Five Sleazy Pieces

[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]

Recently I encountered a phenomenon—I refuse to call it a book—labeled The Only Good Indian and coauthored by Ralph and Natasha Friars. Its specific sins against the English language and any recognizable form of ratiocination are catalogued elsewhere in this issue. I mention this pseudo-scholarly study of the American Indian’s martyrdom by cinematic slings and arrows only because it exemplifies a particularly cavalier attitude towards product and consumer alike, an attitude rampant not only in selfrighteous critical tracts like the Friars’, but also in an increasing number of current films. People like the Friars don’t have to make sense (either stylistically or thematically), don’t have to work at selling their shoddy wares even on the level of persuasive polemic. Why? Because their readers are pre-sold, previously primed to ingest that which already constipates their thinking. Not, admittedly, a new process—this recycling of pap that effects no change, no growth, only a mild to offensive case of intellectual flatulence. Still, recent movies like The Last of Sheila, The Harrad Experiment, and most particularly Badge 373, Harry in Your Pocket, and The Legend of Hell House impel one to speculate about a spiraling trend towards just this sort of bland diet in the cinema.

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The Last of Sheila cashes in on the audience’s putative taste for the games (rich) people play, not to mention psychic stripping, a spectacle many in our group-therapy-ridden society have come to relish in and for itself with or without any therapeutic payoff for the individual involved. Broadway composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim—who, with close friend Tony Perkins, wrote Sheila‘s screenplay—is reputedly hooked on the puzzle-game habit himself. Perhaps as a result, the film retains the half-thought-out, initially grabby but ultimately flabby quality of a neat idea cooked up by old buddies with shared interests over late-night scotches.

Like Sleuth, The Last of Sheila has its master gamester, a fabulously wealthy and powerful film producer named Clinton (James Coburn) who gathers together a motley crew of Hollywood grotesques on the anniversary of his wife’s fatal encounter with a hit-and-run driver. All are old friends, all save one—partied at Clinton’s home the night Sheila was killed, and each one of them is willing to curry some favor from Clinton by participating in a week’s worth of “games” aboard his luxurious yacht.

As the complicated—but ultimately not very complex—plot unravels, the audience is treated to what they ostensibly paid their money for, progressively kinkier and crueler charades and unmaskings which inevitably culminate in the discovery of Sheila’s killer as well as a couple of very nastily contrived murders. The guests indulge in a little internecine bitchery (and pretty minor-league stuff it is) while waiting for their turn to squirm as his or her ugly little secret (child-molesting, shoplifting, homosexuality, etc.) is exposed for the others’ edification and their host’s quirky delight.

Thc film, oscillating between showbiz soap opera and highbrow whodunit, is all surface; once past the names and the games, the slightly faggoty high fashion, the sweet life as lived aboard a yacht off the French Riviera, the slick magazine-ad photography, there’s not much left to sink one’s teeth into. Rather like shelling out for an elegant repast only to have an elaborately packaged TV dinner plunked down in front of you.

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Even more than The Last of Sheila, The Harrad Experiment panders to the audience’s appetite for pseudo-psychological revelations and epiphanies, this time within the framework of institutionalized sexual experimentation à la Masters and Johnson and the current rash of how-to-do-it-and-like-it sex clinics.

Two tweedily chic academic types (James Whitmore and ‘Tippi’ Hedren) assemble a rather wimpy clutch of wide-eyed freshmen at Harrad College for an experimental course in contemporary sexual ethics, complete with computer-chosen roommates (boy/girl) who may be swapped only once a month “because we … ah … feel that a month … ah … is the minimum amount of time in which it’s possible to get to … ah … know another human being.” As roomies meet and pair off for study, problems arise: the sensitive, virginal Sheila (Laurie Walters) is matched with the dorm rake, Stanley (Don Johnson); and Harry (B. Kirby Jr.), who’s got the machismo of a spaniel, finds himself taken in hand by a self-styled “sensuous woman” (proof positive: at age three she took off all her clothes and cavorted in the snow!). Whether any other students attend Harrad or anything besides sexual instruction is offered there are nagging little questions never really answered by the film, which primarily concerns itself with the salvation of the satyrical Stanley and the properly timed defloration of his reluctant roommate.

