Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Walking Stick (1970, Eric Till) & Summer of '42 (1971, Robert Mulligan)

When I requested Eric Till's The Walking Stick and Robert Mulligan's Summer of '42 from the Warner Archive recently, it did not occur to me that aside from the fact that both are melancholy dramas from back to back years in the early '70s, they share another more specific distinction, the kind of connection which gives obsessives like me great pleasure: each film spawned an original musical theme, which would go on to significant success, outside of the film, in both instrumental and vocal versions.

Stanley Myers' "Cavatina," most famously performed by virtuoso Australian guitarist John Williams, is well known from its use as the theme from Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter in 1978; what most do not realize, and I include myself here, is that the piece was actually composed for The Walking Stick almost ten years previously.  Of course, due to The Walking Stick's obscurity and The Deer Hunter's great notoriety, the piece remains attached to the latter in just about every mention of the song.

Subsequently, lyrics were added to "Cavatina" and the song was performed, as "He Was Beautiful," by Cleo Laine and others.  Whether the lyrics were inspired by The Walking Stick, I'm not sure, but they aren't too far off from the feelings of Samantha Eggar's character in the film.  David Hemmings, a few years removed from Blowup, is top-lined, but it is Eggar who is the main protagonist and who leaves the greatest impression in terms of performance.  She plays Deborah Dainton, an employee of a renowned British auction house, who is reclusive outside of work, due to the lingering shame she feels about the childhood polio that mangled her leg and left her with a severe limp and claustrophobia (from her medical treatment in an iron lung).  Eggar is a revelation, performing a variety of difficult scenes and emotions in a beautifully subtle fashion.  Hemmings is excellent as the struggling artist who, despite his dubious intentions, brings the reserved Eggar briefly out of her shell.

Another pleasure of The Walking Stick and other films, particularly dramas, of that era, is the willingness on the part of the star, in this case Hemmings, to play unheroic, unlikeable, and heel-ish. Hemmings is all of those things at one point or another in The Walking Stick and while it probably did nothing for his box office standing, it makes for a more complex performance and a more interesting film.

Outside of the National Film Theatre, now known as BFI Southbank.

The Walking Stick made me think of The Panic in Needle Park, released the year after by Fox: both are gritty dramas that feature a woman immeshed in a toxic relationship, in which she is alternately drawn to and repelled by a man who has his charms, but who is at the end of the day...not good.

While very much an actors picture, Till and d.p. Arthur Ibbetson also ensure that it is visually rich, filling the Panavision frame with evocative shots of late '60s London, locations which surely have been thoroughly transformed in the forty-five subsequent years since filming took place.  Just as the "dirty old New York" films of the '60s-'80s now serve a documentary function so, too, do films like The Walking Stick, which are the London counterparts to those films from the other side of the pond.  I imagine that the shabby area which houses Hemmings' studio and which he refers to as "the backdoor of London," has since been gentrified and rebuilt into a luxury area. [Postscript: After I wrote this, I looked up West India Docks, which Hemmings mentions as the location of his studio, and found that the spot is now part of a major business district, Canary Wharf.]

"The backdoor of London" aka West India Docks.

Later in the film, Till stages an impressive, white-knuckle heist sequence; the tension is heightened by the shakiness and amateur-ness of the operation.  The leader of this raggedy group of thieves is played by veteran actor and playwright Emlyn Williams who makes quite a creepy impression as Hemmings' manipulative "patron." Williams is quietly menacing in the film's most devastating scene wherein he proves his dominance over Eggar and Hemmings, barely having to raise his voice in the process. 

Emlyn Williams hand on Hemmings' shoulder in this scene is filmed to suggest that the older man's "patronage" had certain strings attached.

Myers' suspense cues here are reminiscent of his later work on Sitting Target, a favorite film and soundtrack of mine.  Myers' diverse score also includes a lush orchestral love theme as well as some pleasant easy listening and pop sounds.  From this interview with Williams, I learned that he does not actually play on the Walking Stick soundtrack.  It goes without saying, that a full CD or vinyl release of Myers' lovely score would be most can hear a really good, romantic, non-"Cavatina" cue in the scene which is embedded on the WA page for the film.

Hip Londoner Hemmings lolls about topless in his studio in Blowup and in The Walking Stick.  In much the same way that Richard Lester's Petulia is set in post-"Summer of Love" San Francisco, the London of The Walking Stick is noticeably less "swinging" than it was in the Antonioni film.

On the production side of things, The Walking Stick is notable for being the first producing credit of agent-turned producer Alan Ladd Jr.  "Laddie" would, of course, move on to become President at Fox, where he famously green-lighted Star Wars and Alien, before starting his own production company, The Ladd Company, known for a string of quality films in the early to mid-'80s such as Blade RunnerBody Heat, Once Upon a Time in America, The Right Stuff, and Mike's Murder.  Ladd's executive producer on The Walking Stick and all of the films he produced in England before returning to Hollywood and Fox was Elliott Kastner, a producer of many a favorite Obscure One-Sheet film.

The original theatrical trailer, which appears on the WA MOD DVD, features the aforementioned love theme and "Cavatina." 

