Review: Between Friends
[Originally published in Movietone News 48, February 1976]
by Ken Eisler
One thing about Canadian director Don Shebib, he gives an actor room to stretch out. Too much room, some viewers feel. Shebib is obviously willing to risk viewers’ impatience with yet another long take, à la Cassavetes, of his anti-heroic “boys” horsing around, yet another closeup of some guy struggling to put his inchoate feelings into words. When these indulgences fail, you get one of those arid well-whadda-you-wanna-do-tonight-Marty? patches. But when they work, you may get a passage as moving as Joey’s (Paul Bradley’s) heartfelt, tipsily self-revealing speech at his own wedding in Goin’ down the Road.
It seemed to me that in Between Friends, Shebib’s third feature film, he and his co-editor Tony Lower deployed a fairly sure sense of just how long things can profitably be allowed to run. Mixed in with the fraternal banter and the inevitable medium- and longshot scenes of the young rowdy men at play are more quick shots than heretofore, catching people’s reactions to one another, their significant and sometimes comic gestures, fleeting facial expressions, eye contact, avoidance of eye contact. And when you do watch those two bosom buddies, intoxicated with each other’s company and with nostalgia for their adolescence (the film’s original title was Get Back) slaloming drunkenly, on rollerskates, amongst beer bottles set up at midnight in a Toronto gutter, the scene, though thematically important, is kept mercifully short. Furthermore, against the boys’ beerily sentimental perspective on their own merriment Shebib now explicitly juxtaposes the perspective of a partly amused but mostly disgusted third party: Bonnie Bedelia.
Bonnie Bedelia. I saw this actress for the first time many years ago in a made-for-TV movie called (I think) Then Came Bronson. It was a pilot for a series, and like many pilots, it was a hell of a lot better than the series that followed. Her co-star then, as in Between Friends, was Michael Parks. Parks played, as usual, a drifter; monosyllabic, self-contained, mumblingly Brandoesque with a core of strength and a nice line in not-meant-to-mortally-wound sardonic humor. He finds himself unexpectedly saddled with a pampered poor little rich girl (Bedelia), and while they’re on the road he “tames” and humanizes her. They also, naturally, fall in love. For this modest pilot, Bedelia delivered
In Between Friends she does it again. But this time we’re deep in the cinematic Canada country described by Canadian Forum critic Robert Fothergill in his definitive article “Being Canadian Means Always Having To Say You’re Sorry (The Dream Life of a Younger Brother).” This time it’s Parks, the male, who’s feckless, weak, out-of-touch with his feelings; and it’s the female who is strong and mature, if a bit stymied by the refractory nature of the charming boy-man she loves.
The Parks character, Toby, drifts up to Toronto where Ellie (Bedelia) is living with Chino (Chuck Shamata in a beautifully judged performance), a bumptious young man who works as a short-order cook and is hatching a big heist with Bedelia’s father, fresh out of the slammer. In their palmy Southern California days, some six years ago, Toby was young Chino’s surfing mentor and they were a duo: The Best on the Coast. Toby the Drifter drifts into consenting to go along with his old buddy on the forthcoming job, a payroll robbery at a nickel plant in Sudbury. Meanwhile, he also drifts into reciprocating—well, sort of—Ellie’s growing affection for him; anyway, they’re soon sleeping together.
This triangle plot and its downbeat dénouement don’t exactly dazzle a viewer with surprises. But to call Between Friends a “formula screenplay,” as a Vancouver daily film reviewer did when he panned the film during its brief local showing at the Varsity’s summer International Film Festival a few years ago, is nevertheless doing less than justice to both Claude Harz’s laconic screenplay and Shebib’s richly detailed direction.
Shebib’s Lost Youth motif, which permeates his three features—a nostalgia for those ostensibly untainted days of postadolescent, pre-alienation roughhousing, for the grace and vitality and virtual communion represented by sports—if not exactly “formula” is, I suppose, hackneyed enough. But in practice, Shebib brings to it a personal charge that is redeeming.
Parks telephones Shamata long distance. “Where the hell are you?” says Shamata after they exchange pleasantries. Parks simply holds the mouthpiece of the phone at arm’s length, for about fifteen wordless seconds; and Shamata, up in Toronto, joyously takes in this soundscape, processes it, cries: “Malibu!” A short pause, and he goes on to inventory—gleefully and, to judge by Parks’ expression, accurately—the prevailing surfing conditions.
The robbery attempt, however, fails—of course. Bedelia’s father and the embittered Shamata are both fatally wounded. A high shot shows us the getaway car and the rendezvous car placed in the bleak Ontario winter landscape not far from Sudbury. Bodies are hauled out onto the road, Bedelia’s father dead, Shamata clearly dying. I wondered where Shebib could go from here, how he could end his film. Probably I should have guessed; probably the answer is entirely too predictable. And yet his long and lovely, fluidly edited slow-motion coda—sunlight, waves, skillful surfer skimming ever closer to the beach … and, almost voluptuously, wiping out—hit me hard; and the rest of the house seemed pretty quiet, too.
A final word needs to be said about Richard Leiterman’s beautiful color cinematography and Matthew McCauley’s music, if only to get something on the record besides the aforementioned Vancouver reviewer’s accusation of filmic “pretentiousness” aggravated by “a painful piano and violin score.”
When the small thieves-like-us party nears the nickel plant on their reconnaissance trip before the job, Shebib unleashes a somber combination of moving-car shots of the dreadful slag-ridden Sudbury industrial wasteland, within-the-car behavioral density, and evocative music featuring a piano and (sic) cello—a combination that I found lyrically potent in a way reminiscent of the work of the very best directors. McCauley’s score is otherwise functional and allusive in a quiet way. When the boys are out in the gutter at midnight slaloming through beer bottles, music is booming from a phonograph inside the house. Ellie, standing in the open doorway, protests against this high-decibel period stuff; goes in and turns it off; is bullied by Chino to start it up again. The incident dramatizes her mounting impatience at “running a nursery” for the immature Chino, Chino’s obliviousness to her feelings, and the primacy of male friendship in Chino’s life.
One further footnote on the music: unless I’m very much mistaken, that’s Ronee Blakley we hear, pre-Nashville, singing her poignant “Dues” behind a brief and ‘rather weak shabby-hotel-room scene suffused with the standard neon red from a blinking neon sign.
Direction: Don Shebib. Screenplay: Claude Harz. Cinematography: Richard Leiterman. Editing: Shebib, Tony Lower. Music: Matthew McCauley.
The players: Bonnie Bedelia, Michael Parks, Chuck Shamata, Henry Beckman, Hugh Webster.
© 1976 Ken Eisler