Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Today, I'm in a "Rage"

In The Underworld, we love a good, soapy story, the more chastely tawdry, the better. By chastely tawdry, I mean an old-fashioned potboiler with plush settings and clothes and attractive people, but all skim-coating an underlying core of sexual misbehavior and/or suffering. One lesser known entry into this realm is 1965's A Rage to Live, starring Miss Suzanne Pleshette. It's based on a novel by the same man, John O'Hara, who gave the world the hardbound basis for BUtterfield 8 and, like that book-to-screen translation, A Rage to Live is updated to the then-present day and given a beauty treatment. Perhaps due to it being filmed in black and white, it has failed to endure the same way BUtterfield 8 (which starred the more famous actress Elizabeth Taylor) has. It is not without its own pleasures, however!

The book, published in 1949, was firmly established as taking place in prim, Pennsylvania Dutch country (note the pastoral cover, which certainly shares nothing in common with the cinematic poster except that paper was involved in both!) The movie is mostly set a bit further ahead in time and, though still set in Pennsylvania, could be happening most anywhere in the northeastern United States or anyplace close by.

At twenty-eight in real life, Pleshette is hardly believable as a minor in the opening sequences of the story. I mean, great lady and a fine actress, but that Marlboro and martini-tinged voice is a dead giveaway that this is no high school senior! Anyway, she is the daughter of a well-to-do, but ill in health, widow (Carmen Matthews) who frets about the direction she's heading in. Matthews has good reason, too! In a truly hysterical turn of events, Pleshette returns home from school one day to find a note in the kitchen next to a freshly-baked cake that emphatically reads “Don't stuff yourself!” only to promptly do just that, only with one of her brother's friends, the aggressively horny Mark Goddard!! She heads upstairs to change in the otherwise deserted house when Goddard, a friend of her brother's, comes down the hall and stops at her door. Merely the silhouette of her shadow on the wall is enough to ignite him and he stares intensely (while his off-screen hand, almost imperceptibly, begins to move around below.) He aggressively comes after her and she resists for a little bit, but finally gives in. (Had I been Pleshette, he'd have had to run for his life!)

This is apparently her first sexual experience, but it somehow awakens in her a drive for more. She becomes “easy” and is soon getting it on in parked cars (even at her own parties!) and again with Goddard. In what is a treat for fans of Match Game, Goddard takes Pleshette home one day for a matinee and is caught by his mother, none other than Brett Somers! Somers tears into them both and really gives her one brief scene some gusto.

This scandal almost does her mother in, even though Pleshette denies having done anything. Soon after, at a glamorous Christmas party, her brother introduces her to an old pal of his, Bradford Dillman. She and Dillman, a nice, respectable and earnest sort of man, hit it off. Unfortunately, Goddard is at the party and begins to cause a scene, which Dillman breaks up. Note Miss Pleshette's highly stacked hair in this shot. This being 1965, there are a few such 'dos on the background actresses as well.

Her mother's health in question, Pleshette accompanies her to a vacation getaway down south. Here, the heat seems to get to Pleshette again and she can't resist trying out one of the room service waiters, much to her mother's extreme dismay. By the time the trip is over, so is Matthews!

Chiles and Pleshette now left to their own devices, they have a surprisingly frank talk - for a brother and sister - about her sexual appetites. When Dillman returns to pay his respects, she decides she loves him and wants to make an attempt at a monogamous relationship. She even comes clean to him, explaining that she is not going to be a virgin when their wedding night comes, though he stops her before she can run down her (lengthy) sexual resume.

The wedding, of course, is a frilly, picture book affair with all the trimmings. Here and throughout the film, Pleshette is dressed in Oscar-nominated Howard Shoup gowns, some of which suggest a demure quality while others, particularly some snug pencil skirts, show off her dazzling figure. Following the ceremony, Pleshette and Dillman settle in to her father's old farm, revitalizing the grounds and creating an idyllic home for themselves. They also have a young son together.

Cut to a couple of years into the marriage, Dillman arranges to have the barn fixed due to settling. Who arrives to work on it, but an old acquaintance, Ben Gazzara, the son of one of her mother's servants. Gazzara emerges from the house onto the patio where Pleshette is reading and sports one of the most blatant examples of bulgery from that or any other era! His trousers hiked up and his junk dressed left, he has a package to deliver to her and it's not the kind that comes with a bow on it. (Click to, er, enlarge) Finally happy, she pretends not to notice that she's being targeted by yet another admirer, but finally can't help but show evidence of a tiny crack in the surface. One day soon after, Gazzara's truck breaks down (supposedly!) and she gives him a lift. Unable to stifle himself any further, he gives in and confesses that he has desired her ever since he used to deliver soft drinks to her mother's house. She resists for a while, but has finally reached her own limit and the two kick off an affair while vertical, phallic tubes of blueprints press against the window of his office.

This affair carries on for a time, and the two have strong chemistry together. She still loves Dillman, but can't deny her attraction to the blue-collar Gazzara. Busy socialite that she is, she soon has to start pencilling him in in between charity engagements and plans for a big carnival shindig she is throwing on her property as a benefit. Part of this preparation includes meeting with still another man, handsome Peter Graves, who finds her hard to forget despite his marriage to a smothering and neurotic wife, Bethel Leslie.

Graves has genuine feelings for Pleshette, but she's rather booked up at the time being! Even though the two haven't done anything untoward, both Gazzara and Leslie begin to suspect them of it. Dillman, however, remains blissfully in the dark. Gazzara starts to stalk Pleshette while Leslie becomes more and more unhinged, tossing an accusatory drink into Graves' face and pressing him into admitting that he has feelings for Pleshette.

Thanks to his possessive and domineering behavior, Pleshette breaks things off with Gazzara, but this just makes him angrier and more wild. He takes to picking up some floozy in a roadside motel and beating the heck out of her, all the while drunkenly calling out Pleshette's name. This poor chick who was cast as the victim... Can you imagine? “We need an actress who can dress provocatively and get slapped around repeatedly with no lines – other than screams – and no billing.” Rough day at the office!

Dillman gets wind of the affair and finally comes down hard on Pleshette, threatening to take her son away and leave her forever. Naturally, it's the day of the big (and tacky!) carnival on their land, so they have to stick it out for appearance's sake that night. Trouble is, by now Graves and Leslie have split up and she is convinced that it's because of Pleshette. She heads to the carnival brandishing a firearm with plans to end the (nonexistent) affair.

The whole thing comes to a strangely anti-climactic head which is good, I guess, for those who carp at overly melodramatic endings in soap operas, but a tad disappointing for fans of squalid scenarios. Things are left without a concrete ending, though the direction in which things are headed is clearly indicated.

When color TV came into vogue in the mid-'60s, feature films would continue to find their way onto the airwaves a few years after their release. However, it was considered more of a draw for these airings to be in color. Thus, a fair amount of black and white comedies and dramas began to get slighted when it came to television showings. It was more common to find splashy, colorful movies being aired rather than ones that harkened back to pre-color TV and didn't take advantage of the new technology. A Rage to Live wound up, like quite a few other flicks, being passed over in favor of color products.

The film's music is by Nelson Riddle, but the opening theme was composed by and played by famed pianists Ferrante and Teicher, who released an instrumental version as a single. Lyrics were written to the theme and those are heard by vocalist Jimmy Roselli in the Christmas party scene.

Seen now in widescreen HD, the film has amazing cinematography by veteran Charles Lawton and can be better appreciated for the production values it has to offer. Pleshette, while always pretty in color, had eyes that truly suited black and white photography, they were so big and glistening, with heavy liner and lashes. Her raven-colored hair also made an impression in this format. (Incidentally, the actress first announced to play this role was Anne Bancroft.)

What she does here, which is no easy feat, is to make the audience sympathize with an adulterous nymphomaniac. She adeptly conveys the fact that it is a compulsion and an illness, not just the fact that she is sleazy. She's shacking up in a motel room with a hirsute engineer while her devoted husband and toddler son await her at home and yet we don't want for her to get caught. It's a testament to her amiability as an actress on screen.

