Somebody’s Watching Me


“There are plots against people, aren’t there?” Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) asks in Rosemary’s Baby, one of six films in the Pioneer’s first annual “Paranoi-a-thon.” Where the movies are concerned, the answer is generally yes, and don’t tell anybody I told you. (Half of my meticulous notes for this review went missing this morning.) With enough chills to ward off the summer heat, this mini-fest is both a tribute to director John Frankenheimer (who died last month) and proof positive of the adage (Lionel Trilling? Where are my notes) that the paranoid and the artist are similar—each sees the world in a single way.

In Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), the world is made up of sounds, each elaborating the picture of menace. Barbara Stanwyck is a bed-ridden pharmaceuticals heiress who never leaves her swank Gotham boudoir. A screwy phone connection makes her earwitness to a murder plan, and she subsequently learns that her absent husband (Burt Lancaster) may have been stealing from her father’s company—or worse. Told nearly in real time and almost entirely through telephone calls, the radio-play-based Number derives sleek hysteria from its audaciously constraining narrative strategy.

The two Frankenheimer films, The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seconds (1966), find paranoia in the corridors of power and the worn-flannel soul of a rat-race burnout. The first puts over an iffy brainwashing conceit with a seamless recurring dream, as the returned troops, flashing back to their Korean War captivity, see Chinese and Russian mind-mashers mingling with their hypnotically induced counterparts: botanist biddies at a talk in a New Jersey hotel. The writing grows strong and strange (Frank Sinatra and Janet Leigh’s oblique railroad chat-up; incest-crippled assassin Laurence Harvey’s agonized changes on the word “lovable”), and everyone’s upper lip bears a mustache of sweat. Surely the most bizarre salaryman odyssey ever committed to film, Seconds takes Fitzgerald’s observation about American lives having no second acts and turns it on its head, as John Randolph’s bank manager (like Fitzgerald, a Princetonian) undergoes plastic surgery to emerge as Rock Hudson’s Tony Wilson (no relation to the subject of 24 Hour Party People). Attendees of Brian Wilson’s recent New York shows will want to catch Seconds: The film notoriously led to one of the Beach Boy maestro’s Smile-era freakouts, when he heard a stewardess greet Hudson with “Hello, Mr. Wilson.” (The line is actually “Pillow, Mr. Wilson?”)

Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974) is a post-Watergate gloss on the Warren Commission, not to mention The Manchurian Candidate; some two-fisted episodes aside, it’s an astringently cynical take on official history, with Warren Beatty as a muckraker investigating the strange aftershocks of a senator’s killing. The film’s heart of darkness is the shadowy Parallax Corporation’s training film, a five-minute fever montage (parodied in Zoolander and Undercover Brother) that flashes images and words (KKK, the pope, Thor; “Happiness,” “Mother,” “Me”) in whiplash combinations, an experience the audience receives unmediated through Beatty’s eyes.

Delirious with potions, blood, and anagrams, Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) is the definitive cinematic treatment of what husband John Cassavetes patronizingly calls the “pre-partum crazies.” (Does it mean anything that the sinister name “Roman Castevet” invokes both the director and one of the stars?) Superbly acted (especially by bone-thin Farrow and Ruth Gordon as the ultimate neighbor from hell), it’s a satantango in the land of Is-this-real-or-am-I-crazy?, with a luridly literal ending that doesn’t negate the previous, more interior terrors.

From the womb to outer space: In Species, extraterrestrials aped our DNA structure thanks to information sent up in the Voyager probe, and were kind enough to send Natasha Henstridge to decimate us; the DIY-hard Box Head Revolution, which makes its premiere, wonders what distant planetlings would make of another of the spacecraft’s goodies—Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” The inhabitants of this grim world—half factory, half desert—all wear masks and toil inscrutably. Multitasked into existence by Mark Christensen, the film suffers from cruddy sound, ill-advised dance routines, and haphazard spelling (“In 1989 voyager left our solar system never to be seen or heard form again. TELL NOW.”), but as long as the actors keep their headgear on, it limns a woozy hell of shadow and steam. Paranoid only in its disorienting lurch, Revolution may be the year’s bad-trip holy grail. Of course, they made me say that.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 20, 2002

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