Tuesday 28 February 2023

When a Stranger Calls (1979)

Director: Fred Walton
Writers: Steve Feke and Fred Walton
Stars: Charles Durning, Carol Kane, Colleen Dewhurst, Tony Beckley, Rachel Roberts and Ron O’Neal

Index: 2023 Centennials.

When a Stranger Calls doesn’t tend to even approach any list of the greatest movies of all time, though its opening twenty-one and a half minutes have often been cited as the scariest to be laid down on film. However, it does have a solid stake to making any list of the most influential movies of all time, because everything about it seems clich├ęd to our jaded palates in 2023 but that’s because it was inventing those tropes back in 1979. It began life as a short film called The Sitter which was released in 1977 and shown before screenings of Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Barry Krost and Douglas Chapin were so impressed by it that they bought the rights and had its core team, director Fred Walton and his co-writer Steve Feke, expand it to feature length. Halloween was such a popular movie in 1978 that it almost became a topical follow-up, even though its heart predated the legendary John Carpenter film. And, for the icing on the cake, it also contains one of the most pivotal lines of dialogue in thriller history.

Perhaps its biggest success is that, even though almost every moment of the ninety-seven minute picture has been done to death in countless other movies during the years since its release, it still feels fresh and taut to anyone watching today. And that’s still more impressive when you factor in the detail that it was so influential that it was parodied in the opening scenes of Scream. Once you’ve been parodied so well and so prominently that your every trope is memeworthy, you really have no business being this effective. It didn’t surprise me once this time out, even though I honestly can’t remember whether I’ve ever seen it before—I probably have but so long ago that it’s blurred into the maelstrom of what it inspired—and I just plain enjoyed it. I should add that it did catch me out a little with its structure, because the beginning works as the standalone movie that it was and, when we leap forward seven years, it isn’t to the same protagonist. Carol Kane has to wait until almost the end of the picture to make her return.

Hers isn’t the first face we see but she is the only actor on screen for almost all of those opening twenty-one minutes. She’s the new babysitter, Jill Johnson, helping out Dr. and Mrs. Mandrakis while they go out to eat and maybe catch a movie. It should be an easy job because the kids are already asleep when she gets there, so she calls a friend and settles into some homework. What she wasn’t counting on are the persistent phone calls, one every fifteen minutes, in which a mysterious voice asks her, “Have you checked the children?” or simply hangs up without speaking. Initially, she ignores it. Then she worries about it. Eventually, she calls the police, who can’t do much because this caller isn’t threatening her or using obscene language. It’ll be just some weirdo, says Sgt. Sacker, a new example of a problem that’s reported every night. Of course, there are red herrings, like the weird noise that Jill believes may be an intruder but is just the ice maker in the fridge. She even rings the restaurant but the Mandrakises have left.

Meanwhile, the tension mounts, not just through the eerie repetition of phone calls, but through careful underpinnings. There’s an excellent and highly suspenseful score by Dana Kaproff and a growing darkness prompted by Jill turning down the lights, and both these elements mirror the growing tension. There are some glorious long shots too, looking into the house from outside, as if there might be someone watching everything unfold who isn’t us. At some point, Jill finally decides that it ought to be a good idea to lock the front door and arm herself, but the key escalation is when she eventually talks to the caller. He wants her blood all over him, he says. And, because she’s kept him on the phone long enough, the next call is from the 7th Precinct and Bill Boyett delivers that line that scared everyone before the advent of caller ID: “We’ve traced the call. It’s coming from inside the house.” At that point, Kane’s utterly panicked and she opens the front door to scream in the face of Charles Durning, who’s standing right there.

And Charles Durning is why I’m watching, because he would have been a hundred years old today and this seems like a good choice to remember him and his career. He starts the film as a cop but, after we skip forward seven years, he’s working for himself as a PI when Dr. Mandrakis invites him to a conversation about Curt Duncan’s escape from the insane asylum where the jury sent him six years earlier. This is where the focus shifts from Carol Kane as Jill Johnson, who almost had a movie of her own, to a cat and mouse game that pits Charles Durning as John Clifford against Tony Beckley as Curt Duncan. Both are excellent and both are iconic, almost as much so as Dr. Sam Loomis and Michael Myers would come to be in the growing Halloween franchise, but with more grounding. I never bought into Michael Myers as a human character, even if he’s built on a disturbed child who grows up in a lunatic asylum. He is just a personification of evil to me, as much so as the truck in Duel. Curt Duncan feels uncomfortably human and real.

Durning was always excellent as the everyman transplanted into some form of authority, a cop or a detective or a priest. He usually seemed a little shabby, a little overweight and a little more driven than he perhaps ought to be, but he was always real. He’s perfect here because we always believe that he wants to catch Duncan not only because it’s the right thing to do but because it’s personal to him. He’ll do whatever it takes to catch him and to kill him, making one scene between him and his former boss, Lt. Charlie Garber, in the similarly grounded form of Ron O’Neal, particularly awkward. Their first scene is solid, when Clifford asks a drunken Garber for help and he sobers up quickly when he explains why. It’s telling that Garber’s next action is to pick up his own baby. Their scene together in the lieutenant’s office when Clifford tells him that he’s going to kill Duncan is blistering though. Unable to talk him out of it, Garber settles for mere advice: “Take your time. Do it good.”

