“Now something so sad has hold of us that the breath leaves and we can’t even cry.”
-Charles Bukowski, You Get So Alone at Times That it Just Makes Sense
Grief incites people to all sorts of mischief.
People in films kill for a boatload of reasons. They kill for money, love, sex, power, a black bird, a tanker full of gasoline, a witch’s broom, Cornel Wilde, and even a penmanship medal. If you watch horror films, you’re used to watching people, and dogs (please stop) die in creative and horrifying ways. What you’re not used to seeing is the aftermath. Sure, horror sequels often begin with the hero or heroine recovering in a mental ward after an ordeal, but seldom do the filmmakers dwell on the survivor’s feelings. Generally, the protagonist must hot foot it out of the hospital to avoid ending the franchise prematurely. A handful of terrific new horror films and filmmakers break that mold. These artists focus on grief as both a reason to kill, and an actual entity.
The films in this piece portray grief in terms of horror. That makes sense because it’s something scary that no one wants to talk about. Grief gets buried, not unlike a victim in a premature grave, who pops out at the most inopportune times. You think you dug the hole deep enough, but the little bastard manages to crawl out and invade your Christmas by wiping his muddy feet on your carpet, or ruin a perfectly nice dinner party by playing that tune you’re trying so hard to forget. Grief is also something everyone expresses differently, but is supposed to express the same. Friends study your affect and project their own feelings there. “How can he laugh at a time like this?” Police observe the spouses of murder victims and decide whether they’re reacting correctly. “She’s not even crying. We’d better investigate.” You can also overreact. In the 1946 drama, The Razor’s Edge, Gene Tierney comments on Anne Baxter’s character, Sophie, who’s sunk into despair and drunkenness after the loss of her husband and child in an accident. “Of course, it was a shock and everyone felt sorry for her, but a normal person recovers. If she went to pieces it was because she was always unbalanced.” With the weight of so much emotion on your shoulders, it’s easy to lose your footing and fall into that newly-opened grave. The best choice is conversation. When the beast is out in the open, he’s easier to fight—or embrace. The players in these films choose different paths and it’s enlightening to see how those choices affect them.
In The Babadook (2014), writer/director Jennifer Kent creates a frighteningly claustrophobic world for her heroine. Amelia (Essie Davis), a lonely widow with a troubled young son, struggles to get through each day. Once, a vivacious writer in love with her musician husband, Amelia now simply goes through the motions of living. She works as an attendant at a nursing home and tries to care for her incredibly high-maintenance son. Aside from his behavior issues, her boy, Samuel (Noah Wiseman) has terrible nightmares so, of course, his mom gets no sleep. Samuel is such a handful, no one else will watch him, so Amelia is on the hook 24/7. Everything is a chore and she gets no peace. As if loneliness, drudgery, and lack of sleep weren’t enough, Amelia also battles depression and a sort of delayed grief. Her husband died on the day their son was born so she’s been too busy to grieve properly. After six years of this, her embattled psyche has had enough. A scary pop-up book, The Babadook, appears mysteriously in her house and the book’s protagonist, a combination of Dr. Caligari and Danny DeVito’s Penguin, begins to haunt Amelia and Samuel’s dreams and maybe even their reality.
The Invitation (2015) begins when Will (Logan Marshall-Green) accepts an invitation to a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife and her new husband in Will’s old house. Soooo many red flags there. Anyway, he and his new girlfriend, Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi), along with the estranged couple’s old friends get together for a party complete with a gourmet supper, vintage wine, and weird oversharing. Throughout the course of the evening, we discover that Will and his ex, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), lost their young son a year or so ago. Eden tried to come to grips with her grief at a questionable retreat in Mexico where she met her present husband, David (Michael Huisman), who was there to deal with a loss of his own. The strange, incredibly tense vibe of the film is punctuated by the cringe-worthy stories the guests tell and Will’s occasional outburst questioning the goal of the evening. Director, Karyn Kusama does a phenomenal job of keeping you on the edge of your seat as Will vacillates between enjoying the lamb and suspecting the rest of the party-goers. The cast of lesser-known character actors works together well and includes the fabulously creepy John Carroll Lynch (Twisty!) as the guy you who you wish had RSVP’d in the negative. Despite the Jonathan Swift-levels of overcompensating for grief Eden and David learned at their slice of Spahn Ranch in the Mexican desert, The Invitation is a subtle, taut film that builds steadily toward a frightening end and dramatizes the lengths to which some people will go to avoid feeling that horrible ache.
