Faye Doubt

PUZZLE OF A DOWNFALL CHILD — with its purposely enigmatic, arch title standing as a slight warning to all those about to enter — is a brilliantly edited, handsomely shot and designed film with an entrancing central performance and strong support (including the wonderful Viveca Lindfors and a pre-leathery Roy Scheider). I don’t know that I’d call it a masterpiece or a major work, but I might. It’s going to take a little more digesting, a couple more viewings.

Faye Dunaway is one of the few stars who could convincingly play a fashion model, since she has not only the beauty and thinness and height but the right KIND of beauty. Hollywood movies tended to cast preposterously unsuitable types as models, so you’d get the likes of Susan Hayward on the runway. Almost uniquely, this movie has convincing models and convincing and attractive clothes for them to wear.

Dunaway’s gift for neurosis is what makes her doubly suitable for her role, as the character falls apart in a blur of self-obsession, lies, loneliness and (totally offscreen) drug abuse. The film is typically vague about the medical specifics of her mental breakdown (see also PLAY IT AS IT LAYS) — is she depressed, anxious, schizophrenic? The latter seems hinted at, with paranoid delusions creeping in. Then we see her condemned to the high fashion wing of a stark-white limbo asylum and it’s all maybe a little too chic (but visually stunning, and they’re consciously pushing it into fantasy).

But the colour-supplement grain of Adam Holender and Michael Small’s score exemplify the film’s virtues — they are highly aesthetic, and very much of their time, but applied intelligently so they’re not merely fashionable. The same goes for all of Jerry Schatzberg’s directorial choices, which exploit the broad stylistic and technical palette of 70s American film without ever treading outside the bounds of visual good taste — no wanking the zoom bar, no excessive filters, “psychedelic” camera flare, no freeze-frames or split-screens (all of which can be justifiable, but which tend to be more abused than used). It’s a beautiful object, animated by Dunaway’s exposed nerve of a performance.

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13 Responses to “Faye Doubt”

  1. My one problem with casting Faye Dunaway as a model is that her face has too much character and expression.

    Other actresses at that time might have been more convincing as models (Candice Bergen, Jennifer O’Neill) but they could never have mustered the emotional intensity this role demands.

    That small quibble aside, PUZZLE strikes me as some sort of overlooked masterpiece. Had it been made in French, it would doubtless be hailed as a classic!

  2. And of course it IS hailed as a classic, BY the French.

    Must watch Scarecrow next.

  3. specterman Says:

    Quite pretentiously (I really can’t help myself) I like to call this the ‘burnt-psyche’ genre. Il deserto rosso, Repulsion. The directer sets out to capture the subjective look of the world from the point of someone who is completely falling apart. When I call them this I seem be thinking of an image of Icarus somewhere along the line, but it doesn’t really fit as the characters always seem to be too imprisoned from the start to be thought of as flying too close to the sun. Maybe it’s because they’re all played by beautiful women, the beauty somehow mysteriously factoring into the madness.

    This certainly is an underrated film. Some very eye-catching editing and an abundance of very strong, elegant images yet the overall mood never seems disrupted . The shot of Viveca Lindfors broken glasses is priceless (I was so sure this part was played by Lilli Palmer at first).

    Dunaway is very, very good in this. The only thing I remember sticking out badly is the acting and direction of the adolescent flashback scenes. Well they’re supposed to be odd for a number of reasons but they just don’t seem to work. I did get swept along with the hospital scenes though, even though as you say they certainly border on stylistic excess.

    It’s a Carole Eastman script too, same year as Five Easy Pieces. Not bad.

  4. The weird thing about Faye playing a 15-year-old…it sounds totally ludicrous, but her acting is so fantastic that she ALMOST gets away with it!

  5. Disgraceful of me not to research the writer… what an interesting career. I’ve been meaning to look at The Fortune properly (it strikes me as the point after which Mike Nichols ceases to be dependably at least INTERESTING and engaged).

    The flashbacks wrestle with the question of how to show Dunaway as a young teen, and they tiptoe into closeups quite carefully, by which time we should have the idea that this is all her imagination anyway.

    Repulsion seems like it takes that extra step into full-blown psychosis, and takes the audience with it, which is a little different than your other examples. Pasolini wrote a long essay about using the subjective view of a neurotic woman as a basis for basically all cinema… but he never really made a film on those lines, did he?

  6. Jerry Schaztzberg began his career as a fashion photographer and Faye Dunaway did do some modelling early on as well. “Lou Andreas Sand” is one hell of a name for a heroine (especilaly if you’re familiar with Lou Andreas Salome) Her obsession with Anna Mae Wong is the very height of chic.

    The one performer you forgot to mention is Barry Primus. But everyone seems to forget him — alas.
    Barry Primus got his start in the legendary cult musical “The Nervous Set.” He played the lead in St Louis but when the show went to Broadway understudied the lead and was part of the chorus. He was most memorable in New York New York and directed a film of his own, Mistress that is darkly amusing.

    Faye’s self-directed re-written rendition of Terence McNally’s Master Class has been in the can for at least a year with no takers. I’m dying to see this cinematic train wreck.

  7. Poor Barry Primus — a fine actor and the most overlooked player in the early Scorsese stock company.

    I find it as hard to be convinced by the notion of Faye as director as I do by Madonna, although I’m sure FD is smarter and she’s sure as hell more talented. Seems more like she’s gone behind the camera because her artificial looks are no longer plausible in front of it, unless she’s playing a rich old lady in a contemporary story. And there aren’t enough roles like that.

  8. specterman Says:

    That Pasolini essay sounds fascinating, I’ll have to track it down.

    Yes, Repulsion is a different kettle of fish at the end of the day. Maybe Persona would of fitted better into the scheme.

    Agree, Primus is very good in this too.

  9. Jenny Eardley Says:

    Wow, it took me 17 years to realise “what they did there” with the song title “Mellow Doubt” by your fellow Scots Teenage Fanclub. Thanks for the clue.

  10. It’s too subtle! That’s the trouble with this blog post title too. But I didn’t want to go with “Faye Dingaway.”

  11. Alas, I’m not surprised to hear Faye’s version of MASTER CLASS (presumably, with the lady herself as Maria Callas) has not yet found a distributor. Franco Zeffirelli’s film CALLAS FOREVER was a big flop some years ago – even though it’s actually rather good!

    Faye has, however, played Callas to triumphant effect on stage. So whatever cinematic slip-ups there are, it should at least be good value as a one-woman show.

  12. Well 2 years later and years in the making Faye Dunaway’s Masterclass is sadly a lost film. Mixed reports, but it seems she never got to finish it. Weirdly the main reason for it getting “lost” is down to Mike Nichols (also mentioned on this thread-magical)
    He’s doing his own version for HBO with Meryl Streep, which I’m sure the 2 Davids will hate :)

    Poor Miss Dunaway though. Ricky Blitt says that every studio driver in LA has a nightmare Faye story. So do a lot of message board posters…

    Also for another 1970s film where the mental breakdown lack medical specifics-Woman Under the Influence. Used to really get to me, until I realized that’s not what the film was about.
    Three films could almost be a trend

    Did you ever see any more Schatzberg? Like Perry I think he’s extremely underrated. Recommend Scarecrow, Panic, and one of Cannon’s best Street Smart, which works even better when you realise the hero is an ass

  13. I got to meet him, briefly, at the Lumiere Fest, and have been meaning to try Scarecrow. I’m intrigued to hear about Street Smart, which I never realized was anything I should be bothered with.

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