Bedroom Eyes. Literally.

9 Oct

 

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This is the original 1-sheet for 1987’s The Bedroom Window, directed by the recently passed Curtis Hanson, and starring Steve Guttenberg, Isabelle Huppert (l-r, in foreground) and Elizabeth McGovern (in background). The movie was one of a relative few, that also included Blue Velvet, Crimes of the Heart, and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, produced and released through Dino De Laurentis’ short-lived American mini studio, De Laurentis Entertainment Group. (IMAGE:  Wikipedia.)

A hotshot young architect woos the glamorous wife of his  well connected boss one night at a party. The attraction is mutual, and the two slip away for a tryst at the young man’s comfortable, spacious apartment overlooking a historic park in Baltimore. As their encounter concludes, the man excuses himself to an adjoining room, and his married lover peers out the bedroom window, jolted by the sight–and sounds–of a woman struggling to get away from her attacker, a scary looking brute with piercing eyes and a shock of red hair. A duck tail no less. [Is his red hair meant as some sort of signifier, OR is it a form of convenience for the writer to make the character register visually? Not clear.]   From the bedroom window, the woman panics, creating enough of a distraction for the victim to break free from her assailant. Alas, all is still not well as the lovers soon discover that shortly after thwarting one attack, a similar incident, one with a deadly outcome, was perpetrated not to far from the previous occurrence. Our lovers feel the pang of guilt, knowing that the married woman saw enough to identify the perpetrator but is not willing to divulge the circumstances, lest she jeopardize her cushy domestic situation. In what seems like a good idea for only 5 minutes or so, the young architect decides to contact the police and relay’s his lover’s version of events as his own. After all, he really only intends to provide a description of the attacker, not much more. How does it all go so wrong? Well, of course, the attacker knows that the man is lying.  During the first tussle, he got a good look at the woman in the window. Of course, he can’t tell the police that without incriminating himself, so he has to take other measures; meanwhile, the detectives on the case have their doubts as well. Also, what about the woman who actually got away? She never saw her attacker’s face–he grabbed her from behind–but she might know more about the architect and his story than even she’s likely to admit to the police.

Writer-director-producer Curtis Hanson (l), an Oscar winner for co-scripting 1997’s L.A. Confidential, which he also directed, passed away on September 20, 2016, yet another casualty of dementia which also claimed the life of Charmian Carr, forever known as lovely Liesl from 1965’s blockbuster, The Sound of Music, the same week. Hanson was 71 at the time; Carr only 73.  Hanson had worked steadily in Hollywood for years before L.A. Confidential bolstered his profile. Adapted from James Ellroy’s noirish tome about police corruption and Hollywood’s seamy underside, circa 1950, and with a cast that includes Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, and Kevin Spacey, L.A. Confidential dazzled critics and earned 9 Oscar nominations (second only to Titanic during the 97/98 Oscar race), ultimately netting Best Supporting Actress honors for Kim Basinger (r), as a tempting Veronica Lake lookalike, in addition to the aforementioned honors accorded to Hanson and co-screenwriter Brian Helgeland. The director worked with Basinger again on 2002’s 8 Mile, starring rapper Eminem, which also captured the 2002 Best Song Oscar: “Lose Yourself,” by Eminem, Jeff Bass, and Luis Resto. Those acclaimed efforts aside, they are not my Hanson faves. Obviously, I have a strong affection for The Bedroom Window, but I also got a kick out of 1992’s The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, which gave Rebecca DeMornay a showy lead role, one with tremendous range, in a big hit film–not necessarily a great film, but a stunning vehicle for its star:  “Peyton,” a troubled young widow posing as a soft spoken nanny for the purpose of extracting deadly revenge. Hard to justify as more than a souped up genre piece, the film re-energized De Mornay’s stagnant career, albeit briefly;  nonetheless, she scooped up a Saturn nomination as did Julianne Moore, only beginning to make a name for herself in movies at the time, in a supporting role as one of Peyton’s snoopy targets. Hanson also provided a change of pace role for Meryl Streep in 1994’s action-packed The River Wild, gave Cameron Diaz one of her strongest roles as a self-destructive mess, per In Her Own Shoes (2005), and, for my money, directed Michael Douglas in one of his  most inspired performances with 2000’s Wonder Boys, for which he was surprisingly overlooked by the Academy though the film secured an Oscar for Bob Dylan and his song, “Things Have Changed.” (Maybe Douglas was not so surprisingly overlooked given the way the otherwise well-received film was ineffectively marketed.) Before Hanson turned to directing, he honed his skills as a screenwriter, most notably with the darkly comic Canadian-made crime thriller, The Silent Partner (1978), starring Elliott Gould and Christopher Plummer. Must be seen to be believed. One of his first directorial efforts, Losin’ It (1983)starred a pre-Risky Business Tom Cruise alongside Shelly Long, back when her classic TV show Cheers was still in its infancy. He also scripted the same year’s Never Cry Wolf directed by Caroll Ballard.  Rest in Peace, Mr. Hanson. (IMAGE: The Guardian)

