My Take by Jim Carl - October 26, 2011

MY TAKE is a blog about my funny life experiences that happened to involve movies, and how I found myself in charge of programming films for a living.  I’ll discuss how certain movies came to be responsible for my bad attitude, memories, associations, personal beliefs, and plain stupidity. Yes, I fully intend to trash films considered sacred in certain circles, and will probably offer a poor explanation for doing so. I also intend to squander praise on movies considered awful by most everyone, even if it makes me sound ridiculous, because I have a funny memory to share about them.  Again, I’m not writing reviews.  All I mean to do here is tell some good stories, and perhaps a clever lie or two.  No one has ever accused me of suffering a shortage of ways to make a fool of myself, and because blogging is one I haven’t tried, at least this is one most of my friends haven’t yet seen.

Going in, I had no idea that Deathtrap was a murder-mystery, or that it was based on a famous Broadway show by Ira Levin, or even that it had one of those Agatha Christie-style plots that untangle like big balls of yarn. (Ira Levin, if you don’t know, wrote Rosemary’s Baby, which I thought was tedious; The Boys from Brazil, which I though was brilliant; and Sliver, which has not been seen by me, but which starred Sharon Stone in her mercifully-brief heyday, and that’s sleazy enough to instead make me watch Home Alone for regaining karma points.)  Not knowing any of these things, I suspect, probably made Deathtrap a better experience for me.  I’d seen the one-sheet, possibly a trailer or two on TV, and knew that it starred Christopher Reeve and Michael Caine, but nothing else.  Truth be told, my mother had a huge crush on the Man of Steel in 1982, and it’s the sole reason that I found myself watching something called Deathtrap in the first place.  Had it starred, say, Chevy Chase or Burt Reynolds, would have resulted in my never seeing this film, at least not with my mother.   (That’s not true.  She did take me to see Stroker Ace.) 

If you’ve never seen the movie, I will not spoil the surprise.  But let’s say there’s a plot twist so outrageous and crucial at its midway point that it forces you to reconsider everything you’ve seen til that moment.  What a shock it was to realize that writers were able to reveal the ace up their sleeve so early in the game.  Until Deathtrap, plot twists were saved for endings, not middles.  Movies like Planet of the Apes and countless slasher flicks had reinforced this belief.  Very disorienting, it was, to change the rules on me.   I’ve heard that audiences in the 60’s had the rug ripped from under them when Janet Leigh took that shower at the Bates Motel.  Psycho was a rule-breaker.  You didn’t kill your star in the first half of the movie.   For me at least, the same principle applied to Deathtrap.  You don’t throw back the shower curtain and have Norman Bates standing there, off his rocker, with the shrieking violins and those 78 pieces of film and half the movie still to go, not unless you have a damn good story left to tell which, luckily, Ira Levin does in Deathtrap.  Imagine if Mia Farrow had discovered the secret about her husband and neighbors at the 60-minute mark in Rosemary’s Baby.  Think of the directions that plot could have scampered for the next two hours.   (Yes, yes, I understand the concept of “slow burn”, but in the case of Rosemary’s Baby, it felt to me like so much overcooked mid-60s Neil Simon melodrama.  Think Barefoot in the Park with Satan.)      

Anyway, I was talking about Deathtrap somewhere back there, and I’ll resume that thread now.  It’s the first time in my life that I’d experienced a slap-to-the-forehead moment halfway though a movie.  If audiences in the 1960s were shocked by the twist in Psycho, then I was equally floored in 1982 when Deathtrap dropped me in left field.  It changed my understanding of how movies are written, that they can toy with structure and story arcs.  Are there better plot twists in other films?  Of course.  (I will now name one:  Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun.  The woman simply cannot write a bad story.  There are, however, badly filmed adaptations.  If you have not seen this 1982 movie, stop reading and go do it now.)  I’m not touting Deathtrap because of the twist itself, but rather for unveiling that twist with an hour yet left in the movie.  As a thirteen year-old boy living in Los Angeles, I was quite impressed.  That the twist was a good one is gravy.

JIM CARL is Senior Director of the Carolina Theatre.  He has been in charge of its film program since 1995.  Some of his favorite contemporary movies include The Empire Strikes Back, Jaws, Dangerous Liaisons, The Punisher (2004), Postcards from the Edge, Aliens, The Fog (1980), Private Benjamin, Deep Blue Sea and almost anything involving Great White Sharks, Jamie Lee Curtis, Thomas Jane, Kurt Russell, or is set underwater.  His favorite movie of all time is Ordinary People.  Some of his least-favorite contemporary movies include Alien 3, Crank 2: High Voltage, Brazil, The Usual Suspects, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, O Brother Where Art Thou?, Scarface (1983) and almost anything involving Will Ferrell (except Elf), Jason Statham, mobsters, British gangsters and drug dealers, or a toy that transforms into a loudmouthed robot.  His least-favorite movie of all time is Pulp Fiction.  He is a film believer in the presentation and preservation of 35mm film and will book any movie he suspects will make money, even if he hates it. 


I do rather enjoy Deathtrap, but feel it more of a retread of Caine's own Sleuth, with the roles reversed. The twist is quite good, but the rest of the movie loses it's steam afterward. It's not taught enough, not funny enough, on the whole for it to be up there for me.

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