Monday, July 15, 2019

In Bed with a Killer (Dawn's Light, BondIt Entertainment, MarVista Entertainment, Lifetime, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched a couple of movies on Lifetime that were at least somewhat better than average: In Bed with a Killer and Trapped Model. Given Lifetime’s predilections you could practically write these yourself — particularly the former, since just three weeks ago Lifetime premiered a movie called I Almost Married a Serial Killer which not only had a similar title to In Bed with a Killer but a similar plot line as well — except that In Bed with a Killer had a “surprise” plot twist, and even that, given the conventions of recent Lifetime movies, wasn’t much of a surprise at all. Originally called A Deadly Romance until someone at Lifetime decided it needed a more sensational title to woo jaded viewers, In Bed with a Killer deals with heroine Lena (Jennifer Taylor) and her daughter Ashley (Rachel Rosenstein), who as the movie opens have just moved to a small town — the usual generic Anywhere, America in which a lot of Lifetime movies have been set (the movie was made in Guthrie, Oklahoma, so at least this time Anywhere, America is not being “played” by Anywhere, Canada) — two years after the death of Ashley’s father. The two women haven’t recovered from this and Lana hasn’t dated or even taken an interest in any other man since her husband’s death. She’s in town to open a cake shop, and to promote her new business she passes out cupcakes on the street, mostly to other small businesspeople — including Michael (the gorgeous Ryan Patrick Shanahan, who last appeared on Lifetime in the title role of something called Sinister Minister), who runs the local hardware store and settled there after giving up a career as a prizefighter following a bout in which he accidentally killed his opponent.

Michael’s former girlfriend mysteriously disappeared one night; he presumes she simply ran off and left him, but the prologue scene, in which a young woman was knifed to death by a hooded figure in the dark, suggests that Michael is the titular killer and he’s knocking off the town’s women. One sees the killer at work at least twice more and wonders how nobody seems to notice the escalating body count — including the town police, who are so lazy and inept they make Andy Griffith and Don Knotts look like a S.W.A.T. team by comparison. Midway through the movie writers Colin Edward Lawrence (who also directed), Richard Switzer and Erin Murphy West start letting slip hints that the real killer may not be Michael but may be a woman, Jenny (Jade Harlow), whose teenage son Charlie (the nice-looking if somewhat dorky Joseph Mann) is dating Ashley (which, for some reason the writers don’t explain, raises Lana’s ire — she continually tries to break them up and orders Ashley home whenever she catches her trying to visit Charlie). In the end it turns out that Jenny decided for some reason that she and Michael were destined to be together, and to that end she knocked off anyone who stood in their way, including her own husband and all Mike’s other girlfriends as well as Heather (Rachel Amanda Bryant), who had been investigating the case on her own and was convinced Michael was a serial killer — only Jenny knocked her off (the usual knife attack from a hooded figure dressed in sweat clothes that made it impossible, especially in the noir-ish half-light with which Lawrence and his cinematographer, Ben Demarce, shot the killings, to tell the killer’s gender) and therefore put Heather in the role (usually played by African-Americans, though here she’s white) of the heroine’s best friend who stumbles onto the villain’s plot but gets offed before she can reveal it.

In Bed with a Killer was pretty much to the Lifetime formula, but Lawrence’s neo-noir direction (and in particular his following Alfred Hitchcock’s advice to shoot murders like love scenes and love scenes like murders) make this one special. So does the quite beautiful finish Lawrence and his co-writers came up with: the cops, finally roused from their torpor, come on Lana and Jenny in a full-fledged confrontation — thanks to Michael, who’s best buds with the local sheriff and finally got him to take the situation seriously. The police arrive and hear Lana and Jenny each accusing the other of trying to murder her —but which woman are they supposed to believe? Lana hits on the idea of grabbing Michael and giving him a deep, passionate kiss — and sure enough that “hooks” Jenny’s jealousy; in a rage she spits out a confession and the police arrest her and take Charlie (who’s going to have one hell of a psychological breakdown over the revelation that his mom murdered not only his dad but quite a few other people as well) into protective custody until the courts can determine what to do with him. There’s a tag scene set “Four Months Later,” as the title tells us, in which Charlie and Ashley are shooting hoops together in her mom’s backyard (apparently the traumatic events have had at least one good effect on Charlie: they’ve remarkably improved his skills as a basketball player) and Lana and Michael appear headed for a permanent commitment. In Bed with a Killer is a good Lifetime movie that delivers on the formula even if it doesn’t really transcend it — and Ryan Patrick Shanahan is fun to look at, especially in one scene in which he’s taking a one-on-one yoga class and he’s dressed in only a T-shirt and nicely revealing grey shorts!

Trapped Model, a.k.a. A Model Kidnapping (Sunshine Films, MarVista Entertainment, Lifetime, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After In Bed with a Killer Lifetime rebroadcast a movie they “premiered” a week or two ago after heavily promoting it: Trapped Model, originally shot as A Model Kidnapping (neither a particularly good title), set in Florida (it starts in Biscayne Bay but mostly takes place in Miami) and actually produced by a Florida-based outfit called Sunshine Films in association with our old friends, MarVista Entertainment, who also distributed In Bed with a Killer. This time our “pussy in peril” (to use Maureen Dowd’s description of the Lifetime formula) is Grace Somerville (Lucy Lokan), a pretty but not especially gorgeous young woman who’s just graduated from high school. Her mom Megan (Kiki Harris, a blonde who doesn’t look much like the dark-haired woman supposedly playing her daughter) is after Grace to attend college, but Grace wants to be a model and in an early scene she answers an ad for a photographer who’s willing to shoot pictures of her for a price so she can have a portfolio. Only the photographer turns out to be the typical letch who wants Grace to get naked on camera so he can have his wicked way with her — though when he points out that a lot of superstars got their starts posing for naked pics, of course I couldn’t help but agree with him: I said, “Does the name ‘Marilyn Monroe’ mean anything to you?” (Of course, Grace could have come back, “You mean a pathetic drug addict who died at 36? No, thank you.”) The point of this scene is obviously to let us know that Grace will do almost anything to make it as a model, and to establish that she’s vulnerable to sleazy approaches but too “moral” a girl to follow through on photographers or agents who make sexual demands on her.

