Total seen: 14
Behind the Candelabra (Soderbergh, 2013)
Looking for Richard (Pacino, 1996)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Meyer, 1982)
Strange Days (Bigelow, 1995)
Zardoz (Boorman, 1974)
Hon. mentions: Samsara (Fricke, 2011), Star Trek Into Darkness (Abrams, 2013)
[REC] is probably one of my favorite horror films of all time (even if its demonic-possession-blood-disease premise is absurd even by zombie movie standards) and one of the few entries in the increasingly maddening found footage sub-genre that I can actually stand. Its slow build-up of something being very wrong in this quarantined apartment building is downright awesome, leading to one of the most frightening, and earned, endings I’ve ever seen in a movie of this or almost any genre. [Rec] ², its sequel dealing with the direct aftermath of the first film, in the same apartment building with a new set of emergency responders waiting to be served up to the infected, had its moments but was essentially more of the same, with added emphasis on explaining the, again, ridiculous premise that took away from the what-the-fuck-is-going-on-here air of mystery of the first film. Apparently the filmmakers heard my complaint, so how do they rectify the second film’s slight stumble? Why, by completely abandoning the found-footage structure (except for the first few minutes’ wedding reception – needless to say, the best part of the film) and everything that made the first film so incredibly unnerving, creating what I guess is, what, a parody of the two more serious films that came before? If not, this was nothing more than a typical zombie movie with effects and gore from any “Walking Dead” episode and some extremely strange humor, completely jarring when considering the two films that came before this (alright, I laughed at the character/running gag of SpongeJohn, the children’s entertainer hoping to avoid copyright infringement, but even that was hideously out of place in this series and even this genre). The premise is a promising one, as amateur footage from a relative and a professional wedding photographer depict a wedding that goes swimmingly, which in this kind of movie only heightens the tension that something, eventually, will go incredibly wrong. And when it does, the chaos is satisfying, a group of survivors hole up in the kitchen, and…the camera is thrown to the ground, we’re transitioned to a traditional film format for the rest of the duration, and the combination of gore, elaborate kills, and odd humor make this little more than an “Evil Dead” or “Dead Alive” knock-off, with characters doing an awfully good job of taking this downright apocalyptic situation in Ash Williams-style stride, rather than the no-names from the first two films with whom we could nonetheless identify simply due to their collective sense of mutual claustrophobic terror. Some of the action and gore and kills are fun to watch, sure, but they’re merely images I’ll forget in a day or two, whereas the mere sense of dread I got from the first film, while indescribable as an specific image or sound, is something I still have sensory memories of to this day, years after watching the film. I suppose the filmmakers had the right idea trying to revive a series that was close to becoming stale. If only they didn’t do it in a format even more stale than the found-footage format that [REC] pioneered.
Total seen: 17
Fantastic Mr. Fox (Anderson, 2009)
Kes (Loach, 1969)
Manon of the Spring (Berri, 1986)
Theatre of Blood (Hickox, 1973)
Young Adult (Reitman, 2011)
Edward Lionheart (Vincent Price), a famed Shakespearean (and only Shakespearean) stage actor, is unexpectedly (to him, at least) passed over for his coveted Critic’s Circle Award by unanimous vote from a fraternity of London’s finest theater critics. Following a failed suicide attempt and subsequent faking of his death, Lionheart strives to put on his greatest performance – a performance of revenge involving some of the most grisly and over-the-top acts of revenge imaginable on said critics, all based directly on the very Shakespearean performances he was so mercilessly panned for. This all arguably inspired many films years afterward, from the concept (“Se7en” famously involved serial killings based, creatively and gruesomely, on the seven deadly sins) to the execution (i.e. all those god-awful “Final Destination” films that were little more than a showcase for deaths whose brutality and depravity knew no bounds). Admittedly, the tone of “Theatre of Blood” is closer to the shameless, carefree exploitation of the latter than the atmosphere of suffocatingly pervasive depression of the former (case-in-point, the downright comical degree to which both Lionheart’s victims and the police are slow on the uptick to figure out what the hell is going on). You can’t feature a delighted, cackling Vincent Price serving “Titus Andronicus”-inspired dog pot pies and a “Cymbeline”-inspired beheading without at least acknowledging the utter over-the-top absurdity of the entire proceedings. Yet, there is a certain degree of satire, of thought-provoking criticism of, well, criticism, that ascend all this nonsense above the mere mindless and depraved. Amongst all the crazed monologuing of Lionheart as he walks his journey of over-the-top vengeance, one line actually stuck with me as he engaged in a “Romeo & Juliet”-inspired fencing duel with one of his potential victims, when he angrily exclaims,
How many actors have you destroyed as you destroyed me? How many talented lives have you cut down with your glib attacks? What do you know of the blood, sweat and toil of a theatrical production? Of the dedication of the men and the women in the noblest profession of them all? How could you know you talentless fools who spew vitriol on the creative efforts of others because because you lack the ability to create yourselves!
