Tag Archives: Jack Nicholson

A Safe Place (1971, Henry Jaglom)

A Safe Place tracks the relationship of apparently financially secure but listless hippie Tuesday Weld and her square of a new boyfriend, Phil Proctor. Weld spends her time presumably stoned—though we don’t see her smoke, her friends are always rolling a joint or smoking one—and dwelling on the past. She can’t get over the lack of magic in the world today (today being 1971); there’s a great segment on how exchange names on telephone numbers were special while numbers are not. At times it feels like Safe Place can’t possibly have been tightly scripted but then other times feels like it must’ve been. The actors do a great job drifting between the two feelings, particularly Weld, Jack Nicholson, and Gwen Welles. Though Nicholson it’s a little different; he always makes it feel spontaneous, in which case extra kudos to Weld for not reacting.

Nicholson shows up at near the beginning of the film but we don’t have any real context for him, though it’s clear he’s a romantic interest for Weld, presumably one in her past. Despite Proctor’s constant pursuit of Weld, they never spark, especially since Proctor can never shut up. Weld wants things quiet so she can drift into her imagined past, to when she was a kid and would watch the magician across the street in the park. Orson Welles plays the magician. He never feels scripted, which is fine, it’s Orson Welles doing a bountiful performance complete with an Eastern European accent. He goes so big, relishing in it so much, you can’t quibble with any of it. The one real trick he’s always wanted to be able to perform is making something disappear. He takes Weld to the zoo and tries it out on the animals, which leads to some amazing moments.

Both Welleses, Orson and Gwen, are establishing tone for Weld to later interact with; the Orson Welles at the zoo stuff is a fun, carefree tone, while Gwen Welles has a phenomenally despondent monologue about being objectified and dehumanized living in 1971 New York. That monologue, which director Jaglom gives a showcase like nothing else in the film gets, not even Nicholson when he shows up proper, needs to be there to fully establish Weld’s ground situation too. She’d never have a monologue like it, it’d be out of character, but her experiences are clearly similar.

Once it becomes clear how the film “works,” how it moves from Weld to her imagined past, when the film’s following Weld there in her mind and when the film’s just going there—Weld’s the lead but not the protagonist, she’s the subject, with Proctor ending up being somewhat closer to a traditional protagonist role but only because he’s takes a lot of action. Or threatens to take action. He’s kind of exhausting in how much action he takes, which gives the film this wonderful sense of empathy for Weld even as she’s (ostensibly) inexplicable. Proctor’s a lot. Clearly he’s a lot.

Jaglom establishes the ebb and flow of the timeline visually, through editing, composition, and direction. Weld frequently looks directly into the camera, watching the world around her unfold. Jaglom also will shoot the Welleses straight on, but for different effect. With Gwen Welles, the eyes mesmerize against her story, offering the viewer a chance to examine her in this bare moment. Orson Welles it’s sometimes for humor, sometimes for magic. Except we already know it’s not real magic but is it something nefarious or just mirthful chicanery. It’s always hard to tell because while everyone exists in the same spaces—mostly around Central Park Lake, or at Weld’s apartment (or on its roof), Orson Welles doesn’t interact with anyone but Weld. The first act has a lot of cuts establishing how he’s been there but isn’t there but is there. He’s there when Weld needs him, but he’s not entirely dependent on her.

Gwen Welles, Proctor, Nicholson, they all interact in one way or another. Proctor’s in the room during the Gwen Welles monologue; his attendance of it is apparently around the time Weld gives up and just lets him in. Some time later, when Nicholson enters the action proper, it’s after Proctor has moved himself into Weld’s apartment and has assumed a male authority figure role, but not one Weld or anyone else takes seriously.

It’s all very intricate, very complex, entirely established and explored through anti-sensical conversations, camera movement, and editing, everything tied together with selections from the Columbia Records songbook playing in the background—Weld’s got a jukebox in her apartment, presumably filled with them, including some fantastic French language cover versions.

