Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Trade-Off (1996)

Theresa Russell seduces Adam Baldwin (who, it turns out, is not
even a Baldwin brother).

An early nineties made-for-Showtime movie with Adam Baldwin may not have the most appeal, but Trade-Off is a gem of an erotic thriller. In debt, falling behind at work, and unhappily married, Tom (Baldwin) meets Jackie (Theresa Russell) by chance one night at a bar. She is worse off---married to an abusive drunk. The two begin meeting in hotel rooms, first sharing their dreams, then Jackie divulges her wish to see her husband dead. She turns herself on by suggesting untimely demises, whispering about industrial accidents, bleeding to death, wrapping a car around a telephone poll. Eventually, she coaxes Tom (or as she lovingly refers to him, Thomas) into playing along with the morbid game. The next day Tom's wife is presumed dead, her car pulled out of the river. Tom must reciprocate Jackie's favor, leading to a scene of a murder so sloppy it is comical. Afterwards, at a confessional booth, Tom realizes he has left his inscribed wedding ring at the scene of the murder!

A plot like this requires a cast of dupes, vixens, sleazeballs, and cynics. Baldwin plays his morally-lax, burnt out businessman with appropriate vacuousness. Russell lets it all out in the sex scenes---biting, licking, seemingly engulfing her new lover. Her affected southern accent only adds to the spectacle. As Tom's rival at work, Pat Skipper deserves accolades for delivery lines such as "I'm succeeding, get used to it" like a true prick. Barry Primus completes this solid cast as a detective chipping away at the case, alternating between coyness and sarcasm.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Lighthouse (1947)

John Litel as Hank broods in his lighthouse.

From the opening scroll: "And always watchful, vigilant, is the man who tends the lighthouse, living his life of oppressive loneliness and seclusion. He lives in his own little world so that others may live---it's a small world---but things happen in it...."

Things, indeed. Like most films out of the PRC factory, Lighthouse runs a scant 62 minutes. This swelled hour is packed with plenty of maritime melodrama. Though the setup has the makings of a cynical nautical noir, the film, unfortunately, never dives into those murky depths.

Hank, a nice, responsible, and, not surprisingly, lonely man oversees the lighthouse. He is assisted by a lowlife, lying, ladies man, Sam. Connie has just been laid off from her job at the fish cannery. Washing away the saltiness which comes with that occupation, she longs for Sam, who, unbeknownst to her is married. On an investigative mission for her missing beau, she unravels Sam's charade. Her spiteful solution: marry Hank. Will Connie end up falling for dependable Hank or will Sam weasel his way back into Connie's heart?

June Lang as Connie decides whether she wants to be a femme fatale.

Despite an attempted murder and an insurance investigation, Lighthouse remains mostly a soaper, with only a few specks of grit, and a handful of hard-boiled lines ("Sister, that ain't just two-timing, that's hittin' you on the head eight to the bar.") Visually, it offers some points of interest. There are a couple of location shots of the grimy seaport town that are quite evocative. A blinking signal light in the housing quarters of the lighthouse serves as a symbol for Hank---the consistent watchdog. Hank's simple life is epitomized by his recurring nightmare of the signal light going out.

This shot of the signal light gone out echoes a shot of a hangman's noose
in Wisbar's earlier Strangler of the Swamp.

Lighthouse is the last of a quartet of movies Frank Wisbar directed for PRC, following the hard-to-find Secrets of a Sorority Girl and two minor horror classics, Strangler of the Swamp and Devil Bat's Daughter. These last two are endlessly fascinating, the former for its rustic other worldliness the latter for its occupation as the most hysterically strange sequel of all-time. They will certainly be discussed further in future posts.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The House Next Door (2002)

Theresa Russell and James Russo welcome you to the neighborhood.

A young couple with perfect teeth and idyllic jobs (one is a children's book illustrator) move into a house next door to an abusive ex-Marine, Carl (James Russo, perfectly clad with flannel shirt and graying mustache) and his withering wife Helen (Theresa Russell). Carl's abusive tirades are capped off one night with a gunshot, leading the young wife next door to suspect the worst.

