Tag Archives: Richard Matheson

Duel (1971, Steven Spielberg)

The first act of Duel ought to be enough to carry it. Spielberg’s direction, Frank Morriss’s editing, even Jack A. Marta’s workman photography—it’s spellbinding. It even gets through lead Dennis Weaver calling home to fight with his wife and revealing to the audience he’s a wuss. See, last night he and the wife went to a party and some guy groped her and Weaver didn’t do anything and now she’s mad. Jacqueline Scott’s the wife. She’s in one scene, a handful of shots, at home taking care of the kids after the incident while Weaver’s driving across the state (of California) for a business meeting. The whole account depends on it, but really it’s because he’s a wuss. Weaver’s a wuss, which… isn’t actually part of Duel’s initial narrative impulse because the phone call to the wife is added material for the theatrical release. Duel is a TV movie turned theatrical release (for international markets).

Weaver’s even more of an annoying wuss because he puts up his leg in a very pseudo-macho way while on the phone. It’s weird. And it’s a lot, but Duel can get through it because it’s so well-made.

See, Weaver’s driving to this meeting and he pisses off a truck driver. That truck driver starts messing with Weaver, not letting him pass, roaring past him, waving him on into another vehicle. A rural highway nightmare. What’s Weaver going to do about it with his machismo posturing after all. But Weaver doesn’t really matter—not even as much as the comedy bit playing on his radio—what matters is how Spielberg and Morriss tell this story. Well, to be fair to writer Richard Matheson… relate this anecdote.

And if Duel were a short or led Psycho-style into something else, it’d be fine. But once Weaver gets around other people and starts narrating the film with his thoughts… there’s only so much good filmmaking can do and covering for Weaver’s basically obnoxious performance is too much. Especially given how the narration doesn’t exactly sync up with the character onscreen and definitely not in the implications of his relationship with Scott. Because it turns out—though it’s a single mention then gone—Weaver’s a Vietnam vet and he might be suffering from some kind of PTSD. It’s such a surprise you spend the entire scene where white collar Weaver is trying to figure out how to speak with blue collar working men—he’s going to tell off the truck driver, who he thinks is in this roadside restaurant with him—wondering how the hell Weaver made it back alive.

There’s no help from Weaver on it, of course (I get the feeling hearing Weaver describe his character would be a trip), because his performance is… a step too far into disbelief. Killer truck driver who runs cars off the road then goes and gets their plates as trophies, yes. Dennis Weaver not being able to make a traumatized beta male sympathetic in the slightest, no.

The second half of the film—basically everything following the restaurant and Weaver’s narration starting—moves fast but not well. Nothing Weaver does is reasonable (he’s already missed the meeting, yet continues driving towards it even though the film’s established he can’t be late), Spielberg gets obvious in the reveals. Not to mention when the truck does finally turn into a six ton slasher and go all in on attacking Weaver and anyone around him (though not the school bus, in an inserted for the theatrical sequence; because Weaver in danger isn’t anywhere near as sympathetic as annoying school kids), it’s only impressive as far as the stunt driving goes.

Duel’s beautifully made for a while, then it’s well-executed albeit middling, then it’s a little tedious. Given it’s a real-ish time thriller about White middle class suspicions of the White working class being validated in a terrifying way… it shouldn’t get tedious. The tediousness of the third act is interesting—somehow Duel still moves at a good pace but Weaver’s so annoying in the action it drags.

Spielberg wanted Weaver for the role because of Weaver’s turn as the creepy motel employee in Touch of Evil, which… is definitely not the same skillset required of the role in Duel, which basically turns into a “Twilight Zone” episode once the narration starts.

So it’s this great short film with this okay “Twilight Zone” episode tacked on around halfway in.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Spielberg; written by Richard Matheson; director of photography, Jack A. Marta; edited by Frank Morriss; music by Billy Goldenberg; produced by George Eckstein; released by Cinema International Corporation.

Starring Dennis Weaver (David Mann), Jacqueline Scott (Mrs. Mann), Eddie Firestone (Chuck), Lou Frizzell (a bus driver), and Carey Loftin (a truck driver).


Young Couples Only (1955, Richard Irving)

Young Couples Only is really good. Especially when you consider how Bill Williams is so weak in the lead and how director Irving never does anything special. He never does anything bad, he just doesn’t do anything special. He certainly doesn’t keep Williams in line. It’s probably a very good thing Williams’s real-life wife Barbara Hale plays his TV wife here. She can carry the scenes for him. And the other scenes usually have Peter Lorre, who does a phenomenal job implying all sorts of depth to his quirky character.

Hale and Williams live in a very nice apartment building. Furnished for–adjusted for inflation–about $600 a month. The only rules are the residents have to be couples, they have to be young, they have to be fit. Williams is an illustrator who isn’t particularly insightful; there’s a brief subplot about Hale not getting his humor (but other men do) but since it turns out Hale is right about everything in the world, maybe Williams doesn’t know what he’s doing.

See, Hale thinks there’s something funny about Lorre, who’s playing the janitor. He gives Hale and the other wives in the building the creeps, even though he’s never really done anything. Other than be Peter Lorre. Williams dismisses Hale–her exasperation at his inability to get past dismissing her because, well, she’s a woman is phenomenal–while she gets more and more suspicious. Especially after their dog disappears.

There are a series of reveals in the second half, each better than the last. Not sure if Lawrence Kimble’s teleplay had the plot twist smarts or Richard Matheson’s short story, but they come off beautifully. Once Williams is in crisis mode, he’s a lot better. Until then, he’s just either having Hale carry his proverbial water for him or Lorre carry it. Young Couples Only sort of plays like a sitcom, with broad, affable performances from Hale and then Williams, only it turns out the show’s just getting warmed up and Hale’s along with the changing tone…and Williams isn’t.

But it still works out beautifully. Thanks to Lorre, thanks to Hale, thanks to the perfectly competent, unambitious technical execution. Young Couples Only is good.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Irving; teleplay by Lawrence Kimble, based on a story by Richard Matheson; “Studio 57” presented by Joel Aldrich; director of photography, Herbert Kirkpatrick; edited by Edward W. Williams; aired by the DuMont Television Network.

Starring Barbara Hale (Ruth), Bill Williams (Rick), Peter Lorre (Mr. Grover), Danni Sue Nolan (Marge), Robert Quarry (Phil), and Paul Bryar (Officer Johnson).



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THIS POST IS PART OF THE 5TH ANNUAL FAVOURITE TV SHOW EPISODE BLOGATHON HOSTED BY TERENCE TOWLES CANOTE OF A SHROUD OF THOUGHTS


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The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957, Jack Arnold)

The Incredible Shrinking Man is an enormous feat. It succeeds thanks to director Arnold, writer Richard Matheson, and star Grant Williams. Arnold’s arguably got the greatest successes; he carefully lays the groundwork for the film’s eventual startling visuals. To get to the startling ones, Arnold’s got to get through some absurd ones. Only the first act visuals aren’t startling or absurd, they’re just mundanely peculiar. Even when Williams finally gets it confirmed—his suspicions are correct, he is somehow shrinking—the film gets some energy out of William Schallert giving the news in a very William Schallert way, but otherwise tension doesn’t rise. It’s still early in the film, which only runs eighty minutes and more than half of it is a survival picture; Arnold and Matheson pace things out gradually in the first section. Even though every scene perturbs the plot, Matheson is really just moving Williams into position for the real story to come.

The story of man against his environment, an environment of his own unintentional making. All the smart moves Arnold makes in the beginning as Williams shrinks from six feet tall to three feet tall, all the elaborate set decorating, the outstanding matte shots… the second half survival picture is where Arnold and the crew up the effects work. As Williams shrinks to the height of a doll, then to a matchstick, the effects requirements grow exponentially. It’s a lot easier to have Williams sit shrunk on a couch across the room from regular-size wife Randy Stuart, but getting him into a dollhouse so she can lean down and talk to him like he’s Fay Wray? Arnold doesn’t just up the effects ante, he also takes into account how much more fantastical his visuals are getting. He’s got to sell it all to the audience.

And he does. Shrinking Man is always inventive in how the effects get integrated, because eventually the effects become the visual plane. Reality is long gone.

Matheson does just as well changing gears from the opening medical thriller picture to the survival one. Williams—who narrates the whole picture, usually to solid effect—has entirely different expectations in the second half of the film than the audience. The first half, they’re pretty much inline as far as predicting the plot. Especially if an audience member has seen the posters advertising film as the “Dollman vs. House cat”. Williams doesn’t have the exact same expectations, but he operates with a lot of fear, which comes out in his performance but not the narration. The narration—which ends up being Matheson’s only problem area for specific, somewhat unrelated reasons—is all past tense. Even though Williams spends the first half of the film writing his life story, the narration isn’t that written account. It’s something else, which Matheson never identifies. It’s a soft spot, but given some of the other soft spots in the script, it might be better he doesn’t place it in time and place.

