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The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley (1986)

I concluded my review of Grace Quigley with this declaration:

“After its initial release, screenwriter A. Martin Zweiback reedited the film into a version that received a warm reception with a handful of critics and won an award at the 2006 (yes, 2006) New York International Independent Film & Video Festival. However, this cut is not (yet?) commercially available. I’m interested in seeing it, because I know a good movie is buried somewhere in the weirdness of Grace Quigley—it’s just too scatterbrained to get there.”

The film’s writer, executive producer, and longtime champion, A. Martin Zweiback, took me up on that. As you may have seen, he sent me a videotape of the “writer’s cut,” which filled me simultaneously with fear and hope. Hope, because I believed a good film could come from the botched version I saw; fear, because, based on what I had seen, I didn’t know what could be done with the existing footage to substantially improve it.

To my great pleasure, The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley—Zweiback’s cut—is, indeed, the great film I wished Grace Quigley could have been.

But first, some backstory… Per an article in the Fall 1986 issue of Sightlines, the oft-repeated legend goes like this: Zweiback tossed a 25-page treatment over George Cukor’s garden gate in 1972. As it happened, Katharine Hepburn was there, recuperating from surgery. The treatment was given to her, and she fell in love. With Hepburn attached, and Steve McQueen interested (thanks to Hepburn’s enthusiasm), and the similarly irreverent (but vastly inferior) Harold & Maude released a year earlier, it seemed like a lock for a greenlight. But nothing in Hollywood is ever that easy.

In 1979, Columbia agreed to finance the picture with Nick Nolte in the role Hepburn wanted for McQueen. Zweiback was to direct. Nolte backed out, and by the time he returned in 1983, Columbia had backed out. That’s where Cannon Films came into the picture. They put up the money, but yet another thing had changed—Anthony Harvey, director of The Lion in Winter (for which Hepburn won her third Oscar), had been seriously injured in a car accident. Hepburn promised that Harvey would direct her next film—which, as circumstances would have it, turned out to be Grace Quigley. Zweiback graciously stepped aside, on the condition that he and his wife would be credited as executive producers and allowed on set.

But Harvey didn’t want what he likely perceived as Monday-morning quarterbacking on what had become “his” film. He threatened to quit if he ever saw the Zweibacks in New York, where the film was to be shot. The Zweibacks didn’t have any involvement until the film’s premiere at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, where it received unanimous negative reviews.

I can’t speak to Harvey’s oeuvre. I’ve only seen the admittedly great The Lion in Winter, but based on that and a cursory look at his films, it’s easy to suspect Harvey was never the right man for this particular job. Like The Lion in Winter, the overwhelming majority of his films were stage adaptations. The Lion in Winter is a significant achievement in acting, but not so much in directing. The strength is in the casting, and Harvey was wise enough to step out of the way and let his actors do their thing. If he gave them any direction, it certainly had nothing to do with restraining their performances. A film like The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley requires much more subtlety and imagination than Harvey seems capable of.

Then again, it’s hard to paint Harvey in a positive light here. When asked about Zweiback’s cut of the film, Harvey responded: “I have no comment about this film whatsoever. All I can say is it’s not to be discussed. [It’s] too revolting.” But he had, in fact, seen the cut, and said of it, “I thought it was very good. It’s just that the whole thing is a little nothing that’s become a big something.” Gosh, I don’t want to get on my soapbox, but at least two people (Zweiback and Hepburn) spent over a decade championing the project. They believed in it, so Harvey stepping in to quietly ruin the film is significantly more than “a little nothing.”

It seems like a fundamental misunderstanding of the film’s tone. After viewing the writer’s cut, I went back and watched a handful of scenes in the “official” release. My sense memory of the experience of watching it is accompanied by Benny Hill’s theme, “Yakety Sax.” The music is not quite so abrasively cheerful, but Harvey’s cut evokes a tone of light, wacky comedy. Even before I knew of this writer’s cut, I found the film’s editing appalling. Vincent Canby, in his hilariously scathing 1985 review for The New York Times, called it “thoroughly muddled.” Scenes begin and end abruptly, things happen for seemingly no reason, and the whole story feels breathlessly rushed, like Harvey thought he was making a 1930s screwball comedy that just built and built and built until everyone ended up soaking wet or tried to give an elephant a bath or some other stupid bullshit. That’s not what Grace Quigley is or should be, and at the time of the film’s release, the only person willing to publicly acknowledge that was Zweiback.

