Vintage Cable Box: “Blame It On Rio, 1984”

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“One time a company I worked for transferred me to an island in the Pacific. Fantastic place. I invited my girl to visit me. I sent her a postcard everyday with a single word on each card. I wrote “Found a virgin paradise. It’s yours. Matthew.” Naturally, they were delivered in the wrong order. The message she got was “Found a virgin. It’s paradise. Yours, Matthew.” Never heard from her again.”

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Blame It On Rio, 1984 (Michael Caine), 20th Century Fox

This is a tough one. It’s a film I enjoy, but only in private. This is a movie I find I cannot share with today’s younger audiences, either because they can’t grasp the concept of a truly R-rated sex comedy that skirts topics considered forbidden, or because of it’s simultaneously dated yet timeless feel. Let’s get the hotness of Michelle Johnson out of the way first. She’s supposed to be a teen-aged girl, but upon inspection, she appears mature. She looks like a woman, not a girl. Once you’ve taken that fact and put it in a box, it’s easy to enjoy Blame It On Rio, the definitive romantic jailbait comedy.

Michael Caine stares down the barrel of middle-age, trapped in a loveless marriage (to Valerie Harper, can you blame him?) and worries after his reckless daughter (Demi Moore, whom apparently inherited her scratchy-voice from Harper) when his friend (a constipated Joseph Bologna) suggests a family vacation to titular Rio de Janeiro. Nothing to worry about. Just a couple of dads and their hot daughters going stag for a couple of weeks. After witnessing Bologna’s daughter topless on the beach (with his equally-bare daughter, which is … just yuck), she seduces him, and despite all his efforts at restraint, he succumbs.

Caine spends most of the movie after this point trying to avoid the girl. She casts love spells on him. He tries to make himself less appealing (which is impossible because, come on, he’s Michael-freaking-Caine!) and he lectures her on their illicit behavior. She doesn’t care. She’s hopelessly in love with him. Bologna snoops through his daughter’s diary, discovers she’s in love with an older man, and enlists Caine to help him find the scumbag. Caine is a joy to watch in these scenes. A gifted comedian in the Peter Sellers and (our old friend) Dudley Moore mold, he can go from terrified to turned-on in five seconds.

Michelle Johnson is a difficult actress to assess. While extremely attractive, and obviously up to the game of seducing Caine, most of her dialogue is looped and thus, inconsistent with many of the scenes in which she is featured. Her voice is silky, but out-of-place.  She has great chemistry with Caine (not an arduous feat for an actor of his stature), but her line readings are dull and flat. Bologna suffers the same problem. His dialogue also appears to be looped. Valerie Harper disappears at the beginning of the movie, and then reappears shortly before the end to discover (with Bologna, ironically the character she’s having an affair with) Caine and Johnson’s tryst. Demi Moore’s character is almost a ghost in the movie, always exiting in every scene. The movie would’ve been a lot stronger if more of a relationship between Moore’s character and Caine were present.

It is toward the end of the movie that the narrative goes clunky and dramatic. When Bologna and Caine come to blows (a hilarious bit with pot-bellied Caine taking on a much leaner Bologna – pun!), a distraught Johnson overdoses on birth control pills and has her stomach pumped at the hospital. Director Stanley Donen (fresh from the horrendous Saturn 3) and writers Larry Gelbart and Charlie Peters must’ve thought injecting a little pathos into the story would legitimize what is essentially a smutty little sex comedy. It might’ve worked under different circumstances in the 1977 French film, on which this movie is based (or Jean-Francois Richet’s somewhat more explicit recent remake), but here, amid all the goofiness, this is quite jarring.

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It’s disturbing to me that a movie like this could not be made today in this country. As I mentioned, it was remade last year in France, but as a drama with humorous moments rather than a screwball comedy. It harkens back to the days of Kubrick’s melodramatic and comedic take on Nabokov’s Lolita, in which much of the sting of the story’s content was sterilized by the casting of a mature-looking Sue Lyons. Today, men are perceived as aggressors and rapists and women are seen as victims, regardless of their age. Audiences would see Michael Caine’s character as a modern-day Clare Quilty; a master manipulator of young women who seduces Michelle Johnson, regardless of how the story actually unfolds. Caine would be castigated, arrested, and labeled a sex-offender for the rest of his life. Advocacy groups would picket and protest this movie.

