Movies I Want Everyone to See: A Shock to the System

[This article originally appeared on the Defunct Web Site “Fogs Movie Reviews”, in the Fall of 2013]

To be fair, I’m about to cheat a little bit because no matter how long this commentary runs, the reason to see this film ultimately comes down to two words “Michael Caine”.

This film is not long, it’s not complicated but it is clever and it features an actor that may well be in a third of the movies I plan on writing about. “A Shock to the System” is a bit like “American Psycho” without the lurid blood and the guessing game over what is real. The stories both take place in the same setting, the New York corporate world. They center around career climbing lead characters and each leads a double life. “A Shock to the System” is the more traditional film but that does not mean it lacks some surprises or a wicked sense of humor.

Caine plays Graham Marshall, a middle aged executive at a large advertising agency on Madison Avenue. His lifeforce has settled into an existence that marginalizes him at home and makes his career goals modest given the times. He and his wife have always counted on his uncanny ability to reach out and get what they want, but Graham feels that his magic is diminishing. When he ends up being passed over for the job that everyone including himself thought was his, a sinister form of the magic he once had takes over and he is determined not to end up disappointed again.

The film is very sharp in observing the interpersonal power dynamics of the executives in the company. As Graham was rising, he was catered to by his colleagues and respected by the office staff. One of the clearest indicators of status in the company is the lighting of a cigar. a light

Grahams boss, who is being moved out into forced retirement, and held the position that Graham thought would be his, had given Graham a lighter many years earlier, so he knew he would always have someone to give him a light. Just as Graham thinks he is to step into the exulted position, the executives below him confirm that status by performing the same task for him. The lighting of a cigar becomes a ritual like bowing in Japan, one that has nuance and meaning that is unspoken but clearly there. Once the dream comes crashing down, it doesn’t take long for the pack to recognize a new alpha in the form of the younger Robert Benham, played by Peter Riegert.

a second lightHaving leaped over his former superior, Benham does not take long to consolidate his position by reducing Graham’s stature in very obvious ways. Each slight seems designed to bring Graham to the point of insubordination, which is where he could then be fired. It is as this process begins to build that Caine’s character chooses to try the dark version of his quickly vanishing mojo.

Internalized narration of a lead character is a tricky thing to pull off. In a movie, where it is all about “showing “, narration runs counter to the strength of film art by “telling”. The voice of the lead character in narration is often an indicator of the weakness of a film makers story telling skills. In this  case however, the narration is cleverly timed and the phrasing is spoken in such a way as to reveal the self image of the character. We know what his presenting self is, the narration tells us his perceived self and it is fascinating. Graham had seen himself as a sorcerer, able to work magic on others to solve his problems. The loss of the promotion becomes the catalyst to redefine the characters in his life and to begin to cast new spells. We hear him decide that his wife is a witch, who has dampened his ability. The calculated way he proceeds is chilling but also humorous. At each moment he has chosen to execute one of his devious plans, he waves his fingers as if he where a magician, making a spell fly out of the ends of his digits to perform his will.

Shock-to-the-System-michael-caine-4983161-200-200Of course it isn’t magic, it is murder. The plans he hatches are relatively simple but like a Columbo mystery, he carefully sets up an alibi to cover his culpability. The giggle he lets out when he makes a pun over one of the deaths reveals his new cold blooded nature. As wrong as it might be, the audience is likely to identify with him and enjoy his success and worry about his mistakes along the way. Caine has a great time demonstrating his power to contain his true nature but he does let the mask slip occasionally and we are treated to a couple of those great rants that Caine is capable of delivering with gusto. His bitterness and righteous indignation get released on a coworker and his new boss and they are scenes that will make us all remember how tart the human voice can be.

