Sunday, July 19, 2009

Idols of the Teens, Part 2 (Paul Anka, 1961)

In recent years, it’s become fashionable in movies such as American Beauty, Little Children and Revolutionary Road to attack suburbia. But suburbia has been under attack for years. The same year that Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road was published, 1961, Allied Artists released Look in Any Window, a movie that is profoundly obscure and deservedly overlooked. The movie is about a peeping tom who destroys the serenity of a peaceful SoCal suburban neighborhood. Coincidentally, the movie was released one year after English director Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, a much more fully realized—and unsettling-treatment of the subject of voyeurism.

In Look in Any Window, the peeping tom is played by teen idol Paul Anka, who takes the role of a lonely and misunderstood teenager. Peeping, he explains, gives him power. Anka dresses in the typical teen ensemble of that period—blue jeans and a tight white t-shirt. With his black curly hair, pouty expression, and wounded eyes, he comes across as a non-acting version of Sal Mineo. One year later, Anka would play, in unconvincing fashion, a U.S. Army Ranger in Darryl F. Zanuck’s star-studded production of The Longest Day. In one scene, Anka blows up a German pillbox by squatting on its roof, tossing a grenade through the gun slit, then lifting his legs so as not to get them blown off by the blast. The insouciant manner in which Anka does this is what makes the action the complete opposite of heroic.

Anka is not the main character in Look in Any Window. Rather he is the catalyst for the adult relationships that surround him. Like That Night or The Ice Storm, most of the story takes place in the course of one long, event-filled evening. Sickened by her drunken husband’s (Alex Nicol) weak nature, Ruth Roman, who plays Paul Anka’s mother, takes off for a Las Vegas whirl with Jack Cassidy, who has likewise been sickened by his wife’s (Carole Matthews) inability to do anything fun or exciting. She seeks solace in the arms of her new neighbor, Carlo (George Dolenz), a widowed foreigner who is so suave that he speaks with a thick accent, smokes a pipe and wears a clam digger outfit that would make Harry Belafonte green with envy.

Wandering through this whole night on his own is Paul Anka, a tortured youth who seems not to fit in anywhere. Returning home, he samples some of his passed out father’s liquor and goes for a midnight swim with Jack Cassidy’s daughter, Gigi Perreau. She, in turn, has just returned home from a date, who disdainfully pushed her out of his truck because she refused to put out for him. This whole saga is being observed by two police detectives on the lookout for the peeping tom, one a veteran who depends on his experience to crack the case, the other a newcomer who believes that psychological understanding of the perpetrator’s motivation will bring the peeping tom’s identity to light. The ironic thing is, with all the big suburban pictures windows for them to look into, the two detectives are every bit as much the voyeurs as the one they hope to catch.

Before English director Sam Mendes exposed the dry rot inside the walls of the typical American suburb in American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, Look in Any Window did the same thing at a time when American suburbs were still a new phenomenon and still new as a subject matter for books and movies. One character rebels against the materialism of the suburban lifestyle by saying, “There’s more to life than home improvement; there’s self-improvement.” And another indicts the entire suburbanization of America as being essentially voyeuristic when he ventures that because of the mass addiction to TV, “We’ve become a nation of peeping toms.”

Unfortunately, Look in Any Window is directed in incompetent fashion by William Alland, whose career was largely as a writer and producer of monster, horror and teen exploitation movies (his The Lively Ones stars James Darren, another South Philly teen idol turned actor). Alland is way out of his depth here, although he does have some good actors to work with, including Ruth Roman and Jack Cassidy, playing a car dealer who flaunts his infidelity at the Fourth of July pool party that is the climax of this movie. With his too-tight sansabelt slacks, shirt-jacs and ascot, Cassidy, who specialized in playing slick creeps, cuts quite a snazzy figure. But Alland has no idea where to put his camera or how to light a scene. One image, though, Paul Anka and Gigi Perreau trying to relax on a trampoline and looking like prey caught in a spider web, remains enduringly haunting. It seems to capture the fragility of youthful interaction. Young couples moved to the suburbs with the hope of starting new lives together. Who knew, this movie says, that they would end up ensnared in a spider web woven out of their own frustrated desires.