The Harrad Experiment

The Harrad Experiment is, in its way, as oldfashionedly schizophrenic about sexual mores as a pre-liberation film like Where the Boys Are (1961), in which it was perfectly acceptable—and good box-office—to titillate the audience with the spectacle of horny collegians flocking to Fort Lauderdale for a spring-break orgy. Dolores Hart set the tone by outraging her Victorian professor with some “modern” views on sexual freedom. But when push came to shove, good-girl Hart was implicitly applauded for holding out against the considerable wiles of playboy George Hamilton, and bad-girl (she goes all the way!) Yvette Mimieux was punished by being raped and run over by a car. Though The Harrad Experiment is larded with lectures about the optimal benefits of nonpossessive (read non-monogamous) relationships and uninhibited sexual expression, it’s clear the sympathies of the film gravitate towards the sexually insecure and inexperienced who, of course, are the most uptight and possessive. On the other hand, Stanley’s reactionary notion of just having a good time in the hay almost gets him exiled from this ersatz Eden, ostensibly because he’s rejecting the “responsibility” born of meaningful relationships. But what’s good for the gander ain’t necessarily so for the goose: Beth (Victoria Thompson), the sensuous type mentioned earlier, may flaunt her sexual independence and self-assurance, but she is denied any visible participation in and thereby relieved of any of that much-touted responsibility for her one-shot encounter with Stanley. For all its pretensions to liberal-mindedness, the old double standard still dominates The Harrad Experiment: the girls are either “saving themselves for the right moment” or passive, even invisible, objects of Stanley’s offhanded seductions. If The Last of Sheila was by Esquire out of Harper’s Bazaar, The Harrad Experiment is indisputably a Playboy by-blow.

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Compared, however, to the perpetrators of a movie like Badge 373, the makers of Sheila and Harrad are rank neophytes in the business of exploiting popular prejudices or predilections among film watchers.

Watching Badge 373 is liker seeing The French Connection through a camera darkly. Badge 373 doesn’t have to be good to sell itself on its own merits because it shamelessly depends on The French Connection‘s having conditioned the ticket-buyers to eat up the rough-talking. minority-baiting, misunderstood and suspended cop, especially when his partner’s been rubbed out, necessitating a singlehanded jihad to bring said partner’s murderers to justice. In Badge 373 it’s Puerto Ricans that Robert Duvall particularly loathes, and a hijacked shipment of guns, not snuggled heroin, is the focal point of the action. And there’s the obligatory chase sequence which bears about as much resemblance to the gut-grabber in The French Connection as a small-time soapbox derby bears to the Indy 500.

While William Friedkin’s film was informed throughout by a controlling intelligence and point-of-view, Badge 373 is morally, thematically, and spatially indeterminate, changing coloration on any level at the clink of a possible shekel at the till. The character of Robert Duvall as the spic-hating cop, with its mixture of virtue and bigotry, is indubitably aimed at what’s left of the Silent Majority, while the radical young Puerto Ricans who buy guns to deliver their homeland from the manifest destiny of American tourism constitute a bid for the sympathies of what remains of the rad-chic element. But like those of Sweet William (Henry Darrow), the ultra-educated and cynical Puerto Rican crimelord who sells the guns, their behavioral tics are mere caricatures of what once were genuine (wrongheaded or not) impulses and beliefs in other films, other times. Consistency of character is subordinated to whatever might be immediately grabby. For example, in a comparatively lengthy scene, a nice rapport is established between the idealistic young leader of the P.R. activists and Sweet William who, as he reminisces about the degradation his family suffered in Puerto Rico and New York City, comes off as a romantic turned reluctant nihilist. As against this revelation of character, Duvall, who at one point is beaten to a pulp by those same young activists, never deviates from his unrelenting contempt for all P.R.s. However, in the climactic shootout it is Duvall who holds his fire when the activist leader interposes himself between the cop and Sweet William in an attempt to forestall further gunplay—and Sweet William shoots the boy down with not even a second’s hesitation.

