Favorites: Deathtrap

Deathtrap (1982)
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Written by Ira Levin, Jay Presson Allen
Produced by Burtt Harris, Alfred De Liagre Jr., Jay Presson Allen
Starring Michael Caine, Christopher Reeve, Dyan Cannon, Irene Worth, Henry Jones

“The most important thing in acting is honesty: if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

–George Burns

For four flagrant flops in consecution, their famed but fading author (Caine) of thrillers is driven to dejection, desperation and distraction of a kind inspiring the murderous machination to invite a sometime student (Reeve) who’s penned and posted him a first-rate foray in his manner to his home for collaborative colloquy, so to dispatch the gifted greenhorn with an article from his panoply of stage props and antique weaponry, and crib the thriller as his own to revive his career and finances. Attic dialogue, anfractuous artifices and artful auguries of Levin’s hit stage play are preserved and magnified in this penultimate picture of Lumet’s second winning streak, as sable in its hilarity as it’s diegetically flexuous, defying and denying prevision for initial viewers first with a perverse masterstroke at midpoint, then a succession of vicissitudes as both the sinuous plot and that of its culprit’s eponymous work unfold pari passu, complicated by the homicidal playwright’s squirrelly, cardiopathic wife (Cannon) and a meddlesome, clairvoyant celebrity (Worth) of Netherlandish extraction. Caine was cast choicely in the seething, sulky, scheming, creepy lead opposite Reeve, whose typecast stature as cinema’s charming, caped darling made selection of a wickedly rigorous role as impressive for his professional daring as his patently protean proficiency. “To show you any more would be a crime,” proclaims this movie’s trailer in sincerity; that first of several twists may not shock with the potency it had over three decades ago, but the cinematic dash with which Lumet and continually contemporaneous collaborator Allen adapted Levin’s ingenious source elevates it in transition to the filmic medium. It’s shot, played and cut with such irresistible, hysterical, cutthroat, playful panache, you almost can’t envision its proscenium!
Recommended for a double feature paired with A Shock to the System.

Palatable: Cash McCall

Cash McCall (1960)
Directed by Joseph Pevney
Written by Cameron Hawley, Lenore J. Coffee, Marion Hargrove
Produced by Henry Blanke
Starring James Garner, Natalie Wood, Dean Jagger, Henry Jones, Nina Foch, E.G. Marshall, Roland Winters, Edward Platt, Otto Kruger
Of the plenteous polished, peremptory alpha males who dominated lead roles in the postwar era, few were so versatile as Garner, who’s as becoming to the part of a suave financier as it he. When the aging, harried proprietor (Jagger) of a plastics manufacturer wearies of the clout abused by the administrator (Winters) of his largest client, he divests himself by sale to the vulpine raider, whose extravagant emption is as much a means to pursue the hand of his vendor’s beauteous daughter (Wood) with whom he’s enamored as a legitimate transaction. A succession of misunderstandings arising from incessant machinations, the intrigues of an embittered and infatuated assistant hotel manager (Foch) and the tainted reputation of his trade threaten to stymie McCall’s romantic and financial prospects, but by scheme and sincerity, he prevails; don’t they always? In conceivably the most satisfying of all his theatrical vehicles, the charismatic star neither overplays nor disappoints in practice of guile and reposed confession of heartsick vulnerability. None among the supporting players constitute a weak link, either: Marshall’s in fine, typecast form as McCall’s humorless lawyer, Foch metes charm and pathos to lend plausibility to her inane divorcee and Jones renders comic relief as a scrupulous yet ambitious efficiency consultant whose moral permutation underscores the narrative’s principle theme. However, this cast’s jewel is the indispensable love interest: ever a paragon of filmic femininity, Wood’s loveliness nearly exceeds her expressive elan as the lively, lovelorn lass. This time capsule from the close of the ’50s is irrefutably dated: Wood’s screen mother advises her to marry in lieu of a frivolous career in illustration, and Garner mentions the fugacious potential of a military contract (ha!) in an obiter dictum. Its fun — and an unexpected depth of characterization revealed by copious exposition — is no less certain.