I don’t know all the behind-the-scenes details, but I imagine the oft-mentioned chaos at Cannon paved the way for Zweiback’s cut. After its disastrous premiere at Cannes, everyone (including Harvey) knew the film needed work. Cannon gave Zweiback access to video copies of the film and an editing log, from which Zweiback cut together his cut. In addition to pieces of John Addison’s original score, Zweiback used moody, kick-ass music he had licensed from The Pretenders to underscore a few scenes. Most importantly, he restored a tone-setting opening scene and gave credence to the seriousness of the subject matter rather than playing it all for cheap yuks.

In fact, the most startling thing about Zweiback’s cut is that it’s not really “ha-ha” funny—scenes are situationally funny, sharp lines of dialogue provide the occasional stinging laugh, but his edit gives the film the subdued, somber tone that the frenetic official film desperately needed.

I sincerely think Zweiback’s two most important changes are the score and that opening scene. Whereas Harvey’s film opens with a tonally meaningless montage of Grace (Hepburn) walking through the snowy streets of New York (which provides some unintentional hilarity when the following handful of scenes take place in midsummer), Zweiback opens his cut with a profoundly upsetting scene: Grace is on a curiously old-fashioned train, wearing fancy but outdated (almost Victorian) duds, to have a picnic lunch on the beach with her family. Almost at random, her family—one by one—announces they must leave her now, and they promptly walk into the water and, one assumes, drown themselves. With a fearful gasp, Grace awakens from this nightmare.

This scene perfectly sets up Grace’s state of mind—she (we infer) has outlived her entire family, and she has nothing else to live for. She has nothing more than a rent-controlled apartment and a parakeet. She’s unsuccessfully attempted suicide twice. (In one of the film’s many bracing ironies, which Zweiback’s highlights rather than breezing past, Grace’s first attempt came when she learned she had a heart condition—she exercised harder than anyone her age should, to give herself a fatal heart attack, but it resulted in her getting into the best shape of her life and neutralizing the heart condition.) She’s one of those tragic, lonely elderly people who while away the hours in good health and stable mind, just waiting to die.

An act of chance, or perhaps fate, brings Grace into the life of Seymour Flint (Nolte), a professional killer. She accidentally witnesses a hit on her nasty landlord, but when she scurries off so Seymour doesn’t know he has a witness to his crime, she accidentally hides in the backseat of Seymour’s own car (parked a few blocks away, with phony license plates). This sequence highlights one of the many other differences in the editing. Zweiback shows Grace’s palpable terror, an elderly woman stuck in the backseat of a hitman’s car, unsure of where he’s going, unsure if she’ll survive the afternoon. All Harvey does is show Grace comically plugging her ears as Seymour blasts some music. That, right there, might be a summation of the difference in approach to the material.

Armed with the knowledge of Seymour’s name and home address, she politely approaches him with an offer—she’ll pay him to kill her. When she can’t afford his fee, she brings a neighbor (William Duell) in on the deal, which makes Seymour uneasy. In Zweiback’s cut, Seymour’s crippling depression and anxiety about his line of work is much more apparent, in the same way as Grace’s loneliness. This allows the development of their surrogate mother-son relationship to succeed much more than it does in its official release. As Canby groused, “You know how far off-course the movie is when Grace Quigley turns to her business associate and says, with sincerity, ‘Seymour, would you mind calling me “Mom”?’ In the person of Miss Hepburn, Grace Quigley is not someone who needs anyone to call her ‘Mom.'” I, myself, noted the left-field disparity of this moment—but in Zweiback’s cut, not only does it make sense, it feels earned dramatically, and the remainder of the film only intensifies the complex relationship that develops between the two.

Zweiback’s cut establishes Grace as having lost her children; it also shows Seymour never had a mother. They give each other a certain, uneasy emotional fulfillment, but some of the darker choices Seymour makes in the second half of the film have a stronger root in character than in the official cut, in which the second half mostly comes across like goofy nonsense. As Grace encourages Seymour to enter a more positive realm of killing—they start a business together to kill, with permission, elderly people who want to die, instead of murdering people on behalf of criminals—Seymour finds himself losing his stress-induced physical maladies and able to effect even more positive change in his life—up to and including marrying his favorite call girl (the goofily chipper Kit Le Fever). Grace, too, almost seems to find a reason to live again.

Not only do the plot and relationships make more sense—the entire film has more gravity and emotional impact. The official film breezes through Seymour’s first exposure to nursing homes, institutional pits that make the Walter Reed scandal look like a glowing profile of the Mayo Clinic. Zweiback lingers on it. He lingers on a lengthy monologue from Mr. Jenkins (Duell), in which he explains his reason for dying. The official cut contains an abbreviated version of the same scene, with upbeat jazz music playing quietly in the background. Zweiback’s cut features somber piano. In short, everything Harvey’s cut does wrong, Zweiback’s cut does right—including the restoration of a much darker, more emotionally resonant ending.

