Thursday, March 8, 2018

"Puzzle" Pieces

Longtime readers of this blog, who are all too familiar with my Faye Dunaway obsession, will find it quite hard to believe that I only saw FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER, her 1970 film Puzzle of a Downfall Child. The arty, before-its-time film, loosely inspired by one of the 1950s' premier fashion models, was never an easy one to locate after its release. It only played sporadically on television and wasn't released on VHS (nor, in fact, has there been a U.S. DVD release of it to date.) Quite by accident, I stumbled upon a good quality rendition of it on youtube and was able to snuggle in for a look at it at last.

The chief inspiration for the movie was a spectacular fashion model of the '50s and early-'60s, Anne St. Marie. The lithe, elegant, impossibly contortionistic and glamorous muse was closely associated with Vogue magazine and was photographed by Tom Palumbo, who she eventually married and bore two sons with. She paid a price for her contributions to posing, however, in that she suffered a breakdown when cast aside around age thirty and died of lung cancer, no doubt inched along by the endless chain of cigarettes she smoked to curb her appetite and remain reed thin for the camera.
Puzzle opens at a remote cabin on the beach where Dunaway, now a decade or so beyond her hey-day as a model, is sharing her life story with an old pal, photographer Barry Primus. In preparation for a movie about her life, the terribly insecure and emotionally fragile Dunaway relays information to Primus in a disjointed series of flashbacks that may or may not be completely factual and are often contradictory to one another.

We meet her as an aspiring model, being given the once-over by a brusque, tough agent who looks her over and sizes her up like she's a piece of meat about to go on sale in the deli case.

Things aren't any more comforting on her first big assignment wherein the designers and the photographer pick her apart and discuss her as if she isn't a human being standing before them. They're dissatisfied with her in several ways, her nerves becoming jangled.

It gets worse when her very own physical well-being is put in jeopardy by a falcon they attach to her arm, who swiftly takes a dive at her face! Naturally, for the people in charge of the campaign, the all-important shot takes precedence over anything so trivial as the model's health. It must be said that Dunaway looks stunning in her feathery headpiece and sparkling jewelry.
One of the photographer's assistants at the shoot is young Primus, who is an aspiring shutterbug himself. He acquaints himself with Dunaway and begins taking various early-morning photos of her in outdoor settings, paying her the sum of $10.00/hr (far below the industry standards at the time for a high fashion model.)
Though her agent is horrified by this extracurricular work, the photos do impress a prominent female photographer played by Viveca Lindfors. Lindfors is an eccentric, highly passionate artist (who provides the film's first real laugh when she hires Dunaway to fly off to Jamaica with her in her private plane.)

The specter of flying anywhere terrifies Dunaway, who tells Primus that her first love was killed in a crash. She (in what may or may not be the truth) was picked up at age fifteen by an older man who would take her to the airport and make love to her in a nearby field. He later died while flying.
In order to make herself take the plane to Jamaica, where a high-paying, high-profile assignment awaits, she has to drink heavily. She does make the trip and one of her photos lands her the cover of Vogue magazine.

Lindfors becomes a close friend of Dunaway, inviting her to frequent dinner parties where she ultimately meets advertising art director Roy Scheider. Much to Lindfors' discomfort, Scheider offers to take Dunaway home where he attempts to seduce her.

Thing is, Dunaway is rattled with Catholic guilt. In a dreamy flashback, we see her attempting to pass a love note to a priest at school, but stopped in the process by a (literally) whistle-blowing nun.

Lindfors (who is married to Barry Morse), wants to dissuade Dunaway from seeing Scheider and informs her that he had tried to seduce her as well previously. Scheider denies this, saying it was Lindfors who put the moves on him. We don't know for certain what the truth is, but at times Lindfors looks like she might want Dunaway for herself!

During the scene above, the camera zeroes in on Dunaway's eye...
...and lips.
Compare those to these shots from Mommie Dearest, eleven years later, during the film's opening when Joan Crawford is being readied for the cameras. It's not the only time when one can see the seeds being sewn of Dunaway's epic performance in the over-the-top biopic.

Take a look at this photo shoot with Dunaway and a handsome young model. So much of the way she looks and is holding herself and in the next shot from Puzzle are in accord with the Mommie Dearest sequence shown below!
The camera, operated by Primus, catches Dunaway being necked by her young love and the final result could almost be a promotional photo for one of Crawford's romantic melodramas (or perhaps even I Saw What You Did, 1965.)
Incidentally, this look of Dunaway's parallels a photo taken of Anne St. Marie, with similarly piled hair and the sheet pulled across her chest in lieu of a gown. Note that even the dressing room bulbs make their presence known in both pictures.

Anyway, Dunaway wants to become closer to Primus, but discovers that she is practically unable to make love to anyone she actually knows. She goes out of town with him for the night, but insists that he let her out of the car so that she may enter a bar and pretend not to know him when he comes in, both of them using assumed names. They proceed to an awkward sexual experience, which is never repeated.

