Friday, October 28, 2011

THE WICKER MAN: Man of Wicker, Feet of Clay

My husband Vinnie and I have our Team Bartilucci caps on for this week’s Halloween post about the original British Lion 1973 version of The Wicker Man (TWM)!  If you’re expecting a high body count, slam-bang action, buckets of blood and gore, and fast-paced editing of the sort lampooned so brilliantly in Edgar Wright’s 2007 police procedural spoof Hot Fuzz (which also happens to co-star TWM’s protagonist Edward Woodward), you may feel impatient at first. But if you chill out and pay attention to this subtle masterpiece of suspense and the pitfalls of religious intolerance, you just might be glad you did. Granted, we personally have yet to actually meet anyone who wasn’t drawn into the story and stunned by the denouement, but I thought I’d give you a heads-up just in case!

Sgt. Howie investigates, but will these salty sea dogs bite?
Everyone's friendly on Summerisle! 
After a puckish opening title screen thanking the people of Summerisle “for this privileged insight into their religious practices and for their generous co-operation in the making of this film,” the devilishly clever screenplay by Sir Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth, Frenzy, Death on the Nile, Evil Under the Sun) tells the story of Police Sergeant Neil Howie (Woodward) investigating an anonymous tip begging him to find Rowan Morrison (Geraldine Cowper), a 12-year-old girl living—or is she?—on Summerisle, an island off Scotland that’s renowned for its apples and other produce. A staunch Catholic and by-the-book police officer, Sgt. Howie’s expectations are confounded from square one. When he arrives via seaplane for an overnight stay, expecting to be served fresh Summerisle apples and veggies, he’s surprised to be handed a plateful of turquoise-hued beans from a can. Indeed, all the islanders seem to be eating nothing but canned produce as Summerisle’s apple crates lie empty. But that’s nothing compared to Howie’s outrage as his investigation reveals that the islanders, led by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee, in a performance brimming with urbane mischief and menace) are all free-thinking, free-singing, free-loving pagans. And don’t get Sgt. Howie started about the phallic symbols all over Summerisle, including the well-tended shrubbery! With all its bawdy and beautifully-performed songs and dance numbers, TWM would make a great musical (albeit kinda kinky and twisted).

Rowan Morrison: flower of young girlhood
The culture clash between Sgt. Howie and the Summerislers lends TWM as much wry humor as mystery and suspense. Things only get weirder, creepier, and often, more titillating as everyone he meets stymies his investigation into Rowan’s disappearance, which probably isn’t doing our courageous copper’s blood pressure any good. Everybody from Rowan’s family to her teacher, Miss Rose (Diane Cilento, whose many roles had included her Oscar-nominated performance in the 1964 costume comedy Tom Jones, as well as being author Shaffer’s wife of 16 years), to Lord Summerisle himself initially deny that Rowan even exists, then claim she’s dead, then…well, with the strange excuses and even stranger rituals on Summerisle, the determined Sgt. Howie has his work cut out for him as the film reaches its shocking, jaw-dropping climax.
On the good ship Lollipop, it’s a strange trip to the pagan shop…
Sgt. Howie has his own cross to bear

Nix muskrat love; sexy snails rule!
Is there no end to the carnal subtext?
Frog in your throat? Try Summerisle’s natural cure!
Over the years, fans and critics alike have tried to stuff TWM into the horror and fantasy categories, perhaps because the cast includes Lee and fellow genre movie veterans Ingrid Pitt and Britt Ekland. However, anyone anticipating traditional monsters, copious bloodletting, or F/X-oriented frights will be disappointed; that’s not what TWM is about. For all its suspense, we never see anything supernatural happen; even the weirdest things can be explained by real-world circumstances. There’s a bit of low-key gore, but by and large, the monstrousness is of a purely human variety, the evil and intolerance that lives and lurks quietly like a sleeper cell in people’s hearts, minds, and belief systems. To me, that’s scarier than any supernatural creature, because it hits closer to home.
TWM creates an air of unworldly unease, of events beyond what we can see and hear, keeping us guessing to the end. Between the uniformly fine acting, Robin Hardy’s skillful direction, and Shaffer’s slyly sinister script, TWM is a great example of how you don’t need endless gore and sadism to chill an audience to the bone, just suspense crafted from atmospheric direction, a stellar cast, and foreboding arising from the enigmatic circumstances, character development, and a location whose beauty hides its treachery.  Shaffer’s script plays fair, trusting the audience to keep up with its skillful combination of wit, mystery, and dread. The characterizations are fascinating throughout, particularly with Sgt. Howie and Lord Summerisle. Paul Giovanni’s haunting music, with traditional Celtic songs woven throughout, is practically another character in the film, by turns erotic and beautiful, bawdy and joyful, fitting the film’s tone perfectly. No wonder Eli Roth used “Willow’s Song” in a key scene in his 2005 horror film Hostel! As Willow, Ekland looks luscious and does a decent Scots accent, though her singing is dubbed by Annie Ross, and some shots of her backside were done by a body double, as Ekland was reportedly pregnant and entering her second trimester. But why quibble when there’s such a powerful erotic charge to watching Willow drive poor Sgt. Howie nearly mad by essentially making love to the wall separating her room from his? Say what you will about pagans, they know how to party!
Willow drives Sgt. Howie up the wall in her own bewitching way.

Will lovely town librarian Ingrid Pitt make the cut?

Meet the beetle!

Our Anchor Bay DVD’s extras include the restored version and a terrific commentary track on Disc 2, with moderator Mark Kermode interviewing Hardy, Lee, and Woodward, exchanging entertaining stories about the tricks involved in making a low-budget, tight-scheduled movie while studio British Lion was on the slippery slope to bankruptcy. Disc 1’s excellent documentary featurette, The Wicker Man Enigma, includes interviews with Woodward, Lee, Pitt, Hardy, Shaffer, and Roger Corman, as well as the jaw-dropping story of the idiots who thought they were putting the TWM negative in a vault but instead put it in a waste pile that was buried under England’s M3 highway! The 2-disc DVD edition of the 1973 British cult classic The Wicker Man includes both the 88-minute cut that played in theaters, and the restored 99-minute version.

 “The children do love their divinity lessons.” I’ll say! They’re all fired up!

It's May Day! Cut some capers, people! Everybody conga!
Who can sleep with all that singing? Darn hippies!

The Wicker Man Spoiler!

Vinnie and I have often said that in the end, what really killed poor, stalwart, well-meaning Sgt. Howie was the stick up his butt. Even before he realized he’d been tricked, that he and not young Rowan Morrison was the intended blood sacrifice that the Summerislers hoped would appease their ancient gods and jump-start their crops, Sgt. Howie showed nothing but hostility and intolerance towards the placid islanders’ religious practices. If he’d only loosened up and let himself be seduced by the bewitching Willow McGregor, he’d have lost his virginity, rendered himself useless as a blood sacrifice, and saved his own life! God and Howie’s fiancée would’ve forgiven him, I’m sure. It’s certainly better than having big, burly men shove you into a highly flammable giant wicker figure and set you and a barnyard’s worth of animals on fire to slowly burn to death, praying all the way.

Yikes! Burning Man this ain’t!

Turning other people on to TWM and watching them react as the plot unfolds is almost as much fun as watching the movie itself. Our daughter Siobhan and I used to visit my dear mom at her home in Florida, and she always encouraged us to bring DVDs we liked so we could watch them together in the evening. When I found out Mom had never seen TWM, I made it a point to bring the DVD set with me to Florida because she was both a suspense fan and a devout Catholic in her own flexible way (long story). One night Mom and I hunkered down to watch it in her bedroom, while Siobhan preferred to watch the animated movies she’d brought in her guest bedroom (just as well; at that time Siobhan was a little young for TWM's mature themes). I correctly predicted that Mom would find TWM as spellbinding as Vinnie and I did. Mom had always been a pretty sophisticated gal, but even she was couldn’t predict how things would turn out. Throughout the film, Mom kept eagerly asking me what was going to happen, and I kept refusing to give away the ending. Sure enough, when the big twist happened, Mom was just as gobsmacked by Sgt. Howie’s fate as I had been— even more so, because she brought it up in conversation almost every day during the rest of our visit! Mom and I had always had great conversations covering all kinds of topics over the years, but our conversations after watching TWM together were especially thoughtful and compelling. We had some fascinating conversations not only about the cleverness of TWM’s plotting, but also about respecting other people’s religions and beliefs and their right to live.

Incidentally, when Mom first saw young Edward Woodward onscreen, she knew she’d seen him in other things, but she couldn’t remember what. I cited his 1980s TV stardom on The Equalizer, figuring that was where she’d have been most likely to have seen Woodward before. Soon, however, Mom remembered where she’d previously seen him: “He was ‘Breaker Morant!’” (You’d think I’d have remembered that, too, since Mom and I saw Breaker Morant together during its 1980 theatrical release. Silly us!) It’s always interesting and fun to discover the roots of other people’s pop culture references.

I’ll admit that as much as I love the film as is, there’s always a part of me that wishes they could have had one last shot set one year later, showing whether Summerisle got their hoped-for bumper crop—or perhaps showing Lord Summerisle himself being dragged into the Wicker Man and set aflame after another disastrous barren year. Yeah, I guess it’s better to keep the audience guessing in the name of suspense, but closure has its merits, too.

Vinnie says:  The wife can giggle at her Mom for her open-mouthed reaction to the film, but let's just say the Summerisle Red doesn't fall far from the tree. The Wife watches movies with her whole body -- in addition to the uncontrollable mutterings and intakes of breath during the exciting bits, she'll lean to and fro, urging people to the right corridor, curving her hands about and pointing, hissing, "No, you boob, THAT way, they hid the diamonds there!" So as Sergeant Howie hunched his way through the caves, young Rowan in tow, she said to me, with all the charming innocence of a child in line for Santa, "Oh, I hope that little girl will be okay!"
I looked at her in frank amazement. "You're kidding."

"No. What?"
"Well, yeah, hon, it's called 'The Wicker Man', not 'The Wicker Little Girl'..."
(penny in the air...)

"Oh, my GOD..."

(penny drops)

I damn near fell off the couch laughing.
The Wicker Man is one of those films you want to see twice, before and after you know the ending. Like The Sixth Sense and A Beautiful Mind, the fun is in going back, seeing all the "clues" and finding a whole new level to enjoy. The people of Summerisle play Howie like a Pan-flute, as perfect and elaborate a con as The Sting's Henry Gondorf could ever pull off. And going back and watching the game unfold is literally like watching a new movie. The first time through you're watching Howie like a hawk, now you're watching the actions of the townspeople. There's also the fun of realizing that like any good con movie, there's the chance that it could have all gone pear-shaped at any moment. If Howie had an ounce less moral rectitude, he'd have burst into Willow's room, thrown her down on the bed, and the next scene would have been her, her Dad and Lord Summerisle around a table in the pub the next morning, face in hands, saying "Well, NOW what?"
There's not a duff performance in the film. Woodward shines as a man so devout he'd probably call Mel Gibson a Cafeteria Catholic, and probably spends his free time going through the Sears catalog drawing in more tasteful clothing on the models with a Flair pen. Christopher Lee has rarely had a chance to so visually enjoy a role; from the singing, the cross-dressing and the chance to wrap his lips around dialogue like "Do sit down; shocks are best absorbed with the knees bent", the smile plastered on his face for much of the film is not acting. And let's face it, any opportunity to watch Britt Ekland dry-hump her bedroom is enough entertainment for an evening on its own.

The narrative is carefully precise. Like Titanic, they tell you what's going to happen, then it happens. Howie researches the May Day practices, so when they occur, they make sense to the viewer, and there's less of a sense of having to understand what's happening, and get straight to the Why. You KNOW there's going to be a sacrifice, there's just one bit of information that's withheld. Much like in Sleuth (about which we have previously spoken), where you're CERTAIN it's this kind of story, until one bit of information is revealed, and you realize with whiplash-suddenness that it's the opposite.