Years before Jack Kervorkian’s rise to prominence, The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley could have opened up the discussion of this difficult, complex issue—had anyone seen it. After its disastrous New York run, the official version closed quickly, got a quiet home-video release, and ran on HBO at odd hours. All the while, Zweiback begged and pleaded for someone to take his version seriously, but MGM had already secured video rights based on the theatrically released version, and HBO took its cues from MGM.

I feel lucky to have seen The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley. It has, unfortunately, not been widely seen, though it’s garnered unanimous positive reviews from everyone who has (including Anthony Harvey, despite his condescension). Shortly after Hepburn’s death in 2003, Hollywood Reporter writer Kirk Honeycutt (who wrote a rave review of the writer’s cut for the Los Angeles Daily News in 1986) took the time to once again extol the virtues of this widely unseen version of the film. In it, he quotes Zweiback:

“MGM has the rights… I would love to see a DVD come out with both versions. It could be used by every film school in the country. What could teach more about the effects of editing and music than this particular film?”

I’m in total agreement, and such a thing is not unprecedented (for instance, Warner Brothers released a DVD with two different cuts of 1946’s The Big Sleep). On the other hand, MGM is in the midst of serious financial woes. Maybe now is the time for another company to buy back the rights to Grace Quigley on the cheap. Come on, Shout! Factory. Isn’t this your thing?

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Murphy’s Law (1986)

Charles Bronson’s moment of ascent from supporting strongman to leading man came at a curious time in both his life and on the cultural landscape. After his brilliant turn as Harmonica in Sergio Leone’s iconic masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Bronson finally got leading roles in movies ranging from bizarre (1970’s Lola, in which he plays a smut novelist who falls for and marries a 15-year-old) to badass (1972’s The Mechanic, which arguably served as the template for the revenge films that made him a star), but his breakthrough didn’t come until 1974’s Death Wish.

Bronson was 52 the year he made Death Wish, almost a decade older than action stars considered contemporaries, like Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen. His age seemed even starker in comparison to the new generation emerging in the late 1970s, notably Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. In many ways, this made him an antidote to the changing times. He was a member of the Greatest Generation, and most of his post-stardom films reflect the feelings and attitudes of his era. At their core, the utter fear of progress permeates these films. In various ways, all five Death Wish films fear the lawlessness brought about by urban decay; Death Hunt expresses a deep-seated fear of government; 10 to Midnight, in a similar fashion, fears the ascent of a criminal-coddling justice system; and, of course, Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects takes a bizarre yet compelling look at the 1980s boom in Japanese immigration. All of these films play to the anxieties of Bronson’s generation, and sometimes (particularly in Kinjite), they approach the issues in fairly interesting ways before descending into the orgy of violence emblematic of Bronson’s canon.

Murphy’s Law continues the trend of terrified subject matter; this time, the film focuses on women. Gail Morgan Hickman’s (not a woman, so don’t get your hopes up for a pro-feminist romp) screenplay features three archetypal female characters, each of whom symbolize the progress in women’s rights—and the danger of that progress—in their own ways. Bronson plays Jack Murphy, an alcoholic robbery-homicide detective whose wife has just left him. In a bizarre twist, Jan (Angel Tompkins) has left Murphy in order to live out her dream of stripping (she calls it “dancing”). Murphy has a habit of sitting in the back of her club, getting hammered, taunting Jan, and then following her back to her apartment to peep while she makes love with other men. Seriously.

Jan doesn’t know it, but she’s on a collision course toward wackiness with one Joan Freeman (Carrie Snodgress), a psychopath Murphy put away years earlier. She’s out on parole and has made it her mission to get revenge on everyone who had a hand in putting her away, starting with Murphy—but, as she says when she makes an anonymous call to Murphy, she intends to “put him through hell” before killing him. Joan knows Murphy’s routine, and she uses that knowledge to frame him for the murder of his wife and lover. Murphy’s nemesis on the force, Reineke (James Luisi), arrests Murphy with pleasure and doesn’t have much interest in Murphy’s stories of being framed.

For unclear reasons, when they put him in lock-up, they shackle Murphy to the third—and most important—female character in the film, Arabella McGee. Played by the always adorable Kathleen Wilhoite, the film allows her to be the lone positive example of a fiercely independent, modern woman. We only need to ignore the fact that she’s a petty thief with a habit of insulting everyone she meets. (In a pre-Tarantino effort to keep the dialogue relatively free of cursing, Arabella’s insults sometimes border on avant-garde—my personal favorites were “suck my squirrel” and “butt crust.”) When Murphy sees an opportunity to bust out of lock-up, he takes it—and drags her with him.

