Friday, August 20, 2010

Lady and the Tramps

Miss Olivia de Havilland dealt 1964 audiences a one-two punch with this film, followed swiftly by Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte, altering her career significantly from the predominantly tasteful and refined roles she had played up to that time. Posters for the film warned (and lured?) viewers ahead of time for the drama that was in store. Here she plays a smothering, nauseatingly erudite and cultured woman who, after a hip operation, has to rely on an in-house elevator to get her from one floor to the other of her home that is chock full of antiques and assorted bric-a-brac.

Her son (William Swan), a closeted homosexual, leaves ostensibly for the Fourth of July weekend and inadvertently upsets the power in their house, causing de Havilland to become trapped between floors in her "cage". Jeff Corey, a somewhat helpless wino, responds to her emergency alarm when no one else does, but he proceeds to rip off her toaster and some other things, including wine. He enlists flouncy Ann Sothern, a small-time prostitute and con-woman, to help him loot the place, but, unfortunately, he draws the attention of three local hoods who decide to take over for themselves.

James Caan (in his first significant screen role), a tough, resentment-filled punk, Jennifer Billingsley, his pot-smoking girlfriend, and Rafael Campos, their dim-witted, tag-along pal, make up this set of rebels without pause. These six characters battle it out amongst themselves until they're either freed, apprehended or dead.

The film opens with some faux (but effective) Saul Bass-ish credits, illustrating the cold, careless world that waits outside de Havilland's gilded home. (Ironically, Sothern's name appears on the grate of a vintage automobile, presaging her voice-over work on the legendary debacle My Mother the Car a year later!) A plethora of activity is going on all around as people prepare for a hot holiday weekend and within this melee, various cruelties go on, seemingly unnoticed. A little girl runs her roller skates over the bare leg of an unconscious hobo until it bleeds. A dog lies dead in the street as people pass by. The score is handled in a brassy, deliberately discordant way (that I find a tad overwhelming) by Paul Glass.

The entire film is more an exercise in (heavy-handed) allegory than a plausible storyline with de Havilland experiencing severe distress while everything around her goes on normally. The contrivance of her plight and the lack of plausibility in the story are thankfully overcome by the intensity and the arresting nature of the situation.
The opening sequences between de Havilland and her son are hilariously bad but it only takes twelve minutes for her to wind up a dozen feet off her marble floor, unable to escape, and from then on, the plot manages to keep a fairly firm grip on the audience. Even then, she creates unintentional laughter as she recites idiotic poetry, fiddles with a hand-held radio and mutters inane comments to herself while grasping the rails of her elevator doors. (And don't miss the scene beforehand where she, literally, glares domineeringly at her air conditioning unit, demanding that it kick back on after faltering briefly! And it does!)

I all but worship Ms. D., especially now as she at 94 years of age remains a razor-sharp, beautiful and endlessly classy LEGEND of Hollywood film. That doesn’t alter the fact that in several instances in this movie, I wanted to shake her silly and tell her to get with it. She talks to people in her house as if they are there to help long after such a thing could be possible, she drops things from the elevator carelessly and wastes the battery power of her inside emergency light. And whenever Caan burps at her (which is three times and each one is a ridiculously tiny baby burp), she overreacts as if he vomited in her face. Still, despite some ridiculous overacting and high-minded mouthing, de Havilland comes through, as the picture progresses, as a gritty, surprisingly resourceful heroine to root for. She wins the audience over with her self-realizations and her determination. She might have had a stuntwoman for some of the more significant feats, but there are plenty of moments where she is in there fighting, being pulled and shoved around and generally being mistreated! I don’t know when I have ever seen her in such a physically grueling part. You can bet your ass Joan Fontaine watched this one with relish, probably over and over!

This whole aspect speaks to one of my (and Alfred Hitchcock’s!) obsessions, which is the gradual tearing down of something that is at first put together beautifully. For example, Olivia begins the film neatly coiffed, made up and dressed in a flowing chiffon dressing gown with a bow at the neck. As the film progresses, she is systematically picked apart and ravaged. This same thing happens to Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest and Tippi Hedren in The Birds (and practically every woman in a 1970s disaster flick.)

De Havilland’s part, by the way, was first offered to Joan Crawford, still hot off her What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? success, but she didn’t want to play another tormented invalid so soon after Jane. She held out until Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte where she could play an elegant bitch, but we all know that that didn’t work out and she was swiftly replaced with who else but Olivia de Havilland!

Caan is a hunky (and very hairy-he’s practically carpeted!) thug with a very dangerous edge. He’s handsome, but very angular, and with rigid, boxy shoulders. He allegedly modeled his performance here after Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski, but Stanley never wore sandals and Hawaiian shirts! It's fascinating to watch de Havilland and him, two very different performers, interact - he at the very start of his career and she coming close to the end of hers. He is clearly embracing a Method type of approach (which is the only thing that can explain the way he wears his white shirt in the second half!) while she is all technique.

Billingsley, offered the same introductory billing that Jimmy gets, does not present a very captivating portrayal here and her career was decidedly dismal compared to Caan's. Of course, it’s a dippy, annoying part and she’s deliberately styled to look horrendous, with one eye blackened, probably from one of Caan’s fists during a less than romantic moment. This type of character permeated film and TV during the 60s, a sort of loose, disheveled, aimless, careless trollop.

