Menu Close

All Things Thriller

A Celebration of Thrillers, Noire and Black Comedy by Pamela Lowe Saldana

Thief (1981), a Film Directed by Michael Mann, Staring James Caan; Neo-Noir

I grew up with James Caan, in a manner of speaking; that is to say, I grew up with him the way we all did…while watching his films.

I don’t know much about his life other than he was born and reared in the Bronx and that he has a reputation of being a tough guy.

…And if my mother was alive, she’d be his age now, which is 80.

James Caan is one of many Hollywood tough guys–on screen and off. A tender heart and a threadbare vulnerability differentiated him and his characters, making it almost impossible to root against them and–existentially–him. And that made him a blue-collar superstar in the late 60’s to the early 80’s and fueled his resurgence in the 90’s.

James Caan is sexy. Women like him. Men like him.

In Michael Mann’s 1981 debut feature film, Thief (1981), Caan’s “Frank” is a career criminal on top of his game. The only footsteps he hears behind him are from Father Time.

Frank, takes down big scores. He deals only in cash and diamonds that he procures with a skeleton crew of trusted professionals in elaborate, carefully orchestrated heists. He isn’t greedy. And he stays clear of the mob.

Frank lives very comfortably. And he lives alone.

He is nearing his forties. He wants a family and a normal life.

To that end he becomes acquainted with a pretty cashier/hostess in the cafe where he takes his meals. There is an attraction, a familiarity, though they do not know each other. Her name is Jessie (Tuesday Weld) and Frank pursues her immediately, with blatant determination so honest, so desperate that she agrees to be his soulmate on a whim.

Jessie too, has a criminal past that she has been keeping at a respectable distance. Frank assures her that he is one big heist away from being able to retire in style.

And style is very important to Frank. It is the one thing that slows the dogged pursuit of his own self doubt.

Jessie tells him she can’t have children. Frank shrugs it off. “We’ll adopt,” he says.

Michael Mann takes these familiar troupes of noir and runs with them in Thief, starting with his own screenplay that borrows from the memoir of jewel thief, John Allen Seybold’s Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar. Seybold served as a consultant to the film while he was being hunted by the FBI.

It is fun to watch Mann’s directorial signatures taking shape before anyone knew who he was. Signatures like wet streets with neon colors reflecting off them, elegant camera work capturing the frailty of life through the lens of grindhouse spectacle and intricate attention to the art of the heist and sporadic violence, all of it set to a pulsing, synthesized soundtrack.

Yet, for all that (and one of the greatest heist sequences in movie history in which the industrial arts inform the cinematic) Thief is essentially a tragic character study, wrapped in the trappings of a neo-noir. It is the story of a man who has spent his entire life on the outside looking in, a man who takes great pride in his work but can barely speak of it.

It is a story of a thief with principals shaped in foster homes and prison cells who will set his dreams ablaze for the sake of them–and for revenge.

Lenny, a Serial; Part VI

Lenny had to play his cards just right so that Trish would allow her Civic to be towed. He wanted them to ride back to town together.

“You wouldn’t let them tow your precious Ranchero GT,” she said.

And she was right.

She hardly said a word to him on the four hour trip. The silence hummed in his head like tinnitus from hell. He came this close to pulling over and having it out with her. She was the one who just disappeared one day with no explanation except for that stupid note. But he didn’t.

Instead he bought her stuff he knew she liked–Chex Mix and diet Sprite–when they stopped for gas. And he got her one of those single long stemmed roses.

“What are you, sixteen years old?” she asked when he gave it to her.

Trish had never been so belittling to him. Her words cut through him like his SOG Strat Ops Automatic.

It hurt so bad, he felt so frustrated that he just wanted to bang his forehead on the steering wheel, but he didn’t. He didn’t say anything. He just took it.

When he drove up to her apartment he asked her one last time to spend the night at his place. He would sleep on the couch if she wanted.

She just looked at him with hard black eyes.

Then she gathered some of her stuff from behind the seat and shut the heavy door of the Ranchero with with her foot.

He hauled the rest of her stuff up the stairs to her apartment.

After that he went home.

The girl pointed at the miniture golf course. “I want to go there,” she said.

Ranger laughed. “Miniature golf?”

“Yeah. What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing, if you’re a ten year old girl.”

“Or a ten year old boy,” she said.

Or a ten year old boy,” Ranger repeated. “We can always go bowling. I know you like that.”

She sighed. “No. Game Putt’s fine.”

“Good. It helps me with my golf game.”

He cruised down the circular street leisurely. It was a nice day. Even so, he wanted to stay in the air conditioning as long as possible.

