Everyone else seen these movies or don't care about spoilers? Great, welcome to To the Victor, the Spoilers. Today, I'm bringing the spoiler-filled counterpart to a review Thaddeus started a few weeks back, on the Alec Baldwin/Nicole Kidman/Bill Pullman vehicle, Malice.
When I think of spoilers, I always think of Psycho. Watching it on TV a few months ago, what struck me was that the original experience of Psycho is something that can never be recaptured for a modern audience. When Psycho was released, Hitchcock took then-unprecedented steps to decoy the audience as to the story's twists and turns. The script was a secret, and the ending withheld from the cast until it was time to shoot it. Promotional materials for the film worked hard to make it look like Janet Leigh was the star of the movie, so her death halfway through would be a shock. Hitchcock contractually forbade theater operators from allowing people into the film after it had started, to make sure everyone watched the movie from beginning to end. (For you youngsters, back in the day a ticket for the movie's next showing usually would get you into whatever was left of the current showing, so long as the theater wasn't sold out, so it wasn't that rare for people to walk into a movie, catch the end, then see what they'd missed in the next showing.)
According to IMDB, Hitchcock started rumors about casting Mrs. Bates--Norman's mother--going so far as telling the press that he really wanted Helen Hayes for the part. According to Stephen Rebello's book on the making of Psycho, he even bought up copies of the Robert Bloch novel the film was based on, to keep its secrets under wraps.
All of that effort was to make sure that the audience entered the film in the right state of blessed ignorance, and that they watched the movie from beginning to end without any preconceived notions. And the effort paid off: Psycho, made on a budget of less than $1 million, was Hitchcock's greatest hit.
But by the time I first saw Psycho, almost two decades after it was released, the movie was "spoiled." Leigh's early exit, the true identity of the killer, who it was Norman had those arguments with, all of it had seeped into the public consciousness like mercury into groundwater, much like the fact that Rosebud was a sled, and later the identity of Luke Skywalker's father.
It's a testament to Hitchcock's mastery of the camera, the amazing score, and strong performances all around that it is still a great film, an immensely enjoyable experience even when you anticipate its surprises. It's just a different experience than you would have had in 1960, when a movie about an impulsive woman on the run from the law suddenly took a turn and became the story of a dangerously unstable young man with the ultimate in mommy issues, and you probably didn't have a single clue where the story was going.
With Malice, I have the reverse issue. I saw the film under ideal circumstances: in the theater, after having been hooked by one of the best trailers of the last 30 years.
That trailer's a great head fake. The trick is, it's extremely convincing as a trailer for an existing genre, one that was tremendously popular in the late '80s and early '90s: the ______ from Hell genre. Over the course of a few years you had the Roommate from Hell movie (Single White Female); the Cop from Hell movie (Unlawful Entry); the Bro from Hell movie (Bad Influence); the Hookup from Hell movie (Fatal Attraction); the Tenant from Hell movie (Pacific Heights); the Stepfather from Hell movie (um, The Stepfather)--all films where bourgeois protagonists are threatened by an initially friendly-seeming psychotic.
That Malice trailer is a trailer for the Surgeon from Hell movie. Bill Pullman and Nicole Kidman seem perfectly cast as the yuppie couple with a fixer-upper dream home: he's the nebbish academic, right down to the elbow patches on his jacket, while she's the somewhat uptight, completely out-of-his-league spouse. They're pure psycho bait, something straight out of Straw Dogs.
The first half of Malice plays out almost exactly as in the trailer. We meet Andy Safian (Pullman) and his wife, Tracy (Kidman). They own an old Victorian house they can't quite afford to fix up, and the college where Andy works has recently been plagued by a serial rapist, but other than that, their life is pretty idyllic--deeply in love, trying to start a family...
Then Andy meets Jed (Alec Baldwin) a high school classmate turned hotshot surgeon who recently moved to their Massachusetts college town. Andy's immediately taken with Jed, and offers to rent him a room in their house. While Andy strives to win Jed's alpha male approval, Tracy is thoroughly repulsed by the womanizing surgeon.
Things continue in a vaguely menacing way until Tracy falls ill with a hemorrhaging ovarian cyst. Jed, who's been slamming scotch at the campus bar, is the surgeon on call. Jed saves her life, but he also terminates Tracy's pregnancy and removes her remaining healthy ovary, making her sterile.
Tracy leaves Andy, sickened that he gave Jed carte blanche to do whatever he felt was necessary to save her life. Then she sues Jed and the hospital, leading to movie's centerpiece, the deposition scene that's featured in the trailer. I know Thaddeus posted the video in his review, but let's look at it again, since it's that good:
Between this and Glengarry Glen Ross, Baldwin had the badass monologue crown sewn up in the early '90s. While Thaddeus rightly praised the acting in his review, let me lavish some love on Aaron Sorkin's script.
In just his second produced screenplay, Sorkin is confident enough here that he drops what I'm pretty sure is an HMS Pinafore reference into Baldwin's big moment ("never sick at sea"). Although a second writer is credited on Malice's screenplay, there can be no question that this scene, at least, is Aaron's. Just look at what Sorkin did with a similar deposition scene, in The Social Network: