Wednesday, December 30, 2009

"Ten... Nine... Eight... Seven..."

A very "Happy New Year" to everyone reading this! As is my yearly custom, I will be watching my favorite movie either New Year's Eve or New Year's Day. If you want to save yourself the trouble (and two hours!), you can view a couple of trailers here:

But be warned, you may accidentally whet your appetite and find yourself wanting to see the movie again (or :::gasp::: for the first time!)

I hope your holiday is happier than Miss Shelley's appears to be in this photo! (Perhaps the lady in front of her is having the type of good time I wish you each of you!) Here's to a prosperous, exciting and pleasurable 2010.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Sweet Jesus...

Today’s featured actor is one of those Hollywood casualties who held so much promise (and he did make about 50 films over two decades), but whose life was peppered with misfortune and was cut short, thus robbing him of the full status and fame due him. Possessing strong acting talent along with a warm, “boy next door” quality, yet having looks that would make a person sell his grandmother to cannibals in order to live next door to him, he could have and should have been a far bigger star than he turned out to be.

Henry “Hank” McKinnies was born in Louisiana, but raised in Wisconsin where he studied theatre. He went to graduate school at UCLA, which is where he was spotted by two different talent scouts who swiftly offered the handsome, and very talented, young man motion picture contracts. He wound up signing with 20th Century Fox under the name he is known by: Jeffrey Hunter. At this stage, he was already married to a pretty, young starlet who was just beginning her own career. Wedlock with Barbara Rush, however, would only last five years.

He was immediately put to work on a small role in the film Fourteen Hours, which was about a desperate man threatening to jump from a high-rise window ledge. The film (not actually Hunter’s first as he had done two minor bits previously for other people) marked the debut of close to a dozen actors, including Grace Kelly, who would go on to notable careers. In an odd twist of fate, the day the film was previewed, one of Fox’s chief execs, Spyros Skouras, lost his daughter to suicide in the same manner, prompting the film to be shelved for half a year.

Still, Hunter was kept busy, first in The Frogmen (about men on a Naval underwater demolition team) in which he had a great, featured role as an injured man in danger of drowning, followed by other movies in varied genres including Red Skies of Montana, Belles on Their Toes, Dreamboat and Princess of the Nile. His stunning looks, particularly his ice blue eyes, made him especially striking in color films.

1956 was an impressive year for Hunter because it’s the year he was loaned to Warner Brothers to costar with John Wayne in The Searchers, a revenge-western that was lauded upon release and has only gained in stature over the years. Hunter played the adopted, part-Indian, brother of a girl who’s been captured by a ferocious chief. Hunter held his own with Wayne as the pair battled it out onscreen over how best to retrieve the girl, played by Natalie Wood.

For inexplicable reasons, Hunter began being paired with the up and coming Robert Wagner, but receiving second-billing and secondary roles when he actually possessed far greater talent and more handsome features. It is likely that Wagner’s teen following (egged on by his fairytale marriage to Natalie Wood) had a hand in this. While the men suited each other on screen, even playing brothers in The True Story of Jesse James, the differences in their abilities fairly screams off the screen in films such as White Feather (in which Hunter’s eyes were covered with brown contact lenses and his face augmented with war paint, rendering him almost unrecognizable) and A Kiss Before Dying (later remade with Matt Dillon.)

Hunter continued to provide strong work in many films, but often in support of another star, such as Robert Ryan in The Proud Ones, Fess Parker in The Great Locomotive Chase, Fred MacMurray in Gun for a Coward or Spencer Tracy in The Last Hurrah. A genial presence anyway, even in unsympathetic roles, perhaps he complimented the other actors so well that his own leading man potential was not fully trusted?

Occasionally, as in The Way to the Gold and Count Five and Die, he would be given top billing. Other times he would be featured in ensembles as he was in No Down Payment (which also starred his ex-wife Rush!) and In Love and War. The Searchers’ director John Ford, had thought enough of Hunter to use him in The Last Hurrah and then gave him the leading role in the controversial film Sergeant Rutledge, about the court-martial of a black soldier accused of raping and killing a white girl as well as killing her father.