Prevenge (2016) stars the most excellent Alice Lowe as Ruth, a very pregnant widow whose anger and grief mixed with a dash of hormones and a smidge of her already manic nature allow her to hear the voice of her unborn daughter. That sounds lovely. There’s just one thing; Ruth’s daughter is a sociopath who orders her to kill the people both blame for the death of Ruth’s husband. Like Look Who’s Talking meets Kind Hearts and Coronets, Prevenge follows Ruth as she assumes different identities to get close to her victims. At first, she’s energized by her mission, but later comes to question its value when she realizes all her efforts won’t change anything. Her husband is still gone. That sad fact looms in the background all through this darkly funny film. That Lowe manages to make her character funny, vulnerable, and a bit mad is evidence of her talent as an actress and a writer and a director. Yes, she did all three—while pregnant. Like in The Babadook, Ruth’s longing for her husband and her inability to cope with those strong, soul-crushing emotions create an autonomous life form. In Prevenge, that being’s sole purpose is revenge.
The Void (2016) mixes a story of grief with the supernatural, a weird death cult, and a siege, to create an original and referential horror film. Made by the same Astron-6 group that brought us The Editor and Manborg, The Void mixes Assault on Precinct 13, The Thing, The Devil Rides Out, and Don’t Look Now and sprinkles it with a bit of The Mist. The fact that The Void pulls from all these films doesn’t lessen its impact in the slightest. It’s a terrific, edge-of-your-seat horror full of practical effects, characters you care about, and great scares. A small group of people defend a rural hospital against forces, both inside and out, they don’t understand. At the heart of the film is an estranged couple, played by Aaron Poole and Kathleen Munroe, who broke up after the loss of their baby. The ideas of loss and regret run through the film and it’s a testament to the filmmakers, Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski, that they could make a poignant character study within their cracking good horror film.
Sometimes making it through a crisis is the easy part. All that fighting and strategizing and looking for weapons fills your brain so there’s no room for dread. There’s a famous phrase, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Perhaps it should read, “Dying is easy, Surviving is hard.” It is hard, but it’s good. You just have to keep telling yourself that.
Kirsty, Julia, and Pinhead are back!
Hellbound: Hellraiser II starts immediately after the first film ends. Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) wakes up in a mental hospital and tries to explain to doctors and the police why there’s so much blood at their house and everybody’s dead. Oddly, they’re not buying the cenobite story. Nutty Doctor Philip Channard (Kenneth Cranham), who interned with the Marquis de Sade, runs the sanitarium. He also has a wacky hobby. He collects puzzle boxes, phrenology diagrams, and spare body parts. Needless to say, he has a bangin’ social life. The doctor asks the police to bring a blood-soaked mattress from Kirsty’s
crime scene house. Yep, it’s completely normal for law enforcement to hand evidence over to some guy who collects kinky dead people stuff. Anyway, the authorities bring Channard the nasty mattress and since he’s done extensive research on nasty mattress dead people retrieval, he knows what to do. Channard’s a sadistic bastard so he brings a highly delusional patient to his home, plops him down on the bloody mattress and waits for the magic to happen. It does. Julia (Clare Higgins), emerges from the depths and steals the poor schizophrenic’s guts and Channard’s heart. Well, maybe the heart is the wrong organ.
“I’d walk through the gates of Hell for a good Chardonnay.”
Julia’s not ready to settle down, at least not until she gets a face. To that end, Dr. Channard drags his hopeless cases over to Julia so she can eat their innards and get some skin so they can consummate this affair.
“Bring me the head of a manic depressive.”
Dr. Channard has been yearning for this kind of depravity his whole life. We see flashbacks to the doctor’s misspent youth as a torturer of small animals and scenes of him experimenting on patients. He’s not a right guy. Of course, by now, we all know Julia’s no prize either so the doctor had better watch his back.
Breaking up is hard to do.
At the same time Dr. Channard and Julia are playing the balcony scene from Romeo and Dahmer, Kirsty and another patient, Tiffany (Imogen Boorman), battle with the cenobites in a weird Escher-like rampart opened by the puzzle box. Full of tortured souls, long hallways, and candles, the dungeon houses the cenobites, their victims, and Uncle Frank. Remember Frank (Sean Chapman) from the first Hellraiser film? He’s been lounging around Pinhead’s playhouse waiting for a little action.
