Tag Archives: Kevin McCarthy

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, Don Siegel)

The longest continuous stretch of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is about fifteen minutes (the film runs eighty). Small California city doctor Kevin McCarthy and his long-lost lady friend Dana Wynter have just spent the night holed up in his office, hiding from their neighbors, who have all been replaced by “pod people.” The pods are giant seedpods. They birth human facsimiles, down to scars, memories, and current injuries. They just don’t have any emotion. The evening before is another lengthy sequence, but not continuous like this fifteen minute one, which comes at the end of the second act. It doesn’t exactly end the second act because the third act is really wonky (Body Snatchers had just about as much studio post-production interference as a film can have, down to the studio literally cropping director Siegel and cinematographer Ellsworth Fredericks’s framing by ten percent).

After a big hint McCarthy and Wynter consummated their reuniting—it’s a shame McCarthy doesn’t get to talk about it, from his third scene in the film he’s constantly chatting up the ladies—the bad guys arrive and give McCarthy, Wynter, and the audience an information dump. It’s all about where the pods come from—outer space—and how McCarthy and Wynter are just going to love being passionless. Despite being a tell-all moment, the dump doesn’t feel like one. Daniel Mainwaring’s script is great—especially when characters get to monologue (save when Wynter gets lovey-dovey in an even more panicked moment)—and the actors’ not quite emotive enough delivery is perfect. Siegel does a great job directing his actors; at least the actors who matter. The occasional gas station attendant gets a pass.

As McCarthy and Wynter are faced with their loveless (sexless?) future, they start to break down before thinking their way out of the situation only to end up betrayed by their humanity and on the run into the mountains surrounding the town and, presumably, the third act.

But that third act is the wonky thing I mentioned before. See, Body Snatchers has a framing device—McCarthy telling disbelieving doctors and state troopers about what’s going on in his hometown. The pods have taken over, they’ve got to believe him, it’s almost too late to save everyone from being the same! Okay, he probably doesn’t say the thing about being the same at the beginning because part of the wonkiness is how much Body Snatchers just gives up on internal consistency. There’s three layers to the narrative. McCarthy on screen in the framing, McCarthy on screen in the flashback, McCarthy narrating the flashback (from the frame). The third, the narration, proves the most problematic in the third act. There are plot holes to jump over or at least to address and the narration plows over them instead. It’s a big missed opportunity, especially since it takes the film away from omnipresent protagonist McCarthy at the end.

Though it doesn’t help the frame already forces a protracted distance from McCarthy, which the narration and the actual story help to correct. Right up until the third act smacks it even further away than before.

The entire thing hinges on McCarthy. Body Snatchers isn’t about the fear of being replaced, it’s about the panic of being in danger. When the film starts and McCarthy is hearing about all the slightly weird stuff going on in town, people desperate to get an appointment then cancelling, kids not thinking their parents are their parents anymore, the opening has the audience primed for how it’s all going to play out. It plays out gradually, with recent divorcee McCarthy pursuing even recenter divorcee Wynter as fast as he can. He literally can’t keep his hands off of her. There’s the lovey dovey in the script and there’s some chemistry thanks to the direction, but you know McCarthy’s crazy about Wynter because McCarthy appears to be uncontrollably crazy about Wynter. And their romance subplot introduces some more information about the goings on before the first pod person shows up.

McCarthy’s pal, King Donovan, ruins their date because he’s found what appears to be a body and wants McCarthy to take a look at it. For a while, Donovan and Carolyn Jones (as his wife) are the main supporting leads. Because they’re panicked and they’re active so they end up around McCarthy. When it seems like Wynter isn’t going to be part of this core, McCarthy brings her into it. Very smart script, plotting-wise. Once McCarthy and Donovan start investigating, they’re going to discover missing bodies, strange gatherings in suburbia, and what’s better than dry martinis for putting on the steaks.

Because even though they’re in danger of being replaced by the pod people, they’re not going to miss out on steaks and martinis. It’s the fifties and they are Americans, after all. Panic can only drive you so far. If you skip martinis, the pod people win. And, somehow, magnificently, it all works. When Body Snatchers is being quiet about the culture it’s portraying, it excels. When it tries to explain what that portrayal means… the opposite. Are the “pod people”—who are without love, desire, ambition, faith—stand-ins for communists? Stand-ins for McCarthyists (no relation)? McCarthy (actor Kevin) apparently thought it was a comment on “Madison Avenue”-types. But it seems like something, only it’s really unfocused and the narration plays directly against what’s described and portrayed in the action. By the end, McCarthy is just ranting nonsensically, not because he’s panicked, not because he’s exhausted, but because the script doesn’t have the answer.

Excellent acting from McCarthy throughout, with really strong support from Donovan and Larry Gates. Jones is good. Wynter is… often good, sometimes thin. She’s got too much of an English accent, which the film explains by her living in England for five years but… really?

Jean Willes and Virginia Christine are good in the other two biggest roles. Most of the townsfolk, pod or not, are background.