“Dad likes to golf, ” she said.

“Yeah. And he’s pretty good at it too.”

“Whose better? You or him?”

“I am. Though he’d probably tell you differently. And I’m sure he has.”

“We don’t talk that much. He’s always with Jordy now. Playing golf or whatever.”

Ranger pulled the Toyota Camry into the Game Putt parking spot. He let the engine idle as he cleaned his sun sunglasses on his shirt.

“Your dad loves you, Mia. You know that. Right?”

“I guess,” she said.

“Well, I don’t guess. I know…I know a lot of things about your dad. We’ve been friends for a long time. He’s a professional. He’s good to his friends.”

She nodded.

“I know he could be a better dad, Mia. I know that. But, look, when all is said and done, he does the best he can. He really does. Someday you’ll understand what I mean by that. When you understand, you’ll know what to do. It’ll be easier. But, always remember, your dad loves you…Okay?”

“Yeah,” she sniffed.

He wiped the tears from her cheek with his thumb. “Yeah what?”

“He loves me.”

His cell phone rang. “All right. Now you stay right here. I’m going to step outside and take this call. And then we’ll play Game Putt…Go bowling…Go to the movies…I’ll take you shopping. Whatever you want…Except miniature golf. I can’t do that. What do you say?

“Okay.”

“And what I said about your dad…it’s just between the two of us.”

She nodded.

Lenny: A Serial, Part V

The first thing Lenny did was double check the parking lot. Trish’s white Honda Civic was nowhere in site.

From there he drove to the exit and cruised through a convenience store parking lot, the one he knew she filled up at. She wasn’t there either.

Then he took the interstate to Carrows where, Wendal, Trish’s manager told him she’d picked up her check and quit–left him shorthanded.

Wendal was disappointed in Trish, but he told Lenny he’d take her back if she showed up. Lenny told him he’d tell her.

From Carrows, he jumped on the interstate. He checked the gas stations and convenience stores on the last three exits and then headed out of town.

The hostess led him to a table for one, which he refused, asking for a booth instead. He ordered pinot noir before dinner, and cabernet sauvignon with rack of lamb in mustard sauce, spicey cucumber salad and grilled carrots with purple potatoes.

He sipped his pinot while he watched the couple in the booth to right of him, hoping he would have time for desert.

Lenny timed himself according to Trish’s itinerary…rather, the itinerary he presumed she was going by.

For instance, he knew she didn’t like to drive at night so he estimated where she’d be on her route about thirty minutes before the sun went down.

And he called her–an embarrassing amount of times.

It always went straight voice mail.

Until finally she answered.

Ranger sat in the atrium next to the water fountain with a Stoli/cranberry straight up and watched the heavy, wood-carved door to Sullivan’s Cove.

He didn’t read. He didn’t piddle with his phone. He just watched.

Finally the couple came out.

He mirrored them, walking with them side by side, if not for the atrium wall. They approached the elevator at the same time. He stumbled into them while simultaneously, stealthily jabbing the man in the stomach with the needle of the syringe. The man doubled over as the door opened and they spilled into the elevator.

“Sorry about that,” he said.

The man backed into a corner of the elevator. He gasped, his eyes wide, his face confused. The woman draped her arms around him.

“Drew! What’s the matter?”

“Is he okay?”

“I don’t know. You must have knocked his breath out!”

“Oh my gosh! Do you want to go to your floor or…”

The man was gulping as if he couldn’t catch his breath.

“No! Open the door.”

He pushed the button and the elevator door opened. He bolted into the lobby. “I’ll notify the front desk, ” he said.

But he didn’t. He walked out the revolving doors which led to the parking lot instead. Quickly.

But not too quickly.

Lenny wheeled the serving cart quietly to Trish’s side of the bed. He unwrapped the cellophane covering the water and juice glasses and peeked under the cloches.

Soft scrambled eggs, link sausage and a single pancake. No syrup. Tomato on the side. A pot of black coffee. Check, check, check and check.

He sat on the edge of the bed and watched Trish sleep. The nasty beginnings of a purple bruise was visible on her upper arm, just below her bare shoulder. Already, he could make out faint finger marks. 

Nausea gripped the pit of his stomach. Disgust mixed with caustic bile scorched his throat.

But he couldn’t wait for her to sleep any longer.

He placed his hand gently on her hip and shook it. 

A New Leaf (1971), a Film Directed by Elaine May, starring Walter Matthau; Black Comedy

Man about town Henry Graham (Walter Matthau) finds himself in a most loathsome predicament–he’s broke. Despite the various safety nets and warning bells afforded the upper crust, Henry (teetering on late thirties that he may have already toppled over) has extravagantly exceeded the principal of his trust fund. His checks are bouncing all over town.

