Review: Communion (Alice, Sweet Alice)

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

I don’t know anything about Alfred Sole beyond the fact that he has described himself as “a good Catholic boy,” and barely a single name on either side of the cameras in this extraordinary film of his was familiar to me (though I recognized bald-headed, bespectacled Gary Allen as having previously been one of the eight dead murderers making life tough for Cristina Raines in The Sentinel). But I suspect we’ll hear a good deal more of Sole in future. Communion is a classy chiller on a low budget, and a celebration of cinema at its noirest. The filmmaker Sole most obviously seeks comparison with is that other good Catholic boy named Alfred, but there are several additional big names exercising a powerful influence, too.

The main title comes up over a Bunuelian image of an angelic little girl holding a large cross, which, a deft pullback reveals, is actually a huge, phallic knife. An amazingly fat pervert living in grotesque squalor (despite possessing wealth) could have provided a dandy part for Victor Buono in one of Robert Aldrich’s farther-out Gothic excursions. A child under suspicion of murder undergoes Exorcist-style humiliations at the hands of various uncaring adults representing the authorities. Above all, Roeg’s Don’t Look Now is heftily evoked via the presence of a face-unseen killer in a PVC raincoat (yellow this time), whom we are encouraged to think is a child but who turns out to be an adult. The killer wears a face mask, which could be an allusion to any number of movies – The Phantom of the Opera, House of Wax, or even Duffy or Cool Breeze. Hitchcock looms over all these, though. There’s marital bickering filmed through a rainswept car windscreen à la Marnie; there’s an agonizingly slow Torn Curtain death; there’s a gruff-but-polite-but-terrifying Wrong Man police detective; there are I Confess priests, a faintly Mrs. Danvers-like housekeeper fixated on the memory of a dead female (in this case her own daughter, whose place the child at the movie’s center symbolically takes, just as the second Mrs. de Winter did Rebecca’s), and churchgoers as impotent in the face of sudden crime as those kidnap witnesses in Family Plot. Above all, the surprise which most filmgoers anticipate will come at the end comes instead a lot earlier, as in Vertigo, so that the suspense is based on our knowing what’s what when no one in the actual movie does. And then there are the Psycho references; mainly to do with people getting stabbed, notably on a staircase, these are the most obvious parallels. Just in case we haven’t got the reference, Sole (whose movie takes place in 1961) shows us a poster advertising the film, clearly still packing the customers in, a year after its initial release, at the Paterson, N.J., picture palace. Mothers almost as lethal as (more so than?) Mater Bates figure prominently; and the central figure in the movie, the child Alice (significant name), might well grow up to be a female Norman … or perhaps a more lethal Marnie. Though innocent of the crimes ascribed to her by nasty, stupid or overly cynical adults, Alice is a disturbed kid, and the film’s closing image offers us a stunning twist on the Hitchcockian transfer-of-culpability theme. Cleared as the real killer claims one last victim, Alice, ignored by all the adults, purloins the murder weapon. She is innocent, but will she become guilty? Perhaps there was more behind the 1961 setting than mere allusiveness. The child of 1961 is now an adult….

Communion may have been made cheaply but it moves along with remarkable assurance. Sole’s eye for a riveting image is pretty sophisticated; instead of the blood-mixed-with-shower-water you get in Psycho, he offers blood in a street-corner puddle, blood in an occupied goldfish bowl, blood being licked up by a hungry cat. His control over his array of horrors falters only with the fat pervert, Mr. Alphonso, played by Alphonso DeNoble, who seems to have strayed in from a world rather too far away from that of the other characters. What are nice, prim, middle-class Catholic parents doing in any place owned by so transparent a creep? But if this particular example of Solean grotesquerie seems too conspicuously invented, nothing much else is. Only a good Catholic boy could have worked out so neatly integrated a network of peculiarly Catholic fears and paranoias as that forming the psychological substructure of this nightmare. Father Tom, the dashing young priest who asks children if they’ve made “a good confession,” fails to confess his own sin, shared by all the grownups in the film – that of adult pride. Not one of them can penetrate the sensibility of confused, disappointed, tough and, finally, perhaps, dangerous Alice. His punishment is literally what our punishment – the Hitchcockian emphasis on our own culpability – is only figuratively: he gets it in the neck.

© 1978 Pierre Greenfield

2010 Afterword: Re-reading these reviews of mine after more than thirty years, I am struck by how little accuracy my occasional predictions (or hopes) possessed. Don Sharp didn’t go on to bigger and better things after The 39 Steps; he only made two more movies, both flops, and a few TV shows. Barbara Kellerman didn’t become a film star after The Sea Wolves; alas, she has only occasionally been seen even on TV subsequently (notably as The White Witch in the BBC’s 1988 version of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe). And, just as I had never heard of Alfred Sole before Communion, I never heard of him again after it. A little Internet research this morning reveals that he did make a couple more films (wholly unknown to me) but gave up directing completely after 1982. (Conversely, I ignored the film debut of Brooke Shields.) I’ve never had the opportunity to see Communion a second time, I’ve never come across any TV showings, or any video or DVD of it. Has it vanished?

COMMUNION (Alice, Sweet Alice)
Direction: Alfred Sole. Screenplay: Alfred Sole and Rosemary Ritvo. Cinematography: John Friberg, Chuck Hall. Music: Stephen Lawrence. Editing: Edward Salier. Production design: John Lawless. Production: Richard Rosenberg.
The players: Linda Miller, Paula Sheppard, Mildred Clinton, Rudolph Willrich, Alphonso DeNoble, Gary Allen, Kathy Rich, Jane Lowry, Brooke Shields, Lillian Roth, Tom Signorelli, Mary Boylan.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.