Burning Secret

December 4, 2019

burningsecretIf Burning Secret exists for any reason, it is to give a splendid role to Klaus Maria Brandauer, the marvelous actor who made a great splash in the international cinema with his bravura performance in Mephisto and who more recently played Meryl Streep’s husband in Out of Africa.

Brandauer seems to prefer his stage work in Vienna, for he doesn’t make many films. But he dominates Burning Secret, in which he has a plum role as a wealthy and titled man of mystery.

Brandauer plays a baron, vacationing at continental sanitorium in the winter of 1919. A new arrival catches his eye; a married American woman (Faye Dunaway) and her young son (David Eberts), who are at the resort because of the boy’s asthma.

The baron quickly strikes up a friendship with the child, but it gradually becomes obvious that his interest lies in the mother. And the lady, it further develops, is not averse to the attention; her husband (Ian Richardson) is back in Vienna shuffling papers.

As the adults gravitate toward one another, the boy feels betrayed. In the movie’s most amusing scene, Brandauer and Dunaway propose leaving the kid alone at a skating pond while they go off to town alone. The boy insists on coming along. But surely, his mother says, you would be bored at the art gallery. “I love paintings,” he says stubbornly. “Seventeenth century Bavarian landscapes?” asks the baron. The kid blanks out for a moment, then recovers: “They’re my favorite.”

The film, written and directed by Andrew Birkin, is told from the child’s point of view. This allows fur the slow unfolding of the baron’s motives, as well as a keen sense of the boy’s hurt.

Not a lot happens in the film and Birkin’s direction is a bit flaccid, so the characters tend to explain a lot in conversation. The baron is always saying things such as, “To consummate love is to make it mortal,” and otherwise stating the movie’s ideas. Only because Brandauer’s performance is so dextrous, full of cat-like movement and curious smiles, does the movie keep from being completely static. Even so, it’s awfully slow going.

The script is based on a story by Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, whose work also provided the basis for one of Hollywood’s most exquisite films, the 1948 Letter From an Unknown Woman. That movie breathed glowing life into the same themes that are present here, the sense of romantic tragedy and love unfulfilled. Burning Secret manages to smolder only occasionally.

First published in the Herald, December 1988

No recollection of this one, but Brandauer makes anything worth a look. Birkin must be an interesting person; along with being Jane Birkin’s brother, he wrote on some interesting projects, was an assistant to Stanley Kubrick, and directed the very interesting Ian McEwan adaptation, The Cement Garden. And oh, look: turns out Kubrick developed his own adaptation of Burning Secret in the 1950s.


June 20, 2012

There are few things sadder than the unmistakable chill of a craze gone cold. The first two Superman movies captured the imagination of the movie-going public and made a star out of the likable leading man, Christopher Reeve. The excitement was already cooling when Superman III appeared, awkwardly tailored to incorporate Richard Pryor.

Reeve has long since hung up his cape, but those industrious producers of the series, the Salkind family, insist on going to the well at least one more time. Yes, it’s Supergirl, the Man of Steel’s feminine counterpart—also a longtime DC Comics character—but this time out, the thrill is gone. And, apparently, not too many people care.

The Salkinds went back to the formula that made the original Superman such a delight: an unknown player as the hero, a big-star villain, a largely comic tone, and the fate of the world hanging in the balance.

Some of these elements actually work. Helen Slater, making her film debut in the title role, is quite adorable. She shares Reeve’s ability to communicate goodness without making it seem yucky. But she doesn’t always hold the screen too well against her fellow actors—one of whom is Faye Dunaway, the villain who has a hunger for “total world domination,” as she demurely puts it.

She gets her chance. In the undersea community of Argo, Kara (Slater) asks the great Zaltar (Peter O’Toole) what a certain funny round ball is all about. Zaltar explains that the glowing orb is the power source for the whole society (at least, I think that’s what he says—the sound went out at this point when I saw the movie). Kara accidentally lets the ball slip through the Saran Wrap covering of the planet. She goes to the Earth’s surface to retrieve it.

This little doohickey happens to land in Dunaway’s lunch. She’s a witch, picnicking in the vicinity. Sensing (correctly) that it may instill her with ultimate power, she grabs the thing and heads back to her lair, in an old amusement park, and starts doing nasty things to people.

