Katie (Mary Steenburgen) is a struggling actress with an out-of-work husband (William Russ) and a deadbeat brother (Mark Malone). Desperately in need of money, Kate goes to an open audition and is immediately hired by Mr. Murray (Roddy McDowall), who explains that Katie will have to meet with one of the film’s investors, the wheelchair-bound Dr. Lewis (Jan Rubes). In the middle of a raging snowstorm, they go to Dr. Lewis’s home and, once they’ve arrived, Katie discovers that she is meant to replace an actress who looked exactly like her but who Dr. Lewis claims had a nervous breakdown. She’s told that she must stay the night so she can meet the director in the morning and when she tries to call her husband to let him know where she is, the line is dead. (For those born after 1996, the line being dead was the 80s equivalent of not being able to get a signal.) Dr. Lewis says it must be due to the storm but he promises to have Mr. Murray take her into town in the morning. Of course, the next morning, the car doesn’t start and it becomes clear that Dr. Lewis is not planning on ever letting Katie leave his home.
Dead of Winter is a throw-back to the type of gothic, damsel-in-distress films that actresses like Nina Foch, Ingrid Bergman, and Linda Darnell used to make back in the 1940s and 50s. If you can accept that anyone could ever be as naive as Katie, it’s not that bad of a thriller. Director Arthur Penn fills his movie with homages to Hitchcock and the scene where a drugged Katie wakes up to discover that she’s missing a finger is an effectively nasty shock. By the end of the movie, Mary Steenburgen has played three different characters and she does a good job as all three of them. Jan Rubes makes Dr. Lewis’s too obviously evil but Roddy McDowall is great as the polite but psychotic Mr. Murray. When Mr. Murray sees that Katie has tried to escape by climbing out a window, he yells, “Oh dear!” and only Roddy McDowall could have pulled that off.
Dead of Winter was Arthur Penn’s second-to-last theatrical film. After making films like Bonnie and Clyde, Little Big Man, and Alice’s Restaurant, Penn’s career went into decline as the American film industry became increasingly centered around blockbusters and Penn’s cerebral approach fell out of favor. After Dead of Winter, Penn would direct Penn & Teller Get Killed before returning to his roots as a television director. Penn ended his long and distinguished career as an executive producer on Law & Order.
There’s another Thanksgiving tradition besides gorging on turkey’n’trimmings and watching football (which usually ends up with me crashed on the couch!), and that’s listening to Arlo Guthrie’s 1967 story/song “The Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”. Here in chilly Southern New England, I catch the annual broadcast on 94-HJY (Providence’s Home of Rock’N’Roll) at noontime, just before the yearly chow down. Arlo’s one of our own, though born in Brooklyn a long-time Massachusetts resident, and still frequently plays concerts around the state (catch him if he’s in your neck of the woods, he always puts on a good show).
Director Arthur Penn stretched Arlo’s 18-plus minute autobiographical tune into a 111 minute film back in 1969. ALICE’S RESTAURANT is not a great film, but it is a good one, with Penn and coscenarist Venable Herndon hitting all the touchstones of the counterculture movement: free love (read: sex), drug use, the Vietnam War, long-haired…
After Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson) and his gang of rustlers (played by Randy Quaid, Frederic Forrest, and Harry Dean Stanton) rob a train, Logan uses the money to buy a small ranch. Their new neighbor is Braxton (John McLiam), a haughty land baron who considers himself to be an ambassador of culture to the west but who is not above hanging rustlers and hiring gunmen. One such gunman is the eccentric Robert E. Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando), a “regulator” who speaks in a possibly fake Irish brogue, is a master of disguise, and uses a variety of hand-made weapons. Braxton hires Clayton to kill Logan and his men, despite the fact that his daughter (Kathleen Lloyd) has fallen in love with Logan.
A flop that was so notorious that it would be five years before Arthur Penn got a chance to direct another film, The Missouri Breaks is best remembered for Marlon Brando’s bizarre performance. Brando reportedly showed up on the set late and insisted on largely improvising his part, which meant speaking in a comical Irish accent, singing an impromptu love song to his horse, and disguising himself as an old woman for one key scene. (According to Patrick McGilligan’s Jack’s Life: A Biography of Jack Nicholson, co-star Harry Dean Stanton grew so incensed at Brando’s behavior that he actually tried to rip the dress off of Brando, saying that he simply would not be “killed’ by a man wearing a dress.) Brando’s later reputation for being a disastrously weird performer largely started with the stories of his behavior on the set of The Missouri Breaks.
I had heard so many bad things about Brando and The Missouri Breaks that I was surprised when I finally watched it and discovered that it is actually a pretty good movie. For all of his notoriety, Brando does not enter this leisurely paced and elegiac western until after half a hour. The majority of the movie is just about Jack Nicholson and his gang, with Nicholson giving a low-key and surprisingly humorous performance that contrasts well with Brando’s more flamboyant work. While Arthur Penn may not have been able to control Brando, he still deftly combines moments of comedy with moments of drama and he gets good performances from most of the supporting cast. Quaid, Stanton, Forrest, and Nicholson are all just fun to watch and the rambling storyline provides plenty of time to get to know them. Whenever Brando pushes the movie too close to self-parody, Nicholson pulls it back. The Missouri Breaks may have been a flop when it was released but it has aged well.
4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films is all about letting the visuals do the talking.