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Of Subtext, Subtlety, and Coming In After The Fact

I’m kind of a snob when it comes to fiction — horror or otherwise — and don’t mind admitting it. This gets me into a lot of trouble when it comes to reading for pleasure, something I have less and less time for these days. I often make the mistake of applying (sometimes consciously, mostly not) my own storytelling standards to the work of those I read, and that’s just silly (as well as being a habit I am fighting to break); if everyone wrote the same kind of stuff I do, and wrote it the same way I do, “variety” would be the stuff of fairy tales. And everyone would be depressed and grumpy all the time.

But every once in a while I start to ask questions about the fiction being produced in the horror field, simply because I’m still stubborn enough to want to see the field expand beyond its popular definition.
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Movie Review: Grand Prix

In 1966, director John Frankenheimer turned out a pair of films that could not possibly be more different in subject matter and execution: Seconds and Grand Prix. Frankenheimer did not want to make Grand Prix, but was forced by the studio to do so after Seconds died a miserable death at the box office.

Grand Prix, on the other hand, was a tremendous hit, and remained Frankenheimer’s most financially successful film until 1998’s Ronin. The script by veteran playwright Robert Alan Arthur (who co-wrote All That Jazz with the late Bob Fosse), ultimately focuses too much on the soap-opera level problems of the drivers and their families, but it’s when the film gets on the racetrack that Frankenheimer and cinematographer Lionel “Curly” Lindon (who did a season as Night Gallery‘s director of photography) blindside you.

When faced with the challenge of filming a lengthy race in such a way to make it interesting for film audiences, Frankenheimer decided he wanted to have the camera become part of the actual race, so he and Lindon designed a special camera and harness that could be attached to the front driver’s-side of the car, giving the illusion that the viewer was riding on the hood during the race.

You’ve seen this same shot about a million times over the years in every car chase that’s been filmed. You have John Frankenheimer and Lionel Lindon to thank for it. Until Grand Prix, no director had ever attempted to film a race or chase in this manner; nowadays, a director would feel like a fool not to include at least one such shot in an action film.

Movie Information

Running Time: 179 min.

Rating: PG

Director: John Frankenheimer

Screenwriters: John Frankenheimer, Robert Alan Arthur

Cinematography: Lionel Lindon

Cast:

James Garner: Pete Aron
Eva Marie Saint: Louise Frederickson
Yves Montand: Jean-Pierre Sarti
Toshiro Mifune: Izo Yamura
Brian Bedford: Scott Stoddard
Jessica Walter: Pat Stoddard
Antonio Sabato: Nino Barlini
Francoise Hardy: Lisa
Adolfo Celi: Agostini Manetta
Claude Dauphin: Hugo Simon
Enzo Fiermonte: Guido

Movie Review: The Swimmer

1968’s The Swimmer (based on the short story by John Cheever) was a labor of love for its producer/star Burt Lancaster. In it he plays a businessman who, at film’s start, has decided to spend a bright summer Sunday afternoon making his way from pool to pool, swimming his way across suburbia to his own home. He lives in an upscale and trendy community where everyone knows everyone else in their chosen clique, so it comes as no surprise to anyone when Burt wanders into their back yard and tells them he is swimming home. They laugh. They make martinis. They talk about what a card Lancaster is and what a simply mah-velous party story his little escapade will make. It seems like another Peyton Place soap opera at first.  But then people start asking about his wife and daughters:

“I heard what happened…”

“I was so sorry to hear…”

“How are you feeling now?…”

“I didn’t think you’d want to be around anyone for a while, not after…”

What exactly did happen in Lancaster’s life that has everyone treating him either with extreme caution or overzealous joviality? Where exactly is he coming from at the beginning of the film? (Our first sight of him comes as he’s running in his swimming trunks through the woods, already sopping wet, yet he tells the first back yard gathering he appears in that theirs will be his “first” swim on his way home.) And why can’t he tell anyone what he’s been doing lately?

These key questions are skirted for the first half of the film, but it’s the very lack of ready answers that provides a good deal of tension. Hints are dropped, concerned looks are exchanged, surreptitious gestures made behind Lancaster’s back, and soon the viewer wonders about Lancaster’s mental stability as, piece by piece, the horror of his life comes together like a jigsaw puzzle that’s missing the last piece–which may be the reason The Swimmer is such a turn-off for many viewers: there is no direct and final answer to any of the questions, no last-minute revelation, but if you pay close attention, everything you need to know is there.

Lancaster gives a typically terrific performance, one full of both internal and physical catharses; every pool is a new baptismal fount where he washes away past sins, yet by the time he reaches the next pool, a different load of sins have made themselves known.

