Sunday, 14 December 2014

The House On Carroll Street (1988)

Whatever happened to Kelly McGillis?

I've always rather liked her in films, but watching The House On Carroll Street I was truly struck by the strong and largely independent leading lady role she embodied. There's a touch of the Ingrid Bergman in Hitch's Notorious about her, which sums up perfectly the kind of influence Peter Yates' film, from a script by Walter Bernstein, has; good old fashioned thrillers from the 40s and 50s which features an innocent getting tangled up in a deadly web of intrigue. Indeed you could watch this with the colour turned down on your TV and almost convince yourself you're watching a movie made back then. It's that good.

The House On Carroll Street is a very engaging, beautifully evocative 1950s set suspense thriller set around the backdrop of the McCarthy witch hunts (Bernstein himself was a blacklisted writer, having fallen foul of the HUAC) McGillis stars as a young politically engaged picture editor for Life magazine who loses her job when she refuses to testify before the committee. She finds work reading to an old lady (Jessica Tandy in an all too infrequent supporting role) on Carroll Street, but is hampered by a near constant tail from two FBI agents, including the laconic loping Jeff Daniels. One day McGillis goes out into the yard and overhears an angry conversation in German from the window of the house opposite and recognises one man in particular in the heated debate as the man who interrogated her on the committee; a slickly duplicitous Mandy Patinkin.

Piecing things together with the help of the young and frightened German she overheard being threatened, she uncovers the HUAC's plan to smuggle in Nazi war criminals to America to share their technical know how and experiences to help strengthen their fight against communism. 

McGillis is superb in this and really suits the 1950s style. She's a tall broad shouldered amazon who carries each outfit of with considerable aplomb. I don't think I'd ever truly noticed how big she was until this movie; she's evenly matched here with Daniels but she must have looked like a beast next to diminutive cinematic irritant and alien believer Tom Cruise in Top Gun. It's interesting and satisfying that Bernstein chooses someone whom the upper echelons of 50s America viewed with such contemptuous mistrust to be the most trustworthy, good and rational figure in this labyrinth of deceit and there's a pleasing irony to see Daniels' FBI agent come to realise that the 'bad' person he is investigating is in fact good, whilst his superiors are really the evil ones.

As befits the strong female role in the film, Daniels is not your traditional hero. He refuses to carry a gun, comes off worse in every fight, doesn't really save the day and doesn't even get the girl. His only really impressive, heroic acts are the discovery of a bomb in McGillis' stove (which he cannot diffuse because he nearly failed the bomb disposal course) and principally his growing faith and belief in McGillis and her suspicions. It's a refreshing depiction of a leading man - playing second fiddle to the heroine - and it's a testament to the likeable, open faced Daniels that he pulls it off without ever appearing weak, ineffectual or surplus to the proceedings.  With the final season of HBO's (divisive but hey I absolutely LOVE it) drama The Newsroom ending on Sky Atlantic this week I can predict a glut of Daniels films to come, just to keep my fix going.

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