Back in the present day, Dunaway models (literally!) her wedding dress to Scheider for Primus. It's crisp white, but when she flashes back to the big day (during which she departed in a taxi prior to making the union official), the dress and hat are funereal black. 

Scheider is infuriated by Dunaway's irrational behavior as she coolly casts him out of her life for no apparent reason. They engage in a scuffle that injures her face (which is presented in two ways, so that we're never quite sure how it happened.)

She thinks that perhaps things might rekindle with her pal Primus, but he's moved on with a new girlfriend (who he presumably marries.) In this scene, and many others in the film, red plays a vivid part. The otherwise fairly desaturated color scheme makes the scarlet tones jump off the screen.
Feeling the need to rejuvenate her look (and her slipping career), she alters her makeup style and dons a wig for a photo shoot, but discovers that she is no longer a top model. She has to stand by on the sidelines as a haughty new face (the ravishing Barbara Carrera) picks and chooses the clothing from the rack that she wishes to wear.

Dunaway turns to drugs and alcohol as coping mechanisms and has trouble separating fact from fiction and reality from fantasy. Already an exaggerator and fanciful storyteller, she becomes frantic from the drama in her life.

She becomes so despondent that her appearance suffers and she lives in an intoxicated haze. Finally, she is so unhinged and detached from reality that she's admitted to a sanitarium. (Scenes set there are filmed almost entirely in clinical white. Even the food she's served is as close to white as they could make it.) Here, the then twenty-nine year-old Dunaway allows herself to look about as bad as a person can, quite a contrast from the many other stunning images of her to be found in the film.

By the end, she and Primus have arrived at a certain sort of peace and understanding, though considering the emotional state of her character, it would be a stretch to describe the movie as having a "happy" ending.

This is on record as Faye Dunaway's favorite movie of the more than seventy in which she has appeared (not counting TV-movies.) No wonder! The entire film revolves around her and she's in every scene. It's a roller-coaster ride of looks, emotions, experiences and reactions. Fans of hers owe it to themselves to see it.
To me, she is always, always watchable, but I cannot deny that in this instance she was permitted to be a little bit indulgent with her pauses, tics and mannerisms in the company of a first-time feature director (Jerry Schatzberg, for whom Primus is a celluloid stand-in.) Nevertheless, her detailed, committed, at times searingly intimate performance is impressive, yet was ignored by every awards body imaginable except for the  Hollywood Foreign Press Association (Golden Globes.) Ali MacGraw won that year for Love Story.
Though she cites it as her personal favorite work, she never once acted again alongside any of the people who costarred with her in the piece. The film was not a hit and, as I said at the outset, was ahead of its time and more European in its structure and approach than most mainstream fare at the time. (This was a Universal Pictures release!) A screening at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, at which she and Schatzberg were present, was well-received and, in fact, her visage in a photo by Schatzberg adorned that year's festival poster.

Primus had been working in television since the early-'60s, but was segueing to film with 1968's The Brotherhood and this one. He proceeded to work frequently for Roger Corman in his films of varying quality. Now eighty, he still acts and has done so steadily for all these years, including roles in American Hustle (2013) and Joy (2015.)

Lindfors was imported from her native Sweden in 1948 by Warner Brothers to costar in Errol Flynn's The Adventures of Don Juan. She eventually morphed from a glamorous leading lady to a colorful supporting actress of note. Her 1989 guest role on Life Goes On earned her an Emmy Award (an earlier nomination for the 1978 TV-movie A Question of Guilt resulted in a win for Eva Le Gallienne for The Royal Family.) The still-acting Lindfors succumbed to complications from arthritis in 1995 at age seventy-four.

An English actor from the 1940s on, Morse was known in the U.S. for his continuing role on the top 1960s TV series The Fugitive, as the police detective endlessly hunting down David Janssen. Later he achieved another level of cult status as a costar on Space: 1999. Always an extremely busy actor on TV and in films, he worked practically right up until his death in 2008 of natural causes. He was eighty-nine.

Amateur boxer turned air force officer turned stage actor Scheider had been working on daytime soaps like Love of Life, The Secret Storm and Edge of Night as well as in some lesser-known features prior to this. He was blunt in his displeasure at having to work around Dunaway's need for detail in scenes during Puzzle. Much bigger things were to follow, however, and swiftly. He costarred in both 1971 smashes Klute and The French Connection and proceeded in 1975 to a little something called Jaws. Another busy actor with a varied resume including All That Jazz (1979), Still of the Night (1982) and Blue Thunder (1983), he was still acting when he died in 2008 of multiple myeloma at age seventy-five.

A curiosity in the cast is this young man Clark Burckhalter, who plays one of Dunaway's fellow models and lovers. A nice looking guy with a charming smile, he has only one other screen credit (a 1978 guest role on a sitcom) and absolutely nothing else! It's a shame because this movie left me wanting to see a bit more of him somewhere else.