Enter the villain of the piece: Hunter Kelly (Wes McGee), a young, charismatic man who places ads on modeling Web sites offering young women contracts to model for him, with all expenses paid and a “model’s apartment” thrown in free for them to stay in while they work for him. Grace answers the ad and is told to go to Miami and meet Nicole (Katherine Diaz), Hunter’s assistant, who will drive her to Hunter’s home in a remote location outside Miami where the photo shoots will take place, and then take her back to the “model’s apartment” afterwards. Only, as we already suspect and Grace soon learns, there is no “model’s apartment”; instead Grace is tricked into staying in a room in Hunter’s home that’s locked from the outside (electronically), with heavy-duty plastic windows so she can’t break out, and what Hunter means to do is shoot her in a series of increasingly pornographic videos which he’ll post online for subscribers. He tells her that a lot of his former models are now big successes in Europe or Asia — a line in Andrea Canning’s script (directed quite effectively by Damián Romay, whose work I’ve seen before in the Lifetime movie Secrets in Suburbia) that hints that when he’s done with his kidnap victims he traffics them, selling them to rich men either as one-on-one sex slaves or prostitutes — though the truth is even more sinister: he simply kills them, photographs their corpses and presumably buries them on his estate. The good guys in this one are Grace’s mom Megan and Grace’s boyfriend Mark Harding (Seth Goodfellow), whose rugged good looks are a nice contrast to Wes McGee’s smarmy charms even though some of the body language between him and Kiki Harris suggests that he’s about to transfer his affections from the missing daughter to the very present mom.

Like In Bed with a Killer, Trapped Model is pretty much cut to the usual Lifetime formula — a card in the opening credits claims it’s inspired by a true story (and I can all too easily believe that!), but if so it’s, as my husband Charles said about the film Shine, a true story the filmmakers selected because the real events came so close to movie clichés. But it’s also got some distinctive touches; Canning, like Christine Conradt, is miles above most Lifetime writers in creating multidimensional characters and hanging some real flesh on these clichéd bones, and in Wes McGee director Romay and casting director Ellen Jacoby came up with an actor for the villain who’s cute, charming, sensitive and attractive enough one can see why women, especially naïve girls like Grace, fall for him and are so easily lured by him. (I can see him taking over the Leonardo di Caprio roles now that di Caprio is aging out of them.) The two women are also powerfully dramatized by Canning and brought to life by the actresses playing them: Canning keeps us in suspense as to whether Grace’s sexual overtures to Kelly are genuine examples of the Stockholm syndrome or ruses she adopts to gain more privileges and eventually escape. And in some respects Nicole is the most interesting figure of the three: genuinely in love with Kelly, jealous of his growing interest in Grace, and also surprisingly shocked when she realizes that her lover has been killing off his kidnap victims once he has no use for them instead of sending them home, as she had naïvely believed. Like Wanda Barzee in the Elizabeth Smart case, Nicole is the most dramatically ambiguous character in the piece — we feel sorry for her horrendously wrong choice of a man and at the same time we hate her for being his enabler as well as his enforcer (after one of Grace’s failed escape attempts Kelly decides to punish her by having Nicole whip her and livestreaming the event to his subscribers).

The good guys stumble onto the bad guys’ secrets when Mark and his college roommate, an excellent computer hacker played by a drop-dead gorgeous Black actor regrettably unidentified (yet) on imdb.com, stumble on the livecast of Nicole whipping Grace. Only Kelly notices that someone out of his subscriber list has logged on and forces Grace to make a phone call to Mark to say that she’s all right but is happy with her new life and never wants to see him again. She ends the call saying “I love you,” a giveaway that she’s making the call under duress since she never used those words to him before her kidnapping, and eventually Mark and Megan track Kelly down to his home. Mark insists on going in alone and is easily knocked out by Kelly, but the police — who at first blew off Megan’s and Mark’s concerns, saying that Grace was obviously just another teenage runaway who didn’t want to be found — end up at the house and all ends well. This time the tag scene is preceded by a title that reads “One Year Later,” and one year later Grace’s photo is on the cover of Empowering Women magazine (so she finally made it onto a magazine cover, even though hardly in the way she originally planned) and it seems like she’s on her way to college after all, as well as into Mark’s waiting arms. Trapped Model didn’t seem all that interesting in the promos — “Oh, no, not another one of those,” I thought — but it turned out to be quite good, an engaging couple of hours in a sea of sordid kinkiness thanks to more subtlety than usual in the direction, the writing, and above all in Wes McGee’s wonderful acting as the villain. He’s got superstar potential if only he and his agents can break him out of the TV ghetto and get him the feature-film roles he deserves!

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (MGM, 1941)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s San Diego Vintage Sci-Fi film screening in Golden Hill (http://sdvsf.org/) was an odd double bill of two stories about human transformation, the 1941 MGM version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and John Frankenheimer’s chilling 1966 film Seconds. The program also included the very first film of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — a 1911 two-reeler from the Thanhouser studio featuring James Cruze, later a director who did the first big epic Western, The Covered Wagon, for Paramount in 1923. (In 1928 Cruze directed a quite good late silent called The Mating Call for producer Howard Hughes; in 1938 he made the first version of Herbert Asbury’s novel Gangs of New York for Republic; and later Martin Scorsese did a far more elaborate remake of Gangs of New York and subsequently directed a biopic of Howard Hughes, The Aviator.) The effects of Jekyll changing into Hyde in the Thanhouser version were either crude cuts or scenes in which Cruze buried his head in his hands so he could do a quick real-time application of his Hyde makeup, but this film probably wowed audiences in 1911. In between there were several adaptations of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel, including a 1915 three-reeler for Carl Laemmle’s IMP (Independent Motion Pictures, later Universal); a major-studio feature from Paramount in 1920 with John S. Robertson directing and John Barrymore as star; a quickly produced rival version from Louis B. Mayer pre-MGM with Sheldon Lewis in the title role(s); and a 1932 Paramount film directed (stunningly) by Rouben Mamoulian featuring Fredric March. Mamoulian’s film began with a 15-minute sequence in which the camera takes Jekyll’s point of view, and the movie was not only hailed as a masterpiece by the critics, it won March an Academy Award (which he had to share with Wallace Beery for The Champ, since in those days if contestants came within three votes of each other the Academy considered it a “tie” and gave the award to both of them).

Later MGM bought the remake rights to Mamoulian’s version, including the script by Samuel Hoffenstein (Mamoulian’s favorite writer) and Percy Heath, and in 1941 they produced an elaborate version with major talent both behind and in front of the cameras: Victor Fleming as director, John Lee Mahin as screenwriter (though he used enough of Hoffenstein’s and Heath’s material that under current Writers’ Guild of America rules MGM would have had to credit them — instead they listed Mahin as sole screenwriter and Stevenson as story source, as if Mahin had worked directly from the novel without any intervening adaptations) and Spencer Tracy, Lana Turner and Ingrid Bergman as stars. Tracy’s performance was much criticized when the film came out — so many reviewers blasted him as inferior to Fredric March in the role that March himself wrote an open letter to the Hollywood trade papers defending Tracy — and it’s had its knocks since, but though off the beaten path for him this was a deeply personal project. As a boy Tracy had seen the American stage actor Richard Mansfield in his pioneering adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (written for him by playwright T. R. Sullivan). The promotion for this play claimed that Mansfield would transform from Jekyll to Hyde and back on stage, right in full view of the audience, just by contorting his facial muscles without the aid of makeup. Tracy was so impressed by Mansfield’s accomplishment he decided then and there to make acting his life’s work, and for years he dreamed of playing Jekyll and Hyde the way Mansfield had, with no character makeup, just by contorting his facial muscles. Then writer W. Somerset Maugham visited the MGM lot, saw Tracy rehearsing and heard the MGM promo man he was with explain that Tracy was going to play the part without makeup because he was such a skilled actor he could make the transformations without it. “I see,” said Maugham. “And just which one is he supposed to be now?”

After Somerset Maugham pointed out to the folks at MGM that Spencer Tracy really didn’t look that different as Mr. Hyde than he did as Dr. Jekyll, they started making him up at least a bit — they didn’t put him through the extreme transformations Paramount’s makeup people had done with John Barrymore and Fredric March, but they darkened his hair and put lines on each side of his eyes. The result is that you wonder why more people — especially Ivy Peterson (Ingrid Bergman), the only person who has major interactions with him in both identities — don’t recognize Jekyll and Hyde as the same person before Hyde mixes his drugs in front of his friend Dr. John Lanyon (Ian Hunter) and changes to Jekyll on the spot. This is one of the few scenes in the film taken directly from Stevenson’s novel — Mahin, like Hoffenstein, Heath and Clara Beranger (who wrote the 1920 version with Barrymore), uses little more from Stevenson than the basic premise and the character names. It was apparently T. R. Sullivan’s idea, in the play version he adapted for Mansfield, to create female interests for both Jekyll and Hyde: Jekyll’s upper-class fiancée Beatrix Emery (Lana Turner, who in what passes for her big emotional moments stares right into the camera with that bovine look that served her for decades), daughter of Jekyll’s upper-class sponsor Sir Charles Emery (Donald Crisp); and Ivy Peterson (Ingrid Bergman), the lower-class woman (she was a prostitute when Miriam Hopkins played her in the “pre-Code” Mamoulian version with March but a barmaid and chorus girl here) whom Jekyll saves from being raped, treats her twisted knee and wards off her seduction attempt; and who later becomes Hyde’s mistress and abuse victim. 

Barred by the Production Code from showing much of Hyde’s evil, Fleming and Mahin made his treatment of Ivy the nastiest thing we see him do; it’s a portrayal of battered-woman syndrome far in advance of virtually anything else on screen (at least on U.S. screens) to its time, and the sheer eloquence with which Bergman acts the plight of a beaten-down woman who knows she deserves better than she’s getting but also feels helpless (especially with Hyde, like Julia Roberts’ evil husband in Sleeping with the Enemy 46 years later, threatening that if she tries to get away from him he’ll just track him down and kill her) is amazing and shows why, though this film was a box-office disappointment and the critics slammed it, it helped her career. (Her very next film was Casablanca.) Bergman had to fight for the role of Ivy; originally David O. Selznick, who held her contract, loaned her to MGM to play Beatrix Emery, but she had utterly no interest in the one-dimensional part of Jekyll’s good-girl fiancée. She begged Fleming to switch the two women’s roles, palm off the good-girl role on Turner and let her play Ivy — and though Bergman has trouble with her accent (she tries to sound like a Cockney but it just overlays rather uncomfortably on her real-life Swedish accent), she makes the role deep and vivid and makes her character a figure of real pathos instead of just a slatternly bitch. The 1941 MGM Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is also noteworthy in that it tries to carry over some of the moral lessons Robert Louis Stevenson worked into the story; in the original — particularly in the final chapter, Jekyll’s own confession before he takes his own life because he realizes he must kill himself to kill off Hyde as well — Jekyll states that had he been in a better frame of mind when he first took his drug, it would have turned him completely good instead of completely evil. Stevenson also states that because Hyde contained only the evil parts of Jekyll, he was physically smaller — which, when I first read that, suggested to me that the ideal casting in 1941 would have been Boris Karloff as Jekyll and Peter Lorre as Hyde. Karloff did get to play Jekyll, with stunt double Edwin “Eddie” Parker as his Hyde, but only in a 1953 Abbott and Costello spoof. 

