Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Trailer Tuesday: THE UNDERNEATH



Directed by: Stephen Soderbergh.
Written by: Soderbergh based on the novel by Don Tracy.
Starring: Peter Gallagher, Elisabeth Shue, Alison Elliott, Paul Dooley, the great William Fichtner.
Director Of Photography: Elliot Davis.
Music: Cliff Martinez.

The remake of one of my favorite films CRISS CROSS, Stephen Soderbergh’s THE UNDERNEATH (1995), which was his fourth film... and not a success. After the failure of this film he dove off the deep end, making some crazy low budget films... and found his soul again. It’s odd to think of Soderbergh as a crime film director, but when you look at the genre he keeps coming back to again and again it’s crime films... from OUT OF SIGHT to OCEAN’S 11. This is his first crime film, and he decided to remake a classic... which seldom works. My guess is that after SEX LIES AND VIDEOTAPE and the *great* KING OF THE HILL and the equally interesting KAFKA, he decided to do something mainstream that would earn him the studio cred to do that Clint Eastwood thing where you make one movie “for them” and they allow you to make one movies for you. But all of that backfired. The “one for them” flopped...

Not because of the cast. Peter Gallagher plays the role Burt Lancaster played in CRISS CROSS. Sexy TV actress Alison Elliott played the ex wife played by Yvonne DeCarlo. The always creepy William Fichtner played the creepy Dan Duryea role. Paul Dooley played the “Pops” character. And Shelly Duvall pops up as the nurse in the hospital, and Joe Don Baker plays the guy who owns the armored truck company in cameos. These are all good actors, and Fichtner shines in his role. So, what was the problem?



Every screenplay is made up of millions of choices, and every movie ends up being those choices plus a million other choices. The problem is, if you make one major wrong choice it all falls apart. Though you may think the idea of remaking a classic film like CRISS CROSS was the wrong choice, there are plenty of remakes that work. The problems usually come with the choices made while remaking the film. For a while Warner Brother was planning on remaking one of my favorite films THE LAST OF SHEILA (which is a great mystery film) as a *comedy* and getting rid of the mystery element. That never happened. But the big problem with remakes in Hollywood is often that they come up with some crazy drastic change that kills the story. Hey, the reason why the story was successful in the first place was because it *wasn’t* a comedy (or whatever). Why not fix some of the little problems instead of screwing around with what made it successful in the first place?

The *good* changes in THE UNDERNEATH end up being instead of his younger brother getting married as the excuse he uses to himself for the reason he comes home again, it’s his *mother* getting married to the “Pops” character. This is great because “Pops” is going to be the casualty in the robbery, so in this version it’s his mother’s new husband who gets killed! More emotional, right? The other change is that instead of his old friend who is the cop who comes after him... it’s his *brother*! Again, upping the emotional ante. These were both great changes.

Another change was the addition of a “nice girl” to give Gallagher a choice between his exwife (who is nothing but trouble) and this nice girl played by Elizabeth Shue. He meets her on the bus coming back to town, and she works in the bank branch where the robbery will take place in this version. Part of the new robbery scheme is to use information he gets from her to help Dundee’s gang pull the robbery. That makes her an unwilling accomplice, cool idea!

But all of these good choices are undercut by the bad ones.

Instead of our lead leaving town because he’s still hung up on his ex wife and even Los Angeles isn’t big enough for the both of them, Gallagher is a gambling addict who spends every cent the couple has on sports betting, and when he loses so much that the mob is going to kill him, he leaves town... leaving his soon to be ex wife to deal with all of the crap he’s left behind. Not only does this make our protagonist not a sympathetic guy, it removes the core of the story... that he’s still hung up on his ex wife. That’s the engine that runs the machine, and they remove it. Oh, and he never worked for the Armored Truck company, so there’s this silly convoluted way for him to get hired. Oh, and since the ex wife isn’t really a fan of his, the really uncomfortable scene in CRISS CROSS where he’s caught by Dundee with his ex and comes up with the robbery thing as an excuse and then must go through with it... no longer exists. All of the big dramatic scenes from the original are gone.

And by making the protag a major screw up, having the cop be his brother this time around robs all of the drama from that! In CRISS CROSS the cop was his old friend, who really liked him and thought the ex wife was trouble... and that scene in the hospital when he confronts Lancaster and says he knows Lancaster had to be part of the robbery is a *heart breaker*. The cop knows his best friend became a criminal and has to deal with all of those mixed up feelings... and Lancaster has to deal with them, too. It’s like when your parents say you disappointed them... man, that’s tough to take! Now that the protag is a screw up, and *he* is the problem? No drama at all. The brother cop doesn’t have his heart broken because he never trusted his brother in the first place. He is *established* as hating his brother (Can’t believe you wore our father’s suit to mother’s wedding).

And the robbery is almost an anti set piece here, with Pop’s death being just another thing that happens. No drama.

The film uses different tints, as Soderbergh would later do in TRAFFIC, but here I could not figure out what the purpose was. Soderbergh also does a fractured chronology, a dozen times more fractured than CRISS CROSS but not as fractured as THE LIMEY. At first I though the colors (blue and green mostly) were past and present... but then we got a past scene that was green and I was confused. Then I thought it was story threads, with the robbery plot being green and the romance plot being blue, but it wasn’t that, either. There’s a scene that changes from blue to green midway, but then changes back. I rewatched that scene a couple of times but still can’t figure out why.

The other thing Soderbergh does is an extended POV shot when Gallagher is in his hospital bed. It’s not all one shot, but we don’t see Gallagher in the hospital, just his POV. The problem here is that it isn’t used to effect. Instead of creating paranoia, it’s just a long POV shot. Because there is no focus on people passing the pebbled glass and the man sitting in the hallway just out of view as in CRISS CROSS, there is *absolutely no suspense in this scene*. It’s like a stunt shot that undercuts all of the emotions! Instead of finding a better way to do the scene, it’s a *worse* way... which is just a show off shot. Michael Bay filmmaking.

And the film ends with a pointless and illogical twist that kind of undercuts the whole movie. I liked this movie more when I first saw it than I did when I watched it right after CRISS CROSS. It’s a misfire from a director who went on to do some really good crime films (THE LIMEY really is one of my favs).

- Bill

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