Hot Fuzz does tip the cap to the quaint and slightly horrifying way that Northern English villages do things, but the Wicker Man analogues are much more prevalent in the brilliant Brit comedy series The League of Gentlemen. Not to be confused with the old caper flick or Alan Moore's "Extraordinary" version, this is the tale of the Northern town of Royston Vasey and its eccentric inhabitants, a group who give the Addams Family nightmares. Husband and Wife (and possibly brother and sister -- it's never confirmed) Edward and Tubbs Tattsyrup run the Local Shop "for Local people", and in direct homage to the film is their catch-phrase, when Tubbs would breathily ask "Did Tubbs do right?" to which Edward would answer "You did it BEAUtifully!"

The ending, as The Wife comments, is maddeningly ambiguous. You keep hoping for a shot of the next year's Harvest Queen, either surrounded by bushels of bounty or yet another barren year. But like all things open for interpretation, the debates over the success of the mad plan can be epic. 

Observant individuals may notice an utter paucity of mention of the recent remake of this film, starring the once and future Ghost Rider, Nicolas Cage. For reasons we should not have to relate, this is deliberate. To compare the two would be like comparing a surgeon's scalpel and a nickel-electroplated sledgehammer. Let's just leave it there.

Can’t you just leave a mint on my pillow, like the other quaint inns?
Sorry, Charlie, only The Salmon of Knowledge gets to be in The Wicker Man!

And so ends another Summerisle wienie roast for another year....

Friday, October 21, 2011

Try to Remember: The Amnesia Trilogy. Part 3: SPELLBOUND

To wrap up The Amnesia Trilogy, here’s the amnesia film that started it all, at least for me: Alfred Hitchcock’s Oscar-winning thriller SpellboundI first saw it on WPIX-TV on a Sunday afternoon when I was a youngster in the Bronx. After the literally breezy opening credits, Spellbound sets the stage with a foreword by the film’s medical advisor, Dr. May Romm (more about her shortly):

“Our story deals with psychoanalysis, the method by which modern science treats the emotional problems of the sane. The analyst seeks only to induce the patient to talk about his hidden problems, to open the locked doors of his mind. Once the complexes that have been disturbing the patient are uncovered and interpreted, the illness and confusion disappear…..and the devils of unreason are driven from the human soul.”

Got all that? Yeah, it may sound quaint in today’s more sophisticated, complicated world, but somehow I find Dr. Romm’s foreword (which has also been attributed to screenwriter Ben Hecht) endearingly earnest. In fact, Spellbound’s more dated aspects, like its approach to psychotherapy, intrigues me when I think of how these things have changed over time.

The lovely, luminous, gentle-voiced Ingrid Bergman plays Dr. Constance Petersen, the youngest member of the crackpot, er, crack team of psychoanalysts at Green Manors, a posh psychiatric institution. Constance brims with book smarts, but her people smarts still need fine-tuning. Dr. Fleurot (John Emory), who’s a bit of a scholarly wolf in shrink’s clothing, is always trying to pitch woo at Constance, but she’s just not that into him. He says, “You approach all your problems with an ice pack on your head….I’m trying to convince you that your lack of human and emotional experience is bad for you as a doctor...and fatal for you as a woman.” Constance wryly replies, “I’ve heard that argument from a number of amorous psychiatrists who all wanted to make a better doctor of me.”
Doctor on Call-Me-Anytime!
If you could see Constance’s feet now, you’d see bobby sox on her feet! *swoon!*
Well, I can tell you from family therapy experience that sometimes it takes a few tries with a few different therapists to find one you really click with—and Constance soon discovers love can work that way, too, when Green Manors’ elderly head honcho Dr. Murchison (veteran Hitchcock player Leo G. Carroll) is about to retire, albeit reluctantly. Constance and the staff are sorry to see Dr. Murchison go, even though his imminent replacement, the renowned Dr. Anthony Edwardes, is supposed to be hot stuff. “Hot” is the word for the ruggedly handsome new doc on the block, especially considering Dr. Edwardes is played by young Gregory Peck, who became an Oscar nominee himself that year for The Keys of the Kingdom. (Little did Peck know he’d be playing another amnesiac in peril twenty years later in another New York-set suspense film, the 1965 thriller Mirage!) Cool Constance’s pleasant but prim demeanor thaws rapidly, Dr. Edwardes’ agitation at the sight of  lines scratched into a tablecloth notwithstanding, and those crazy kids fall in love lickety-split. Heck, how could anyone not fall in love with Bergman and Peck in this movie, with both of them at the peak of their yumminess? I can’t help smiling every time I see the scene with Constance and Edwardes (I’ve never once heard our heroine call him “Anthony” in the film’s early scenes) on their impromptu get-to-know-you picnic in the sunshine, and the way she dreamily accepts a sandwich from him. She says, “Liverwurst” as it if were the loveliest word she’s ever heard, bless her heart!