(My special thanks to Mary Ann Koenig for the recommendation and acquisition of this one-of-a-kind DVD treasure.)

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Idols of the Teens, Part 1 (Frankie Avalon, 1962)

In the summer of 1962, American-International released another exploitation film, Panic in Year Zero. The movie exploited the period’s commonly held fear of thermonuclear war. The Cold War was at its height and would reach its zenith in October with the discovery of offensive missiles placed in Cuba. But in the summer of ’62, there was Panic in Year Zero to tell us what surviving a nuclear Armageddon might be like.

In a terse 92 minutes, the movie is nothing less than a how-to primer on how to survive a nuclear war. Ray Milland, who also directed the movie, stars as a middle-class, middle-aged American who is about to embark on a fishing trip with his family. His wife is played by Jean Hagen, looking like a real early sixties housewife. One can’t believe that this is the same Jean Hagen who played Lina Lamont, the immortal screechy-voiced villainess of Stanley Donen’s Singin' in the Rain and Danny Thomas’ first wife on Make Room for Daddy. And Ray Milland, bullying and humorless here, seems light years away from the charmingly confused military officer he played opposite Ginger Rogers in Billy Wilder’s hilarious and touching directorial debut, The Major and the Minor (1942). In the movie, he and Jean Hagen have two teenaged children played by Mary Mitchel and Frankie Avalon.

At the time, Frankie Avalon was a teen singing sensation, having come out of that small talent-rich section of South Philadelphia that also produced Fabian, James Darren and Bobby Rydell. Before this movie, Frankie had already appeared in small roles in John Wayne’s The Alamo and Irwin Allen’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. (As an aside, canny Wayne often cast young pop singers in his movies to attract the youth crowd, which is why you get Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo, Fabian in North to Alaska and Bobby Vinton in Big Jake). Frankie Avalon would go on to appear in several American-International beach movies with former Mouseketeer Annette Funicello. This series would reach its apotheosis with Beach Blanket Bingo (1966). But in Panic in Year Zero, Frankie plays it straight and does a good job as a teenager (he was 23 at the time) dealing with the harsh realities of life after a nuclear conflagration has devastated America.

Throughout the movie, Ray Milland and Jean Hagen carry on a running debate about the importance of collective civilization versus individual survival. After an atomic bomb devastates their home in Los Angeles, Milland elects to head for the hills and remain there until order is restored. He becomes single-minded in providing for his family and protecting them from looters, rapists and marauders in the form of three hot-rod-riding hoods. Milland is absolutely ruthless in insuring the survival of himself and his family, even if it means risking the complete alienation of his wife. When two of the hoods try to rape Milland’s daughter in the woods, he and Frankie Avalon track them down and cold bloodedly exact their own form of justice. The odd thing about the movie is that it never attempts to color in Milland’s background to show how he makes the almost instantaneous transformation from civilized man to committed survivalist (two decades before the term was even coined). He is fully as resourceful and self-righteously determined as any hero created by science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein, or Robert Neville, the main character of Richard Matheson’s I am Legend, itself a how-to primer on how to survive a vampire plague (and first filmed by American-International as The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price in 1964).

In the end, Panic in Year Zero is a movie whose low budget roots glaringly come through at times, which leads to some laughable faults in continuity. (The family car is towing a trailer. Yet, in scenes set inside the car, the rear projection seen through the car’s back window clearly shows the highway unwinding behind them.) But the low budget also helps concentrate the screenplay, whose narrative is never off the focus of Milland’s increasing obsession in keeping his wife and children safe from harm, even if it means destroying the fragile emotional bonds of the family unit. The movie begins and ends with close-ups of a car radio. This radio provides entertainment in the form of popular music and information in the form of updates on how America is responding to the nuclear attack. The radio is the family’s sole link with what remains of civilization, and in the summer of 1962, the radio that made Frankie Avalon a star also served notice that America had other, more important things on its mind.