Monday, May 29, 2017

Clint Eastwood's Directorial Debut 'Play Misty for Me' Still Delivers Chills

Clint Eastwood showed Jessica Walter how to hold a knife on camera so that it caught the light.Thanks for the tip, Clint.

Play Misty for Me scared the life out of me as a ‘70s Yooper kid. After watching Misty again, 40-something years later, this slasher thriller may seem tame to today’s audiences. The 1971 suspense film still startles, thanks to no-frills storytelling and a thrilling turn by Jessica Walter as the scary woman scorned.

'Misty' was made on a shoe-string and made a mint. Clint also starred as
'Dirty Harry' the same year, the box-office equivalent of Fort Knox.
Clint Eastwood stars as Dave Garver, a dreamy-voiced DJ in Carmel, CA. Dave spins records, recites poetry, and generally turns his listeners on. The latter certainly holds true for Dave’s biggest fan, who regularly calls to make the title request. A “chance” encounter at a local bar leads DJ Dave and # 1 fan Evelyn Draper to spend the night together—as the then-popular Stones song goes. For Dave, it’s a casual encounter, but for Evelyn, life or death—his! Dave is on hiatus with his hippie girlfriend, Tobie, who wants commitment. Their relationship is on the rocks because of his roving eye. Dave seems to shrug off the serial shagging on his part, while bitching that Tobie always has—roommates! Perhaps they put a crimp on the couple’s alone time…a good thing she doesn’t live in a commune. While Dave begs Tobie for another chance, he still placates needy Evelyn with one more session of pity sex. Dave tries to make the break final, but his #1fan turns out to be fanatic. Evelyn takes “slash and burn” tactics to a new level.

Clint as Dave, Carmel's sexy DJ who meets his #1 fan...fanatic.
Star Clint Eastwood, in his directorial debut, filmed Misty on location in Carmel, CA, his home all these years. Eastwood has always been a lean machine when it comes to keeping his films simple and under budget. No ego-maniac epics or wasted money on Clint’s resume.  Eastwood shot the movie in a number of homes, restaurants, bars, and even the local radio station—no sets or process shots here. There’s also the natural beauty of the Pacific coast, well-utilized here. According to Jessica Walter, Clint requested that the female stars kept their makeup and clothes simple. Clint didn’t want female leads Walter and Donna Mills slathered in standard studio makeup. The clothes budget reflected the characters’ lifestyles. Though it’s easy to laugh at Misty’s ‘70s mod hairdos and duds—that’s what people were wearing at the time.

Clint, with his soft voice, is well-cast as the DJ and playboy. After the swinging ‘60s, baby boomers were heading into the “me decade.” It always amuses me to see stars from the prior generation, who came of age in the ‘50s, sporting long hair, beads, and groovy threads. Clint was 41 here, a long way from Rowdy Yates. Whether intended or not, Dave’s aging Peter Pan DJ actually adds depth to Clint’s characterization. DJ Dave has played both sides to the middle for too long, and now he is cock-blocked by a one night stand who won’t say goodbye.

Jessica Walter as Evelyn Draper, who wields a knife much like Joan Crawford does an ax in 'Strait-Jacket,' with diva gusto!
Clint Eastwood is a generous superstar when it comes to sharing the screen—no Barbra Streisand tactics of hiring big name supporting casts, who then get edited down to cameos. Clint seems secure enough to let talented co-stars shine, especially his female stars. Eastwood basically hands Play Misty for Me to Jessica Walter on a silver platter. As Evelyn Draper, Walter has one of those showy, dramatic roles that would have nabbed an Oscar nomination a decade or two before. Draper is a throwback to an old-school movie diva role that Joan Crawford might have played—1947’s Possessed meets ‘64’s Strait-Jacket? Jessica certainly has some of Joan’s wild-eyed, husky-voiced intensity. Evelyn Draper goes from sassy and sexy to needy and nuts in a blink of an eye, and Walter takes us on a wild ride. Evelyn Draper is really a younger, sexy version of all the star turns in “hag horror” movies from the ‘60s. But Misty was released in the early ‘70s, when realism and/or British actresses seemed to get most of the Oscar nods. Still, Walter got raves and a Golden Globe nomination—and her performance is right up there with Arrested Development’s loony Lucille Bluth. The actress has said that the key to making Evelyn Draper believable—and scarier—was to play her as not thinking she was crazy.

