This is turning into one of my favorite movies ever. It is so rich, dark and complex, genuinely shocking and disturbing, well written, well photographed, well acted… I just can’t say enough good things about it.
This is also one of those movies that I think it is better to know as little as possible about before seeing it, so if I were you, I would turn the Internet off and go rent it right now. But since I know that if you don’t know anything about it, you have no reason to rent it, I will tell you that it is a true crime drama that concerns a very perverse relationship, the bilking of innocents, and elements of very black humor. Okay, stop reading now and go rent it. I’m really serious, you NEED to see this.
SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT >>>>>
I have watched this movie four times now, and it just keeps getting richer each time. Though it may not always seem like it, every single element is in place and the script and direction are as tight as they can possibly be. The remarkable thing about this movie is how the characters—ALL the characters, not just the main ones—are so richly delineated, and yet at the center of the film some puzzling ambiguities remain. What is it that Ray really sees in Martha? Is it that she says she’ll kill herself for him? Or does he simply think he can make more money with an accomplice? And why doesn’t Martha realize that what he’s doing to all these other women is also happening to HER? How many times can she hear that he’ll marry her after their next job?
There are scenes that stand out for their content, and scenes that stand out for their technique. Among the former are the scenes with Bunny [Doris Roberts, who later went on to be Ray’s mother on Everybody Loves Raymond], who one could argue is responsible for the entire situation. It is she who submits Martha’s name to the lonely hearts club, and it is her who actually first tells Raymond that Martha is going to kill herself. Then there is the shocking scene in which Martha leaves her elderly mother at home to die while she runs off to be with Raymond. The mother’s bitter rage/sudden reversal and begging/bitter damnation is shocking, true, and desperately pathetic all at once. "Unforgettable” is a word too often applied to movies, but for me this scene is truly unforgettable. And this is only the first 20 minutes!
The performances are also astonishing. Shirley Stoler—I don’t even know how well she’s acting, because her character is such a powerhouse that it’s hard to tell. To me she is utterly convincing. Tony Lo Blanco is a good actor, all narcissism, menace and sociopathy, and the film could not have the impact it does if he was not a LEGITIMATE SEX BOMB [just wait for the swimsuit scene]. He makes it very easy to see why all of these women would fall for him—and why you would still consider staying with him even if you knew what a slime he was.
And then there are all the individual women, each of whom stand out clearly from each other. There is an undercurrent of black humor to the film. You can’t help but laugh and marvel at the women because are all so astonishingly pathetic, at yet there is a simultaneous feeling of pity and pain for them, because they’re all SO PATHETIC. Of all of them, Mary Jane Higby as Janet Fay stands out for the moving vulnerability of her affection for Ray, the hilarity of the scenes demonstrating her cheapness, the persistence of her arguments during her fight with Martha, and the real terror she seems to be feeling as she begs for her life. The brutality of her murder is truly shocking.
The technique on display in this film is also electrifying. This is said to be Truffaut’s favorite American film. I would LOVE to know what Hitchcock thinks about it, as many of the scenes are very Hitchcockian. The shots are often strange and off-kilter, for example, expressing Ray's cunning by showing only his mouth, or placing the character to the extreme right or left of a shot. There are several very long takes that are executed so well you may not even notice. The scene showing just the eyes of Delphine Downing as she watches helpless as Ray and Martha discuss shooting her is one of the highlights of the entire film. And throughout the film the light is either overexposed or perfectly balanced in such a way as to deliver a sense somewhere between menace and documentary. Furthermore, Kastle is able to suffuse the movie with an overwhelming sense of sex and violence, without showing a great deal of either. All the more surprising when one realizes that this is his first and only film.
This really is unlike any film I have ever seen. Everything is perfectly in place and delivers an experience that is both moving, funny, and deeply discomfiting. When you think about the horror and action films of the past 30 years, and all the stories and images they have included, for a film like this to maintain the power to truly shock is quite an achievement. Please, please watch this.
Yes, right now. Get going.