I think I had this calendar once.
There are a couple side stories too. Tiffany is a gifted puzzle-solver the evil doctor imprisoned in his asylum to help him open the box. She’s compelled to do puzzles of all kinds and instead of curing that compulsion, Channard encourages it.
Cenobite Puzzle Boxes: You can’t stop at just one!
There’s also Kyle (William Hope), a young resident at the hospital, determined to help Kirsty.
“Sooo then the guy with nails in his face showed up? Mmmkay.”
That’s when some major stuff goes down. Kirsty, Julia, Frank, Dr. Channard, and the cenobites act out And Then There Were None in the Escher drawing. It’s bloody and thrilling and full of cool, disgusting effects. Dr. Channard’s torture is downright ghastly.
The writers, Clive Barker and Peter Atkins, interject some humanity into this morass as well. Kirsty and Tiffany are our heroes, of course, but they find an unlikely ally and that adds depth to the film.
“Does anyone have an aspirin?”
I like Hellbound: Hellraiser II a lot. For a long time, the first film in the series was my favorite, but this one is edging it out. I like it more with each viewing. The acting, especially in the first two films, is far better than in a lot of gory films of the period and the story and characters are riveting. Christopher Young’s music even won a Saturn Award. The best part is you get a lot more cenobite for the buck. The filmmakers must have known they had a good thing so they didn’t hide the leather-clad freaks. Giving Pinhead and his merry band more screen time works a treat. This is a fun one.
“Anyway, we opened the box.”
Recently, I joined a sold-out crowd at the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation in Waltham, Massachusetts for Waltham Film Factory’s showing of the documentary, Voices from the Basement. The museum, filled with antique typewriters, vintage lathes, and classic cars, is the perfect setting for this look at what was the hub of the bargain universe for decades, Filene’s Basement. It seemed right to watch a film about the former retail giant in a former textile factory. The film, a tribute to the retailer, tells the story of a place that became a landmark and even a way of life for throngs of Bostonians. Filled with historic footage from the Downtown Crossing shop, the film chronicles the opening of the Basement in 1908 to its closing in 2007 and is a fascinating look at retail history and Edward Filene’s radical corporate philosophy.
Filene’s original Downtown Crossing, Boston location
Edward Filene, the son of founder William Filene, opened Filene’s Automatic Bargain Basement in 1908 as a way to sell overstocked merchandise from his father’s main store in the unused basement. As the store gained popularity, buyers began purchasing high quality goods from other large department stores from all over the country and marking it way down for quick sale. That meant the stock was always fresh and consumers could buy designer goods at a fraction of the original prices.
A packed house in search of inexpensive, but not cheap suits
The automatic part came from the method of automatically marking down merchandise according to a fixed schedule. Filene had other new ideas too. He wanted to keep his employees healthy, so he opened a clinic across the street from the Downtown Crossing location. Sick workers could receive company-sponsored medical care years before any other business owners even considered it. Basement employees ran a store newsletter and the Filene’s Coop Association allowed workers to voice their opinions on store policy. Filene also started a credit union for his employees. This business-as-social-experiment also encouraged employees to stay on for fifty years or more. People started in the stockroom and worked their way up to the sales floor. Employees were fiercely loyal to the company.
A poster depicting the schedule of markdowns
The concept that hard work and ability led to promotion added to the store’s reputation as an egalitarian business. The wide range of shoppers cemented it. Everyone shopped there. The Boston Brahmin browsed next to waitresses, moms, and students.
Bargain hunters sift through the bins.
If you were a savvy shopper, you frequented Filene’s Basement. If you were a female savvy shopper, you got used to changing in the middle of the sales floor. Another of the idiosyncrasies of Filene’s Basement was the lack of dressing rooms for women. I can remember going to the store as a child. My mom would grab wraparound skirts in a larger size for us. We’d put them on over our clothes so we could try on pants and skirts under them without exposing ourselves. Brides-to-be grabbed deals during the yearly Running of the Brides event. There’s a funny edit during that part of the film that shows footage of the Running of the Brides cut with scenes from the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. Celebrities like Boston Mayor Tom Menino, actress, Estelle Parsons, reporter, Mike Wallace, Governor Mike Dukakis, and Boston broadcasters, Peter Mehegan and Carl DeSuze wax rhapsodic about the virtues of Filene’s Basement. They’re not the only ones. Voices from the Basement features longtime employees as well; many expressing their love and gratitude to managers and staff members who cared about their customers and each other.