Those who scratch the tablecloth do not get fruit cup!
When Dr. Edwardes doesn’t recognize a caller’s voice, he’s initially annoyed, then laughs it off as a practical joke. Moreover, Dr. Edwardes takes a personal interest in Mr. Garmes (Norman Lloyd, frequent Hitchcock player and later producer of TV’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour), a patient with a guilt complex about his late father. Garmes also seems to be way too intrigued with knives and letter-openers. When Garmes tries to kill himself, Constance and Edwardes assist at the emergency surgery. But to everyone’s shock, Edwardes freaks out and faints. In fact, this is the first of four fainting spells Dr. Edwardes has over the course of the movie. If you happen to have a thing for watching handsome men being rendered unconscious, Spellbound is your cup of Sleepytime Tea!
With a few more jokes and scientific types, we’d have Ball of Fire!
Uh-oh! Someone’s got some ‘splainin’ to do!
Love opens doors for Constance
Constance realizes what’s up when she compares the signature on Dr. Edwardes’ autographed book to a note he’d left for her. Turns out Dr. Dreamboat is an impostor with amnesia, and the lovebirds have to figure out why and how! They’d better hurry, because the initials “J.B.” on his cigarette case are their only clue to his real identity. But the jig’s up when Dr. Edwardes’ worried office assistant comes to Green Manors herself, confirming the ruse. Constance ends up playing footsie with a note J.B. had slipped under her door when the local police drop by. Apparently the real Dr. Edwardes is missing and presumed dead, with J.B. as a person of interest! Poor Constance—she lets her hair down for once, falls in love, and wouldn’t you know the guy might be a killer? No wonder more and more people meet through online dating services nowadays! Anyway, before he fled, J.B. left Constance a note saying he can be reached at the Empire State Hotel in NYC until the heat dies down. For the rest of the film, Constance is essentially a female detective, a comparatively rare bird in suspense stories. Cool! She can start by delving deeper into why J.B. resents smug women. Smugness is infuriating in both genders, but J.B. doesn’t seem to mind smug men!
Aww, J.B. sleeps so cute! (Faint #1)
When she hits NYC, Constance gets some unexpected but welcome help from the house detective (Bill Goodwin, who was also the announcer for The Burns and Allen Show on both CBS and NBC), who pegs Constance as a gal in trouble, “a schoolteacher or librarian.” I love the way the hotel dick comes so close and yet so far in his assessment of her as he helps her in his amateur “psychologist” capacity without revealing her mission! Oh, and what would a Hitchcock movie be without one of the director’s famous cameos? It’s in this very scene, about 37 minutes into the movie; you’ll see Hitch walking out of an elevator at the Empire State Hotel, wearing a fedora, carrying a violin case and smoking a cigarette. If you can’t wait that long, go back to the beginning of this blog post and click here for the trailer.
Ground floor, Hitchcock cameo, everybody off!
Pesky tourist Wallace Ford puts the “Pitts” in “Pittsburgh”!
Danger between the lines!
Once Constance and J.B. are reunited (and it feels so good), they’re able to figure out that J.B. is a doctor (“The eminent Doctor X,” he says ruefully). They also deduce that J.B. must have been with the real—and still missing and presumed dead—Dr. Edwardes when foul play apparently befell him. J.B. feels this is only further proof that he must have knocked off Dr. Edwardes. Also, J.B. has burn scars on his left hand, with a skin graft, and he relives the pain and horror of his accident as if it was happening all over again, poor guy. Well, at least it’s a start—but when the bellboy brings up the afternoon papers, there’s an article about the manhunt, including a lovely photo of Constance! Oops, gotta run—to Pennsylvania Station for train tickets to wherever it was that J.B. went with Dr. Edwardes. Constance figures when J.B. left the mountains after Dr. Edwardes’ accident, he must have passed through New York, so asking for train tickets might jog his memory. Poor J.B. can only stammer “Rome,” then collapse. If J.B. is gonna have these dizzy/fainting spells on a regular basis, I think Constance should get a wheelchair for him! So all roads lead our fugitive sweethearts not to Rome, but to Grand Central and Rochester, NY to see Constance’s dear old professor and fellow psychoanalyst Dr. Alex Brulov (played by Michael Chekhov, famed acting teacher, former member of the Moscow Art Theater, and nephew of playwright Anton Chekhov. Alex was one of my favorite Spellbound characters, so I was happy to learn he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his delightful performance).  On the way, Constance helps J.B. remember the fiery wartime plane crash in which he was burned, reliving the horror: “I hated killing. I can remember that much….”

One perk to J.B.’s fainting spells; he’s got the lovely and devoted Constance to catch him!
(Faint #2)

Yikes! Talk about unwanted publicity!
When our fugitive couple reaches Alex’s Rochester home, claiming they’re honeymooning newlyweds, there’s a nice little scene with two police detectives (Art Baker and Regis Toomey of Burke’s Law), with one of them complaining about his clingy mother and accusations of being a “mama’s boy.” Even John Law has neuroses! And once again, poor J.B. can’t catch a break: the line pattern on the coverlet upsets him so badly that he faints again. When he wakes up after everyone’s asleep, the poor guy gets freaked out again by the relentlessly white bathroom fixtures; with his white phobia, he can’t even wash up or shave, though he  seems perfectly capable of wandering dazedly through Alex’s house with a straight razor. Could’ve been worse, though; Spellbound could’ve taken place in the 1970s, with all those harvest gold and avocado green fixtures! Luckily, Alex turns out to be wilier than Constance gave him credit for; he slips bromides into J.B.’s milk, and it’s beddy-bye time!

“You like close shaves, don’t you?”

From the folks who brought you the Fisticam: The Dairycam!
But Alex, this is a good boy...this is a nice boy...this is a mother's angel!  (Faint #3)

Next time J.B. comes over, we’re giving him the plastic cups! (4th and Final Faint!)

It takes lots of convincing, but the next day, Constance and Alex are able to get J.B. on the fast track toward helping him find out who he is and what happened to Dr. Edwardes. One more fainting spell and a look out the window on this snowy day, and our intrepid heroes realize the lines that freaked out J.B. were skiing tracks in the snow!  That’s where the dream sequence comes in:

Sled tracks on a snowy day gives our heroes the major clue they need: Dr. Edwardes had been into sports, saying it was a boon to the treatment of mental disorders. That’s why the dark lines in the white snow freaked out J.B. so severely. Using the notes from J.B.’s dream, they figure out that J.B. and Dr. E. went to Gabriel Valley for what turned out to be their ill-fated therapy vacation. Constance and J.B. go there to recreate the events leading to Dr. Edwardes’ death. The couple opts for downhill skiing, and the tension is almost unbearable as J.B. starts to remember the horrible thing he was trying to forget: the accidental death of his little brother as young J.B. tried to yell warnings to him. The point of impact where the poor kid is impaled lasts only seconds, but it still breaks my heart and chills me to the bone every time I see Spellbound. But the evil spell is broken as J.B. grabs Constance and saves her from flying off the cliff in the proverbial nick of time. Now they can forget the past and forge a future together as husband and wife, as well as Doctor and Doctor Ballantine (the “J” is for “John”). Nice day for a white wedding….

