Tuesday, November 6, 2012

2 From David Greene: I Start Counting and The People Next Door

British filmmaker turned prolific director of American television, David Greene is largely unknown and un-discussed in cinephile circles, unjustly so.  This is probably due to the fact that most of his key feature films remain scarce on home video and because he largely migrated to the small screen from the 1980s onward.  I just recently caught up with two very interesting pictures directed by Greene in back to back years, 1969's I Start Counting and the following year's The People Next Door.  Both films feature troubled--though in different ways--teenage girl protagonists, one English and one American.

The People Next Door is a relic, to be sure, but a fascinating one.  Suburban New York couple Eli Wallach and Julie Harris see their world turned upside down when their teenage daughter (Deborah Winters) experiments with hallucinogenic drugs and ends up institutionalized.  Having previously shunned his hippie rock musician son (a very young Stephen McHattie), Wallach is beside himself when his seemingly perfect little girl rebukes her parents and their generation, as she falls into mental illness and addiction.  Wallach turns increasingly to drink and desperate outbursts in response to the changing societal mores, and related crises within his family unit, while Harris becomes bedridden and unresponsive.  The people next door, school principal Hal Holbrook and his wife Cloris Leachman appear to be a little hipper and more "with it" than their neighbors, but all is not what it seems with them and their Ivy League-bound son (Don Scardino, also looking quite youthful).

Based on a 1968 CBS teleplay by JP Miller, which was also directed by Greene, the feature film version features an entirely new cast, save for Winters, who is a revelation in her role as Maxie.  She talks about her methods and how she convincingly performed the "bad trips" without actually having tried LSD here.

Wallach, best known for Tuco in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and other character parts over his long, distinguished career, is equally impressive as the patriarch who sees his world and that of his contemporaries crumbling around him.  The filmmakers, though, to their credit, never turn him into a cartoonish, Archie Bunker-like figure.  Wallach is pig-headed about his son's long hair and dismissive of his music, but it's still touching when his children placate him by breaking into an impromptu rendition of "I Got Rhythm" at the living room piano.  Later, McHattie (today mostly known for psychotic roles such as the killer in Death Valley) and Wallach share a lovely moment together, commiserating with a much-needed drink, as the younger man serves as the necessary bridge between his parents and their very troubled girl.

Watching Wallach struggle with his children's generation on screen, I was taken back to an amusing late '60s / early '70s anecdote my uncle Joe recently told me, wherein my grandfather (who would never be mistaken for a Joe Curran or Archie Bunker) berated my uncle for wearing "hippie" buffalo sandals on a particularly rainy day.  He proceeded to try and rip the sandals off my uncle's feet, succeeding in getting one of them.  Grandpa took the sandal to the garage where he chopped it up with an axe.  At least that's how Joe remembers it, anyway.

The parents' reaction to their daughter's breakdown and their dealings with mental health professionals is reminiscent of what would come later in The Exorcist and the film's poster art, along with its sinister-sounding title, does give the impression that People Next Door will be more of a horror film than it is actually is.  Wallach's clashes with his son and other youths has parallels to that of Joe, which was released earlier the same summer, although Greene's film remains more rooted in reality where Joe moves into more of a satiric, revenge fantasy mode, particularly in its final act.

The film's photography by the famed Gordon Willis (with "Mike" Chapman serving as camera operator) is suitably dark and naturalistic, but is obviously not helped by the very outdated VHS transfer, which remains the only home video source for this fine, undeservedly forgotten film.  The film features some really good original psych-rock songs (which McHattie's character and his band perform in the film) and a brief moment in which Winters and Scardino sing the Beatles' "She Loves You," the latter surely not helping the cause for this film coming out on DVD.

I Start Counting is a perfect example of why I love Netflix Instant and why so many others (read: non-cinephiles) say there's never anything on Netflix Instant that they want to watch.  If you're looking for a specific title, chances are you won't find it there, but if you go with an open mind towards simply finding something "good" to watch, then the service is a veritable smorgasbord of cinema and television viewing options, of both new release and deep catalog varieties.  Most exciting for lovers of oddball cinema--such as myself and many of the readers here--are how many movies Netflix offers, that were previously never or hardly available for home viewing.  I can't tell if I Start Counting was ever commercially released on a home video format.  The version that plays on Netflix has a late '80s or early '90s-era UA logo and is probably sourced from a transfer done for cable broadcast at that time, so it's not reference quality by any means, but surely better than the bootleg versions that are floating around.