One interesting aspect about this version is the streak of moralism appears, as far as I know, only in one other version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on film: the 1920 Sheldon Lewis knockoff which Louis B. Mayer, following the strategy later used by Asylum Pictures to do a quick ripoff of a public-domain story before the major studio filming it at the same time can get theirs out, produced for his independent company. So it may represent Mayer’s own input into the story. The 1941 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was obviously a prestige production — it ran nearly two hours at a time when most horror films were 75-minute programmers or 60-minute “B”’s, it featured a superstar who’d already won two Academy Awards, it had a plush MGM production (though there are some tacky background shots — when Jekyll crosses over from his house to his secret laboratory, the buildings in the back are obviously glass paintings — and the substitution of a stunt double for Tracy in Hyde’s more athletic and acrobatic moments is also obvious) and some quite good direction by Fleming. Victor Fleming is best known today for two troubled productions he took over from other directors — The Wizard of Oz after Richard Thorpe and George Cukor, and Gone With the Wind after Cukor again — but here he turns in a quite remarkable directorial effort, moving the camera quite a lot (Judy Garland’s recollection of his working method was that he always rode atop a camera boom, from which he would yell down at Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and Bert Lahr, “Would you three big hams move out of the way and give that poor little girl a chance?”) and adding a sense of motion to the otherwise static scenes taking place in people’s houses between the Big Moments (this film is already over one-quarter through its running time before Jekyll finally changes into Hyde). 

I also liked the symbolism of drinking used throughout the film; the characters always seem to be imbibing some form of potable liquid, whether tea, wine, sherry, harder spirits or Jekyll’s formula. I’ve long thought Stevenson’s tale was at least partly a just-say-no-to-drugs message story; it was written at a time when morphine, heroin and cocaine were not only legal but were being mass-marketed, and the addictive potentials and horrible health effects of these drugs were beginning to become known. (In the 1880’s and 1890’s pharmaceutical companies were actually marketing heroin pills as treatments for morphine addiction — much the way Purdue Pharmaceuticals claimed in the 1970’s that their newly invented opiate drug, Oxycontin, was contained in a timed-release pill and therefore could not become addictive. Wrong!) As a portrayal of the hazards of drug addiction — and especially how in the throes of an addiction, a normally honest and upstanding human being can lose all they morals and inhibitions and become so determined to keep obtaining the drug they will literally do anything to get it — Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a surprisingly modern story, notwithstanding that the phrase “Jekyll and Hyde” has become part of the language to describe anyone with wildly different codes of conduct, and senses of morals and ethics, in different parts of their lives. This time around I found myself liking the 1941 MGM Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde better than I have before (as did Charles): it’s often ponderous and dull, but it does wrestle with the moral implications of the story better than some of the more obviously horrific and “thrilling” versions on film.

Seconds (Joel Productions, John Frankenheimer Productions, Gibraltar Productions, Paramount Pictures, 1966)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

This morning I also watched one of the most nihilistic movies ever made: Seconds, the 1965 John Frankenheimer-directed science fiction thriller featuring John Randolph as a middle-aged businessman who gets in touch with a secret organization and is offered a second chance at life through extensive plastic surgery that remodels him into avant-garde painter Rock Hudson. “Seconds had a theme that fascinated me: the old American bullshit about having to be young, the whole myth that financial security is happiness — you could keep going for half an hour about what Seconds really means,” Frankenheimer said to Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg in The Celluloid Muse. It’s one of those frustrating movies that doesn’t quite work, but manages to be a lot more interesting than less ambitious movies that do work (Cukor’s Sylvia Scarlett, Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn and Marnie, and Welles’ The Trial are other examples on my list). What’s problematic about it is that, after a fascinating first half — detailing the minutiae of how Randolph lives his life, how alienated he is, why he would want the services of an organization like this in the first place and just how the mysterious secret organization actually remodels people surgically and gives them new identities (with the macabre final twist withheld until the ending for a last frisson) — the movie is a letdown.

As Frankenheimer readily acknowledged in the above interview, “We always knew we had a weakness in the second act, which was why he didn’t adjust to life in California.” The letdown isn’t simply that Rock Hudson is the film’s star (like Huston in Moby Dick, Frankenheimer wanted Laurence Olivier as his star, and was turned down because Olivier wasn’t considered a big enough box office “name”) but that Hudson’s own uncertainty about his gifts as an actor led Frankenheimer to abandon his original intent of having the same actor play the character “before” and “after.” Judith Crist called the entire second half of this film “funny by mistake,” mainly because of Hudson’s casting, but Hudson really did try to act the part, and actually managed it very well. The problem is the writing simply isn’t strong enough to suggest that he’s finding this life as dull and boring as he did his businessman’s existence — this movie’s whole nihilistic point for existing in the first place; as Frankenheimer put it in his interview, “[T]here are lots of people going to psychiatrists, trying to get away from what they are. You are what you are, and you live with yourself, and that’s what life is all about. This man couldn’t, and ended up with an appalling situation on his hands.” But Frankenheimer and his writer, Lewis John Carlino, never did solve that second-act problem of explaining why his “reborn” situation turned out so appallingly. (It’s interesting to note here the high suicide rate among post-operative transsexuals — people who are surgically remodeled in the same way as the Seconds character, and for the same reason: because they feel alienated from “life” as they have known and lived with, and believe a different arrangement of body parts will give them the happiness that has eluded them in the bodies they are born with. Sometimes it does seem to work; other times — more often, I dare say — it doesn’t.)

