Vintage Cable Box: “Deathtrap, 1982”

New VCB Logo

“I want a short-cut, Sidney. And I really don’t care whose yard I cut through, if you understand me.”

mo1Wp7t94vnUfrdoRa3EGefWZXN

Deathtrap, 1982 (Michael Caine), Warner Bros.

Michael Caine’s Sidney Bruhl, a successful playwright who specializes in the macabre is livid over the terrible reviews for his latest play, Murder Most Fair. His somewhat dizzy, weak-hearted but wealthy wife, Myra (Dyan Cannon), cannot understand his anger. Protégé and fan Clifford Anderson (Christopher Reeve) sends him his latest manuscript, Deathtrap; the unqualified genius of which drives Caine to the breaking point as he contemplates murdering him and claiming the work for his own. He invites Reeve out to his house in Montauk.

After “killing” Reeve and covering up all evidence of the crime, Caine attempts to soothe his distraught wife. Reeve recovers, obviously not dead, attacks Caine and drives Cannon to have a heart attack. It is then revealed that Reeve and Caine were co-conspirator’s in Cannon’s death, in order to take her vast fortune. Weeks pass and Reeve and Caine collaborate on another play. Cannon has left her fortune to Caine. Paranoia and suspicion sets in as Caine begins to convince himself (with the aid of his lawyer played by Henry Jones) that Reeve is looking to take his money, or planning to extort him. He discovers that Reeve has written a play about Cannon’s death and the machinations involved, and he has titled it Deathtrap.

Caine’s world-reknowned psychic next-door neighbor (whom had previously foresaw the death of Cannon) arrives on a stormy night and informs Caine that Reeve will attack him, fueling his panic further. In a scene filled with baited anticipation, Reeve and Caine are working out stage blocking when Caine pulls out a gun and tells him he can’t be permitted to finish the play. Caine has set up Reeve, leaving all the proper clues to implicate Reeve in his wife’s death. Of course, Reeve sees it coming and removes the bullets, turning the tables on Caine.

As deliciously convoluted as this stage play-turned-suspense-thriller is, you can see that this is a playwright’s own murder fantasy. It was originally written for the stage by Ira Levin, and played a record 1,793 performances; the longest running thriller on Broadway to this day. With the exception of a few short scenes in the city and on the grounds, the entirety of the movie takes place in Bruhl’s house, the living room specifically, so visually the palette is limited, but Sidney Lumet, the film’s director, cut his teeth in studio television production, so he knows how to get the most out of his limited sets.

dd2

Writers are a bitchy group. With enormous egos and leanings toward a kind of creative psychopathy, they live in fear of a lack of originality. I know I’ve been through that myself. I’ll write a million pages and then toss them, flagellating myself for not being “original” enough. It’s hard enough to negotiate, but even harder when I see that originality is a limited and precious commodity in today’s creative marketplace. Writers often accuse each other of plagiarism because they know they can only be creative for so long. Writers live and breathe the construction of their characters, so it’s only fitting that Sidney Bruhl have murder on his mind.

In one particularly tense scene, Caine outlines the definition of a sociopath to Reeve as “one who has no sense of moral obligation whatsoever”. Reeve can only gloat, and his performance in Deathtrap conjures up images of what could have been. He is so confident, so assured, and so human, it makes me wonder what turn his career would’ve taken had he not put on the big red cape. He was a brilliant actor, forever typecast as Superman, and as such, serious work was hard to come by.

Sidney Lumet’s first foray into pictures was 12 Angry Men and every few years, he would make a masterpiece like The Pawnbroker, or Serpico, or Dog Day Afternoon, or Network. Incredibly prolific, he book-ended Deathtrap with Prince of the City and The Verdict in the space of three years. In 1970, he said, “Every picture I did was an active, believable, passionate wish.” Lumet died in 2011.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month. Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

Advertisements

Vintage Cable Box: “Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen, 1981”

Vintage-Cable-Box-Cover-Image

“Absence of suspicion often denote presence of danger.”

1329204539

Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen, 1981 (Peter Ustinov), American Cinema

Peter Ustinov puts on the spirit gum to play the immortal Chinese Sherlock Holmes. Richard Hatch (Apollo from the original Battlestar Galactica) plays Charlie Chan’s Number One Grandson, Lee Chan. He is about to be married to the very beautiful Cordelia, played by Michelle Pfeiffer. Lee Grant, as Hatch’s mother, is concerned that the girl he intends to marry is neither Chinese nor Jewish. Hatch is infuriatingly clumsy. He slices through his tie trying to cut a bagel in half, and he wreaks general havoc everywhere he goes.

