Amnesiacs Make the Best Lovers: “Spellbound”

First of all, my apologies for the (very, very) long hiatus! I was in Boston, and not inclined at all to do any work. But, I mean, it’s Boston; can you blame me?

In any case, let’s get to the point: Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound.

Despite being from 1945, this beautiful black-and-white film still retains a freshness that the ravages of time usually take away from ordinary movies. Of course, it completely stereotypes psychoanalysis and mental illness—and especially overdramatizes the latter. But I took that with a grain of salt. After all, the film was made during a time in which mental illness was extremely stigmatized; and, as such, those individuals who did suffer from mental illness were largely kept out of sight by their families. So the world, Hollywood and all its directors were left to wonder. And films like Spellbound are what resulted.

Spellbound opens with a group of young women playing cards. It is clear that they are in some sort of waiting room, but the kind of waiting room is unclear—until one of the young women is escorted to a room in which the young psychiatrist Dr. Constance Peterson is waiting.

Constance Peterson, played by Ingrid Bergman, is a very quiet, logical woman. She does not open her heart to anyone or anything, and approaches everything in a rational, scientific manner. In other words, she is the—grain of salt, grain of salt!—“perfect” psychiatrist. That is, until the handsome, but mysterious, Dr. Anthony Edwardes, played by a young, dashing Gregory Peck, arrives to take the place of Leo G. Carroll’s Dr. Murchison, who, after taking time off due to a nervous breakdown, has been asked to leave.

Excepting a strange incident involving lines drawn on a white tablecloth with a fork, Dr. Edwardes seems to be a healthy, functioning young man. And things go swimmingly between him and Constance—until Dr. Edwardes collapses in surgery, and, after a quick comparison of handwriting, Constance realizes that “Dr. Edwardes” is not really Dr. Edwardes.

When the now-anonymous man awakens, Constance asks him who he is, and where the real Dr. Edwardes is. Of course, he does not know the answer to either question. The only thing he (thinks he) knows, thanks to a cigarette case, is that his initials are “J.B.” And, given the sense of fear he feels when he looks at the case, J.B. believes he killed the real Dr. Anthony Edwardes—he just doesn’t know how, when or where. After battling with herself—her old self, the one that refused to feel—Constance surrenders to her emotional side and decides to help J.B., no matter what it costs her.

But J.B. won’t have it. He loves Constance too much. So, in an effort to protect Constance from himself and repercussions the may come from helping him, J.B. departs in the night, leaving Constance only a note telling her that he is going to a hotel in New York City.

Constance awakens to a group of police officers and several other psychiatrists at her door. As it turns out, the other psychiatrists believe J.B. to have killed the missing Dr. Edwardes, and have set the police on his trail. Fortunately, they do not see the (rather obtrusive) white envelope on the floor containing J.B.’s note. As soon as they leave, Constance snatches the note from the floor, reads its contents; and, after what is perhaps the longest, most distracting day of her life, disappears quietly for New York City.

After she arrives at the hotel indicated in J.B.’s note, Constance, with the aid of the self-proclaimed hotel “detective,” locates J.B. Constance races to his room, telling J.B. that, as his doctor, she will not leave until he is cured of his amnesia. When J.B. protests, Constance says, “I’m here as your doctor only. It has nothing to do with love.”

And, because it would be totally silly if she were serious, they then kiss and embrace and all that mushy stuff.

Unfortunately, their romancing is cut short by the discovery of Constance’s photograph in the daily paper. She and J.B. make a quick getaway, and travel to the home of Constance’s old mentor, the quintessentially Freudian Dr. Alex Brulov, played by Michael Chekov. Even though Constance tells Brulov she and J.B. are newlyweds on their honeymoon, Brulov is no fool, and quickly realizes that J.B. is an amnesiac. But, fortunately, he is also a very good man, and decides to aid Constance in helping J.B. discover who he truly is, and what happened to Dr. Edwardes.

The trio goes on a quest into J.B.’s psyche to uncover the truth. And while it’s a lot of fun to watch, most of this quest is just a lot of Hollywood pseudo-psychiatry. Most of their “analysis” revolves around a dream and the fact that J.B. seems to be afraid of lines in white. What’s more, the entire thing devolves into the stereotypical trope that something traumatic happened to J.B. in his childhood; and his repression of this event is also causing him to repress his entire identity.