By now, Hunter was finally recognized as leading man material, though he hadn’t really delivered a blockbuster or even a future-classic of his own. When director Nicholas Ray chose him in 1961 to portray Jesus Christ in King of Kings, the first time that Jesus’ face would be continually shown in a major Hollywood film, most critics balked. Some catty film columnists even referred to the movie as “I Was a Teenage Jesus” due to Hunter’s handsome, youthful and healthy good looks and as a derisive way of reacting to them. The truth is, even though Jesus was normally portrayed in an older way to that date, Hunter was in fact two years older than Christ when he was crucified. Typical of the idiocy of that time, preview audiences took offense to Hunter’s chest hair while on the cross (is this really what they gleaned out of the scene?!) and it had to be re-shot after he’d shaved it and his armpits.

This ludicrous and shameful criticism of Hunter’s thoughtful, reverent performance in a likewise beautiful and tremendously produced film led to box office disappointment. An epic film in the grand tradition (those are real extras, folks on a real landscape!) featured eye-popping sets and costumes along with vivid supporting performances, notably from Robert Ryan as John the Baptist, Rip Torn as Judas and especially Rita Gam as Herod’s wife. The sublime music of Miklos Rozsa has also come to be recognized as classic. Poseidon is not even Christian and yet the film is watched every Easter here in The Underworld!

Feature film-wise, Hunter hit a lean period after this and increasingly turned to television. He starred in a western series called Temple Houston (about the son of legendary Sam Houston), but it only lasted a season. Upon its cancellation, Hunter was given the lead in a new sci-fi series pilot, an unusual little project known as Star Trek! (Ironically enough, the Temple Houston photo here shows him with Grace Lee Whitney, who would later appear on Trek, though not with him.)

The project concerned Captain Christopher Pike and his starship’s five-year mission to explore the unknown reaches of space. Hunter was handsome and virile in his role, but the network wanted another version of the pilot, one not as cerebral in nature and with more action. Then married to former model Joan “Dusty” Bartlett, who wasn’t enamored of having a husband working in a then-sneered upon genre and having been advised to demand more money and to pursue films again, he wound up passing on the entire ball of wax. His pilot was later interpolated into a two-part episode of the series, which, of course, wound up starring William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk. Trek with Hunter would have been an altogether different show. Perhaps it would have been more serious and dramatic in tone, but then the magical chemistry of the eventual leads wouldn’t have been there and that is really what propelled it into an iconic show.

In any case, little film work came about and, before long, Hunter found himself working as a guest on more TV shows and eventually landing in Europe, headlining quite a few foreign films. He was aged (rather unconvincingly) for a part in Custer of the West, which was filmed in Spain. Occasionally, he would find himself in an American film, though not in anything particularly prestigious. Bob Hope’s The Private Navy of Sgt. O’Farrell is far from the big time, but Hunter still looked terrific. Unfortunately, Mr. Hunter would be dead within a year.

When Sherwood Schwartz was putting together The Brady Bunch, Jeffrey Hunter lobbied heavily to win the role of the father. In what is a tremendous head-scratcher, Schwartz declared that Hunter was “too good looking” to be an architect! Schwartz was paid back in spades for his attitude when he cast Robert Reed in the part and began what was a marathon of bickering, complaining and temper tantrums throughout the entire run of the series.

So, it was back to Europe again to make more features there. On Viva America!, a horrible chain of events began which would eventually cost Jeff his life. First, an on-set explosion injured his face. Then, a “friendly” sparring match with an old military friend resulted in him being clipped in the chin and, more importantly, hit in the head when falling backwards. On the way home to America, he suffered a stroke on the plane (while accompanied by his new wife, Emily McLaughlin, best known as Nurse Jessie Brewer on General Hospital and, no, I don’t get it either!) Once past that, he had another stroke at home and fell to the floor fracturing his skull and lying unconscious for some time. He never again came to after that, dying in the hospital at age 42.

