Archive for Rod Steiger

Weakened at Bernie’s

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 24, 2021 by dcairns

Thanks for David Ehrenstein for recommending Richard Linklater’s BERNIE, the 2011 black comedy with Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey. I would probably say I’d skipped it when it came out because of my disappointment at ME AND ORSON WELLES, which had struck me as an able impersonation in search of a movie, and a continuation of the longstanding tradition of moderate talents trying to pull Welles down to their own level by character assassination. But frankly I have no memory of BERNIE even coming out, so I think I just missed it.

I don’t know for sure how I would have felt about the movie if I’d paid to see it on the big screen, because I ended up viewing it for free as part of my free month of Amazon Prime (I hope to cancel at the end of the month and put one over on Bezos). I might have found it cinematically thin. It’s not inventive, but it has one big idea and it uses that skilfully.

It has one little idea too — intertitles made up as funeral cards.*

The big idea is a mockumentary approach, in which real townsfolk from Carthage, Texas, where the events of this true story occurred, are shuffled together with actors and presented in interviews cut into the action as a kind of Greek chorus. Linklater’s idea, drawn from the research of co-writer Skip Hollandsworth, was that nobody had really attempted to capture a community in a fiction film this way. The technique also no doubt helped Linklater shoot the film in 22 days. You never notice that a lot of the action is unseen.

Jack Black is Bernie, a camp Texan assistant funeral director who befriends a grumpy and neurotic octogenarian millionairess, Mrs. Marjorie Nugent, played by Shirley MacLaine. He becomes her sole heir, but snaps under her constant bullying and shoots her dead. When the crime is eventually, inevitably discovered, District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (McConaughey) realises he’s going to have a hell of a time convicting the blatantly guilty Bernie, even though he’s confessed, since Bernie was the most beloved man in Carthage.

It all illustrates Linklater’s premise that life is a lot like high school — if you’re popular, you get away with stuff.

Really interesting set of performances. The interviewees are generally voluble and charismatic and funny-looking, so the leads aren’t required to tamp down their performance styles to fit some image of documentary realism. Black essays a subtle Texas twang and a swishy manner — it’s not overdone but Black is Black, and always somewhat theatrical. But it’s more restrained than the obvious comparison perf, Rod Steiger’s Mr. Joyboy in THE LOVED ONE. McConaughey scores heavily in a disfiguring hairstyle, capturing the innate theatricality of the politician/lawman. He’s the funniest one. MacLaine makes an interesting choice — since the whole town is literally talking about how mean Marjorie is, MacLaine avoids becoming a THROW MOMMA FROM THE TRAIN grotesque, and finds ways to make her unlikeable character at least somewhat sympathetic. Everything is underplayed. There’s a hint of tragedy in her shrill neediness. Most of the hostile defensiveness is played flat — it’s evidently a barrier protecting something uncomfortably raw. When she gets hysterical, it’s scary. You’d like to pity Marjorie — at a distance.

The movie has a fascinating afterlife — Linklater helped get the really Bernie released in 2014, and a condition of his release was that he stay with Linklater. Which he did. Then he had his appeal and got 99 years. He’s eligible for release at the end of this decade. Trying Bernie for first degree murder was clearly unjust — as if pointed out, the murder was clearly unplanned, because it was impossible to pass off as an accident. What sunk Bernie was his fitting into that familiar pattern — the clearly gay man who wins the affections of a wealthy older woman. But any mercenary motive is clearly separate from his eventually snapping and snuffing her. Except that if he had been with her purely out of affection, he would presumably have left long before.

You can’t quite see it here but she’s got precipices on her wall to mount her late husband’s hunting trophies in lifelike poses — though not as lifelike as they would have been before they met Mr. Nugent. One half expects to see his embalmed remains squatting on a cliff ledge of his own, gun in hand.

Linklater and Hollandsworth make a few slight distortions and omissions — Bernie’s gay sex tapes are left out, and his shooting of Marjorie sanitised slightly (the reality, one shot from a distance and three more as she lay on the floor, is a little more unappealing) but it manages its tone, which is a real trick. I didn’t feel it was exploitative. making black comedy out of true life stories where real people got hurt is a dicey business. Importantly, Linklater keeps the broader comedy away from Marjorie’s scenes and the murder itself is suitably grim. This has to be managed with Black, who is naturally a funny guy, present in those scenes giving that performance.

*Jeff Bezos won’t let me framegrab from Amazon Prime, curse him.