Never mind the fact that Lionheart perhaps has far too lofty an opinion of his acting skill, he’s saying what countless actors must have been thinking for centuries. Indeed, with hardly an exception, the critics to whom Lionheart directs his theatrical revenge are old, white, pretentious, stuffy, flamboyant assholes, the very stereotypes invading the minds of those claiming (and celebrating) the increasing irrelevance of criticism, film, theater or otherwise, making this film oddly satirical and predictive of today’s society. That, combined with a Vincent Price who seems like he’s having an absolute blast in this performance, relishing his overacting and his increasingly absurd disguises, almost put you in Lionheart’s camp, make you identify more with him and his obsessive devotion to his craft than with his snobbish victims. Of course, Lionheart is a madman who must himself be punished in a genre film such as this lest this be nothing more than a 2-hour argument for and defense of straight-up vigilantism and no-questions-asked revenge, but pardon me if I don’t exactly mourn the line of victims who have to feel his wrath before everything is set “right.” And, if nothing else, this all got me in a major mood to read Shakespeare, to see what could so inspire such creative brutality. All in all, I had as much shameless fun watching this as Vincent Price clearly had starring in it, even if I’m willfully missing Lionheart’s entire point by writing about it.
A surprisingly deep and poignant, and even more surprisingly brisk-feeling, 2-film, 4-hour epic about…carnation-farming and water displacement. Two farmers, Cesar (Yves Montand) and his ne’er-do-well nephew Ugolin (Daniel Auteuil) (names borrowed for similar characters in the Simpsons episode “The Crepes of Wrath”), fresh off of Ugolin’s idea to grow and sell carnations and in need of fertile land to do so, conspire to block off the water supply to the neighboring land belonging to a newcomer, the hunchback Jean (Gérard Depardieu), hoping to drive away the formerly city-dwelling tax collector in despair and acquire the land on the cheap. What follows in the first film is Jean’s charmingly stubborn and hopelessly oblivious attempt to grow crops and breed rabbits relying on water from miles away while the two conspirators next door play friendly, while in the second film, Jean’s now-grown daughter, Manon (Emmanuelle Béart), avenges her unknowingly victimized father. As the plot progresses and soon other people in the town become aware of it but do nothing to tip off Jean, it’s clear the main motive for the plot, especially for the townspeople but even for Cesar and Ugolin, in addition to their precious carnations, is an inherent disdain towards the outsider, any stranger who would dare invade their carefully-insulated world (although for the older Cesar, the motive is revealed late to be decades in the making and personal). This alienation of the outsider and a critique of isolationism seem to be one of the film’s main focuses. True, it may be a bit too on-the-nose to make the outsider in question a hunchback, so physically separate from everyone else that his status as an “other” couldn’t be more symbolically obvious, and indeed their constantly referring to him as “the hunchback” gets old after a while, but this isn’t exactly the pinnacle of realism, as both films are peppered with moments of melodrama and humor that humanizes both victim and victimizer. As hopeless as his plight is and as obstinate as he may be, you can’t help but admire Jean’s persistence, often carrying gallons of water miles on his (hunch)back to keep his fledgling farm going (an image that reminded me of, of all things, Setsuko Hara in Kurosawa’s “No Regrets for Our Youth”). His persistence and innocent optimism serves as a refreshing contrast to the slimy corruption of his two scheming neighbors. Which isn’t to say, though, that he’s a flawless hero, as his steadfastness is basically, in the end, not worth it, and indeed rather stupid, to the point where that persistence even makes you roll your eyes…as surely it must make Cesar and Ugolin’s. Many scenes focus on Jean and his supportive wife and daughter, true, but the film does a brave thing by putting as much, if not more, of the point of view on Cesar and Ugolin, the supposed villains. As Cesar is seemingly obsessed with continuing the lineage and wealth of his precious Soubeyran name and Ugolin feigns helpful friendship with Jean, even their vile scheme to drive out / ruin an honest man becomes shaded with humanity, with Ugolin arguably developing a genuine affection for the man while ruining him and the viewer is challenged to split his or her allegiance between two shameless crooks and a well-meaning but ignorant newcomer – not exactly easy, storybook choices.