MV5BNjk2MjQxODA5MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTcxNDgwMw@@._V1._SX640_SY395_Graham sees himself as a sorcerer and he takes an apprentice in the form of lovely and smart underling Stella Anderson. Elizabeth McGovern plays Stella as a confident working professional who suddenly begins to see who her boss and new lover really is. The detective investigating the deaths of those close to Graham seeks to turn her against him and the last act entails the consequences. The main weakness of the film is the trail that feckless police Lt. Laker follows to try and pin the deaths on Graham. The absence of dust on a piece of electrical tape is enough to raise the hair on the back of his neck. Will Patton is not responsible for the script he is following, but he looks lost despite his supposed cleverness. The key piece of evidence that might implicate Graham comes up in the Lt.’s radar for no discernible reason. It is never clear why a car rental by another character would ever be looked at by the police. To be fair, this movie is a social satire not a police procedural, but that one element does detract from the otherwise excellent script by Andrew Klaven from the book by Simon Brett. I have not read the novel but it apparently ends quite differently than the film so Mr. Klaven deserves credit for the biting sting of the last couple of moments in the movie.

00183531_mediumEveryone does a fine job in this film but the movie probably feels a little small because it is limited in violent incidents and builds so slowly. Riegert plays the kind of insolent know-it-all his character in “Animal House” might have grown up to be if he were ambitious. McGovern ends up sad after starting off so sexy and confident. Stella turns into another victim of Grahams magic and the effect is disturbing. As I watched the credits, I saw the name of Samuel L. Jackson but I did not notice him in the film. When I scrolled back, he had about two seconds of screen time as a three card Monte hustler on the N.Y. City sidewalks. This had to be one of his earliest roles in films. It turns out this is one of seven films the prolific Mr. Jackson appeared in during the year 1990. Ultimately, no one else is going to be remembered for this film except Michael Caine. He has often played bad men but this time he seems to relish the role so much more. If you are a fan, and have not seen this, it is not just a movie I want you to see, it is a Movie You Have to See.

Richard Kirkham is a lifelong movie enthusiast from Southern California. While embracing all genres of film making, he is especially moved to write about and share his memories of movies from his formative years, the glorious 1970s. His personal blog, featuring current film reviews as well as his Summers of the 1970s movie project, can be found at Kirkham A Movie A Day.

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Burt Reynolds Films on KAMAD

Burt Reynolds passed this last week and no film blog focusing on the 1970s would exist without several of his films. He was the number one box office star for a period and often a fine actor. He was also a director and he made some solid genre films that everyone should check out at some point. This is just a list of films that I have a post on and I’ve collected them in one place for you to connect with.

Rest in Peace Burt.

Amanda’s Review

 

TCMFF Coverage

 

Laser Dreams

Before we headed out to Alaska for almost two weeks, I made a trip to the West Side of Los Angeles for  a Pop Up event promoted on one of the Facebook Groups I am a member of.  If you have been here before, you may know that I am a fan of an extinct technology, The Laser Disc. Millennials will not recognize the Laser disc, to them it looks like a DVD that is blowing up and set to explode. Once upon a time it was the cutting edge of home video technology, and there are many keepers of the flame out there. While I don’t get into the gear head aspect of color filter combs, AC-3 Inputs, CRT displays and upscaling technology, I do appreciate the discs and technology for nostalgia purposes.

Some of the collectors in the group are completists , who want to own every Criterion Release or Signature Edition. If there is a version of Star Wars they can import from Japan to make sure they have every possible permutation, they will do so. More power to them I say. I am mostly content to enjoy the thousand or so discs I collected while the technology was active. That does not mean however that I don’t want to add to the collection.

     Ron Dassa of “LaserBlazer” was the primary host but he was joined by Maxine Davlin who brought a large collection of discs as well. It was a one day event, although there are rumors that it was successful enough to repeat.  You can see the set up on this Facebook Post about the event:

For an old timer like me who remembers thumbing though the Laser Discs at a dozen different stores around the L.A. area, this was a trip down memory lane.  The joy of flipping through disc after disc and finding something that delights you is just hard to find now. I really hope they do it again. Ron was especially helpful in guiding me as I picked out a player that had dual side capability. We still need to get the remotes exchanged, he gave me a loaner until the correct one came back to him.

So, the question I am going to answer now, whether you care or not, is “What Did I Get and Why?”

Let’s start with the musicals. I love this traditional film art form and there were dozens to choose from. My daughter Amanda went with me and picked out several of the discs that we bought. Right now she has an interest in Doris Day. She had a film professor who loved Miss Day and Amanda wants to see more of her work. There was a Double Feature and a nice copy of “The Pajama Game”. She also has a crush on Howard Keele so “Kiss Me Kate Joined the pile. We got four other musicals from the fifties and a couple of 60s efforts as well.