Filene’s clock on Washington Street, Boston
After the film, director, Michael Bavaro and executive producer, Dr. Susan Edbril answered questions and listened to audience stories about their memories of the iconic hole in the ground. There were some great ones. A former marketing executive with Filene’s Basement recounted that once, when she was working, the fire alarm sounded, but no one would leave. They didn’t want to lose the bargains they’d found. Seeing this fun piece of Boston history in such a historic place was a lovely experience.
The Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation and the Waltham Film Factory will screen the film Voices from the Basement again on Wednesday, March 1. Tickets are on sale here.
In the vast wasteland of Australia’s post-apocalyptic desert, a powerful warrior liberates a harem from a water-hoarding despot with the help of a tortured nomad.
Yep. That’s it. I could probably end my piece right here, but I’ll go a bit deeper.
Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) leads the ground troops defending the empire of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). She heads out into the sprawling desert with a raiding party, but instead of collecting slaves or heads or gasoline, Furiosa goes astray and it’s apparent that she has another agenda. She has Joe’s wives secreted away in the cab of her fortified semi and is on her way to the Green Place, an oasis Furiosa knew as a child. The women, abducted from other tribes, served as breeders and sex slaves for the evil Immortan Joe in his mountain cave hideout. Joe holds his power over the people below with force and by controlling the most important resource, water.
Not one drop of water on Arrak…no.
Immortan Joe and his merry band of genetic misfits discover Furiosa’s betrayal and before you can say “two men enter; one man leaves” they’re gamboling through the outback in a charming array of motor vehicles hoping to convince Furiosa and her charges to return. With a crew of war boys in mime makeup chasing her and gangs of motorcycle-straddling sand people hiding behind every rock, Furiosa needs all of her ingenuity and strength, along with a humongous cache of firearms, to repel the crazed hordes from her tanker truck and bring her charges to safety.
“Did you say Humongous?”
Will she make it through the gauntlet without losing the rescued women? Will she get to the Green Space? Will this guy learn another tune?
There’s also Max. Did I mention Max? He’s in this too. Good old Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), whose name and demeanor bursts from the imagination of a frustrated teenage motorhead, begins this adventure as a captive of the war boy, Nux (Nicholas Hoult). Nux gets off with a little help from silver spray paint applied to his teeth. Apparently, the weird, powder-coated Immortan Joe devotees need a constant supply of new blood, so they capture vulnerable wanderers to use as permanent blood donors. Max is strapped to Nux’s car and hooked-up to an IV to keep him in hemoglobin.
“CALL MY AGENT!”
Max and Furiosa don’t hit it off right away. They try to kill each other until they realize their interests are better served by teaming up against the nutjob biker gang. That’s when it gets fun. Since this is a George Miller production, it’s chock full of nitrous-powered hot rods brimming with mutants with anger issues and massive car wrecks. Since I’m a fan of those, I found Mad Max: Fury Road entertaining. I’ve always loved the Mad Max franchise and hoped this would not be an exception. It isn’t. The Road Warrior/Handmaid’s Tale mashup worked and the action, for the most part, did not disappoint. I love Furiosa’s tricked-out truck cab. Her impressive armory makes sense and speaks to her strong warrior character. I also love the stilty flingy guys during the main chase sequence. In my notes, I call them pole vault warriors. That works too.
Hieronymus Bosch, cinematographer.
I wish I could say the film crushed it all the way through, but I found the first desert chase scene lacking. I think the stunt coordinator had a wardrobe malfunction because his CGI showed. It also looked like they sped it up for some reason. It was early in the film and we didn’t know the characters yet. That lack of involvement with the story coupled with the Benny Hill-like speed increase made the segment hard to watch. I have no qualms with the later stunts though. They quenched my Mad Max thirst.
“Say what again.”
A few character actors stood out in Fury Road. Nicholas Hoult as Nux adds a nice dimension to the film. He starts as your average war boy, but spends a good deal of the film trying to redeem himself. Since the whole Mad Max series deals with redemption, Nux fits. Riley Keough as Capable has an expressive and sympathetic face. She comes by it naturally. Elvis Presley is/was her grandfather. She says a lot without too much dialogue. Zoë Kravitz has a small, decent role, but doesn’t have much to do. Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, as Joe’s favorite wife, The Splendid Angharad, has a nice supporting part as the leader of the harem who sets the example for toughness among the wives. As for the bad guys, Immortan Joe lacks the verve of a Toecutter, which is odd because he played that part in the original Mad Max film. John Howard and Richard Carter play The People Eater and The Bullet Farmer and I wish they had more screen time. They have Baron Harkonnen-levels of disfigurement. Miller comes up with great baddies, then he refuses to let us see them. He also makes up great names!
Toecutter and Immortan Joe: Together Again!
Charlize Theron as Furiosa and Tom Hardy as Max deliver. Theron looks hard and smart and fierce as a war-weary soldier who wants to go home. Hardy lets his guard down with Theron and they show great chemistry. It isn’t a romance. It’s two wounded souls recognizing each other. As soon as they realize how alike they are, Max has her back and Furiosa has his. It’s a loyalty based on loss and it works.
Mad Max: Fury Road is a terrific action film and I’m glad I finally saw it.
It’s Australia month here at Prowler Needs a Jump so get out your boomerangs!
In “Waltzing Matilda”, an 1895 song written by Australian poet Banjo Paterson, a jolly swagman drinks a cup of billy tea near a billabong, steals a jumbuck from a squatter, then runs from the squatter and a few mounties to another billabong where he kills himself and his spirit haunts it forever. Cheery, isn’t it? You have to love a country whose unofficial national anthem involves sheep-stealing fugitives from the law, suicide, and ghosts.
Well, I do, anyway. It’s true. I’ve wanted to visit Australia since birth. There’s something so untamed and brutal about it. It still has thousands of acres of wild country, places where people live underground, and a truckload of things that can kill you in an instant. Awesome.
“Lock the doors, Gladys. We’re in Australia.”
Based on all that and the whole former penal colony thing, I’ve decided to launch my 2017, Year of the Theme thing with Australia. Oh, I’m doing a 2017, Year of the Theme thing. I have no idea what films I’ll watch or how many. This will NOT be 31 Days of Marsupials or anything like that though because I have a kid and a job and I have to clean my bathroom and junk. I don’t have time to find, watch, and write coherently about 31 Australian films and still have time to buy groceries.
I’ve heard this is vile, but I wouldn’t know because I’ve never been to Australia.
Anyway, stay tuned to this blog for some fun Australian film reviews written by someone who has never been to Australia. I do have some stuffed Australian animals and a didgeridoo so I think I’m qualified.
Slim Dusty, AO MBE was an Australian national treasure. He sang a mean “Waltzing Matilda” too.
“This damned burg’s getting me. If I don’t get away soon I’ll be going blood-simple like the natives.”
RED HARVEST by Dashiell Hammett
Commit a crime, and the earth is made of glass. Commit a crime, and it seems as if a coat of snow fell on the ground, such as reveals in the woods the track of every partridge and fox and squirrel and mole. You cannot recall the spoken word, you cannot wipe out the foot-track, you cannot draw up the ladder, so as to leave no inlet or clew. Some damning circumstance always transpires. The laws and substances of nature — water, snow, wind, gravitation — become penalties to the thief.
COMPENSATION by Ralph Waldo Emerson
What if there’s a crime and no one’s sure who committed the crime or what the crime is? What if you think you know who committed the crime, but you’re wrong? What if you can’t find your windbreaker anywhere? Also, what if you failed Conversation 101?
The owner of a dingy bar in Texas, Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya) suspects his wife, Abby (Frances McDormand) is cheating. He hires lowlife private detective, Loren Visser (the excellent M. Emmett Walsh) to tail her and confirm his suspicions. Abby may or may not have cheated in the past, but on her way out of town she gets chummy with Ray (John Getz), a bartender in Marty’s saloon. Marty can’t live with the knowledge of his wife’s infidelity so he decides to do something permanent about it and asks Visser to help. He may have hired the wrong guy.