Also, the two actors don’t match that well. John Randolph was right-handed and Hudson was left-handed, and while Frankenheimer tried to work around that, he didn’t succeed — one notices Randolph lighting his cigarette with his right hand and Hudson pouring himself a drink with his left hand, and one figures the plastic surgeons in this movie are as remarkable as the one in Ed Wood’s Jail Bait, who managed to add six inches to Timothy Farrell’s height in the course of altering his face. Seconds is trying for a Kafka-esque effect, and despite James Wong Howe’s remarkable photography (with plenty of distortion effects — including such liberal use of the fish-eye lens he essentially educated the rest of Hollywood’s cinematographers about the existence of that particular piece of equipment), which really manages to create a disorienting effect even within pretty ordinary-looking environments, it doesn’t quite come off — and yet it’s a marvelously compelling movie in its own quirky way (especially the first half, and also the final scene, in which Randolph/Hudson finally realizes his second operation will not be another “rebirth,” but a simple execution so he can supply a dummy corpse for another one of the mysterious company’s “clients”). — 6/13/95

•••••

John Frankenheimer’s 1966 film Seconds was an obviously personal project for him. When he was interviewed by Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg for the book The Celluloid Muse, Frankenheimer explained, “Seconds had a theme that fascinated me: the old American bullshit about having to be young, the whole myth that financial security is happiness … [T]here are a lot of people in psychoanalysis, trying to get away from what they are. You are what you are, and that’s what life is all about. This man couldn’t, and ended up with an appalling situation on his hands. I thought that the film had a terribly important and a powerful statement to make.” Officially Seconds began as a novel by David Ely which Lewis John Carlino worked up into a script with the (uncredited) help of Frankenheimer and his producer, Edward Lewis, though it’s really a modern-dress version of the Faust legend in which middle-aged banker Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph, making his first film in 15 years after being a victim of the Hollywood blacklist) gets a mysterious phone call from his old college buddy Charlie Sykes (Murray Hamilton). Only, as far as Arthur and the rest of the world know, Charlie is dead. Charlie explains that he didn’t really die; he made a deal with a secret corporation which would put him through a process that combined plastic surgery with identity transformation that would make him a “Reborn” (a word that I suspect would have been a better title for the movie than Seconds!): younger, freer, able to live his life freely without the obligations of marriage, family and career, and without the inhibitions he had fallen victim to with age. In a sinister opening scene that looks more like the start of a John le Carré spy thriller than a science-fiction film — especially given the nervy way veteran cinematographer James Wong Howe shot it, in grainy black-and-white with handheld cameras (Seconds looks like a mashup of film noir and French New Wave, and like Duke Ellington, Howe not only had a long career, starting in the early 20’s as Mary Miles Minter’s cameraman and ending in the 1970’s, he continued to innovate throughout his life) — he’s given an address in a folded-up piece of paper by a mysterious man he (and we) never see again.

The address turns out to be a pants-pressing shop whose main worker tells Hamilton, “Oh, they’ve moved.” Their new address turns out to be a meat-packing plant (it’s a nice ironic touch to have this ultra-exclusive service catering to the 1 percent being run out of proletarian venues as fronts) run by a man named “Crazy Arnie” whose vans advertise his service selling, not used cars, but “used cows.” (This is a bizarre in-joke reflecting Frankenheimer’s first job on TV as writer and director for a program called Harvey Howard’s Western Roundup. Howard was a huckster who would rent you a registered Hereford cow, supply one of his bulls to impregnate it for you, and then you could sell the resulting calves. They “only had two cameras,” Frankenheimer recalled, “and there was a choice of cutting to Harvey or the cow, and since both looked exactly the same, it was difficult to tell the difference.”) When Hamilton finally encounters the sinister organization, among its secret locations are a giant room where people appear to be working at a row of desks not that different from the back area of Hamilton’s bank. He has misgivings about whether he really wants to undergo the promised “rebirth” but the organization takes that decision away from him by drugging him, putting him in a room with a woman, and filming him as, stripped of his inhibitions by the drugs, he apparently rapes her. He thinks this has all been a dream — and so do we — until he’s shown the film and told that the company will send it to his wife if he resists the process. So he goes through the round of operations and preparations for his new life that seems like a mashup between gender reassignment and witness protection. He’s given an elaborate body makeover (shot by James Wong Howe using a fish-eye lens — this film may have been a box-office flop but it was influential on other cinematographers: for at least a decade virtually every film that depicted surgery did so through a fish-eye lens. So did a lot of movies depicting other subjects) and also has a new identity created for him as Antiochus “Tony” Wilson, painter and resident of the arts colony on Malibu Beach. When the bandages are cut off Hamilton’s face and body have been given so extensive a makeover he’s now played by a different actor, Rock Hudson (who as a Gay man in Hollywood all those years surely knew something about living a secret life!), who’s the only person billed above the title in the credits.

