Thursday, July 28, 2011

WHERE’S POPPA (1970) Dir. Carl Reiner

What I remember:

Talk about your raunchy comedies, this was the pinnacle of raunch in the ‘60’s/’70’s. There are tons of senility jokes, almost more than in Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys”. This type of humor is probably considered in terrible taste now that we know about Alzheimer’s and other types of Dementia associated with old age.

Yet “Where’s Poppa”, has it’s comedy evenly distributed throughout. It attacks the elderly, the young and impetuous, the officious, the desperate. It’s another uproarious black comedy from the age of iconoclasm that brought us “Little Murders”, “Putney Swope”, “M*A*S*H”, “Harold and Maude” and “Brewster McCloud”.

As with many Mother-centric films, front and center is the put-upon son, usually Jewish, who must contend with the eccentricities and demands of his Mother to the detriment of his personal and professional life. George Segal, handsome but with a huge touch of nebbish, fits this bill to a tee. As the mother, our ultimate New York ptitsa is played by Ruth Gordon, who reprised this kind of character more than a few times. Ms. Gordon also played a demented mother in “Inside Daisy Clover”. As Mrs. Hocheiser in “Where’s Poppa”, she is both lovable and horrid.

What made “Where’s Poppa” special was the outrageous dialogue and premise that makes movies like “The Hangover” seem tame and mainstream. When I talk about how important it is for a comedy to actually make me laugh, then you know this one had to have that going for it. There were certainly no redeeming characteristics to be found.


“He made a CACA in the bed”- Louise.
“That son of a BITCH!”- Gordon


Gordon Hocheiser (George Segal) is a trial lawyer who lives at home with his widowed mother (Ruth Gordon), who is suffering from dementia. She is extremely difficult to take care of, and Gordon has struggled to find a nurse that will stay with her. During interviews with prospective caretakers, he meets the beautiful Louise (Trish Van Devere) and both are immediately smitten. She agrees to meet his mother, and finds out that their relationship is a little stranger and deeper than she thought. Gordon’s brother, Sidney (Ron Liebman) tries to help, but has his own issues. He also reminds Gordon that they promised to never put their mother in a home.


Yes, it’s another black comedy from the ‘70’s. What is it about this genre that I find/found so appealing? Maybe it’s just that the kind of fare we’d been fed in the ‘60’s was so happy, so uplifting, so “YAY LIFE”! My built in BS detector just couldn’t deal with watching “Dr. Doolittle” and “Mary Poppins”. I needed to see what seemed real to me. Now this movie is about as far from real as you get, but it was honest in exposing the reality of our inner minds. This is the stuff you can’t, shouldn’t EVER talk about. But you know it crosses your mind. You can’t help it. You are a sick bastard at heart. Your Id is the sickest of sick bastards. Thank goodness you have a Super-Ego to tell it to go stand in the corner. Howard Stern has made a billion being your unchained Id. Your Id can be damned funny.

The question is, is your Id funny all the time? Absolutely not. Sometimes it is just sick and repellant. I hate to say it, but now that I am getting older, “Where’s Poppa” has lost it’s appeal for me. Sure, there’s a lot of stuff that is still funny, but there is a ton of stuff that is uncomfortable and just plain awful. 15 year old Wayne and 56 year old Wayne are not on the same page here. When I rewatch “Little Murders” or “The Producers”, films that have a lot in common with this one, there is never a moment where I want it to end. There were a whole bunch of those moments watching “Where’s Poppa”. Scenes I remembered fondly seemed poorly drawn and not at all as uproarious as I thought.

When Sidney has to run through the park to help Gordon, he keeps being confronted by a gang of African-American muggers. The torments they devise for Sidney are clever and different, but not close to as funny as I had it in my mind. Amongst the muggers is Garrett Morris, I was surprised to discover. Also making his film debut later in the movie is Paul Sorvino. The Director’s son, Rob Reiner, is in his second movie, his first being Carl’s “Enter Laughing”.

Both the famous “Tush” scene and the monologue by Louise about her first husband’s incontinence are less funny than I thought, they are just plain weird. Maybe the problem is that the shock value just isn’t there anymore. We can thank Kevin Smith and Judd Apatow for that.

Interestingly enough, the parts that were funniest I had no memory of! A scene wherein Gordon is defending a young radical played by Rob Reiner (predicting his Mike Stivik character from “All In The Family), is made side-splitting by veteran character actor Barnard Hughes’ depiction of a profane, racist Army Colonel. Another great moment is when a New York cabbie passes by a black woman to give a ride to Sidney, dressed in a full-out ape costume.

