Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Die Screaming, Marianne (1971): or, What's in a Name?

In my last post I wrote about a movie that made seemingly impossible promises with its title and then went on to fulfill those promises beyond any sane person's expectations, much to the admiration and horror of the viewer. It was like Babe Ruth pointing arrogantly to the fence and then proceeding to blast the horsehide into the outer stratosphere. A truly amazing feat, and worthy of the legend that grew up around it.

The title of Pete Walker's groovy 1971 feature, Die Screaming, Marianne, calls a similar shot. Not many movies boast titles as evocative and full of horrific promise as that--the images it conjures, the dramatic expectations it creates in the mind! Again, the viewer has to wonder, how can the film possibly live up to that title?

Well, in this case, it can't. And what's more, it doesn't seem very interested in even trying. Instead of the grainy, frenetic 70s sickie that title should be attached to, Walker delivers a deliberately paced, gorgeously shot dramatic thriller with no nudity, almost no gore, and just a smidgen of sleaze. The kiss of death for a cinematic deviant like me, right? Well, read on...

Susan George plays Marianne MacDonald, a British go-go dancer on the run from some shadowy, gangster-looking types in Portugal. When a greasy, balding strongman tracks her down to an out-of-the-way club and surprises her post-tryst with an AWOL sailor, Marianne takes it on the lam and is immediately nearly run down by a very unattractive 70s stud (played by the skeletal Christopher Sandford). He offers her a lift in his cherry-red convertible, and off they go, leaving the mysterious greaseball in the dust.

Opening Act: Wandessa "Da Butt" Butinsky

Next we get what is by any measure a fantastically groovy title sequence, as George shakes it like a polaroid in front of a solid red background while the credits roll in bright yellow athwart her hips. The music and dance style scream "shagadelic!" and will be sure to bring a smile to the face of any red-blooded male in attendance. Sock it to me, Susie!

Then we're in swingin' 70s London, where Marianne and Bony Boy (aka Sebastian) have been shacked up for two weeks. Seeking to solidify his amazing good fortune, Sebastian tries to strong-arm Marianne into a surprise wedding. They meet up with Sebastian's friend, the allusively named Eli Frome (played by likeable babyface Barry Evans) and rush through the courthouse service so quickly they forget to fill out the license. Showing her spunkiness as well as good sense, Marianne fudges the license so that it she's legally married to Eli, not Sebastian. This leads to many recriminations from Bony Boy and the dissolution of the now-extramarital relationship.

Eli is smitten with the enigmatic Marianne, however, and offers her his pad until she finds a place to stay. Over the course of the next few weeks Marianne and her new "husband" develop a genuine fondness for each other amid Marianne's frequent and confusing flashbacks featuring a sinister figure known only as "The Judge." I wasn't quite sure what was going on at this point, but I was still digging it.

"..the fuck?!?!"

Meanwhile Sebastian has jetted back to Portugal to meet with The Judge himself, who he's been working for the whole time. We learn that the Judge is Marianne's father, and has hired Sebastian to bring her back home before her 21st birthday so that he can force her to grant him access to a Swiss bank account her deceased mother set up, which contains a great deal of cash and even more incriminating documents from his days in corrupt jurisprudence. With me so far? Also, the balding greaseball from the beginning is Rodriguez, the Judge's manservant, who is a strong silent presence throughout.

Marianne's half-sister Hildegard also lives at the villa, is almost as bony as Sebastian and is absolutely brimful of CRAZY. She and Sebastian have a history, apparently, and after a strange interlude with her father (during which she basically BEGS the old man to commit incest with her, or at least give her a right good spanking), she settles for Sebastian's emaciated manliness. The Judge listens from his study as Hildegard whinnies like a horse upstairs, a strange and sinister smile on his face.

Every Who down in Whoville liked premarital sex a lot...

A few words about the acting here--it's all pretty great. Susan George is the picture of the enigmatic beauty with a secret past, vulnerable but full of quiet independence. Sandford as Sebastian is wonderfully slimy and from certain angles reminds one of an underfed Ralph Fiennes in full-on villain mode. The Judge (Leo Genn) is superb as the decadent aristocrat with the profundo basso voice and gift for wry shocking dialog (as when he nonchalantly asks Sebastian over drinks, "Do tell me...did you fornicate with Marianne?"). And Judy Huxtable as the completely psychotic sister Hildegard is really something to watch--totally committed to her snake-like, sinister role.

At the Judge's behest Sebastian flies back to London to bring Marianne and Eli back to the villa. At the same time a couple of bounty hunters, also working on the Judge's orders (one presumes) kidnap Eli and nearly assassinate him in a wonderfully tense scene. Eli escapes by stabbing one of the flabby assassins with a penknife. When Marianne learns of this she leaves him for his own good, and Sebastian looks up his old friend in hopes of tracking her down. After a disastrous go-go dancing interview (Marianne does NOT interview well), she goes back to Eli, finds him with Sebastian, and more details come out of the completely convoluted plot.

Tired of running from her past, Marianne decides to go back and confront her dysfunctional family, Eli along for the ride. We get some leisurely but still effective scenes building up to some somewhat surprising twists, culminating in the deaths of a couple of characters and Hildegard's show-stealing "crazy speech" that lets everyone know all bets are off. A few more twists spiral in before the understated and strangely moving end scene, where an unlikely hero steps forward and claims our affections and admiration.

"Is Rodriguez gonna have to choke a bitch?"

I watched this movie in two parts, roughly an hour each, and I think that this actually made me like the film more. It was clear by the end of hour one that this was NOT going to be the exploitation-fest the title promised, and giving that twenty-four hours to sink in prepared me to watch the rest of the film with a more open mind. And while it's perhaps no masterpiece, Die Screaming, Marianne has some really cool things about it that might be enough to recommend it to fans of guess-what's-coming thrillers of the sub-Hitchcockian mode.

Just as the convoluted plot (revealed in a much slower and more fragmentary way in the film than in this post) keeps the viewer from ever being quite sure what's going on, the characters also all seem to have ulterior motives for every move they make, every word they say--villains and heroes included. Their motivations are always open to two or three interpretations, and thus you are never quite sure how a character will react to a given dramatic development--which enables them to surprise you without doing anything obviously out of character. This is why the ending scene--and a wonderful last line from one of the characters--resonated so strongly with me and sent me out of the film smiling.

Other things to recommend this film are its completely gorgeous cinematography, the lovely Portuguese scenery, the appalling Austin Powers fashions, and the overbearing jazz score that seems to follow Marianne exclusively (it cuts out noticeably when she's off screen). Plus Susan George is wonderful to look at in her skimpy mod outfits and spangled bikinis, it has to be said. And the plaintively hilarious theme song "Marianne" is just icing on the cake.

So if you can get past the empty promise of the movie's tantalizing title, there's actually a fairly entertaining little thriller here with some fine acting and cool twists. I give it 2 thumbs. Check it out--believe me, you could do a lot worse.

What it's all about.


brainbug said...

Perfect review!

Like you, I watched this movie in two parts and probably enjoyed it more because of it.

Best scene: the sauna! Susan + steam = a happy viewer.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Yeah, I'm turning into a bit of a Pete Walker fan--I've seen this one and The Flesh and Blood Show, both of which I enjoyed. I'm definitely going to have to pick up the quadruple feature Shriek Show (I think) is putting out.

Anonymous said...

Here's the intro Gogo Dance

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