Right.

Regardless, as I said, it’s still a very good film. The balance between talking and action is entirely appropriate for the kind of film it is—a who-(really)-done-it, driven by the mental and physical journey of two characters—and there is truly never a boring moment. I found myself either very intrigued, and trying to work out just what was going on—I even talked aloud to myself!—or on the edge of my seat, holding my breath, nervous for the characters’ welfare.

Of course, such an emotional investment would not have been possible without both the unfailing genius of Alfred Hitchcock—I like to pretend films like Under Capricorn don’t exist—and the big acting names of the day. There’s a reason Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck have been remembered.

You know, apart from their astounding good looks.

But in all seriousness:
Aside from the melodrama that sometimes creeps into Peck’s performance—he does, in my opinion, occasionally ham it up, reacting too strongly to some event or another, or making an extravagant production out of having amnesia—both he and Bergman exemplify what romance used to be on the silver screen—“back when film was film,” some would say. They neither oversexualize nor underplay the romantic tension that exists between their characters. While you can feel the magnetism between them, they aren’t constantly falling into each other’s arms, and actually convey feelings of genuine concern and love for each other. Bergman’s accent sometimes gets in the way of being able to understand what she is saying, but that’s just a small technical detail that doesn’t actually hurt the film or the acting itself. All it means is that you have to listen closely to the dialogue, which is important in a film like this.

And that’s the beauty of the dialogue in the film. All the clues you need are embedded in the characters’ lines. The end of the film is very satisfying. Unlike many mystery flicks, in which you have to notice itsy-bitsy details that may or may not make sense, anyway, Spellbound doesn’t leave you feeling frustrated, because you realize that all the clues were clear, and right under your nose all along. While this film does follow the traditional mystery plot—the timeline is linear, and you are given all the clues—it doesn’t actually matter. The twist at the end is just clever and unexpected enough to keep the story fresh. So if you go into this expecting to watch a 1945 version of Memento…you should probably just watch Memento.

After all, while he’s certainly no Gregory Peck, Guy Pearce is far from hard on the eyes.

Forget “Westside Story”: “Tuff Turf”

Ah, the 1980’s. A time when leg warmers were chic; spontaneous, synchronized dances among total strangers were common; and James Spader was sexy and young.

(And, okay, he’s still sexy. He’s just no longer young.)

Aside from a twenty-something Spader looking damn fine in a black leather jacket, and Kim Richards’ rather colorful outfit and provocative pose, the box of Fritz Kiersch’s 1984 high school drama Tuff Turf doesn’t look like anything special. In fact, the tagline—“Where enemies are made, reputations are earned and love is the most risky affair of all.”—makes it seem as though the film is going to be a trashy ‘80’s movie with lots of teenage angst and gangland wars. Think Sixteen Candles meets The Lost Boys, minus the whole vampire thing, of course. However, I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that it was not only a smoldering Spader I could enjoy, but the movie itself.

The movie begins with Nick Hauser, played by the pretty, but tough-looking Paul Mones, and his gang of miscreants hanging out late at night at a local newsstand in downtown Los Angeles. At first, it seems strange that they’re there; they’re not even pilfering the dozing vendor’s money. But the reason quickly becomes obvious when the camera cuts across the street. The colorfully-dressed, very attractive Frankie Croyden (Richards) leans against the wall of a building, while a lone man in a rather nice-looking grey suit stands at a bus stop. Frankie, carrying various school accoutrements—papers, notebooks, etc.—walks up to the man, who, as any breathing heterosexual male would do in the situation gives her the once-over. She “innocently” asks for change for a fiver; and when the man inquires as to why she is out so late alone, she turns on the flirtation—and turns his attention off to anything but her. It’s pretty easy to guess what happens next: Nick comes up behind the man, pulls a switchblade on him, and demands his money. But, suddenly, a blonde youth on a bike speeds through, singing Be-Bop-A-Lula and making snappy comments at the same time he pours beer over the gang members, thus rescuing the innocent (if skeevy) older man. Cue Frankie looking a bit surprised, but admiringly, in the direction in which he disappears.

