Domestic disturbances

Pub date October 6, 2009
WriterErik Morse
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

FILM "Some of our most exquisite murders have been domestic, performed with tenderness in simple, homey places like the kitchen table," Alfred Hitchcock observed.

While Hitch was the doyen of everyday suspense — capturing the foreboding whistle of a boiling kettle or the pendulous noose formed by a necktie — his vision of the violent-domestic was hardly singular. This year’s Mill Valley Film Festival showcases two very different films dedicated to exploring the tenuous relationship between crime and the domestic front, in all its various incarnations.

In Noah Buschel’s traveling noir homage The Missing Person, a case of domestic subterfuge becomes a laconic meditation on loneliness and absolution in the post-9/11 New York City. Starring Michael Shannon (2008’s Revolutionary Road) as gin-soaked private investigator John Rosow, The Missing Person begins with the classic tropes of the Philip Marlowe feuilleton — a mysterious caller, aided by an attractive secretary (Amy Ryan), offers the down-and-out PI a sum of money to follow a unnamed man on a LA-bound express train from Chicago. The surly and self-deprecating Rosow immediately takes the case, though it appears his decision is motivated as much by boredom and a nasty hangover than by lucre. From a nearby compartment, Rosow surveils the very innocuous-looking mark who travels with a young, Hispanic child. Presuming the worst, the PI puts two and two together and speculates that he’s been hired to tail a serial pedophile. However, the story is much more complicated than it initially appears: a family has indeed been torn apart but it is not the one Rosow suspects.

While the meticulous narrative of Buschel’s film takes the de rigeur twists and turns of classic noir, The Missing Person‘s plot is, by and large, immaterial to its penetrating meditation on person and place. Despite his chronic dipsomania, Rosow is charming and witty, spinning slangy argot, gruff one-liners and double entendres around every chance encounter, as if he were some hybrid of Mike Hammer and Noël Coward. "I’m in the hide and seek business," he responds to a potential female conquest when asked of his profession. "That’s a game that kids play," she continues. "Well, if you add some money to it, it’s for adults," he shoots back. "Well, what are you doing – hiding or seeking?" she asks. "I’m drinking," Rosow concludes, finishing off his highball.

But Buschel is careful not to inundate his audience with a wisecracking "talkie;" rather he seduces them with long, silky strands of West Coast jazz — all saxophones and tinkling piano — as Rosow crisscrosses the parched sands outlying Los Angeles, lurches into an anonymous motel room in a drunken stupor, or fantasizes (in the rich cobalt shades of a Blue Note album cover) of a wife and life he left long ago. In other moments, Shannon’s ungainly frame and wall-eyed gaze dominates the frame, reacting and reflecting upon the sadness that appears to pervade his postlapsarian, cloak and dagger world.

If one is tempted to pronounce The Missing Person a unique and innovative form of filmmaking, it is because such deliberate care taken in the details: its soundtrack, cinematography and mise-en-scene are rarities in the slick, post-80s crime drama. Filmed on 16mm and bleached of the sharp hues common to contemporary cinema, the colors and textures of Ryan Samul’s cinematography have the odd, anachronistic feel of mid-70s neo-noir. The Conversation (1974), Chinatown (1974), and The Long Goodbye (1973) come to mind. All the more remarkable is The Missing Person‘s pastiche of cinematic influences in that they mingle seamlessly with images and stories of Manhattan, post-9/11, as the secret of Rosow’s mark is unearthed. When the hallowed spotlights of the WTC memorial appear at the film’s conclusion, they have the painterly senescence of a dog-eared comic book.

If Raymond Chandler bestows the focal literary references for Buschel’s opus, then Agatha Christie is the materfamilias of Larry Blamire’s "old dark house" spoof, Dark and Stormy Night. As Christie once quipped of her metier to a Life reporter, "I specialize in murders of quiet, domestic interest," and that is precisely what screwball director Blamire has in mind in this country-estate, will-reading-ensemble gone amok. Comprised of Bantam Street Film’s stock company, most of whom starred in Blamire’s previous Hollywood send-ups (including 2001’s The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra and 2007’s Trail of the Screaming Forehead), Dark and Stormy Night recreates every riff, trope, and motif of the late 30s genre — from the exterior miniatures to the canned special effects — all situated in a lavishly decorated and seemingly haunted house, replete with winding floor plan and secret passages.

A disparate crew of hopefuls have assembled at said estate to hear the pecuniary bequests of the late Sinas Cavinder during a particularly ominous evening, as the title promises. Among the crowd are competing reporters Eight O’Clock Farraday (Daniel Roebuck) and Billy Tuesday (Jennifer Blaire) hoping to land a hot scoop; demure ingenue Sabasha Fanmoore (Fay Masterson); brooding nephew Burling Famish, Jr. (Brian Howe) and his unfaithful wife, Pristy (Christine Romeo); the very Yiddish psychic Mrs. Cupcupboard (Alison Martin); the epigramming dandy Lord Partfine (Andrew Parks); and the hilariously-christened butler, Jeens (Bruce French).

As might be expected, a serious hitch in the evening arises when the secret addendum to Cavinder’s will is stolen and bodies begin piling up following the requisite "lights out" interlude. Unfortunately, a centuries-old phantom, the ghost of a dead witch, and an escaped maniac are all on the loose and vying for blood … and the only bridge off the estate has been washed away by the storm. So, whodunnit? The answer is not nearly as entertaining as the long night of sight gags, double-takes, screwball repartee, and an inexplicable, wandering gorilla Kogar (played by legendary prop master and gorilla-suit regular Bob Burns). Shot in HD with enough digital plug-ins to simulate RKO-era film stock, Dark and Stormy Night is as much a loving homage as parody. Late-night B-movie fans and nostalgics will enjoy just how light this "dark" comedy can be.

Mill Valley Film Festival

Oct 8-18, most shows $12.50

Various North Bay venues