Legend Films // 1971 // 87 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Christopher Kulik (Retired) // August 7th, 2008
"Smell is color, and the color is smell. That's how I'd describe this place in a book." -- Sophie
Nowadays, most of the great films I discover are only recently released, not from decades past. Truth is, there are few films I haven't seen, so the odds of myself finding an old, forgotten relic which I'm tempted to label as brilliant are next to nil. Last year, the one candidate which fit the bill was 1973's O Lucky Man!, Lindsay Anderson's masterpiece about a travelling coffee salesman. Watching it was like unearthing a cinematic treasure. The gold nugget I dug up this year happens to be Desperate Characters, which has been finally been released on DVD courtesy of Legend Films.
Sophie and Otto Bentwood are a middle-aged couple living a mundane existence in New York City. He's a lawyer whose partnership is crumbling, and she is a housewife who gets bitten by a stray cat she's been feeding. They have no children. The decay, grime, and crime of the city quietly haunts them on a daily basis. Sophie doesn't love her husband anymore, and his concern for her is awkward, almost childish. Unbeknownst to them both, the cat bite will serve as a metaphor (or omen) for their marriage.
Truth is, this is a non-linear narrative, full of dialogue and little music. Writer/producer/director Frank D. Gilroy won a Pulizer Prize for his play The Subject Was Roses, and it's clear his roots in theater transferred to screenwriting. This isn't exactly a bad thing though. To most critics, Desperate Characters suffers from large chunks of mannered, stagy dialogue which doesn't feel altogether natural. A longish sequence where Sophie goes to meet friend Claire (Sada Thompson, Pollock) for lunch is very much an example of Gilroy's style, making discussion of a theme vital to the story.
Gilroy isn't so much concerned with story as he is modern-day issues and themes. Using the Bentwoods as a subject for dissection, he crafts an admittedly theatrical but always compelling look at dead ends in people's lives. Gilroy filmed it on a budget comparable to an off-Broadway play, used a seedy side of New York as an appropriate backdrop, and an apartment set which was dull, shadowy, and free of bright colors. The result is a genuinely grim mood which will yield depressing for some viewers. As for me, I found substance galore throughout its scant 87-minute runtime.
Call the dialogue mannered all you want, but there are many memorable lines and moments. As a couple, Otto does most of the talking, while Sophie is more reserved. While walking to a party, he looks at the bite on her hand and says she should get a tetanous shot at least. In response, she asks, "What do you mean...at least?" We just met them, but that one exchange speaks volumes on the state their marriage is in, including their individual attitudes. Later, at the party, an acquaintence (who Sophie knows quite well) asks her how she's doing, and she simply says: "Fatigue, anemia...all the symptoms of irreversible loss." From there, I was hooked in completely, mostly because I wanted to know why these characters feel the way they do. This is what Gilroy wants too.
Rest assured, Desperate Characters will never win an award for happiest or most cheerful movie of the year. Most people will be turned off by the subject matter and its downbeat disparates. So, why do I highly recommend the film? First, Gilroy does inject a glimmer of hope, which I interpreted, if not seriously read. Second, for the magnificent performances. Kenneth Mars is best known for his comedic turns in such Mel Brooks films as The Producers and Young Frankenstein. However, he submits what may be his finest acting here. It's a role which doesn't demand too much, but Mars gives Otto an amazing sense of gravity and nuance in every movement, reaction, and spoken word.
As for Shirley MacLaine, I've loved her in practically everything from The Apartment to her Oscar-winning role in Terms Of Endearment. I wasn't prepared for her stunning performance here, as this modern woman lacking hope and direction. Maclaine may have dismissed this film as a failure, but I have a feeling it just didn't live up to everyone's expectations (including hers). Here, Shirley convinces us she's utterly fearless and can do anything. The scene at the hospital (where she is being treated for the cat bite) is a triumph, pulling out all the stops with her dialogue.
I have no complaints about the film itself. Still, Legend Films is really beginning to tick me off. Their presentation of Desperate Characters is shoddy, placcid, and filled with scratches. The audio is the standard DD 2.0 Stereo track. It doesn't really do anything, considering this is a dialogue-driven film. Once again, no extras.
In Roger Ebert's review of the film, he writes: "The movie's characters are decent people, but morally exhausted. They have no way or desire to keep going; yet, they hang on raggedly to a city existence that's taken any sense of balance or sanity. Watching Miss MacLaine and Mars work together is enough to justify the movie, whatever you think of its urban paranoia." Well said.
Maclaine, Mars, Gilroy, and the film are all free to go. Legend Films is given a warning on releasing bare-bones DVDs in the future with poor audio/visual qualities.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Legend Films
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 87 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Roger Ebert review