Review: The Underground Man

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

While maintaining a properly modest reticence myself, I spent the commercial breaks—and part of the regular showtime—wondering who really should be the one to direct the film versions of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer books. Altman has the southern California feel for the milieu, but—sometimes for good, sometimes ill—he can’t leave the original of anything intact enough to suit an admirer of the original. Besides, his acid-splashing approach to interpersonal relations runs counter to the concerned decency of Macdonald and his protagonist, a sort of well-meaning-English-teacher-with-an-edge private eye with memories of a long-ago world war and a marriage that failed. Huston? Yes, the Huston of today, the Huston of Fat City rather than The Maltese Falcon, the Huston who can now take his camera where a Lew Archer has to go without the sense of slumming that mars some of his best work (The Asphalt Jungle, for instance). Bogdanovich? Maybe, yes, if he can keep from quoting The Big Sleep (Hawks’s grey-and-grey soundstage world with sprinkler rain and Max Steiner thunder music and chauffeurs getting driven off piers on the wrong side of a town that has nothing to do with real space, isn’t Archer’s California, though it was certainly Bogart/Marlowe’s). Bogdanovich has the penchant for long-take, middle-distant contemplation that the styles of both novelist and detective call for.

But whichever of those guys I’d assign, I wouldn’t assign Paul Wendkos, a good worker and a sprightly hand with I Spy episodes and the like, but not, it seems, for serious, people-with-feelings pictures, which Archer adaptations ought to be. The Underground Man was made as a TV movie, and a TV pilot to boot. Hence Archer is denied his Marlowe-like office and forced to set up shop, Peter Gunn– or Jeffrey Jones–like (or do I date myself?), in this neat bar, see, where the acerbic but understanding Cassidy (Biff McGuire) takes phone messages for him. All right, so a TV series needs more than one regular. But Archer has been further niftied up: he keeps his booze in a safe (ho ho) with a picture of W.C. Fields (ho) on the inside of the door (not a single ho), and he takes periodic walks in photogenic California locations so the opening (series?) credits can split-screen him around the titles. Macdonald’s Archer goes and looks at the ocean because the deterioration of the ecology is a serious—and an expressive—factor in Macdonald’s work, part and parcel with his penchant for tracing sin and retribution down through family bloodlines. But when Peter Graves pauses at a Venice canal to remember the ecosystem, Marvin Hamlisch cuts in with some of the insuperably insipid Muzak that won him three Oscars this year and inadvertently shows up the (film’s) cheapness of gesture for what it is.

The telemovie starts off with a psychedelically distorted visualization of a scene that never happens, is only remembered (though in some measure reenacted) in the novel, and generally plays it the tricky way for a half-hour or so. Then the novel—Macdonald’s best so far—begins to assert itself. The resonant image of a forest fire eating its way through the background and sometimes into the foreground of the entire novel is only cursorily picked up on, but the chilling metaphor of the underground man—two generations of one family buried overtop each other in a mountain clearing—is too powerful to be denied, and once this fact has come to light the rest of the movie draws on its imaginative energy. Macdonald claimed to have cast Graves unofficially as Archer some time before the filmmakers did, independently. I must say he isn’t my Lew Archer, who looks more like the novelist himself, but he plays the part with a shade more humanity than I’d expected at first: when a slow-witted child-man whispers, “You tricked me,” after Archer and several other men get the drop on him, Graves’s “I’m sorry—I really am” evokes a healthy share of the book’s Archer and his sometimes injudicious sympathy. Celeste Holm is right as a refined lady who has kept a murderous secret for years without having been guilty of the murder, as it turns out. And Sharon Farrell does very nicely by a former good-time gal trying to combine marital respectability and chesty seductiveness in a controlled volatility—a sudden shock turns her earnestly dopey face into a ravaged mask as she remembers all the pain she’s worked so hard to bury within herself, like those two generations of corpses on the hillside. But for the most part Macdonald’s story and characters and, above all, his sense of humanity have been distorted and trivialized. I’m glad the series didn’t sell.

RTJ

THE UNDERGROUND MAN
Direction: Paul Wendkos. Screenplay: Douglas Heyes, after the novel by Ross Macdonald. Cinematography: Earl Rath. Music: Marvin Hamlisch. Production: Heyes.
The Players: Peter Graves, Judith Anderson, Jack Klugman, Celeste Holm, JoAnn Pflug, Jim Hutton, Kay Lenz, Sharon Farrell, Biff McGuire, Vera Miles.

Copyright © 1974 Richard T. Jameson