B.F. Forever?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2019 by dcairns

Shadowplay welcomes long-time Shadowplayer Chris Schneider with our first guest post of The Late Show, a movie I’ve been dimly curious to see since I was seventeen. Not curious enough to do anything about it, you understand. But that spark burns more brightly now…

Perhaps the best way to deal with THE NAKED FACE, the 1984 thriller that Bryan Forbes made of a 1970 Sidney Sheldon novel, is to offer an adapted version of a line from an earlier — and, frankly, better — film. That is to say, “Mortality, or some mysterious force, can place its gun-sights on you or me for no good reason at all.”

THE NAKED FACE was the last film directed by Forbes. It stars Roger Moore as, unexpectedly enough, a psychiatrist. It begins and ends in a cemetery — a watermark, one might say, of late films made by older directors (see Hitchcock’s FAMILY PLOT, Wilder’s FEDORA). One unsympathetic critic has written of hilarity of a film ending with anything-but-tragic Moore crying out “BASTARDS!” Yet it makes a kind of morose sense to see the whole film as a howled-out “BASTARDS!” in the middle of a cemetery.

Roger Moore wanted a change, they tell us, from the cheeky killing machine that was James Bond. NAKED FACE came between his last two films playing Bond. As a result, we see a Moore who wears glasses with sturdy frames. He *cares*. He’s even shown listening to Mozart. But murders keep happening around him. This is all the worse in that his wife and daughter died before the story begins, and one character describes Moore as belonging to “the walking wounded.”

Side-thought: NAKED FACE was made for Cannon, the studio of Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris. Was it a requirement in DEATH WISH-land that wife and children are what one loses in the first reel, if not earlier?

For a while it appears that Moore — sympathetic, if not exactly an actor to convey inwardness — is poised between a metaphorical Bad Father and Good Father. These would be Rod Steiger, a cop with a mean mouth and a tendency to glare, and Art Carney, who appears halfway through as a crusty P.I. discovered via the Yellow Pages. Carney even has a good Cinema de Alter Kocker moment when Moore questions him and he responds “I have my tricks” — prompting all the clocks in his dingy office to start chiming. Time! Mortality! Hoppla!

Carney is removed from the story, though, and Steiger slips through the cracks. This leads to an out-of- nowhere villain and explanation for it all, neither of which offers much satisfaction in a film that’s, basically, an uninspired cop show repurposed for movie theaters.

“David Hedison, as Moore’s brother-in-law, looks good-natured. Anne Archer, as a patient, looks troubled while wearing heavy lipstick in her FATAL ATTRACTION-like manner. Elliott Gould looks to be waiting for his paycheck.” That’s what my notes say. Coulda swore that the primary villain would be Steiger, who’s always seething, or Archer, who appears beautiful-but-unhinged in a femme fatale kind of way. But, nah.

Let’s add that, while it’s difficult sometimes to tell a good shout-y Rod Steiger performance from a bad shout-y performance, it’s still Steiger who offers what little dynamism there is to NAKED FACE.

Room service revolver.

Oh, yes, and this is the only film to come to mind with dialogue employing the word “excreta” — *not*, one should add, in connection with a death scene to provoke restive types into quoting Steve Martin’s MAN WITH TWO BRAINS line “Into the mud, scum queen!”


*Speaking* of scum …

The first half of the film is filled with homophobic backchat. This is unconnected with the plot, so it’s something of a red-herring — or should we say “red phallus”? Someone’s referred to as “a fag with a family,” somebody says “his alibi’s tight, he’s straight.” Shortly before the first victim, one of Moore’s patients, is killed, he asks how he can possibly reveal to his wife and children that he’s a monster — i.e. has sex with other men. Then he leaves and gets killed in a way not unlike Rene Auberjonois in EYES OF LAURA MARS. (Insert “wardrobe malfunction” joke here.)

One hears that the pro-Thatcher Forbes, who wrote the script, had some unlovely attitudes. I thought that might be the source. Further research shows, though, that it comes from the Sidney Sheldon novel.

Is this stuff thrown out to demonstrate that it’s a rough’n’tough policier tale? Or does it speak for the author himself?

One can only shrug in incomprehension and mutter “Bastards …”

David here again. Couldn’t resist adding:

THE NAKED FACE is directed by Turk Thrust and stars Turk Thrust II; Mr. Joyboy; Trapper John MacIntyre; Ed Norton; Cathy Ryan; Felix Leiter; and Irene Mankiller.

