) premise; it shouldn't really work as beautifully as it does. But you'd have to look hard and long to find a disaster film that does it better. It's one of the best of its breed. I've come to regard it with such fondness, I've noticed that over the years my laughs of derision have turned into laughs of affection. Despite its flaws, I fully understand why it has endured and why so many people have taken it to their hearts.


BONUS MATERIAL
In 1973 MAD magazine once again did a movie satire that hit the nail on the head. In "The Poopsidedown Adventure" the characters are named: Reverend Shout, Hammy & Bellow Roseman, Snoozin & Rotten, Mr. Martyr, Ninny, Mr. Rougho, Limber, and Apers.

The juxtaposition of Shelley Winters' name to the title of the film "Fat City" causes Robert Duvall to lose it when reading the 1973 Academy Award nominees for Best Supporting Actress. And don't buy the "for public consumption" explanation Duvall gave the press saying that he was laughing because James Caan was making faces from the audience. Though it's nothing compared to U.S. norms today, Shelly Winters' weight was a major source of comedy and comment, a Johnny Carson monologue staple, and all anyone could talk about in 1972. HERE

The internet is loaded with information, fansites, trivia, casting factoids, reunion videos, and clips pertaining to The Poseidon Adventure film and any one of its numerous stage incarnations.
Copyright © Ken Anderson