Archive for Patricia Highsmith

Watch Your Stepfather

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 26, 2019 by dcairns

Finally got around to THE STEPFATHER (1987), scripted by my beloved Donald E. Westlake. Although I had to make do with a rather crummy 4:3 DVD with a smeary image which made the film look even cheaper than it was.

That cheapness doesn’t have any negative impact on the visuals, but the synth score is intermittently a bother. Since the whole film aims for a HALLOWEEN look (suburban autumn — it’s an unavoidable connection), a score that was unapologetically electro could work, but this is one of those synth tracks that keeps trying to remind us of PSYCHO. Synth strings = ugh. I’ve been guilty of using them myself, I admit. Never again. All real violin in my last one.

Seems like this was a career high for a lot of those involved, people who by rights should have gone on to even better things: director Joseph Rubin is more than efficient, he conjures all the necessary suspense and moves the camera smartly and gracefully. I haven’t seen his later films, which look kind of… commercial? I should give them a try. Where to start? (And why didn’t he immediately make more films with Westlake? Maybe he tried.)

Oh, I have to admit, the interiors are a little… smoky. Well, it’s the eighties. But it’s PARTICULARLY noticable here that this lighting effect has no naturalistic reason to exist. Deduct points.

Westlake knew he had to do this film when the story was pitched to him and the central serial killer turned out to be doing something that Westlake’s own father did: leaving his job but not telling his family, going in “to work” every day but in reality looking for new employment. With Westlake Sr. the explanation was more innocent: he was laid off during the depression and was too ashamed to tell his wife. The Stepfather is just getting ready to move on to a new town and start a new family, as soon as he’s gotten rid of the old one, which isn’t working out for him…

Jill Schoelen is a great final girl, convincing as a teenager despite being around 24. Westlake writes shamelessly corny teenage stuff that feels REAL and is beautifully played. Then there’s the dependable Shelley Hack, so good in KING OF COMEDY. And Terry O’Quinn is just perfect as the psycho stepdad, taking some very well-crafted creepy stuff right to the edge. A lot of his choices — banality of evil cornpone — are risky, and wouldn’t work with another actor, but are just right for him. And while finding too much sympathy for this character would be plain wrong, you get the clear sense that this is not a happy man. His murders are part of his own disintegrating personality. “Waaiit a minute.. who am I here?” is a chilling moment.

All the actors are good, and the ones who have a B-movie blandness or else a lack of charisma are in fact perfect for their assigned roles. The movie has both an Arbogast AND an O’Halloran, characters who might be expected to show up and sort things out, but are instead taken out of the picture by the wily psycho.

Westlake’s skill at piling problems together to make suspenseful crises is much in evidence, and he knows his genre and can stretch it — on a couple of occasions, predictability is shortcircuited by outbursts of excessive violence, which is a wholly genre-appropriate way to keep things moveing and edgy. The small roles are well written (Westlake loved old movies and could channel their ability to sketch a memorable characterisation in moments) and both logic and good sense get their due. It’s a crying shame he didn’t write more movies that got made, and that so many of the adaptations are guff.

Guess it’s time I rewatched THE GRIFTERS, which allows us to see his response to Jim Thompson. His response to Patricia Highsmith, RIPLEY UNDERGROUND (a weird book with great scenes but ridiculous plotting) got rewritten, but I’m still curious to see it. Then there’s the enjoyable COPS AND ROBBERS (directed by the underrated Aram Avakian) and then there’s HOT STUFF and WHY ME? about which I have my doubts, but what the hell. I recently watched HERBIE GOES TO MONTE CARLO so I can’t really turn my nose up at them in advance.

And LE COMMISSAIRE MENE L’ENQUETE appears to be completely unavailable, with or without subtitles. Stars Dany Carrel. Be still, my beating heart. Well, LE COUPERET is the best film adaptation of Westlake, so one can say that he had some good luck in France (though it’s questionable if MADE IN USA even counts as a Westlake adaptation…)

Guidance from the experts?

Advertisements

This was a Train of Death

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , on March 1, 2019 by dcairns

More Bruno Ganz — in THE AMERICAN FRIEND he plays a dying man. The film uses green light, not in any obvious “sickly” way — it’s more associated with Dennis Hopper’s ennui than Ganz’s malady — and also trains. There’s an impressive murder staged on a train, but before that, the Paris Metro and a Hamburg el-train are featured, Hopper holds a canvas displaying a locomotive, and Ganz’s young son has Buster Keaton’s The General on his night-light.