At the heart of this movie is subject matter that we once considered funny, but now that so many of our parents and grandparents are victims of senile dementia and Alzheimer’s, it has lost it’s comic charm. I assume that this would be the same for “The Sunshine Boys”, but I was never a big enough fan of that film to watch it again.


Carl Reiner was known both for his writing and as a producer of the groundbreaking “Dick Van Dyke Show”. He was also the straight man to Mel Brooks’ classic “2,000 Year Old Man”, one of the funniest comedy teams to ever be on record. His best work as a director was probably his run of films starring Steve Martin in the ‘70’s; “The Jerk”, “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid”, “The Man With Two Brains” and “All of Me” are all very funny comedies. “Dead Men..” really was a stand out if you are an aficionado of B&W films, and in particular film noir. Reiner seamlessly integrates his film and star into clips from old movies, and it’s just a whole lot of fun watching Martin interact with Bogie, etc.

Carl’s work with Mel Brooks and Sid Caesar probably prepped him well for the helm of “Where’s Poppa”. Watching it now, however, really exposes what a beginner he was at directing. There are some very strange choices being made, a lot of chances at huge laughs that are undercut by bad timing and strange shot choices. For example, the climax of the movie is shot from a great distance, what seems like hundreds of yards. You hear the dialogue, but you can’t see what’s happening to be in on the film’s punch line the way you would like.

The shock value of the opening, where you watch Gordon wake up, perform his ablutions, get dressed in the ape suit and try to scare his mother to death, is also not played up as drastically for the surprise as it could be. It is shown with a sort of filmic diffidence that is hard to comprehend. Brooks would have played the scene for huge laughs.

Yes, it was low budget. Yes it was 1970, and film technology was not what it has become. But again, this movie loses out to both “The Producers” and “Little Murders” in every way.

One great bit is the song for the opening credits. If I tried to describe it I would be doing it a disservice. Suffice it to say that it is a stream of consciousness lyric that sounds like a bunch of non sequitors that could be said by an old senile person. The lyric is put to a Burt Bachrach type track.

One great filmmaking decision was going with the ending that we see. On the DVD you can watch an alternate ending which continues on from the last scene. It is disturbing, and not funny or even ironic. “Sick, sick, sick”, is all I could think of, in the parlance of the period.


The two leads, George Segal and Ruth Gordon are exceptional in their roles. Segal plays “harried” better than anyone except maybe Gene Wilder. Ruth Gordon has her character down, and she really gets going when Louise enters the story. When she realizes that Louise is not just a nurse, but a love interest for her son, she becomes sharp as a tack while still being addled. It’s amazing to watch her pull off this dichotomy. Trish VanDevere as Louise, is attractive, but not much of a comic source, even as a straight man/woman for the leads.

Ron Liebman provides a lot of the humor from his supporting roll. His funniest moment concerns his reaction to getting flowers from the undercover male cop in drag that he was forced to rape by the gang that keeps mugging him. Yeah…the comedy is THAT dark.


With the passing of Amy Winehouse at age 27, there have been a lot of discussions about music stars that died at that age. A few of my 30-something friends all agree that Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain were all deserving of their stardom. However they single out Janis Joplin as someone who really wasn’t so good, and they can’t see why she was considered amazing by my generation. When I listen to her stuff now, I kind of see what they mean.

What they don’t understand is how different she was to all those who preceded her in pop music. For a white girl, hell -- for ANYONE to sing with that intensity and commitment, it was just unheard of. It wasn’t that her chops were so great, but that she was so raw and unfettered by artifice. They say that for success in the entertainment field, you have to be the best, the first or different. Janis was more than different….she was totally unique.

Well, at the time of its release, “Where’s Poppa” was different. Maybe that’s what I saw in it back then. It’s level of outrageousness was unprecedented. It was not the first sicko comedy, and certainly not the best. 40 years have reduced that edge to a dull razor, and now the film is simply abrasive.

1st Look-★★★1/2 2nd Look-★★

Monday, July 4, 2011

"In a Lonely Place" (1950) Dir: Nicholas Ray

What I remember:

I believe the old adage amongst writers is, “When you’re stuck, write what you know.” And the one thing all writers know best is themselves.

This can apply to the autobiographical story based either on reality or fantasy. I always hear a little bell going off when I read a book or see a movie wherein the protagonist is a writer. Ahhh, I think, so you were stuck, and couldn’t come up with a REAL story. Often these stories take place in academia (see/read “Wonder Boys”, “Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf” or “The Human Stain”). These usually smack of some truth and reality. Then there are the more fantastic stories, like “Misery” by Stephen King, and “Deathtrap” by Ira Levin. These usually strike me as a tale invented from the imagination of some dreary life event, like King being harassed by some over-ardent fan, or Levin being brow-beaten by some older colleague.