What’s more, aside from being a pompous ass with the vocabulary to prove it, he has no bankable skills. In a matter of days he will be a wretched member of the unqualified snob club.

Understandably, Henry cannot call in favors from friends because he has done no favors and has no friends. Even gregarious glutton, Uncle Harry, (James Coco) delights in his nephew’s floundering. Still, he offers a twig to the drowning man. He will loan Henry fifty thousand dollars which must be repaid in six weeks. If Henry fails to pay within the allotted time, he will forfeit every dime of his estate.

With no other choice beside suicide–which he contemplates but grandiosely dismisses–Henry takes the loan and the advice of Harold, (George Rose) his gravely-concerned gentleman’s gentleman: marry a woman of wealth.

In A New Leaf, (1971) writer, stage actress Elaine May, takes her first turn as director with her own screenplay, adapted from prolific short story writer, Jack Ritchie’s The Green Heart. Starting with a strong cast of mostly stage actors, May produces a hysterical, comedic character study, sharpened with dark satire, brazen wit and unyielding good taste.

May completes the theatrical trifecta with her portrayal of Henrietta Lowell, the clumsy, skittish, yet brilliant horticulturist and heir to the estate of an industrialist father. Prior to her introduction to Henry, Henrietta has but one devout ambition–to identify an unknown species of fern.

Henry sizes her up as the perfect mark and sets about on an astoundingly short courtship that leads the two straight to the alter and then on to a burgeoning murder plot. But before that, Henry verbally eviscerates one of Henrietta’s snobbish tormentors, puts his wife’s affairs in order, rescues her from crooks and a toga-style nightgown, all while keeping the hors d’oeuvre crumbs brushed from her haphazard attire. Within the the doldrums of everyday life, Henry discovers the faintest glimmer of a purpose–and a conscience.

But is that enough? In black comedy one never knows.

Lenny; A Serial, Part IV

Lenny wasn’t what you call a morning person. He usually didn’t get into to bed until two or three a.m., so he didn’t get up until ten or eleven. And when he did get up, he wasn’t exactly a breath of sunshine. It was a quirk of his mostly otherwise affable disposition.

Of course, Trish knew this. So on her days off, she usually waited for him to call.

On that day Lenny got up a little earlier than usual. He went through his typical morning routine:

  • feed Griffin
  • clean the tank, feed the fish and count them, top off the water
  • dust, sweep and vacum
  • do 50 crunches and 100 push-ups
  • eat a bowl of Cap’n Crunch or Coco Puffs cereal
  • check the Ranchero GT for bug splatter, polish if needed (it didn’t)
  • take a shower and call Trish if she was off (she was)

Lenny let the phone ring and ring. She didn’t answer.

He didn’t think too much of it. There were plenty of things for him to do, so he did them. A couple of hours later he called her back. She still didn’t answer. So he drove to her apartment.

On his way, he worried. Was she okay? Did she trip getting out of the tub and hit her head on the toilet? He had a friend who did that and died from a blood clot to the brain.

And he thought about things, like why she never gave him a key to her apartment? And why she wouldn’t move in with him?

When he got there he bounded up the steps to her third floor apartment. There was an envelope taped to her door with his name written in her slanted, swirling script. He ripped it open. Inside was a letter.

Lenny,

I’m sorry. It was never my intention to hurt you, though I knew from the beginning that I would. Well, almost from the beginning. At first you were an indulgence, like a second piece of cake. But you were so much more than that…You are so much than that.

I was selfish. You made me feel alive. It felt so good to care, to laugh and to share things. It has been so long since I felt anything. I was relieved to know that I could.

There are so many things I wish I could tell you…I know you just want to know why. You deserve to know, but I can’t tell you…But I want you to know this…You are a nice man, Lenny. Not a nice guy…You’re not just some Joe Blow I met while slinging drinks…I’ve never really known a nice man before.

I wish I could be a nice woman because that’s what you deserve. But I can’t be what I’m not. I wish I could stay with you. I want to stay with you. But I can’t. 

You told me some things about Rachel…She wasn’t a nice woman either, Lenny. I don’t want you to end up with someone like her or me. You deserve so much better. You deserve someone who will share with you…Someone who will walk down a two way street with you.

That’s what I want for you. That’s what I hope for you.

Trish 

Lenny; a Serial, Part III

Bottles rattled as an enormous man–his hands, big as shovel scoops–pulled the dolly up the steps and onto the platform. Once there, he wedged it between the bar and himself, easing it into an upright position, careful not to upend the boxes stacked high, emblazoned with the names Jack Daniels, W.L. Weller, Makers Mark and Jim Beam.