Meanwhile, Kara enrolls in a local girls’ school, claiming to be the cousin of Clark Kent. As luck would have it, Dunaway is often on the scene, and the two lock horns when the witch flexes her magical muscles by trying to make the campus hunk (Hart Bochner) fall in love with her. Instead, he loves Supergirl, and Dunaway starts twitching those magnificent eyebrows and flaring those unforgettable nostrils.

I wish this had been more fun, but the fact is, Supergirl is without style or wit. The early scenes are rushed—there’s none of the lovely myth-making of Superman—and the action is just plain silly. Superman was funny, but when the chips were down, you (admit it) cared about what was going to happen next. That never happens here.

Director Jeannot Szwarc, of Jaws 2 fame, used to be a pretty decent television director—he made many episodes of “Night Gallery” and “Columbo”—and he still is a decent television director. The good news is, he probably won’t be allowed near another Super… project (if there is ever another one). The bad news is he’s already filmed Santa Claus, another legend cinematized by the Salkinds.

The big S and the red cape may be retired for good with this one. On opening night of Supergirl, the thundering music and traditional stormy credit-roll were greeted by a half-empty theater. Nobody seemed excited in the way they did when the Superman movies opened. Regardless of what you think of Supergirl, that’s a little sad.

First published in the Herald, November 24, 1984

Obviously Reeve would later climb back into the role, but the proposed Supergirl franchise was not to be. Szwarc had his big-screen shot, then returned to television, where he is still crankin’ ’em out. He did only one “Columbo,” according to IMDb.com (the one with Vera Miles), but many a “Night Gallery” and other series fare.


May 29, 2012

A drunk, our hero, shuffles into a dive in the seediest part of Los Angeles. He sees a woman at the bar who looks about as broken-down as himself. He sidles over next to her and orders a beer. Her conversation starter: “I can’t stand people, I hate them. Don’t you?” He replies thoughtfully, “No…but I seem to feel better when they’re not around.”

Somehow this exchange sets the tone for their friendship, which is the main focus of Barfly, a weirdly wonderful new film written by Charles Bukowski and directed by Barbet Schroeder.

Fans of Bukowski’s lowlife writings will recognize his alter ego, Henry Chinaski (Mickey Rourke), a down-and-outer who spends his days and nights drinking steadily, getting into fights, and scribbling down stories on stray pieces of paper. He’s actually reasonably content with this existence, until he meets Wanda (Faye Dunaway), the woman at the bar.

She, as much a drunk as he, rouses a few relatively noble instincts: Henry even takes a shot at getting a job. Meanwhile, Henry’s being pursued by a literary agent (Alice Krige) who wants to buy some of his stories.

Bukowski’s screenplay, and French director Schroeder’s light touch with it, consistently finds the humor and poetry of these gutter-level lives. Bukowski doesn’t sentimentalize or apologize for anything; he also doesn’t spare us any of the grunts or groans or other bodily functions that occur in such a lifestyle. Frequently a line of dialogue will soar too poetically, as with Henry’s observation that Wanda looks like “some kinda distressed goddess,” but this becomes part of the weave of the fabric.

Schroeder and cinematographer Robby Müller manage a visual delicacy, too; in the way the afternoon light spills into the bar when the door is opened, or the cool night that surrounds Henry when he bends down to a fire hydrant to wash his face after a fight.

Faye Dunaway takes on her uncharacteristically disheveled role and comes out with her best performance in years. There’s also nice supporting work by J.C. Quinn and Frank Stallone (yes, Sylvester’s songwriter brother) as the good and bad bartenders at the Golden Horn, Henry’s hangout.

And Mickey Rourke…well, Mickey Rourke has got to be seen in this one. We know about Rourke’s penchant for roles that are grungy and unkempt, as evidenced lately in Angel Heart and A Prayer for the Dying. But Rourke gets something completely new here, a wholecloth performance of rolling gait, bruised knuckles, and lilting speech. His line delivery is a singsong that plays devilish tricks on your expectations of how dialogue should be read, and also suggests a background of hurt and humor for his character. You may love or hate this performance, but either way it’s a remarkable piece of acting.

First published in the Herald, October 1987

I feel pretty good about this review. There must be some kind of story about how Faye Dunaway got into this unlikely project, and I do not know what that is. Man, you see Rourke’s inventive work here and wonder what might have been.