The night-light is also one of many projection devices and photographic toy and motion picture gizmos featured, including a zoetrope, perhaps a nod to Wenders’ approaching collaboration with Francis Ford Coppola. We could also include Hopper’s Polaroid selfies and the tape deck he records his meandering thoughts into. (He’s quite UN-like Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley in these quirks, but still close enough to the essence).

Fiona had never seen it, and was surprised at how much of a thriller it actually was. “I mean, it’s very eccentric, but…” Wenders had succeeded in his goal, using the book to get closer to mainstream commercial cinema, without losing his individuality. Indeed, he never lost that, what he lost instead was his coolness, the confidence he evoked that whatever he concentrated on was really cool. I think it dates to the time the rock stars he worked with stopped being so cool. Lou Reed’s songwriting scene in FAR AWAY, SO CLOSE is probably the first cringe-making moment in a Wenders film. Worse than the guy doing a poo in KINGS OF THE ROAD.

Film Club: End of the Line

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 9, 2009 by dcairns

strangtra

So, Film Club ends its weekly tyranny of our schedules and goes monthly after this…

A psychopath proposes an exchange of murders with a tennis champ he meets by chance on a train. In exchange for strangling the tennis player’s wife, the psycho wants his father done away with…

Picked up a copy of Raymond Chandler Speaking at a library sale. Here he is on STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, a note intended either for Hitchcock or himself ~

“I nearly went crazy myself  trying to block out this scene. I hate to say how many times I did it. It’s darn near impossible to write, because consider what you have to put over:

(1) A perfectly decent young man agrees to murder a man he doesn’t know, has never seen, in order to keep a maniac from giving himself away and from tormenting the nice young man.

(2) From a character point of view, the audience will not believe the nice young man is going to kill anybody, nor has any idea of killing anybody.

(3) Nevertheless, the nice young man has to convince Bruno and a reasonable percentage of the audience that what he is about to do is logical and inevitable. This conviction may not outlast the scene, but it has to be there, or else what the hell are the boys talking about.

(4) While convincing Bruno of all this, he has yet to fail to convince him so utterly so that some suspicion remains in Bruno’s mind that Guy intends some kind of trick, rather than to go through with it in a literal sense.

(5) All through this scene (supposing it can be written this way) we are flirting with the ludicrous. If it is not written and played exactly right, it will be absurd. The reason for this is that the situation actually is ludicrous in its essence, and this can only be overcome by developing a sort of superficial menace, which really has nothing to do with the business in hand.

(6) Or am I still crazy?”

Remarkable, reading Chandler’s  cogently argued deconstruction of the inherent implausibility of the scene, that in the finished film it plays out so smoothly that you can’t imagine it was even difficult.

strange18

After the titles, the opening montage cross-cutting two pairs of feet on a collision course. I’d misremembered this as a title sequence, and I suspect a few years later that’s how they’d have done it. Music by Dimitri Tiomkin — Bernard Herrmann could have done wonders with this one, but then again, nearly all the great moments are accompanied by that scarifying wurlitzer version of The Band Played On, so there wouldn’t have been much for him to do. Amazing how often Hitch does weave the music into the plotline — it’s almost a constant technique.

Farley Granger as the nice young man — perhaps too nice? The more violent Guy feels towards his estranged wife, the better the story works. But I never had any real problem with Farley in the role (this movie is difficult to see, in  a way — what I see is myself as a kid watching it for the first time). Robert Walker is truly impressive. The camp mannerisms are just the right side of overdone, and balanced by the surprising physical strength, and weird flights of fancy to create a believable and unpredictable psychopath. Like Joseph Cotten in SHADOW OF A DOUBT, it’s clinically quite a shrewd portrayal, matching what we know of such types, but the two characters are nevertheless entirely distinct people. While Uncle Charlie occupied his mind with philosophy, charting his separation from and superiority over the world he moved through, Bruno Anthony’s restless brain flits from one crazy scheme to another. It’s not clear how many of them are japes and how many he entertains seriously: he seems to enjoy springing them on the unwary, just to get a reaction.

strange16

Hitching a ride.

As with ROPE, an idea which seems like a gag is taken too seriously by one party… in fact, ROPE, STRANGERS and DIAL M FOR MURDER form a sort of informal Perfect Murder Trilogy. Lots of Hitchcock films feature careful killers, but these three films hinge upon murder schemes that aim for artistry, and which must be explained to an appreciative audience. Brandon in ROPE has his accomplice, and also seems to hope that Jimmy Stewart’s going to catch on to the plot and come to respect its fiendish brilliance; Bruno needs a partner who shares his enthusiasm for the idea of swapping murders (which is where his plan miscarries); and Ray Milland will need to enlist a patsy to do his killing for him, which allows him to enjoy explaining just how clever he is.

strange12

The movie is a noir symphony of lampshades. Cinematographers take note — the solution is to have lots of lamps, with fairly opaque shades, so not too much light gets through.