Or is it? When the police catch up with them, they confirm that Dr. Edwardes’ body is where our heroes deduced it would be, all right—but they didn’t figure on finding the cause of death was a bullet! After a montage of Constance desperately trying to convince the jury that John is innocent,to no avail, our heartbroken heroine returns to Green Manors. Ah, but the film and the surprises aren’t over just yet:

The screenplay by Ben Hecht and Angus MacPhail is loosely based on Francis Beeding’s 1927 novel The House of Dr. Edwardes; indeed, the opening credits specifically say “Suggested by Francis Beeding’s novel The House of Dr. Edwardes.” I’ve read in various sources that the original novel was a lot more gimmicky and Gothic-y. Hitchcock had no qualms about retooling a novel to serve his movie’s needs, so he, Hecht, and MacPhail improved upon it. But there’s one writer few can improve upon: William Shakespeare, whose lines from Julius Caesar open Spellbound with a most appropriate quote: “The fault…is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

was released in theaters in 1945, when World War 2 ended and soldiers were coming home suffering from shell shock, nightmares, and “battle fatigue” (or as we know it today, PTSD: post-traumatic stress disorder), so it was inevitable that Spellbound would strike a chord with moviegoers at that time (and even now, really, since war is unfortunately still with us). It also struck a chord with its producer, David O. Selznick, since he was undergoing psychoanalysis on account of his own family tragedy: Selznick’s brother Myron, a top Hollywood agent, had died after many years of alcoholism. On top of that, Selznick’s marriage broke up, so he wound up in therapy with psychoanalyst/psychiatrist Dr. May Romm. Interestingly, in 1944, the year before Spellbound was released, life during wartime was the subject of another acclaimed Selznick drama, Since You Went Away (which I must confess is known here at Team Bartilucci H.Q. as one of the most depressing movies ever made! But I digress….)

Miklós Rózsa is one of my favorite composers, and it’s no wonder that he won an Oscar for his glorious Spellbound score! It sets the film’s tone in every way, its theremin weaving foreboding throughout the emotion-packed, lushly romantic orchestrations. Ironically, according to Wikipedia, Selznick originally wanted a musical score from future Hitchcock composer Bernard Herrmann, another favorite of mine! But Herrmann wasn’t available, so Rózsa got the gig. Indeed, Spellbound also received five other Oscar nominations, not only for Chekhov’s supporting performance (James Dunn won for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), but also for George Barnes’ gorgeous black-and-white cinematography (The Picture of Dorian Gray won); Jack Cosgrove’s special photographic effects (the Oscar went to another of my favorite movies, the Danny Kaye comedy Wonder Man); Hitchcock’s direction; and a Best Picture nomination for Selznick International (though I can't complain about The Lost Weekend winning the prize). Also, Ingrid Bergman won a New York Film Critics Circle Award for her performance. It’s also worth noting that Rhonda Fleming, only 22 at the time, made quite an impressive debut in the small but memorable role of Green Manors patient Mary Carmichael, whose flirty manner and beauty disguises a vicious hatred of men. Team Bartilucci favorite Dave Willock of the animated Hanna-Barbera series Wacky Races and Robert Aldrich films such as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte played the bellboy who recognized Constance in New York. Vinnie recognized Willock’s voice; he's got an ear for such things, bless him. Many folks reading this may also remember Willock from another Team B. fave, It's in the Bag. 

Hello, Dali!
The scenes in Spellbound involving Salvador Dali’s surrealism were originally going to be even more surreal and elaborate than the classic dream sequence we movie fans know and love! However, as is explained in the Spellbound DVD’s special features, the rushes showed lighting problems, and worst of all for a romantic thriller, the footage just plain wasn’t packing the emotional and visual punch that Hitchcock had hoped for. So Selznick contacted production designer William Cameron Menzies, with whom he’d worked on Gone with the Wind. Menzies redesigned the shots, and the film certainly seems to have retained the impact and entertainment value that Hitchcock & Company wanted. Heck, I could go on and on about Menzies’ own extraordinary career alone, considering that in addition to being a brilliant production designer (a title Menzies created, by the way), he was also an Oscar-winning producer, director, and screenwriter in his brilliant 50-year career—but that deserves a blog post all its own, if someone hasn’t written one about him already!

If a honeymoon on a train was good enough for Mr. & Mrs. Thornhill, it's good enough for Dr. and Dr. Ballantine!

Sweet mystery of life, at last I've found you....

