Very funny, watched a low-quality VHS during a trip to Lincoln and didn’t take notes. Much has happened since then, so rather than try to scrape my memory for details, here’s a capsule summary by J. Rosenbaum:
Walter Matthau, cast wildly against type, plays a spoiled playboy suddenly deprived of his wealth who plots to marry and murder a wealthy, klutzy, and dysfunctional botanist (May, playing sort of a female Jerry Lewis). May’s savage take on her characters irresistibly recalls Stroheim; she’s at once tender and corrosive (as well as narcissistic and self-hating). This is painful comedy, to be sure, but there’s a lot of soul and spirit behind it.
and more, from Essential Cinema. Sorry to overquote.
The movie – adapted from Jack Ritchie’s story “The Green Heart” — ends with a last-minute turnaround in which the husband saves his wife from drowning on a camping trip and decides with a certain resignation that he’s actually growing fond of her. But May’s script showed Matthau’s character committing at least two other murders prior to this showdown, poisoning both a blackmailer and his bride’s crooked lawyer (Jack Weston). These scenes were cut by the studio, and May attempted to sue Paramount to block the release of their re-edited version.
A really lighthearted spy romp, in which forced-into-retirement secret agent Walter Matthau spends some time with his girl Glenda Jackson (of a string of Ken Russell movies) and decides to write a tell-all book about the agency while his former bosses, led by humorless Ned Beatty (con man Hoover in Wise Blood), try to locate and possibly kill him. In typical PG-rated 1980’s style, Ned fails and is repeatedly humiliated, and Matthau (who proves himself awful at accents, languages and disguises) escapes detection despite having a bestselling book with his picture on the cover.
How spies work:
KGB Chief Herbert Lom (known for the Pink Panther series) joins in the chase towards the end, along with sympathetic CIA guy Sam Waterston (simultaneously of Heaven’s Gate). Matthau rents his ex-boss’s house in Adairsville GA (wooo!) and arranges to have it destroyed. There are some plots that rely on perfect timing and coincidence, as in all spy movies, but it’s a well-meaning little movie, so I was rooting for it.
Matthau’s son, Lom, Beatty and Waterson:
SHOCKtober is over in a big way (yes, I’m a month behind – what of it?). A colorful trifle, with fine music and dancing, and a fluffy plot blown up to double its natural runtime by extending every tune, adding a final verse and chorus at half speed for audience members too dull to get it the first ten times. Individual scenes aren’t poorly paced – the centerpiece restaurant scene is well-timed with a good energy – the movie’s just trying to be elegant by drawing things out.
Katy and I both thought that Streisand was very good and Matthau was a weird choice for a musical. We weren’t sure why Streisand wants so badly to end up with such a stinker as Matthau – though he is a half-millionaire and she seems to have transformed him into her beloved ex-husband by the end. Katy also recognized Gene Kelly’s style in the dancing, though he’s not the listed choreographer. This was the second-to-last feature he directed, not long after his Young Girls of Rochefort role.
Streisand (who had just won an oscar for her debut film role in Funny Girl) is a widowed matchmaker who’s tired of being alone herself. So she sabotages her current job – hired by grumpy feed-and-seed owner Matthau to hook up his niece Ermengarde with a nice boy of higher standing than her chosen sweetheart Tommy Tune (“possibly the tallest dancer in the country”), Streisand instead schemes to keep the two youngsters together, hook herself up with Matthau, and distract Irene, the city hatmaker Matthau has been dating, by foisting his head store assistant (Michael Crawford of a couple Richard Lester comedies) upon her. It all ends up with a hide-and-seek dance competition in a huge fancy restaurant, featuring (for a minute) Louis Armstrong.
A huge hit in 1969, yet also a huge flop because it was monumentally expensive. It had an unexpected resurgence in DVD sales after being featured in Wall-E. The play by Thornton Wilder (Our Town, Shadow of a Doubt) had been filmed before (including in 1958 with Anthony Perkins and Shirley MacLaine), but this was adapted from the mega-hit Broadway musical version.
I enjoyed the crazily over-the-top performances of Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause and Johnny Guitar but didn’t get much of a sense for his filmmaking – unless his thing was casting unhinged actors and letting them loose within overly melodramatic stories. I suppose he also made extreme/sly comments on society with Johnny’s crusading zealot McCarthy figure and Rebel’s mixed messages on masculinity and family units. Well, this one brings it all together, with an extreme (but less “method”) performance by James Mason and a brutal attack on society and family and everything else. I don’t know if it’s that tying-together of the Ray threads or the movie itself, but I’m currently loving it more than the other two.
Mason is a schoolteacher who starts experiencing massive pain. Doctor says the pain will get worse and he’ll be dead in months unless he takes miracle-drug cortisone (wikipedia: “a steroid hormone … suppresses the immune system, thus reducing inflammation and attendant pain”). So Mason pops some pills and all is well – he and loving wife Lou (!) and son Richie carry on with their movie-perfect 50’s lifestyle. But it’s not as perfect as all that… schoolteacher salaries were low even back then, so Mason holds a secret after-school job as a taxi dispatcher in order to keep up those perfect middle-class appearances. The cortisone is expensive, and worse, Mason is forgetful – misses some doses and doubles some others, until he’s taking twice the proper dosage and starting to go completely manic from the side-effects. He quits his cab job, tries to get fired from the school, berates everyone he comes across and finally, in a state of biblical delusion, conspires to kill his son. Last-minute rescue (in the form of a stairway fistfight with buddy Walter Matthau, which alone is worth the price of admission) returns Mason to the hospital, where the doctor straightens out his dosage and brings him back to his senses. Hoorah for modern medicine!
I guess this was the American Beauty of its time, allowing a white suburban dad to rebel against his status and say things that nice people should not say, attracting the attention of the neighbors, to the horror of his wife. Only this was so much better. The wife (as already contrasted with the wife in Close Encounters) is understanding and recognizably human, there’s a reason given for Mason’s outbursts (drug effects, vs. Spacey’s midlife crisis) and a more reasonable ending (it’s too easy to end your movie by having a sexually-frustrated neighbor shoot your lead character to death).
One writer worked on three decades’ worth of James Bond movies and the other scripted Forbidden Planet which also came out in ’56 – sounds more like the kind of team that would’ve come up with Star Wars than this. Suppose I’ve seen James Mason in Lolita but he made more of an impression here, with his unexplained foreign accent in the California suburbs, his mad energy shaped (if not subdued) by his British schoolteacher’s intelligence. Barbara Rush (who had appropriately just appeared in a Douglas Sirk movie, as Jane Wyman’s meddling daughter in Magnificent Obsession) was just as good, and it’s always nice to see Walter Matthau, here in one of his first roles.
Barbara Rush, one more time: