Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Hubrisween 2018 :: Y is for You'll Never See Me Again (1973)

We open on what appears to be a newly minted marriage made in heaven, as Ned and Vicki Bliss (Seriously?) wrap up a picnic lunch with some champagne and a shared candy bar before once more expressing their endless and undying t’woo wuv for one another. And so twitter-pated are these two, and so smitten by their mountain-side surroundings, Vicki requests her architect husband build them a dream house right here, around a pine tree. No, in a pine tree. More overt mooning and giggling follows. But! Before you can say, Oh, go and get a room already, the Blisses pack up and return home, where this blissful honeymoon and love-fest soon comes to a crashing and violent halt for these two lovebirds.

Seems Ned (Hartman) has a bit of a temper and a sore spot concerning Vicki’s parents -- especially her mother, Mary, whom he’s never met. And this starts bubbling to the surface when Vicki (Walton) receives a letter from home and Ned can barely hide his guffawing contempt as she reads it to him. Apparently, her parents didn’t think he was good enough for their daughter, which led to a near two year estrangement. Which is why Ned assumes this rare communication is to inform them Vicki has just been disinherited; but, no, it’s actually good news of sorts as her mother, who has a heart condition, is feeling better. And so much so, she and Vicki’s step-father, Will, plan to finally retire, go traveling, and see the world like they always wanted to before she got sick. With love and regards, mom.

Intrigued by this olive branch, Vicki tries to phone home but only gets a busy signal. Then suddenly, she hits upon the notion they should just drive up to her old hometown of Denby, about two hours away, drop in, and finally meet her folks properly and officially bury the hatchet before they go abroad. And while Ned tries to put the brakes on this notion for now due to the late hour and work commitments in the morning, Vicki won’t take no for an answer. They just spent two boring weeks in Minnesota with his parents after all. Yeah. Things kinda degenerate from there, and quickly, when Ned accuses Vicki of acting like a guilt-ridden child and calls her mother a hypochondriac -- parroting his wife’s own diagnosis. And then Vicki, now really pissed off, threatens to go on without him, especially when Ned forbids this. More heated words are exchanged, and then the husband makes things even worse when he finally agrees to go just to change the subject but it’s already way too late for that.

And the damages continue to accrue as this fight resumes, Ned’s temper emerges, more words are taken out of context, and things get dirty and personal until, at last, this domestic dispute gets physical when Ned restrains Vicki from leaving until they settle a few things. And when she bites his hand, he reflexively strikes back, knocking her down and bloodying her nose. The shock of what he’s done finally snaps Ned out of his fit. But as he tries to apologize and offers her the car keys to go on alone to make peace, Vicki doesn't want to hear it, having never seen this side of him before. Saying she’ll take the bus, the wife pushes him away and heads for the door, threatening to stay with her folks permanently. When he essentially says good riddance, she promises “You’ll never see me again” before slamming the door in his face. Disgusted with her and himself, Ned lets her go.

Come the dawn, Ned confesses to a co-worker and friend, Bob Sellni (Chester), what happened last night, even admitting he hit his wife, and how horrible he feels about this. And when he tries to get a hold of Vicki over the phone to apologize, he talks to her folks, who claim Vicki never arrived last night and have no idea where she is. Concerned, Ned checks at the bus station. The clerk remembers the wife but says she didn’t have enough money for a ticket and said she’d just thumb a ride instead. Next, Ned tries to report his wife missing to the police but gets the standard 48-hour brush-off since his wife had only been missing for less than 12.

His insistence gets him kicked up a few grades to a Detective John Stillman (Campanella), who feels his wife’s description matches an amnesiac Jane Doe they just placed in the hospital. But it isn’t Vicki. And so, Ned starts checking hotels and gas stations along the road to Denby with no luck until he reaches the town proper, where a surly gas jockey named Sam (Svenson) vehemently denies ever talking to his wife even though the shop’s mechanic swears he did.

And so, Ned pushes on to the parent’s house, where Will Alden (Meeker) invites him in, says Mary will be along shortly, and asks if there’s any news. All Ned can offer is they’ve almost reached the magic 48-hour mark and the police will finally start looking, too. Inside the house, Ned’s ‘architect sense’ starts tingling as he mentions the main room seems off-centered. He apologizes, saying it’s a curse and Vicki always claimed he had a T-square for a brain. Will understands, saying he was in construction himself. Mary Alden (Hyatt) seems a bit flighty when she joins them, but assures her mother’s intuition says Vicki is probably fine. Her step-father isn’t so kind, insisting if Ned had only come with her she wouldn’t be missing in the first place. And after a few more heated words about whose fault this all is, Ned leaves before his temper blows again.

When Ned arrives home to a still empty house, he barely has time to get off a prayer over his wife’s safety and eventual safe return before Detective Stillman arrives in force with a warrant to search the house. Seems they’ve received an anonymous tip that implicated Ned in the disappearance of his wife. And while several officers start searching the house, Stillman is called back outside. Inside, an incensed Ned denies doing anything wrong and cannot believe they are wasting time searching the one place he knows his wife isn’t. Then, Stillman enters and asks for a description of what his wife was wearing when she disappeared. Ned describes the brown dress again, which Stillman then produces, covered in blood. When a startled Ned asked where he found this incriminating evidence, Stillman replies they just found it in the trunk of Ned’s car...

Though not as well known as Dashiell Hammett or a Raymond Chandler -- but perhaps he should be, author Cornell Woolrich definitely left a mark as a pulp-writer of crime, mystery, and suspense thrillers. Born in New York City at the turn of the last century, Woolrich’s parents divorced when he was very young and this schism would go on to haunt him the rest of his life in many ways. He dropped out of Columbia University when his first novel, Cover Charge, was published in 1926, which he produced while confined to bed in a lengthy convalescence. Inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Woolrich would go on to publish five more “jazz age” novels, which concerned “the party-antics and romances of the beautiful young things on the fringes of American society.” This success led to a move to Hollywood, where he got a job as a screenwriter at First National Pictures, a subsidiary of Warner Bros., and found himself a wife.

But his brief marriage to Violet Blackton was a disaster as it was all a front to hide Woolrich’s closeted homosexuality. And so, the unconsummated marriage was annulled in 1933, and facing scandal and no screen credits, Woolrich limped back to his mother, Claire, in New York. And by that time, the jazz age was dead, the Great Depression was just getting started, and so, Woolrich could find no takers for his latest novel, I Love You, Paris. And still needing to make a living to support himself and his mother, Woolrich wound up tossing the manuscript in the trash and began re-inventing himself as a pulp writer, where he would excel penning tales of violence, suspense, loneliness, despair and futility.

In fact, Woolrich became so prolific churning out novels, novellas, and serialized adventures in the likes of Dime Detective Magazine, he started using several aliases, including William Irish and George Hopley. And unlike his first tenure in Hollywood, Woolrich started getting all kinds of screen credits as his work was adapted to the big screen with films like Jacques Tourneur’s The Leopard Man (1943), based on his novel, Black Alibi, and a string of same-named classic noir films -- Phantom Lady (1944), Deadline at Dawn (1946), Black Angel (1948) and The Chase (1948), which was based on The Black Path of Fear. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) was also based on the Woolrich serialized novella, It Had to Be Murder. And Francois Truffaut adapted The Bride Wore Black (1968) and turned Waltz into Darkness into Mississippi Mermaid (1969). Even notorious Italian director Umberto Lenzi adapted Woolrich’s prose, turning Rendezvous in Black into The Seven Blood Stained Orchids (1972).

Despite this success, Woolrich was “a haunted man who lived a life of reclusive misery” that was “as dark and emotionally tortured as any of his unfortunate characters.” And despite making all that money, the author continuously moved from one seedy hotel to the next with his mother; places that would make perfect settings for his webs of intrigue; but I don’t think that’s why he was staying there. After his mother’s death in 1957, Woolrich suffered through a sharp physical and mental decline. Still wracked with guilt by the stigma of his homosexuality, when he reached his sixties, the man was a self-inflicted wreck of mental-illness, alcoholism, and runaway diabetes, which resulted in an amputated leg. He died alone in 1968, an 89-pound shell of his former self. Upon his death, Woolrich’s estate of nearly one million dollars was given to Columbia University to set up a scholarship fund for young writers in his mother’s name.

According to Woolrich’s biographer, Francis Nevins, more film noir screenplays were adapted from Woolrich’s catalog than Hammett, Chandler, Erle Stanley Gardner, or James Cain. And in the 1940s, many of the author’s stories were also adapted for radio programs like Suspense and Mystery Playhouse. And so it would make sense that Woolrich would also start showing up on TV. And he did just that in several anthology programs like Climax! and Playhouse 90, and even wound up in a couple episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Thriller.

Jeannot Szwarc’s Made for TV Movie, You’ll Never See Me Again (1973), was actually the second time Woolrich’s tale of the same name was adapted for television. You’ll Never See Me Again first saw print in the November, 1939, issue of Detective Story Magazine, later collected and published as a novella by Dell. And it was first adapted to television for the British anthology series, Armchair Theatre (Season 3, Episode 49), in August of 1959. It was directed by Ted Post and starred Ben Gazzara as the husband. And while I’ve never seen that adaptation, by most accounts it sticks to Woolrich’s plot of a domestic dispute gone terribly awry, where a wife’s sudden and mysterious disappearance soon finds the husband under suspicion of her murder by the police due to circumstantial evidence of foul play and his desperate attempts to exonerate himself by staying ahead of the cops and finding out what really happened and find his wife, hopefully, still alive.