Movie Information

Running Time: 95 minutes

Rating: PG

Directors: Frank Perry, Sydney Pollack

Screenwriter: Eleanor Perry

Cast:

Burt Lancaster: Ned Merrill
Janet Landgard: Julie Ann Hooper
Janice Rule: Shirley Abbott
Tony Bickley: Donald Westerhazy
Marge Champion: Peggy Forsburgh
Nancy Cushman: Mrs. Halloran
Bill Fiore: Howie Hunsacker
David Garfield: Ticket Seller
Kim Hunter: Betty Graham
Rose Gregorio: Sylvia Finney
Charles Drake: Howard Graham
Bernie Hamilton: Halloran’s Chauffeur
House Jameson: Chester Halloran
Jimmy Joyce: Jack Finney
Michael Kearney: Kevin Gilmartin Jr.

Quadrophenia

By its musical structure alone, The Who’s Quadrophenia opened my eyes and my intellect to the endless possibilities offered by the metaphor; add to that its compelling and challenging narrative structure, and you’ve got something that, to my mind, qualifies as a masterpiece.

Quadrophenia centers on a young kid in 1960s England named Jimmy. Jimmy comes from a hard-luck, working class family. He wants to be popular among his friends. He also wants to be a good son, a good worker, and a great lover. In the midst of trying to be all things to everyone, he realizes that he presents four very distinctive personalities to the world over the course of his days: the tough guy, the romantic, the crazy fun friend, and the troubled son. All of these separate personalities are represented by a distinct musical theme, and each personality encompasses only one aspect of the real Jimmy; none of them represent who he is in his heart. On top of all this, he’s saddled with having a deeper insight into the human spirit than most people think a person of his station is capable. He admits that even he doesn’t know who he really is. Being a confused angry young man with rampaging hormones, it doesn’t take long before certain aspects of his other personalities start bleeding over into the parts of his life where they don’t belong.

There’s much, much more to Quadrophenia’s story, but that’s the spine of it.

This sounds like a ham-fisted cliche, but hearing this album for the first time changed my life. On side 4 of the album there’s an instrumental piece called “The Rock” which remains for me one of the most amazing and moving pieces of music — and that’s music, period, not just rock music — that I’ve ever heard.

In Tommy, the central character’s epiphany is conveyed through words and music; but in Quadrophenia, it is conveyed solely through music. “The Rock” starts off by repeating each of the four themes separately, then, one by one, begins overlapping them until the four themes blend seamlessly into one, creating a fifth, unique, defining theme as Jimmy finally realizes who he really is.

That was a revelation — ahem … uh, er … discovery — for the 12-year-old me. Pete Townshend and The Who had pulled an incredible musical sleight-of-hand, created a musical Rubik’s Cube that I hadn’t even realized existed until the puzzle was completed.

I knew then that I wanted to someday create a piece or body of work that did what Pete Townshend had done with Quadrophenia’s music; present you with a group of seemingly disparate pieces/themes that in the end converged into a unified whole that was not only rewarding in and of itself (as “The Rock” most definitely is), but also enriched the sum of its parts.

“The Rock” is a perfect metaphor for what we as human beings strive toward during every moment between that first slap on the ass and the last handful of soil tossed on the lid of the coffin; call it the psychological equivalent of string theory or whatever you will: we strive to bring the various Selves together to form the whole that is uniquely ‘me’ or ‘you’, all the while treasuring the journey that has led to this time, this breath, this moment.

The Manchurian Candidate

1962’s The Manchurian Candidate

A lot — a lot — has been written and said about The Manchurian Candidate, the film that put John Frankenheimer on the map as a director. How effective you’ll find the film today depends on your personal level of cynicism.

Candidate — a satire in the truest sense of the word — deliberately sets out to make the viewer uncertain as to whether or not it’s supposed to funny. Admittedly, some of the scenes in the film have an aura of comedy about them which I think was intentional, while others (scenes obviously intended to be serious) unintentionally draw chuckles. Laurence Harvey’s British accent seems ludicrously out of place for a veteran of the Korean War, especially since he’s supposed to be American, but once you get past his voice, you cannot help but admire his rich, complex performance.

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Movie Review: Seconds

Seconds is arguably director John Frankenheimer’s best film. Based on the excellent novel by David Ely, in it we meet middle-aged bank executive Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph in a masterfully shaded performance) whose life is so miserable he walks as if the earth might open at any moment and swallow him whole. His job drains him of humanity. His marriage is hollow and cold. His self-respect is rattling its last breath. He doesn’t know how things came to this. He knows that he was once a decent man but he isn’t any longer and he can’t understand why. He feels alien to the world around him.

Then one day a stranger in the subway hands him a card with an address written on it; the stranger knows Hamilton’s name, and as soon as we see the expression on Hamilton’s face, we know that he has some idea why he’s been handed this slip of paper.

That night Hamilton is called by a supposedly dead friend. “I have a wonderful new life!” he tells Hamilton. “I’m happy, old buddy, and I want to do the same for you!”

It seems there are these “people” who can give you a new life. A new face. A new voice and identity. They can give you a life where you are successful at the thing you always dreamed of (in Hamilton’s case, being a famous artist). It costs a lot, and once the process has begun there is no turning back.

