Alfred Hitchcock put such a stamp on the suspense thriller genre that his name has become synonymous with it. Many a director has since had to put up with the label of “Hitchcockian” when they try their hand at making a thriller. Hitchcock pioneered so many techniques, scenarios and effects as to leave little room for improvement for his heirs. Very few subsequent films that try to mimic his style come close to the original at his peak. Edward Dmytryk’s Mirage (1965) certainly doesn’t rank with the best of Hitch’s work, but it’s a clever and engrossing example of the sort of “innocent man on the run” formula that Hitchcock practically patented with films like The 39 Steps (1935), Saboteur (1942) and North by Northwest (1959).
Many Philip Marlowes have graced the film and TV screens over the years, from Dick Powell to Humphrey Bogart to Robert Mitchum to James Garner to Powers Boothe. Of all the potential actors to play Raymond Chandler’s tough yet moral Los Angeles-based private eye, I think it’s safe to say Elliot Gould would hardly be the first name to leap to people’s minds. With his rubbery face, beetle brows and slouchy, hip persona, Gould seems an odd fit for the “tarnished knight” audiences were used to seeing on screen. Yet surprisingly, he makes a solid lead in Robert Altman’s tribute to/ deconstruction of the gumshoe genre, The Long Goodbye.
That Gould works so well is partly due to Altman’s insistence on updating the 1940s-set story to the contemporary 70s; his hangdog, mumble-mouthed approach to the famous sleuth seems a better fit for the Los Angeles of the 1970s, with its naked pothead hippie chick neighbors, swanky Malibu beach parties, quack psychotherapists and Nixon-era disillusionment.
The movie opens in a relaxed, idiosyncratic fashion. We see Marlowe dealing with his insistently hungry yet finicky cat and heading out to the grocery store in the middle of the night to get it some food (along with some brownie mix for his spaced-out neighbors). Alternating with this are scenes of Marlowe’s pal Terry Lennox tooling his way through the city streets on his way to ask Marlowe for what will turn out to be a very costly favor.
Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn were one of the great screen couples in Hollywood history. Longtime lovers in real life, they made nine films together over a 25 year span, starting with Woman of the Year (1942) and ending with Tracy's last film, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967). Desk Set, their eighth film together and the first in color, may not be their funniest, but it does make for a very pleasant night at the movies.
Adapted from William Merchant's stage play by Phoebe and Henry Ephron (parents of writer/director Nora), Desk Set is most memorable as a clever 1950s era workplace comedy. I find its setting particularly charming: the research archives of a TV network, run with a loving hand by brainy Bunny Watson (Hepburn). One day, affable engineer Richard Sumner (Tracy) begins poking around the department, measuring between the walls and generally reviewing the efficiency of the work done by Bunny and her three assistants: best pal Peg (Joan Blondell), glamorous Sylvia (Dina Merrill) and bright rookie Ruthie (Sue Randall).
Sumner is the designer of an early "super computer" called EMARAC (Electromagnetic Memory And Research Arithmetical Calculator) which the company plans to install in the department. The women become increasingly concerned that Sumner's machine will put them out of business, displacing their hard-earned expertise and customer service skills with cold, ruthlessly efficient circuits.
Despite this, they can't help warming to Sumner, especially Bunny, who appreciates the kind of attention she rarely gets from her long-time boyfriend Mike Cutler (Gig Young), an ambitious executive upstairs who takes Bunny's affections for granted. Mike catches on to the budding romance between Bunny and Richard before they do. But will the arrival of EMARAC render the Research Department staff obsolete, as the ladies fear? And if so, can Bunny forgive Sumner for letting this happen?
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