LOST IN THE
FUNHOUSE

by Les Phillips



Lady in a Cage (Walter Grauman, 1964).

Olivia de Havilland, a genuinely great actress, not yet fifty when this film was made, plays a very proper, wealthy widow who has broken her hip. She's elegant, gorgeous, and walks, with difficulty, using two canes. She installs a private elevator in her house, for use while she convalesces. Home alone for a long weekend, she's in the elevator when the power goes off. Trapped! A lady in a cage!

Quite proper, quite Republican, all dressed up, very old Hollywood. She rings the alarm, but no one comes. She shouts, but no one's there to listen. A disgusting, filthy, lecherous, degenerate wino breaks into the house and wanders around stealing random objects and drinking De Havilland's good wine. "Help, help," she shouts from her elevator. "Why won't you answer me?" The degenerate wino mutters and mumbles and steals, and goes away. Later the degenerate wino returns with Ann Sothern.

If you think Olivia de Havilland is degraded by Lady in a Cage - and she is - that humiliation is nothing compared to what this film does to Ann Sothern. Sothern had a tremendous film and TV career in the 40s and 50s, and at about this point in the 60s she still did glamorous guest shots on other people's sitcoms - notably, as the Countess Framboise on The Lucy Show. But in Lady in a Cage, courtesy of some hideous late-career contractual obligation to Paramount, Sothern is forced to play a demented, criminal, drug-addled, aging hooker. She and the wino wander around the living room and dining room and steal all the jewelry and silver, while de Havilland watches from her elevator. "Help!! HELP!!!" shouts de Havilland.

Enter the very young James Caan and two accomplices, one of them a deranged platinum-blonde slut, the other a very stupid Hispanic drug addict. They represent The Future. They are The Decline of Western Civilization. They actually resemble a sort of proto-Manson family. They have no respect for the studio system. Caan and Company kill the wino for sport, terrorize Sothern, mess up de Havilland's bedroom, cut each other, bleed and ooze and slobber all over everything. The bimbo takes a bath in Olivia's bathroom, simulates sex with Caan, moans and screams. Olivia is still in her elevator. She shouts at Caan, "So you are one of the many bits of offal produced by the welfare state!" Caan climbs into her elevator, threatens to kill her or rape her or both, takes his shirt off . . . it's too horrible to visualize, James Caan and Olivia de Havilland, in an elevator......Help!!!

As if all this weren't enough for 90 minutes of cinematic exposition, there's de Havilland's gay son, who threatens to kill himself. Some fun! And there's more - much, much more. De Havilland does absolutely as well with all this as you could possibly expect. If you think she's overacting, imagine how you'd behave, trapped in an elevator in your own home for three days, with some wino slobbering and dribbling all over your silver and artwork, juvenile delinquents wandering around breaking everything in the house, and James Caan threatening to rape you.

Lady in a Cage is shot in black and white, with genuinely original and artful touches, but the aim is abject shock and exploitation. Olivia de Havilland is alive and well and living in Paris. I'm guessing the French have figured out reasons for worshiping this film. The worst nightmare I can imagine is that Lady in a Cage is shown on French TV, and de Havilland, channel surfing, actually encounters this nightmare from which she has undoubtedly been trying to awaken for the last thirty-seven years.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (Lewis Milestone, 1946).

Little Martha Ivers keeps running away from home with the cute town roughneck (little Darryl Hickman!). Ultimately the little roughneck escapes, and she bonds with the town's nerdy little pantywaist. Eighteen years pass, and Martha becomes the richest woman in Iverstown . She has married and tamed the nerd. Suddenly the roughneck returns home, still hotblooded and available. I've left out all of the plot points involving murder and blackmail - the story has a very nice classical design, trust me. Barbara Stanwyck is very good in the title role. The story's the star here, and Milestone knows how to frame it. He's been directing films for ten years before sound came in, and it shows in places - the mise-en-scène for some of the more melodramatic bits wouldn't be out of place in The Perils of Pauline. The Miklós Rózsa music is terrible, even by 1946 standards, and that doesn't help. The male casting is not disastrous, but very troubling. Would you believe the young Kirk Douglas as the sexy renegade? Of course you would. Trouble is, he plays the passive, alcoholic nerd. Van Heflin plays the sexy renegade, and he doesn't do too badly, but, really, what's he doing there? Ralph Bellamy wasn't available, or something? Reversing the casting, or, perhaps, bringing in John Garfield - that would have made more sense.