Director Szwarc and screenwriters William Wood and Gerald Di Pego’s later adaptation never strays too far from the source material either -- aside from updating it to the current era of production, which, alas, also kinda grounded it in the avocado-toned world of the early 1970s, setting things up quick and dirty to fit in the 8:30 Sunday night time-slot between Adam-12 and the 10 o’clock news.

And while David Hartman is no Ben Gazzara, I think he holds his own as Ned Bliss. Probably most well known for his long stint as a co-host on the talk-show Good Morning America, Hartman had already well established himself as an actor on the small screen with several TV-series before he landed that gig -- most notably with recurring characters in The Virginian and The Bold Ones: The New Doctors. And I thought he was especially good in another telefilm, The Feminist and the Fuzz (1971). Anyway, with his hound-dog face and sasquatch frame, I think the actor brings an effective every-man quality to the role, making him more relatable, and also kind of unlikable due to his his temper; and this actually helps ratchet up the tension as wronged man Ned tries to explain away the blood on his wife’s dress and more trace evidence found on the carpet where she fell two nights before.

Now, at this point, Ned, having been up for nearly 48-hours himself, is pretty stressed out and isn’t thinking too clearly as Stillman keeps pressing him, trying to coax a confession out of his suspect. But Ned remains defiant. Convinced it was Vicki’s parents who sicced the police on him, something has been continually nagging at him about his brief visit to their home but his sleep-deprived brain can’t lock it down. He also tries to cast suspicion on the gas station attendant, who denied talking to Vicki even though another witness said he did. And while Stillman promises to follow up on those leads, we’re pretty sure he feels he’s already got his man. Ned senses this, too, which would explain his next and highly irrational move when he loses his temper again, attacks and incapacitates Stillman, and escapes into the night.

After stealing a car and returning to the Denby gas station, with the police hot on his trail, Ned gets the drop on Sam and finally coerces the truth out of him. Seems he did see Vicki the other day. But with the blood on her dress, despite her excuses, it looked like she was desperately running away from someone. Sam assumed it was her husband; and so, he thought he was doing the right thing by not telling Ned the truth. He then reveals he last saw Vicki get into a green truck with a busted windshield and some kind of writing on the door. Luck is with a desperate Ned as he quickly tracks down the truck’s owner, who says he took Vicki to her parents house. But why would they lie about this? Are they trying to help hide her from Ned, or is there something far more sinister going on here?

Well, we get our answer PDQ as our tale needles toward the red of highly implausible when Ned returns to the Alden house, where he finds Mary alone. But he can’t get any answers out of the sobbing woman. Now nearly completely out of his mind, something finally clicks in that T-square brain of Ned’s: the main room IS off-centered, as if someone had built a false wall -- a false wall to hide something. Not liking where his brain is going, Ned goes berserk and starts beating a hole into the offending wall, which soon reveals, indeed, there is a body secreted inside -- only it isn’t Vicki.

No. The body is actually Vicki’s real mother, and the woman impersonating her was her in-hospice nurse, who conspired with the husband to commit fraud by hiding the body and assuming Mary Alden’s identity to gain access to her vast wealth as a cherry on top of their long-standing affair. And Vicki stumbled right into this, as the faux Mary continues her confession. She was the one who put Vicki’s bloodied dress in Ned’s car while Will distracted him to get the police on his scent instead of theirs, saying Will felt they would never get away with it now unless Vicki permanently “disappeared.” Asked if Vicki was still alive, faux Mary doesn’t know, saying Will just took her up into the hills, where the road ends, to get her out of the way for good.

Stillman and the local constables arrive at the house right after Ned leaves, where they find faux Mary, who begs them for help. Up where the road ends, Ned heads into the woods, yelling for his wife until Will attacks him with a shovel. But Ned easily overpowers the older man but knocks him out before he can reveal where Vicki is. And as Stillman and the others reach the woods -- and remember, we still don’t know what faux Mary told them, so they could still be after their fugitive, and Stillman appears to be a shoot first, ask questions later, kinda guy, Ned’s desperate search continues until he stumbles upon an open grave, freshly dug, obviously intended for his wife. But it’s empty. 

And as the police dragnet closes in, Ned runs by a secluded dell where a restrained Vicki has been hidden. And as he calls for her, the woman manages to rub her gag off and cry for help. Ned hears this, finds her, and releases his wife just as Stillman finally catches up to them, bringing our harrowing little Hitchcockian melodrama to a close.

You know, there was a hot but brief minute back in the 1970s when the going thought in Hollywood was Jeannot Szwarc was gonna be a rival for Steven Spielberg as the best of the New Young Turks of Hollywood (-- Lucas, Coppola, Milius, Scorsese, and De Palma). Szwarc and Spielberg’s careers did sort of mirror and echo each other from the beginning as both began directing episodic TV; with Szwarc making his debut with an episode of Ironside in 1968. Episodes of It Takes a Thief and Marcus Welby, M.D. followed, but the French director made the most hay by filming 19 episodes of Night Gallery. And like with Spielberg, Szwarc soon graduated to telefilms, allowing him to stretch his legs and director’s eye a bit in Night of Terror (1972) and The Devil’s Daughter (1973). Neither were the caliber of Duel (1971), but were also no worse than Spielberg’s other two telefilms, Something Evil (1972) or Savage (1973).

Beating Spielberg to the big screen, Szwarc’s ignominious debut was Extreme Close-Up (1973), which was written by Michael Crichton and dealt with voyeurism and personal privacy in an ever-growing technological age. Inspired by I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967), producer Paul Lazarus approached Crichton, with whom he’d made Westworld (1973), about concocting a plot to get as much nudity on screen as possible in an action thriller without it being considered smut-peddling. And to show how well this was all thought out, Szwarc was hired only because he was French and they figured being Continental he knew how to make a tasteful skin flick. Yeah. Before it was released, the title was changed to Sex Through a Window. And as a surprise to no one, when it bombed spectacularly, both Szwarc and Crichton tried to quickly put as much distance between themselves and the film as possible.

Szwarc’s next big screen feature was a nature’s revenge tale based on a best-selling novel, Bug (1975), for renowned schlockmeister, William Castle, which debuted the same weekend as Spielberg’s own animal attack movie, also based on a best selling novel, where man is no longer on top of the food chain once he goes into the water. Oh, yeah, after JAWS (1975), well, crushed Bug at the box office, all that talk of a rivalry dried up real quick.

Personally, I've never been a big fan of Szwarc, finding his follow up features flat, lifeless, and dull-looking. Perfunctory. I've never seen someone who can make cinema on some of his budgets -- Supergirl (1984) and Santa Claus (1985), look like cash-in made for TV movies. And his two most remembered films, Somewhere in Time (1980) and, irony of ironies, JAWS 2 (1978), have that same small-screen, washed out, soft-light sheen. And that’s probably why Szwarc spent most of his otherwise prolific 50-year career making films for television or directing more episodic TV; and the director was still at it as of 2018. And judging by his work in You’ll Never See Me Again it’s easy to understand why Szwarc stayed employed all those years. For in this medium, he actually excels. He just couldn’t quite shake these small screen trappings when the screen got bigger.

But don’t get me wrong; there is a lot to enjoy and many rewards to be found in these old televised tropes and Made for TV mayhem; and the technicians, writers, and actors, who pulled them off deserve some notice and fanfare when they make something truly righteous, especially when considering the limited budgets, the dictatorially short shooting schedules, and the limited time-frame to get your story told. (This one ran a scant 73 minutes.)

Always I’ve appreciated how they can let you know who these characters are with just a few simple strokes, their backstories, and how well they establish what the fulcrum will be that moves the plot along with such ruthless efficiency in telefilms like You’ll Never See Me Again. Add in some veteran actors like Jane Wyatt, Joseph Campanella, and Ralph Meeker, professional all, who know what they’re doing and keep things moving like a machine, and then mix them in with fresh faces like Jess Walton and Bo Svenson, and it’s pure alchemy with the end result being a nice and taut little thriller that you just might wanna see again. Yes. I saw what I did there.

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow the collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's 25 reviews down with just one more to go! Wait. Only one? Already?! Wow. Anyhoo. Up Next: We wrap this up with a little zombie-fu! And beware those leftovers in the fridge, Boils and Ghouls, they may just bite back.

You'll Never See Me Again (1973) Silverton Productions :: Universal Television :: American Broadcasting Company (ABC) / EP: Harve Bennett / P: David J. O'Connell / AP: Arnold F. Turner / D: Jeannot Szwarc / W: William Wood, Gerald Di Pego, Cornell Woolrich (story) / C: Walter Strenge / E: Richard G. Wray / M: Richard Clements / S: David Hartman, Jane Wyatt, Ralph Meeker, Jess Walton, Joseph Campanella, Colby Chester, Bo Svenson

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