January 15, 2020

suspectLike many movie packages, Suspect appears stuffed with possibilities; it’s got two attractive stars, a strong supporting cast, the aura of Hitchcock­ian thrills and romance, and a director who’s been known to make some nondescript but entertaining films (Peter Yates, of Eyewitness and Breaking Away). Unfortunately, it also has a script that, in terms of invention, merely rounds up the usual suspects.

The idea is that a public defender (Cher) takes on the defense of a deaf-mute transient (Liam Neeson) in a murder trial. Nobody particularly cares about the case, since victim and suspect are equally insignificant. The judge (John Mahoney) wants to get the trial over quickly, so he can accept a higher appointment; the prosecutor (Joe Mantegna) wants to fatten his political resume.

But there’s more here than meets the eye, as if you couldn’t guess. The first person to catch errant clues is a juror (Dennis Quaid), a high-powered Washington lobbyist who’s been roped into jury duty. He starts seeing discrepancies in the evidence. But he can’t pull a Perry Mason and thunder from the jury box, so he contacts the defender on the sly, and together they compile some tantalizing evidence.

The fact that such attorney­-juror interaction is highly unethical adds an extra layer of suspense, which Yates exploits in the movie’s best scene, a wordless sequence when the judge enters a law library where Cher and Quaid are doing research – if he sees them together, it’ll blow everything sky-high.

Elsewhere, Yates relies on standard tricks. Dark hallways, hands entering frames with heavy music cues, all designed to jolt you out of your seat. Some of it actually works.

But not much of it feels that good, at least to these jaded senses. The ethical touch-and-go seems borrowed from the success of Jagged Edge, and the remarks about the inadequacies of the justice system are tired. Cher the defender talks about her spiritual dissatisfaction, but that’s about all the evidence we have of it; otherwise, the actress is on her own in filling out the character (which she does rather well, in fact).

Quaid’s lobbyist is even more underconceived; he remains a blank. We don’t really know the connection between his amoral political activities and his jury­-bound bloodhound routine.

The movie even fails to bring these two together for prurient interest, I’m sorry to say. (Obviously, the prurient interests need a better lobbyist.) Somehow it’s OK to tamper with a juror, but no slow dancing ’til the trial is over.

I enjoyed watching John Mahoney and Philip Bosco as two cagey politicos. Joe Mantegna, currently on view in House of Games, is disappointing as the prosecutor. He’s occupying the same position George C. Scott had in Anatomy of a Murder – a hotshot young stage actor who comes in for a juicy featured part (prosecutors are reliably nasty roles). But Mantegna plays it low-key, when the role calls for him to show off a little.

Suspect has large patches that are enjoyable. But its fundamental weakness is that it doesn’t quite play fair; if you’re going to mount a whodunit, play by the rules.

First published in the Herald, October 22, 1987

Another one from that legal-thriller craze of the era. The movie did well, despite its reluctance to put Cher and Dennis Quaid in the clinches (I guess; or do they get together eventually?). The long-careered Eric Roth wrote the script.

The House on Carroll Street

November 4, 2019

housecarrollstreetThe opening scene of The House on Carroll Street is a wonderfully rich re-creation of a Senate hearing room, circa 1951. The mahogany tables, the clustered microphones, the angularity of the costumes and attitudes, all evoke the McCarthy era and its sense of reckless interrogation.

On the witness stand is a young woman (Kelly McGillis) who’s some sort of left-­leaning activist. Questioning her, and coolly impugning her character, is an oily Senate counsel, played by Mandy Patinkin as a synthesis of Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn. The most chilling touch comes at the end of the scene when, having destroyed the woman’s career, the panel breaks into a warm round of “Happy Birthday” for the committee chairman.

Adding a layer of reality (and payback) to the early going is the fact that The House on Carroll Street was written by Walter Bernstein, a Hollywood screenwriter who was himself blacklisted in the 1950s for the flimsiest of reasons. Bernstein previously examined the era in The Front.