La Dunaway is still kicking at age seventy-seven, recently appearing once more with Warren Beatty at the 90th Annual Oscar ceremony to properly present Best Picture after last year's debacle. She had four projects last year (of varying quality) after having failed to get her pet project "Master Class" off the ground as a film. (Parts of it were filmed with Al Pacino, Val Kilmer and others, but it will now go into the realm of other unrealized cinematic projects.) I wish that she could find one really good "capper" with which to end her film career after fifty years. I worry that, like her spirit animal Joan Crawford, if she doesn't, she's going to wind up in the equivalent of Trog before it's all over.


Rick Gould said...

Poseidon-Must check this out before YouTube yanks it off!
Love your apt comparisons from "Child" to "Mommie Dearest." When I watched "Chinatown" a couple of years ago, I was struck once again by how she reminded me of Joan Crawford once again--not just in her general "look" but grand way of speaking and emoting.
I hope Faye gets that last hurrah role too, but her rep as being crazy difficult has cost her, just as Joan's latter day drinking cost her consideration for better vehicles.
In fact, one of the show biz mags, Hollywood Reporter?, did a recap of the Faye/Warren mess from last years' Oscars. And one of Hollywood's most likeable PR people said that Faye drove everyone crazy with her demands and temper.
Poseidon, what great director would you like to see take a chance on Faye?

Ken Anderson said...

Yay! So pleased you finally got the opportunity to see this, one of my favorite Faye Dunaway films. With so much of her best work a receding memory, and so many young people familiar with her chiefly from the opposite extremes of "Bonnie & Clyde" and "Mommie Dearest," it's a shame this film has yet to get a US DVD release.
She's so amazing (and amazingly beautiful) in this. With Jane Fonda arguably as popular now as she was in her youth, it would be great if a similar magic could be worked on Dunaway. I too would love to see her in a role worthy of her talents. Last I heard she was involved in one of those "faith" genre films. Good Lord!
Loved reading this, Poseidon!

Forever1267 said...

I do believe that Viveca was, uh, a member of the Family, too, which may be why she looks so hungry for Joan, er, Faye here.

Ryan Murphy must have something for Faye to work on. Or Tarentino's just started working on that Helter Skelter movie. Something. Anything!

Gingerguy said...

Poseidon, I have to tell you that when I saw this my first reaction was that gay cliché "oh no he didn't"! because I had forgotten about this crazy movie and it is so perfect for your analysis.
I was lucky to see this at a museum archive screening a few years ago. Barbara Carrera jumped out at me as a future star in that short scene.
Faye is unearthly beautiful in this, I also loved all the get-ups and hairdos, the wigs not so much.
The Mommie Dearest and I Saw What You Did similarities are genius and could be a coffee table book idea if you ever need one.
I can't say I loved the movie but I know I loved watching it.
Roy Scheider has always been smoking hot to me(it's the hair)now that I know he was in the military I wonder if that's the reason for his fondness for shorn locks?
Great question about Faye's future Trog. I have to say that she has given us enough camp for one lifetime (and that's coming from greedy me) and would love her to be in something great like a Sunset Boulevard, (oh yeah she almost did that) or an Animal Kingdom role. Your love for Faye came through on this and it was a thrill to read and look at.

Poseidon3 said...

Rick, I couldn't possibly know a director that would be right for giving Faye a proper cinematic send-off. I don't really follow today's movie scene much at all. I would think that had she ever truly been able to get "Master Class" off the ground and fully on its feet, that might have made a good career capper, but she must have wanted to maintain control over it to the point where there was no opportunity for a strong directorial (or financial) hand to come in and really make it happen.

Ken, it's been a few years since your own profile of this movie and, in fact, I forgot until you commented here that I'd read it back then and commented on it! No clue how I got sidetracked back then from hunting the movie down, but we fo have pretty many irons in the fire here in The Underworld! Ha ha! Faye and Jane went round and round with potential roles several times in their careers. It's fascinating because Faye hung in steadily while Jane took an eon off, then came roaring back with a vengeance and with arguably higher-profile gigs.

Forever1267, it would be interesting to see if Ryan Murphy could bear up under the formidable Dunaway temperament. He seems to be able to work with practically everybody, so perhaps so! I could SWEAR that Dunaway made unbilled appearances in American Horror Story: Asylum, but maybe it was an extra who was cloned by Barbara Streisand to have the very same facial structure and hairline. I kept waiting for her to be "revealed" and it never happened. LOL

Gingerguy, I bet this movie's imagery was something to behold on a large screen. And you're right, Barbara Carrera really made an impression in a scene lasting in what could be counted by seconds. (Reminds me a bit of "Klute," wherein Veronica Hamel appears for a moment and - again - bursts off the screen.) Thanks, as always, for your compliments and remarks! :-)

hunders said...

Guys this movie has been remastered ! Can be found on HdPocorns. Cheers. Chris.