Donna Mills as Tobie, Clint's hippie chick artist with a Brady Bunch shag.
Donna Mills, later celebrated as evil Abby Ewing on Knots Landing, is warm and sensible as Tobie Williams, Clint’s cool but fed-up hippie chick artist. Unfortunately for Mills, she gets saddled with most of the era’s “hip” dialogue. While pondering  their relationship, Mills gets to recite clinkers even more eye-rolling than from that other Pacific coast free spirit artist, Liz Taylor in The Sandpiper.

Unlike its remake rip-off, Fatal Attraction, there are no pretensions with Play Misty for Me; it’s just a well-made, down-and-dirty thriller. Except for the ‘70s styles and some old-school “character-defining” dialogue, Misty feels modern and direct. Play Misty for Me, like Psycho, was bankrolled by Universal Studios for just under a million dollars, over a decade later. Though not the classic or blockbuster that was Psycho, Misty made a mint at the box-office. Misty marked the beginning of a long, increasingly distinguished directorial career for Clint Eastwood. Play Misty for Me is most memorable for the all-stops-out performance by Jessica Walter, who should have become a major movie star after her turn as evil Evelyn Draper.
Lucille Bluth, before she switched to martinis!

Monday, May 22, 2017

Written on the Wind: Soapy and Subversive

Written on the Wind: Sirk du Soleil!

What more can I write about Written on the Wind? So much has already been said about the films of director Douglas Sirk. The super soap opera about superrich Texans was a big hit in 1956 and a cult favorite to boot. What gives Written on the Wind staying power is Sirk’s subtle critique on post-war America and strikingly visual storytelling style.

Dorothy as Mary Lee works those arched eyebrows in this sexy Texas saga.
Sirk is the model of storytelling economy, epitomized in the opening credits of Written on the Wind. Over the sweet sounds of The Four Aces, the story is succinctly set up: Rich boy Kyle Hadley is drunk and racing his sports car back home, for a showdown with his best friend, Mitch Wayne, who booted him out. Roaring into the driveway, he smashes his bottle against the brick mansion. Waking the servants, alerting his sleazy sister, Mary Lee Hadley, long-suffering wife Lucy, and pal Mitch, the plastered prodigal son has returned. Door left wide open, Kyle lumbers into the library. His sister flits down the staircase and follows. From outside, a gunshot is heard, Kyle Hadley staggers out, and collapses in the driveway. The camera cuts to his bedroom, where his wife faints, and a calendar’s pages fall back to the story’s beginning. All this in just three minutes and six seconds!

Douglas Sirk’s postwar films are the ones on which his reputation rests. On their surface, Sirk’s cinema seems over-the-top glamorous, slickly soapy, and artificially emoted. Audiences then and even now take such films as Magnificent Obsession, All that Heaven Allows, and Imitation of Life at face value, as guilty pleasure wallows. Others have deconstructed the work of Douglas Sirk, for what lies beneath his glossy facades, sometimes to the point of absurdity.

Malone as Mary Lee, seeking comfort with a miniature oil derrick ?
Still, moviegoers today easily see that there is more than meets the eye to Sirk’s ‘50s films. I’ll never forget watching Written on the Wind with my folks and its infamous finale—the rich sister all alone, caressing her father’s miniature oil derrick—Mom and Dad burst into laughter. Sirk took the disadvantages of censorship and confining studio system film making and worked it to his advantage. Social and sexual issues were played out in the guise of a soap opera: The older woman-younger man relationship of All That Heaven Allows; the disillusioned breadwinner of There’s Always Tomorrow; the hedonistic playboy in Magnificent Obsession, or the racial issues of Imitation of Life. Written on the Wind tackles unchecked wealth and power, sexuality and sterility.