Hemmings strikes a perfect pose on the cover of his lone LP, which includes a cover of an otherwise unreleased Gene Clark tune, upping the hip quotient of this record exponentially.  The record was put out by MGM, who also released Blowup and The Walking Stick, so it's clear they had a lot invested in the Hemmings brand at this time.

The Warner Archive disc appears to be the first-ever widescreen home media release of this scope film, and perhaps the inaugural home video release of any kind.  The transfer is of the unrestored variety, in that the master is sourced from "as is" elements--scratches, grain, and other film-inherent artifacts remain, which is, of course, better than the digitally scrubbed alternative; aforementioned artifacts have more to do with elements of the original photography that appear to be rather tricky to translate to video.  While it is great to have it at all, I sure wish we'd see more Blu-ray releases in the WA.

One of the many assets of Robert Mulligan's Summer of '42 is its lush, haunting, and instantly memorable theme music from Michel Legrand.  The theme would be recorded, with lyrics, as "The Summer Knows" by Barbra Streisand (the producer's original choice to play the female lead), Frank Sinatra, Scott Walker, and others.  The music only appears in instrumental form in the film and this is the right choice.  It is a testament to the overall power and effect of Legrand's score that he won the Oscar for Best Original Dramatic Score even though the entire score essentially consists of a single theme, which is used throughout the film.  Legrand's music meshes perfectly with Mulligan and writer Herman Raucher's nostalgic images and narration (beautifully read by an uncredited, Bronx-accented Mulligan, even though it's Raucher's memories that the film is based on); to more jaded eyes and ears, it'll all surely be too maudlin and earnest.

Pianist Peter Nero had a hit with his recording of Legrand's "Theme from Summer of '42."
The opening credits of Summer of '42 featuring my favorite version of Legrand's main theme (as was common practice, it was re-recorded and re-arranged for the LP version), which appears over an evocative series of snapshots, most of which will appear later in the film proper.

Based on Raucher's coming of age summering on Nantucket, Summer of '42 ushered in a wave of films that looked back at the '40s and '50s.  The film was criticized by some contemporary critics for looking back too fondly and rosily at the early '40s; I wasn't there, but for the purposes of this story, the portrayal feels appropriate, seems authentic, and since it's based on the screenwriter's teenage memoirs--which include the loss of his virginity--I'm not surprised that the film's tone is alternately wistful, idealized, painful, and hazy (accentuated by the soft focus of Robert Surtees' cinematography) seems that's how many people look back at that period in their life, especially as they begin to reach middle age, as Raucher was when he wrote the screenplay and novelization for Summer of '42.

O'Neill wrote her own sequel to the film, which she tried to sell to Lifetime at one time.  Raucher wrote a sequel, which was produced by WB as Class of '44; he subsequently refused to sell his rights to allow the studio to remake the property.

Gary Grimes, who briefly cornered the market in the early '70s playing young innocents in Westerns and period films such as this one, is Hermie, a fifteen-year-old boy who falls hard for a slightly older woman (Jennifer O'Neill) staying alone on the island after her husband leaves to serve in WWII. O'Neill is exceptionally beautiful, graceful and kind, and even if she is younger than the real Dorothy was, it's hard to imagine an actress better suited or more perfect in this role.  Grimes gives a fine performance and was nominated for a Golden Globe and a BAFTA Award for his work, but after starring in the sequel, Class of '44, as well as in Westerns alongside John Wayne and Lee Marvin, Grimes walked away from the Hollywood life and his career as an actor in the late '70s and has spent the last few decades working for a non-profit far out of public view.

"We called ourselves the 'Terrible Trio.'"

Though there is lots of chatter in the film between the boys (Grimes, Jerry Houser, and Oliver Conant) about sex and trying to get laid, the film's best and most lasting moments are very quiet save for the sounds of the island--waves crashing, trees rustling, ships' horns--or Legrand's theme.  Often, Mulligan will show characters talking, but not allow us to hear the words, as when Hermie observes Dorothy (O'Neill) with her husband at the start of the film and later when she says goodbye to her husband when he ships off.  This stylistic approach is most effectively and memorably taken by Mulligan during Hermie's evening visit to Dorothy's house in the film's final act.  Many other period films mining similar thematic territory have followed, but Mulligan's film remains one of the most, if not the most, moving and sensitive screen iteration.

Richard Benjamin and Steve Kloves went to idyllic Mendocino little more than a decade later to film Racing with the Moon, another superlative entry in this subgenre and almost surely inspired by the form initiated by Mulligan's film, as well as its subsequent success.

It's great that the Warner Archive has made this DVD available again, after it had gone out of print, but at this point in the home video evolution, it's disappointing that they didn't issue the film on Blu-ray where Surtees' photography and the breathtaking scenery of Mendocino (standing in for Nantucket) could be that much more appreciated.  And, it wouldn't be Obscure One-Sheet if I didn't complain about Warner Bros. removing the original Kinney Services-era studio logo at the head of the film with a '90s Time Warner logo.

A longer theatrical trailer than the one which appears on the DVD.

The final frame of Summer of '42, featuring the Kinney-era studio logo.