Unusual murders have been occurring in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Brian Keith is the stressed-out, ulcer-ridden detective on the case. Charlie Chan arrives to offer assistance. There seems to be a connection between the recent killings and the titular curse of “The Dragon Queen” (Angie Dickinson) she bestowed upon the Chan family for three generations (Why not four? Or forever?) when Chan accused her of a murder in the past, but the curse doesn’t make much sense given that “The Dragon Queen” has been present at all of the locations where the recent killings have occurred, so it really isn’t a curse, is it?

Created by Earl Derr Biggers in 1926, Charlie Chan was played by four different actors before Peter Ustinov, and only one of them was Asian. These serials and movies were serious and often intense mysteries with some humor, but not enough to overpower any existing narratives. The decision to make Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen almost a spoof of the character is haphazard; especially since the filmmakers try too hard to make it funny. There’s so much chaos and slapstick, you’d think it was less Clive Donner and more Mel Brooks, but there is one crucial difference. Mel Brooks would’ve been funnier.

There is much to commend, however. The cinematography is gorgeous and the set design and wardrobe are impeccable. It’s unfortunate that the technical aspects of the film (not to mention the casting) were wasted with a ridiculous and incompetent script.

charchan_01

Michelle Pfeiffer is almost distractingly beautiful, and she makes it very difficult to concentrate on the movie. Roddy McDowall is wasted in the role of a handicapped butler. How practical is it to have a servant confined to a wheelchair? There is one funny gag in the movie that made me chuckle. Lee Chan and Cordelia are tied up in an attic, with the old candle burning through the rope trick that would send an anvil down on their heads. Further, they’re being watched by a big guard dog. So they come up with the idea to sing “Happy Birthday” to the dog to get him to blow out the candle before the rope can snap, and it works!

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird).  We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images.  We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates.  About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties. 

Vintage Cable Box: “Still of the Night, 1982”

Vintage-Cable-Box-Cover-Image

“I’m a much better shrink than I would have been a second baseman.”

1982-still-of-the-night-poster1

Still of the Night, 1982 (Meryl Streep). United Artists

Robert Benton is a quiet man. He is not the loud voice in the chorus trying to steal all the attention. He doesn’t speak of style. He doesn’t conduct self-aggrandizing interviews on publicity junkets, hailing the New Cinema (even though he was partially responsible for it) and idolizing Orson Welles and John Ford. He may believe in those ideas to further the success of his movies, but he won’t tell you. He is, for lack of a better word, quiet. As such, I have been quietly impressed, even blown away by his work.

Still of the Night comes out of nowhere in Benton’s body of work, and appropriately, it is representative of a powerful voice that communicates in whispers, not shouts. Roy Scheider plays a New York psychiatrist, whose patient, George Bynum (a creepy Josef Sommer), is murdered. Scheider is visited by the cops, who tell him his life is in danger if he doesn’t break his confidentially about Bynum’s curious quirks. An eerily beautiful Meryl Streep (done up completely as a Hitchcockian ice-blonde, with a temperament to match) plays Brooke Reynolds, Bynum’s lover. Scheider is instantly smitten with her. He tries to provide therapy for her fragile mind because she believes her relief at Bynum’s death makes her emotionally, if not physically, culpable.

still-of-meryl-streep-and-roy-scheider-in-still-of-the-night-(1982)-large-picture

Streep’s performance as the flighty, neurotic Brooke, is a wonderful reminder of her amazing talent. By the time Still of the Night was released, Streep had already appeared in The Deer Hunter, Manhattan, Kramer vs. Kramer, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and would appear in Sophie’s Choice and Silkwood. Watching her performance in this one small Robert Benton movie is so much fun. She is so alive as an actor, and demonstrates such strength and intelligence, beauty and vulnerability that she puts most other actors to shame. Other than this movie, my favorite performance of her’s has to be in Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life.

Roy Scheider is dependable in a largely thankless role designed to provide exposition into the workings of George Bynum’s mind. He has wonderful chemistry with Streep (who wouldn’t?) as well as Jessica Tandy, in a quick bit as his psychiatrist mother (that must’ve been a happy house!). Somewhat unfairly typecast as authority figures after Jaws, Scheider, sometimes successfully, shook those roles, appearing in William Friedkin’s Sorceror and Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz.

Still of the Night is a movie I watch and then I snap my fingers wishing I had thought of it. Robert Benton started in the industry as a writer (with frequent partner David Newman). He authored Bonnie and Clyde, What’s Up, Doc?, and polished the script for the 1978 Superman. He directed Kramer vs. Kramer, and one of my favorite movies of all time, Places In The Heart (which contains the single most staggeringly brilliant final scene of any movie I have ever watched). In 1994, he would direct Nobody’s Fool starring Paul Newman.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month. Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.