Murphy’s Law opens with a far-too-coincidental in which Arabella steals Murphy’s car, and he chases (on foot) and arrests her. Theoretically, this scene might be needed to establish her particular hatred of Murphy, but the fun thing about Arabella’s character is that she hates everyone, especially cops. Murphy hates her back, and he insults as viciously as she does.

Don’t enter the film expecting a gender-role variation on The Defiant Ones. They’re unchained quickly, but Arabella discovers via news reports that the police consider her an accomplice. She knows the only way to get out of this jam is to help Murphy prove his innocence.

At this point, two very important things happen, thematically. First, the film allows Arabella to develop into a real character—without marginalizing the things that make her so appealing.

In far too many supposedly feminist films (Life as We Know It leaps to mind), the independent woman has only two options—remain a shrill, career-obsessed bitch, or melt into a puddle of mush and allow the man to do the thinking for both of them. It would have been very easy for a film like Murphy’s Law to fall into a trap like this, softening Arabella’s edges until she’s a worthy romantic interest for an old-fashioned stud like Jack Murphy. To the film’s credit, it never does; in fact, the closing scene finds Arabella immediately insulting and browbeating after cheating death. Murphy’s the one who changes, seeing Arabella as more than a thug; she becomes a person, to him and the audience, without ever losing her edge.

Part of that—maybe most of it—can be attributed to Wilhoite’s singular presence in cinema. Especially in the late ’80s and early ’90s, she had a habit of popping up in the stereotypical role of the perky, cute, sexually uninteresting (to the leading hunk) woman who proves herself invaluable but still stands aside so he can lick the tonsils of the nearest statuesque blonde. This is never a great role for an actress, but Wilhoite always brings darkness and edge to a stock character. She evokes a wild, punky spirit that give vibrancy to generic dialogue in small parts. Arabella, a rare leading role, plays to this aspect of Wilhoite’s personality, allowing the character and performance to show the power of a strong woman without getting too ridiculous (just ridiculous enough for your average Bronson flick).

The second, and perhaps most important, twist on an old favorite is Murphy misidentifying the person behind this frame job. In typically sexist fashion, Murphy ignores all the clues—including a woman calling and threatening him—and assumes Vincenzo (Richard Romanus), a mobster Murphy has been investigating, must be making good on his revenge threats. Targeting Vincenzo is a big mistake, and a colossal waste of time. Tellingly, the fact that Murphy humiliates the man in front of his favorite prostitute sets him off. Even more tellingly, it’s Arabella who calms Murphy down and makes him realize Vincenzo has nothing to do with killing Jan.

Adding the mobster element should have made the climactic scenes more exciting, but longtime Bronson (and Cannon) collaborator J. Lee Thompson doesn’t let the elements come together in a particularly thrilling way. Imagine it: Murphy has identified and confronted Joan; she takes Arabella hostage and brings her to the Bradbury Building, one of the coolest buildings in Los Angeles; Murphy risks everything to beg for police backup; and the mob’s inside man on the force alerts them to Murphy’s location. Murphy gets his backup, in the form of cops showing up to arrest him, so as police and mobsters surround both Murphy and a ruthless killer—come on, that pretty much writes itself.

But Cannon’s notoriously low budgets strike again—Thompson ruins the fun of shooting in the Bradbury Building by using the film noir “trick” (known in noir’s heyday as “a budgetary necessity”) of using minimal lighting to keep most of the huge structure in shadows. And about ten extras, serving as mobsters and cops, enter the fray. It’s not exactly Death Wish 3. The presence of the mobsters and cops in such a diminished capacity has the ironic effect of feeling like a needless distraction. Allowing Murphy to have a one-on-one confrontation with Joan might have been a more effective way to stage these scenes, given the constraints, but I won’t sit here wishing for the film that was.

Because of the way it peters out so unsatisfactorily, I can’t quite recommend Murphy’s Law. Bronson and Wilhoite are great individually and together, making even their awkward sex talk midway through the film believable. I admire much of what it attempts to do, especially in putting gynophobia into the context of an action film (the most gynophobic, or misogynistic, or sexist, of genres). Usually, cheesy genre films’ attempts to overreach that ruin them. With Murphy’s Law the overreaching is actually the best part—it succeeds as a fairly simplistic but well-meaning and often interesting examination of sexism. However, it fails as an action movie, boasting little more than a few stiffly blocked shootouts and the disappointing climax.

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