Tag Archives: Martin Balsam

Middle of the Night (1959, Delbert Mann)

Paddy Chayefsky adapted his own play for Middle of the Night and there are some clear alterations with original intent. Fifty-six year-old widower Fredric March is in garment manufacturing. His first scene has him hanging out with the other old guys in the factory, kvetching about how there’s nothing to do but visit their children. March’s character isn’t Jewish… but he was in the play. And apparently it was a big deal in the play. In the film, he’s probably Polish–though when he wows Kim Novak with Old World wisdom, it’s called a “European saying.” If it weren’t for Chayefsky’s dialogue for March and the boys–which comes up time and again–it wouldn’t be such a disconnect. Though occasionally March will do a light accent (with the exception of one scene where he goes all in) and it doesn’t come off. March is doing just fine. The film really doesn’t need the failed attempt at subtext leftover from the source play.

Novak is playing March’s twenty-four year-old receptionist. She’s recently divorced from musician Lee Philips (who, shockingly, originated the part on Broadway and isn’t in the film because the studio wanted some bland leading man type) and miserable. Confronted with Novak’s sadness, March shows some kindness. And becomes utterly infatuated with her. His business partner, Albert Dekker (in a devastating performance) is always out with younger women, but paying them for their time–well, putting it on customers’ expense accounts but March has no interest in that kind of thing. He feels sympathy and adoration for Novak. And finally works up the nerve to ask her on a date.

Now, until this moment in the film–the occasional awkward play adaptation aside–Chayefsky’s script hasn’t put any corners. Novak’s big opening scene where she breaks down to March is so thorough it looks like there’s added footage to her monologue (Carl Lerner’s editing occasionally has such problematic cuts it must have been something with the footage director Mann shot). Then the movie skips to their third date, when Novak has a hard talk with March. Now, she swears up and down she didn’t just keep going out with him because he was the boss and, based on the following ninety minutes of film, it’s more than believable. But then what was so successful about those first three dates? Sure, she’s lonely, but not actually alone (her best friend, Lee Grant, gets introduced in the last forty-five minutes but she should’ve been around at the time–not to mention kid sister Jan Norris who goes unmentioned until she appears at the same time as Grant). It seems like Chayefsky’s cutting some corners. And it sticks out. And it sticks out again when Grant and Norris show up, because why hasn’t Novak’s life been important until so much later… The movie wants a pass on it.

And I haven’t even gotten to the part where, after promising Novak he’ll leave her alone, March forces himself on her. At the factory, at night (presumably the Middle of the Night), and basically breaks her down into agreeing to their romance. But he’s good to her, even if it’s a little paternal. Or so she keeps saying. Their scenes together tend to be their problem scenes. March is incredibly likable so it’s all reasonable, he’s just always in a mood when he’s with Novak, which is all of her scenes in the movie until after the halfway point. Novak making their relationship seem real is a heck of a lot more impressive than what March has to put into it. He’s just got to puff out his chest because she’s this gorgeous twenty-four year-old who wants him. Or does a reasonable facsimile of wanting him.

Middle of the Night’s biggest defect is the utter avoidance of honesty between Novak and March. There’s a bit of a showdown scene in the third act, before a deus ex, but it’s too little, too late. They’re more than willing to be honest away from each other–the scene where Novak lays it out to best friend Grant is fantastic, ditto the one where March finally talks to Dekker about being a dirty old man (just a nice one)–and it’d have done wonders for the character development for them to be honest together. Especially if it had been in the first half of the picture or so, because Middle of the Night is kind of long at two hours.

It’s always well-acted, it’s beautifully directed and photographed (Joseph C. Brun’s black and white is breathtaking), and Chayefsky’s dialogue is always on point–when there’s not too much dialect flourish–so it’s not a bad two hours at all. The third act has some great pay-off, it just comes a little too late. All that time Chayefsky’s script skips over is apparently not just for the onscreen action, it’s like the character development paused for it too. Other than March’s puffed chest. Novak’s on pause for most of the movie.

With the exception of Philips, all the acting is good. March is great. Novak’s like one moment of onscreen realization away from being twice as good (the movie’s way too condescending towards Novak’s character). Edith Meiser’s good as March’s sister, who lives with him and doesn’t like the idea of Novak. Shocker. Joan Copeland plays one of two daughters–the other one doesn’t figure in at all. She’s really good at the beginning, when her writing is better; in the second half of the film, both she and Mesier are basically competing for bigger harpy. Martin Balsam’s fun as Copeland’s husband. It’s not a great part, but he does well with it.

