Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Sister in Law (1974)

Enough with the quality shit. Virgin Spring was good and all but I felt out of my comfort zone. Well, what the fuck is this? An eight movie set filled with 70s drive-in classics? Now that I've seen them all I can safely say that the most entertaining pictures in this set are either Malibu High or The Teacher with special notice reserved for Cindy & Donna for it's progressive views on teen-aged, step-sister sexuality. That was a good one.

The Sister in Law is another good one, which is something I kinda expected once I noticed John Savage in the cast. Savage is probably the best actor in the entire set and I'm pretty sure he's been nominated for an oscar or two or maybe none. He was pretty good as the crippled buddy of Walken, Deniro, and Cazale in that 70s vietnam epic Deer Hunter and I would argue even better as the photographer always looking for the perfect shot in Salvador. His characters always seem a tad unhinged. Lately, he's been seen in a couple of Terrence Malick pictures (The Thin Red Line and The New World) where it almost seems like he's wandering in from another movie, usually drunk, muttering nonsensicals and then wandering off camera again. I love the guy.

Consider how impressed I was when Savage's name appears twice in the credits. Once as Robert Strong and, again, as the "score". Yeah, that's right, Savage did the fucking music for this thing and, to be honest, it's not all that bad. There's not a whole lot to it actually. One scene incorporates a banjo which I kinda liked. I'm guessing he was doing a favor for the director. Maybe they were friends and it's probable that Savage has some kind of background in music so I guess it's a perfect fit. I just checked his imdb credits and, yes, this is the only time he worked as a composer. That's a good thing. The music is solid but he's still a much better actor. He's actually very good in Sister in Law.

The title is not very indicative of the movie though, that's one thing I've got to take issue with. Yeah, they were probably trying to lure in a certain type of crowd but this is more of a crime drama. A more apt title would be The Brother, but that's not the kind of title that would get guys into the theatre. Sure, there is a sister in law, and she does have sex with the brother in law (Savage). After the first 20-30 minutes she becomes such a peripheral character though. I mean, the mistress probably gets more screentime, or at the very least they're even. The Mistress would be too generic a title. No one wants a movie that features vanilla sex. Everyone bangs their mistress (that's why she's the mistress) but who bangs their sister-in-law? It's one step away from a real tabboo.

This is really a picture about two brothers. One is a rich guy, settled down, trying to break into the movie producing business. He's played by some guy named Will Macmillan (Edward). He lives in a mansion on the outskirts of New York City with his wife, Joanna (Anne Saxon). Joanna is home alone one day, sunbathing by the pool when Edward's brother, Robert (Savage), comes home. Robert is a drifter which we can figure out by his army sack and his scraggily beard. Also living in the house are the two elderly parents of Robert and Edward, but they mostly stay out of sight. Sometimes, Edward's mistress swings by the house but Joanna is ok with it. She's got her eyes on Robert anyway. Edward is a bad guy. He embraces his brother and then they engage in a little game of pool basketball that leaves Robert bloodied. Ed openly cheats on his wife. He runs drugs for the mob and also owes them a boat load of money on top of that. Robert seems like he's a much better person, a guy with ethics at least, or maybe I'm thinking of morals. But then he sleeps with his brother's wife while eyeing his brother's mistress. That is pretty weird I think to follow up banging your sister-in-law with banging your mistress-in-law. That is probably no easy task. In this family,however, it's not too hard since there are no secrets.

The filmmaking is a step above most of the pictures in this collection. I mentioned Savage's solid score. I also liked the verite feel to everything. I want to mention John Cassavattes as an inspiration for the director but that would be me being a poseur because I've never seen a Cassavattes film. Certain scenes reminded me of Mean Streets and I've read Cassavattes was an inspiration for that particular Scorsese picture so we'll just go with that. Also, young Savage reminds me somewhat of a young Keitel. And there are two gangsters in this thing that have sort of an Abbott and Costello routine that reminded me a bit of the fat guy in the pool hall from Mean Streets and whoever he was making fun of in that particular scene. There's a great scene between Savage and the mistress in her apartment that is interestingly shot. He's obviously fallen in love with her, by this point (I think it's their second meeting). The scene seems improvised and is shot with a hand held camera. It's very intimate, raw, and effective. I liked when Savage dropped an empty wine bottle out a window and into the busy city street below. He pauses for a minute and then looks out...."see, didn't hit nobody!"

Like Mean Streets (I'm guessing this was a major inspiration the more I think about it) the majority of this picture is care free and loose, almost a sense of whimsy about it. Characters are joking around, no one's life is threatened. Ed claims to be a marked man, but we don't really believe him. The picture could have ended without any violence and I would have been satisfied. Even the two gangsters seem completely unthreatening. At one point, Ed convinces Robert to run some drugs up to Canada and the gangsters follow him to make sure he completes the drop. They stop at a hamburger stand and the following exchange takes place after the fat guy returns with a bag of hamburgers:

Little gangster: give me a burger, will ya.
Fat gangster: (clearly peturbed) you didn't order any!
Little gangster: are you fuckin kiddin me tubby, how many are you gonna eat? you've got ten in there!

It plays a lot better than it reads, believe me. The point is I never really believed these two capable of whacking (gangster speak for murdering) a guy.

This is a good one with an ending that is legitimately shocking. I think it's worth seeing if you are a fan of John Savage or even just a fan of naked breasts. Who knows, if they had packaged this thing differently back when it came out it might be available as a standalone DVD. I think you can pick this 8-movie set up for $6.99. There is a funny line when Ed says "the movie business is gonna get me out of the gangster business" which would be like leaving the frying pan for the fire, or so I'm told. He has a funny movie pitch that doesn't go very well as evidenced by the producer saying "I don't understand, you want the audience to feel sympathy for this son of a bitch". It's funny because we can imagine the star of the movie Ed is pitching being just like Ed, himself. Get it? Ed is a son of a bitch in this thing and is afforded a hero's exit but the audience doesn't like him 'cause he's a son of a bitch. We want vile, awful things to happen to him as soon as the credits roll. What's the technical term used for when a movie within a movie emulates the movie? I guess there are those of us who might think Robert had it coming when he tells his brother, over the phone, "I love your wife and your mistress and I threw your heroin into a mountain stream" but still, I think we've all, at least, thought about saying this to our own brothers at one point in time. The music at the end of this thing was perfect..."it's a living classic situation"...not sure who performed it, perhaps Savage. I think the relationships between brothers their wives and mistresses is what going to the movies is all about.

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