He moved the top box–the Jack Daniels one–from the dolly to the bar and ran a box cutter through the cardboard.

A buzzer sounded.

The man’s hand jerked, arcing the razor blade through the webbing between his thumb and forefinger and into the meat of his other hand. Blood gushed.

“Shit!” the man yelled.

He fumbled frantically behind the bar searching for towels.

Again the buzzer juddered. And again.

A heavy-set woman in an expensive beige pantsuit appeared from a hallway behind the bar.

“What the hell?” she barked.

The man raised up, the mound of towels on his hand already red with blood.

“I sliced it. Bad,” he said.

She headed down the steps toward metal double doors with an exit sign above.

“Put pressure on it. Hard.”

Even in platform wedges she had to raise to the balls of her feet to peer out the peep hole.

Nobody.

She yanked one of the doors open and stepped halfway into the alley, looking one way around the door–nothing–and the next. He was about to turn the corner.

“Hey!” she yelled.

He turned and faced her. She motioned for him to come forward.

“Sorry. I was in the stock room.”

He didn’t move. He was slender, of medium height, older than she expected. Like her’s, his hair was startlingly white. But his was natural.

“Come on in. I don’t bite.”

He approached slowly. She held the door for him. Once inside, he stood with his back against the wall. She shut the door. The enormous man leaned on the bar, grimacing.

“What happened?”

“Cut himself.”

He removed his sunglasses.

“You Ranger?” she asked.

“I’d better be,” he answered.

She walked toward the bar. “Let’s go to my office.”

He followed her up the steps.

“Get Fletcher on the phone,” she ordered the enormous man. “Tell him you need stitches and you can’t make it to the office. Tell him Gee Gee or whoever’ll make it up to him. Then sit your ass down and keep your hand above your heart.”

They walked behind a curtain and a down dimly lit hallway to a wood paneled room with musty carpet. She plopped down behind a desk.

“Have a seat,” she said motioning toward a chair with a torn vinyl cushion.

He sat. She slid a manila envelope with an 8×10 glossy on top of it across the desk.

“I guess Zack filled you in.”

He examined the photo. “Yeah. But I’d rather hear it from you.”

“Nothin’ special. Smart enough. Lacey Cummings is her stage name. Her real name is Patricia Slate. I’ve heard the girls call her Patty.” She lit cigarette and offered him one. He shook his head. “No family to speak of. Mom’s dead. Dad never was in the picture. Went to school in Fort Wayne. We had an arrangement. She ran off owing me two hundred grand.”

“Wrong,” he said.

“Excuse me?”

He laid the picture on the desk. “She ran off owing Detroit two hundred grand.”

She blew a stream of smoke at his face. “So you’re a good boy. You did your homework.”

“Always.”

“We have a deal or not?”

He smiled. His teeth were small, clean and yellow. “Not for thirty we don’t.”

Her executive chair groaned as she shifted. “How much?”

“Fifty.”

“Because of Detroit?”

“Yep,” he answered.

You really break it off in a girl don’t you?”

“I don’t make a habit of it. But it happens.”

“Alright,” she grumbled. “You’ll get the extra twenty with the rest of it when it’s done.”

He pried open the clasp of the manila envelope and thumbed through two stacks. “I’m okay with that,” he said.

She got up and opened the office door. He finished counting, fastened the clasp and then walked out.

Halfway down the hall she called to him. He turned around.

“No pictures. I wanna see it.”

He bent his fingers into the shape of a pistol and pointed at her.

“Gotcha,” he said.

Lenny; a Serial, Part II

Before Trish, Lenny had been burned by love–once. Her name was Rachel and she was young. They were both young.

Rachel was a raven haired beauty with a great figure and fire in her veins. And she slept around–a lot.

Lenny knew this about her. The first time they had sex they weren’t even on a date. They were at a frat party. He fell in love with her that night.

For Rachel, Lenny would do anything. He would work hard, diligently, as an electrician’s apprentice at her father’s electrical contracting business, making slow but steady progress up the ladder of respectability.

Nobody saw that coming.

In turn, Rachel’s father and mother would take him under their protective wings, nurturing a relationship that they would have never approved of if Rachel had of turned out like they hoped.

Even so, Lenny was good for their daughter.

But Rachel wasn’t good for him. And it ended badly, with a dislocated shoulder for her and a police record for him–and one for Rachel’s father too…

A police record, not a dislocated shoulder.