Her film career becoming spotty by the early '70s, she would soon score a big success on The Bob Newhart Show as his sharp-tongued, but loving, wife Emily, for which she received two Emmy nominations. When his next successful series, Newhart, ended, she came on for the final episode in what was to become one of TV's most surprising and best-remembered finales. She also made an impression (and scored another Emmy nomination) for her fire-breathing role as Leona Helmsley: The Queen of Mean. After enjoying a late-in-life marriage to longtime pal Tom Poston, she died at age seventy in 2008 from smoking-related illness.

Dillman hasn't got a lot to work with here. It's a somewhat thankless role, though he does get to show some of his stuff when he takes on Goddard at the Christmas party and when he finally finds out about Pleshette's duplicity. For whatever reason (perhaps to add contrast against Pleshette?), his normally dark hair has been lightened, which was unusual for him. Though he never achieved top-tier success in Hollywood (mostly thanks to films that didn't fulfill their initial promise), he was a steady worker in the business for fifty years. He also married one of the most famous models ever born, Suzy Parker, and they stayed together from 1963 until her death in 2003, a rare example of longevity in a Hollywood marriage. He turns eighty-one in a couple of days.

Gazzara went from this into a successful TV show of his own called Run for Your Life, for which he was twice Emmy-nominated. A brooding presence on screen from his very first film The Strange One in 1959, he juggled stage, TV and movies throughout his career, establishing a close working relationship with John Cassavetes. He also turns eighty-one this year, but remains working steadily in supporting film roles.

Graves was soon to become immortal as Mr. Phelps on Mission: Impossible, a series he worked on from 1967 to 1973 (and revisited in a 1988-1990 redux) earning one Emmy nomination in the process. His work as host on the long-running A & E series Biography finally netted him a statuette in 1997. His screen career lasted sixty years with 1980's Airplane! an amusing highlight. Sadly, he passed away from a heart attack in 2010 at the age of eighty-three.

Another cast member soon to be made immortal by television was li'l slice of love, Goddard. He would go directly from this film to Lost in Space, playing Major Don West. Although that series devolved into the adventures of Will Robinson and Dr. Smith, Goddard still presented a heroic and handsome presence for youngsters to admire. I know I did when I saw the series in reruns! Now, hard as it is to believe, seventy-five years of age, he occasionally makes an appearance (such as a cameo in the dire, big-screen remake Lost in Space.)

Leslie was a busy Broadway actress for many decades with forays into film and TV. She had a late career Tony nomination for her work as Mary Tyrone in Long Day's Journey into Night. Working right up until her death in 1999 of cancer at age seventy, one of her last roles was that of Kevin Costner's craggy, tobacco-ridden mother-in-law in Message in a Bottle.

Matthews has an interesting distinction. She only worked in five feature films during her career and two of them were adaptations of John O'Hara's work. Apart from A Rage to Live, she played Dina Merrill's mother in BUtterfield 8 as well. She appeared in many, many hours of television, however. Considering the aged and weakly types of people she often played, it's surprising to note that she lived until 1995 and was only eight-one when she died.

Chiles had one of those manly, all-purpose faces that could be put to use anywhere (and was!) He has worked almost continually on stage, television and the big screen since his debut in 1960. Recently, he has become more active than he had been for a while and is enjoying playing older character parts in various projects. He's seventy-eight.

Among the supporting cast are the previously-mentioned Somers, who reigned on Match Game for several years and is notable as the longtime (though estranged for quite a bit) wife of Jack Klugman, George Furth, a busy stage and screen character actor and Virginia Christine. Christine was a steadily working character actress who often played servants, as she does here, and later became a household presence as Mrs. Olson in a long-running series of Folger's coffee commercials. She was also the wife of famed character actor Fritz Feld for fifty-three years until his death.

Fans of Miss Pleshette can't afford to miss this movie as it is really a showcase for her throughout. The men are interesting as well in most cases, but it is her show. A cousin to BUtterfield 8, it shares the basic outline of a beautiful brunette undone by her carnal desires. We can also highly recommend it to viewers who enjoy a look at the clothes, sets, furniture and furnishing of bygone days, all presented in crisp cinematography.


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