Friday, October 14, 2011

Try to Remember: The Amnesia Trilogy. Part 2: MIRAGE

Ignorance can be bliss — but not if you’re Gregory Peck in the 1965 Universal thriller Mirage (click here to see the entire movie!). Playing our hero David Stillwell, Peck finds himself both literally and figuratively in the dark during a blackout in the Unidyne Building, a (fictional) Manhattan skyscraper. Since Mirage was written by one of my favorite writers, Peter Stone (Charade, Arabesque, Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, and so much more), Mirage’s offbeat, cynical yet sparkling wit kicks in immediately, with every line sketching David and his fellow New Yorkers in brief yet memorable brushstrokes. This movie has plenty of Stone’s playful wit, yet it also has a lot on its mind. For instance, while the lights are out, everyone but our hero treats the blackout as a fun excuse to make out in the dark and, as David wryly notes, “rescind all the Ten Commandments,” as exemplified by two pretty young women who come on to him:
Blonde: “Everybody’s going to the boardroom in 2709, the one with no windows. We’re having a party. Want to come? It’s a Braille Party.”
Brunette: “Braille. Get it? The touch system.”
Meanwhile, others in the Unidyne Building regard the blackout as a mere inconvenience:
First Man: “This’ll probably make me late for the theater.”
Second Man: “What are you seeing?”
First Man: “Benefit. The whole thing’s deductible.”
Second Man: “Yeah, I know, but what are you seeing?”
First Man: “You know, that thing with what’s-his-name.”
Diane Baker as Shela, Our Lady of the Stairwell
Even David’s colleague Sylvester Josephson (Kevin McCarthy) quips about taking advantage of the blackout for making whoopee: “We’re marooned on a mountain, bubbie. Whoever pulled that plug gave me a foolproof excuse for the wife.” But David opts to nix the orgies and descend the 27 flights of stairs he’s got ahead of him. Soon he finds himself with a traveling companion: a beautiful, sophisticated young brunette (Diane Baker) who doesn’t happen to mention her name. She can’t see very well in the dark, especially since the only light David has is a pocket-size flashlight. But she sure seems to recognize David’s voice, happily so: “I heard you were back in town!” David swears he doesn’t know her (though he wishes he did), but he’s helpful and charming all the same. Sophisticated Lady still hasn’t mentioned her name, but she sure talks a blue streak, chatting away about personal topics and people who she clearly thinks he knows: “You wouldn’t know why he did it, would you? Cut off the electricity, I mean. If it were anyone else, I’d say it was a practical joke, but not The Major….” Once they reach street level, the lights go on — and Our Lady of the Stairwell (as David playfully calls her later) is chagrined and furious: “I knew it was you! That was a stupid joke!” When David introduces himself, that only makes things worse; she angrily runs down the stairs into the basement as fast as her little Cyd Charisse legs will carry her. Bewildered, David gives chase all the way down to the building’s subbasements, four of them in all (this will be important later).

Cost accountant fu!
When David finally gets out of the building, he finds himself in the middle of a crowd of onlookers ranging from shocked to jaded (Mirage is set in New York, after all). It may have been all fun and games when the lights went out, but when they went back on, it turned out someone had fallen from an open window, seemingly a suicide. An onlooker remarks, “If I had the guts to step out of that window, I’d have the guts to go on living.” The Unidyne reception desk is manned by Joe Turtle (character actor Neil Fitzgerald, whose credits include The Informer, Niagara, Bulldog Drummond, Mr. Moto, and Sherlock Holmes movies). Joe knows and likes David, on account of “you’re the only man in this whole building who can say my name without making it sound like a joke.” Joe notes that all of the city’s bigwigs showed up in a hurry after news of the death plunge. David asks Joe if he has any idea why the lights went out. Joe muses, “Someone upstairs playing God, most likely. A man living that high up gets aspirations, you know.” David’s about to discover Joe just might be right.

Maybe David needs a good self-help book!!
When David heads to a local bar before going home, it’s quietly chilling to see the darkened street being hosed down in the suicide’s aftermath. At the bar, everybody knows David’s name, but for him, it’s anything but cheers. Somehow, he realizes that he’s just going through the motions. As far as David knows, he’s a cost accountant at Unidyne. But something’s wrong somehow. As was the case with Our Lady of the Stairwell, he becomes aware that he really doesn’t know who he is or what’s going on. What’s more, when David goes back to Unidyne to find those subbasement levels from before, he’s only able to find one level. As my husband Vinnie would say, “The hell?” Soon the news of the dead man is splashed all over the front pages of newspapers nationwide. The departed John Doe is a big fish indeed: Charles Stewart Calvin, head of the renowned Charles Calvin Peace Organization. In fact, Calvin’s best-selling book The Peace Scare is displayed in bookstore windows all over town. David’s memory starts messing with him in earnest, with quick, sharp flashbacks when he least expects them. Even falling watermelons are unnerving in the increasingly strange and sinister world David has found himself in. Fun Fact: Charles Calvin is played by Walter Abel, longtime veteran of movies and Broadway. In fact, Abel played the amnesiac hero in the 1936 suspense drama Two in the Dark, which was remade in 1945 with Tom Conway and Ann Rutherford as Two O’Clock Courage (an undersung favorite of mine).

To borrow a line from A.H. Weiler’s New York Times review of Mirage from May 27th, 1965, our man David is “caught up in (a) sinister merry-go-round (and) behaves as naturally as a man could who discovers at the outset that he can’t remember what has happened to him in the last two years.” But there are plenty of people eager to help him out—of the country, that is! Seems like everyone David encounters wants to give him a one-way ticket to Barbados—and why not, since they keep insisting that “I hear Barbados is gorgeous!” Every time David nixes the offer, other sinister types try to force the issue, including bespectacled heavy Willard (future Oscar-winner George Kennedy in his second go-round as a Peter Stone villain after Charade) and gabby, gun-toting wrestling fan Lester (Jack Weston) who shares a push-button elevator ride with David and a sexy electronic voice (“she” should date HAL 9000). When they get off, Lester pulls a gun on our perplexed hero; lucky for David, he seems to have picked up the moves on Lester’s favorite wrestling show, though his memory is still playing hide-and-seek. The story is credited to Walter Ericson — which was a nom de plume for Howard Fast, the novelist who brought us Spartacus and Rachel and the Stranger, among others!

“Again with Barbados? You’ve been saying that through the whole picture! Who are you guys, The Barbados Tourism Board?”

He’s got the whole world in his hands….
So far, the primary clue to David’s predicament is a keychain shaped like Earth, with the logo “The Future is Here.” Swell, but before David can look forward to the future, he has to unlock his past. Something had happened to him over the last two years, and every time some little flashback sparks a fleeting memory, David’s subconscious aggressively tries to kick it to the curb. Mirage is unique in that unlike most movie amnesiacs who are desperate to remember who they are and what they’ve done, David is subconsciously prolonging his amnesiac state because reliving that memory, whatever it may be, is just too painful for him to face. On an increasingly tender note, however, there’s Our Lady of the Stairwell — but you can call her Shela. You’d think someone as sophisticated and smartly-dressed as Diane Baker’s Shela could afford to put an “i” in her name! I love it that Baker’s Jean Louis wardrobe includes a chic turban, just like my dear stylish mom used to wear when she was feeling exotic. Shela starts out playing it cagey and mysterious, popping up when David least expects it, usually at such picturesque NYC locations as the Central Park Zoo  (where I spent many happy hours as a child; it was one of our family's go-to spots in Manhattan). When he encounters her again at Battery Park, the conversation becomes urgent:

David: “Shela, you’ve got to tell me who he is and what he wants! He can’t have it both ways. How can I give him anything if I can’t remember what it is?”
Shela: “Be grateful for that. Not remembering is the only thing keeping you alive!”
David: “But why?”
Shela: “Because you know something you shouldn’t about him. But also, you have something he needs. That’s why he’s taking a chance on keeping you alive a little longer.”
David: “I’ll have to write him a thank-you note.”