The wildcard amongst this cast of characters is Jean’s daughter, Manon (Ernestine Mazurowna in the first film, Béart in the second). To call her precocious would probably be an understatement, as she silently observes her father’s mostly fruitless toiling with sad curiosity, and the suspiciously doting Ugolin with clear distrust and disdain. Her quiet observations and expressive eyes say more about her than much of the film’s actual dialogue says about its other characters. It’s as if she’s not only wise beyond her years, but downright prescient, plotting justice for her wronged father before the extent of his being wronged even becomes clear. In the second film, that penchant for quiet hyper-observation and even quieter plotting remains in the now-teenage Manon, with an added degree of willful isolation. She almost seems autistic in her persistent lack of communication with anyone, her obsessive tending of her goats, and her joyfully dancing naked out in broad daylight. She’s incredibly enigmatic, perhaps too much so, but that enigma provides one of the more fascinating aspects of the second film, as Ugolin falls hopelessly in love with her. True, any heterosexual male with eyes could easily fall in love with a young woman as beautiful as Emmanuele Béart, but you get the sense that Ugolin’s obsessive, tragic infatuation arises chiefly from his guilt over what he did to the girl’s father years before. You can’t help but pity the poor man as he falls all over himself trying to woo the silent woman who is planning his destruction, precisely because we’ve spent a full film and a half seeing things through his seedy, tragically flawed perspective, unlike with the town’s young, handsome (and bland) schoolteacher in his own wooing of Manon, in one major subplot that falls majorly flat.
While Ugolin is clearly a tragic figure, he’s cartoonish and buffoonish in bringing about his own downfall. His uncle, Cesar, experiences a much more subtle downfall that will stick with me for some time. Not once does he interact with Jean the hunchback, in trying to wash his hands of guilt. His goal, of continuing the Soubeyran line and supposed fortune, is admirable, and indeed his attempts to coax his pitiful nephew and heir into child-bearing marriage is even endearing, as his curmudgeonly interactions with the stunningly immature Ugolin are among the more charming and likable scenes across both films. It’s just his way of going about it that is reprehensible, and ultimately unforgivable. That this story is wrapped up neater than a soap opera, complete with a last moment plot twist, cannot be ignored and is quite disappointing for a 4-hour epic that otherwise unfolds at an otherwise wonderfully leisurly pace, the excellent cinematography of the farmlands and sounds of cicadas and footsteps on arid dirt putting you right in the midst of an agriculturally devastating heat wave. But if that conclusion is abrupt and unsubtle, the wordless facial acting of the great Yves Montand in the town cemetery is anything but. In the end, Cesar gets exactly what he wants. And it destroys him.