On the other side of the proverbial aisle, Grant’s the best. She’s got one hell of a monologue about the misery of married life, which echoes Dekker’s–just separated by gender… and thirty plus years–she’s also the only one who’s able to make believe she’s got any concern for Novak. Sister Norris and mom Glenda Farrell at one point seem like they’re going to help Philips assault Novak, they’re so passively cruel and actively dismissive of her agency. The movie wants to say something about Norris being a young tart but doesn’t. And Farrell wins the harpy contest.

Every time Middle of the Night gets problematic, you just have to wait it out and eventually Mann will do something great or Brun will have an amazing shot and March and Novak will have gotten through whatever contrived problem they have and it sails on until the next problem. Then it just grinds until it passes again. And so on. March and Novak mesmerize, against the glorious black and white New York–fantastic score from George Bassman too. There are a lot of successful parts (the lead performances, the technical aspects–save those bad Lerner cuts, which don’t seem to be his fault), it’s just not a success overall. Someone needed to make some hard choices and neither Chayefsky nor Mann did.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Delbert Mann; screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky, based on his play; director of photography, Joseph C. Brun; edited by Carl Lerner; music by George Bassman; produced by George Justin; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Fredric March (Jerry Kingsley), Kim Novak (Betty Preisser), Edith Meiser (Evelyn Kingsley), Joan Copeland (Lillian Englander), Martin Balsam (Jack Englander), Glenda Farrell (Mrs. Mueller), Jan Norris (Alice Mueller), Lee Grant (Marilyn), Lee Philips (George Preisser), and Albert Dekker (Walter Lockman).



THIS POST IS PART OF THE LOVELY LEE GRANT BLOGATHON HOSTED BY GILL OF REALWEEGIEMIDGET REVIEWS and CHRIS OF ANGELMAN’S PLACE.


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The Defender (1957, Robert Mulligan)

The Defender is exquisite. It’s a two-part courtroom drama from “Studio One,” so Reginald Rose’s teleplay has some major constraints. There’s budget, there’s content, there’s plotting, there’s pacing. Not to mention it’s two separate broadcasts. No matter how well the two parts of The Defender sit alongside, the reality of its broadcast has to figure in. Rose has got two rising actions set apart by approximately a half hour. He’s got commercial breaks to deal with.

So he works with all of it. The first part is the first day, the second part is the second day. Maybe the deftest thing Rose does in the teleplay is never commit fully to the location constraint. It all takes place in the courtroom. While the unseen world informs everything going on, it’s completely cut off from the characters and the audience. Like I said, exquisite. You sit and watch The Defender–especially in the first part, before the reminder it’s finite–and Rose’s narrative transitions actually please. His intentional foreshadowing works out, whether its something in the story or just something with the characters.

Defender is about a murder trial, but it’s about the trial. Not the case. As the courtroom fills, the film moves across its population. The reporters, the baliffs, the spectors. Never the jurors and rarely the husband of the victim. Also rarely the judge.

It’s about the lawyers. Not equally, but it’s about all of them. There’s assistant district attorney and general goober Arthur Storch. There’s district attorney Martin Balsam. There’s William Shatner. He’s second chair on the defense. Ralph Bellamy is the defense attorney. He’s, you know, The Defender.

Only Rose’s teleplay doesn’t give Bellamy the most striking material. In fact, it specifically doesn’t. He’s set back from the goings on, with politically ambitious Balsam and Storch having a slam dunk case. Balsam’s got no love of the capital L law like Bellamy does. Shatner’s also Bellamy’s son and wants to run the case his way, with some heart. Bellamy doesn’t like heart or sympathy or empathy. Turns out the capital L law is open to interpration.

And Rose sets up all these internal conflicts amid this trial, where defendant Steve McQueen gets his own major character arc. He’s got to break down as the trial goes worse and worse for him. The worse the trial goes, the more openly hostile Bellamy gets about having to defend a punk kid.

McQueen goes all out and then brings it in. He’s hysterical during character establishing, literally waving his arms around. The Defender has a lot of good, showy parts. It’s a credit to Storch he doesn’t break into song to get some of the attention. But when McQueen brings it in, he does so alongside the film itself contracting. It turns out there’s been a narrative focusing going on, so Rose can make it all about Bellamy and Shatner–which The Defender isn’t about–but all of a sudden it can be. More than can be, Rose shows it should be.

Turns out The Defender is a fifties variation on a backdoor pilot–it soon went to series as “The Defenders,” only without Bellamy and Shatner.