Mary Lee Hadley's mambo of death.
Some of the cited examples of Sirk’s genius can be a bit of a reach. One such claim is that Written on the Wind’s visuals were deliberately and blatantly artificial. To me, Wind doesn’t look any different than other ‘50s films. Rear projection, matte scenery, backlot outdoor sets, and interior sets were all standard issue then. Sirk skillfully used the devices in his films, heightened with his expressive lighting and camera angles.

Rock Hudson in leading man mode as Mitch Wayne.
Written on the Wind is twice the soap, in half the time, as Giant, George Stevens’ take on Texas, also came out at the end of ‘56. The two epics have interesting parallels. Rock played steady Eddie Bick Benedict in Giant to James Dean’s Jett Rink, the wildcatter who cracks up. In Written on the Wind, Hudson’s Mitch is a strait-laced version of Jett, the outsider looking in. And Robert Stack’s dissolute rich jerk Kyle is how Jett Rink ends up in Giant.

The eternal triangle, as viewed by Douglas Sirk in 'Written on the Wind.'
Since the release of Written on the Wind, many film critics, fans, and historians criticized Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall as boring, while praising Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone for their showy performances. I beg to differ. If all four stars had engaged such scenery chewing, the Hadleys’ mansion would have been reduced to rubble. Somebody had to be the straight man—ironically, that fell to Rock Hudson. As Mitch Wayne, Rock meets the pre-requisites for a top tier leading man: Hudson is at his handsomest, along with his warm personality, intelligence, and one of the best speaking voices of his movie generation. Robert Stack, who had the killer role of Kyle, later praised Hudson for not pulling rank as the star and ordering Stack’s star-making role reduced. Frankly, I think Rock might have played the rich boy better than stone-faced Stack.

Lauren Bacall as Lucy, pondering her future as wife of a rich playboy. 
Instead of playing her usual snarky tough cookie here, Lauren Bacall is Lucy, the leading lady—which I found a refreshing change of pace. Watching Bacall, chic in a grey suit during the film’s NYC scenes, I thought it a shame Alfred Hitchcock never gave Betty Bacall the nod as one of his famed blondes. Naturally, not the fragile ones of Vertigo or Marnie, but Bacall would have been the bomb in North by Northwest with Cary Grant. My sister, when watching Hollywood movies from the ‘50s and early ‘60s, has commented how matronly the shellacked hairdos and cartoonish makeup makes the leading ladies look. In Written on the Wind, Lauren Bacall sports stylish hair and makeup, but it’s subtle, and she rarely looked better onscreen after her sexy starlet days. Lauren Bacall brings her usual pragmatic personality to Lucy, but it is tempered with warmth, something that wasn’t always present in her screen roles.

Even Kyle's sister snidely comments on his 'electric personality!'
I’m not the first to point this out, but the big problem with Written on the Wind is why anyone would put up with Kyle Hadley for a New York minute. As the poor little rich boy given to grand gestures, he flies from Texas to the Big Apple for lunch. This is where Robert Stack’s Kyle meets Bacall’s Lucy, snagging her away from Hudson’s Mitch. Kyle is drinking and showboating, which puts Lucy off. She attempts to get away from him, but the rich kid reveals his real self, which makes the city girl view him in a different light. The problem is Kyle, as written and performed, does not inspire awe or sympathy. Kyle is either drunk and obnoxious or sober and morose. 
I grew up watching Robert Stack sporting a trench coat and acting like a dull detective in Unsolved Mysteries. Stack was a grade B Charlton Heston, deadpan sneer and broadcasting boom of a voice. Robert Stack gives his all as the lost soul playboy, but that’s not saying much. He does have his moments. One that I found affecting is when wife Lucy tries to find out why Kyle is back on the bottle, after a year of sobriety. When Kyle feels he’s failing Lucy as a husband, Sirk cleverly makes sterility Kyle’s issue, though a probable closet case might be closer to the truth. Sitting at his bedside the morning after, she asks, “Do you love me?” Stack as Kyle replies, “I don’t even love myself.” With that, he rolls over and pulls the covers over his head—a stunning moment for a he-man actor in a ‘50s movie.

