Tag Archives: Stockard Channing

The Cheap Detective (1978, Robert Moore)

It was until after The Cheap Detective was over I realized there’s never anything about Peter Falk’s fee. It’s not clear whether he’s cheap or not. It’s never addressed. It’s one of the many things Neil Simon’s screenplay never gets around to addressing, like if the third act is all a scheme or if it’s all coincidental. It doesn’t much matter–by the third act, The Cheap Detective is so overflowing with characters (there are twenty-three actors listed in the opening titles), and the movie’s less than ninety minutes, it’d be impossible to fit in a good scheme reveal. Not to say the ending is satisfactory. It’s still lazy. It’s just easy to understand why Simon didn’t try for anything ambitious. The movie’s just too crowded.

The Cheap Detective is a mix of The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, set in San Francisco, but still with Nazis after French resistance fighters. The difference is the Nazis are from the Cincinnati chapter and the French resistance fighters just want to open a bistro in Oakland. Cheap Detective has a lot of cheap, deadpan jokes, which only go over thanks to the cast.

Because even though the film’s too small–it’s mostly interiors and the same ones, over and over (budget, presumably)–and Simon doesn’t do much with the script besides the amalgamation of Bogart movies played for laughs, the cast is almost always exceptional. And, when they aren’t, it’s usually because the jokes bad.

Falk is the Bogart caricature. More on Falk in a bit, I need to get through the supporting cast. First, the characters cribbed from Falcon and Casablanca. Falcon: Madeline Kahn is Mary Astor, Marsha Mason is Gladys George (partner’s widow), Dom DeLuise is Peter Lorre, John Houseman is Sydney Greenstreet, Paul Williams is Elisha Cook Jr., and Stockard Channing is de facto Lee Patrick (the secretary). Casablanca: Louise Fletcher is Ingrid Bergman, Fernando Lamas is Paul Henreid, Scatman Crothers is Dooley Wilson, Nicol Williamson is the Nazi commander. Ann-Margret and Sid Caesar are kind of riffs on Big Sleep characters but barely. Then James Coco is around–in the Casablanca stuff–as the club owner, since Falk is the detective not Rick. And Eileen Brennan, in the film’s fourth biggest part, is a sultry night club performer who falls for Falk. Or does she.

Simon’s script adapts scenes from both Falcon and Casablanca, somewhat successfully merging the two. It’s silly, smile-provoking, but effective. Kahn is fantastic, DeLuise is fantastic, Mason is fantastic. Brennan’s good with a thin part folded in on itself, Lamas is good, Ann-Margret is fun, John Houseman does a fine impression (it’s interesting to contrast him with DeLuise or Williams, who aren’t aping the source performances as much). Channing is good. She’s got almost nothing to do. Ditto Williamson. Crothers is basically a cameo. In some ways, so is Coco. Fletcher is the least successful, partially because of the part, partially because she still functions like Ilsa in Casablanca only without any chemistry with Falk.

And now it’s time for some Falk discussion, which–sadly–doesn’t rhyme with frank as much as I’d like.

Falk moves through Cheap Detective amiably, humorously, but always as support for his more outlandish costars. He’s not the straight man; he’s a little befuddled (or is he) and he’s always subdued. He’s a great costar. He’s not a great lead. Anyone putting in any effort dominates their scenes with him (so, basically, not Houseman and not Fletcher, though for different reasons).

Even though Falk’s The Cheap Detective, he’s barely the lead and definitely not the protagonist, not with Simon’s third act shenanigans. Those shenanigans are particularly disappointing because the film’s never better than at the end of the second act, when it seems like it might add up to something.

I suppose it does add up to something, but not anything ambitious or even enthusiastic.

Nice music from Patrick Williams. Decent photography from John A. Alonzo, though there’s only so much he can do given the obviously limited shooting locations. Sidney Levin and Michael A. Stevenson’s editing is a mess. They can’t cut to or from close-ups; some of the problem appears to be Robert Moore’s composition. Cheap Detective is Panavision and almost charming for it, but Moore runs out of shots fast and keeps using the same three-shot over and over again. The shots become predictable. And if you’re familiar with the source material, the scenes become predictable. Cheap Detective gets by thanks to the cast and their enthusiasm more than anything the filmmakers contribute.

The film seems like a better idea than it turns out to be in execution, but there’s still some excellent material throughout. And Kahn, Mason, DeLuise, and Brennan are all great.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Moore; written by Neil Simon; director of photography, John A. Alonzo; edited by Sidney Levin and Michael A. Stevenson; music by Patrick Williams; production designer, Robert Luthardt; produced by Ray Stark; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Peter Falk (Lou Peckinpaugh), Madeline Kahn (Mrs. Montenegro), Marsha Mason (Georgia Merkle), Eileen Brennan (Betty DeBoop), Louise Fletcher (Marlene DuChard), Fernando Lamas (Paul DuChard), Ann-Margret (Jezebel Dezire), Stockard Channing (Bess), Dom DeLuise (Pepe Damascus), James Coco (Marcel), Nicol Williamson (Colonel Schlissel), Scatman Crothers (Tinker), Paul Williams (Boy), John Houseman (Jasper Blubber), Vic Tayback (Lt. DiMaggio), and Sid Caesar (Ezra Dezire).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE NEIL SIMON BLOGATHON HOSTED BY PADDY LEE OF CAFTAN WOMAN and RICH OF WIDE SCREEN WORLD.


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Grease (1978, Randal Kleiser)

The point of Grease isn’t the story, which is good, because screenwriters Bronte Woodard and Allan Carr do a disastrous job plotting. They also do a terrible job of writing their characters–ostensible protagonists John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John have the worst characterizations in a film full of bad characterizations. It doesn’t help the supporting cast does a lot better with their roles; they may all be caricatures, but actors like Stockard Channing, Jeff Conway, Kelly Ward and Didi Conn manage to do wonders with them.

The point of Grease is the musical numbers. The ones with Newton-John are terrible. Her acting is bad and her performing during her numbers is bad. Her singing is fine. Travolta apes well during his numbers and his singing is generally all right. When he’s got his melancholy solo, it’s a little much. Maybe because director Kleiser can’t direct the numbers when they aren’t fanciful.

But when they are fanciful–like Frankie Avalon’s number–Grease is awesome. About half of the musical numbers are good. Unfortunately, the other half tend to be tepid at best–especially the opening one introducing the protagonists.

There are some really nice smaller turns from Eve Arden and Sid Caesar. The film seems to appreciate it has solid cameo actors, but doesn’t really know how to use them. It doesn’t know how to use the main cast either, so it’s no surprise.

And after the first act, Grease moves really well. Except the inept car race sequence.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Randal Kleiser; screenplay by Bronte Woodard and Allen Carr, based on the musical by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey; director of photography, Bill Butler; edited by John F. Burnett; produced by Robert Stigwood and Carr; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring John Travolta (Danny), Olivia Newton-John (Sandy), Stockard Channing (Rizzo), Jeff Conaway (Kenickie), Barry Pearl (Doody), Michael Tucci (Sonny), Kelly Ward (Putzie), Didi Conn (Frenchy), Jamie Donnelly (Jan), Dinah Manoff (Marty), Eve Arden (Principal McGee), Frankie Avalon (Teen Angel), Joan Blondell (Vi), Edd Byrnes (Vince Fontaine), Alice Ghostley (Mrs. Murdock), Dody Goodman (Blanche) and Sid Caesar (Coach Calhoun).


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Perfect Witness (1989, Robert Mandel)

Perfect Witness is a standard TV movie, even if it was on HBO (I’m not sure what got it on HBO even… language, maybe?), even if it does have a great cast. During the opening credits, it’s names like Brian Dennehy, Stockard Channing, Delroy Lindo, Joe Grifasi, and Aidan Quinn. Robert Mandel directed it. It should have been better, instead of just the standard TV movie (lengthy–four to five month–present action and more complicated plot, though I don’t know why legal TV movies have always had complicated plots… it’s not like TiVo has been around forever).

Mandel does a so-so job. He disguises Toronto quite well for New York, but the TV movie is not something he’s suited for. He’s only got one really nice moment in the whole thing, which is disappointing, especially since Brad Fiedel does the score and Fiedel can always deliver good moments. The score’s nice, better than the movie deserves, but there just isn’t the material for Fiedel to strengthen.

