Friday, September 15, 2017

the late education of the widow Fay

THE HONEYMOON KILLERS (1970; written and directed by Leonard Kastle)

If only Janet could sleep...

But now as she lay here in the dark, next to a stranger she doesn't particularly like or trust, in a strange house—in a strange situation—her mind is finally beginning to click, to make some kind of sense of this most unlikely scenario. Has she ever been this careless? This handsome young man had swooped in, charmed her sad, lonesome heart with kindness and flattery (whilst pleading his own loneliness), professed his desires for their future, for her hand in marriage, and she—so enraptured in the wonder of it all—lost sight of herself, and hadn't even allowed for the possibility of something untoward. Poor lonely Janet had simply felt too good about it all, and couldn't help herself. But here in this dark, unfamiliar room, her instincts and scattered recollections of the past couple of days are beginning to cause a stir.

What were Charles and his sister up to in the basement all that time earlier tonight, supposedly locked in? Supposedly hiding her checks in a safe placethe checks she'd hastily endorsed over to him, because he wants to help his bride-to-be open a hat shop right here in Valley Stream.  Ten thousand dollars, practically every cent she has in the world...

As daffy, nasally spinster Janet Fay, Mary Jane Higby gives a terrific performance that is by turns funny and harrowing.

Now that she's finally growing concerned her whirlwind courtship might be too good to be true, she's begun mulling over certain odd details she should've wondered about all along. Earlier that day, when she'd suggested telling her children of the impending nuptials, Charles had politely disagreed, envisaging the wonderful surprise they'd get from finding out she'd already taken the plunge.

And so she relented in making any phone calls—and come to think of it, they might not have approved—and now she's in a strange bed, and the burgeoning awareness that nobody knows where she is hardly helps her unsettled mind. And Charles and his moody sister, Martha, she barely knows these people. There are certain things she needs to hear to put her mind at ease, and she needs to hear them now if she's ever going to get a good night's sleep.

It takes but a few words with tired, sullen Martha for this little talk to escalate into a big commotion, and suddenly Janet realizes the spot she's gotten herself into and begins frantically demanding to see her checks and call her daughter. Just why is this woman, this rather imposing little sister—half-concealing a scowl since the moment they met—radiating all the wrong signals?

Up until this point in THE HONEYMOON KILLERS (and let's face it—awful title), we've witnessed a gradual evolution of the titular couplewho seem to be terrible influences on one anotherbeginning the night they met.  

That first evening together, within moments of their first shared screen time, they're plotting their first crimegiving Martha's doddering, elderly mother a dangerously potent combination of alcohol and a sleeping pill (so they'll be rid of her for the night).

I'm sorry my mother's such a nuisance.”
I think she's adorable.”
Would you think I was terrible if I gave her a sleeping pill?”
No. I want to be alone too.”

Soon they're reveling in the misdeed, making love in the same room as the unconscious mother, and it isn't long before Martha's dumping mom permanently into a nursing home and hitting the road with her new lover, who has revealed himself a career con. Prior to this, Martha had been a hard-working but lonely nurse, and looking after her aging mother had been her abiding duty.

In their short time on the road together, the couple had met a few eager prospective “lonely hearts” (members of the same kind of letter-writing clubs from which Ray had found Martha), with Martha always posing as Ray's younger sister.  Things have not gone smoothly with Martha on board, though, her uncontrollable jealousy and inexperience a constant hindrance to the con. 

While violence had never previously been Ray's style (the sweet-talking lothario preferring to take the money and run), the game had just recently turned deadly when Martha drugged and killed one of the swindler's brides, who was a bit too eager to consummate the honeymoon for Martha's liking.

And their most recent endeavor had been a complete bust. Spying Ray and the younger-than-expected woman in a lover's embrace on the beach, the full measure of Martha's love and jealousy (and impulse control) is revealed as she attempts to drown herself.  It's also in these moments—when the seemingly ruthless hustler dives in to save Martha—that a love story, and Ray's true emotions, rise to the surface.  

But love or not, Ray is getting fed up with Martha's jealousy and inability to get with the plan, to see the hustle through, and she realizes it. There can be no mistakes with Janet Fay, an easy mark, not after the last few mishaps—not if they're going to make this partnership work.