Like Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone spent over a decade paying her showbiz dues. As Mary Lee Hadley in Written on the Wind, Malone plays the “nymphomaniac” rich girl who pines for Hudson’s Mitch, a childhood friend to both her and the brother. She resents Kyle for “taking away” Mitch as they grew up.

What would a Douglas Sirk movie be without a mirror scene? Sisters-in-law Malone and Bacall having a catty reflection.
As Mary Lee, Dorothy Malone cashes in on her showy role and pulls out all the stops. Whether taunting her family, picking up men in dive bars, getting the dirt on others, or dancing with deadly abandon, Malone is all sexy moves and mugging. Unlike stone-faced Stack, Malone was an expressive actress who could be just as stunning when she took it down a few notches. Her scenes of expressing her unwavering love for Mitch are touching. The big courtroom scene, with Malone as Mary Lee in a big black hat, gives Stack’s Kyle a moving epitaph: “He was sad, the saddest of us all. He needed so much and had so little.”

Douglas Sirk suddenly retired after his biggest hit, 1959’s Imitation of Life. I wonder how Sirk would have fared in the ‘60s, when realism in film quickly became the norm. My guess is that had Sirk stayed in Hollywood, he would have struggled much like Hitchcock, who found his similarly stylized storytelling obsolete by the middle of that decade. Still, Hollywood was cranking out glossy soap operas well into the 1960s. Some featured past Sirk collaborators like producer Ross Hunter and aging star Lana Turner. For those who think Douglas Sirk overrated, compare Imitation of Life to Ross and Lana’s Madame X. Or compare Sirk’s work to director Delmer Daves, who picked up the soap mantle when the veteran director retired—Magnificent Obsession or Youngblood Hawke? And all those sexy ‘60s soaps with Liz Taylor, Carroll Baker, Ann-Margret, etc. offer none of the emotional impact for their stars or audiences. 
Douglas Sirk was obviously doing something more than blowing cinematic soap bubbles.

High octane melodrama: Note the monogram on Mary Lee Hadley's caddy car door.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

'Bunny Lake is Missing' the Original Gone Girl

Bunny Lake is Missing is one of those flawed or fake—depending on your point of view—cinematic gems from the ‘60s, such as Marnie or Reflections in a Golden Eye. Or a rediscovered treasure, if you’re a revisionist. For me, while there’s much to recommend about Bunny Lake, the 1965 suspense film misses the mark.

Director Otto Preminger was a master of creating cinematic mood, his strong suit here. Bunny Lake begins with Saul Bass’ strikingly simple titles, over Paul Glass’ melancholy score. The set-up is powerfully simple: an American mother in London drops her four-year-old daughter at school; upon her return, nobody there has actually seen Bunny. The big question becomes: Has Bunny gone bye-bye or is this woman cray-cray?

Carol Lynley as the distraught mother and Keir Dullea is her supportive brother.
The leads are played by two perennial ingénues from the ‘60s. Carol Lynley, famed for lip-synching “The Morning After” in hot pants in The Poseidon Adventure, is Ann Lake. Keir Dullea, famous for dueling wits with Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey is her brother Steven. Two of England’s most revered theatrical greats support the brother-sister act: Laurence Olivier is the detective determined to get at the truth and Noel Coward plays Ann Lake’s nutty new landlord.

Once the cops are called and the investigation begins, Bunny Lake deflates instead of escalates. Preminger, who had a tendency toward the over-the-top showmanship, like stunt casting and titillating stories, uses diversionary tactics here. Since the villain is obvious and revealed early, there’s nowhere for the story to go. So, Preminger takes Lynley’s character and audiences on a joy ride via several set pieces that, while eerily effective, are a smokescreen for the lack of actual plot. Supporting characters, who range from quirky to bizarre, offer atmosphere but are really just red herrings.

Noel Coward as the nutty landlord  and alleged ladies' man!
First, Ann Lake and her brother Steven find the founder of the school stashed away, living on the third floor. She is played by Martita Hunt, memorable as Miss Havisham in David Lean’s Great Expectations. Apparently, Otto thought it would be an homage hoot to cast her as the dotty ex-school teacher, rattling on about recording children’s dreams and nightmares.
Back at home, Ann’s scenes with the lecherous landlord, an elderly poet crassly putting the make on the distressed mother, feels like a badly told dirty joke.

