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.)

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