I was alerted to the charms of Jeffrey Hunter about six or seven years ago by a fellow movie buff who couldn’t get enough of him. I started paying attention to him myself and very quickly saw what the fuss was about. This guy could do anything. He played petulant Indian braves and erudite professors and assured cowboys with equal commitment. And those eyes… The world lost a true gem when he passed away at such an age. Fortunately, he did leave behind a sizeable body of work that can be enjoyed time and again, hopefully winning him new fans even now.

Monday, December 28, 2009

"The Concorde" Takes a Dive

In the beginning, there was Airport, an A-list, ultra-slick adaptation of a best-selling book and a nominee for multiple Oscars (including Best Picture!) Then came Airport 1975 with a bit too much humor (intentional and unintentional) and Karen Black flying a damaged 747. Airport '77 next had a private plane sinking beneath the ocean while rich passengers dropped like flies.

In an inane attempt to continue the exploitation of the original, and superior, film (as well as cash in on the notoriety of the then-new Concorde, the fastest commercial plane ever), The Concorde: Airport ‘79 (was it necessary to alter the scheme of the films' titles every time?!) came along and ended the series. A year later, Airplane! would slam the coffin lid and seal it for good with it's hysterical sending up of the many clichés of the air-disaster genre. Thanks to the merciless idiocy of this film, it was almost redundant to parody the scenarios! Though I can't be certain, this also may have been the last of the "box films," which prominently sold the all-star casts in a row of boxes on the movie's poster.

Here, Robert Wagner (sometimes wearing the ugliest eyeglasses ever manufactured) is a high-powered industrialist who's been selling arms to enemies of the U.S. When his TV reporter mistress Susan Blakely is informed of this, he tries to have her killed. After she boards the Concorde en route to Moscow, he (ludicrously) decides to pull out every stop in the book to demolish the aircraft, even though it is full of Olympians, TV journalists, music legends, human organs and little old ladies who can't stay out of the bathroom!

The entire film is both stagnant and simultaneously uproarious at the same time. The director, writer, editor and the actors can't seem to get ANYTHING right! (See Blakely's ridiculously unconvincing newscast in which she never once looks into the camera, is situated in a cavernous, yet undecorated newsroom and in which clips from events AS THEY ARE HAPPENING IN REAL TIME parade across the screen as though they are parts of an edited news story.) The movie also contains some of the most abominable blue-screen and model special effects ever to be seen in a major studio film.

The cast of is huge and full of names, though most of them are given, literally, nothing to do but embarrass themselves. A dour Wagner looks very tired and hardly bothers to vary his facial expressions. Blakely works hard but is defeated by the stupidity of the character and the script. George Kennedy (the one actor who was in all four films) is promoted to Captain this time after previously being seen as a mechanic and an administrative employee, but is reduced to cracking crude sexual jokes and (in the film's most celebratedly lunatic scene) cracking open the cockpit window in mid-flight and shooting off a flare! The flare in question is supposed to distract a heat-seeking missile, as if it could possibly be thrown off the course of a roaring supersonic jet by an activated distress signal. At one point, Ingmar Bergman protegee Bibi Andersson is lowered into having to do a love scene with the crass, burly man.

Fairly haggard former screen-god Alain Delon, as another pilot, tries to beat preposterous dialogue like, "Your hair is my French fries" in his affair with sex kitten stewardess Sylvia Kristel (whose calf-length uniform has a split up to her thigh! Previous costumer Edith Head wisely took a hike this time out and it shows.) Delon is never lit well enough to accent his once-amazing looks and Kristel, who was trying to attempt a film that didn’t feature her in the nude, can’t seem to effectively deliver even the most benign dialogue.

