Vintage Cable Box: “Somebody Killed Her Husband, 1978”

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“When I was a kid, my father had one word of advice he gave me, I’ll never forget it.  You know what he said?  ‘Jerome, if ever you are in seriously desperate trouble, remember … that … God, in his infinite wisdom has ordained that I’ll be playing pinochle and you’ll handle the whole thing yourself’!”

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Somebody Killed Her Husband, 1978 (Jeff Bridges), Columbia Pictures

There’s a special place in the bottomless bin of lost cinema for a movie like Somebody Killed Her Husband, Reginald Rose’s Edgar®-nominated screenplay directed by Lamont Johnson and starring two bonafide stars of their time, a heavily-bearded Jeff Bridges and Farrah Fawcett-Majors. They meet-cute in the toy department at Macy’s, where Bridges works. He’s a frustrated writer concocting a bizarre children’s story about a caterpillar that saves the world. Like me, he tends to talk to himself, spouting ideas in public, and not caring whether people think he’s crazy. He falls in love (so to speak) at first sight with Farrah, chats her up and has lunch with her and her child in the park.

Bridges and Fawcett-Majors are trapped in relationships with boring, selfish nitwits so it’s only natural they start to enjoy each other’s company. They fall in love almost immediately, and I wish I could say this was strictly and exclusively a film’s narrative device in order to advance the plot, but I’ve had those feelings, and witnessed them in others. Here, it seems completely normal, and ignites some memories for me. Seriously, there’s nothing like falling in love. It’s almost like a glorious drug.

One night during their tryst, Farrah’s husband arrives home early with an unseen guest. As Bridges and Fawcett-Majors prepare to deliver the news of their love to her husband, they see that he has been stabbed to death in her kitchen. This is a well-executed scene, which effortlessly glides from romantic comedy to sheer terror. While Farrah wants to call the police, Bridges (being a typical New York City paranoid personality) believes they’ll be framed for his murder, so he resolves to solve the crime himself. They stuff the body in the refrigerator and get to work. With his fully-functioning writer’s mind, he tries to break down the events leading up to the murder, or any possible suspects.

Complicating matters are Farrah’s housekeeper (Mary McCarty) and her husband’s new secretary (John Glover), as well as nosy neighbors and acquaintances. While Farrah searches for her dead husband’s personal papers, Bridges must play babysitter to her son. He bounces ideas off the child as to who would possibly kill the man. Suspiciously, a plainclothes detective shows up to check the apartment because of a broken window. This has never happened in my experience living in the big city. Bridges discovers the apartment is being bugged, and this is where matters get tense. The people secretly recording Farrah are her bizarre neighbors (John Wood and Tammy Grimes).

Bridges connects the dots and figures the neighbors had the fake cop bug the apartment. While attempting a switcheroo and bugging the neighbors with their own recording equipment, he finds that they’ve been killed! They find jewelry and listings for insurance payments based on a scam to “steal” jewelry and divide the proceeds from the cash value while keeping the jewelry. Yes, it all sounds convoluted, but it is a movie, after all. It shouldn’t work at all, but it does for me, and Bridges and Fawcett-Majors make for an engaging, amiable pair. The movie has a refreshingly old-fashioned feel to it, as though it could’ve been made in the 50s or 60s.

Based on some of the reviews I read, critics were not particularly kind to Somebody Killed Her Husband, mostly because of Fawcett-Majors, as she recently departed the popular television series Charlie’s Angels to start a movie career. Others cited parallels to Charade, and in fact, the movie was re-titled Charade ’79 for release in Japan. As in the case of Get Crazy, the movie was pre-sold with an inflated budget by it’s investors expecting it to flop so they could earn a quick profit. I’ve always enjoyed this movie. There is a wonderful conversation between Bridges and the killer at the film’s climax which is well worth the experience. Bridges outlines the killer’s plan and the killer is impressed with Bridges’ acumen. That this movie remains in the bottomless bin of lost cinema is tragic, although I could’ve done without the Neil Sedaka song!

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird).  We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images.  We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates.  About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties. 

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Vintage Cable Box: “WarGames, 1983”

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“Mr. McKittrick, after very careful consideration, Sir, I’ve come to the conclusion that your new defense system sucks.”

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WarGames, 1983 (Matthew Broderick), MGM/UA

The entirety of John Badham’s thriller, WarGames is encapsulated in the personal anguish of John Wood’s programming genius Stephen Falken, who had tried (and failed) to make his computers understand the concept of futility (citing an analogy to the game Tic-Tac-Toe); that eventually we give up, and thus would never knowingly annihilate each other. When underachiever and computer savant David Lightman (Matthew Broderick) accidentally breaks into a supercomputer known as W.O.P.R. in order to play what he thinks are video games that turn out to be real nuclear war simulators, he launches our military’s path to World War 3.

After David is arrested by Government authorities who have tracked his computer activities in Seattle (not coincidentally, an early nerve center for computer programming), he meets Falken’s colleague, John McKittrick (played by reliable eighties prick Dabney Coleman). David “Macgyvers” his way out of custody, hooks up with his girlfriend, Jennifer (amiable Ally Sheedy), and sets out to track down Falken to get his help shutting down a program which is on a countdown to global thermonuclear war.

WarGames was made in 1983, at the height of U.S. and Soviet paranoia. I remembered hearing all sorts of terrifying news reports about the nuclear arms build-up, stockpiling weapons of mass annihilation and people like Reagan and Brezhnev playing “chicken” with warheads. These were real fears. It was the end of the Cold War and ultimately the Soviet Union would relent, but if you think about it, there still are hundreds, nay thousands, of missiles still out there, just waiting to be detonated.

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“Check out my Imsai!”

Granted, an extremely frightening scenario, WarGames is incredible fun. It is clever; using philosophical arguments (arguments that could never be made by real computers) to communicate the need for wisdom in the higher ranks of command where our defenses and nuclear capabilities are concerned. It is a sobering idea to consider that we exist at the whim of a perpetual military arrogance: that the better bomb brings swifter peace. That sense of ludicrous tragedy exists in Falken’s character.

John Badham, as a Hollywood outsider, had an eclectic career of iconoclasm. A couple of months before WarGames premiered on HBO and Cinemax, his Blue Thunder (also made in 1983) debuted. Another fun movie about technology run amok, but it is technology at the hands of amoral military operatives. Later, he would direct Short Circuit (also with Ally Sheedy) about a cute robot that goes nuts (figuratively), Stakeout, and the under-appreciated Nick of Time with Johnny Depp.

WarGames was an “unofficial” brat-pack movie for it’s inclusion of Broderick and Sheedy in the cast, but this was before The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. WarGames is a Dr. Strangelove analog for Generation X, notably contributing to my generation’s despondency and apathy when it came to all matters apocalyptic or nihilistic, and where our parents’ generation relied on love, faith, and hope to solve all of these incendiary problems, we turned our backs and used indifference and sarcasm to keep us sane and make us realize that Tic-Tac-Toe would eventually save our lives.

Be sure to check out Mark and Christopher’s discussion at VHS Rewind!

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month. Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.