This mysterious hero is, of course, our very own Spader, playing Morgan Hiller, an intelligent, but troublesome high school senior, recently arrived from Connecticut. After Mr. Hiller’s business went under, the family moved to Los Angeles. Mrs. Hiller is still having trouble adjusting to her sudden drop in social class and lifestyle. Morgan’s deviant behavior isn’t making her any happier, either, and she lets him know it—every time they speak. And to top it off, Morgan’s appallingly yuppie, rising lawyer of a brother, Brian, is the family-dubbed “golden boy,” who can’t resist emphasizing the fact that he is the family favorite when he comes to visit.

Needless to say, Morgan is pretty sick of his family, and deliberately goes looking for trouble. Fortunately (?) for him, he doesn’t have to look very far: Nick is still pretty pissed about Morgan’s bike stunt; but he gets even angrier when Morgan pursues Nick’s “property”—Frankie. One ruined bike and two fantastic dance sequences later—‘80’s movies are famous for ‘em!—Morgan is hip-deep in trouble—and love. Even after enduring a brutal locker room beating at the hands of Nick and his gang, Morgan is undeterred. Rather than backing off, Morgan pays Frankie an unexpected visit, and insists they give it “a shot”. “You know,” says Frankie, “it’s not going to change anything.” To which Morgan responds, “It could. It could, and a chance is worth everything.”

(At which point I swooned. I also may or may not have played that sequence over again.)

Of course, I can’t tell you how the movie ends. I can’t tell you about the sensual love scene towards the end; and I certainly can’t tell you about the extremely well-done, if a little over-the-top, “final battle”. That would be cheating. You’re just going to have to see said scenes yourself.

I will, however, tell you a little about the actors’ performances. As you may have guessed, I am a big Spader fan, and it’s not just his looks (promise!). Even as a greenhorn actor with only a few movies under his belt, the young Spader was already forming his own style in this movie. He plays the role of the intelligent prodigal son very, very well. Though Spader’s lines are somewhat trite at times, he manages to make them sound interesting and important; and even though the funnier lines actually belong to his geeky sidekick Jimmy Parker, played by a very young Robert Downey, Jr., it is actually Spader’s lines that stick in your mind. Spader’s facial expressions are to die for, especially since they’re essentially the same ones he uses today. I personally did a little joy-wriggle in my seat when I saw him turn on what I like to call his “courtroom Boston Legal” face.
Though Richards does the pretty-girl-from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks well, it is a little hard to believe her transformation from bad girl to relatively less bad girl. This is not a fault of her acting; it is more a fault of the character she is playing—basically white trash whose highest aspiration is to get married. Unfortunately, save for a brief exchange between Frankie and Morgan, the script never suggests Frankie changes her mind about what she wants out of life during the course of the film. Not to give anything away, but this leaves you wondering what happened to the “just get married” plan at the end of the movie.
None of the other actors’ performances are really worth remarking on, mostly because they are archetypal teen drama stereotypes. It’s not that their acting is bad by any means; it just isn’t noteworthy, since you could watch any other film in the same vein, and get the gist.

Tuff Turf combines the best aspects of ‘80’s teen drama without the dreck. No, it’s not Oscar material, but it’s damn good, and far more worth the watch than a relative equivalent, like Pretty in Pink. After all, Spader went somewhere.

(Sorry, Molly. You weren’t really that good an actress, anyway.)

Yours with love,

Film Bitch

Try That in the Key of Sex Flat: “The Piano”

If the only impression of Jane Campion’s directorial work you’ve ever gotten is Bright Star, then you are severely missing out. The slow, relatively boring romance that is Bright Star is far from reflective of her early work, namely The Piano. And by “far from reflective,” I mean far from the intensely erotic, almost tangibly sensual composition that is The Piano.

Released in 1993, The Piano is the story of Ada McGrath, a mute English widow played by Holly Hunter. Because it is the 1850’s, women are still treated like property; and because Ada is still young and attractive enough to be “profitable,” her father marries her off to a man she has never met, and she and her young daughter, Flora McGrath, played by a pint-sized Anna Paquin, are shipped off to live with him on his plantation in New Zealand.

Ada hates the place from the outset. It is wet and cold a good deal of the time—though, being from England, you think she’d be used to that by now—and she feels like an alien, both inside and outside her home. To his credit, her husband Alisdair Stewart, played by Sam Neill, does try to make Ada feel welcome and comfortable; but the fact that she can’t speak, coupled with Alisdair’s somewhat stiff demeanor, distances them, and makes their interactions awkward.