In movies, there is the occasional screenwriter protagonist. Interestingly enough, three of my all-time favorite films have screenwriters at the center of them. Charlie Kaufman’s “Adaptation”, the Coen Brothers’ “Barton Fink” and Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” are, to me, all masterpieces. A bit lower on my list comes “In a Lonely Place”. Nicholas Ray directed this very intense movie, and cast Humphrey Bogart in the lead role as tough guy writer Dixon Steele, a man with a violent streak who is under investigation for murder. The premise seems a bit unreal. Most writers you come across are intellectual, pacifist types. I guess there’s always the Hemingway prototype to lean on, although he seems the anomaly.
I remember it as a bravura performance by Bogie, maybe one of his best. That usual Bogie aplomb, the controlled fire we all know is not to be found. His Dixon Steele is all rage and impudence. Ray also cast his ex-wife Gloria Grahame in the role as the sexy neighbor who becomes Steele’s lover. Grahame is smoldering and for me, a real revelation when I saw this film. We all remember her as Violet in “It’s a Wonderful Life”, and she is likeable and attractive in that classic. In this film, she is equal to any of Bogie’s most comely co-stars, even Bacall.

I was really very impressed with and absorbed by this movie, and found it’s slightly sketchy premise to be eclipsed by the powerful performances and Noir stylings of Ray’s direction.

After re-watching:

“I've been looking for someone a long time... I didn't know her name or where she lived - I'd never seen her before. A girl was killed, and because of that, I found what I was looking for. Now I know your name, where you live, and how you look.”- Dixon Steele


Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is a screenwriter who has a serious temper, but who is obviously quite intelligent and talented. He gets into a lot of fights, and can be a lout, but his agent stands by him, and his friends put up with him because at the core he is a good guy. He is asked to adapt a trashy book, and rather than spend the energy reading it, he asks the coat-check girl at his favorite haunt to come to his apartment and tell him the story. She is a little ditzy and star-struck, so she agrees. At his building he runs into a new neighbor, the attractive Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame). Mildred, the girl from the restaurant, tells Dixon the flimsy story, then he sends her home with cab fare. Mildred is discovered murdered the next day, thrown from a car in the canyon. Dixon’s alibi is Laurel, who says she saw him send the girl on he way. Laurel soon becomes Dix’s lover, and helps him finish his screenplay. All the while, she sees the violent side of him, and begins to suspect that maybe she was wrong to give him an alibi. The investigation begins to fray their relationship, and soon the trust between them erodes to almost nothing.


There’s an expression I once heard back when I was in college about the sacrifice an artist makes, and it is quite simple:
“Perfect in life, or perfect in art.”
I immediately found that fascinating and haunting. Is it really true, I wondered. Does one have to give up all real relationships in order to be great? Or is it a fact that you need to have a personality disorder to have the single-minded dedication in order to achieve greatness? Bi-polar behavior seems prevalent amongst the geniuses in the arts. The list is long (though not proven): Pablo Picasso, W.A. Mozart, Charlie Parker, Vincent Van Gogh, Jaco Pastorius, Graham Greene, Edgar Allen Poe, Brian Wilson and Virginia Woolf were all said to be afflicted with this problem.
Though it’s never said, anyone who knows about this connection can see that this is the problem with Dixon Steele. He has manic episodes, and these are often hostile unless he focuses the mania on his work. Eventually what makes you great becomes your undoing, as it did for Van Gogh, Bird, Jaco, Mozart and Woolf. I originally thought in remembrance that this was a writer’s fantasy, but after watching again I realize that this is a portrait of the tortured artist, unable to harness the insanity. I’m sure both Ray and Bogart were thinking of people they knew in the business when drawing this portrait.

As for the movie itself, what starts out as a typical LA Noir whodunit, turns smoothly into a relationship and character study. It’s not simply a descent into madness, it becomes the tale of two people who can save each other, and how the mental illness of one is both the creation and destruction of this salvation.
To quote my old friend, “Mr. Bass Man” Ronnie Bright, “That’s some deep shit”. Unfortunately, he was referring to the lyrics of the song “If” by Bread, so maybe his estimation of “deep” might be a bit suspect.
Anyway, the turn from Noir to love story is paralleled by the turn from the audience’s identification with Dixon to its identification with Laurel. This is accomplished with maximum finesse by Nicholas Ray and writer Andrew Solt. At first, before the relationship really kicks in, you are completely with Steele. Then, as the two become lovers, you are with both as one unit. Then, as suspicion and lack of trust pulls them apart, you go with Laurel. I can’t remember another film, with the exception of “Psycho”, that does this so well.