Dog Doesn’t Return Other Dog’s Calls

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2018 by dcairns

Perpendicular Palance, they call him.

I ran Robert Aldrich’s THE BIG KNIFE because I’ve been thinking seriously about Hollywood noir/Hollywood Gothic stuff. This predates his later hagsploitation pics, and the related but different THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLAIR (and I guess THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE, with its Brit TV background, is a distant relative too), but has a few things in common, apart from the dry, pale presence of Wesley Addy. More on him later.

Jack Palance plays the lead, a movie star with a guilty secret (audaciously borrowed by author Clifford Odets from a persistent rumour about Clark Gable being a drunken, hit-and-run killer — which doesn’t seem to be true). Palance is no Crawford or Davis, but his characterisation is just as neurotic and tormented — he spends the movie posing, languishing, anguishing, seething (I love it when Palance breathes heavy).

Fiona had many questions about Palance. Where did Jack Palance come from? Is Jack Palance a good actor? Can Jack Palance act? What is with Jack Palance? All fair questions. I said YES to all of them.

Jack’s manly suffering — similar vein of masochistic machismo to Kirk Douglas — is the main show, but his swank home (it’s a one-set play) is regularly invaded by supporting hambones (he never locks the door) like Miss Shelley Winters (her actual screen credit here) and Rod Steiger, who come bearing entertainment. Steiger is cast as a baroque hallucination of Louis B. Mayer, afflicted with some of Odets’ most overwrought verbiage, a peroxide crew-cut, shades and a hearing aid. Also some startling homoerotic overtures towards the muscular Jack — at times he goes Full Joyboy. In a film so full of memorable entrances and exits it plays like thespian Whack-a-Mole, he gets one of the best, monologuing his way out the door, his ranting voice diminishing slowly into the distance until a new conversation breaks out on top of it… but Steiger keeps going until he’s vanished over some unseen horizon…

Fiona also liked his hushing an opponent with a gentle “Shshshshshshshshshshshsh” that abruptly explodes into a fulsome “shshSHUT UP!” And his defending a man’s character by citing his relationship with “such people as the late Al Jolson.” Threatened with violence, he hides behind his pudgy fists, fat head suddenly babylike, Trumpish in his pusillanimity.

The man he’s defending is Wendell Corey, readily decoded as studio fixer Eddie Mannix, and sensibly playing it subtle but reptilian, not trying to compete with the uberactors flanking him. He’s a man prepared to kill for the studio, and while the story doesn’t quite allow him to do so — something of a cop-out, but they had to show caution SOMEWHERE — Corey is genuinely chilling.

Also good work from Everett Sloane though he’s not as moving as the put-upon agent in IN A LONELY PLACE, the most moving Hollywood agent in cinema (the only one?). Who was that guy? Oh yeah, Art Smith. Get me Art Smith!

Miss Shelley.

Palance is also tormented by three women — his wife, Ida Lupino, who wants him to be virtuous, his friend’s slutty wife, Jean Hagen, who wants him to be wicked, and Winters, who knows his guilty secret and can’t be trusted to keep her mouth shut. He invites her over for a swim, which is a worrying portent — you know about Shelley’s bad luck with water, right? But instead of a NIGHT OF THE HUNTER/PLACE IN THE SUN/POSEIDON ADVENTURE watery grave, she’s felled by a convenient accident straight out of the LOLITA playbook.

That awkward moment when Wendell Corey won’t get out of your lampshade.

Jack checks if Wendell is still in there.

Oh, and there’s Wesley Addy, cast as a writer and serving as mouthpiece for Odets’ views, explaining the story’s themes and Palance’s character and generally dumbing the whole thing down. Good actor, but I wanted to kill him. He walks in on and damages a really powerful ending, and his dollarbook Freud actually muddies the motivation of the hero’s last act. If I could digitally lift him from the movie we’d really have something. I’d feel sorry for him, though, and would make it up to him by dropping him off in GONE WITH THE WIND, where he would get lots of surprised attention in his modern dress, and would spoil anything since it’s a wretched movie anyway.

Of course, putting himself into the movie in disguise is a way for Odets to protect himself from the certain knowledge that Palance’s character, the sell-out, the half-idealist, is him too. So the character, inelegantly conceived as he is, may be necessary for the piece to exist at all.

Oh, the music is also very bad — random eruptions by Frank DeVol. (Did Aldrich make a single movie where the music is enjoyable?)

Good movie. Better than the Bettes. Very sweaty.