The integrity of cinematic space is as much violated as anything else in this corrupt endeavor. The chase sequence involves Duvall in a monster-bus pursued and rammed by Puerto Ricans in commandeered cars and trucks. Because of careless camerawork and, especially, shoddy editing, it is at times impossible to distinguish “enemy”‘ vehicles from normal traffic (and this is not “the point” of the scene, either); even worse, as shots of the chase at different points arc rather indiscriminately mixed, the location of the bus and the strategic relationship of the attacking autos are, at any given moment, moot questions. Aside from lack of continuity and spatial orientation, the sequence smacks of the worst kind of urban paranoia fantasy: is it really probable that a huge bus and an assorted fleet of lesser vehicles could careen wildly and for an extended period of time through the streets of New York City without one cop appearing on the scene? Unbelievably, the city’s finest fail to appear even after the bus crashes so that the Puerto Ricans have plenty of time to beat the bejesus out of Duvall and depart.

Like the authors of The Only Good Indian, Badge 373‘s creators apparently hold themselves responsible only for the rawest of raw material; for they share the comfortable, if devious, assumption that their audiences will do their work for them—by taking the bare bones of critical or cinematic ideas, respectively, and fleshing them out with bits and pieces of their own expectations or preconceptions. Who needs to prove a critical point or infuse a chase sequence with earned excitement when one’s readers or viewers will do it for you and give you the credit to boot? After all, chases are by definition exciting … aren’t they?

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By the same token, horror movies are supposed to be scary—right? Consequently, the audience with whom I watched The Legend of Hell House was bound and determined to be scared. And hard work it was, too, considering that the film pretty much refused to lend a hand—skeletal or otherwise. Oh, it supplied some of the basic ingredients: a demon-possessed house, some disembodied voices, a little telekinetic destructiveness, even some wandering ectoplasm. But numerous shots of worried faces, even when taken from floor level or closeup through a fish-eye lens, fail after a while to inspire that hoped-for frisson, and the debate over whether medium or machine, the spiritual or the scientific, will win the day proves wearisome when little seems to threaten.

Richard Matheson’s novel evoked an incredibly evil de Sadean personality which nearly defeats the four men and women who seek to exorcise his hellish domicile. The being’s method was to call up the team’s own psychic devils, setting libidinous fantasies against reason and piety. Most of this material is completely euphemized, even ignored in the film. The fetid air of sexual corruption which permeated the novel is so sanitized that hardly a hint of the demon’s satanic modus operandi remains. Due to this curious avoidance of material from the novel, lacunae in plot as well as in character motivation occasionally become evident. In the film Roddy McDowall, as one of the exorcists, is briefly identified as a physical medium—generically different from a spiritual medium—and the only survivor of the last previous assault on Hell House. While the spiritualist and the scientist get right down to work, Roddy sort of hangs around at loose ends, making pessimistic comments but mostly just looking worried. Never is it made clear that the man’s last encounter with the Belasco haunt, in his teens, so demoralized him that he has become an all-around failure who has lost faith in his own powers. That he is “blocking” any contact with the spirit-charged atmosphere of the house and that his final opening to and engagement of the unseen enemy constitutes a moral and professional regeneration are little details that would have explained Roddy’s strange lack of participation in the proceedings—but no such explanation is vouchsafed. The audience can guess, can’t they? The name of the game, as with Badge 373, is make your own movie, folks.

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Harry in Your Pocket works an interesting variation on this theme: make your own home movie of last summer’s vacation in—you name it—Seattle, Victoria, Salt Lake City. Include lots of shots of local tourist attractions: Mayor Wes Uhlman, the Brasserie Pittsbourg, the Empress Hotel, the Mormon Tabernacle. Then spice it up a bit with some footage of a quartet of peripatetic pickpockets and you’ve got Harry in Your Pocket, a sort of cinematic guided tour, the weak excuse for which is some rather gratuitous goings-on among Michael Sarrazin, Trish Van Devere, James Coburn, and Walter Pidgeon.