One other theme in the film bears mentioning. You get the feeling while watching that you are getting a serious insider’s look at the movie business circa 1950 (and maybe always). It is a bit melodramatic in representation, but then again there seem to be elements of candor that I suspect were rare, and that we don’t really see back then except in “All About Eve” and “Sunset Boulevard”, both of which, coincidentally or not, were made that same year.


There is a symbiosis with Ray and Bogie, that you see only in the great works. It is on a level with Ford and Wayne, or Hitchcock and Grant, or Truffaut and Leaud, or Scorsese and DeNiro, or Kurosawa and Mifune. Director and Actor working together almost as one unit, creating a persona and atmosphere to make the movie take on it’s own life.

Normally I will discuss the acting of a lead in my next section, but because of what I just said, I think Bogart’s performance needs to be discussed now. In one very Hitchcock-like scene, Steele directs his friend Brub (who is also one of the investigators of the murder) and Brub’s wife Sylvia into reenacting how Dix thinks the murder was committed. As he orders them around, there is a light across Bogart’s eyes that illuminates them, adding to his manic look subtly, producing a hypnotic concoction that is horrifying and reassuring at the same time. What a delcate line they (Ray and Bogart) both walk during this scene.
There is also no care taken to make Bogart look good during the movie. Laurel says she likes his face, and acts like that is why she is attracted to him, but it is clear it is the kind of person he is that she falls in love with. His fire, his creativity, his artistry, and by proxy his edginess are the magnet. He is obviously much older than Laurel (in fact Bogie had 24 years on Grahame- he was 50 and she 26 during the filming). There is no attempt to play down or even acknowledge this gap. One is simply left to believe the moth and flame situation that we are proffered. I didn’t doubt it for a second.

As in all films about writing, the dialogue is snappy, and without cliché. At times it is a bit over the top and leaden. After one of his episodes, Steele says this line to Laurel: “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.” He says he is putting that in the script. Probably at the time it’s a line that was a focal point and 1950 audiences might have needed the hook. Today, it plays heavy handed, to say the least.
Full disclosure--When I first saw the film, it inspired me to write a song entitled “I Lived For a Day”.
Guilty as charged, your honor.

The score by George Anthiel is way too pervasive; always there, always highlighting the emotions which need no help. I think it takes away from the power a bit, and would love to see this film with just a few touches of music instead.


As I stated before re-watching, Gloria Grahame is a revelation in the film. She captures the character changes in Laurel so perfectly throughout. Her coolness to Dix early on is controlled fire, and very alluring. Then, when deeply in love with him, she embodies that high so captivatingly; you just can’t take your eyes off of her. Finally, as she begins to fear him, her apprehension is powerful and visceral. It’s bravura acting from start to finish, and one wonders where performances like this were in other films.
Both Ginger Rogers (!) and Betty Bacall were considered for Laurel, but Bacall was under contract, and Ray held out for Grahame, who not incidentally was his wife.
Fascinatingly, in real life, she and Nicholas Ray were in the midst of a divorce during the shooting of this movie! They kept this under wraps, which I guess was more great acting. It gets weirder; Grahame got remarried to Ray’s son from a previous marriage.
To quote the Dan- “Hollywood, I know your middle name”.

Frank Lovejoy and Jeff Donnell as Brub and Sylvia are very believable, but not standouts. As for the rest of the supporting cast, there is really only one role that is interesting- Martha, Laurel’s masseuse and confidant, played by Ruth Gillette. She plays it like a bastard offspring of two Hitchcock characters, Judith Anderson’s chilling turn as Mrs. Danvers in “Rebecca” and Thelma Ritter’s wisecracking Stella the physical therapist in “Rear Window”. Martha keeps calling Laurel “Angel”, and comes across with heavy lesbian overtones, which must have been a risky take in those days. She knows Dix is trouble for Laurel, but because of her persona it feels like she’s always saying, “you’d be much better off with me, Angel.”
Art Smith as Dix’s agent Mel is standard issue Jewish nebbish. The role could have been played for more comic relief, but thankfully was not. There is also a piano bar scene featuring Hadda Brooks singing the Ray Noble classic, “I Hadn’t Anyone Till You”. Fun trivia: Her contralto led her to a job as the first black woman to host a TV show.


This is probably the first re-watched movie that went higher in my estimation than it was originally. For the performances, the difficult subject matter, the intense direction and crushing ending, it should be considered one of the masterpieces of American Cinema, and for certain a top 3 Bogart role, along with “African Queen” and “Casablanca”. You’ve probably never seen it. Change that as soon as possible.

1st Look-★★★1/2 2nd Look-★★★★