That’s pretty much when Lenny called it quits on love. Oh, he had lot’s of girlfriends–all of them young, even as he got older. His mostly married friends teased him; they called him a lucky dog, but it had been too casual too long. Lenny longed for someone he could talk to–someone to share with.

And then, whoosh, just like that, Trish fell into his life like a godsend. It was the first time since Rachel that he was attracted to someone his own age.

If not for the Ecstasy windfall, he probably would have never had the nerve to approach her. Here’s what happened:

He was having a 3 0’clock lunch at Carrows. Carrows was a 24 hour restaurant that had a small bar in it. It was his first time there.

Lenny sat in the bar but not at the bar. Trish was the bartender and she waited his table. She was pretty. Friendly, but not overly so. She didn’t grovel for tips.

Lenny watched as she tended the bar. There were five high-backed chairs at the bar. Five men sat in the high-backed chairs. Middle age men. Regulars, he could tell. Trish was professionally attentive toward them. Nothing more.

He left a twenty dollar cash tip on the table. The next day he went back to Carrows for lunch.

And the day after that.

On about the fifth day, she asked him when he was going to take her to dinner. And that’s how it started.

Trish was smart. She knew about a lot of things that Lenny didn’t. For instance, she knew about wine. Lenny didn’t know jack about wine, he knew his way around a few cocktails, mostly frozen tropical drinks.

Trish thought that was funny.

Another thing Trish knew about was food. One time, when they were on a picnic, she insisted on grilling the steaks herself. “All right, suit yourself,” he said.

Trish didn’t want to use charcoal so they gathered wood from around the barbeque pit. She pulled off some hickory chips from a nearby tree and threw them into the fire that she had kindled with one match, no lighter fluid. She said she learned the technique at YMCA summer camp.

When Lenny told her wanted his steak well done, she refused to cook it that way. She served it to him medium instead, with charred pineapple and asparagus on the side. It was the best steak Lenny ever had.

Lenny taught Trish about things too, lots of stuff about salt water fish tanks, about the gravity level, about the water temperature, the marine salt, the conditioner and filters, and about the tropical fish that lived in his “50 galloner.”

Let’s see…there where the lavender Threadfin butterflyfish with their vibrant yellow tails and black zebra stripes. They were nice fish, Lenny said.

Then there were the finicky, frog-like Mandrinfish, ugly, if not for their startling array of neon colors. Lenny claimed they were “a bitch to keep alive”.

Trish’s favorite were the Yellow Tangs. She loved the way they pressed their noses–Lenny called them nares–against the tank when she looked at them. She also liked the Powder Blue and Powder Brown Tangs that, according to Lenny, cost “a butt load of money.”

Lastly there were the orange and white Ocellaris clownfish. They were the hardiest and the most plentiful fish in the tank. Lenny said he wanted a smaller tank with just clownfish because they were so easy to take care of.

Lenny also educated Trish about his baby–his 1970 Ford Ranchero GT with its 429 Cobra-jet engine and shaker hood that he kept polished to a wet, glossy sheen. He explained that he repainted it the original color, dark ivy green, even though he didn’t like green, because it was the stock color and stock was better. He taught her about numbers matching up and that every time you put an after market part in a classic car it throws the numbers off and the value of the car drops “like a ton of bricks.”

He taught her about all of these things and more. And for the most part she was genuinely interested in them.

They talked about all sorts of things. And they did all kinds of things together. They even adopted a cat–a scrawny gray tabby kitten–that they almost ran over in the Steak N Shake parking lot.

That night, after buying Fancy Feast, kitty litter and toys, they brought the kitten back to his place. That’s when Lenny first asked Trish to move in with him.

She was nice about it, happy that he asked, but she turned him down.”Let’s not rush things. Let’s just see how it goes,” she said.

Lenny kept the kitten at his house, in the utility room where he built a multi level, multi room cat house out of scrap lumber and indoor/outdoor carpet. They named him Griffin.

Even though he was disappointed about the living arrangements, for the first time in a long time, Lenny was happy. But he didn’t tell Trish about the Ecstasy and he didn’t ask questions about her past.

She told him not to.

Lenny; a Serial

So here’s the thing about Lenny–he was lucky. And he was happy-go-lucky.

Back in the day, Lenny was totally cool with couch surfing. He lived in a few basements too, basements that he was supposed to remodel in exchange for rent and never did.

Consequently he moved around a lot, but was never homeless. He lived in some cool places too, like in the guest house of the lead singer for Dr. Hook–he was dating the guy’s daughter–and on the houseboat of a rich old man.