Ada’s only comfort is her beloved piano, which she has had shipped over from England. To say Ada loves the piano would be an understatement: It is as much a part of her as her own beating heart, and is one of the only ways she may audibly express herself. So when Alisdair decides to leave the piano on the beach, because it is so heavy, it is as if Ada has lost a part of herself.

(And Alisdair wonders why she doesn’t take to him…)

The plot takes a turn for the romantically complicated when a former Englishman named George Baines, played by the stellar Harvey Keitel, is introduced. George works for Alisdair as a translator for the Maiori laborers, as well as a sort of handyman/overseer on the plantation. As luck would have it, George takes an interest in this queer mute woman and her yappy, but adorable little daughter. I probably don’t even need to say it, but, for the sake of the review, I might as well: This interest quickly develops into lust after, at Ada’s insistence, he takes Ada and Flora down to the beach so that Ada may play her piano. And that’s when George realizes two and two equal sex.

George moves the piano from the beach to his home on the island; and when Ada asks for it back, he says that she may have it back—key by key, and only if she agrees to give him piano lessons.

Piano lessons. Right.

Needless to say, the lessons swiftly develop into Ada basically whoring herself out for the piano. Of course, this is not to say she does not enjoy George’s attentions—they are certainly better, in her mind, than the advances of her stiff (no pun intended) husband—and it is not long before she looks forward to the “lessons.” But George suddenly grows a conscience, and tells Ada he does not want to make a whore of her for her piano.

A little late there, buddy.

Still, Ada insists on seeing him. But what would a good, steamy romance be without the lovers getting caught? Alisdair notices the positive change in his wife, also puts two and two together—though, in his case, it does not equal sex—and literally boards up Ada and Flora in their home.

Being without George is torture for Ada; and when she can stand it no longer, she uses certain, ah, “tactics” to convince Alisdair that she loves him, and will not see George if allowed out of the house. Alisdair subsequently takes the boards off the house—and hot, passionate sex between George and Ada ensues.

Despite all the sex this movie has to offer, it is also surprisingly romantic and tender. You can tell George and Ada actually care for each other. And what makes this movie so fantastic is that you can see how Ada’s love for her piano is slowly transformed into love for George. This is not to say that she loves the piano any less; however, because she associates George with the piano, she falls in love with him, which personally led me to wonder if she would have fallen in love with him at all, had he and the piano not been connected in a romantic, physical manner in her mind.

Another thing that really struck me is how there are no clearly defined “good guys” and “bad guys” in this film. The lovers certainly aren’t “good”: Not only are they sneaking around behind Alisdair’s unsuspecting, trusting back, but their entire affair began when George decided it would be a good idea to coerce Ada into sleeping with him. Ada is no better, as she leaves poor little Flora to fend for herself when she and George are making the beast with two backs; and, after the love affair begins, her motherly interaction with Flora is reduced only to necessity, such as when she needs Flora to be her “voice”—she and Flora communicate with hand signals, and Flora “translates,” if need be—or when she wants Flora to perform some task for her.
Alisdair is to be pitied—somewhat. In his defense, Ada does not make his life any easier: She arouses him, but will not let him touch her; she ignores him; and she glares at him. I mean, how much can one guy take? However, this does not excuse the times—yes, plural—Alisdair decides it would be a good idea to try to rape Ada. Enough said.

Surprisingly, the acting in this movie is all pretty much on an even keel. Everyone’s very good, but no one particularly shines, save perhaps Paquin—but that may be due to her age, and the fact that she had to remember so many lines (‘cause, man, does that kid talk!). I feel as though the actors did not have to work very hard to make the film good, because it was good from the outset. Having a great cast helps—and I’ll admit, I am a sucker for both Neill and Keitel—but, in the end, the film’s premise was interesting enough not to require amazing actors. Neill, Keitel and Hunter are just an added benefit.

Yours forever,

Film Bitch

Caught in a Bad Romance: “9 1/2 Weeks”

So remember how my first impression of 9 ½ Weeks was that it was going to be a sexy, wonderful movie? Well, I wasn’t too wrong. I just missed the part where it was incredibly painful to watch.

The fact that 9 ½ Weeks was directed by Adrian Lyne, famous (infamous?) director of Fatal Attraction, probably should have tipped me off right away that this movie was going to be no sexy, but happy, walk-in-the-park romance. But it didn’t, and I began the movie, blissfully unaware of what awaited me.

9 ½ Weeks follows a recently-divorced New York art gallery assistant, Elizabeth, played by Kim Basinger. Though we never really get the full backstory, you get the feeling her divorce wasn’t only recent, but that it wasn’t pretty, either—then again, what divorce is?
Though her divorce hurt her deeply, Elizabeth is tired of being alone. So when she makes eye contact in—appropriately, for those of you who know your Shakespeare—a fishmonger’s shop with the young, handsome John, played by the not-yet-disfigured Mickey Rourke, something in her stirs to life. But before she can say anything to him, he leaves the shop, presumably never to be seen again.

But there wouldn’t be a movie if he didn’t show up again, now would there?

A few days later, Elizabeth runs into him at an antiques flea market, and things…progress…from there.

(Ladies, here’s a tip: When a man you don’t know buys you a three hundred dollar scarf, you know you’re about to be a kept woman.)

Elizabeth and John’s relationship is brutal from the outset. Though they do not sleep together the same day they meet in the flea market, John does take Elizabeth to a small cabin close to the water. There, he tells her that they are totally alone. No one could hear her, even if she called out. Elizabeth becomes (understandably) frightened, and asks to leave. John assures her he was only kidding, but you get a rather uncomfortable, queasy feeling that he really wasn’t.

When they do get around to doing the deed, it is an erotic, sadomasochistic spectacle. John and Elizabeth experiment with everything, from food play to cross-dressing to humiliation and violence. Predictably, it is John who suggests and initiates everything, since Elizabeth is, as we realize through her actions and reactions, a novice in this particular sexual field. Elizabeth becomes more and more disconnected from her professional life, and is often distracted at work. She begins to look wilder and more disheveled, and her friends begin to notice the change in her.

But, aside from a brief scene that establishes him as a successful, wealthy man of Wall Street, we have no idea what John’s life is like outside his sexual encounters with Elizabeth. And that’s what makes him so darn creepy. You see, all we get of him is the side that comes out during sex play with Elizabeth, which is to say we see him as a cold, domineering son-of-a-bitch who gets off on hurting Elizabeth emotionally. The little he reveals about himself—that he’s had many other women, hinting that he treats them all in much the same way—only reinforces this image.

So it’s kind of weird when Elizabeth falls in love with John—and he with her.

(Or so he says.)

Rourke is excellent in his role as, well, an unfeeling asshole. Yes, he is extremely attractive, but he also gives off a very unsettling air. And this doesn’t just have to do with what we see on screen during the sex scenes between him and Basinger. Something about the way Rourke carries himself, and the way he looks at Basinger with guarded, but hungry eyes, makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck. It’s truly creepy—yet you can’t help but see how Basinger’s character is attracted to him, because he also exudes the promise of excitement, and something more and different.
Basinger plays a bit more of a three-dimensional character, but this is not to say she is necessarily any easier to read than Rourke. Yes, she is much more vocal about her feelings during the dialogue of the film, but, oftentimes, one of the only ways we understand what she is really feeling is during sex play, and only then through her physical cues. And because her words sometimes do not match her actions, Basinger’s Elizabeth is as almost as unreliable a source of truth as Rourke’s character. Basinger plays her role beautifully, and though we do get more of Elizabeth’s backstory, we get only slightly more of her inner self than of John’s. Much like Rourke’s eyes, Basinger’s facial expressions are guarded; but, unlike Rourke, every now and then, she allows emotion to surface in her eyes—but only for a few seconds.

The film itself is primarily composed of John and Elizabeth’s various sexual encounters, and doesn’t actually have much of a plot outside the sex. But that’s the point of the film. The action does not and should not revolve around the characters’ lives outside their sex play. The point of this film is to show the dirty (in the worst sense of the word) side of romantic involvement. And it does this excellently. By the time the film ends, all you want to do is watch a Disney movie, and pretend that there is such a thing as a happy ending for everyone, and that love and pain don’t ever actually go together. But don’t be fooled. Sure, Elizabeth and John “love” each other—but why? In the end, it is all about the emotion. They are both in need of feeling. And isn’t it better, says the film, to hurt than not to feel at all?

(I am now going to go watch Mulan.)

Yours always,

Film Bitch