In the 1980s, most of the money in movies was being made from sex comedies and horror films. Conversely, there were very few family movies. Cable television and the video industry were going through a renaissance period, and budgets were comparatively low compared to the money being spent today. The risqué sexy comedy is all-but-extinct, and movies being made these days are sad, stale (not to mention expensive), disposable entertainments to be consumed and then discarded, and Blame It On Rio is emblematic of the charms of a smutty yet harmless bye-gone era.

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: “Deathtrap, 1982”

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“I want a short-cut, Sidney. And I really don’t care whose yard I cut through, if you understand me.”

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Deathtrap, 1982 (Michael Caine), Warner Bros.

Michael Caine’s Sidney Bruhl, a successful playwright who specializes in the macabre is livid over the terrible reviews for his latest play, Murder Most Fair. His somewhat dizzy, weak-hearted but wealthy wife, Myra (Dyan Cannon), cannot understand his anger. Protégé and fan Clifford Anderson (Christopher Reeve) sends him his latest manuscript, Deathtrap; the unqualified genius of which drives Caine to the breaking point as he contemplates murdering him and claiming the work for his own. He invites Reeve out to his house in Montauk.

After “killing” Reeve and covering up all evidence of the crime, Caine attempts to soothe his distraught wife. Reeve recovers, obviously not dead, attacks Caine and drives Cannon to have a heart attack. It is then revealed that Reeve and Caine were co-conspirator’s in Cannon’s death, in order to take her vast fortune. Weeks pass and Reeve and Caine collaborate on another play. Cannon has left her fortune to Caine. Paranoia and suspicion sets in as Caine begins to convince himself (with the aid of his lawyer played by Henry Jones) that Reeve is looking to take his money, or planning to extort him. He discovers that Reeve has written a play about Cannon’s death and the machinations involved, and he has titled it Deathtrap.

Caine’s world-reknowned psychic next-door neighbor (whom had previously foresaw the death of Cannon) arrives on a stormy night and informs Caine that Reeve will attack him, fueling his panic further. In a scene filled with baited anticipation, Reeve and Caine are working out stage blocking when Caine pulls out a gun and tells him he can’t be permitted to finish the play. Caine has set up Reeve, leaving all the proper clues to implicate Reeve in his wife’s death. Of course, Reeve sees it coming and removes the bullets, turning the tables on Caine.

As deliciously convoluted as this stage play-turned-suspense-thriller is, you can see that this is a playwright’s own murder fantasy. It was originally written for the stage by Ira Levin, and played a record 1,793 performances; the longest running thriller on Broadway to this day. With the exception of a few short scenes in the city and on the grounds, the entirety of the movie takes place in Bruhl’s house, the living room specifically, so visually the palette is limited, but Sidney Lumet, the film’s director, cut his teeth in studio television production, so he knows how to get the most out of his limited sets.

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Writers are a bitchy group. With enormous egos and leanings toward a kind of creative psychopathy, they live in fear of a lack of originality. I know I’ve been through that myself. I’ll write a million pages and then toss them, flagellating myself for not being “original” enough. It’s hard enough to negotiate, but even harder when I see that originality is a limited and precious commodity in today’s creative marketplace. Writers often accuse each other of plagiarism because they know they can only be creative for so long. Writers live and breathe the construction of their characters, so it’s only fitting that Sidney Bruhl have murder on his mind.

In one particularly tense scene, Caine outlines the definition of a sociopath to Reeve as “one who has no sense of moral obligation whatsoever”. Reeve can only gloat, and his performance in Deathtrap conjures up images of what could have been. He is so confident, so assured, and so human, it makes me wonder what turn his career would’ve taken had he not put on the big red cape. He was a brilliant actor, forever typecast as Superman, and as such, serious work was hard to come by.

Sidney Lumet’s first foray into pictures was 12 Angry Men and every few years, he would make a masterpiece like The Pawnbroker, or Serpico, or Dog Day Afternoon, or Network. Incredibly prolific, he book-ended Deathtrap with Prince of the City and The Verdict in the space of three years. In 1970, he said, “Every picture I did was an active, believable, passionate wish.” Lumet died in 2011.

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.