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  Desperate Characters Isolation Alienation Degradation
Year: 1971
Director: Frank D. Gilroy
Stars: Shirley MacLaine, Kenneth Mars, Sada Thompson, Jack Somack, Gerald S. O'Loughlin, Chris Gampel, Mary Alan Hokanson, Robert Bauer, Carol Kane, Michael Higgins, Michael McAloney, Wallace Rooney, Rose Gregorio, Elena Karam, Nick Smith, Robert Delbert
Genre: DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: It is early evening in New York City and husband and wife Otto (Kenneth Mars) and Sophie (Shirley MacLaine) have sat down to dinner, but as he chunters on about his law firm and the business partner he is growing apart from, she notices something at the patio doors: a stray cat. It has been there before, and Otto tells her she shouldn't have fed it because that simply encourages what amounts to a wild beast, but her heart has melted a little at the sight of the creature and she goes to fetch it a saucer of milk. However, when it begins lapping, she pets it and is bitten on the hand for her trouble, which somehow sums up the mood of the entire city: don't go out of your way to be nice, or else...

Director Frank Gilroy had made his breakthrough on the stage, though he had been writing for television for a good decade or so, with The Subject was Roses, also adapted into a movie, but his best known work as director was likely the out of character and rather excellent Charles Bronson Western From Noon Till Three a few years after this. Desperate Characters was a very nineteen-seventies sort of drama, in that it portrayed the modern malaise after the hangover from the unrest of the previous era, and where better to set that than New York? After all, the coming years would see the place fall to rack and ruin as it went bankrupt and poverty and crime dominated.

This was a strong hint of the hardship to come, then, as Sophie wanders through the surroundings adrift, as if she were coming of age a few years later than she should have and found an utter lack of focus or direction now she is meant to achieve an understanding and independence of her own. It's like getting to the end of a very involved mystery novel only to discover the last few pages are blank and everything is left up in the air, and the unease, that off-kilter air was very tangible thanks to Gilroy's direction, at once sympathetic yet at a remove. He continually used the tight close-up on his actors, and this unwanted intimacy was striking in that it forced you to search their features for some clue of what they were thinking, or if indeed they had any clues themselves.

And time and again that invasion of their personal space, passive aggressively demanding some kind of answer to prevent everything falling apart even further than it is already, comes up wanting, for it's clear even the most intelligent characters have no idea of how to slow the slide of society into the mire. We feel as if we're not getting the whole story, but that is down to the story still unfolding as we leave the characters lost in their difficult to pin down misery, Gilroy doesn't so much leave us hanging as depict a world where there is no end but the eventual entropy which will see everything break up and scattered lazily into the icy void. Sounds like a barrel of laughs, right? In fact, what should have been almost comically miserable and dejected leaves you lost in thought.

But with no more answers than Sophie has; she's not even sure if she loves Otto anymore, and may not have loved him in the first place, it's just something that happened and now she's stuck with it. MacLaine had a curious decade in the seventies as around this point she was starring in her flop sitcom Shirley's World, and that seemed to put her off appearing on screen for a while; straight after this was the uncomfortable horror The Possession of Joel Delaney, a film just as disquieted as this one, and she dropped off the cultural radar to a degree, as if her performance in those works, which were both excellent, especially in this, had exhausted her. Here she has to numbly react to such things as a man lying apparently dead outside her home, or Otto's legal partner demanding she accompany him in the wee small hours on a tour of the city without her husband, or her best friends impenetrably arguing, and so on. There was even an out of character nude scene late on which was no less discomfiting in a strange, echoing film, not exactly enjoyable but hard to look away from.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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