Monday, December 1, 2014

Under the Influence


"I dwell in possibility
A fairer house than prose
More numerous of windows
Superior of doors
Of chambers as the cedars
Impregnable of eye"

- Emily Dickinson

An orchestra conductor has murdered his mistress; and has covered his tracks well. But for the loss of a boutonnière. He confesses, into the blue blaze of Blythe Danner's eyes.



Peter Falk and John Cassavetes first worked together on the director's 1970 masterpiece Husbands, beginning a six-year sunburst of collaboration that would include perhaps the greatest American movie of the 1970s, A Woman Under the Influence (1974) (as Love Streams [1984] is perhaps the greatest of the 80s), Elaine May's jaw-dropping Mikey and Nicky (1976), and the three best episodes of the TV series Columbo: "Etude in Black" and "Swan Song" -- directed by Cassavetes under the pseudonym Nicholas Colasanto -- and "A Friend in Deed" -- the best 100 minutes of 1970s American television, with Cassavetes and Elaine May both on set (both Woman Under the Influence and Mikey and Nicky were in post-production / pre-production during the making of the episode), directed by Ben Gazzara.


Gazzara, of course, was the third element of that sunburst, also first working with the director on Husbands -- and beyond. He would be with Cassavetes on Opening Night (1977) and Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) (another masterpiece). Ben Gazzara was the roué of the trio: the most glamorous, largest, the most "star-like," the warmest and most romantic, the most corrupt and least loyal; and the weakest. If we include Killing of a Chinese Bookie and take a vision of the whole, what Cassavetes has given us (among many other things) is a kaleidoscope of 1970s white American middle-age maleness (strangely ignored by such gruesome mythomaniacs as Tarantino and P.T. Anderson): each man changing and exchanging shapes, colors, roles, names, jobs.



Gazzara's direction of "A Friend in Deed" is very beautiful. As he was a generous-hearted actor, so as director. He balances the overall perfect structure (there's not a false note in the almost 100-minute episode, leading to the astonishing ending, certainly the best of any Columbo) with out-of-story detail and constant memorable moments: the beautiful girl attached to the Commissioner at the backgammon table; Columbo almost burning up the Commissioner’s limousine with his cigar; the detective's first visit to Janice Caldwell’s bedroom, before first fade-out, washed in Kubrickian light and sound, as he instantly recognizes the set-up; the street bar – "place of business" to Cassavetes veterans Val Avery and Eleanor Zee; how ready Columbo's colleagues are to believe anything out of laziness and rote; Artie Jessup’s fence dressed like a drop-out from The Real Don Steele Show; the detective's reaction when told by the coroner what was found in Margaret Halperin's lungs ("Soap, Lieutenant. Soap."); the very funny visitor from Holcombe House, wandering onto the LAPD murder scene; Falk trying to buy a new watch-band from the lovely Arlene Martell; Columbo's handling of the used-car salesman stud, and the salesman's handling of the detective; the strange little bald guy who rushes Jessup as Mark Halperin’s bar set-up begins; Columbo's fear as he tries to stop the Commissioner from destroying himself, by framing Jessup; Val Avery’s look of deep respect toward Falk as the trap is sprung on Halperin.



Gazzara and cinematographer William Cronjager's searching, hand-held, close, constantly moving camera captures an undertone missing from all of Cassavetes's work (and perhaps a major failing): the characters are seen through a class-based lens. For all the oppressions and limitations Cassavetes's lost dreamers struggle against, economic forces and structures are not among them. Here Gazzara makes them felt. Commissioner Mark Halperin, intensely played by Richard Kiley, paves the way for LAPD Reichsmarschall Daryl Gates. Halperin mouths word-for-word what would constantly drip from Gates's mouth: trying to balance protection of LA's gated communities with the "so-called" problems of the inner city; bleating about "junkies and losers and welfare-cheats" as Halperin lies back in his Bel-Air bedroom -- bought and paid for by his wife. (Another indication of Gazzara giving everyone his due: as played by Rosemary Murphy, Margaret Halperin is a pretentious upper-class liberal, lacking any genuine warmth and eminently murderable.) As given to us by Gazzara, the Commissioner is seen as a decadent protector of rot, free-and-happy to: gamble, procure prostitution, break-and-enter, plant false evidence, burgle, blackmail, become an accessory after the fact in murder, and actual murder itself. Gazzara opens, briefly and only at times, the immense -- much more immense today (as everywhere) than in the relatively egalitarian 70s -- class divide of Los Angeles -- a place where the strong are allowed to eat the weak, in particular the weak husband cuckolded over-and-over again by the eventually murdered wife (and then getting away with it because of his position, but for the genius of the main character), where the strong husband cheats over-and-over on the stuffy rich wife, lives off her, and murders her. Gazzara's characters are seen as products and agents of class -- something never felt under Cassavetes.

Also, if Cassavetes seeks to "reimagine representation by situating the individual in a matrix of influences and relationships that he or she is unable to rise above" (in the words of Raymond Carney), is it possible we come closer to that reimagination by placing the matrix within a more classical movie structure? Has Gazzara done that? Can we view the Commissioner as representing Columbo's own matrix, one he is trying to overcome?

No, we can't. And Gazzara does not. While incomparable, Falk does not step out of the role we pretty much have assigned to him before the story begins. And the parameters of 1970s network TV (even in this Year of Watergate) are also not breached. "You just lost your badge, my friend." That is where Falk and Gazzara do not go. Even though “Friend” is great popular art, we are left with the knowledge that it would never happen this way. An LAPD Commissioner bagged for domestic murder by one of his own Lieutenants? Perhaps if the up-front, first-day evidence pointed heavily toward the Commissioner, they must run with it. But the Lieutenant uncovering the truth about his boss through dogged brilliance – when all the initial evidence points toward an easily framed three-time loser? Never happen.

But this would (notice the framed photo of Simone Weil on the fireplace mantel).



And so would this.