Lenny was a good-looking guy–he looked like a rugged version of George Michael if George Michael was from Chicago–so it might surprise you that he had some geek hobbies, like metal detecting on the beach and magnet fishing in the lagoons around the business district. Then again, knowing what you already know about him, it might not surprise you at all.

So one day, Lenny was magnet fishing and he pulled up a safe that had Herring, Hall, Marvin 1943 engraved on the bottom of it. There were tool marks where it had once been pried open and the combination lock was smashed, but it was in surprisingly good shape and sealed tight as a drum. Lenny managed to get it into the truck-bed of his 1970 Ford Ranchero, but just barely. The thing weighed a ton. He put a nasty scratch on the Ranchero too in the process.

From there he took the safe to his storage locker where he was living at the time. Not that he was living in the locker, mind you, he was the head security guard/maintenance man for the facility so he had an apartment there.

Lenny was good with tools. He took mechanics in high school and was a certified boat mechanic. When he worked as a boat mechanic he made good money, but the shop hours didn’t jibe with him. Saturday was the boat shop’s biggest service day and it was also his biggest day on the beach. It got old not having Saturday’s off.

Anyway, Lenny had thousands of dollars of tools. Good tools. Nothing below Snap-On quality. Plus, Lenny was smart. He got that safe open.

And guess what?

It had nothing but change in it…old change. Lots of Washington quarters, walking liberty half dollars and Roosevelt dimes. Bunches and bunches of Roosevelt dimes. All of it at least 90% silver. A small fortune of it.

With the proceeds from the silver currency, Lenny bought a nice condominium that needed a little work. He made that place into a show piece; he really did. And he put a green paint job on his Ranchero, a stock ivy green that looked a lot like avocado green.

Everybody was surprised by that.

He built a bar for his condo that had a saltwater tank in it and put some gorgeous tropical fish in it. He turned one of his bedrooms into a mini theater/gaming/stereo room that he called a “media room”. He bought a three thousand dollar mattress and a 50″ 720p television set before 720p was a thing.

A Sony.

And he invested the rest of it into Molly, or what people use to call Ecstasy. Lenny did very well with the Ecstasy. It was back in the early days of raves and techno and he knew all those people.

And that’s when he met Trish.

The Stepfather (1987), A Film directed by Joseph Ruben, starring Terry O’Quinn; Psychological Thriller Slash Slasher

Sometimes, ever so rarely, a movie will come along from a junk genre, like exploitation–I’m thinking Texas Chainsaw Massacre here or, possibly, Wolf Creek–or slasher–Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street–or Blaxploitation–Across 110st Street and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, a movie that transcends it’s genre and wades into mainstream cinema. I have a soft spot for such films because they exceed the purpose of their existence, which is to make money at the expense of a less than discerning audience.

The Stepfather is one of these films and from the opening shot it represents. It’s like a basketball team that executes the pass, pass, PASS shoot! fundamentals to the extreme. (Those teams can be murder to play, by the way. You get run ragged, while they barely get winded.) The Stepfather takes you by surprise. It’s not supposed to be that good.

The opening credits flash in red block letters on a screen of black, as keyboards clang, jumping from minor chord to minor chord. A man, pretty much dripping with blood, cleans up in a bathroom sink. He washes the blood streaks from his face and then removes a fake beard. Then he steps into the shower. He’s naked. There’s a brief shot of tasteful, frontal nudity.

Then the camera hoovers and sweeps above a fall afternoon on an upper middle class street. The leaves of the trees are red and the homes are tidy; the music is cheerful yet, the day is gray.

A wholesome, high-school girl pedals her old-school ten-speed windingly, dreamingly down the street. She steers her bike into the driveway, disembarks and leans it against wide boards of a nice house. Then she skips around the corner of the house…

And her mother throws a bucket of leaves in her face. And they wrestle…

In the leaves.

The mother, Susan, (Shelly Hack) warns her daughter, Stephanie, (Jill Shoelen) to settle down when she is threatened with her own medicine–a bucket–literally teaming with leaves. She is only half kidding, you know, the way that mother’s do. She tells Stephanie she had better get cleaned up before Jerry gets home.

Stephanie recoils and makes a face. She clearly doesn’t like Jerry. She tells her mom she thinks he’s weird. Susan tells Stephanie to give Jerry a chance and glides toward the house. Stephanie dumps the bucket of leaves onto her own head. Just before Susan goes inside, Jerry turns the corner and it’s the guy in the mirror.

You know, the one with the blood streaks and the fake beard.

Yeah. Tasteful, frontal nudity guy. He’s not half bad, either. Nicely dressed. Nothing showy, just good quality casual wear. He’s got a decent haircut. Then he opens his mouth…

And Stephanie’s right. The guy’s weird.