Great direction from Siegel. You wish you could see the other ten percent of his framing. There are a lot of night exteriors and Fredericks’s photography on them is glorious. Fredericks’s photography is superb throughout, but those night shots are exceptional.

Good enough score from Carmen Dragon, good enough editing from Robert S. Eisen.

Great production design from Ted Haworth.

Even with the three times clunky finish—even without the framing device, it’s impossible to imagine what the film would play like without the added narration and since that narration screws up the third act, there’s not a lot going right outside the spectacular technical filmmaking-Invasion of the Body Snatchers is exquisite. It’s a step higher than almost great (so pretty great?). It just should and could be better. And—rather frustratingly—would have been better, had the studio just kept their hands off it.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Don Siegel; screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring, based on a story by Jack Finney; director of photography, Ellsworth Fredericks; edited by Robert S. Eisen; music by Carmen Dragon; production designer, Ted Haworth; released by Allied Artists.

Starring Kevin McCarthy (Dr. Miles J. Bennell), Dana Wynter (Becky Driscoll), Larry Gates (Dr. Danny Kauffman), King Donovan (Jack Belicec), Carolyn Jones (Teddy Belicec), Jean Willes (Sally Withers), Ralph Dumke (Police Chief Nick Grivett), Virginia Christine (Wilma Lentz), and Tom Fadden (Uncle Ira Lentz).


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Greedy (1994, Jonathan Lynn)

Greedy would be a mess if it weren’t so thoughtfully arranged. It’s not good, but it’s definitely intentional. The film opens with Ed Begley Jr. and his family–with Mary Ellen Trainor as his wife–going to his rich uncle’s house for a family gathering. There, the film introduces second-billed Kirk Douglas as the rich uncle and a bunch of people as the other greedy inheritors-to-be.

It also introduces Olivia d’Abo as the young minx living with Douglas. Now, Douglas and d’Abo give the best performances in the film–d’Abo edging out for the best–while everyone else is a caricature. Even Michael J. Fox, who is first-billed but doesn’t come in until fare at least ten or fifteen minutes, is playing a caricature. Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel’s arc for Fox is atrocious. And poor Nancy Travis is stuck in the caricature of his supporting girlfriend.

Some of the caricatures are funny. Phil Hartman’s hilarious. Jere Burns is not. Begley doesn’t do badly, neither does Joyce Hyser as Burns’s estranged wife. Except the supporting cast doesn’t really matter. There are a lot of them to just be around and be awful when the scene requires it.

Greedy is a funny idea for a movie, but not a funny movie. Director Lynn–wait, I forgot him–he acts in the movie and is better than much of his cast–isn’t enthusiastic about anything in the picture.

It’s not exactly a painful viewing experience, just stunningly trite.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Jonathan Lynn; written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel; director of photography, Gabriel Beristain; edited by Tony Lombardo; music by Randy Edelman; production designer, Victoria Paul; produced by Brian Grazer; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Michael J. Fox (Daniel), Kirk Douglas (Uncle Joe), Nancy Travis (Robin), Olivia d’Abo (Molly Richardson), Phil Hartman (Frank), Ed Begley Jr. (Carl), Jere Burns (Glen), Colleen Camp (Patti), Bob Balaban (Ed), Joyce Hyser (Muriel), Mary Ellen Trainor (Nora), Siobhan Fallon (Tina), Kevin McCarthy (Bartlett), Khandi Alexander (Laura) and Jonathan Lynn (Douglas).


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Innerspace (1987, Joe Dante)

It’s always a surprise when I remember Innerspace wasn’t a hit (it was also the first movie I ever saw as a letterboxed VHS–it was letterbox only). It’s easily Dante’s most populist work–I don’t think a single Dante “touch,” except for Dick Miller, shows up in the film until the appearance of Kevin McCarthy. Before, it’s all general action comedy sci-fi stuff.

Martin Short quickly establishes himself as essential to the film (his first scene comes a little bit earlier than the narrative needs him to be introduced). He shows up right before Dennis Quaid gets miniaturized, but that sequence is relatively long and detailed. Dante doesn’t worry about giving the audience a lot of immediate information, which might have been another problem.

Once Quaid and Short do get together, Innerspace moves without any slowing. When there is a scene–between Short and Meg Ryan–about taking a breather, it gets interrupted. It’s never a forced pace. In a lot of ways, Innerspace has Dante’s most professional direction. He never goes wild, but he never even hints at a misstep.

Short’s outstanding, Quaid and Ryan are both good.

Great Jerry Goldsmith score too.

Dante’s completely–and, unfortunately, wrongly–confident an audience will be comfortable with so many genres mixing at once. Until the end, there’s not a single sci-fi oriented action sequence–there’s lots of action comedy scenes, as it would be impossible to take Short seriously during any of them.