Hamilton, after much soul-searching, decides to go through with it, and embarks on a chilling journey to the secret headquarters where these “people” make arrangements for a new life. (He is taken there in the back of a meat delivery truck–some of the most unnerving black-humored symbolism I’ve ever encountered.) There he meets with the company president (Will Geer, Grandpa Walton himself, who is quietly and absolutely terrifying in the role) who has created this program. The decision made, the work begins, and soon Hamilton is transformed into the younger, more vital Antiochus “Tony” Wilson (played by Rock Hudson), given a new profession, a new home, a new life. Things are idyllic for a while, but eventually Hamilton’s conscience and its questions about his old life drive him to return to his widow in an effort to find out where he went wrong.

Frankenheimer always dealt with extremes in his best pictures, and Seconds is possibly the most extreme film he ever made. His penchant for lean storytelling and muscular pacing is at its peak here, as is his use of his ought-to-be-patented foreground framing technique.

The film’s biggest surprise, perhaps, is the performance of the late Rock Hudson. In a role originally slated to be played by Laurence Olivier (who the studio decided didn’t have Hudson’s box-office clout), Hudson displays a depth and power that viewers of Pillow Talk would never have thought possible.

Hudson’s face is a subtle prism of conflicting emotions; every joy, every sorrow, every triumph and regret is there, etched into his expressions like words on a headstone. When something hits at his core, you see it on his face–and not in any heavy-handed, watch-me, watch-me way; Hudson’s performance is one of impressive constriction, understatement, and substance, heart-felt and affecting, and (like the superb performance of Tony Curtis in The Boston Strangler) a rare glimpse at a good but limited actor’s one moment of true and undeniable greatness–which gives this film an added dose of bitter irony when viewed today: had Hudson lived, would he have wanted a second chance to prove his worth as an actor of substance and power?

Movie Information

Release Date: 1966
Running Time: 107 minutes
Rating: R (disturbing sequences and some nudity)
Color: B&W
Director: John Frankenheimer
Cinematographer: James Wong Howe
Writers: Lewis John Carlino (screenplay), David Ely (novel)
Cast:

Rock Hudson: Antiochus ‘Tony’ Wilson
Salome Jens: Nora Marcus
John Randolph: Arthur Hamilton
Will Geer: Old Man
Jeff Corey: Mr. Ruby
Richard Anderson: Dr. Innes
Murray Hamilton: Charlie
Karl Swenson: Dr. Morris
Khigh Dhiegh: Davalo
Frances Reid: Emily Hamilton
Wesley Addy: John
John Lawrence: Texan
Elisabeth Fraser: Blonde
Dodie Heath: Sue Bushman (as Dody Heath)
Robert Brubaker: Mayberry

Movie Review: Sorcerer

Sorcerer, made by William Friedkin in 1977 after his triumphs and numerous awards for both The French Connection and The Exorcist, was his own Apocalypse Now: a film that went over budget and took three times as long to film as originally planned, but one denied Apocalypse’s subsequent fame, notoriety, and audience interest.

A remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear, Sorcerer tells the story of four men, all wanted criminals, who flee to a nameless Third World country to escape punishment, imprisonment, torture, or death. When a devastating oil rig explosion offers the chance to make some big money very quickly (they have to transport old crates of leaking nitroglycerin over 200 miles of treacherous mountain road), each sees a chance to get out of this hell-hole country and forge a new life elsewhere, far from their regrets and old enemies.

Screenwriter Walon Green (who co-wrote The Wild Bunch with Sam Peckinpah) foregoes a script filled with meaningful dialogue and concentrates instead on expressionistic imagery to tell large chunks of the story. This, coupled with Friedkin’s flair for jittery realism, gives Sorcerer an effective and gritty documentary feel.

I greatly admire both Sorcerer and The Wages Of Fear, but find my preference leaning toward Friedkin’s film, if for no other reason because Sorcerer takes the time to establish these men in their previous lives so the viewer can have some sense of what they’ve been forced to abandon. Sorcerer possesses emotional layers where Wages opts for the coldly intellectual, and though both films are potentially devastating to the viewer, Sorcerer remains the more humane and accessible of the two.

Movie Information

Release Date: 1977
Running Time: 121 minutes
Rating: PG
Director: William Friedkin
Writers: Walon Green (screenplay), Georges Arnaud (1953 novel Le Salaire de la Peur)
Cast:

Roy Scheider: Scanlon/Dominguez
Bruno Cremer: Victor Manzon/Serrano
Francisco Rabal: Nilo
Amidou: Kassem/Martinez
Ramon Bieri: Corlette
Peter Capell: Lartigue
Karl John: Marquez
Frederick Ledebur: Carlos
Chico Martinez: Bobby Del Rios
Joe Spinell: Spider
Rosario Almontes: Agrippa
Richard Holley: Billy White
Anne-Marie Deschott: Blanche
Jean-Luc Bideau: Pascal
Jacques Francois: Lefevre