Anyway. The whole thing is intricately threaded, with Rose putting actors on layaway for their best scenes. Everyone gets a great scene, never with anyone else, yet they need to be patient. Bellamy’s about the only one who doesn’t get a big great scene. He and Shatner get some scenes, which quickly go from the trial to revealing their WASP angst. Class is a big thing in The Defender. Rose and director Mulligan have to establish people fast–those baliffs, those reporters, this witness, that witness–and class is part of the initial character establishing. It seems like it’s just providing grist, but then it turns out Bellamy’s all about class.

Only it takes Balsam to reveal it. Because Rose works the teleplay on a reward system. You tuned in, you sat through Westinghouse commercials, you get this moment. Seeing Balsam pay off is one of The Defender’s best scenes. It starts the big change in the third act. Or second half of the second episode. Again, even though The Defender is a split narrative, Rose and Mulligan keep the distance minimal. And they probably never thought the episodes would be seen “combined” or without commercials even.

Rose gets to do a lot of echoing in the script to keep things close, but Mulligan has a different approach. He never lets The Defender out of the courtroom constraint. He sets up the location limits–courtroom, an adjoining meeting room, the hallway outside–and he fills them with the same, familiar people. Everyone’s stuck together. So long as you buy into it, you’re stuck in the place, stuck in the procedure. Because The Defender has intro to law stuff; Storch and Shatner are very much in training. It’s great for exposition. But The Defender always makes sure to show the human side of it. Mulligan shoots those scenes beautifully; the humanity in these stock characters’ exposition. Mulligan never seems to force the actors, not to overact, not to underact. He seems like he’s just showing them the best boundaries. So while one part might be closer to melodrama than another, the actors get to determine their intensity as scenes progress.

The Defender is probably as good an example of classic anthology television as one can find, at least for showcasing the medium’s strengths. Good writing, good acting, good directing of acting. All within a lot of unartistic constraint.

Bellamy’s great. Shatner’s good. McQueen’s good. Balsam’s great. Look fast for Ed Asner, who steals the show from the jury box. The Defender–intentionally–leaves the jury out; when the trial starts getting intense, Asner’s face expresses it. He’s always in the background, his face mirroring the viewer’s; those Ed Asner eyes looking at you. It’s neat and presumably unintentional (otherwise he’d be in it more in the first part).

The Defender’s excellent. Rose’s teleplay’s brilliant, Mulligan’s direction is good, the acting is superb. It’s the real thing.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Mulligan; written by Reginald Rose; produced by Herbert Brodkin; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Starring Ralph Bellamy (Walter Preston), William Shatner (Kenneth Preston), Martin Balsam (Francis Toohey), Steve McQueen (Joseph Gordon), Arthur Storch (Seymour Miller), David J. Stewart (Dr. Victor Wallach), Vivian Nathan (Mrs. Anna Gordon), Eileen Ryan (Betsy Fuller), Rosetta LeNoire (Mary Ellen Bailey), John McGovern (Dr. Horace Bell), Rudy Bond (Peter D’Agostino), Michael Higgins (Sergeant James Sheeley), Dolores Sutton (Norma Lane), and Ian Wolfe (Judge Marsala).


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Little Big Man (1970, Arthur Penn)

Little Big Man is episodic. It has to be. Director Penn knows he can’t reveal the tragedy of the film right off because it’d be unbearable but he also can’t avoid it. The film starts in a bookend with an incredibly aged Dustin Hoffman beginning to recount the story; he do so out of anger. It prepares the viewer, but then John Paul Hammond’s music starts and the film starts defying all expectation.

Hammond’s score is more modern Country/Western than the nineteenth century setting. It’s playful, amplifying the humor in the film. Why does the film, a considerable tragedy, need humor? Because Penn’s telling the traditional American Western movie from the Native Americans. Only, it’s not supposed to be actual, it’s still supposed to be Hollywood, still supposed to be a Western. At least until Hoffman’s performance develops more as the film progresses.

Penn takes the film–which is an epic American story on an epic scale–and makes it small. He doesn’t let the viewer indulge in the production value. He hurries past the artificial, opening up in the locations. Wonderful photography from Harry Stradling Jr. but truly exceptional editing from Dede Allen. Man moves beautifully, with Penn keeping the camera tight on the personal action. The genre commentary needs the story and vice versa.

Great “guest starring” turns from Faye Dunaway, Martin Balsam, Jeff Corey. Richard Mulligan’s Custer is bewildering, amazing.

