Monday 26 October 2009

Chandler (1971)

Director: Paul Magwood
Stars: Warren Oates and Leslie Caron
This is a hard boiled detective yarn, but it's led to a whole slew of horror stories. You know it isn't going well when the producer and director of the film take out an advert in the Hollywood Reporter to publicly apologise for their own picture. In an article in Time magazine they alleged that James T Aubrey, who ran MGM at the time, recut their film. He switched scenes around, restored deleted scenes and updated the score to have a more contemporary and less film noir feel. He even barred Paul Magwood, the director, from the editing room while he did it. There were lawsuits and court cases but what's left for posterity is the movie itself, and that isn't much at all in this instance.

Chandler ('as in Raymond', he says) is the hard boiled detective, of course, the name being a tribute to the creator of Philip Marlowe. He's played by Warren Oates, which means that the film is going to be worth watching for at least him. Oates was perfect for hard boiled detective roles as he had one of the most lived in faces of any actor and, as Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia testifies, he could look more like shit warmed up than anyone else in the business when the part called for it. He's in that category when the film starts, obviously about as happy to be in the company of his fellow security guards as he would be in a concentration camp. By the time the credits finish rolling he's quit.

Then an old friend called Bernie Oakman comes to hire him for a job. A French girl is flying in, some sort of government witness who 'they' want to keep an eye on. As it's obviously something better to do than drown himself in a bottle back home, Chandler takes the case. Unfortunately he's being set up as the patsy in some kind of shenanigans, though it takes us forever to find out what. All we know is that old men with deep voices and too many pounds stuffed into their business suits have some sort of plan that has to do with Ron Melchior, the man that Katherine Creighton, our French girl, knows intimately.

They're quintessential American TV movie tough guy businessmen of the era who want to be mobsters, ordering dastardly deeds but never getting their hands wet. They have leather chairs that they can swivel in a sinister manner towards the camera. They have dartboards on the wall with faces on them. They're supposed to exude power but they have cables dangling down their walls like they don't actually spend more than five minutes a month in their command centres. The thinner ones probably ended up on Grecian 2000 commercials, the others probably didn't last long enough. They're all painful to watch, especially when they sit on couches in their offices to plot their plots and scheme their schemes. The one who ends up as the father on Dharma and Greg doesn't look right without grey hair.
Anyway Chandler follows Creighton to a funeral parlour where she picks up a fake identity. He finds out she has a train ticket to Monterey so he follows her there, even talking to her on the train. In Monterey, she's forced into a cab and Chandler gives chase, saving her though she doesn't want to know in the slightest. He describes himself as a 'relic' but he becomes something more like a stalker, following her wherever she goes, making no attempt to hide himself and well, you've seen hard boiled detective stories before so you know how certain plot threads are going to end up without me spoiling them. The bits that make sense here are obvious, the bits that don't (which is most of them) don't do anything. By the time Chandler works it out we really don't care any more.

We're left to watch Warren Oates, who as great as he is still struggles with some of the inane dialogue he's given here. There's only so much he can do with things like 'Remember me?' and 'I don't know' and 'Yep' and You'll do.' Leslie Caron is terribly miscast, even though the filmmakers really should have known her strengths and weaknesses as she was married to the producer of the film at the time and later married its director. Then again she divorced both of them so perhaps they never learned. She's an emotionless leading lady and there's no chemistry between Caron and Oates at all, who plays better off Walter Burke as a funeral director and Scatman Crothers as a piano player called Smoke.

Given the reaction of the filmmakers to the released version of their picture, we have to wonder about what this could have ended up as. There's no doubt that it could have been better but I'm not convinced it could even have been good under the best of circumstances. The story does make sense, it just isn't very good and I don't think it would have been much better for some obscuring. The editing may not be masterwork stuff but it isn't inept, it's just as generic and unmemorable as the score, which isn't particularly out of place but merely does nothing. Some of the acting is terrible but it wouldn't have been any better rearranged into a different order. There are some good shots here and there but mostly the cinematography is average at best.

In fact the best thing about the entire picture in my humble opinion is also the worst thing, and I'd probably have thought the same had James T Aubrey not ever stuck his nose into the picture. We're treated to some truly astoundingly, awesomely, painfully bad seventies wallpaper, which honestly steals the show with its sheer assault on the eyes at some points, especially late on at a hotel. It forces its presence on us claustrophobically until we want to escape. It's the most obvious character in the film and the one that invokes most reaction from us. That doesn't say much for the picture as a whole or any of its component parts.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you indeed, for a most illuminating review of this most uninspired of 'neo-noir' films. I had hope to have been able to watch it all the way through, but I just couldn't. I've seen better plots in a cemetery. And the acting? The casting? The script? Hoo! About a quarter of the way through I told myself, 'okay, this sucks, but I'll watch a little more, maybe there'll be a few more shots of some nice 70s cars'... but no, I couldn't do it. Sorry Warren.