Saturday, September 25, 2004

Eucalyptus in bloom

In the interest of Los Angeles research, I’ve been renting every LA-based 70s movie I can get my hands on, placing a higher priority on period visuals than on actual content of the films. It’s a better way to see movies, at least for a while, because I’ve always liked veering from the canonical guidelines and investigating messier films.

First on the agenda the other day was Jacques Deray’s The Outside Man, with Jean-Louis Trintigant as a French (no surprise there) hit man summoned for a job in Beverly Hills. Before long, Roy Scheider is shooting at Jean-Louis, and Ann-Margret and Georgia Engel (from The Mary Tyler Moore Show) are caught in the crossfire.

Everything I came to this movie for, I found: footage of the Beverly Hilton, circa 1972, with white scrims and an LA Times in every room. Nice photography of Cresthill Drive, with a rotary phone at the gate. Back porches overlooking swimming pools, complete with glass tables, carafes of orange juice, and more copies of the LA Times. Well-tended gardens, the songs of birds, and houses that are too big, filled with green-leather couches and sculptures. Leather chairs under the verandas. Side-street bungalows in the early morning, before sun cuts through the smog. A soundtrack featuring an electric piano score by Michel Legrand, and vocals by Joe Morton, who went on to star in John Sayles films.

But the film is much more than the sum of its images. There are deliciously off-kilter performances from the actors I mentioned above, but there are also Angie Dickinson, Michel Constantin (Geo from Becker’s Le Trou!), Ted de Corsia (Lady from Shanghai, The Killers), Alex Rocco, and Talia Shire (it’s good to have Moe Greene and Connie Corleone together!). One of the cowriters was Bunuel’s longtime collaborator, Jean-Claude Carriere.

And for all that, what’s going to stick in my mind is the possibility that this was the inspiration for Cassavetes’ Killing of A Chinese Bookie. To engage in some reductive comparisons: this is the story of a sharp-dressed man, plagued by gambling debts, called to murder a Los Angeles crime boss, then is double-crossed by the same folks who hired him. He’s out of his element. His only companion? A strip-club worker who loses patience with his inability to communicate. He dreams of Paris, but his own stubbornness, his refusal to listen to advice, find him bleeding as the credits roll.

That’s a lot of similarities for two movies with almost no surface relation! Also: Angie Dickinson was Cassavetes’ co-star in Don Siegel’s remake of The Killers (1964), which pioneered the hit-men-as-existential-wanderers theme, as far as I can tell. Did Cassavetes see the Outside Man in 1973, before starting work on his next film?

Blume in Love, 1973:

Wicker, dope, balconies, fruit bowls, plants, plush carpet, stone-tile floors, greenhouse living room, steel spiral staircase, communes, swinger clubs, bushy beards, Volkswagons, breezes through open windows, Otis Redding’s “Dreams to Remember,” Van Morrison’s “I’ve Been Working.”

The best scene in the film quickly becomes the worst—in fact, it’s the scene that renders the movie a waste. But the good part: George Segal visits ex-wife Susan Anspach, who’s stoned and teaching herself Carole King’s “You’ve Got A Friend” while he tries to convince her to return to him. The counterpoint is subtler than my description suggests.

Best line, from Blume’s therapist: “It’s not unusual for recently divorced men to go through a phase of sportfucking.”


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