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the deliciously juicy plot of 1987’s The Bedroom Window,  scripted and directed by Curtis Hanson, “a romantic thriller” promoted at the time by the De Laurentis Entertainment Group as being “in the tradition of the master of suspense.” Funny, that. The announcer in the trailer stops short of actually naming just whom that master of suspense might be, but the movie’s title, based on Anne Holden’s novel The Witnesses, is an obvious homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window.  And that’s not the worst thing to ever happen. Of  course, to clarify, The Bedroom Window is hardly in the same league as its obvious namesake, but it’s a lot of fun for what it is, tantalizing tomfoolery for old school suspense movie buffs; moreover, this is actually my favorite from the late director who only passed away a short time ago.

Let me be clear. I have no illusions about the movie being an unsung masterpiece, but I enjoy the story’s twists and turns (admitting that it sputters toward the end), as well as Hanson’s swanky visuals (with expert assistance from cinematographer Gilbert Taylor), and the performances of the three leads along with two key supporting players.

First up is the male lead, the architect with questionable judgment played by Steve Guttenberg. It seems odd now, given that he hasn’t appeared in a splashy hit movie in some time and that he was never a critics’ darling (more likely, the brunt of jokes), but Guttenberg was once upon a time a pretty reliable–that is, bankable–Hollywood leading man thanks to such offerings as Cocoon (1985), Short Circuit (1986), Three Men and a Baby (1987), and the lucrative Police Academy franchise.  More boyishly good looking than ruggedly handsome, Guttenberg, despite a decent eye for selecting properties, was most often considered a lightweight actor in the press, and that actually works in his favor in this particular role.  Why? Because his character is supposed to be a pretty lousy liar, so it makes sense that his performance is marked by obvious phoniness. If he were any more convincing, he wouldn’t find himself in such jeopardy in the film’s second half. I like watching him buckle under the weight of his own duplicity. Done! In the Hitchcock pantheon, Guttenberg would be more akin to generally likeable Bob Cummings (in Saboteur or Dial M for Murder) who rates merely adequate–or, worse, wooden–compared to the more complex, dynamic characters played by Jimmy Stewart (specifically Rope, Rear Window, or Vertigo) or charismatic Cary Grant (Suspicion, Notorious, To Catch a Thief, or North by Northwest).

Next on board is silkily beautiful French actress Isabelle Huppert. Already famous in her own country for the likes of Violet (César nominee), Every Man for Himself, Loulou (César nominee), Godard’s Passion, Coup de Torchon (César nominee), and Entre Nous (among many others), The Bedroom Window was not Huppert’s first American film though she doesn’t seem to speak English comfortably–even with a dialogue coach [1]. The issue isn’t pronunciation, per se, as she’s easily enough understood, but she lacks ease speaking lines and lines of dialogue convincingly, persuasively. Luckily, she is gorgeous, which is really the point. The audience is not asked to identify with her so much, but to see her through Guttenberg’s eyes, so beautiful that all judgment flies out the window; after all, Guttenberg’c character flirts with disaster from the get-go when he invites his boss’s wife for a rendezvous in his apartment, for cryin’ out loud. In the late 1980s, when most of us were wearing too much makeup, battling over-processed hair, and trying to look swell in glitzily preposterous fashions, Huppert strolls into this movie looking like a sleek femme fatale from Hollywood’s Golden era, say someone on the order of Veronica Lake, so prominently referenced in Hanson’s L.A. Confidential–that or the effortlessly chic star of a French art film [2]. Of course, her performance would be nothing without retro-glam flourishes courtesy of costume designer Clifford Capone, hair stylist Milton Buras, and makeup artist Stefano Fava–and, again, exquisitely lit by Gilbert Taylor. Huppert’s Sylvia Wentworth doesn’t necessarily have the inner-vibrancy that characterizes some of the master’s beat known “cool blondes, ” such as Grace Kelly (mostly Rear Window and To Catch a Thief), Eva Marie Saint (North by Northwest) or even Kim Novak in Vertigo. Instead, she’s just cool, that is, icy. Cold.  But of course, her cool reserve contrasts quite nicely with Elizabeth McGovern’s liveliness as the final major player.