Based on a book by Audrey Erskine Lindop, I Start Counting, at least in its movie incarnation, is part coming-of-age, part murder thriller, and part kitchen sink realism.  14 year-old Wynne (Jenny Agutter, two years before Walkabout) is a Catholic schoolgirl in Berkshire County, England who lives with a working-class foster family and is inseparable from her boy-crazy pal Corinne (Clare Sutcliffe).  Wynne has an unnatural attachment to the soon-to-be-razed, uninhabited home that she and her foster family previously lived in.  And, she harbors an intense crush on her much older foster brother George (an excellent Bryan Marshall).  George may be the man stalking and killing local young girls and several years before, it is hinted, he may have killed his fiancee, whose death was partially witnessed by Wynne.  The girl suspects her brother, but this is complicated by her strong feelings of love and loyalty towards him and the fact that she is in the midst of the psychological and physical changes and confusion associated with adolescence.

Greene's film combines twee late '60s pop music with scenes of the young teen girl protagonists knowingly and unknowingly teasing boys (both young and older) around town.  This is juxtaposed with scenes of urban "development"--of old, no longer useful people and their old homes being forced out to make room for new high rises and shopping complexes. [A few years later, Larry Yust would craft an entire feature around this sad phenomenon, the equally scarce Homebodies.]  At the start of the film, we see a hopelessly out of touch priest addressing an assembly of teen girls, unable to answer their queries about incest and birth control.  Throughout, a disturbed man is sexually assaulting and killing young girls.  Watching this, I was reminded of a Hammer film I recently saw, Never Take Sweets From a Stranger (aka Never Take Candy From a Stranger), an early '60s thriller that bravely and honestly confronts the issue of pedophilia in a small Canadian village, as well as Sidney Lumet's The Offence, from 1972, starring Sean Connery, which I admiringly wrote of here.

Agutter is superb as Wynne, appropriately poised and intelligent at times and woefully ill-equipped at others.  Marshall, who is probably most known for his work in The Long Good Friday and The Spy Who Loved Me is also in top form, a man handsome, tough, and protective enough to justify Wynne's crush on him, but who also has a meanness about him and a secretive side...qualities that make for a normally complex individual...or a serial killer.

This would be ideal fare for BFI Flipside to tackle for Blu-ray and DVD, but rights issues have kept them from securing it for release, unfortunately.  They did, however, host a screening of the film in 2011 with Agutter on hand to discuss the film and its place in her career.

In addition to Greene, other notable technical credits include the late d.p. Alex Thomson, this coming near the beginning of a career that would encompass many interesting projects, notable for their striking imagery, including The Keep, Excalibur (Oscar-nominated), Legend, Hamlet (1996), The Krays, Raw Meat, The Night Digger, Cliffhanger, Eureka, Year of the Dragon, and Alien 3.  While the Netflix print is watchable, a widescreen Blu-ray and DVD would benefit the film and the work of Thomson and production designer Brian Eatwell (if..., White Dog, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Lester's Musketeers films, and Walkabout).

It's oddly appropriate that two films as disparate seeming as I Start Counting and Mosquito Squadron were released in tandem by UA, if only because directors Greene and Boris Sagal (who would also shift from the big to the small screen in the '70s, and tragically be killed in an on-set accident) shared directing duties on the landmark '70s miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man.

Next on the docket of Greene films I need to see:


Nathan said...

Wow - these both sound amazing. The Gordon Willis Michael Chapman team-up is especially enticing.

Ned Merrill said...

Yes, I think they're both in your wheelhouse, Nathan.

Anonymous said...

I have both STRANGE and SEBASTIAN, well worth a look ( and pretty sure both are uk tv broadcast sourced . I START COUNTING was released on VHS in Canada and Japan, the Japanese tape having far better image and also letterboxes the film's opening scenes through the end of the credits. What is even more surprising is Greene made SHUTTERED ROOM before this quartet! It's in a completely different league from what came next.

Anonymous said...

Not surprising that you were reminded of The Offence while watching I Start Counting - both films use the same location, Bracknell, a new town (or it was in the 60s) in Berkshire, west of London.

I attended the screening at the BFI you mention, and would love to see this excellent film get a proper release - and The Strange Affair, which only turns up in bootleg pan & scan prints.

Unknown said...

Nice to see someone writing on this great man. I had the opportunity to work with him on a made for TV movie, and he was a joy to work with.
Wish he was still around, the film business lost a great director, and a very sharp mind. Spent hours with him discussing books and politics.

Pól said...

As mentioned before. I Start Counting and The Offence are both filmed in Bracknell, Berkshire. It was interesting to see one of the finer examples of 60's social housing / Brutalist Architecture feature in both films (Google Point Royal, Bracknell)
The sleepy rural village of Bracknell was designated a "New Town" following WW2 and much of it swept away to make room for the modernist shopping centre. I hesitate to say it but 'sadly' Bracknell's unique town centre as seen in the films has now itself been swept away as part of a new regeneration project. Now that it's gone I have an unexpected nostalgia for it's faded 60's ideal of modernity.