It’s one of Dante’s best.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Joe Dante; screenplay by Jeffrey Boam and Chip Proser, based on a story by Proser; director of photography, Andrew Laszlo; edited by Kent Beyda; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, James H. Spencer; produced by Michael Finnell; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Dennis Quaid (Lt. Tuck Pendleton), Martin Short (Jack Putter), Meg Ryan (Lydia Maxwell), Kevin McCarthy (Victor Eugene Scrimshaw), Fiona Lewis (Dr. Margaret Canker), Vernon Wells (Mr. Igoe), Robert Picardo (The Cowboy), Wendy Schaal (Wendy), Harold Sylvester (Pete Blanchard), William Schallert (Dr. Greenbush), Henry Gibson (Mr. Wormwood), John Hora (Ozzie Wexler), Mark L. Taylor (Dr. Niles) and Kevin Hooks (Duane).


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The Howling (1981, Joe Dante)

All due respect to Rick Baker, but Rob Bottin’s werewolf transformation in The Howling is superior. The transformation lasts so long it’s no longer shocking, just interesting. It’s so deliberate, it got me wondering what the werewolf would do if he needed to change in a pinch… if he didn’t have three or four minutes to spare.

The Howling is actually a really peculiar movie, both technically and in terms of plotting.

It is, possibly, Joe Dante’s straightest work. He’s making a regular picture here, with newsroom stuff, with cop stuff. It’s different from anything else I’ve seen of his–when Belinda Balaski is running from a werewolf, he handles it without any humor. It’s beautiful direction, even if there is a strange animated shot at one point (which makes little sense, because there’s some fine stop motion at the end, so why didn’t they just use it earlier too).

But The Howling is actually full of humor. The last shot of the film is a hamburger cooking, it’s goofy. There are constant, omnipresent references to werewolf films–there are ten characters named after werewolf movie directors–there’s a clip from The Wolf Man, there’s even a picture of Lon Chaney hanging on a wall–in story. But these references are somehow detached from the rather serious and straightforward way Dante tells the story. He’s got Kevin McCarthy giving a straight performance–Kevin McCarthy giving a straight performance in a Joe Dante film. It’s incredible.

Where The Howling gets in trouble is Dee Wallace. It isn’t just her performance, which is okay (though she’s never quite believable as a go-getter anchorwoman), but the way John Sayles’s script treats her. The concept–reporter discovers her elite psychiatric resort is really a colony of werewolves–really seems to imply she ought to be the main character. But she isn’t. She isn’t even the first to discover the werewolves. She isn’t even the second… wait, yes, she is. She is the second.

But Sayles avoids giving Wallace much to do and the film suffers for it. There are big plot holes–for example, it’s never explained why Wallace is invited to the werewolf club. It’s also never explained why her husband–played by Wallace’s real-life husband, Christopher Stone–accompanies her.

No, where Sayles finds the most interest–and maybe Dante too–is with Dennis Dugan (yes, Dennis Dugan) and Balaski. Both of them are fantastic, full of chemistry, having a great time, as TV news producers investigating. Their scenes are wonderful–they get the Dick Miller scene and it’s a doozy–and the film comes alive whenever either are onscreen.

The Howling also skirts around being particularly disturbing. Wallace is having real psychological problems, occasionally represented onscreen as dream sequences, but it’s hard to imagine her having a really hard time. Her basic recovery is just too fast.

There’s some good acting from John Carradine and Slim Pickens. Patrick Macnee has less to do than Wallace, if it’s even possible. Stone leaves a lot to be desired… Robert Picardo’s got a small part and he’s fantastic.

What’s nicest about the film is the way it gets so much better in the last third. The first act and most of the second invite all these questions, all this thinking–the last act doesn’t bother with it, but still manages to close with a great scene. Unfortunately, it isn’t the last scene in the film, just the last scene in the narrative. The final scene’s a misstep, because The Howling spends so much time as a rather quiet movie about people, only to go with a big comic finish.

It’s nice for a film to take its entire running time to impress (or close to it–the last shot’s awesome, but it’s a diversion from dealing with the emotional aftereffects of the previous scene); makes the viewing experience all the more rewarding (and somehow exciting).

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Joe Dante; screenplay by John Sayles and Terence H. Winkless, based on the novel by Gary Brandner; director of photography, John Hora; edited by Dante and Mark Goldblatt; music by Pino Donaggio; produced by Jack Conrad and Michael Finnell; released by AVCO Embassy Pictures.

Starring Dee Wallace (Karen White), Patrick Macnee (Dr. George Waggner), Dennis Dugan (Chris), Christopher Stone (Bill Neill), Belinda Balaski (Terry Fisher), Kevin McCarthy (Fred Francis), John Carradine (Erle Kenton), Slim Pickens (Sam Newfield), Elisabeth Brooks (Marsha Quist), Robert Picardo (Eddie Quist), Margie Impert (Donna), Noble Willingham (Charlie Barton), James Murtaugh (Jerry Warren), Jim McKrell (Lew Landers), Don McLeod (T.C. Quist) and Dick Miller (Walter Paisley).


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