Other oddities include Mercedes McCambridge spouting a dreadful Russian accent and flouncing around in curtain-like tops as an overprotective gymnastics (!) coach, Jimmie Walker as a pot-smoking saxophone player, Monica Lewis as a jazz legend who feels she may be losing it (we can vouch that she just might be even though Jennings Lang, the producer of this film and her husband, may think differently!), Dorito’s advertising stooge and comedic performer Avery Schreiber as a Russian coach with a deaf daughter (at least she doesn't have to hear Lewis awkwardly singing along with Walker's sad sax!) and Polident spokeswoman Martha Raye as a grandma with a bladder control problem (What? Did June Allyson turn the part down?) Raye has the honor of having her last film contain scenes of her stuck in an airplane john which is coming apart and dousing her with water and who knows what else.

Special mention must be given to the sidesplittingly fretful appearance of Cicely Tyson as a mother escorting a frozen heart, along with doctor Nicholas Coster, to her dying son. (Since when do parents go off and collect organs while their kid is expiring somewhere else? For that matter, since when do the doctors go and get them??) In an apparent attempt to disappear from this rancid film, she hides her face under every imaginable object. Already buried under what must be Victoria Principal's fright wig from Earthquake, she uses hankies, a clutch purse, blankets, ANYTHING to obscure her face from being seen, eventually turning away from the camera entirely! (Kathryn Grayson admitted to doing this in her final film The Vagabond King. She loathed her costar and hated the Paramount production values as compared to her former studio MGM and truly attempted to hide her face from the camera so as not to be spotted in her own movie!)

The endless, Fantasy Island-esque Concorde cast list also contains Eddie Albert as the airline owner and Sybil Danning as his trophy wife. Albert is charming and Danning gives one of the best performances in the film because she isn’t excruciatingly annoying as most of the rest are! Charo has a cameo as a pushy passenger attempting to stowaway a Chihuahua. John Davidson plays a sports reporter with the hots for Olympian Andrea Marcovicci, who gets another special mention.

Unbelievably, she plays a twenty-four year-old gymnast (!) going for her third gold medal, which is crazy enough except that she was thirty-one in real life! Just one more nutty aspect of this thoroughly stunted, unispired film. She and Davidson have a “cute” seduction scene that takes place in a training room whirlpool as McCambridge hovers nearby. Apparently, this sequence was so stunning that it warranted a vomitous six-part publicity photo detailing every stage of it for the viewer… Some asshole even numbered the photos as if no one could tell what order the blessed event took place in!

Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of all is the fact that the plane goes through several traumas, spinning violently and nearly crashing as it is pursued by the missiles, yet, after a layover in Paris, virtually every single passenger GETS BACK ON! The fun then continues as the plane is outfitted to start coming apart at the seams in midair. (All this rather than just shooting Blakely while she was off the vessel in Paris.) At least this part offers more laughs as dippy passengers groove out to a transistor radio (!) while the carpet is ripping at their feet and Albert discovers that he “has the best seat in the house.”

As if things weren't bad enough, the 1980 Olympics that were pushed so heavily in this movie wound up being boycotted that year by the U.S., so the whole film was outdated before it was even released anyway! Eventually, the makers realized the unintentional comedy of their screen excrement and started marketing it as such!

The genre was beaten dead by now and by trying to throw everyone and everything but the kitchen-sink into the movie, it became preposterous. The passengers twirl upside down continuously in what seems like an amusement park attraction while 743,852 pieces of paper and debris fly around them. It was probably more than a decade before anyone took a film about an airline crash seriously (that being 1993’s Alive.)

Friday, December 25, 2009

The "Miracle" Worker

With Christmas comes the remembrance of holiday movies and, with the recollection of those, comes one of the most enduring, Miracle on 34th Street. Miracle contains one of the most famous and memorable performances by a child actor, Miss Natalie Wood as Susan Walker.

Wood was born to parents of Russian descent as Natalia Zakharenko, which later evolved into Natasha Gurdin, Natasha being a nickname and Gurdin a new last name taken by her father for their family, presumably to have one more pronounceable to their American acquaintances. Later, she would be given the name Natalie Wood as her career in films took on life.