But it’s Chief Dan George and Hoffman (and Penn) who make Man sore like a hawk.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Arthur Penn; screenplay by Calder Willingham, based on the novel by Thomas Berger; director of photography, Harry Stradling Jr.; edited by Dede Allen; music by John Paul Hammond; production designer, Dean Tavoularis; produced by Stuart Miller; released by National General Pictures.

Starring Dustin Hoffman (Jack Crabb), Martin Balsam (Mr. Merriweather), Richard Mulligan (Gen. George Armstrong Custer), Chief Dan George (Old Lodge Skins), Jeff Corey (Wild Bill Hickok), Aimée Eccles (Sunshine), Kelly Jean Peters (Olga Crabb), Carole Androsky (Caroline Crabb), Robert Little Star (Little Horse), Cal Bellini (Younger Bear), Ruben Moreno (Shadow That Comes in Sight), Steve Shemayne (Burns Red in the Sun), Thayer David (Rev. Silas Pendrake) and Faye Dunaway (Mrs. Pendrake).


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Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (1973, Gilbert Cates)

What is this film and how have I never heard of it.

Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams is somewhat indescribable in terms of plot. I mean, it obviously isn’t indescribable–I could list the scenes (there are about fifteen in the film, which means it averages a scene every six minutes and that calculation sounds about right) and there’s a narrative, but the film feels like an adaptation of a play. There’s a lot of conversation, a lot of dialogue, but at times, there’s also a lot of movement. So it couldn’t really be a play–the use of Johnny Mandel’s score, absolutely essential, wouldn’t have been done on stage and the film–the story–wouldn’t work without it.

During the last scene, it occurred to me Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams is the end of a long novel. It’s maybe the third part, where the two characters who each got their own earlier section, finally commingle.

Most of the film–it only runs ninety minutes, so most only means fifty minutes to an hour–belongs to Joanne Woodward. She starts it, her relationship with her family kicks off the second half, she gets to do voiceovers, she gets to have dream sequences. It’s her film for a while. But in the last twenty minutes–and here’s where Summer Wishes becomes something entirely singular and spectacular in any American cinema I’ve seen–the film ceases to be about her and becomes about her husband, played by Martin Balsam. Specifically, it’s about him returning–a World War II veteran–to a battlefield. These scenes are of astounding power. American cinema–good and bad–visibly devastates. Starting with the silents, through the Golden Age, into the seventies, now (especially now), it visibly devastates. It’s not good, it’s not bad, it’s just a feature of the way Americans tell stories. Summer Wishes doesn’t visibly devastate. A friend of mine’s coming to visit and wanted to watch a great film he’d never heard of from the 1970s and here I found it without looking.

The film’s obviously not out on DVD–it apparently never even had a laserdisc release–so I got stuck with the pan and scanned VHS. Gilbert Cates, who I’ve never heard of, does an excellent job directing the film. The pan and scan can’t impair it. He makes each line of dialogue, each exchange, spellbinding. There’s an early scene with Woodward and Sylvia Sidney bickering about bickering with each other–the conversation ought to be drawing attention to the artifice, but it doesn’t. It does the opposite. The next scene, with the pair walking down the street, is marvelous (probably the first scene in the film where it occurred to me Summer Wishes was going to be quite good).

Stewart Stern’s script–for a while–uses both dream sequences and voiceover narrations. The narrations seem like a progression from the dreams (the dreams stop once the narration starts), but then the narration goes too. Instead of replacing it with another device, Stern tells the rest of the story without adornment. I kept waiting for the dreams to come back or for another narration, but not only did none ever come, I couldn’t figure out how Stern used them. While watching the film, the thought was brief as not to distract, but as I’m thinking about it now… I don’t understand how Stern’s script works. It shouldn’t, but it excels.

Woodward and Balsam both give great performances. I think Balsam’s a little more impressive, only because Woodward’s frequently excellent. Balsam’s a solid actor, but this performance is just spectacular.

The supporting cast–Sidney, Dori Brenner–is good.

During the last twenty minutes, after it becomes clear how good Summer Wishes is going to turn out, I kept getting excited. Each minute was, I predicted, going to be another great minute of film. And they are.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Gilbert Cates; written by Stewart Stern; director of photography, Gerald Hirschfeld; edited by Sidney Katz; music by Johnny Mandel; production designer, Peter Dohanos; produced by Jack Brodsky; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Joanne Woodward (Rita Walden), Martin Balsam (Harry Walden), Sylvia Sidney (Mrs. Pritchett), Tresa Hughes (Betty Goody), Dori Brenner (Anna), Ron Richards (Bobby Walden), Win Forman (Fred Goody), Peter Marklin (Joel) and Nancy Andrews (Mrs. Hungerford).


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