Phenomenal photography from Richard C. Kratina—even if you can’t get onboard Safe Place’s jumbled narrative (which still ends up being way too epical), the photography alone can keep interest. Then there’s Pieter Bergema’s editing, which is somehow even more exquisite than the photography.

Weld’s good, Nicholson’s good, Proctor’s okay. The Welleses are good, though Gwen’s better and has a lot more work to do. Jaglom’s direction is aces.

A Safe Place is a qualified success—the third act is way too obvious and Proctor, both in terms of performance and character in the film, isn’t enough—and some absolutely exquisite filmmaking.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Henry Jaglom; director of photography, Richard C. Kratina; edited by Pieter Bergema; production designer, Harold Schneider; costume designer, Barbara Flood; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Tuesday Weld (Susan), Phil Proctor (Fred), Jack Nicholson (Mitch), Gwen Welles (Bari), Dov Lawrence (Larry), and Orson Welles (The Magician).


The King of Marvin Gardens (1972, Bob Rafelson)

The King of Marvin Gardens is an extremely quiet film. Jack Nicholson’s protagonist is a radio monologist, which suggests the viewer should listen to the content of his dialogue, but the secret of Marvin Gardens is that content’s unimportance. After a brief introduction to Nicholson’s job and life, the film immediately moves him into an unknown circumstance. He goes to Atlantic City to meet up with his older brother, played by Bruce Dern.

Dern and Nicholson’s characters are completely dissimilar–Nicholson’s a monk, Dern travels with two ladies (Ellen Burstyn and Julia Anne Robinson), Nicholson’s an introvert, Dern’s an obnoxious talker–and director Rafelson, Nicholson and Dern are very careful to show their relationship. Rafelson and photographer László Kovács shoot a lot of Marvin Gardens in long shot (or at least medium long shot). It seemingly exaggerates the viewer’s distance from the characters, but it’s actually just how far away from one another everyone is situated, viewers and characters alike. Marvin Gardens presents this intriguing situation–Dern’s shady, but big money, business dealings, his relationship with the two women, the oddness of Atlantic City in off-season–and positions the viewer to ascribe certain reactions to Nicholson. After all, Nicholson is the audience’s entry into this weird setting, isn’t he?

Not really is the answer. And, as the film moves on, Nicholson, Rafelson and screenwriter Jacob Brackman have these occasional callbacks to remind the audience maybe they should have been paying more attention. Dern’s got a showy role, Burstyn has the film’s showiest, even Robinson is more shocking than Nicholson–but it’s all about Nicholson. It’s all about what his performance does and how Rafelson uses it in the film.

There aren’t really any set pieces–the most excitement comes at the beginning, with Nicholson arriving in Atlantic City; Rafelson’s vision of Atlantic City is empty, hollow, cold. There’s no music in Marvin Gardens, no score, I don’t even think any soundtrack music, just the wind. The cold wind battering these palatial, empty hotels.

Nicholson’s performance is the film’s initial hook–Rafelson opens on Nicholson performing a monologue in extreme close-up, no cuts, just this insight into the character. Only, Nicholson’s not the most reliable monologist (something the film goes out of its way to warn the audience not to expect). But in such weirdness, such grey quirkiness, such utter sadness, he’s a reference point.

It’s a breathtakingly constructed film. It’s not a character study. Rafelson and Brackman aren’t exactly deceptive about the film–there are the warnings, there are their attempts to remind the audience of important reveals–but they don’t want to fully engage how devastating it can get. Even when there’s danger, it always appears controllable, manageable.

One of the most awkward–and wonderful–things in the film is how little chemistry Nicholson and Robinson have with one another. Their scenes, even though the characters aren’t hostile, have this dreadful discomfort about them. Rafelson’s got a lot of trust in Nicholson, Nicholson’s got a lot of trust in Rafelson. It works out.