Director Irving Pichel stumbled upon Natalie while filming a movie called Happy Land in her hometown of Santa Rosa, California. Natalie’s mother (a “stage mother” in every possible negative way) had striven to get her into the film as an extra, along with herself. Though the mother Maria (who nearly everyone close to her referred to with the nickname “Mud”) drove Pichel and others crazy, causing only her legs to be shown in the scene, Wood impressed him enough for him to promise to help her if she ever came to Hollywood to pursue a career.

With that, Mrs. Gurdin moved her daughter to the film capital, where it was harder to break into films than she had imagined. Still, Pichel stood by his word and cast Natalie in her first four films (including the initial Happy Land.)

The one in which she really got a big build-up and made an unforgettable impression was the tear-jerker Tomorrow is Forever, starring Claudette Colbert and Orson Welles. Look at her cute little picture and blurb to the side of the primary stars' looming visages! The story (a rather far-fetched and unabashedly sentimental one, which, of course, I adore!) concerned young marrieds Colbert and Welles who are separated when he goes off to fight in WWI. He never comes home and is declared dead and Colbert eventually marries George Brent and has a son, Richard Long (actually Welles'.) When Brent’s work involves a scientist colleague from Europe, Colbert senses something very familiar about him as well she should. It’s Welles! There's the added pressure that Colbert's son Long is eager to run off to fight in WWII.

Welles is now older and semi-disfigured from injuries during the war and he has in tow a little refugee girl whose parents where killed by the Nazis. This is where Wood comes into the picture. At seven years of age, she steals scenes from all the principle actors and gives a magnificently touching performance.

Granted, it’s made more touching knowing that Wood’s own life would end in an ugly tragedy, but she’s perfectly adorable and delicate. Her scenes with the comparatively mammoth Welles surely gave her the experience and confidence to make the later Miracle scenes with Edmund Gwenn more effortless.

A year later, Wood found herself working on Miracle on 34th Street with Gwenn and the leads John Payne and Maureen O’Hara. O’Hara was reluctant to make the film because she’d recently returned to her native Ireland and wished to stay longer, but fell in love with the script when she read it and changed her mind.
It took a special, pragmatic and frank type of little girl to portray Susan, a child who has been brought up skeptically and who doesn’t believe in Santa Claus. Wood came through with a performance that was the first of several of hers that would be considered touchstones in her varied career. The child worked on every role with a dedication and diligence that was rare, even in adults, so eager to please was she. By now, she was supporting her entire family.

Natalie was an obedient child who did what she was told (often ordered!) to do, but she was also a shy and frequently frightened young girl. Her mother had been told early on by a fortune teller that Natalie must always avoid dark water and Mrs. Gurdin, always with a tendency toward the dramatic anyway, made this known to her daughter.

Nonetheless, when a scene in 1949’s The Green Promise called for Natalie to cross a rickety bridge in a storm and fall into the water, she was pushed into doing it. Money and the appearance of cooperation (in order to secure future jobs) were points of interest for her mother. The bridge was destroyed too early, before she was all the way across it and she was injured. For the remainder of her life, Natalie Wood would have a continued fear of water and would also wear a thick bracelet of some kind on her left wrist to cover a “disfigurement” caused by the accident.

It is believed that the protruding bone in her wrist was a somewhat minor thing, but Wood was a perfectionist about her appearance. It is exceedingly rare to find a photo of her in which she is not made up and dressed in an attractive manner. It’s fascinating to watch her in movies or photos from 1949 on and take note of which piece of jewelry has been chosen to mask this “flaw.”

Jill Whelan who was teenage Vicki on The Love Boat has remarked about the humiliation of having to age from 12 to 20 on national television, each awkward period documented on film for all to see. So it is that many child stars enter that same phase and VERY few come out on the other side.

Natalie was consistently busy and played the child of some very famous actors, however, even she went through a gangly period. In 1950, she was daughter to Margaret Sullavan, whose character was terminally ill with cancer, in the movie No Sad Songs for Me. Wood was uncharacteristically grating and pesky and more than a little awkward. Two years later, she was an onscreen daughter to Bette Davis in The Star. She was still in that uncomfortable in-between stage, but struck up a good relationship with Davis. Davis reportedly went to bat for Wood when the director wanted her to jump into the ocean in one scene. The two would remain friendly for the rest of Wood’s life.