Frankenheimer originally had the plan that both Hamilton and Wilson would be played by the same actor — he first wanted Laurence Olivier but was told by the distributing studio, Paramount, that they didn’t consider him “bankable” (just as a decade earlier John Huston had been told by Warner Bros. they wouldn’t let him film Moby Dick with Olivier as Ahab, forcing him to settle for the far inferior and utterly miscast Gregory Peck). Frankenheimer’s next choice, Marlon Brando, turned him down (though ironically Brando would star in Frankenheimer’s only other science-fiction film, the third version of H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau [1996]), so he approached Rock Hudson. Hudson agreed to sign for the film but then told Frankenheimer that the task of playing two characters of widely different ages and aspects was beyond his skills as an actor, so he asked the director if he could just play the character post-op. This caused several problems, including that Hudson was left-handed and John Randolph was right-handed — in the opening scene Randolph is shown working a crossword puzzle on a subway train and writing with his right hand, but later in the headquarters of the mystery corporation he signs the contract for “rebirth” with his left hand, and likewise when Hudson is shown painting he’s doing it with his left hand. Once Wilson is ensconced in his new digs in Malibu, he meets a girlfriend named Nora Marcus (Salome Jens) and falls into a new circle of friends — but he slowly realizes virtually all of them are on the mystery corporation’s payroll, and the ones who aren’t are as shallow in their own counter-cultural way as the people he used to know in his former existence as a suburban banker. The highlight, if it can be called that, of his new life is a wine festival in Santa Barbara which attracts a lot of hippie types and features people stomping grapes in a big wine vat … in the nude. Paramount’s censors went to town on this sequence, cutting the nude scenes and, according to Frankenheimer, making it look dirtier than it did in his cut (which is what we saw; it was restored to the film for a theatrical and DVD reissue in 1996), and he was able to get permission to film the ceremony on condition that the studio buy them a new vat to replace the well-worn one they’d been using. Wilson then gets drunk at a party after he realizes that most of his guests are “company men” (and women) in the same boat he is, and he contacts the company again and demands a second transformation, after which he will make his own way in the world again without their suffocating guidance.

Only [spoiler alert!] this time the mystery company’s surgeons aren’t going to “rebirth” him — they’re going to kill him because they need to supply replacement corpses for the clients whose “deaths” they fake as part of their process. Hudson’s character realizes this as they’re wheeling him into the operating theatre (and as the surgeon who did his original operations laments that it’s a pity they’re going to have to sacrifice him — “I really thought this one was going to work out”), which an imdb.com “Goofs” poster noted as a plot hole: not only would anyone going through a procedure like that be anesthetized first, the ending would actually be more terrifying if Rock Hudson went into the O.R. thinking he would be “reborn” again and we learned, from the surgeons’ dialogue, that he was really going to be killed while he was blessedly ignorant of that fact. Still, Seconds is a quite powerful movie, both an engaging “take” on an old legend and a film that makes some of the social commentary Frankenheimer was hoping it would — and it’s not surprising that this film has gained a cult following over the years. Frankenheimer also got more out of Rock Hudson than any director had since his eight-film series with Douglas Sirk ended with The Tarnished Angels (1957), and for the scene in which he gets drunk at the party Hudson really got drunk. And though Seconds is now available on DVD and hailed as at least a minor classic in the genre, for years the film was so obscure that the owners of a collectors’ video store in Hollywood once gave an interview to Turner Classic Movies in which they said that one day a customer came to their store and asked to rent their copy of Seconds. As part of their routine, they asked him for his I.D. and read the name on it: “John Frankenheimer.” The clerk checking him out said, “Wait a minute — you directed this movie, and you have to come to us to be able to see it?” — 7/14/19

Saturday, July 13, 2019

RocketMan (Caravan Pictures/Gold-Miller Productions, Roger Birnbaum Productions, Walt Disney Pictures, 1997)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I didn’t get to last night’s Mars movie screening (http://marsmovieguide.com/) until 8 p.m., just as the first movie, 1997’s RocketMan (that’s how the film’s imdb.com page spells its title), was getting under way. It was a pretty silly film, essentially an uncredited remake of Don Knotts’ vehicle The Reluctant Astronaut with admixtures of Jerry Lewis’s Way … Way Out (both films I’ve seen at previous screenings from this source) in which the dumb “comedian” (if, in Dwight MacDonald’s words, I may use the term for courtesy) was someone named Harland Williams. Aside from looking through much of the film like he’s auditioning for a biopic of Jerry Lewis, Williams is a decent-looking chap and one wonders whether, in a better script than the one Craig Mazin, Greg Erb and Stuart Gillard provided for him here (with one Stuart Gillard as director), he might actually be kinda-sorta funny once in a while. He plays a brilliant but wildly eccentric computer designer who ends up on a mission to Mars when the originally scheduled astronaut is scrubbed at the last minute and he has to win a competition with the far more qualified Gordon Peacock (Blake Boyd) for the slot on the crew. He does this by driving Peacock crazy in the 24-hour isolation chamber that’s part of NASA’s regimen to see how people can handle the closed environment and sheer loneliness of space travel. 

Once we progress (in the manner of a disease) from the silly scenes based on NASA’s actual astronaut training (including the famous centrifuge, meant to simulate the effects of acceleration as gravity increases while the spacecraft reaches escape velocity, which of course Fred absolutely loves and insists on being taken to the max) to the even sillier scenes based on the spaceship itself — which is crewed by Fred (who suddenly realizes he needs to use the bathroom just as the rocket is about to launch; yep, it’s that sort of movie — and he also farts inside his spacesuit); Julie Ford (Jessica Lundy), who of course hates him at first sight and eventually falls in love with him; and “Wild Bill” Overbeck (William Sadler), as well as a chimpanzee named Ulysses (played by a chimp named Raven — of whom I couldn’t resist a Poe-themed joke: “Quoth the Raven: ‘My career is nevermore!’”) while their Mission Control guy is Bud Nesbitt (Beau Bridges, who once actually made good movies), who’s supposedly the guy who screwed up Apollo 13 — the gags continue stupidly until the astronauts actually land on Mars (shown as a series of red-filtered shots of the desert wilderness in Moab, Utah). 