The first act of STRANGERS plays out entirely in a criss-cross pattern, intercutting Guy and Bruno’s storylines, barely introducing Ruth Roman as Guy’s romantic interest, and leaving her family for later. To put over the jumps from character to character, Hitch has fun linking scenes with audio-visual connections, as when Bruno finishes his first encounter with Guy by murmuring “Criss-cross…” and Hitch cuts to the Metcalf station, the big X of a crossing sign in the centre of frame. Later, he’ll cut from Bruno”s watch, after the killing, to Guy looking at his own watch, fixing the time of the murder and Guy’s potential alibi.

(In counterpoint to this back-and-forth rhythm, Hitch favours long takes in the early scenes, playing a number of them in single sequence shots, which raises no ROPE-style difficulties since he doesn’t make a fetish of it. But there are some beautiful long takes here, marvelously played by Granger in particular, who of course has had practice.)

In fact, Bruno’s plan goes wrong from the start, when Guy can’t establish his whereabouts beyond a doubt. But it’s not a fatal flaw, since the authorities can’t place Guy at the crime scene. This makes the whole story possible. It’s quite ingeniously worked out, although Chandler complained that the story was inane.

“The question I should really like to have answered, although I don’t expect an answer to it in this lifetime, is why in the course of nailing the frame of a film together so much energy and thought are invariably expended, and have to be expended, in exactly this sort of contest between a superficial reasonableness and a fundamental idiocy. Why do film stories always have to have this element of the grotesque? Whose fault is it? Is it anybody’s fault? Or is it something inseparable from the making of motion pictures? Is it the price you pay for making a dream look as if it really happened? I think possibly it is.”

I think possibly it is in the case of Hitchcock…

strange14

Bruno’s murder of Guy’s wife (the viciously effective Kasey Rogers) is one of the more DePalmaesque sequences in Hitchcock, depending on a seedy conjunction of sexuality and violence, and upon an exploitation of the audience’s baser instincts. We’ve been led to dislike Rogers. Bruno is a fun character. And his stalking of his prey is mistaken by his prey for sexual interest. Hitch spoke often about how, in a suspense sequence, the filmmaker should not have the terrible, threatened thing, actually happen, yet here it does. The implication is that it’s not so terrible. Only Guy and Leo G Carroll, the boring moral voice character, think it is. And Guy is pretty conflicted/compromised.

Of course, Hitchcock is always morally aware, and so even the bravura, baroque reflected murder shot is played with an eye to discretion and a kind of restraint. And the aftermath is a slow come-down, designed to slowly calm the audience from their murder-lust and start them thinking about the consequences of Bruno’s indefensible act.

Czenzi Ormonde, a Ben Hecht assistant, tidied the script up when Chandler departed the project, leaving a bit of a mess behind him, and reports seeing first-hand Hitchcock’s fear of the police. And, like STAGE FRIGHT before it and I CONFESS after, much of the action here is based on an apparently innocent character’s persecution by the authorities. Here, as in the early spy movies, the hero is in fact caught between the police and the real villains, leading to those superbly dreamlike shots: the zoom onto Bruno in the stands at a tennis match, staring fixedly at Guy as everybody else swivels their heads left and right to follow the ball; the little figure standing on the steps of the Capitol Building, who somehow we KNOW is Bruno.

strangex

Maybe my favourite Monument Moment in all Hitchcock.

Pat Hitchcock! Her finest hour, maybe? “He spent six hours trapped in the meat locker with the left leg.” Sharing with dad a fondness for the macabre, Pat’s character is a delicious piece of comic relief, while adding value as a trigger for Bruno’s psychotic breakdowns. The track into ECU on her face, with wurlitzer music fading up and superimposed reflections of a lit cigarette lighter reflected in her glasses is the most outrageous moment in the film.

stran1

Daffy old ladies! There are so many of them in this film — why? Bruno’s mom is deeply pleasurable, of course, but there’s also the lady who effects his introduction to Guy’s party at the tennis pavilion, and Mrs Cunningham, the lady he throttles at the drinks soiree, and the woman in the commandeered car at the end — “How exciting!” This movie is like the Revenge of the Old Dears.

By the way, has anybody seen THROW MOMMA FROM THE TRAIN? This is one of many Hitchcocks to throw up not a straight remake but a kind of echo. I have seen THE DESIGNATED VICTIM, with Pierre Clementi even more flamboyant than Robert Walker in the bad guy role. This Venice-set giallo follows the Highsmith plot all too closely, although it has a humdinger of a plot twist stored up for its ending.