The third of the major leads is played by Elizabeth McGovern. With the blush of such early successes as Ordinary People (1980’s Best Picture winner in which she played Timothy Hutton’s freshly-scrubbed, apple-cheeked crush) and 1981’s Ragtime, portraying scandalous beauty Evelyn Nesbit to Oscar nominated glory, fading fast but long before capturing the viewing public’s imagination with the phenomenally popular Downton Abbey, McGovern was in need of a career jolt when she signed on for Bedroom Window. She found exactly that, going for broke in a role that requires absolutely no subtlety.  She plays a straight-talkin’ cocktail waitress who survives an attack and then aligns herself with Guttenberg when she realizes what a schlemiel he is, way over his head and sinking fast. Her character needs to clear him from suspicion in order to bring the real villain to justice. and she’s pretty brazen in her efforts. In some of the early scenes, McGovern’s Denise serves a hearty helping of butch-ilicious swagger, but, over time, her defenses soften, and her playful side emerges.  She even dons a long honey-colored wig and sexy girlie costume to help snare the killer, a 180 degree turn from her first encounter with Guttenberg at the police station. It’s almost as though McGovern is playing two characters, like, oh, the aforementioned Kim Novak in Vertigo.

Two actors make vivid contributions in key roles. Most notable of the pair is Brad Greenquist as the slippery killer, slippery in that even with his red hair, he is so otherwise non-descript that he disappears in a crowd of people, thereby making it difficult for detectives to backtrack his movements or to corroborate Guttenberg’s accounts of following him. At the same time, he looks awfully spooky when he gets riled up or is  about to attack. This actor performs confidently, cannily, in a role that actually requires a lot of skill.  Yes, as indicated, he does not necessarily register strongly among patrons at a rowdy bar, but, of course, the audience knows who he is, and he keeps our interest in a largely wordless role. How wordless is up to some debate, and that is part of the fun. The killer’s lawyer, meanwhile, is played by the ever-reliable Wallace Shawn, showing much more force in this rare dramatic role than we have come to expect in some of his more comedic high profile role, such as the same year’s The Princess Bride. When cross-examining Guttenberg, Shawn is unrelenting, but his seemingly non-threatening demeanor practically blind-sides the chump–and, so, the tables are turned.

Besides the obvious Hitchcockian allusion in the title, The Bedroom Window has filmic fingerprints all over it–and not just Hitchcock’s For example, anyone who has ever seen, say, 12 Angry Men (which came out 20 years previous) or My Cousin Vinny (released five years afterward) will recognize the trap that Shawn’s attorney sets for Guttenberg’s schemer. Still, it adds up to a few tense moments for everyone in the courtroom and all of us in the audience who, somehow, want to root for the architect even when we know, almost from the start, he’s in deep doo-do0.  As produced by Oscar winner Robert Towne, the genius who scripted Chinatown (1974), one of the most intriguing movies of the 1970s or any other decade, I have to wonder if he made any creative contributions to Hanson’s offering. By the by, Chinatown was the movie that critics most often favorably compared Hanson’s L.A. Confidential to upon its 1997 release, but I digress. I also have to wonder, back to Bedroom Window, if the architect’s last name, Lambert, is an allusion to Lampert, the last name of Audrey Hepburn’s character in Charade. Maybe it’s just a coincidence. Also, what about that sequence set in a theatre during a ballet performance? The echoes of  both Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (the ’56 version with the climactic Albert Hall scene) and North by Northwest (the shocking turn at the United Nations building) are hard to ignore, but, again, that’s almost part of the fun, given that the whole movie in many ways functions as put-on, a lark.

Speaking of filmic fingerprints, one of Guttenberg’s early breaks came with Diner, writer-director Barry Levinson’s first homage to his birth place, good old Baltimore, Maryland. The Bedroom Window brings Guttenberg back to Baltimore, home to the late Edgar Allan Poe, another master of suspense. Indeed, McGovern’s Denise works at a bar called Edgar’s. At one point, she walks under a neon sign that spells out “Nevermore.” This reference isn’t a lark. It’s a raven.

Thanks for your consideration…

[1] – Per the IMDb, that would be Neil Robinsoon.

[2] – Since The Bedroom Window, Huppert has only selectively worked in U.S. films though she fared well in Hal Hartley’s The Amateur (1994). Back in France, she has since accrued 10 additional César nominations, including the stylish 8 Femmes, winning at long last for La cérémonie (1995); meanwhile, the Cannes judges unanimously voted her Best Actress for 2001’s La pianiste, released in the U.S. as The Piano Teacher.

Please click here to read Curtis Hanson’s obituary on The Guardian’s website: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/sep/21/curtis-hanson-director-of-la-confidential-and-8-mile-dies-aged-71

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