Compulsion (Richard Fleischer, 1959).

This is the Leopold and Loeb murder case - two rich (gay) Chicago students who killed a young boy for Nietzschean sport. In this film, Artie (Bradford Dillman) is impeccably dapper, snide and snarling, and he bullies his partner, the wimpier and more sympathetic Judd (Dean Stockwell). It's shot in black and white, and I like the composition - rich dark interiors of big houses, dark courtrooms, general claustrophobia occasionally relieved by some bright exteriors. This popular film explains Nietzsche to the audience, about as badly and clumsily as earlier Hollywood films demonstrated and explained Freud. It's a caricature, and Artie and Judd are caricatures of Leopold and Loeb, though effectively played.

Tthe structure of the film is problematic. We get introduced to nasty characters, there's a bit of investigation and whodunit (the prosecutor is E.G. Marshall!), our boys go to court - and all that really happens after that is Orson Welles's impersonation of Clarence Darrow, much of it a very long summation speech, an anti-capital punishment lecture. It's tremendous fun to watch Welles do these courtroom scenes, even though they're basically humbug, and you can see that he's using only about twenty percent of his faculties. Also embarrassing: the film ends with Welles/Darrow scolding Dillman for being too enthusiastically atheist. Inherit the Wind, another film with a Darrow figure, found it necessary to to the same thing.

People who like to play with texts could go very far, undoubtedly have gone very far, with the treatment of oppressed persons in Compulsion. Artie and Judd's gayness is encoded in ugly ways: Artie actually calls his mother "Mumsy;" Judd's shyness around women is revealed to be repressed rage; both of them dress much better than anyone around them. More interesting: Artie, Judd, and all their friends have Jewish names, and Dillman and Stockwell look at least a little bit "Jewish" in this film, but their supposedly Jewish friends seem to be anything but - and I think I caught "Mumsy" actually making some reference to being Christian! The supporting acting from Martin Milner and Diane Varsi is really awful.

The Panic in Needle Park (Jerry Schatzberg, 1971).

This is Al Pacino's second movie - he'd already received a fair bit of stage recognition. Here he plays a New York City heroin dealer and self-denying addict, and the "panic" is the sudden absence of supply. (Needle Park is, or was, the small bit of green at the intersection of Broadway and 72nd Street). Pacino's star performance is one of the reasons to see the film. This is early punk Pacino, all of the impulse and energy and aggression and sexiness that was on display in Dog Day Afternoon (my favorite Pacino, always), only more so. Another reason is the style of the film itself. This is film naturalism from a certain moment in cinema history, the so-called Silver Age of American movies, late 60s into late 70s. No music at all, clearly a low budget, camera usually focusing on a few people, interiors, some of the action looks improvised (the film reminds me of early Cassavetes). In this case, the Joan Didion/John Gregory Dunne screenplay is episodic - much like the brief, discontinuous chapters in her novel, Play It As It Lays (made into a movie that nobody liked except me).