Quinn’s fantastic. The movie works because of his performance, nothing else. Dennehy is okay, good in parts, but his character is practically a villain, which Dennehy isn’t playing. Channing is okay too, but unimpressive in the emotional female role. Lindo and Grifasi both have small, nice parts. The only important lousy performance is Laura Harrington as Quinn’s wife. She’s real bad.

I suppose there have to be other TV movies like Perfect Witness out there, completely competent time wasters with better-than-they-deserve casts, but I was really expecting something from Mandel and Dennehy, who’d worked together just a few years before on F/X. And not having a Grifasi and Dennehy reunion (they played Mutt and Jeff cops together in F/X) is just tragic.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Mandel; written by Terry Curtis Fox and Ron Hutchinson; director of photography, Lajos Koltai; edited by Wendy Greene Bricmont; music by Brad Fiedel; production designer, Richard Wilcox; produced by Elaine Sperber; released by Home Box Office.

Starring Brian Dennehy (James Falcon), Aidan Quinn (Sam Paxton), Stockard Channing (Liz Sapperstein), Laura Harrington (Jeanie Paxton), Delroy Lindo (Berger), Joe Grifasi (Breeze), Ken Pogue (Costello), Markus Flanagan (Woods), David Margulies (Rudnick), Nial Lancaster (Danny Paxton), James Greene (Paddy O’Rourke), Colm Meaney (Meagher), Tobin Bell (Dillon), Tony Sirico (Marco), Sam Malkin (Stefano), Kevin Rushton (Rikky), David Cumming (Kevin O’Rourke) and David Proval (Lucca).


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The Big Bus (1976, James Frawley)

Maybe I just don’t like absurdist comedies. I can’t remember why I wanted to see The Big Bus originally–it just came up again last week–maybe because of director James Frawley (who directed The Muppet Movie), but I doubt it. I’ve seen a couple IMDb comments comparing the film to Airplane!, which came out four years after The Big Bus and aped its style. A lot about the two films are the same… except The Big Bus has better acting.

It has a great 1970s cast–Sally Kellerman, Richard Mulligan, Ruth Gordon and Ned Beatty. Linking through the filmographies, one could many great–but relatively (if Harold and Maude still qualifies) obscure 1970s films. The lead, Joseph Bologna, I have seen in other films, but I don’t remember him. He’s good in Bus, giving an appealing performance while understanding the absurd humor. Stockard Channing plays the love interest and is weak. She gets it, but the part isn’t right for her.

The best performances are the small ones. Besides Mulligan and Kellerman as an arguing married couple, Rene Auberjonois is great as an atheist, sex-starved priest. He’s probably the best in the film, but there’s also Beatty and Howard Hesseman, who play bickering co-workers. Stuart Margolin’s got a really small part, but he’s really funny… basically playing Angel (from “The Rockford Files”) again.

The writers, Lawrence J. Cohen and Fred Freeman, make amusing observations about film stereotypes (the graveyard full of people talking to their deceased relatives), but they let the film get too long. Of eighty-eight minutes, only the last twenty didn’t drag, since there’s a half-hour before the bus even appears. That idea, of a nuclear-powered Greyhound, is a funny idea… but, like The Big Bus, it’s not laugh-out-loud funny. It’s a pun. There are a lot of puns in The Big Bus.

Still, the cast makes it interesting (and entertaining), if not worth seeing.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by James Frawley; written and produced by Fred Freeman and Lawrence J. Cohen; director of photography, Harry Stradling Jr.; edited by Edward Warschitka; music by David Shire; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Joseph Bologna (Dan Torrance), Stockard Channing (Kitty Baxter), John Beck (Shoulders O’Brien), Rene Auberjonois (Father Kudos), Ned Beatty (Shorty Scotty), Bob Dishy (Dr. Kurtz), Jose Ferrer (Ironman), Ruth Gordon (Old Lady), Harold Gould (Prof. Baxter), Larry Hagman (Parking Lot Doctor), Sally Kellerman (Sybil Crane), Richard Mulligan (Claude Crane), Lynn Redgrave (Camille Levy), Richard B. Shull (Emery Bush), Stuart Margolin (Alex) and Howard Hesseman (Scotty’s aide, Jack).


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