Lynley as Ann Lake, looking for her daughter, and here, her doll.
Bunny’s belongings seem to have gone missing, too. To prove that Bunny is real, Ann impulsively goes into downtown London on a busy night to retrieve a doll that’s under repair. Her visit to the “doll hospital” is eerie—of course! The owner appears to be out of his mind, and also electricity, since Ann is forced to look for her doll with a kerosene lamp. How dramatic for the distraught mother, to look for her doll among hundreds of others, by lamp light.
China doll Lynley’s character ends up in a hospital herself and her escape is almost as creepy as the doll’s rest home. These scenes all feel like detours, a delay to an absurd showdown.

Saul Bass created many memorable opening credits, several for  Otto Preminger films.
What makes Bunny Lake worth watching despite its shortcomings is the talent involved. Husband and wife screenwriting team John and Penelope Mortimer try hard to create suspense in a story where even the source material was stumped for a plausible resolution. Aside from Saul Bass’ brilliant titles and Paul Glass’ score, Denys N. Coop’s cinematography captures not only the mood, but 1960s London beautifully. One of Otto Preminger’s strengths as a director was his later preference for shooting entirely on location, with as few sets as possible. I wonder what Alfred Hitchcock’s more stylized storytelling, with his in-studio visual effects, would have made of this story. Interestingly, Preminger moved ‘65’s Bunny Lake’s story from New York City to London and Hitchcock transplanted ‘64’s Marnie from England to East Coast America.

Amusingly, MAD magazine's parody of 'Bunny Lake is Missing' nails all of its nagging flaws.
Bunny Lake is Missing is another of those films that was a failure upon its release, but now has revisionist fans and critics who claim it is an unappreciated masterpiece, much like Marnie. True, many films are underappreciated in their time and just as many hit films of their era now seem overrated. Movie-watching is a personal experience, but I read over-the-top accolades for famously uneven films or infamously lackluster actors with amused disbelief. I wonder if film historians/writers have been mining the same celluloid territory for so long that there’s nothing new to write about. Watching with rose-colored glasses, they try to convince everyone—and themselves—that a movie lemon is actually a cool cinematic drink of lemonade.

Laurence Olivier as the detective who has doubts about the Lynley's story.
Now, I can appreciate a film’s virtues, even if the parts do not add up to a satisfying whole. Despite being in perverse awe of its stupefying flaws, I am intrigued by Hitchcock’s Marnie. John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye and Joseph Losey’s Secret Ceremony are two other ‘60s psychological dramas that while uneven, offer stunning visuals, strong performances, and a fine sense of dread. However, I don’t mistake them for unsung classics, but think that film “failures” can be just as fascinating as cinema classics.

Carol Lynley and Keir Dullea: Lovely to look at, listless to watch.
While researching this film, I noticed that today’s champions of Bunny Lake is Missing are noticeably silent about the stars’ performances. Though bolstered by an excellent cast of British character actors, the lead performances in Bunny Lake range from bland to bananas. Carol and Keir, as sister and brother, with their huge blue eyes and angelic features, are lovely to look at. But their acting is wan, shallow, and a bit precious, which may be why neither starlet sustained a noteworthy film career. Latter day Laurence Olivier is usually pure ham, but here, Larry walks through this like a sleepwalker instead of a sleuth. Noel Coward makes up for that, as the landlord, Wilson. Coward is so flamboyant that he should be hitting on Keir, not Carol. Still, Noel hit on Dullea in his own way, with his renowned wit. When asked about the actor in an interview, Coward famously replied: “Keir Dullea, gone tomorrow!”

The biggest mystery of this movie is why British pop group The Zombies got co-starring billing when they only appear as themselves—on a pub television set.
Bunny Lake is Missing has atmosphere and A-team talent to spare—the only real thing missing is a story.
Headscratcher: The Zombies get co-star credit for this appearance in 'Bunny Lake!'