Campos is effectively offbeat as the Sal Mineo-esque third wheel. When the trio decides to horn in on the action at de Havilland’s house, Caan and Billingsley wear stockings on their heads to avoid being seen (they also put one on Sothern after they force her to help them) and that's a creepy enough look, but Campos wears a knitted ski mask that is genuinely frightening! Like most of the performers in the movie, he overacts with abandon, but he’s also convincingly unhinged and dangerous.

Corey (an almost legendary acting teacher apart from his own performance work) hams it up a great deal and sports some alarmingly heavy eye makeup, but does a decent job. In spite of the fact that he plays a wandering, addled, uncaring vagrant, he manages to drum up a little sympathy for his character. Adding much flavor and fun to the film is porky, but still very pretty, Sothern. Eschewing virtually all of her pride and vanity, especially in her initial scene, she plays a sloth-like, self-effacing slut with almost no compunctions, yet she somehow is able to come across sympathetically at times as well! I’ve always been fascinated by Sothern’s eyes and they remain stunning here. (One user at imdb.com, however, said that the slovenly, disheveled, pudgy Sothern looks like Suzanne Pleshette in this film. That very well may have been the final thing to do Miss Pleshette in if she read it!) Interestingly, she is awarded fairly prominent billing on the movie’s lobby cards, the only other credited performer aside from Miss Olivia.
The moments between de Havilland and son Swan have to be seen to be believed. They mushily peck each other on the cheek and he calls her “darling.” She frets over his health and his nutrition. God only knows who this “Peggy and Paul” are that he is trotting off to spend time with (allegedly.) Like Corey and even Caan, Swan has been given rather heavy eye makeup that reads so strongly onscreen it’s a wonder no one thought to knock it off a little (maybe the makers felt it was right for his rather swishy character.) The kicker is how he is the one who carelessly, if accidentally, causes all of her plight, but if you pay attention, it seems he pays pretty dearly for his transgression.

Based on a now-obscure book by Robert Durand, I would be interested to know how much more about the characters is revealed in the novel. I’m wondering if things were toned down much or left out of the screen treatment even though as it stands this was quite an eye-opening sort of film for 1964. Maybe I’ll obtain a copy sometime if I ever get done trying to read From Here to Eternity (in a few years!)

Occasionally written off as sleaze or camp, the film definitely has its moments of both, but it also serves as a reminder that not all bad things happen at night or far away. Sometimes death and crime are happening right next door in broad daylight. Also, it was prophetic, it seems. Not too long before it opened, Kitty Genovese was murdered near her apartment entrance while quite a few neighbors watched or heard and did nothing. (It must be said that in this movie, though, the level of disinterest and callousness from people borders on the absurd.)

Its influence can clearly be seen in many subsequent films including A Clockwork Orange and Death Wish. The memorable ending is a real eye-opener even now in this seen-it-all age. Oddly, after her double-duty horror outings, Olivia de Havilland wouldn’t be seen again in a movie until 1969’s The Adventurers. Subsequent appearances would become more and more infrequent (she did, in fact, only four more features beyond that before retiring altogether in 1988.) Caan, on the other hand, swiftly moved into films directed by such names as Sam Peckinpah, Howard Hawks, Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola, the latter director, of course, really putting him on the map when he reused him in the spectacular hit, The Godfather.

Billingsley only made seven more films, most of them on the cheap and/or exploitive side, though she stayed busy on television through the 60s and 70s. By the end of the 70s, however, her screen career was over. Campos fared better, remaining in demand on TV and in films until his untimely death at age 49 from cancer. Corey enjoyed a long career in front of the camera and as an influential teacher. He died in 2002 following a debilitating fall at age 88, but had worked on TV as recently as two years before. Sothern appeared in quite a few more things, good and bad, but happily ended her very lengthy career with an Oscar nod for her work in The Whales of August. Click on her name to the right for a more in-depth look at her.

This is a mean movie without anyone to really like much, though thankfully we do finally get to warm to its leading lady. There are campy elements to it, to be sure, but it contains a sense of nastiness and menace that manages to stay with the viewer even after we’ve laughed at the bad qualities. It picks at our fears of home invasion and unwarranted violent crime against us. (It makes us want to avoid hip replacements, lest we become trapped in an elevator!) The first time I saw it, I expected to giggle at it continuously, but the tough, committed performances caused me to sit up and take notice.

5 comments:

Rob said...

This review is SO on target, Poseidon! It's a shockingly mean spirited-especially for its time- yet hypnotically watchable film. Ann Sothern was a doll (I wonder if her and Olivia chatted between takes about how they ended up on the set of THIS film!)and again, you're right, she manages to be sympathetic here.
And oh, Olivia...I kind of hope she's immortal. Can't think of any other from that time who's still among us. Bless her!

Michael O'Sullivan said...

Caan was certainly sex on legs here with those spray on jeans ...

normadesmond said...

haven't seen this one in years, but didn't i recently see a TCM promo for it? caan was very memorable and have seen similar with his son, now making the rounds. that same cockiness, well...

as for olivia? we share a birthday.

Labuanbajo said...

This mught be the first picture where "gay" means "gay". I remember Rafael Campos reads the son's letter to mom and makes that assumption about him.

Fun fact-Rafael was married to Dinah Washington.

Topaz said...

Funny you should mention James Caan's pelt and boxy shoulders, Poseidon. I saw this movie decades ago and those two things are the only memories I have of it. As I recall, though, those chest hairs sent me on a real James Caan tear at my local Blockbuster.