With different actors The Panic in Needle Park could have been a stinker, and not everyone will appreciate its pace and some of its indirections. The dialogue is flat, leaves the actors a lot of room; that's risky, but the cast is well suited to the challenge. The third reason to see this is Kitty Winn, a great "lost" actress who did very little work after the late 70s (The Excorcist II may have simply finished her off for good.) She won Best Actress at Cannes for her portrayal of Pacino's girlfriend. Her part has some cliché to it - honest innocent midwestern girl falls in love with enchanting dark criminal, falls into his world - but her subtle performance, and her truly beautiful face, make you forget that. The screenplay gives her nothing articulate to say; her eyes and body transmit her descent into addiction, from there to complete degradation, her chronic despair, her desperate attraction to Pacino, how heroin feels. I hope she stopped acting simply because she liked something else better. Hers could have been a brilliant career.

If Schatzberg made other good movies, it's news to me, and his work over the last 15-20 years seems mostly hackery. Some people like Scarecrow (1973), with Pacino and Gene Hackman. I saw it that year and remember a bitter argument with a friend; I thought it was pretentious crap.

How is New York City portrayed? There are very few exteriors, and never any long shots. You don't even get a good look at Needle Park. But certainly this is a movie about poor and desperate people who live in SROs or unpleasant apartments, and there's little human kindness on display. The commodification of dissent, the commodification of race and alternate lifestyle, even of addiction - I think these are reasons why films like Needle Park are no longer made. Manhattan, its concerns, its self-portrayal over the last thirty years or so, is neatly symbolic of this larger cultural trend. Also, Needle Park is about deeply troubled people, and we don't have very many films about them any more either. While watching, I was reminded of Desperate Characters (Frank D. Gilroy, 1971), another naturalistic film that I very much admire (and the Paula Fox novel is a masterpiece). The couple in Desperate Characters have quite a lot of money, live in Park Slope, go to fairly elegant parties, know well-heeled, educated people. You see nice New York neighborhoods in that film, but all of the characters are so depressed and angry - it's not exactly an argument for the city. In any case, a remake of The Panic in Needle Park with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan is very unlikely ("Cunt! I was going to marry you! I was going to marry a fuckin' whore!"), and will certainly not be written or directed by Nora Ephron.

Berserk! (Jim O'Connolly, 1968)

This was Joan Crawford's next to last film. She plays Monica Rivers, a circus owner and MC. She introduces animal acts ("And now, ladies and gentlemen, I am very proud to present Percy the Wonder Elephant" - I'm not making this up.) Crawford was 63 when she made Berserk. Her co-star, Ty Hardin, former blond boytoy, not aging particularly well, was 37. Hardin plays the circus's high wire artist. He has to say things like: "I'm absolutely mad about you, Monica. Why won't you open up to me?" Crawford plays hard to get. The director shoots her mostly in long shots, but when the camera is even halfway close, she looks seventy, easily - except for her legs, which are still impressive. Worse, she's too ravaged to even try to act in most scenes. Crawford was never a real actress, but she had fire and presence and authority - it's all gone here.

Berserk! was made only six years after Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in which Mommy Dearest was actually fairly persuasive. It's really shocking to see how much she had deteriorated in those six years. Berserk! tries to be a suspense movie. Performers keep dying mysterious, violent deaths. One of these deaths happens before the opening credits are finished running. Eventually Scotland Yard begins to suspect Ms Crawford. There's a surprise ending, in the worst sense of that term - the resolution of the mystery comes entirely out of left field, no foreshadowing, no possible way the audience could have guessed, and entirely incredible. O'Connolly mostly sets up the camera and lets people talk their terrible lines. A few of the supporting performances - Judy Geeson (as Crawford's daughter), Diana Dors, and the bearded lady - are not bad. The setting is England, but many of the accents are problematic. Crawford, allegedly British, makes absolutely no attempt to be anything other than American.

Berserk! is one of the worst films I've ever seen, worth noting mostly because Crawford makes herself the center of her own freak show. Undoubtedly that's what motivated anyone who went to see it in a theatre; that's why AMC is showing it, and, of course, that's why I taped it. But it was much more embarrassing than I'd ever expected.

Do you think you could never, ever, feel sorry for Joan Crawford? Rent Berserk!


©2002 Les Phillips
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