A Peck on the chic
We discover that Shela is the troubled mistress of Unidyne’s president, Major Crawford Gilcuddy (Leif Erickson), a.k.a. The Major. Apparently he’s assigned her to keep tabs on her old flame David. For both of them, I’d say it’s nice work if you can get it — amnesia, murder, and treachery notwithstanding! Despite loving each other, those crazy kids Shela and David had issues over ideology and commitment, and probably money issues, judging from references to Shela’s “extravagance.” This may also explain her Jean Louis fashions and her apparent “kept woman” status over at Major Manor. (What kind of salary does David earn in his line of work, anyway?) As Shela puts it, “We’re a couple of mules, David. The harder we pulled on each other, the harder we dug our heels in. You wanted me to commit first, without promises, out of principle. I wanted the promises first. Togetherness is just dandy, but I’d just as soon have foreverness.” I’ve always liked Diane Baker’s work, including her performances in The Prize, Marnie, and of course, Mirage. Having said that, sometimes Shela comes perilously close to simpering, if not outright whining. When Baker/Shela does what I call her “Simper Fi” routine, I wish I could leap into the screen, shake her by the shoulders, and snap, “Sheesh, lady, call off your pity party already! Use your money and connections for something useful, like teaching kids to read or learn a trade!” But when Baker and McCarthy’s characters eventually pull themselves together and do something useful, I cheered out loud! Indeed, Vinnie came into the living room to see what all the cheering was about!
Bubbie baby, give up! They’re here already!
McCarthy cracked me up with his then-current hip lingo (“bubbie,” “baby,” “sweetheart”). That said, in addition to adding humor to the proceedings, McCarthy also becomes gradually more serious as Mirage reaches its tense climax. McCarthy’s performance is an excellent portrayal of an executive just trying to stay out of trouble by brown-nosing his way through life and being forced to grow a conscience in spite of himself — a long way from McCarthy’s iconic role as Dr. Miles J. Bennell in the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers!
Almost everyone in Mirage is jaundiced, cynical, paranoid, and/or just plain out for themselves, like Dr. Augustus J. Broden (Robert H. Harris, who does a fine job playing a pompous ass who at least admits he’s a pompous ass), the psychiatrist author of The Dark Side of the Mind,  who David consults in hopes of getting insight into his amnesia. Doctor and patient get off on the wrong foot when David claims the book’s co-author Dr. Max Ellman recommended him to Dr. Broden, only to be caught in a lie when Broden reveals Dr. Ellman has been dead for years. Things go from bad to worse when David absolutely can’t remember anything of the past two years of his life. Dr. Broden angrily gives David the boot, convinced that he’s a criminal and that he’s faking his amnesia as “a dodge to establish a tricky defense. There’s no such thing as the sort of amnesia you describe. There never has and never will be.” Well, at least Dr. Jerk didn’t take David’s money! (To be fair, he's helpful later, though no less pompous and selfish.)

Casselle, P.I. Fee: $500 a day, plus Dr. Pepper and p.b. and j.
Happily, there are other people besides Shela who believe in David, like Irene (Eileen Baral), the little latchkey kid whose parents work the night shift, making it possible for Shela and David to hide from the police there after poor Joe Turtle’s murder. It’s touching how sweet Shela is with Irene in this scene, playing house with David and an empty coffee pot (“I’m too young to drink coffee”), tucking her tenderly into bed. (Wish we could’ve seen what her parents thought, if they didn’t just chalk it up to a child’s imagination!) My favorite of these good-guy characters is newly-minted private investigator Ted Casselle, played by the delightful, scene-stealing Walter Matthau before he became an Oscar-winning star. He’s so new to the P.I. biz that David is actually Casselle’s first client! Unlike the iconic hard-boiled private eye, Casselle prefers Dr. Pepper and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to booze and cigarettes, but he’s loyal, honest, funny, and he delivers the goods, bless him! But Casselle had better watch his back, because it’s starting to look like people on David’s side don’t have long lifespans….

“It’s coffee-er coffee!” Writer Peter Stone used a real 1960s coffee commercial line in this scene.  Anyone here know the brand? It's driving me nuts!
Gregory Peck’s production company collaborated on Mirage with Universal. According to Tom Weaver’s liner notes on the LaserDisc (yes, we of Team Bartilucci own the LaserDisc as well as the DVD from Universal’s Gregory Peck Collection), Peck was eager to include Cary Grant-style bon mots in the script. Stone and director Edward Dmytryk were worried. According to Dmytryk, “After Greg left, Stone said, ‘God, I don’t know what we’re gonna do here. He can’t do jokes like Cary Grant!’ But I realized that Greg was a very straightforward and honest man, and I said, ‘I’ll betcha that if you write some ‘Cary Grant jokes,’ they’ll be the first things to go when we actually start shooting it. I think Peck is honest enough to know that he can’t do that kind of thing.’ And sure enough, that’s exactly what happened.’” (The situation was similar when Peck teamed up with Sophia Loren on Arabesque, but it seemed to me that Peck had become more comfortable with the witty dialogue by then. Peck may not have been Cary Grant, but I found his attempts to be more Grant-like were rather charming. But I digress….) I very much like Director of Photography Joseph MacDonald’s black-and-white imagery (I Wake up Screaming; The Dark Corner; The List of Adrian Messenger, among others). It left me with the feeling that a film noir lurked beneath the crisp, beautiful autumn New York locations, adding to Mirage’s paranoid atmosphere. I also loved F/X ace Albert Whitlock’s matte falling effects, not to mention Quincy Jones’ lushly romantic score, one of his earliest, with touches of Bernard Herrmann in Vertigo mode.