With its ultra low-budget and stark, grainy black and white photography and natural lighting, THE HONEYMOON KILLERS looks like old newsreel or documentary footage, something of a nod to its true crime roots (the story is a surprisingly accurate account of the “Lonely Hearts Killers” of the late 1940's, and even keeps the names of the killers and some of the victims the same). Despite the budgetary constraints and inexperience of first-time director, Leonard Kastle, the performancesespecially its leads, Shirley Stoler and Tony Lo Biancoare exemplary.  One of the trickier things about this picture is its ability to keep the viewer off balance, to suck you into this strange love story all the while making the victims of these schemers seem realistic yet (more often than not) almost comically foolish and unlikablelulling you into something like complicity in the crimes. It all serves to make the eventual progression into brutality that much more shocking and disturbing.

Which brings us back to the widow Fay, who is now fast approaching hysterics. Why is Martha so set against Janet calling her daughter, no matter the time? By what right do these people think they can keep her from seeing her checks—after all, it's her money. It's time for some answers.

“No, I want to use the telephone. Where is it?”

Awake in the living room, Ray can hear the argument rise to shouts, and then a loud slapand knows his plan has been compromised. 

As far as he's concerned, that ten thousand is as good as his. Too much time and effort in this to be otherwise. This is Martha's mess—let her clean it up.

Ray? Who's Ray?”

Friday, September 1, 2017

the painted bird

The Tenant (1976; d: Roman Polanski)

When we last caught up with our imperiled Polish emigre in Paris, Trelkovsky (Roman Polanksi), his already tenuous grip on reality seemed to be slipping entirely. Whether the victim of an insidious conspiracy or of his own encroaching mental illness, he is convinced his new neighbors (and others) are attempting to sway him toward suicide, much the same as they had the previous tenant.

Many of the things we've witnessed so far would seem to corroborate this notion of conspiracy, though of late it's become increasingly clear that Trelkovsky's sanity and perspective are not to be trusted, and perhaps they never were.

Take, for instance, our early introduction to the apartment building's concierge (Shelley Winters), and to Trelkovsky himself.

It's so good to be bad.  The wonderful Shelley Winters, having fun.

Either she's a vulgar, morbid woman having a good laugh in the telling of this very recent tragedy, and is possibly emboldened by Trelkovsky's quiet, meek demeanor, or perhaps his perspective is already compromised in some way.  In any case, as he meets the building's other curious residents, his (and by turn, our) suspicion and paranoia continue to flourish amid all manner of strange goings-on and behavior.

Things get weird, indeed, when Trelkovsky finds a strange hole in his wall stuffed with cotton, and behind that cotton a human tooth. And it isn't very long before he wakes up missing a tooth—someone, somehow while he slept, removed his front tooth. That he knows where that tooth can be found—that we know—seems to fit like a piece to a jigsaw.  

Not only is he convinced his neighbors seek his destruction, he's also certain they're trying to push him to become the previous tenant, the young and tragic Miss Simone Choule.  It starts off with little things, like the shopkeeper across the street selling only Simone's beloved Marlboros, always with the excuse they've just run out of everything else.  And of course Miss Choule—whose apartment went up for rent seemingly within days of her fateful jump—left all of her things in the place, including her make-up and clothes.

Even looking out the window has proven precarious, as every time he spies the building's bathroom across the courtyard, he witnesses his strange neighbors frozen in trance, seemingly for hours—sometimes staring back at him.  It lends the proceedings an inexplicable, almost supernatural dread, and no explanation is ever offered.

When Trelkovsky goes to the church services for Simone following her demise (she survives just long enough to get a hospital visit from the new prospective tenant), things go off the rails, his paranoia and delusion kicking into overdrive.

Along with that eerie bit of delirium, he's generally treated as an outsider wherever he goes, his neighbors complain about nocturnal noise-making he doesn't believe he's responsible for, and he's now only able to find solace in Miss Choule's armoire (for which he's bought a wig to complete the illusion).  

When he cruelly slaps a young boy in the park, ostensibly because he believes the child is “one of them”, the viewer is compelled to reinterpret everything we've learned up to this point.  Just who is this Trelkovsky, after all?

And now, well, he's the man on the ledge, daring himself to jump. That he has an appreciative audience eagerly awaiting the spectacle of his plunge comes as little surprise.   

So get it over with, already—jump.

But the horror isn't over yet, the wicked plot not fully realized—because Trelkovsky still breathes.  What's worse, with his body shattered and his conspirators hovering above with perverse delight, he's now completely at their mercy.

And jackals do rather enjoy toying with their prey, don't they?

This must be Hell, non?  

But there is a way out, with a bit of perseverance.  Your broken bones may scream otherwise, but just a little further up, dear, and your suffering will be over.  They will not cheat fate twice, mon chĂ©ri.