As an heir to Rear Window, it is short on thrills and jerkily paced (the extent of Carl's menace is thrust too quickly into the script). As a commentary on suburban U.S.A., it is uncertain and ineffective. Carl's patriotism, evidenced by his raising an American flag every morning and his big Fourth of July bash, is never integrated into his dialogue or motives. Most likely, this is a case of the filmmakers' insistence on creating a subtext no matter how vague it appears in the final product.

James Russo can be a little smothering at times.

As wobbly as the script is, it is performed by capable talent. Russo and Frederic Forrest (as the corrupt Sheriff) lend a good deal of credence and creepiness to their small town characters. Sean Young puts in a day's work as a big city slut, and gives the film a few, much needed laughs (Her best line trails off: " I just gave him this little handjob and he's thanking me profusely. It was really sweet.") Unfortunately, Theresa Russell's character disappears halfway into the movie. Her few scenes have an intense sadness. Constantly fidgeting and on the verge of tears, she genuinely seems to want to crawl out of her own skin.

Directed by Joey Travolta (who should probably go by Joseph when he directs a thriller).

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Flight of the Dove (1994)

Theresa Russell, intimidating.

Concerning the crossed paths of a high class dominatrix with too many government secrets (Theresa Russell) and a demolition expert with a homeless family's blood on his hands (Scott Glenn), The Flight of the Dove is a surprisingly eccentric thriller. Scenes of the most overwrought dialogue outside of a method acting workshop are interspersed between bar brawls, car wrecks, and exploding miniatures. This bizarre mix would collapse if not for the presence of Russell as "The Dove," a neurotic spy/dominatrix who is writing her life story as a therapeutic measure prescribed by her psychiatrist. An unlikely character for sure, Russell alternates between viciousness in her dealings with clients to blubbering mess in her shrink sessions (it's hard not to recoil as she vomits out the words "a fucking whore" to describe herself). It's really a braver performance than the material deserves.

Theresa Russell, radiating.

Released to video as The Spy Within, this New Concorde production is the sole directorial effort from character actor Steve Railsback. It's an oddity---a straight to video thriller that leaves a lasting impression.

The Flight of the Dove does not disappoint in the exploding miniature department.

Having a fixation on a particular actor can lead a film viewer down some strange paths. My yen for the lusty enthusiasm of Theresa Russell has led me down an especially bumpy road paved with low budget thrillers, one that I intend to document here in the next few weeks. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Mask of Diijon (1946)

Poor Diijon, he has no time for the frivolities of life. A reclusive ex-magician has little patience for a world which is satisfied with cheap gags, tricks, and illusions. His wife, Victoria, tries to inject some practicality into Diijon, whose primary goal, in his words, is to "develop my mind spiritually." Victoria, surely at least twenty years younger than her husband, would rather catch up with her old beau Tony Holiday (what an infuriating name!). As played by Erich von Stroheim, Diijon is a slab of granite, whose normal range of expression goes no further than a slight twitch of the mouth or a roll of the eyes. There are a couple moments where the mask slips. First, when Diijon thwarts a stickup at a diner by hypnotizing the bandit.

So proud of his power, he lets slip a smile. The second instance is when Diijon takes a back seat at the Romany Gardens club to watch his wife perform a sentimental tune, "I Wore White Roses".

He looks up at her with teary eyes.

Startled, she recedes out of the spotlight.

It is a brief moment of poetry, an encapsulation of the character's loneliness. Teetering between pathos and violent psychosis, it looks forward to the scene in Blue Velvet where Jeffrey Beaumont spies Frank Booth alone at the Slow Club crying to the title song. (Another connection between this Lew Landers picture and the world of David Lynch is the presence of Jeanne Bates as Victoria, later as Mrs. X in Eraserhead.)

This is a fine film---economical in storytelling with a few flourishes of style. The tightly knit script satisfies with its book-ended guillotine executions, one more illusory than the other.