Beckley is excellent as Curt Duncan too, especially given that he establishes himself as a notable monster before we even catch sight of him. We watch Carol Kane be terrified. We only hear Beckley’s voice and I recognised how much he influenced Manhunter, in the amorality of Brian Cox’s Hannibal Lecktor and the disassociated pauses of Tom Noonan’s Francis Dollarhyde. It’s notable that Cox’s audition had him turn his back on the casting agents so that they could consider his voice over his look. I’ve seen Beckley before, in films as entirely unrelated to this genre as Get Carter, The Italian Job and Revenge of the Pink Panther, but I didn’t recognise him as a character as shabby and unremarkable as Curt Duncan. All the power in him is there from his voice performance in the opening, a single fight scene in a bar featuring him utterly steamrollered by a man upset at his weak attempts to chat up Colleen Dewhurst. In a neat touch, he even develops a cough from sleeping outside in such a battered state, which makes him even more pitiful.

It’s important to note that, while Duncan is clearly the bad guy from the outset, having brutally murdered two young children with his bare hands before we even catch a glimpse of him, he’s portrayed with plenty of sympathy. Something is clearly broken in him, something that’s probably not helped by the copious amounts of drugs and electro-shock therapy he received in the asylum. When he tries it on with Tracy, the woman at Torchy’s bar, it’s with complete ineptitude. Even before he’s beaten to a pulp, he’s a dowdy nothing of a man. There’s a scene of him naked in a bathroom, looking at himself in the mirror and flashing back to dead kids and a straitjacket. And, on the flipside, it’s just as important to note that, while Clifford is clearly the good guy from the outset, as the cop who’s first on the scene after that call is traced, his frank admission to a police lieutenant that he’s going to kill Duncan has us note just how nuanced both characters are in a movie that inspired a genre not remotely known for its subtlety.

Eventually, this section of the story, which takes up two thirds of the film, segues into a return for Carol Kane, now Jill Lockhart, a married woman with a couple of kids of her own, a nice place out in the suburbs and a babysitter of her own because her husband’s taking her out to dinner. Yes, I know you can see where that’s going to go and all our plot strands are wrapped up neatly in a quick final scene that’s all the more shocking because of how quickly it’s all done. Even here, the film doesn’t let up, because it shifts to a far more subtle, but just as disturbing, phase of the score while the end credits roll. As they did, I realised that I’d noted down a lot of positive points but nothing particularly negative that couldn’t be dismissed as a commentary not on this film but the many that it influenced. It felt incredibly difficult to ditch those four decades of baggage and imagine this as it would have appeared to a fresh audience unused to this sort of thing in theatres in 1979.

While Kane, Beckley, Dewhurst and O’Neal are all notable in their roles, I’m watching for Charles Durning, who I’ve seen in so many films over the years. I honestly have no idea what I saw him in first, whether it was Tootsie or The Sting or The Fury, three films that highlight his range. Maybe it was Breakheart Pass or Solarbabies or The Man with One Red Shoe. He was rarely a lead, usually playing a pivotal supporting character, and that lived-in face became one of the beats of my youth, as I immersed myself into the movies. His first film was as an uncredited American G.I. as long ago as 1962 in The Password is Courage, not a hard part for him to play, given an impressive career during World War II. As a lowly private drafted into the army at the age of twenty, he was part of one of the first American waves onto Omaha Beach during the D-Day landings. He was wounded in action by a Nazi anti-personnel mine and, after recovering, went back to the Battle of the Bulge. He received three purple hearts, a silver star and a bronze star, among others.

His acting career came after the war but before he found his way to film. He was a professional ballroom dancer in his slimmer days who taught at the Fred Astaire Dance Studio in New York, but it was while working as an usher in a burlesque theatre that he found himself on stage, taking over from an actor who was drunk and couldn’t continue. Dozens of stage productions off-Broadway later, he joined the New York Shakespeare Festival, appearing in a string of summer plays in Central Park. Of course, he’d get to film soon enough, his first credit coming in 1965’s Harvey Middleman, Fireman, but he continued to perform on stage and, before too long, on a succession of television shows. The seventies were his decade, as he began to rack up award nominations and wins. In 1972, he won a Drama Desk Award for That Championship Season on stage. In 1975, he received a Golden Globe nod for Dog Day Afternoon and won a National Board of Review Award. A year later, on television, he got a Primetime Emmy nod for Queen of the Stardust Ballroom.

Of course, those were just the firsts. He would be nominated for two Oscars, both for supporting roles, in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and, a year later, in To Be or Not To Be. He racked up nine Primetime Emmy nominations over the years, from 1975 to 2008’s Rescue Me. His four Golden Globe nominations included one win, in 1991, for The Kennedys of Massachusetts. He also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The real prize is ours, of course, because we get to watch him in over two hundred films and TV shows, a run that includes so many highlights that we could all pick our favourites and maybe never come up with a duplicate. After all, we have four decades and three different media to choose from. I’ll remember him as Pappy O’Daniel in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, as Peter Griffin’s dad in Family Guy, as the chief of police in Dick Tracy, as a distraught corporal in NCIS, as the Warden in Solarbabies, as a lieutenant in Sharky’s Machine, as the twisted postman in Dark Night of the Scarecrow. The list goes on and on.

It was a distinguished career to follow a distinguished career. He was born in Highland Falls, New York, to parents with a variety of heritages, as the ninth of ten children, but five of them died in their youth of scarlet fever or smallpox. His years in the army led to a slew of functions to honour veterans, including seventeen years as a guest speaker at the National Memorial Day Concert on PBS. His stage career led to his induction into the Theater Hall on Fame on Broadway and his screen career to a Life Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild. He was married twice and had three children. He died of natural causes on Christmas Eve in 2012 at home in Manhattan, aged 89, the same day as his fellow everyman actor, Jack Klugman. Two features were released posthumously, including his final film role, playing Santa Claus in a horror movie called Bleeding Hearts. As befits his army career, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. At the next National Memorial Day Concert in 2013, Taps was played in his honour.

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