“Before Sunrise” was an incredible exercise in on-screen chemistry and depiction of youthful romanticism as Julie Delpy’s Celine and Ethan Hawke’s Jesse, two twentysomethings traveling across Europe, meet on a train, decide on a whim to explore Vienna between trains, and personify all that is good about mutual attraction and falling in love without a care about the next day. Now, nine years later in this sequel, Jesse is in Paris promoting his novel about that fateful night, happens to glance to his right while answering questions during a book signing, and there sees his lost love. After tongue-tyingly cutting his Q&A short, he walks over and says hello, she says hello back, and off they go, continuing the odyssey they hurriedly cut short with an unfulfilled promise to meet in Vienna in December on that train platform nine years earlier. Jesse’s complete lack of surprise upon greeting Celine is striking and telling, as indeed later on he’ll admit that he thinks he wrote his book partly to draw her back to him. This is their reunion in Vienna in December after all.
“Before Sunset” essentially shares the same format as its predecessor, as Celine and Jesse traverse the city discussing topics far and wide, profound and petty, with some differences. “Before Sunrise” sprawled over the course of a night, while this sequel occurs essentially in real-time. Ironically, I sensed more time-based desperation between the two in the first film, as an impending sense of doom, as the sun would act as harbinger to their inevitable separation, contributed to their headlong passage into love as much as their sheer chemistry did. Here, they’re nine years older, more jaded, and at least at the outset have no illusions about rekindling that spark, as they’re looking back at that night with fascinated amusement as much as anything. That they do rekindle that spark once again should hardly come as a surprise, an outcome that is delightfully inevitable, yet that sense of idealized reverie I felt after the first film was lacking here. I’m struggling to remember a large majority of what Celine and Jesse discuss in both films – a flaw in the second film, a virtue in the first. In their first meeting, their inherent chemistry and body language speak leaps and bounds over what they happen to be speaking with their mouths, never more apparent than during my favorite scene in the first film, as they share a listening booth in a record store, listening to a record while both incessantly sneak glances at one another, never daring to meet each others’ gaze. Does Jesse want to kiss Celine, does she want him to? Their attraction is depicted flawlessly in those eyes, and that attraction carries them towards sunrise and an unknown tomorrow. I thought “Before Sunset” relied more heavily on dialogue, but damned if I could give a damn about the random crap they’re talking about. Yeah, it’s natural and organic, moreso than the endless dreck of most romance movies in this day and age, and maybe I’m unfairly looking for that once-present youthful spark in these two that’s, like their youth itself, simply no longer there, but for the first time while watching these two incredibly-written characters, I grew bored, and that cannot be discounted.
If nothing else, this film is an incredible technical achievement by Linklater, for his minutes-long single tracking shots, and by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke for never missing a beat during said shots, walking and talking as fictional characters in a very real city, the difficulty of which I cannot imagine. Ultimately, I was often admiring those technical accomplishments of a film director and actors more than the story – I was admiring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke rather than Celine and Jesse, and that lack of immersion that the first film practically bathed in left me wanting. But, maybe I as a 27-year-old who would like very much to meet and fall for a beautiful french woman on a train to Vienna am just yet to experience the perspective of these two now-older people, revisiting, and perhaps re-becoming, those different people they once were. After all, we don’t even learn into well into the film that **SPOILER** Celine is seeing a war photographer and Jesse is in an unhappy marriage and has a son he idolizes **END SPOILER**. I was startled by these revelations, but to Celine and Jesse, and to the screenplay, it’s just another topic amongst the many covered by these two. If I can’t identify with such momentous life changes, I can at least hope to examine them with the delicate grace that these two do. I can’t wait to be as unprepared for Before Midnight as I was for this.