Of course we know that already. Remember the blood streaks? The fake beard?…and I didn’t even mention the butchered family that Jerry literally steps over on his way out of their upper middle class home and his fake identity, when his name was Henry.

You see, Jerry–or whatever his name is–is a family annihilator, like that guy John List. You know that super wholesome guy that killed his whole family (and there were like six kids) in the affluent suburb of Westfield New Jersey?…yeah, that guy.

Jerry surprises Stephanie with a new puppy before he tells her to go wash up. She loves the puppy but doesn’t tell Jerry thank you. Her mother tells her to. She does, reluctantly, and then goes into the house.

Jerry tells Susan he hopes Stephanie doesn’t think he’s trying to buy her love.

That night, at the dinner table, we learn that Stephanie is having trouble at school, getting into fights, talking back to teachers that kind of thing. Jerry can’t believe that girls get into fights.

After dinner Stephanie holds up in her room with her new puppy. She’s pretty bummed. It’s only been a year since her dad died unexpectedly. That was bad enough. Now she’s gotta contend with a stepfather. Mr. Perfect. To make matters worse, he has taken over the house. Her dad’s house.

Plus, Mr. Perfect’s a real horn dog. She can hear him and her mother in the room next to her’s.

She puts on her headphones and wishes she was dead…

You get the gist. In the parlance of the 80s, The Stepfather is wicked. It’s smart and sophisticated too, in its own way. It doesn’t soak us in satire the way that American Psycho does; no, it rolls in the hay with it, and with us instead…and then it slams on the handcuffs and puts a knife to our throats, lest we forget that Jerry is a psychopath, a serial killer and that we are watching a slasher film.

Journeyman character actor Terry O’Quinn is astonishingly good as Jerry/Henry/ Bill. He threads eye of a fine needle, blending melodramatic villainy and Leave it to Beaver humor into the psychology of Father Knows Best gone guano crazy. Director Joseph Ruben, Dreamscape, Joy Ride, True Believer sticks with the slasher template, but cloaks it in respectability, with good acting, a smart script and beautiful photography (John W. Lindley).

Even so, something’s a little off. The blood’s a little too red…too watery. A raised eyebrow lingers a bit too long, the rouge in the cheek is a bit too rosy and we laugh. And we forget, just for a moment, what we’re watching and The Stepfather lets us have it…

With a two-by-four.

Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures, a Filmography by J.R. Jordan

I hate to be a kicker

I always long for peace

But the wheel that squeaks the loudest

Is the one that gets the grease

–Josh Billings (1870)

He struck an impressive chord with his designer frames, tailored button up shirts and v-necked sweaters; his slacks sharply creased, his shoes polished new. If he erred, he erred on the side of class. He was even tempered and sported a businessman hair cut.

Robert Wise grew up in small town, middle America. He grew up loving movies. But it was his older brother that made the foray to Hollywood where he landed a big-shot accounting job at RKO studios.

When the Wise family fell on hard times during the Great Depression, Robert quit college where he was studying journalism. He followed his brother to Hollywood and got a job at RKO sweeping floors, changing light bulbs and running errands.

With a good head on his shoulders and a strong work ethic, Wise caught the attention of the sound effects editor who hired him as his first assistant. From there he worked his way into film editing and became the studio’s premier editor editing two Orson Welles masterpieces, Citizen Kane, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Film Editing and The Magnificent Ambersons.

Robert Wise’s first foray in the director’s chair was with The Curse of the Cat People (1944) where he replaced fired Gunther von Fritsch who was behind schedule. Fittingly, this is where J. R. Jordan’s meticulously researched book, Robert Wise The Motion pictures, kicks in.

Jordan goes behind the scenes and takes us into the machinations of the production. We learn that famed RKO horror producer and script writer Val Lewton was a notoriously cheap and demanding task master. Yet, Wise endured himself to Lewton with his artfully concise and understated style. The Curse of the Cat People earned Wise a directing contract with RKO.

Thus began the long and illustrious career of an artist who would rise from the low budget horror basement of RKO where he directed legends Boris Karloff and Bela Lougosi in the eerie adaptation of Robert Lewis Stevenson’s The Body Snatcher (1945) to the terrific, twisty film noir Born to Kill (1947) with Claire Trevor and Lawrence Tierney.

Wise fondly reminisced about RKO as well as Born to Kill’s clever script. “It was just fine working at RKO,” he said. “It was one of the smaller studios, but very good, and they got some good properties. It all depends on the property and that script. If you’ve got the right script and you cast it right, and you get enough time and money to make it, it’ll turn out…Born to Kill was a step up for me; better script, better picture, better cast…everything was considerably up.”