Underground fight in the subbasement
I wonder how many film actors have played characters with the same name back-to-back? I don’t mean movie series characters such as James Bond; I mean a sheer unadulterated coincidence, as was once the case with Gregory Peck. Of course, according to the IMDb, Peck played David Stillwell in Mirage, this week’s Amnesia Trilogy movie. But one year later, Peck played another David, namely Professor David Pollack, in Stanley Donen’s kaleidoscopic comedy-thriller Arabesque! Coincidence?

Hey, dig! It’s Franklin Cover, The Jeffersons’ Tom Willis!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
MIRAGE Ending Spoiler!

David falls into the clutches of Major Crawford Gilcuddy, a.k.a. The Major, and his henchmen as well as his toady, Sylvester Josephson. Willard savagely beats David up, then holds a gun to David’s head. A rather one-sided game of Russian Roulette ensues. The terror and shock of it all finally unscrambles David’s memory. He remembers that the subbasements he thought he’d seen in New York’s Unidyne Building were actually in California, where he’d been working as a physiochemist for the past two years—not as a cost accountant (more on that in a moment). In California, David had been working in a radiation lab at Garrison Laboratories. He remembers that he had called a meeting with The Major and Charles Calvin. David had discovered how to neutralize nuclear radiation at its source, therefore making a “clean bomb” that would be safer to use. But David had also realized, to his horror, that this would also make such bombs easier to use — ugh, just what this crazy old world needs, a shortcut to World War 3!

Outraged, David had snapped, “Isn’t there enough money in peace these days?” Meanwhile, The Major has dollar signs in his eyes as he demands to have copies of David’s report sent around immediately. David realizes that Charles’ Peace Foundation is in bed with Unidyne. He points out that it’s illegal for a foundation to do business with a profit-making organization. Charles replies, “I can’t respect any legality that would impede progress.” He asks The Major to leave so he and David can talk. Dismayed, David says, “We’re being turned into statistics, case histories, and percentage points, all in the name of progress! Whatever happened to human beings?” 

A gun to the head may be quite continental, but...why do bad guys always threaten to kill our hero unless they get the formula? Don’t they know if they kill our guy, they won’t get what they want anyway? Haven't they ever read or seen The Maltese Falcon? Idiots!
Charles brings David to the window. “Is that what you want to see, David? Human beings?” He opens the window, gesturing at the night sky. “Come here, David. Look at them.” He and David look down on the street below, 27 floors down. Calvin says, “Do they look like human beings, or ants? You/re quite right, David, they are statistics. But I didn’t do it to them. I’m not responsible.”

David replies, “Maybe you are responsible. You’re one of the leaders. You have the power to control progress and to protect human dignity.” Suddenly the lights in the skyscraper go out. “What’s this? Crawford’s way of keeping me in the building until you can soften me up? Don’t you see what he is, Charles?” As Charles tries to get his secretary on the intercom, David says, “Those people down there aren’t even ants to him; they’re articles of commerce. That man computes human life in terms of dollars and cents. He’s made you his prize salesman, and I’m the cost accountant trying to cut down his overhead with what you and he call progress! I won’t let you have this, Charles.”

Scene cuts from the flashback to The Major’s study in the present. The Major is getting tired of waiting: “Get out of here, David.” Our hero retorts, “How far would I get? A block? Two?” Then another flashback kicks in: David had set the report on fire. Aghast, Charles had raced to the window, desperate to get the burning report. In his frenzy, Charles had accidentally launched himself out the window to his death. Shocked, David turns away from the open window, his face covering his hands as he trembles violently for what seems like eons. Eventually, David’s hands come down. His face is somehow blank and stunned all at once. He trudges out of the office in a bit of a daze, and that’s where we viewers came in.

Yay! Annie Oakley Shela grows a backbone!
Back in the here and now, David turns to The Major. “I didn’t kill him! You did!” The Major points out that he wasn’t in the room when Charles fell out the window, but David’s not buying it: “You were there, Crawford. Your sickness was inside him. You’re a carrier. You infected him, and he died from it.” Willard’s about to resume the Russian Roulette game when a shot rings out. Everyone is gobsmacked to see that Shela shot Willard — instead of feeling sorry for herself and letting The Major call the shots, Shela is finally on the right side! You go, girl! 

At first, The Major and Josephson are pretty darn ticked-off at Shela, but David notices a change in the atmosphere: “What’s wrong, Major? You look nervous.” He realizes that Josephson has the gun now. Forget the “bubbie boobie baby” nonsense — David persuades/reminds Josephson that The Major is alone now, except for him: “For once in your life, you’ve got power. Use it!...He ordered two men killed. That’s first-degree murder! We can get him, Josephson, you and I.” The Major dangles the possibility that if Josephson sticks with The Major, “You’ll have a job at Unidyne for as long as you live.” David laughs sarcastically: “And how long do you think that’ll be? You’ve already hesitated too long. He’ll remember that…Commit, Josephson! If you’re not committed to anything, you’re just taking up space!” The Major tries one more time to bring Josephson to his side, but Josephson just smacks away The Major’s hand with the telephone receiver. Hooray, it’s Grow a Backbone Day!

Josephson, too! Backbones for everyone—I’m buyin’!
David and Shela are in each other’s arms as the police arrive. Shela asks, “Do you know why it happened?” David replies, “I believed in Charles Calvin so much that I forgot he was only a human being.” He figures he’ll be going back to work now that “Humpty Dumpty is back together again.” She asks, I don’t suppose you could use any help?... You could run an ad in the Times: ‘Wanted: Extremely lonely young lady with a fairly low opinion of herself due to many mistakes. Willing to work long, hard hours….” Shela and David embrace again: “Oh, David, help me. Please help me.” David assures her, “We’ll help each other. That’s really what it’s all about, anyway.” The End!