The King of Marvin Gardens is an exceptional film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Bob Rafelson; screenplay by Jacob Brackman, based on a story by Rafelson and Brackman; director of photography, László Kovács; edited by John F. Link; production designer, Toby Carr Rafelson; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Jack Nicholson (David Staebler), Bruce Dern (Jason Staebler), Ellen Burstyn (Sally), Julia Anne Robinson (Jessica), Scatman Crothers (Lewis) and Charles LaVine (Grandfather).


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The Passenger (1975, Michelangelo Antonioni)

The Passenger is an odd mix of existential crisis and globe-trotting thriller. Director Antonioni does far better with the former than the latter, which has Jenny Runacre trying to discover what happened to husband Jack Nicholson. What happened to Nicholson is he assumes a dead man’s identity for no particular purpose in the film’s otherworldly first act. Then the film stalls, then Maria Schneider shows up and it gets back on track, then the stupid thriller stuff comes in.

Schneider initially inhabits the film as a non sequitur, which is far better than how she ends up (explaining Nicholson’s reasoning to him); she saves the picture just as Antonioni runs out of goodwill from the opening sequence. Well, just a few minutes after. Just enough to appreciate her presence.

Unfortunately, Runacre’s storyline–she’s trying to save Nicholson–is too big for the amount of character she’s got. And Antonioni tells her story flat. Everything else gets this beautiful visual lyricism, with amazing editing from Franco Arcalli and Antonioni, with some gorgeous and accomplished photography from Luciano Tovoli. Great sound design too.

Nicholson doesn’t get much to do once the real chase begins. While he’s got some good scenes with Schneider, Antonioni tries too hard to keep the magic once they get talking. It results in well-acted, problematic dialogue sequences.

The ending, which is technically magnificent, falls flat once the story has to come in just because Antonioni clearly doesn’t care about it.

But it’s definitely got its moments.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni; screenplay by Mark Peploe, Peter Wollen and Antonioni; director of photography, Luciano Tovoli; edited by Antonioni and Franco Arcalli; music by Ivan Vandor; produced by Carlo Ponti; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Jack Nicholson (David Locke), Maria Schneider (Girl), Jenny Runacre (Rachel Locke), Ian Hendry (Martin Knight), Steven Berkoff (Stephen), Ambroise Bia (Achebe) and Charles Mulvehill (David Robertson).


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The Last Detail (1973, Hal Ashby)

Even though Jack Nicholson gets top billing and the most bombastic role in The Last Detail, Otis Young has the harder job. He’s got to temper Nicholson, both for the sake of the audience and of the narrative. The film introduces the two men simultaneously–Robert Towne’s script almost immediately establishes an unspoken bond between the two, even though it takes them well through the first act to get to know each other.

The Last Detail is an atypical buddy picture for many reasons, with the two buddies getting thrown together being one of the more immediate ones. But more, the film is practically a parenting outing. Nicholson’s the crazy, fun dad, Young’s the responsible mother (who you don’t want to cross) and Randy Quaid’s the kid. Of course, Nicholson and Young are escorting Quaid to the stockade.

Along the way, Nicholson and Young do not go on an odyssey of self discovery. Their efforts in humanizing Quaid don’t lead to big momentous changes in their lives. Towne is reserved, saving the expository character development scenes for when Quaid’s doing something else (sometimes just napping); it makes those scenes, with Nicholson calm as opposed to manic and Young not fretting as much, rather special.

Director Ashby and editor Robert C. Jones create a tranquil, quiet quality for the film, using fades to guide the viewer’s attention. Great photography from Michael Chapman and a rather good score from Johnny Mandel.

All the acting’s great. Detail is muted, precise and often devastating.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Hal Ashby; screenplay by Robert Towne, based on the novel by Darryl Ponicsan; director of photography, Michael Chapman; edited by Robert C. Jones; music by Johnny Mandel; production designer, Michael D. Haller; produced by Gerald Ayres; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Jack Nicholson (Buddusky), Otis Young (Mulhall), Randy Quaid (Meadows), Clifton James (M.A.A.), Carol Kane (Young Prostitute) and Michael Moriarty (Marine O.D.).


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