Robert Wise The motion pictures – pg. 56

Wise carried this humble understated quality with him to the greener and more prestigious pastures of Twentieth Century Fox where studio head Darryl F. Zanuck personally tapped him to direct The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) which would become one of the most acclaimed and influential science fiction films in cinematic history. J.R. Jordan takes the reader onto the iconic set and into the script with a superb interview with Billy Gray, best known as “Bud” on Father Know’s Best, who played Bobby in the film.

Gray tells of experiences working with Lock Martin, the 7 foot 7 giant (his height is disputed; Wise said he was 7 foot 1) who played the immensely powerful Gort. We learn that in life Martin was, sadly, anything but powerful. (Martin died, probably from Marfan syndrome, in 1959 at age 42.)

“He was a big guy but not a very vital person. Actually he was kind of frail. He could only be in the suit for about ten to fifteen minutes. If conditions ever became too hot, he would then request to be released from the suit. The crew had him on a watch list, so to speak, in order to prevent him from fainting and toppling over.”


Billy Gray pgs. 123-24

Robert Wise would famously go onto to win Oscars for Best Direction and Best Picture twice with the films West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). West Side story swept the Oscars with eleven nominations and ten wins, captivating critics and fans alike and The Sound of Music would become an American cultural touchstone, bonding generations of fans swept away by Wise’s inspired direction of panoramic spectacle, song, courage and fidelity earning a jaw dropping 2.5 billion dollars world wide when adjusted for inflation.

Perhaps the most astonishing and defining aspect of Wise’s career was his chameleon directorial style in which he produced critically and commercially successful films in every genre save animation. Paradoxically, this characteristic would be used against him by critics who insist that a directors trademark radiate from every frame.

Wise’s trademark–that of devotion to the script, allegiance to the characters and to the actors who portrayed them, along with a commitment to unembellished realism–binds his films together. His Oscar wins, particularly The Sound of Music, are the films that most define his career, yet, they are the least emblematic of his style.

Take the gritty noir boxing melodrama The Set-Up (1949) for example. Wise researched the subject by hanging out in the dressing rooms of a seedy boxing arena where he observed the mannerisms and rituals of its low rung fighters. He absorbed atmosphere of the arena, the grim pageantry of the fight, the sound of gloves hitting sweat soaked skin and social construct of the crowd, even casting famed crime photographer “Weegee” as the time keeper. Then he painstakingly duplicated his observations on screen in what is considered one of the most realistic depictions of boxing in all of cinema while provoking the best performance of character actor Robert Ryan’s career.

Nine years later, Wise took his commitment to realism leaps and bounds further when he attend an execution in California’s gas chamber while researching the script to I Want to Live! autobiographically based on convicted murderer Barbara Graham.

“There’s an outside section where the witnesses sit, and there’s an inside section where the warden and the doctor and the guys who do the acid are. I was inside with the doctor. I didn’t know if I could watch without getting sick. The prisoner was a young man who’d killed two women in Oakland and, like Barbara in her day, he’d run out of appeals.

Robert Wise – The Los Angeles Times, February 15, 1998

I Want to Live! (1958) earned Robert Wise an Academy Award nomination for Best Director and under his direction Susan Hayward won the award for Best Actress for her portrayal of the condemned party-girl. The final scenes of the on again off again execution as the lawyers lobby for Graham’s life while she, finally, bravely, resigned to her fate, makes her walk into the chamber only to be hurriedly removed and then brought back again, are agonizingly intense. Her final moments, right before and after the pellets are dropped, are even more so.

“After Barbara gets a whiff of the gas,” Wise says, “you presume she doesn’t feel anything anymore. A couple of times I cut to her hands twitching. But in actuality that twisting and fighting the straps goes on for seven or eight minutes. There are so many systems in the body it takes that long for them all to shut down. Terrible to watch. Terrible. After the young man died, I thought to myself, ‘What the hell good is this doing?’ ”

Robert Wise – The Los Angeles Times, February 15, 1998

And yet, for all his success, both commercial and critical, Robert Wise is often herald as the greatest director you’ve never heard of. J.R. Jordan’s compelling filmography, Robert Wise The Motion Pictures, aims to right that miscarriage of anonymity. A must read for the cinematically astute, it is a labor of love, consisting of forty chapters detailing the forty films of a master filmmaker, a humble and elegant artist who approached film-making as a team sport allowing integrity, subtlety and good taste to be his directorial signature.

Robert Wise The Motion Pictures is available for purchase at Amazon.

Older Posts