Jessica Harper

Pennies from Heaven (1981, Herbert Ross)

Pennies from Heaven is about how being a woman—particularly in the 1930s—is awful because you exist entirely for male consumption. If not sexually, then as production. The film’s supposed to be about how life’s just unfair for dreamers, in this case lead Steve Martin, who’s just trying to make the American Dream work for him; what’s standing in his way is wife Jessica Harper not wanting to give him her father’s estate so he can open a record store. He’s a traveling sheet music salesman in Chicago; he covers the rural points west.

We know Martin’s a dreamer because he daydreams in musicals. All of a sudden the movie will switch over to a big musical number with Martin and other actors lip-synching to period recordings. The musical stuff is good. Ross’s direction emphasizes the production, which is… fine. But the actual production of the numbers is excellent. Great choreography, so on and so forth. Martin’s very good at the dancing.

The same cannot be said about his “aw shucks” performance. Though some of the problem is Dennis Potter’s script; no one speaks his dialogue well until the second half of the movie, when Christopher Walken shows up and Bernadette Peters starts her fallen woman arc. Until that point, it seems like Potter’s dialogue just isn’t catching. But then all of a sudden Peters makes it breathtaking and it’s clear the problem’s a combination of Martin, Ross, and Potter, not Peters or Harper.

The film’s well-aware it’s about how being a woman is lousy—Peters gets seduced and knocked up by married Martin, who then abandons her multiple times, and finally ends up hooking. Harper—who manages to be the character with the least agency in the film, which is something because Martin’s got almost nil—is the cold fish preacher’s daughter wife who won’t give Martin enough sex or the money to start his store. Even though Martin humiliates her and then some cops humiliate her later on, Harper’s never presented sympathetically. If only she gave him some sugar (or the money sooner), look what might’ve been avoided.

Because somehow when it comes time to address Martin’s exploitation and mental abuse and manipulation, the movie just skips it. He’s the hero, after all, the dreamer who can’t find his American Dream. Again, it’s a combination of script, acting, and directing. Pennies from Heaven is only going to work if Martin’s transcendent.

And he’s not. Worse, he’s markedly better during the musical numbers than the dramatic, which makes the dramatic feel like a strange stagy vanity project, but one where he’s unenthusiastic about it too.

Nothing is worse than unenthusiastic vanity projects. Yes, he’s got the enthusiasm for the musical numbers—which disappear during at least twenty minutes of the film; it gives Peters a chance for some great acting in a middling film, but it also all drags. Her character’s ostensibly obsessed with Martin but he’s clearly a doofus. Yes, she’s supposed to be all in because of some kind of animal magnetism but… Martin hasn’t got any. The film cheating Harper out of getting rid of him at some point is a disservice to the work she put into her performance.

Wondrous photography from Gordon Willis—maybe thirty percent of Ross’s shots are good and there are some way too stagy ones—but Willis makes them all work. The film’s gorgeous.

Great dancing from Peters, Walken, and Vernel Bagneris (who’s got the majorly thankless part of the forgotten man). But he’s also really vile man. The only guy who’s not criminally creepy in Pennies from Heaven is Francis X. McCarthy, who plays a kindly bartender.

The end seems like it’s going to flop, then seems like it’ll do the right thing, but then it turns out doing the right thing is the wrong thing for the film anyway. Because it just isn’t going to work out. It just can’t.

Shame to waste the truly spectacular Peters performance.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Herbert Ross; screenplay by Dennis Potter, based on his BBC television serial; director of photography, Gordon Willis; edited by Richard Marks; production designer, Philip Harrison; costume designer, Bob Mackie; produced by Nora Kaye and Herbert Ross; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Steve Martin (Arthur), Bernadette Peters (Eileen), Jessica Harper (Joan), Vernel Bagneris (The Accordion Man), John McMartin (Mr. Warner), John Karlen (The Detective), Jay Garner (The Banker), Robert Fitch (Al), Tommy Rall (Ed), Eliska Krupka (The Blind Girl), and Christopher Walken (Tom).


Suspiria (1977, Dario Argento)

For most of its runtime, Suspiria builds. It increases suspense, it increases terror, it increases discomfort. Director Argento and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli shoot these long shots with slightly fish-eyed backgrounds. Combined with Giuseppe Bassan’s jawdroppingly awesome production design, the film gives the impression of having no depth. No perspective. The actors move in front of these flat backgrounds, which they may or may not interact with. It’s beyond creepy; it controls the narrative distance but also the narrative possibility. How can lead Jessica Harper interact in three dimension space if the shot is her in the foreground, but the background is flat.

Then she does and the discomfort increases. Not in the narrative, not through the off-putting Goblin (and Argento) score, but because she’s moving into a space where she shouldn’t be able to move. It takes time, each time, to readjust. Just a couple seconds, which is more than enough time for Argento to move on to the next discomfort acceleration.

He also plays with depth a little in the first half of the film. Foreground is sometimes less important than background, even though foreground takes up most of the frame. Then there are all the colors. Harper moves through a world of color, most often red (though blue eventually becomes big); red is, of course, the color of blood. It’s also the color of danger in Suspiria, something Harper doesn’t recognize, but the viewer does. It’s all about unsettling the viewer and Argento succeeds at it, scene by scene, frame by frame, for more than half of the film.

Then he gets impatient. He also relies way too much on Stefania Casini, who plays Harper’s friend. Casini is an inexplicable busybody, something Harper can’t quite acknowledge because it turns out she’s being doped into tranquility. They’re both students at an elite German dance school. Harper has just arrived. The film opens with her getting to school and seeing another student run away, out into a torrential thunderstorm.

That student (Eva Axén) ends up brutally murdered, something the viewer sees (along with a lot of Argento and Tovoli’s perspective flattening and a lot of blood), but Harper doesn’t. She’s just slightly bewildered by Axén’s behavior. Slightly. She’s got the intense dance school to deal with. There’s strict instructor Alida Valli (in an awesome performance) and abrupt headmistress Joan Bennett (in a decent, but certainly not awesome, smaller part), not to mention possible love interest Miguel Bosé. The non-teaching staff of the school is all peculiar Eastern Europeans (Harper’s a New Yorker) and Harper’s classmates range from snippy to downright vicious mean girls. Casini is the only nice one. But she too has her secrets.

Instead of returning to a calm after Axén’s murder, weird occurrences keep getting weirder and more deadly around the school. It’s one of the problems with Argento and Daria Nicolodi’s script. It makes no sense how the place could function without incident. Especially if Bennett is going to keep letting in busybodies like Casini and Axén.

More problematic is how Argento’s style changes as the film moves along. His composition is always strong, Tovoli’s photography is always good, Franco Fraticelli’s editing is always good, but once the film starts into exposition, Argento stops relying on the visuals. Harper’s story–getting to this weird school, being a fish out of water, getting sick–doesn’t have anything particularly ominous about it. Argento’s direction–and the narrative distance, which reveals quite a bit to the viewer (though not everything–like why does the creepy little German kid force an altercation with blind staff pianist Flavio Bucci’s guide dog)–they make Suspiria creepy. The music makes Suspiria unsettling. Not Harper’s story. She’s just naive.

When the film does shift its focus, just for a while, to Casini, things start going off track. Repeated, inexplicable stupidity mars an otherwise solid chase sequence. The pace changes. The script’s calls for suspension of disbelief get bigger; Argento has no time for gradual. Contrived becomes good enough.

He still lets Harper have a good performance, he and Nicolodi just don’t care about giving her a good character arc. The third act is a breathless race to the finish line, with Suspiria stopping instead of ending. It goes out on a shrug, Goblin and Argento’s score no longer one of the film’s greatest assets but its primary encumbrance. The film never recovers from making Casini the lead, even for five or ten minutes. Suspiria’s all dubbed–Harper, Bennett, Valli doing their lines for the English version–and it’s unclear if Casini’s performance is the fault of her or her voice actor. Even if she were better, her material’s all crap. After forty minutes of precise filmmaking and writing, Argento lets it go to pot.

The film does recover somewhat and, with a stronger finale, it would’ve been fine. But the finale’s not strong–and gets weaker as it progresses–leaving Suspiria a phenomenal exercise in filmmaking. And a disappointing contrivance as a film.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Dario Argento; screenplay by Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi, based on a book by Thomas De Quincey; director of photography, Luciano Tovoli; edited by Franco Fraticelli; music by Goblin and Dario Argento; production designer, Giuseppe Bassan; produced by Claudio Argento; released by Produzioni Atlas Consorziate.

Starring Jessica Harper (Suzy Bannion), Stefania Casini (Sara), Alida Valli (Miss Tanner), Miguel Bosé (Mark), Flavio Bucci (Daniel), Udo Kier (Dr. Frank Mandel), Eva Axén (Pat Hingle), Jacopo Mariani (Albert), and Joan Bennett (Madame Blanc).


Phantom of the Paradise (1974, Brian De Palma)

Phantom of the Paradise has all the trappings of a failed passion project, only not a lot of passion for the project. Director De Palma, with a couple notable exceptions, doesn’t have much interest in directing a musical. When I say couple, I mean two–there are two scenes where he seems to care about directing the musical scenes. One of them is amusing, the other is breathtaking. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t have much else to offer.

Except the soundtrack, I suppose. Paul Williams’s songs are fantastic.

Williams also stars in the film. He’s the “sold his soul to the Devil” music producer. William Finley is the guy who ends up selling his soul to Williams. Jessica Harper is the ingenue. De Palma’s script is an unfortunate mix of Phantom of the Opera, Faust and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Oh, and the Whale Frankenstein. It’s all over the place.

It’s very much a comedy, but very much a desperately unfunny one. Finley gets run through a slapstick wringer and takes actual damage from it. Williams’s character is one note. There’s occasionally some humor from it being Williams, but De Palma and cinematographer Larry Pizer aren’t satisfied just having an absurd script, they want absurd camera lens and movements and so on. At the beginning of the film, it seems like it’s all editor Paul Hirsch’s fault for not putting it together right, but no, there’s just no way to make it fit.

Harper’s pretty good though. Her singing audition is the one scene De Palma nails. He does a phenomenal job with it. He doesn’t do a phenomenal job once she gets the part and sings for an audience because De Palma directs those scenes poorly.

Also amusing is Gerrit Graham. He at least tries to be funny. The other comedic actors (Finley, George Memmoli as Williams’s sidekick)… well, if they’re trying to be funny, they’re failing. Hopefully they weren’t trying too hard.

At ninety minutes, Phantom overstays its welcome. Once it’s clear De Palma isn’t going to deliver on the musical numbers or the metaphor (and those failures are obvious when Harper ceases to have a character to play, just places to walk in front of the camera), it gets even more tiring.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Brian De Palma; director of photography, Larry Pizer; edited by Paul Hirsch; music by Paul Williams; production designer, Jack Fisk; produced by Edward R. Pressman; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring William Finley (Winslow Leach), Paul Williams (Swan), Jessica Harper (Phoenix), Gerrit Graham (Beef) and George Memmoli (Arnold Philbin).


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