After the galvanizing opening, Bernstein and director Peter Yates veer off from the blacklisting angle. Instead, their heroine stumbles upon a conspiracy to bring some unwanted foreigners into the country, and uncovers the plot with the aid of the sympathetic FBI man (Jeff Daniels) who’s been watching her.

In other words, the film turns into a rather conventional romantic thriller. As such, It provides a couple of satisfactory sequences, especially a long chase scene in Greenwich Village that travels from a bookstore to a theater, plus the knockout finale in the rafters of Grund Central Station. But the material that links these sequences is muddled; the movie feels as though it’s missing a reel somewhere. The romance between McGillis and Daniels has a perfunctory air about it, which isn’t helped by the awkwardly old-school dialogue (“We’re oil and water,” she tells him). 

Whenever Mandy Patinkin is onscreen, the movie gets a boost – Patinkin, so winning in The Princess Bride, glistens with malice in this film. He sits in a restaurant with McGillis and douses the tablecloth with ketchup as an illustration of – the Communist menace covering the world. Yates’ direction is as ordinary as his work on the similarly unsatisfying Suspect, which also had a couple of suspenseful scenes surrounded by a rickety plot. His – and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus’s – best work is simply the evocation of 1951, in the brick houses of Brooklyn and the sharp-creased hats of the FBI men (whose ties come down to the middle of their chests).

It is interesting that a definitive fiction film about the blacklisting era has yet to be made; perhaps still more distance is needed to see the time clearly. Or does Hollywood remain skittish about this period in its history? ln any case, after its opening scene, The House on Carroll Street doesn’t begin to capture the paranoia and shame of those times.

First published in the Herald, March 3, 1988

Yes, a truly dull film that raises but then backs away from the blacklisting angle. Somebody needs to do a powerhouse narrative film on the subject, but this (and the similarly bland Guilty by Suspicion) isn’t it. It sounds like it might almost be worth re-watching for Patinkin, but not really.

An Innocent Man

December 6, 2012

innocentmanWhen the action heats up in the maximum-security prison of An Innocent Man, one con surveys the scene and says to another, “Tension in the Big House. Just like in the movies.”

That’s got it about right. Despite the fact that An Innocent Man was written by a first-time screenwriter (Larry Brothers) who has spent some time behind bars, it trots out the basic, familiar elements of a good prison melodrama. It’s solidly in a line from the wronged-justice movies of the 1930s (such as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang) to Stallone’s outing from a couple of months ago, Lock-Up. Not much changes.

As these things go, An Innocent Man is hard-nosed and effective. Tom Selleck plays a normal guy, with a good life and a happy wife (Laila Robbins), whose existence is messed up when two crooked cops mistakenly bust into his house and shoot him. In order to cover their error, they plant drugs in his home and, when he recovers, frame him for dealing.

Selleck goes up the river, where he learns that his ideas about fair play don’t exactly hold sway. He falls in with a wily con (F. Murray Abraham, the Oscar winner from Amadeus), who’s been in prison “since Jesus was a baby,” and learns the rules of the jungle. The hardest lesson is: Kill or be killed.

There as some clever lines along the way and Abraham gets a lot of the good ones. The occasional moment suggest writer Brothers’ knowledge of prison experience; when Selleck is paroled and picked up by his wife, he murmurs, “Riding in a car,” as though reminding himself of the phenomenon. That’s a telling line.

Peter Yates, whose work has ranged from Bullitt to Breaking Away, is a veteran director who knows what to do with this sort of thing. He keeps it moving, in his colorless fashion, with little wasted motion. The movie’s spikiest moments are not with Selleck, who presents a bland protagonist, but with the two sleazy cops who framed him. They are played by David Rasche and Richard Young, and they are as hissable as villains come these days. Rasche, who achieved some sort of glory on TV’s “Sledge Hammer” series, has a particularly evil romp.

The film is too clockwork; the latter half involves Selleck’s revenge, and it’s predictable. It works, of course, because the bad cops are doing everything but kicking puppies around, and we can’t wait to see justice served. We’re not disappointed.

First published in the Herald, October 6, 1989

Here’s another film, and not actually a bad one, that seems almost entirely without a profile. Does anyone remember this movie fondly, or at all?