[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]
When Richard Fleischer visited the Seattle Film Society last spring, he bridled at the suggestion that Sven Nykvist, rather than he, had been responsible for the frame compositions in The Last Run: “That’s something a lot of people don’t understand.” Certainly no theory of film directing I ever entertained left room for the supposed metteur-en-scÃ¨ne to farm out that particular responsibility to the cameraman; yet it is a fact that there is a Wyler-like look to Ball of Fire (to grab the first Pantheon-class example that springs to mind) that is to be found in no other film by Howard Hawks, and the Wylerian on the premises was almost certifiably cinematographer Gregg Toland. In the lower reaches of film authorship it is not at all difficult to follow the visual spoor of, say, James Wong Howe as he labors for some mightily undistinguished directors (the best “films of Sam Wood” tend to have been shot by Howe and/or production-designed by William Cameron Menzies). And in the wretched The Drowning Pool of Stuart Rosenberg, a recurrence of insinuatingly asymmetrical widescreen compositions and lustrously dim tonal patterns flashes GORDON WILLIS, GORDON WILLIS like a neon sign.
So here comes Gordon Willis making his directorial debut in Windows, and boy is it bad! Willis has performed wonders for Woody Allen, Alan J. Pakula, and Francis Ford Coppola; but while he may have been indispensable to getting their visions onscreen, he falls flat in borrowing his own back. All right, from Coppola he borrows mainly a sister, Talia Shire (whose ascension as a screen starâ€”has she ascended as a screen star?â€”has to be one of the grimmest portents of recent years). But from Pakula we have the wealthy/obsessive/voyeuristic-freako-on-the-loose situation out of Klute; from Allen, a fascination with the way people compartmentalize their lives and psyches in the Big Apple; and from both of them, a penchant for fractured framespace and a brooding, long-take style suitable for studying creatures clinging to their protective shells. It’s all there on the drawing board, and on the screen-as-drawing-board; and it’s so many banjo picks as far as cinematic vitality, resonance, suggestibility is concerned.
The story is dumb as they come: rich lesbian Elizabeth Ashley, who spends most of her time in analysis, devotes the rest of it to courting and fantasizing about and finally terrorizing Shire, the divorcee whose (apparently less frequent) appointments with the shrink precede hers. In the unimprovable image of Andrew Sarris, a dish in love with a saucepan. Ashley gets off by hiring a handy Neanderthal (Rick Petrucelli) to violate Shire (it isn’t precisely what one normally thinks of as rape), and to record her gasps of terror and revulsion for endless listening-to (cf. Klute, again). This form of gratification almost immediately proves insufficient, so Ashley escalates to murdering a few people who, mostly accidentally or momentarily, block her access to the loved one. There is a lot of lingering on windows, the glass walls/viewports behind which lives seek to remain private and inviolate, and on the New York skyline and the luminous Brooklyn Bridge as urban dreamscape; said dreamscape turns suggestively black-and-white after Shire and a patiently tender police detective (Joseph Cortese) have watched the “We have the stars” finale of Now Voyager on the tube, and again as Ashley loses all track of illusion and reality while playing Now Voyeur with a telescope trained on Shire’s apartment. The conceit tends to turn literal rather than operate suggestively. And it gets thoroughly corrupted by association when Willis trashes all his visual splendor through some colossal misjudgments.
He still takes amazing pictures, but a true directorial sense appears to be lacking. He manifests no feeling for behavioral nuance or the timing of a script’s punchlines, so that when the nice Jewish lady in the next apartment says “It happens” after rationalizing her husband’s disappearance (he has been done in by Ashley, as it turns out, while investigating sounds in Shire’s apartment), the urban-ethnic angst provokes a belly-laugh. At one point he lovingly contemplates the night skyline while Shire is heard repeating an anti-stuttering lesson (the rape trauma has brought back an old tic); this isn’t bad as an evocation of all the blighted souls suffering singly in the metropolitan wilderness, but it retroactively turns to shit when he repeats the tactic while Ashley pants over her telescope. Actually, for all its attention to urban spaces (and Willis’s experience on Woody Allen’s best films), Windows conveys no convincing sense of New York lifestyle; the rooms behind those windows never come to lifeâ€”not even, in the case of the unfurnished security apartment Shire takes the day after the attack, an expressive validity as symbol of the undiscovered life. And at the nuts-and-bolts level of narrative the movie is a shambles: there is no time sense, the most preposterous coincidences occur without even inviting the benefit of the doubt (was this a coincidence?), and even a little thing like a murder isn’t properly attached to the narrative line. Some of this is the fault of Barry Siegel’s script, which understandably went unfilmed for years. But let’s heap as much blame on Willis as possible: some real directors need him, and he should be forced to stay on the sets of their movies, not his.
© 1980 Richard T. Jameson
Direction and cinematography: Gordon Willis. Screenplay: Barry Siegel. Production design: Mel Bourne; art director: Richard Fuhrman. Editing: Barry Malkin. Music: Ennio Morricone. Production: Michael Lobell; associate: John Nicolella.
The players: Talia Shire, Elizabeth Ashley, Joseph Cortese, Michael Lipton, Rick Petrucelli, Ron Ryan, Kay Medford, Michael Gorrin.