William Prince

The Stepford Wives (1975, Bryan Forbes)

The Stepford Wives puts in for a major suspension of disbelief request in the second scene–what is Katharine Ross doing married to Peter Masterson. They’ve gone from being a somewhat posh New York couple to a New York couple with kids and so they’re moving to Connecticut. Lawyer Masterson is going to take the train in to town while aspiring photographer Ross hangs around in the country, ostensibly taking care of the kids.

Ostensibly because they disappear for the most part, even though they ought to be around all the time, yet aren’t. Not keeping track of the kids, except when they need to be around for emphasis or plot contrivance, is one of director Forbes and screenwriter William Goldman’s fails. It’s one of their joint fails. Both have their own personal fails. It’s not even one of their major joint fails. It’s one of the “oh, yeah, they forgot about this subplot” fails. There are many.

Ross is bored in the small town. She doesn’t have anything in common with the other wives, who seem solely interested in keeping a tidy houses for their hard-working men. And, right away, Masterson joins the town’s men’s club and starts spending every night with the boys. In their big scary restored mansion (more in it in a bit).

Luckily, Ross soon finds the other new “Stepford Wives”, starting with Paula Prentiss. They’re fast friends who, after consulting with another new-to-town wife, Tina Louise, decide to start a women’s group. Except it turns out all the other women have to complain about is not having enough time to clean their houses, which Ross, Prentiss, and presumably Louise (who gets one of the lousier roles in a movie with an endless supply) all find peculiar.

Meanwhile, at home, Masterson is drinking all the time but loving hanging out with the boys. The boys–Josef Sommer, Franklin Cover, and George Coe–are a bunch of bores. Creepy silver fox Patrick O’Neal runs the club. He used to work at Disney. The other guys all work in cutting edge technology. William Prince, playing a retired pin-up artist, is the only one with any social skills. Masterson only drinks to excess in private, like he’s got something to hide from Ross.

Not to entirely spoil the movie, but it’s because he and his friends are plotting to murder Ross. It’s not like Stepford isn’t in the dictionary. The “twist” is a whole other thing I don’t even want to talk about. It’s not undercooked, it’s raw; there’s a lot of undercooked material in Stepford, but the twist hasn’t even been in the oven. Not the way Forbes and Goldman want to do it. Apparently they disagreed on the ending and Forbes got his way, but even if Goldman had it his way, it wouldn’t make up for the awful character development throughout the film informing it.

Masterson’s kind of mean to Ross. There aren’t any good men in Stepford, which is fine and accurate, but Masterson’s still too much of a jerk right off the bat. He’s such a trollish jerk, it’s hard to believe he’s a lawyer. He’s not a jerk in the right ways. It’s also hard to believe he and Ross ever had chemistry. In the first act, before the murder plot, he thinks he’s piggishly charming, even though Ross never positively responds to him. Goldman entirely slacks off on Masterson’s character establishment and development.

Masterson doesn’t transcend the material. It’s also not entirely the material’s fault. Maybe it’s just the casting director’s fault. Or just Forbes’s fault. Forbes has a shockingly bad handle on the material.

There’s satire and commentary about commercialism–at times–in Stepford Wives. Goldman usually comes up with adequate material and then Forbes utterly flops on it when directing the scene and the actors’ performances. You can see where the joke ought to be in Stepford, but instead of getting there, you watch Forbes repeatedly miss it.

The only excellent performance in the film is Ross. She’s outstanding. She’s got a crappy, underdeveloped character who can’t keep track of her kids, doesn’t have a believable “art” arc in her photography, and is inexplicably married to a jackass, but Ross is outstanding. The one thing Forbes does right is let Ross be alone. It’s no good once Forbes is trying generate scares–in that aforementioned scary mansion–but when it’s just Ross existing in a moment, it’s great. Ross is acting in a far better film than Stepford Wives. She’s just doing it in Stepford Wives.

Prentiss is likable but not good. She’s funny and seems to have a better handle on how to do the satire scenes than Forbes; she’s the only one who doesn’t look lost. But who knows because Forbes is hesitant to let the Wives act against one another too much in the same shot. He avoids those shots, preferring two Wives at a time in close-ups.

Paula Trueman is also fun. She apparently runs the town newspaper, or at least writes for it. She’s got a lousy part as it turns out. It’s like Goldman adapted the source novel without reading it. He never establishes continuity of behavior in the supporting cast. Trueman’s character doesn’t even get a name, even though the character–and actor–are a couple of the film’s stronger assets.

Otherwise the performances are basically just adequate. Even Louise, who gets a crap part, is just adequate. She just has more wasted potential than some of the other Wives, principally Nanette Newman. Newman is Ross’s neighbor who Ross never gets to meet without Prentiss being along because Newman has nooners with her husband. Is it for sure her husband? It’s worse if it is Sommer than if it isn’t, actually. There’s an extreme (and unexplored) connotation if it’s the latter, but if it’s the former… well, it’d be another of those major joint fails for Forbes and Goldman. Because even though the movie’s supposed to be satirical, Forbes doesn’t do metaphor. Even if it’s in the script. Forbes skips it.

I’m going a little longer than Wives deserves–unless one’s talking at length about Ross’s performance–but I do need to get to the finale. It’s like they ran out of money and decided to do a haunted house sequence. Because haunted houses always get scares. Except Owen Roizman doesn’t shoot Stepford like a thriller, he shoots it like a seventies drama. Michael Small’s score is for a seventies drama; mostly. When it’s trying for the horror, it’s for a bad horror movie. The music goes from one of the film’s pluses to minuses real fast.

So Forbes stumbles through the finale, which has Ross running from her fate. There’s no closure for Ross’s character arcs, not even the hint the character arcs have occurred. In fact, the finale gives one of the bad guys a monologue describing Ross to her. It’d be nice the monologue, which seems to greatly affect her, actually matched her character she’d been playing for the previous 110 minutes.

But it’s also a badly directed finale in a constrained set. It’s a bad, boring set and Forbes has no ideas for it. The movie deserves better. Ross deserves much better. She keeps Stepford afloat all by herself. Even as Forbes and Goldman try to sink it from under her.

The Stepford Wives is a peculiar, if predictable, fail.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Bryan Forbes; screenplay by William Goldman, based on the novel by Ira Levin; director of photography, Owen Roizman; edited by Timothy Gee; music by Michael Small; production designer, Gene Callahan; produced by Edgar J. Scherick; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Katharine Ross (Joanna Eberhart), Peter Masterson (Walter Eberhart), Paula Prentiss (Bobbie Markowe), Patrick O’Neal (Dale Coba), Tina Louise (Charmaine Wimpiris), Nanette Newman (Carol Van Sant), Paula Trueman (Welcome Wagon Lady), George Coe (Claude Axhelm), Josef Sommer (Ted Van Sant), Franklin Cover (Ed Wimpiris), Neil Brooks Cunningham (Dave Markowe), Carol Eve Rossen (Dr. Fancher), William Prince (Ike Mazzard), and Robert Fields (Raymond Chandler).


Second Sight (1989, Joel Zwick)

There are some funny lines in Second Sight. Not many, but some. And they’re good, laugh out loud lines. It’d be hard for John Larroquette, reacting to Bronson Pinchot acting like an idiot, not to get some laughs.

The whole thing feels like a “what I did on summer hiatus” for Larroquette and Pinchot. It’s impossible not to think about their television series when watching the film, though the Boston location shooting does help. Director Zwick is rather boring, but the film’s visibly shot on location, so regardless of his inability, the film does have a fair amount of texture.

Stuart Pankin rounds out the trio–Pinchot’s the wacky guy, Larroquette’s the straight man (just like their TV shows) and Pankin’s sort of the second straight man. He’s mostly support for Pinchot, but manages to have a bigger role. Pinchot does voices, acts goofy and does manage to be funny a couple times. Larroquette’s somewhat sturdy, a character actor thrown into a leading man role. He’s competent.

What Second Sight does right (rhyme unintentional) is portray Pinchot’s psychic abilities (complete with possessions and magic) as matter-of-fact. There’s no discovery of them, they’re real and they’re acknowledged. It makes Larroquette reacting to them a lot funnier.

The movie gets a little tired when it’s handling the case (they’re private investigators) but it’s genial enough as a bland comedy. Bess Armstrong, John Schuck and Christine Estabrook are fine in supporting roles.

A better director probably would have helped a lot.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Joel Zwick; written by Tom Schulman and Patricia Resnick; director of photography, Dana Christiaansen; edited by David Ray; music by John Morris; production designer, James L. Schoppe; produced by Mark Tarlov; released by Warner Bros.

Starring John Larroquette (Wills), Bronson Pinchot (Bobby), Bess Armstrong (Sister Elizabeth), Stuart Pankin (Preston Pickett Ph.D.), John Schuck (Manoogian), James Tolkan (Coolidge), William Prince (Cardinal O’Hara), Michael Lombard (Bishop O’Linn), Christine Estabrook (Priscilla Pickett) and Marisol Massey (Maria).


Spies Like Us (1985, John Landis)

Spies Like Us ought to be better. The problem is the length. Well, the main problem is the length. Donna Dixon having a big role is another problem.

The movie’s just too short. At 100 minutes, it actually should be just the right length, but there’s a lot Landis skirts over because he doesn’t have enough time.

Unfortunately, a lot of the abbrievated sequences could have laughs–the film’s front-heavy when it comes to laughs. The last act is still amusing, but it doesn’t have anything like the funnier moments from the rest of the film.

The plotting just doesn’t work–the screenwriters are never able to make Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd funny when they get to the Soviet Union. One problem is Dixon–she’s an unfunny third wheel–but they’re also isolated in the wilderness. Not a lot of material around.

The film has some hilarious scenes–Chase disastrously cheating for a test is great and he’s fine as a slacker moron who lucks his way into things. But in the second half, the film plays up his stupidity while establishing Aykroyd is smarter as a fake spy than many real ones. Landis never concentrates on that situation, but it’s obvious.

There’s a lot of good acting. Unfortunately, Bernie Casey isn’t as good as I expected. But Bruce Davison is great as a slimy bureaucrat.

Landis’s direction is solid if unspectacular. The film’s always racing to something, so he never gets to rest.

Decent Elmer Bernstein score too.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by John Landis; screenplay by Dan Aykroyd, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, based on a story by Aykroyd and Dave Thomas; director of photography, Robert Paynter; edited by Malcolm Campbell; music by Elmer Bernstein; production designers, Terry Ackland-Snow and Peter Murton; produced by George Folsey Jr. and Brian Grazer; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Chevy Chase (Emmett Fitz-Hume), Dan Aykroyd (Austin Millbarge), Steve Forrest (General Sline), Donna Dixon (Karen Boyer), Bruce Davison (Ruby), Bernie Casey (Colonel Rhumbus), William Prince (Keyes) and Tom Hatten (General Miegs).


The Gauntlet (1977, Clint Eastwood)

I think I watched The Gauntlet for masochistic reasons, namely screenwriters Michael Butler and Dennis Shryack, the late 1970s, early 1980s version of Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner–incompetent Hollywood writers. Even so, the film’s not wholly terrible. It’s rarely exciting, just because the action sequences are so poorly written, and Clint approaches the whole thing with a sense of boredom. His character’s real shallow and the film would barely work if it weren’t for Sondra Locke and Eastwood’s chemistry. Locke’s actually got some really good moments–which is hard, considering how bad her character is written for the first half or so–including a great monologue comparing hookers and cops. In the later half of the film, once the two of them improbably fall in love, there’s even a neat idea of a scene, but again the writing kills it.

About fifteen minutes into The Gauntlet, I realized it was not dissimilar to Clint’s earlier, Coogan’s Bluff, but the greatest difference between the two is that lack of interest I mentioned before. Clint shoots this one in lots of long shots, concentrating on the physicality of the situations and not the characters, as though if he did, the characters might have to realize the absurdity of their situation. So it isn’t just the script making the character shallow, it’s also Clint’s direction of himself–those long shots make the character empty. His performance is sort of broad. When he’s interested, he acts; when he’s not, he’s on autopilot.

The supporting cast is fantastic–William Prince, Pat Hingle, and Michael Cavanaugh are all good. The names in the movie are some of the most absurd I’ve heard: Blakelock, Feyderspiel, Shockley. The actors stumble over them with a lot of trouble–audible trouble, which sometimes makes the more boring scenes funny. An interesting, IMDb-fueled note: this film reunites Clint with Mara Corday. They both appeared in Tarantula twenty-two years earlier, though they didn’t have any scenes together (and Clint wasn’t credited). That bit of trivia–and the possibility of a story behind it–is more interesting than anything in The Gauntlet, except, I suppose, my newfound regard for Sondra Locke’s acting ability.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Clint Eastwood; screenplay by Michael Butler and Dennis Shryack; director of photography, Rexford Metz; edited by Ferris Webster and Joel Cox; music by Jerry Fielding; produced by Robert Daley; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Clint Eastwood (Ben Shockley), Sondra Locke (Gus Mally), Pat Hingle (Josephson), William Prince (Blakelock), Bill McKinney (Constable), Michael Cavanaugh (Feyderspiel), Carole Cock (Waitress), Mara Corday (Jail matron), Douglas McGrath (Bookie) and Jeff Morris (Desk Sergeant).


The Very Thought of You (1944, Delmer Daves)

Delmer Daves–for someone whose directing occasionally makes me cover my eyes in fright–does an all right job with The Very Thought of You. He has these tight close-ups and, while there are only a few of them, they work out quick well. Otherwise, technically speaking, he doesn’t have many tricks. He’s on the low end of proficient and I kept thinking, as I watched the film, what a better director could have done with the material, since the film’s so strong.

There isn’t much internal conflict in The Very Thought of You. World War II applies pressure on the characters, pushing them into conflicted situations, which gives the film a nice lightness. It gets slow occasionally, since the only foreseeable suspense throughout is Dennis Morgan’s character getting killed in battle–except he and Eleanor Parker have multiple goodbyes, only to get to see each other again before he goes off. The first act is loaded with good scenes and great conversations and, while the second doesn’t have as many, it has enough the pacing doesn’t get too bothersome.

I suppose the film is propaganda, but it’s incredibly light propaganda if it is–a shot here or there, an extra line of dialogue. Morgan looks like a leading man, but he’s probably the weakest actor in the film. I’ve seen it before but didn’t remember much and I was worried he’d be expected to carry it. Instead, Parker’s got an awful family–Beulah Bondi and Andrea King remind of wicked characters from a fairy tale and both are excellent. Obviously, Parker needs some support in the family scenes, so Henry Travers is her understanding father and does some nice work. Georgia Lee Settle is her precocious little sister and she’s good too. The 4F brother, played by John Alvin, also does some good work. The family scenes are most of the best written ones, since they have visible conflict. The other good scenes are the ones with Parker and Faye Emerson and the ones with Dane Clark as the comic relief (with a heart of gold). The romance between Morgan and Parker–the majority of the film takes place over two days–has all off-screen conflict and, though it’s the subject of the film, one just takes it for granted and engages with the rest.

The film is well-made (though there’s mediocre direction–with a few exceptions) and it’s nice and a pleasant viewing experience. Still, without any conflict and any real suspense, it’s a chore to maintain interest. It’s rewarding, but still a chore.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Delmer Daves; screenplay by Alvah Bessie and Daves, from a story by Lionel Wiggam; director of photography, Bert Glennon; edited by Alan Crosland Jr.; music by Franz Waxman; produced by Jerry Wald; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Dennis Morgan (Sgt. David Stewart), Eleanor Parker (Janet Wheeler), Dane Clark (Sgt. ‘Fixit’ Gilman), Faye Emerson (Cora ‘Cuddles’ Colton), Beulah Bondi (Mrs. Harriet Wheeler), Henry Travers (Pop Wheeler), William Prince (Fred), Andrea King (Molly Wheeler), John Alvin (Cal Wheeler), Marianne O’Brien (Bernice), Georgia Lee Settle (Ellie Wheeler), Richard Erdman (Soda Jerk) and Francis Pierlot (Minister Raymond Houck).


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