Just to get them out of the way now—the other two soft spots in Matheson’s script? The gentle attempts to comment on Williams’s changing masculine self-image. It all has to do with Stuart, who establishes herself in the first scene as this strong partner. And Williams appreciates her as such. Loads of chemistry in the first scene. Just because the script doesn’t give Stuart anything to do after her second scene, which mostly has her making breakfast, she never gets downgraded either. I guess it’s kind of a larger soft spot overall—the way Matheson abandons Stuart to get to the sci-fi medical thriller. As Williams gets smaller, he gets meaner to Stuart, but he’s really aware of it, both in narration and scene. Stuart’s going to assume he’s really apologetic in a scene because they’re both going through a fantastic trauma. The audience knows from the narration he means it. So it’s all a dramatic wash, which wastes not just Stuart, but Williams as well. They’ve only got so much time together.

Third soft spot is Matheson’s attempt to tie it all into God and the cosmos. The film doesn’t really need it—like, even for 1957, Shrinking Man never gets too sacrilegious in its Nuclear Age sci-fi—but Matheson uses it when he runs out of plot ideas. It’s a really strange move, which might have worked in the source novel (also by Matheson), but doesn’t come off visualized. And given how well Arnold visualizes everything else in the picture, he’s got to know, right?

Besides Williams and Stuart, only April Kent and Paul Langton make much impression in the cast. Kent’s the nice little person who Williams bonds with. It’s an undercooked plot point, but effective. Kent’s good. Langton’s Williams’s older brother, who ends up caring for Stuart after Williams… shrinks too much. It’s a throwaway character, who just sits around taking agency from Stuart, usually in exposition dumps, and Langton’s really bland in the part.

So they stand out for very different reasons.

Excellent photography from Ellis W. Carter, good editing from Albrecht Joseph; great special effects, great sets. The Incredible Shrinking Man is a big success, it just should’ve been an even bigger one.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jack Arnold; screenplay by Richard Matheson, based on his novel; director of photography, Ellis W. Carter; edited by Albrecht Joseph; produced by Albert Zugsmith; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Grant Williams (Scott Carey), Randy Stuart (Louise Carey), Paul Langton (Charlie Carey), April Kent (Clarice Bruce), Raymond Bailey (Doctor Silver), and William Schallert (Doctor Bramson).



THIS POST IS PART OF THE RICHARD MATHESON BLOGATHON HOSTED BY RICH OF WIDE SCREEN WORLD AND DEBBIE OF MOON IN GEMINI.


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Night Call (1964, Jacques Tourneur)

Night Call’s pre-Rod Serling tag has lead Gladys Cooper having trouble sleeping through a thunderstorm. She then gets two phone calls at 2 a.m., with just static on the line. The next day, after the Serling intro promising Cooper’s in for a momentous event, Cooper tries reporting the phone calls to the phone company but they’ve been having lots of trouble on account of the storm. The operator kind of dismisses her, as does her day-time caretaker, Nora Marlowe. See, Cooper’s kind of a mean old lady–her family doesn’t want anything to do with her–so she gets zero sympathy from Marlowe and, really, Night Call.

The phone calls continue, with the buzz eventually becoming moaning (a man moaning) and then the moaning just becomes the guy saying “Hello” over and over again. Cooper in a full panic, Marlowe is just as unsympathetic (the utter lack of chemistry between Cooper and Marlowe probably hurts Night Call but it’s hard to even imagine they could have any rapport), the phone company is investigating. All Cooper can do is wait. While the calls keep coming.

And somehow Marlowe’s never around to hear them–she’s convinced Cooper’s lying for the attention or something. Turns out, of course, she’s not. Instead there’s some highly contrived explanation along with some pointless comeuppance–watching Marlowe berate Cooper in one scene seems like elder abuse but also with some sexism thrown in–and a pat, predictable ending.

Cooper’s performance is… mediocre. Better than Marlowe, though Marlowe’s got no character to even hint at playing, but still quite mediocre. Tourneur’s direction is similarly middling. The interior stuff is boring, the exterior stuff is not. Except when Tourneur’s got to hammer in the point for the big finale. Rather nice photography from Robert Pittack (especially outside) and solid editing from Richard V. Heermance.

Night Call doesn’t particularly have anything going for it–acting, directing, writing–it’s kind of fine, but so what.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Jacques Tourneur; written by Richard Matheson; “The Twilight Zone” created by Rod Serling; director of photography, Robert Pittack; edited by Richard V. Heermance; produced by Bert Granet; aired by the Central Broadcasting System.

Starring Gladys Cooper (Elva Keene), Nora Marlowe (Margaret Phillips), and Martine Bartlett (Miss Finch).


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