Dark, moody, and atmospheric, BLOOD SIMPLE moves at a steady pace and always moves forward. The plot isn’t complicated. Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen don’t go off on tangents which allows them to focus on the four main characters and what they think is going on. That’s the point, after all. The audience knows the entire story, but each character sees only his or her part in it. With limited information, they make poor decisions. They’re not crazy or irrational, but miscommunication or lack of any communication at all leads each of the main players to make bad decisions that compound each problem and dig them deeper into trouble. It’s like a high-stakes version of the telephone game, except in BLOOD SIMPLE, that innocent exercise of passing, “Dasher and Dancer are my favorite reindeer.” on as “Ashes cause cancer. Want a beer?” becomes dangerous confusion about a possible murder.
The characters, handicapped by limited access to the whole story, talk to one another, but their conversations muddy rather than clarify and people walk away from each exchange with less information than they started with. Only the audience is privy to the entire thing. This causes tension and a desire to yell at the screen. It also makes it hard to look away.
Shot in Austin, Texas with a small budget that Joel and Ethan Coen collected door-to-door, BLOOD SIMPLE looks and sounds more expensive than it should. Barry Sonnenfeld’s shadow-filled cinematography along with skillful editing by Roderick Jaynes and Don Wiegman lift the film’s quality above the usual mid-eighties thriller. Creative visual effects and a fantastic Carter Burwell score will stick with you, as will the trademark Coen gore. This was the Coen brothers’ first feature film and Burwell’s first film score, but you’d never know it. Their clear vision ties a simple plot, a small cast, and spare sets together to make an inventive neo-noir classic.
The cast, led by Frances McDormand, all excel at restraint. There’s so much left unsaid in every conversation, the script must have consisted largely of stage directions. That said, McDormand, Getz, Walsh, and Hedaya are all wonderful character actors who can say a lot without words. McDormand’s character, Abby, even mentions the lack of chit chat. After she says to Ray that he’s quiet like Marty, she explains, “When he doesn’t say things, they’re usually nasty. When you don’t, they’re usually nice.” That’s sweet and all, but if Ray could just finish a sentence… The dialogue we get is choice. When Visser warns Marty to keep their association to himself, Marty says,” I wasn’t about to tell anyone. This is an illicit romance–we’ve got to trust each other to be discreet. For richer, for poorer.” Visser comes back with,” Don’t say that. Your marriages don’t work out so hot.” The whole film is an exercise in understatement and it’s a subtle, brutal treat.
This piece appeared originally in the Brattle Film Notes.
O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.”
–Othello by William Shakespeare
In Basil Dearden’s 1962 film All Night Long, the writers shift Shakespeare’s Othello from 16th century Venice to 1960s London. Set in the black and white world of jazz clubs and smoky back rooms, All Night Long has a cool cocktail party vibe and a fantastic score. It also has a vicious plot full of innuendo, plotting, and lies. The writers obviously used Othello as a guide, but they may also have watched All About Eve once or twice.
“What a great party! Nothing can possibly go wrong tonight.”
Rod Hamilton (Richard Attenborough) hosts a party at his London brownstone. It’s a surprise anniversary party for friends Aurelius Rex (Paul Harris) and his wife, Delia Lane (Marti Stevens). The couple and their guests, the best jazz musicians in London, gather to celebrate and listen to each other jam. As the group of friends talk and toast, a note of suspicion drifts into the scene. Johnnie Cousin (Patrick McGoohan), the drummer for Rex’s band, wants to step out on his own. He also has a thing for Rex’s wife, Delia. Tired of playing in someone else’s band, Johnny wants his own group even if sabotaging Rex is the only way to get it.
“I’m going to stare at Rex until he lets me go solo.”
Does this sound familiar? In All About Eve, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) wanted the lead role promised to Margot Channing (Bette Davis) in an upcoming play. Eve also wanted Margot’s director boyfriend, Bill (Gary Merrill) for herself. A little backstabbing here and there and Eve almost got everything she wanted. Watching All Night Long, I could almost picture Karen (Celeste Holm) asking Eve if all this heartbreak and treachery was worth it just for a part in a play. Eve answers, “I’d do much more for a part that good.” Eve and Johnnie Cousin would get along great.
“Pardon me. I have to go sharpen my knife.”
