Friday, September 1, 2023

Notes on Film: The Misunderstood

by Anthony King

Some people just don't understand.

Last week Patrick and I talked about some underrated '80s cop movies over on Patreon. He recommended Jack Smight's Number One with a Bullet (1987), a movie I'd wanted to see for a long time. Time was up, so I watched this buddy cop actioner starring Robert Carradine and Billy Dee Williams, and I'm happy to report this movie goes harder than even the poster would lead you to believe. Just three short years after Carradine scored with (assaulted) Betty Childs during the homecoming charity fundraiser in Revenge of the Nerds (1984), and the same year that the Tri-Lambs head to Fort Lauderdale in Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise (1987), Robert Carradine plays the tough cop against Billy Dee Williams' fun cop. Many will tell you that Carradine is horribly miscast and say his performance doesn't work. Friends, I'm here to argue that I think Carradine gives a brilliant performance, that certain people don't completely understand the performance, and that, in fact, it's one of the better performances in the '80s cop milieu.
Carradine is Detective Nick Barzack, or “Berserk” as he's known on the street. Barzack is a loose cannon, recently estranged from his wife (Valerie Bertinelli), and is all business all the time. Naturally, “Berserk” is partnered with a relaxed, fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants, cool-as-a-cucumber cop named Frank Hazeltine (Williams). Barzack and Hazeltine work narcotics and frequently play by their own rules, but almost always get their man. They're on the case of a drug smuggling ring, and words like black tar and China white are thrown around with a nonchalance that assures the viewer we're watching a movie from the 80s. Leads are being snuffed out, and as the two narcs get closer to solving the case, the violence gets closer to home. Eventually they're led to believe someone in their department is involved which leads to a not-so-shocking reveal. Number One with a Bullet is exciting and funny and never wanders during its 103 minutes. Co-written by and originally starring Jim Belushi in the Barzack role, this would've been a totally different movie had Carradine not been present. Instead we do get Carradine here, and Belushi got to partner with Arnold Schwarzenegger the following year in Red Heat (1988). While, yes, this is a Cannon movie, and while it does contain some uninhibited moments, it's a fairly reserved action movie from Golan and Globus. Director Jack Smight was no stranger to genre fare having almost exclusively worked in horror, action, and crime movies with a filmography that boasts titles like Harper (1966), The Illustrated Man (1969), Airport '75 (1974), and Damnation Alley (1977). The cast also includes Doris Roberts as Barzack's hysterically overbearing mother, Peter Graves as the perpetually sullen police captain, and brief appearances by Mykelti Williamson and Jon Gries. The thing that ties it all together for me, though, is the score by Alf Clausen. Hazeltine moonlights as a jazz musician so Clausen's score skirts the line between jazz and the synth-pop music of the '80s.
And then there's Robert Carradine. Unfortunately for Carradine he will probably always be remembered for his (brilliant, especially the first) performance in the Nerds movies. But look at his filmography and you'll see an extensive list of good, if not great movies. Aloha, Bobby and Rose (1975), Massacre at Central High (1976), Coming Home (1978), The Long Riders (1980) all come before Lewis Skolnick, and all are great performances no matter how small the role. Then comes Nerds and Carradine is forever cemented as such. Granted, he's no Eddie Deezen, but who is. Now, I haven't seen the seven movies between Nerds and Bullet, but I feel Carradine is trying very hard to break away from his nerd character in the latter. Some will argue he's trying too hard; that he's trying to be his brothers, David and Keith. My argument is this: I think that, yes, Robert Carradine is trying very hard to break free from the nerd persona, and he does so by going to a completely different level – a level most of us can't, and will never, understand.
This leads to my topic of misunderstood performances. The performances that first came to my mind include Vincent Price in anything, but specifically House on Haunted Hill (1959), Anthony Perkins in Psycho II (1983), and Eric Freeman in Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 (1987). Beginning with Price, I've heard some people can't get past the caricature of most or many of his performances, that he's not so much playing a character instead of playing himself. While some cases could be argued he's not doing much, I'd argue he completely embodies most of these characters, including that of Frederick Loren in House. Price is completely believable as Loren; he's the sole reason I become immersed in the film as soon as he comes on screen every single time I watch it (which is every year). While his voice is an unmistakable trait of his, Price constantly delivered one great performance after another. Just look at films like The Invisible Man Returns (1940), Laura (1944), House of Wax (1953), The Raven (1963), Witchfinder General (1968), or The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) as proof.
The name that may be most eyebrow-raising on this list is Perkins in Psycho II. By now I think everyone can agree Psycho II is a damn-near masterpiece; a film that many enjoy more than the first. But for many years Perkins' performance was criticized. Overacting and out of touch were words I'd heard. And, to be honest, the first time I saw Psycho II I wasn't convinced of its brilliance. But upon a rewatch about a year later I came to the realization that Perkins, like Price in many of his roles, completely manifests Norman Bates as he truly would be at this time in his life – in a scary way, even. As in Hitchcock's, Perkins is so incredibly believable as Bates in Richard Franklin's sequel it's jarring. That's why I believe the ending comes as such a shock to people the first time they see the movie.
While Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 has its share of problems, Freeman's performance is not one of them. Many (most?) consider Freeman's performance one of the worst; cringe-worthy; embarrassing. This couldn't be further from the truth. First, these people haven't seen enough movies yet. Second, like the aforementioned names, Freeman is on a completely different level most of us will never understand. The incessant blinking is terrifying. His wide eyes are haunting. The tone and timbre of his line deliveries send chills down my spine. As Ricky Caldwell, Freeman delivers the most terrifying performance out of any of the names mentioned here. He is Norman Bates but with several more missing screws and loose wires in his head.

Misunderstood performances are everywhere, and I've only mentioned a few. I'd love to hear some of your favorites.

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