After working on a brief TV series called The Pride of the Family (which she loathed) and a movie called The Silver Chalice (a Biblical epic starring Paul Newman that was bad enough that he later apologized for it when it aired on television!), she realized that if her career was going to go the direction she wanted it to, she was going to have to win stronger roles and get herself out of pigtails and pinafores. This new attitude permeated her personal life as well and she began acting out sexually with men, often ones older than her, and her mother usually turned a blind eye. Wood briefly dated a prominent actor/producer while still underage and was brutally raped, but never pressed any charges in order to avoid scandal. The name of the actor has never officially been revealed, but will likely be in a few years.

It was round this time that she campaigned for the role of Judy in Rebel Without a Cause, going far enough (at 16!) to bed down the director Nicholas Ray who was in his early 40s. That affair did not lead to her getting the role. It was only after she was involved in a car accident with Dennis Hopper and a hospital staff member referred to her as a juvenile delinquent that Ray rethought the situation and granted her the role. She earned an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress for her work. For me, one of the more affecting scenes was when she attempted to kiss her own father and was slapped in the face for her trouble.

Her next film role was a small, but pivotal, one. She played the object of The Searchers, a key western starring John Wayne and directed by John Ford. Wood portrays the niece of Wayne, who has been captured by a savage Indian chief called Scar. It is considered by many to be one of the best, if not the very best, examples of the genre ever to come out of Hollywood. She isn’t seen until the final sequences of the movie, but when she appears, she gives the film an assured presence and an appealing persona.

Unfortunately for her, she was then utilized in lesser projects that paired her with Tab Hunter. A big publicity campaign attempted to make them into a star duo and, though they liked each other very much as friends, the films didn’t ignite the box office. The first one was a western called The Burning Hills while the second was about a boys entrance into the service called The Girl He Left Behind (which they couple laughingly referred to as "The Girl with the Left Behind!")

Wood attempted varied roles including that of a biracial girl in Kings Go Forth, but it wasn’t until the one-two punch of Splendor in the Grass and West Side Story in 1961 that her success as a major Hollywood leading lady was truly assured.

From there a number of successes and failures were in store, just as they are for anyone who tries to navigate a long-term career in the fickle world of entertainment. Her personal life eventually led her to temporarily back away from her career as well. Married to Robert Wagner in 1957, a man she had idolized since running into him when she was 10, they were considered the dream Hollywood couple until they divorced in 1962. She had many, many splashy relationships before marrying British producer Richard Gregson in 1969. Longing to be a wife and mother, she scaled back her workload in the 1970s, doing only two feature films that decade along with several TV appearances.

When Gregson cheated on her with her own secretary, she divorced him and almost simultaneously reconnected with Wagner, who she had never stopped loving despite some significant problems within their first marriage. However, they remarried in 1972 and enjoyed what appeared to be a decade of true bliss with each other. Something had happened along the way that allowed her to accept Wagner, warts and all, and vice-versa.

Her controversial and mysterious drowning death in 1981 shook the world. She remains a figure of worship to many people still, either for her splendid work as a child actress or for her later, more dramatic work or for both. Today on December 25th, however, the Underworld tips its hat to the precious little girl who delivered touching and knowing performances in her films, including, of course, Miracle on 34th Street.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Wake Up and Watch This!

In the mid-70s, it was rare to go anyplace relaxing, like to a beach or a swimming pool, and not find someone reading a paperback copy of Robin Cook’s bestseller Coma. The (then) sort of provocative cover of a nude, muscled figure, dangling from wires, always caught my attention. I didn't read the book until quite a few years later after a friend reminded me of the film version and I had enjoyed that so much the first time I'd seen it.