There a sudden Martian wind storm kicks up and threatens their ability to relaunch their spacecraft and return to Earth, and stupidly three of the four crew members (including the chimp, whom Randall risks his own life to rescue — PETA would be proud!) go outside in it to save each other’s lives before their ship makes it off Mars and back to Earth. There are actually a few funny bits in RocketMan, including one in which Randall compares himself to the Cowardly Lion and warbles a few bars of “If I Were King of the Forest”; a scene in which Randall goes into the spacecraft’s toilet to rescue a gold medal given him by the overall Mission Controller (he says it’s one of three and the others he gave to Neil Armstrong and Jim Lovell) and he ends up with his face and right arm half-covered in blue goo just as the astronauts are supposed to do a live simulcast with the President of the United States, who asks, “Why does one of you look like a Smurf?”; and one in which Randall starts a worldwide singalong of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” in various languages — though the translations are hilariously inexact: in the “French” version he sings “Je suis le papillon sur la table”, which means “I am the butterfly on the table.” For the most part, however, this is one of those films which Dwight Macdonald (again!) said that “in form and intent must be characterized as comedies” but lack the seemingly key ingredient of actually being able to get an audience to laugh.

My Favorite Martian (Walt Disney Pictures, 1999)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The other film on the Mars movie bill was a 1999 theatrical version of the 1960’s TV show My Favorite Martian, a film so relentlessly unfunny it made RocketMan seem like a masterpiece by comparison! This time Walt Disney Pictures, which produced both films (a credit which has ol’ Walt himself doing a few cartwheels in his grave), got genuinely talented actors to play a script by Sherri Stoner (whose last name probably describes her state of mind when she wrote it) and Deanna Oliver, and hired a director, Donald Petrie, who’s at least the son of a genuinely capable (if rather stolid) filmmaker, Daniel Petrie. (At the same time anyone like me who grew up watching The Dick Van Dyke Show on TV in the 1960’s has a hard time taking seriously anyone named “Petrie”!) It was based, of course, on the dated but still quite amusing 1960’s TV sitcom My Favorite Martian, created by John L. Greene and produced by Jack Chertok, with the titular Martian (Ray Walston) living with and generally discombobulating Earthling Tim O’Hara (Bill Bixby), a reporter continually on the outs with his editor. The Martian posed as Tim’s “Uncle Martin” and got into various scrapes, as well as fending off the amorous intentions of their landlady, Mrs. Brown. This time Tim is played by Jeff Daniels — a talented actor but also a schlub who seems to have been cast mainly so Bill Bixby would look butch by comparison — and Martin is Christopher Lloyd, Disney’s go-to guy for comic villains just then. The schtick is the same as that in the TV series: due to a malfunction in his spacecraft (here shown as something that can shrink to miniature size and then swell up like one of those pocket life rafts that automatically inflates when needed — “Does it inflate with Earth air or Martian air?” I joked — Uncle Martin is stranded on Earth. Only where Ray Walston’s Martian was given a lot of acidulous comments about Earth’s customs but was mostly a charming person (well, as charming as Walston’s dry-ice persona could make him), Lloyd’s version was an out-and-out crab. 

Among the many unfunny gimmicks Stoner and Oliver came up with for this was a series of planetary gumballs which Martin uses to take on the appearance of an Earthling (and, when chewed by Earthlings, make them look like aliens from the planets represented on each gumball); giving Martin an allergy to ice cream (it literally drives him crazy every time he eats any); and having his spacesuit, Zoot (Wayne Knight), have not only a mind but a voice of its own. Apparently the original plan was for the suit to be animate but remain silent, but the filmmakers decided to add a voice in post-production, so they hired Knight to dub a line of patter obviously derived from the late and very much lamented Robin Williams’ virtuoso performance as the voice of the Genie in Disney’s animated Aladdin. Aside from one clever scene in which the spacesuit pops out of a washing machine and sings a bit of James Brown’s hit “I Feel Good,” almost nothing amusing comes out of this idea — or any other idea in the film, including the gag scenes of Martin dressed as a surfer dude. The plot features Tim O’Hara as a TV news producer in love — or at least lust — with Brace Channing (Elizabeth Hurley, far too good an actress for this dumb-brunette role), daughter of his boss (Michael Lerner). Only he embarrasses her on the air and gets fired, and he sees Martin’s alien status and presence on Earth as the story which will make Channing take him back. Meanwhile Martin desperately tries to repair his spaceship so he can go home, and a sinister deep-state conspiracy within the federal government led by scientist Dr. E. Coleye (Wallace Shawn) — and yes, it’s all too indicative of Mesdames Stoner and Oliver’s non-sense of humor that they named this character after the deadly bacterium E. coli, found in shit (which means this movie is probably full of it!), who’s determined either to kidnap Martin or, if he dies, to dissect him. 

About the only character in this movie who actually manages to maintain his dignity is Armitan, an acronym for “Martian,” played by Ray Walston with some of the same dry wit he brought to the original show. He’s supposed to be Dr. Coleye’s boss in the government program (which actually has the same name as a real one — SETI, for Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) but at the end [spoiler alert!] it’s revealed he’s actually the same character Walston played on the original TV show, a Martian who’s been stranded on earth for 35 years (he complains that the gum he has to chew to keep from reverting to his normal Martian form lost its flavor in 1966) and who finally gets a chance to go home by hitching a ride on the new Martin’s spacecraft — only at the last minute the new Martin decides he wants to stay on Earth after all and continue to make living hells out of the lives of Tim and his new girlfriend Lizzie (Daryl Hannah, yet another highly talented actor who comes off in this movie as blitheringly incompetent). Walston gets a few genuine laughs towards the end of the film, but for the most part it achieves a near-perfect level of humorlessness, as if the filmmakers were trying to take Macdonald’s dictum about films that “in form and intent must be classified as comedies” but aren’t actually funny to the absurd level of making a film that contains no laughs at all. I joked during My Favorite Martian that if Ed Wood is in heaven, he’s probably looking down at films like this and saying, “And people thought my movies were terrible?”