I could not resist picking up the Albert Finney version of “Scrooge”, I’ve only seen parts of it, so this Christmas we have a discovery to make. Finally in the musical pile, we have a major find. Ron had box sets on a wall in the entryway and Amanda found a set that has all four versions of “Showboat”. This is a treat that we will have to indulge in a little bit at a time, so we don’t get over stuffed on “Old Man River”.

This next set of finds is made up primarily of classic films. There is a Vincent Price Double feature of horror movies, Bing and Bob head to Hong Kong, and Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau crack us up as the odd couple. “How to Steal a Million” is on the DVR and has been for months, now I can move it off and watch Audrey Hepburn with Peter O’Toole in a nice widescreen presentation. Amanda is a Jane Austin fan, so the early version of “Pride and Prejudice” was a natural. “Gunga Din” is one of my favorite films, but the only copy I had before this was one I burned from a TV screening onto a DVD. We have a copy of the remake of “Sabrina” but now we have the original for comparison purposes as well.

Some 80s and 90s films also made the grade, but first there is a Sergio Leone Film from the 70s. “A Fist Full of Dynamite”  was a film I saw as a kid when it was titled, “Duck You Sucker”. This is a fully restored version of the movie at it’s full length.

I have a copy of “Matinee” already, but the widescreen edition was the version I really wanted and it comes with a feature addition of “Mant” the movie that is central to the story of the film. “Innerspace” is another Joe Dante film and I have never owned a copy until now. This makes me quite happy.  The early 90s were filled with comic book style movies that were more influenced by the pulp fiction of the 30s and forties rather than comics. Now as a companion piece to “The Phantom” and “The Rocketeer” I can say I have a copy of “The Shadow”. Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of a laser disc collector?

Two movies that just make me happy everytime I see them. First is the “Idolmaker”, a musical about the creation of teen idols at the start of the rock era. It comes from Taylor Hackford who has exquisite taste as illustrated by the fact that he is married to Helen Mirren. Finally, there is “Defending Your Life”, an Albert Brooks film featuring Meryl Streep and a highly quotable Rip Torn. At our house it is a black hole film, we can never escape it’s gravitational pull, and now we have it on a charming old fashioned format that is perfect for a 90s movie.

The last set of films on Laser that we purchased I picked up for one reason only…the covers. One of the things that made discs so alluring to me back in the day were the vivid art on the covers of Laser Discs. They were often miniature versions of the movie poster but in a 12 x 12 format. Most of these movies I already own on DVD or Blu-ray, but you would not appreciate those formats being prominently displayed on the wall. That’s what I intend to do with each of them.

“The Stunt Man” features the silhouette image of Peter O’Toole’s devilish movie director on a crane filming a shot. It’s a terrific design. “The Mask of Zorro” is a late release which is often treasured by collectors who want to find films that just managed to get a laser edition before the format folded.  I just love the “Z” graphic with the flames and another silhouette.

“Atlantic City” has beautiful artwork in the poster design, and it’s a poster I don’t own so here i get a chance to have it in some form. “The Muppet Movie” cover is bold with large images of Kermit and Piggy, and it is childlike and sweet.

“The Day of the Locust” is a film I wanted to see when it came out in 1975, the artwork was compelling then and it still intrigues me. I recently listened to a podcast from “Forgotten Filmz” and decided I wanted to see the movie but even more I wanted to look at the cover.

“The Outlaw Josey Wales” has other covers in other media, but this rendering of the original poster art just insisted that I own it.

The two final discs I bought ( for a very reasonable $4 each) are my favorites when it come to covers. Everybody knows “The Searchers”, it is a John Ford/John Wayne masterpiece. So is the cover art which looks like a painting you could hang in an art gallery.

And finally, there is this fantastic graphic design, that I think must have been created exclusively for Laser Disc. I’ve not seen it elsewhere, including DVD and Blu-ray versions. It is simple and composed in a very satisfying set of images and angles.

This image kicks as much ass as Lee Marvin does in this movie. I can hardly wait to get it on the wall and stare at it every time I am blogging or podcasting.

I hope you enjoyed this little shopping expedition. Physical Media rules, and Laser Discs are the Kings of the Physical world.