The story concerned a female intern at a major hospital who starts to question the number of patients who wind up comatose in the wake of supposedly minor procedures. Naturally, this being prior to or on the cusp of The Women’s Movement, she can’t seem to get anyone to go along with her suspicions and, in fact, runs into considerable opposition from a collection of stubborn, sexist, male doctors, including her own boyfriend who works at the same hospital. Eventually, she investigates on her own, leading her on a suspenseful ride from which she may not return!

Adapted into a film in 1978, the creepy, paranoid story transferred well to the screen and remains a pretty good nail-biter even now. Not for those who fear the medical profession, this creepy thriller takes its time getting started, but later kicks into high gear. It creates a mood and builds suspense to an almost unbearable degree.

It’s sort of a statement in itself of going against the expected grain that, for the film version, the heroine, long-haired, blonde Susan Wheeler, was instead portrayed by elfin, brunette, less conventional looking Genevieve Bujold. Whether intended or not, this decision gave the film another layer of tension and despair as seeing such a petite, almost frail-looking person such as she taking on the big guys is far more effective than if a taller, stronger-looking actress had been cast. (Her spunky determination goes a long way in helping me to forgive a wretched hairstyle that is occasionally augmented by a heinous little barrette!)

Appearing as her boyfriend is Michael Douglas, at the time a known personality for his work on TV’s The Streets of San Francisco, but not yet the A-list actor he would become in the 1980s. It’s almost odd now to see Douglas in a role that’s rather peripheral to the main action (almost the “girlfriend” part), but he invests it with conviction and even a certain amount of threat and malice.

The rest of the supporting cast is top-notch. Craggy-faced Richard Widmark is perfect as the confident, condescending and curt Chief of Staff. He manages to expertly represent the “glass ceiling” sort of attitude that women faced then (and sometimes do now) while slathering onto it an “I’m here for you” smarminess.

Also performing effectively in just a couple of scenes (one of which is wordless) is Rip Torn. Like most others in the film, he has an aura of mystery and untrustworthiness that adds to the general unease of the hospital. Neither Bujold nor the audience knows who she can trust. Our own hesitance and fear of such places and situations help create a feeling of unease.

Best of all is the brief, but unforgettable, appearance of Elizabeth Ashley as the world's most intimidating nurse. In her opening scene she blinks exactly once! (Yes, I counted…) Her voice is a monotone terror and her stare is up there with Medusa's. The section that contains her is surreal, but arresting, and very campy! As a film viewer, I have a tendency to grab on to one performer in a movie and obsess about him or her. Miss Ashley, even with her limited screen time, earned a place in my own (imaginary?) Cinema Hall of Fame for her hysterically bizarre, haughty, intimidating performance as Nurse Emerson. That voice, always a distinctive one, is divinely rude here.

The film (directed by former medical student Michael Crichton, who wrote many sci-fi novels and directed several other films) has a blatantly frank point of view. People eat sandwiches while they are examining cadavers. Brains are sliced like deli meat. It's all very clinical and unsettling to non-medical viewers.
Though the big set piece is a visit to the austere and forbidding Jefferson Institute, there are several other highly charged moments including a duct hole exploration and a chase through a seemingly abandoned hospital. The chase contains several creepily creative aspects along the way. Hit-man Lance LeGault makes a sinister pursuer as well. In an unusual move (but one which adds to the clinical feel of the early scenes), Jerry Goldsmith's clanking score doesn't take center stage until late in the film, but it’s wonderfully nerve-wracking when it needs to be.

Adding to the fun is a series of small appearances by people new to the business like Lois Chiles, Tom Selleck and Ed Harris. The first two portray patients and acquaintances of Bujold’s while Harris is a technician. Most viewers spotting him in this exclaim their surprise that he has (some) hair. Another striking thing about the film is that it is rated PG and yet contains some fairly graphic imagery and even fleeting nudity. I think we were generally less uptight about the body in those post flower-child/pre-AIDS days. Until PG-13 came along in 1984, PG films were allowed a little more leeway than they probably would be now (see also Mommie Dearest’s famous, “Don’t fuck with me fellas!” line in the PG rated biopic.)