Hitchcock, I surmise, has just seen THE THIRD MAN, because his canted angles, not heavily featured elsewhere in his oeuvre, suddenly come to the fore, and are often associated with doorways — like the one Harry Lime stands in in Carol Reed’s 1949 classic. Dutch tilts continue to feature in I CONFESS, also shot by Robert Burks, whom Hitchcock discovered on this film, and with whom he continued to work until Burks’ untimely death in a fire. The cameraman helps make STRANGERS Hitch’s most noirish film — his b&w work is every bit as beautiful as his later lush Technicolor films for Hitch.

strange7

Now we approach the scene that gave Chandler conniptions. In fact, the problem is solved partly by having Guy and Bruno communicate by letters and a phone call. He hangs up before we can question whether Bruno is convinced or not. Since Guy brings his gun along, the expectation that he may be going to kill Bruno’s father, as planned, is planted. The fact that he’s been so reluctant in the past is enough to make Bruno suspicious. The extraneous element of menace is provided by the Anthony family dog: we find ourselves worrying that Guy will not be able to kill Bruno’s dad. The thing works.

Having incurred Bruno’s wrath by trying to warn the designated victim, Guy sets in motion the events of act 3 (from Bruno’s point of view, it’s Guy who causes everything in the story to happen) where Bruno will try to plant incriminating evidence at the crime scene. Guy must finish his tennis match in record time (perhaps it would have been easier for him to deliberately lose, but that would be dishonest), escape the police, and physically stop the incredibly strong psychopath from leaving his cigarette lighter on Lovers’ Island. A very good set of seemingly impossible problems.

strange4

(Meanwhile — as if that weren’t enough — Hitch throws in the gratuitous / absurd / delightful / wicked suspense sequence where Bruno drops the lighter down a drain and must retrieve it by extending his arm, Mr. Fantastic-style, through the narrow grille and into the bowels of the earth. And we’re shocked to find ourselves rooting for the bastard.)

Hitchcock’s deft touch allows us to know part of Guy’s plan but not all of it, so there’s a perfect balance between surprise and clarity. Pat pulls off her part of the plot with aplomb, lunging for Detective Hennessy’s crotch like a bull at a gate, and Guy is OFF — already incriminating himself by running from the cops. We suspect that his plan doesn’t really extend as far as dealing with Bruno, and every step he takes is adding to the authorities’ suspicions, so it’s an excellent set-up for a climax which, when Hitch started shooting, did not exist.

strange2

In some ways, using the merry-go-round for an action climax is an act of desperation, since the whole thing smacks of that element of the grotesque Chandler complained about. Having Hennessy’s partner shoot the carny in charge is a bit cold-blooded, and anyhow, is this ride fitted with an engine from Lockheed? Do fairground hurdy-gurdies really have the ability to accelerate to 90 mph? I’d like to think so, but I suspect the true answer is “Don’t be silly.”

But the sequence is justifiable on every level other than plausibility. The fairground is a key location already established and the return there is central to the plot. The wurlitzer has played during the first murder, and has been fixed in both Bruno’s and the audience’s minds. And the very public nature of Guy and Bruno’s death-brawl signals the moment when the secrets are dragged from the closet and the truth is outed, so to speak.

Surprising that Hitch jeopardizes all these kids and then never really reassures us that they’re all OK. It seems unlikely that Bruno is the only one hurt. I recall as a kid that the extra I was really worried about was the old Manny Farber lookalike who crawls under the spinning attraction to pull the off lever. I wasn’t alone — Hitchcock himself was in an agony of suspense filming the dangerous stunt.

strange1

The single action of Bruno’s hand opening in death to reveal the lighter is maybe the single neatest narrative wrap-up in Hitchcock’s career, considering the number of things it accomplishes all at once. To return to Chandler’s numerical system, it

(1) Shows Bruno’s death.

(2) Clears Guy.

(3) Forces into the open the secret true story.

(4) By extension, frees Guy to marry.

The inscription “From A to G,” originally meaning “From Anne to Guy”, now stands for “From (Bruno) Anthony to Guy,” as he gets it back (except the police  need it for evidence — well, after all this fuss, we kind of hate that lighter, I bet Guy never wants to see it again).

Isn’t Guy still an accessory after the fact? Aren’t they going to hold him partly to blame for the destruction of a funfair? Is Hennessy’s partner, kicked out of the force for shooting an innocent carny (if such a phrase isn’t a contradiction in terms), going to come gunning after Guy? Find out in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN II: MONORAIL OF MADNESS!