Monday, July 8, 2019

Secrets of the Sisterhood (Incendo/Lifetime, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Lifetime movie turned out to be an unusually good one even though it traces its roots not only to other Lifetime productions but even farther back, to all those 1930’s movies in which a nice, innocent young man gets caught up in a crime ring, has a crisis of conscience, then ends up risking both criminal prosecution by the authorities and murder by the gangsters in his attempts to get out and regain his integrity. The movie, produced by Incendo Media and filmed in Montreal — a lot of Lifetime movies are shot in Canada but not that many have this many French names in the crew (the director was Jean-François Rivard, the cinematographer Serge Desrosiers, the costume designer Anie Fisette, and the executive producer Jean Bureau — “and his business partner, Pierre Armoire,” I joked) — was based on a script by a writer with the non-French name James Phillips. It was called Secrets of the Sisterhood — though the first words of the title were added later and apparently it was just filmed as The Sisterhood — and, this being Lifetime, the innocent person sucked into a crime ring was a woman, Ashley Shields (Claire Coffee, a name which also seems to be designed to inspire bad jokes). As the film opens she’s going through a bitter divorce from her husband Rick (Christine Jadah), her workaholic schedule has alienated her daughter Grace (Taylor Thorne) from her, and she’s also having to deal at work (she’s an accountant) with a creepy boss named Frank (Guido Cocomello), who denies her a promotion she deserved but hints that the next one might be hers if … well, let’s just say he’s obviously an honors graduate of the Harvey Weinstein School of Management. As if that weren’t enough tsuris in her life, Ashley suddenly gets a visit from her scapegrace sister Jasmine (Siobhan Murphy), who tells her she’s been clean and sober for nine months now and she owes it all to this great new women’s empowerment group she’s joined called “The Sisterhood,” led by self-help author Desiree Holt (Lisa Berry), a tall, striking, charismatic Black woman who’s highlighted the top of her hair blonde. She leads the meetings of “The Sisterhood” in a ceremonial robe and a number of the group’s sessions are held with her acolytes dressed in long white costumes that look like something from The Handmaid’s Tale.

Given Lifetime’s usual iconography, one doesn’t expect an African-American character — particularly an African-American woman — to be the villain (usually Black women in Lifetime movies are the heroine’s best friends who stumble onto the villains’ plots but get killed before they can expose them), but Lisa Berry rises to the challenge and turns in a vivid but controlled performance expressing total self-righteousness and unscrupulousness under a thin veneer of projecting herself as a social servant. Her acting dominates the film, but then in this sort of story the villain is usually more interesting than the good guys, anyway. Claire Coffee makes a good innocent — or maybe not-so-innocent — victim, eager to launder money for the Sisterhood but also warning Desiree that she shouldn’t get too greedy and expect to channel too much income from the Sisterhood to the other businesses she owns. (One wonders why Desiree doesn’t go the route L. Ron Hubbard took with Scientology: incorporate The Sisterhood as a religion.) As the movie progresses, Claire learns that the Sisterhood’s activities include extortion, blackmail (that creepy boss of Claire’s finally gives her a raise after the Sisterhood discovers something on him — we’re never told what but we assume it was something sexual — and at one point he gives Claire a manila envelope full of cash and tells her to pass it on to them), terrorist beatings of former members and even murder. Claire gets appointed the Sisterhood’s treasurer after the previous one, Pamela Redman (Eleanor Noble), threatened to leak information about the group’s crimes to the media, and later she tries to reach out to Pamela. Knowing how far the group’s reach extends — at one point Claire is stopped by Myra (Caitlin Sponheimer), a cop she met in the Sisterhood without realizing Myra was a cop, just to hammer home the point that if she reports them to the authorities it will be futile because they have so many members in law enforcement word will filter back to Desiree and she will extract retribution — Pamela offers to meet Claire but puts her through an elaborate set of instructions, regularly calling her on a “burner” cell phone to tell her where to meet next, to no avail as Pamela is killed in her home (in her bathtub, with her wrists slashed to make it look like she killed herself).

Later Claire wires herself to record Desiree ordering her to commit money laundering and extortion, but the supposed “journalist” she gives the recording to is yet another Sisterhood member, and this leads to a climax in which Desiree not only decides that Claire has to be killed to protect the group’s secrets, but her sister Jasmine (ya remember Jasmine?) will have to do the dirty deed herself to prove her own loyalty and “make her bones.” When Jasmine refuses, Desiree has two of the other Sisters pull a plastic bag over her head, only she’s rescued in the nick of time thanks to Claire’s belated realization that she knows at least one police officer who isn’t part of the Sisterhood: Julie (Michelle Ohm), the policewoman her husband Rick (ya remember Rick?) left her for. The finish shows Desiree and her key henchwomen busted, Jasmine facing a prison term, Claire released on probation but barred from ever working as an accountant again, and her homey announcement that from now on she’s just going to concentrate on being “a mom.” Secrets of the Sisterhood is actually a better-than-average Lifetime film, with more multidimensional characterizations than we’re used to (especially from a Lifetime script not written by Christine Conradt), genuine crises of conscience powering the plot, and above all a wonderfully chilling performance by Lisa Berry as a character whose motives — particularly her descent from honest self-help leader to head of a criminal enterprise — are kept powerfully ambiguous in James Phillips’ script. Well directed by Rivard, who throws all the neo-noir tricks into a film another Lifetime director might have shot on autopilot, Secrets of the Sisterhood is the sort of diamond in the rough we veteran Lifetime watchers hope for and all too rarely get!