Monthly Archives: March 2015
The Business of Strangers (2001)
Two women, one young, one middle-aged, sit in a sauna, relaxing after a workout. The older one starts talking about the first time she had a hot flash, in a football stadium, surrounded by men, on a freezing cold day. And it wasn’t until she’d taken off most of her clothes that she figured out what was happening. She tells the younger woman, “It’s like suddenly realizing you’ve been made a different person, and no one’s ever asked you.”
The older woman is Julie. She’s worked in the corporate world for years, struggling to build a career. Early on we learn that she’s just been made CEO of the company she works for. But her reaction on hearing the news is decidedly muted. She seems to be at a loss. Where most people would start imagining their glowing future, Julie starts thinking about her past. She can’t help wondering what her life’s been about.
The Business of Strangers follows Julie as she thinks about the choices she’s made. And the younger woman, Paula, is there to make her think hard. They start off on the wrong foot when Paula, an employee, blows a big meeting. After learning that she’s become the CEO, Julie is feeling generous and tries to make peace, but it’s not easy. In many ways these two are complete opposites. The one way they’re alike is that they both want to be in control.
But their increasingly twisted relationship isn’t just about clashing egos, it’s not just a struggle for power. They need to be in control because they’ve spent so much of their lives being controlled by men. They both understand how hard it is for women to get power. They live in a man’s world, and they’ve had to fight to maintain their independence, Julie in boardrooms and Paula in bars. The younger woman is a footloose bohemian who both resents and respects the older woman’s discipline. Paula will complement Julie, at the same time as she’s looking for chinks in the armor.
Writer/director Patrick Stettner shows how much you can do with a limited budget and couple of actors. Not only has he created two fascinating characters, but the look and sound of the setting they’re placed in extends the emotional tone of the film. Most of the movie takes place in the arid landscape of a chain hotel. The bland, pastel décor and the eerily silent hallways are the perfect backdrop for Julie’s moody ruminations on her empty life. This world of sterile comfort only highlights the fact that she’s really homeless. Stettner’s subtle use of sound emphasizes the hollowness of the environment. We hear the dull buzz of conversation in the bar, the muffled padding of footsteps in a carpeted corridor. And he’s not afraid to use silence. As the film goes on, the passages with no dialogue are filled with more and more tension. Alex Lasarenko’s score is an important part of the sound design. The low-key percussive patterns he lays down in the background create a sense of quiet unease.
Then there are the performances. Julia Stiles shows how far she can go as an actress, playing Paula with shadings that you don’t even catch until the second or third viewing. While in some films Stiles’ face has seemed like a barrier, here it seems like a mask, and you’re never quite sure what’s going on underneath. You’re always a little afraid of what she might do next. Anybody who’s seen Stockard Channing before knows how far she can go as an actress, but she rarely gets roles this good. One of her greatest gifts is that she never seems to be acting. You never feel like there’s any distance between her and the character. She’s very direct, very straightforward, but she adds subtle layers of emotion. With the slightest change of expression or an offhand gesture she lets you see right into character.
At the end, nothing is resolved. Julie and Paula are back at the airport, sitting in the lounge, killing time before they go their separate ways. Paula will go off to find some new situation where she can explore the dark side of human nature. Julie will slide into the role of CEO, running meetings and reading sales reports. She may not be satisfied with her situation, but she’s accepted it. She’s realized that her work is who she is, and that all she can do is keep moving forward.
Stranger at My Door (1956)
William Witney was a workhorse. The list of his credits includes over sixty movies, and dozens of TV shows. Witney used his considerable skill as a craftsman to jump from one genre to the other, starting with serials, moving into features with westerns, taking on crime films, JD flicks and even fantasy. While many of the films he directed are routine action movies, they’re generally made with a smooth professionalism that could transform paper thin scripts into solid entertainment. And when he got hold of a good script, he knew how to run with it.
Barry Shipman’s screenplay for Stranger at My Door may be the best material Witney ever got ahold of, and he shows how far he could go. On most of the projects he directed, Witney was a hired hand. But apparently he felt a special connection to westerns, and this connection is palpable in Stranger. One of the things that made the genre so appealing to audiences was a straightforward morality that boiled everything down to clear cut choices between right and wrong. You always knew who to root for. But the script for Stranger goes deeper than that. It shows how hard making that choice can be.
The movie kicks off with a bang, throwing us into the middle of a small town bank robbery and the ensuing gunfight. The outlaws ride their horses past the city limits, divvy up the loot and then scatter. But after the others ride off, the leader discovers his horse is lame. There’s no way he can make a speedy getaway.
He runs into a boy who helps him with his horse and invites him home, where the boy’s stepmother welcomes the stranger warmly. But when the father returns, he quickly realizes who their guest is, and this is where it gets interesting. The father is a preacher, and he lets the outlaw stay, promising not to reveal his identity. You see, the preacher is determined to save this man’s soul.
At this point you might be thinking that the film was going to be a moralistic drag, and you’d be so wrong. This is where Witney goes beyond craftsmanship into artistry. His approach is so straightforward, he stages each scene with such graceful simplicity, that the film never feels anything less than honest. Instead of trying to jack up the tension with histrionics, for the most part he keeps the actors under a tight rein. In a genre that was largely built on melodramatic cliches, these people seem real, their emotions ring true.
As the outlaw, Skip Homeier starts out a little shaky. But his performance comes together, and by the end he’s completely convincing. Macdonald Carey is excellent as the preacher who is determined to save this man’s soul, though he slowly comes to realizes how great the cost could be to himself and his loved ones. Child actors can sometimes be unbearably cute, but Stephen Wooton does a good job as the pastor’s young son. The standout performance, though, is Patricia Medina as the stepmother. As a woman in a western, she’s given a wider range of emotions than the men, who mostly play it close to the vest. When the situation starts spinning out of control, the stepmother is the only one who’s allowed to let herself go, to raise her voice and let the world know that she’s angry and afraid. Unlike many westerns, the script lets her express her emotions without becoming an irritating cliche. Medina plays it to the hilt without going over the top. She loves her husband, but she’s both bewildered and angered by his obsession with saving this outlaw’s soul. She can’t believe he’s willing to put his wife and child at risk to offer a thief a chance at redemption.
Cinematographer Bud Thackery’s low-key naturalism makes the settings seem as real as the performances. Witney tends to film the scenes in long shot, moving the camera in a fluid, unobtrusive way to follow the action or re-frame the composition. This movie is beautifully understated, never pushing the drama at us, instead allowing us to watch it unfold.
It will come as no surprise that the outlaw does find salvation at the end. And in the tradition of the best westerns, the movie shows it through action instead of explaining it in words. Fatally wounded, this man who fought all attempts to save his soul mounts his horse and rides to the church that the preacher has been building. Arriving at the site, he staggers inside and dies beneath the cross. Is it subtle? No. Is it powerful? Yes. Witney takes advantage of the genre’s chief virtue, which is that you can say things simply and directly, without having to apologize. When an artist creates a film this honest, this true, no apologies are necessary.
Usually the image I post for a film is a screen shot taken from a DVD. In this case, I watched the film on a VHS tape from Eddie Brandt’s in North Hollywood, so the image used here is one of the few stills available on the net. I didn’t think Stranger at My Door was on DVD, but I just found out you can get it from TCM. This is good news, because Witney’s work is little seen, and not always easy to obtain. He deserves to be better known.