Total seen: 16
Amour (Haneke, 2012)
Collateral (Mann, 2004)
A Late Quartet (Zilberman, 2012)
Magic (Attenborough, 1978)
The Master (Anderson, 2012)
Hon. mentions: Affliction (Schrader, 1997), Fantastic Planet (Laloux, 1973), Princess Mononoke (Miyazaki, 1997)
It was, curiously, a line by Liam Neeson in “The Grey,” of all films, that came to mind as I watched the emotional unravelling of “A Late Quartet”‘s world-famous string quartet when he describes “men unfit for mankind.” Of course, Neeson’s character in that film was describing “Ex-cons, fugitives, drifters, assholes,” while the men (and woman) of this film are gifted, famed musicians who have devoted 25 years of their lives to not only the perfection of, but more importantly the unification of, their craft. To put forth such beautiful music, they have had to shun their individual talents (and, thereby, egos) in favor of making a melodic whole, as well as any semblance of personal lives and continually push back each of their neuroses, insecurities, and foibles as the music comes first, letting those flaws first fester and then grow inside each person until they can no longer be contained. The catalyst of that lack of containment comes when Peter (Christopher Walken), the group’s cellist and oldest member, announces that he likely has the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease and will soon have to step down. Now, when this well-oiled machine finally faces its first true threat of breaking apart, the endless rehearsals and the music can no longer serve as a band-aid with which the quartet can mask their previously-disavowed flaws. Second violinist Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) almost immediately brings up, seemingly out of the blue, a suggestion that he and first violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir) switch between first and second chair going forward. He’s not fooling anyone; the idea has been smoldering in him long before Peter’s grim announcement. Violist Juliette (Catherine Keener), Robert’s wife, must confront her failings as a wife and mother who has mostly forsaken loving relationships for her work – a pitfall of many a professional musician, as she explains to her enraged daughter, Alexandra (Imogen Poots), a burgeoning violinist in her own right…who happens to be carrying on an affair with Daniel, the youngest member of the quartet – initially gruff and cold as he tutors Alexandra, now reduced to a romantically-blubbering schoolboy when Alexandra’s bed comes into the equation. I should have no business becoming so absorbed in such melodrama, professional insecurities and romantic tribulations and triangles so well-trodden in lesser films, and yet, the power of these melodramatic sub-plots comes in seeing how each member of the quartet seems so clueless on how to navigate these uncharted waters. They are, indeed, unfit for mankind, or rather, unfit for and unprepared to handle mankind’s desires, hatreds, flaws. The perfection of Beethoven and Shostakovich has done anything but prepare them for the imperfections of being human beings – Peter’s physical decay and mourning of his recently-deceased wife, Robert’s crippling talent-based insecurities and yearning for yet more fame and glory, Juliette’s inability to love, Daniel’s sudden hyper-ability to love – all separate facets of the human experience that they’re just now confronting, as their 25-year shield against such dreaded horrors finds itself dissolving.
As the film progresses, we get tidbits of information here and there concerning the quartet’s relationships and how its members came together – just enough to make us realize that there is a complicated history here, to allow us to speculate on so many different levels. As we learn that Robert and Juliette were practically forced to marry when Alexandra was conceived, Robert uses this fact when confronting his wife about her long-standing emotional distance. When we learn that Peter was in a previous quartet with Juliette’s mother, psychological possibilities abound. Peter is already, clearly, the wise, revered patriarch of the group, but is he literally so, literally a father figure, to Juliette? Does he see himself that way, and indeed towards the others? There are so many more questions to ask about the interpersonal relationships of these four people that the screenplay only hints at the answers to, and you can only come to one reasonable conclusion – 25 years is a long time. A long time in which to play music together, and shun important outside influences – together. For better or worse, they’ve always been able to return to the music, to work off of each others’ personalities and talents to become a whole, made literal by their effortless eye-based communication-without-words during performance that has clearly taken years to perfect. They’re one, a family, overseen not by a quartet’s traditional “leader,” the first violinist, but by the older, wobbly-handed cellist. Christopher Walken sheds his self-parodic image to portray a man with such dignity and grace as I have rarely seen in any movie character. While his fellow musicians flail about in a puddle of their own neuroses, Peter confronts his Parkinson’s on a treadmill with bizarre doodads hooked up to his body with nary a complaint or flash of shame, or sits mournfully in his study listening to a recording of his late opera singer wife, imagining her singing before him. When he explains the nature of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14, opus 131 to his students or tells them about his humorous encounter with famed cellist Pablo Casals, his appreciation towards his chosen art form can be felt on a deep, poetic level. Robert, Juliette, and Daniel no doubt love the music they play – you must in order to achieve their level of talent and fame over so long a period of time – but Peter has gained an introspective admiration for his work, his life, that his younger collaborators have simply not yet achieved. But, if their reaction to Peter’s actions during the performance that bookends the beginning and end of the film is to be believed, if they revere their elder statesman’s heroic acceptance of his fate and his person as much as I do, they’ll get there. They soon may, like Peter, become people as beautiful and complex as the music they play, if they aren’t already, flaws and all.
Of all the scenes that comprise this incredible performance by Nick Nolte, the ones that affected me the most and burrowed the deepest under my skin to give me chills were those between his small-town cop Wade Whitehouse and his young, quasi-estranged daughter. We meet them in the car as he has her for a limited time over his ex-wife, driving to a Halloween school function. As he consistently tries to convince her to go to this school, and later tries harder and harder to ingratiate himself with her, he doesn’t quite become overtly hostile, but nevertheless, something is very wrong with this man and his behavior. He seems far too desperate to get on his daughter’s good side and be a cool dad, or a loving dad, a task that proves hopeless, particularly in a late, disturbing scene in a café in which he snuggles up to her and baby-talks her as if she’s a toddler (before he assaults the proprietor, but that’s a whole other matter of a movie’s worth of plot development…). This poor girl must bear the brunt of this woefully damaged man who’s trying desperately to compensate for his crippling insecurities and emotional scars. Something bad happened to Wade in his past, something that’s now making him scramble, in cringingly exaggerated fashion, to be a good man, or convince himself that he’s a good man, or give off the facade of a good man. He’s in the fight of his life to, if not be someone he’s not, then to not become a figure he knows too well. He’s an ideal addition to Paul Schrader’s long line of insecure, self-loathing anti-protagonists from Travis Bickle to Jake LaMotta to Yukio Mishima to John LeTour to Jesus Christ.
As it turns out, he’s trying to be the father that his father wasn’t. As played by James Coburn in an Oscar-winning role, Wade’s father Glen is a drunk and a brute who gets off on inflicting as much physical and emotional abuse as possible on his wife and children, and you can see how any son would try to emotionally divorce himself from such a monster. Ultimately, however, Wade cannot. It’s just a shame that Schrader relied on clichéd spousal/child abuse-centric flashbacks to introduce us to Glen and his cruelty and the clear reason for Wade’s present-day flaws. Watch Nolte and Coburn act together in this film, watch their pitch-perfect, terrifying chemistry (or whatever you would call the polar opposite of “chemistry”), and you’ll see how those flashbacks are simply not needed to get a full sense of how Glen has ruled over his son for decades and inflicted permanent and cruel psychological harm. A health care professional could have a field day simply watching these two characters interact, in scenes that are as subtle and complex as those flashbacks are unoriginal and over-the-top. For better or worse (much worse…), Glen is the most important figure in Wade’s life – not his incredibly patient girlfriend Margie (Sissy Spacek), not his quiet and measured brother Rolfe (Willem Dafoe). Wade will try to separate himself from his tyrannical father, sure, whether through his daughter or through investigating the suspicious accidental hunting death that rocks his quiet town. As the details of this case envelop the plot of the film overall, the speculations over the “accident” and the possible motives of possible murders concerning Real Estate and what-not, the movie started to lose me, as Wade gets lost in the case. I suppose this is the point, that Wade so fully immerses himself in this one maybe-crime to dull decades of emotional pain, to dull the Glen inside him, to feel like a semi-important, semi-useful man rather than the mostly-useless man-child his father has made of him, that the details of the case become so complex and nonsensical and out of control as Wade becomes more obsessed, but I dunno, a little too much focus on this formulaic mystery and not enough on how it affects Wade.
Of course, we eventually learn that the mystery isn’t so formulaic after all, via Rolfe’s narration (an unexpectedly weak moment in the narration, by the way, explaining everything like in that intelligence-insulting final scene in “Psycho”, when in fact the true nature of the death, and by extension Wade’s mindset, are rather obvious long before the story’s tragic conclusion) – narration that was excellent, as Rolfe’s detached, monotone voice contains the slightest hint of distaste and he acts as the audience’s stand-in, judging the sad players of this tale with both pity and scorn. I actually wish it was used more than it was. The differences between the two brothers, raised by the same monster, are downright alarming. Rolfe somehow found the ability to get the fuck out of dodge, while Wade, try as he might, cannot (at least until an infected tooth and a can of gasoline have their say) escape this vortex of nature and nurture, cannot draw himself away from this dance with the monster who begat him.
I’m really starting to dig the meek, outwardly-sheepish Edward G. Robinson of “Scarlet Street” and “The Woman in the Window” and “The Whole Town’s Talking” over the confident and bombastic Robinson of of “Double Indemnity,” “Key Largo,” and, well, “The Whole Town’s Talking” (even if his performance in “Double Indemnity” remains one of my all-time favorite performances), because while the ruthlessness of his Johnny Rocco in a film like “Key Largo” is as plain as day with no room for deeper interpretation, that sinister side is much more subtle and insidious in his more mellow roles; it’s a side that even his own character may not be aware is in him until he’s covering up a crime with no opportunity to turn back. It’s almost like he’s two different actors, if not for that obscure, dark instinct inherent in his characters. Here, that instinct is initially invisible as his Professor Richard Wanley enjoys teaching, sees off his loving, happy family as they head off on a vacation, and enjoys an evening with friends as they discuss the painting of the eponymous woman in the window next door to their little men’s club. It’s when that woman manifests herself in the form of Alice Reed (Joan Bennett) while he admires her portrait that his world comes crashing down, as an initially innocent rendezvous in her apartment to admire her other portraits turns into a death by self-defense. In the moments that follow, Robinson is fascinating to watch, as Richard almost immediately shrugs off his first inclination to call the police and instead methodically works out, out loud, how to dispose of the body and evidence. It’s as if this previously-infallible academic was born for a forbidden moment like this, had the entire plan swimming around in the deepest recesses of his head for years and decades, and he’s just realizing it as it happens, remaining calm, collected and professional as he tells Alice what to do and when to do it – he might as well be teaching one of his classes, doing his job without a second thought. And yet, a sense of excitement, of having fun, of arousal, is barely concealed by that matter-of-factness; as he gives both himself and Alice explicit instructions and she struggles to control her nervous hysteria and then becomes as calm as he is, this might as well be their version of sex, as if committing this crime is his unique version of, and only way of justifying, being unfaithful with that Norman Rockwell-esque wife of his. It’s an interesting commentary on what must have been the people of that time’s natural mistrust towards authority, that any intrusion on a previously-unblemished lifestyle had to be dealt with personally lest you inevitable get blamed. But in the here and now, it raises very interesting questions about Richard; if he can so smoothly transition from soft-spoken, girl-shy professor into self-assured death cover-upper, what else is lurking in that id of his?
Unfortunately, at least until the very end, that question isn’t explored all that deeply. Richard may have a yen for covering up a (justifiable) death, but that yen certainly doesn’t translate to skill, as he and Alice leave behind a trail of evidence and witnesses as long as eternity. Granted, that’s about what you’d expect for first-time offenders such as these two, but that’s where this interesting character study collapses, as Richard is generally out of the picture and Alice must deal with a blackmailing snake who witnessed the crime. It’s standard, even boring, noir shadiness and backstabbing, and I quickly lost interest and was eager for a resolution, disappointed that a reflection on a macabre shift in a character’s psyche became standard, forgettable pulp noir. At least it led to a downright astonishing final shot in which the blaring sound of a ringing telephone gradually mutes and the camera pulls into a glass: an abrupt punctuation mark of irony as this sordid saga that never needed to happen reaches its (extremely convenient and tidy…) conclusion.
Except it wasn’t the final shot, as an additional Hays Code-mandated five minutes nearly ruins even the best parts of this film. At the very least, it off-handedly reminded me of “Mulholland Dr.,” of all films, but otherwise it’s unforgivable (other than perhaps adding a shred of analysis to Richard’s psyche, but that’s really stretching it given the jarring change of tone from the 100+ minutes that came before). Just pretend that the pull-out from the glass and all that comes after it never happens, and the pull-in will, as it should, seal Richard into his self-made fate of guilt-ridden eternity.