Seattle King St. railway station. Van Devere is strangely attracted by Sarrazin’s superklutzy attempts to palm a wallet—and her watch. They team up, hit the sack, and are quickly off to apprentice themselves to two professional pickpockets of the old school, Coburn and Pidgeon. What follows is appallingly slack: over and over we watch Harry (Coburn) and his cohorts work various streets and marks until the novelty of their ploys has been totally exhausted. In between times, the cast simply peregrinates, advertising whatever city, hotel, or tourist attraction is on the agenda. Thus, as they arrive in British Columbia, the camera laboriously pans over the shaped-with-flowers WELCOME TO VICTORIA only to be forced to swing awkwardly back the other way in order to follow the movement of the gang’s incoming car.

Some attempt is made to liven this feature-length commercial with a storyline involving an enervated kind of competition between Sarrazin and Coburn for Trish’s affections. There is also some playing-around with the notion of a generation gap even among pickpockets. When Sarrazin turns to the oldest pro for instruction, Pidgeon delivers a pseudo-Peckinpavian speech about how things aren’t like they used to be when pickpockets took pride in their work, caring more for the style of the endeavor than for its monetary benefits. Sarrazin smiles indulgently; subsequently it is his sloppiness that ends the old man’s career and sends Trish to Coburn’s bed.

The presence of three generations of acting styles and standards could have been utilized to add some resonance to this barely developed theme of lost or decaying tradition, but even this glaring potential is ignored as the film limps to its confused and confusing conclusion. Whatever prompts Coburn to his final sacrifice for Sarrazin’s sake can only be a matter for speculation on the part of the audience, despite the “significant” glances exchanged by the various players. It’s like a filmic connect-the-dots game, only when you’ve used up all the dots, no picture, no comprehensible form, emerges. Unless, of course, your only aim is to trace an itinerary for a scenic safari.

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All of these films fail to really entertain or to enrich because they opt for something outside their own cinematic territory to shape and define the silly putty of their half-developed ideas and themes. Their audiences are essentially faced with a screen that is a veritable tabula rasa upon which they are encouraged to limn in the outlines of whatever cinematic reality they are currently predisposed to enjoy. If your idea of a satisfying aesthetic experience is playing with your own mind, maybe you’ll really get it on with Harry in Your Pocket et al. But if solipsism isn’t your chosen position, I suggest you take in an opus by someone who’s up to making his own movies.

THE LAST OF SHEILA
Direction: Herbert Ross. Screenplay: Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins. Cinematography: Gerry Turpin. Art Direction: Ken Adam. Production: Ross.
The Players (in alphabetical order): Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, James Coburn, Joan Hackett, Ian McShane, James Mason, Raquel Welch.

THE HARRAD EXPERIMENT
Direction: Ted Post. Screenplay: Michael Werner and Ted Cassidy, after the novel by Robert Rimmer. Cinematography: Richard H. Kline. Music: Artie Butler.
The Players: Laurie Walters, Don Johnson, Victoria Thompson, B. Kirby Jr., James Whitmore, ‘Tippi’ Hedren.

BADGE 373
Direction: Howard W. Koch. Screenplay: Pete Hamill. Cinematography: Arthur J. Ornitz. Production: Koch.
The Players: Robert Duvall, Verna Bloom, Eddie Egan, Henry Darrow.

THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE
Direction: John Hough. Screenplay: Richard Matheson, after his novel Hell House. Cinematography: Alan Hume.
The Players: Roddy McDowall, Pamela Franklin, Clive Revill, Gayle Hunnicutt.

HARRY IN YOUR POCKET
Direction: Bruce Geller. Screenplay: James David Buchanan and Ron Austin. Cinematography: Fred Koenekamp. Music: Lalo Schifrin. Production: Geller.
The Players: Michael Sarrazin, Trish van Devere, James Coburn, Walter Pidgeon, and introducing Wesley Uhlman.

Copyright © 1973 by Kathleen Murphy


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