The allusions to Othello are more obvious. Johnnie Cousin as Iago plants the seeds of jealousy and mistrust in Rex (Othello) by implying that Delia (Desdemona) is cheating with Cass (Cassio). Instead of Iago planting Desdemona’s handkerchief on Cassio, as in Shakespeare’s play, Johnnie plants Delia’s cigarette case on Cass which enflames Rex’s jealousy and sends him over the edge.
“He never tries to destroy my life at home.”
Slowly and subtly, Johnnie plants a word here, a rumor there, until Rex doubts the loyalty of his road manager, Cass (Keith Mitchell) and even his wife. To add fuel to the fire, Delia and Cass have been meeting secretly while the band tours to rehearse a song they’ll perform at the party as a gift for Rex. Hearing about these clandestine, but innocent meetings along with Johnnie’s other lies convinces Rex that he’s being duped. Rex lashes out and what started as a happy occasion ends in violence.
“Out, damned sp…oh wrong play.”
Basil Dearden directed controversial films in the 1950s and 60s. He started with Sapphire in 1959 which concerns the racially-motivated murder of a young girl. Dearden went on to make the terrific film Victim in 1961. In Victim, Dirk Bogarde plays a successful barrister who stands up to a ring of criminals blackmailing homosexuals. Both films deal frankly with taboo subjects while avoiding stereotypes. The subjects are people with flaws who make mistakes and Dearden treats them fairly. In All Night Long, a few of the musicians smoke pot and there are references to drug rehabilitation and psychotherapy. Most mainstream, non-exploitation films of the early 60s don’t refer to anything like that. Then there’s the obviously controversial mixed marriage and mixed romance in All Night Long. Delia is white and Rex, black. Cass is white and his love, Benny (María Velasco) is black. Aside from the Othello connection, the big deal in this film is that there is no big deal. The romances simply exist. No one calls attention to them. Five years later in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the subject of mixed marriage is the whole film. Dearden tackled important issues well before most of his colleagues.
“Honey, we’re breaking new ground.”
“Don’t be silly, sweetheart. We’re kissing on the stairs.”
Any discussion of All Night Long must mention Philip Green’s music. It’s glorious. Even if you think Coltrane is how we transport briquets, you’ll probably enjoy this score. Dave Brubeck, John Dankworth, Tubby Hayes, and other renowned jazz musicians play pick-up sets throughout the film. They play themselves and their instruments as both an accompaniment and an accent to the story. During tense scenes, the incessant drum beat takes a toll on the ones being squeezed and the device works. It comes off as natural. I mean, it’s hard to complain about a film that begins with Charles Mingus casually playing bass alone on stage while he waits for the party to start.
Attenborough toasts Mingus. Mingus toasts Attenborough.
Here’s where I wax rhapsodic about one of my favorite character actors. Patrick McGoohan, most famous for his lead role in the enigmatic science fiction/spy series The Prisoner also starred in Ice Station Zebra and appeared in and directed a few of the best episodes of Columbo. In All Night Long, McGoohan even says his trademark, “Be seeing you.” McGoohan has the best part in All Night Long. His smug, obsequious Johnnie Cousin can’t wait to drop his little rumor bombs and walk away, returning in time to witness the explosions and offer to help. His intricate plan has so many twists, you can see Johnnie’s wheels turning every time another character speaks.
“I’m not plotting against you or anything.”
Johnnie has set the machinations in place, but he needs to think on his feet too. McGoohan looks great in this film. He even learned to play the drums to appear more natural in the part. As for the rest of the cast, Richard Attenborough did lovely work in the 1960s and this part, although small, makes a difference. Attenborough’s kindness highlights McGoohan’s cruelty. Betsy Blair is all restraint as McGoohan’s sweet, long-suffering wife. Paul Harris and Marti Stevens make believable lovers. Warm and honey-voiced, Stevens convinces as the object of desire for her talent as well as herself. Her rendition of All Night Long is lovely and full of emotion.
“Did he call you Number Two?”
All Night Long takes risks. A cast full of jazz stalwarts and solid character actors, a plot written by Shakespeare and updated by Nel King and Paul Jarrico, and a catchy jazz soundtrack make for an unusual and entertaining film.
Dave Brubeck trades fours with Charles Mingus. Nothing to see here.
Note: Paul Jarrico appears in the credits as Peter Achilles. Jarrico was blacklisted by HUAC and wrote under different pseudonyms for years after.
This piece appeared in a slightly different form in Brattle Film Notes, the blog for the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts.