Since starting this blog, although it has no regular readers except my mother and my friends Andy and Carly, I have started thinking “What do I write about this?” throughout entire movies. This is unhealthy and leads to joylessly expending too much focus on things which may be objectively interesting but which I don’t enjoy. To break that habit, let’s address three TCM movies that did not seem very good, but were good enough to watch while reading something else and occasionally leaving the room.
Cause for Alarm! [Tay Garnett, 1951]
There are a couple of bloggers [John Greco, Michael Troutman] citing this as a classic of non-hardboiled, suburban suspense. As someone who doesn’t know much about black-and-white suspense thrillers except the words “noir” and “Hitchcock”, that should be interesting. And I hate to criticize something for looking too cheap [and being too cheap — filmed in 2 weeks in about four rooms, plus an excursion to the beach], but that’s how this movie lost me. Which may be a male-chauvinist response. I love films like Detour, D.O.A., and He Walked By Night, where the low budget and limited soundtrack conveys the grittiness of the setting and the protagonist’s lack of options. But when the protagonist is played by Loretta Young, an extremely likeable actress who would later be famous for wearing sumptuous ball gowns while introducing morally edifying vignettes on her eponymous TV show, I can’t embrace the suspense. Would this woman live on such a cheap set? Aren’t these stock characters [the unsympathetic cop, the continually friendly ex-suitor and now-friend] too one-note to really exist? Why can’t I identify with her as the trapped protagonist, when I identified with Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark? Do I need a “woman’s picture” to be visually interesting or cleverly written, while I have no such standards for a movie about Edmond O’Brien?
Cause for Alarm! is set in Dennis the Menace or Beaver Cleaver’s neighborhood, and Young’s protagonist Ellen is one of his mom’s friends, though without any children of her own. We see a flashback to her single days during the war, and it’s clear that this is a cautionary tale about what happens when you marry the charismatic and unpredictable guy [Barry Sullivan] instead of the stable Ralph Bellamy type. If he becomes bedridden from some mysterious disease, his self-confidence will vanish completely and he’ll become paranoid about what she’s doing when she’s not with her no-long-exciting husband.
The synopsis on TCM’s website really boils it down:
A woman fights to intercept a letter in which her husband tries to prove her guilty of murder.
The dropdown description when it comes on on TV is even better. I think I memorized it:
Loretta Young spends almost the entire film trying to retrieve an incriminating letter.
And that would probably have been a better movie, or more interesting, than this one, in which she doesn’t become aware of the letter until about halfway through. I think it’s an exercise in making people feel sympathy for Loretta Young, as she’s emotionally victimized, first mildly without realizing that it’s intentional, then intensely after she figures out the depth of George’s psychosis, and then even more intensely after she’s suspected of murder as a result of said paranoid letter. I don’t know much about Loretta Young, but I know she was one of America’s top sweethearts and this film may have been to 1951 what, say, Stepmon was to 1998 [See Julia Roberts try to be nice! See Julia Roberts treated abominably! How can they do that to her?]. It’s hard not to feel manipulated, and it’s also hard not to be sure there will be a deus ex machina. But still, there aren’t many films in this sort of setting that have this sort of intense noir-style [hapless protagonist gets into no-win situation through no fault of his own, makes the situation worse] plot. Bosley Crowther certainly thought it was something new.
I Thank a Fool [Robert Stevens, 1962]
Susan Hayward: a woman synonymous with the three-handkerchief melodrama. Peter Finch: not a man best suited for romantic comedies. A Peter Finch character should be the last honest man, or the last angry man, or someone who thinks he’s figured out the world but doesn’t trust others with this information, or someone who just cannot believe everyone else’s nonsense and wants to be left alone. Here they are in a small, restrained thriller about a crazy woman [Diane Cilento, shortly before marrying Sean Connery] and how she got that way. Both have many opportunities to look around with confused disappointment; this is definitely Finch’s forte, but as Crowther spends most of his review pointing out, Hayward may be better suited to participating in histrionics than observing them sadly like the nursemaid Finch’s character unethically hires her to be. Director Stevens [In the Cool of the Day, 42 Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes] falls into the Cause for Alarm! pattern of making us meditate at length on how our poor heroine is being mistreated by these malefactors.
The presence of Hayward and Finch makes I Thank A Fool [why is it called that?] seem more important than it is. It’s sort of in the tragic thriller mold of Gone Baby Gone or In The Bedroom, where everyone has a good reason for keeping their secrets, but that dishonesty leads to their downfall. It’s not exactly an action-packed story, compared to those two films, and when something exciting happens or gothic details are revealed, it seems like it detracts from the somber human drama. It’s like if Double Jeopardy was set largely in one house starring Cate Blanchett and Joaquin Phoenix. Just no fun.
The story: Winnipeg-born doctor [Hayward] goes to prison and is disbarred from medicine [does the word “disbarred” apply to medicine?] for allegedly euthanizing her lover, based on the energetically contemptuous prosecution of Peter Finch and the testimony of a heavily Liverpool-accented nursemaid. A surprisingly short courtroom scene is followed by a van ride with some prostitutes, no scenes inside the prison at all, and a fruitless job search with an FPS-ish focus on the back of her head. A mysterious aunt recruits her for charity work that turns out to be taking care of Finch’s supposedly mentally damaged wife Liane [Cilento], who longs to return to Ireland. Why does he hire her? Does he feel bad about prosecuting her? She certainly doesn’t trust him. After one idyllic day in his sunny, gloomy and secluded house reminiscent of The Deadly Bees, her worries grow about whether this isolation is good for Liane. Her sympathy grows when Liane’s charming father [Cyril Cusack] arrives, and the two women sneak off to Ireland, with unhappy results.
Diane Cilento [the schoolmistress in The Wicker Man] seems born to play a flighty and impulsive woman with little self-esteem. Cyril Cusack exaggerates both sides of his character, striding about the room in a stately fashion as if he’s under the proscenium arch. He’s convincing as the impishly charming gentleman failing to hide his secret sorrow, even with the handicap of not having a charming Irish accent. Cusack actually was Irish, but he sounds like Sir Ralph Richardson compared to the brooding Irish farmhand [Kieron Moore] or the small-town lawyer/coroner [J.G. Devlin]. Near the end of the film Devlin introduces some fresh air to this somber affair, with the actor having fun with his dialogue and the lawyer having fun with his unaccustomed power over the visitors.
Though it’s a muted treatment of the sort of plot that would take up a fragment of a Thomas Hardy novel, I Thank a Fool contains hints of something hip and interesting. The opening credits, for one, look like a series of Blue Note album jackets. You can see pre-Beatles teddy boys in the few scenes of downtown Liverpool, set to energetic music. And this is the rare film that surprised me by having an inconclusive ending. We spend the whole movie knowing exactly what Susan Hayward’s character knows, every plot detail is put plainly in front of us, and then at the end…well, we still know what she knows, and she’s confused. I may be a stupid old woopid but I was not clear who, if anyone, was guilty at the end, or who was happy or relieved. It’s a realistically messy return to daily life.
The Extraordinary Seaman [John Frankenheimer, 1969]
Oh, boy. It’s hard to know where to begin, because this movie does everything wrong. If I didn’t know John Frankenheimer was under 40 at the time and had just made several massive hits, I’d think this was one of those films like Skidoo, in which directors and producers whose heyday was long past tried to construct a hippie-friendly edifice of nonsensical rebellion from old-Hollywood material. Although frankly, unlike Mae West in Sextette or Jackie Gleason in Skidoo, David Niven, almost 60, is the only actor who has an idea what the point of his character is or what the movie is doing. This is in a cast with Faye Dunaway and [in his first starring role, though it came out after Paper Lion] Alan Alda! Mickey Rooney and funnyman Jack Carter have the other major parts, along with Manu Topou as the hulking Native American who never talks.
Information about this movie’s origin is not easy to find, on the internet at least. Wikipedia reports, citing Charles Champlin’s Frankheimer interview book, that the director called Extraordinary Seaman “the only movie I’ve made which I would say was a total disaster.” That’s a lot more information than can be found on the Wikipedia pages of any of its stars. TCM may have the only extensive description out there. It describes an almost Gilliam-level troubled production, but still, it’s hard to imagine how this could have become a good movie.
Let’s presume that it started out as a sort of magical realist story about Niven’s character. Commander Finchhaven claims that he roams the earth, dead but not a ghost, until he can accomplish the warlike endeavor that will let him rest in peace. He talks to his ancestors, he has a fantastic sense of duty and propriety about some things while ignoring others, and he has certain supernatural powers but no real ability to impose his will on people. He’s a fascinating character. Does anybody in the movie notice?
It’s World War II, in the Philippines, and he’s been waiting for an opportunity, in his little ship the Curmudgeon, for 25 years or so. The peacetime adventures of the Curmudgeon and Finchhaven are mentioned in an off-hand reminiscence, possibly were intended to make up a significant portion of the movie, and could have been entertaining. I can imagine a story involving other fantastical elements, and I can imagine a story in which the extraordinary seaman encounters real-life characters of various types. The movie itself is an encounter between him and a band of US navy misfits led by Alda, their response to him is as muted as you could possibly imagine, and the whole thing lasts less than 80 minutes, including a dozen pieces of stock footage.
Writers are Phillip Rock [no other credits of note] and Hal Dressner [The Eiger Sanction, Sssssss, the “Catch-22” sitcom pilot]. Mickey Rooney and funnyman Jack Carter don’t establish any character traits. They look confused, and they mutter to each other. Alda’s character is confused as well, but his no-nonsense determination, whether in the service of something useful or something pointless, is just what Finchhaven has been waiting for all these years. The things that happen in the movie are so unfunny that it’s almost impressive that its simple story proceeds with so few tangents. Even Niven, who makes the character convincing, is bound by the script and doesn’t do anything spontaneous.
I can’t figure out what Faye Dunaway is doing here. She plays the super-competent woman who’s secretly indispensible if they want to accomplish anything, she orders everyone around when she wants, and one of the many frustrations at this film’s lack of an ending is when she doesn’t turn out to have any goal in mind.
Look at these two posters and try to figure out what The Extraordinary Seaman was supposed to be. Somewhere between The Deer Hunter and Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, presumably. It certainly accomplishes that!
The baffled actors and the Point-A-to-Point-A script only make the film intriguingly boring. What makes it infuriating is the whole ironic anti-war satire thing. The characters’ mundane struggles are juxtaposed with wartime training and propaganda films, showing you how out-of-touch the military spokesmen and bureaucracy are, in their dream of perfect competence. This happens over and over in scene after scene.
Some of this is interesting, especially when the physical actions of our characters are similar to those in the propaganda clips. Most of it is annoying. Yes, show us the woman unable to break a champagne bottle at the launch of a ship — that’s a nice unsubtle metaphor for the way plans go wrong from the start. Don’t show it to us so many times! What on earth are you thinking? What is this, the Ludovico technique?
The non-stock-footage parts of the film are likewise full of Sousa and other martial music. This would make sense in a light-hearted movie about the wacky exploits of Commander Finchhaven. Here the irony is just overbearing. The only thing I got out of The Extraordinary Seaman was a sense of confusion that it was made well before M*A*S*H, of which it seems to be a cynical imitation. This is just a reminder that although M*A*S*H may have been groundbreaking in its style, anti-war films of an almost nihilist level of satire were well established by the late sixties.