Sunday, May 3, 2015

To Kill a Clown (1972)



          Given that Alan Alda’s role as compassionate surgeon “Hawkeye” Pierce on the 1972-1983 TV series M*A*S*H cemented the actor’s public persona as a paragon of decency, it’s interesting that some of the film roles he played before M*A*S*H were downright dastardly. In the middling thriller To Kill a Clown, for instance, Alda plays an unhinged Vietnam vet who torments the young couple renting a house on his beachfront property. The movie doesn’t completely work, mostly for reasons to do with the muddy storyline, but it’s a hoot to watch Alda play a full-on villain. In the movie’s best moments, Alda accentuates the gulf between his nice-guy demeanor and the gonzo extremes of his character’s creepy comportment.
          Set on a remote beach somewhere in New England, the movie begins by introducing viewers to man-child artist Timothy Frischer (Heath Lamberts). Working in the isolation of a quiet bungalow, Timothy does freeform paintings using traditional media as well as chewing gum and cigarettes. At first, Timothy’s only companion on the beach is his beautiful wife, Lily (Blythe Danner), who’s near the end of her patience with Timothy’s adolescent antics. In fact, she tries to leave him, but he woos her back with promises to behave more responsibly. Into this uneasy situation steps Major Evelyn Ritchie (Alda), a seemingly affable bachelor who walks with two canes because his knees were injured during combat, and who always travels with his two loyal Doberman Pinschers at his side.
          During the movie’s drab first hour, Evelyn plays the perfect host to his tenants, even as he evinces eccentricity. One evening over drinks, Evelyn says Timothy couldn’t hack a single day of military discipline. Timothy drunkenly takes the dare, and he’s surprised when Evelyn shows up at dawn the next morning, demanding that Timothy “report for duty” and perform menial labor. This very, very slow burn of a story finally explodes about 40 minutes before the movie ends, because Evelyn sics his dogs on Timothy to prove he’s serious about playing soldier. A weird psychodrama/thriller scenario ensues, with Evelyn using the threat of the dogs to hold the young couple hostage, regularly demeaning Timothy while implying that he wants Lily sexually.
          Cowritten and directed by George Bloomfield, from a novel by Algis Budrys, To Kill a Clown fails to offer a credible explanation for Evelyn’s villainy, just as it fails to make Timothy sympathetic. (He’s the clown of the title, because prior to painting, he studied circus arts and mime.) That said, the quality of the film’s acting, combined with the cool confidence of Bloomfield’s minimalistic camerawork, help keep To Kill a Clown watchable. Complementing the supple textures of Alda’s performance, Danner is wonderfully sexy and smart and vulnerable, while Lamberts takes an energetic crack at a murkily conceived character. Better still, the last half-hour of the picture builds genuine suspense, even though To Kill a Clown fizzles at the end.

To Kill a Clown: FUNKY

3 comments:

Richard said...

Somehow I'd never heard of this film before! I'll have to seek it out. If anyone is curious, the story by Algis Budrys on which this was based is called "Master of the Hounds" and it was a short story published in the Saturday Evening Post circa 1966. It was later reprinted in a collection of his short stories called Blood & Burning published in 1978, which makes the book about as obscure and historically remote as this film.

starofshonteff said...

THE MEPHISTO WALTZ, also released by Fox, is another of those pre-MASH "dastardly" Alda roles

William Blake Hall said...

It was hard seeing Alda try to play the villain in Murder at 1600. It didn't work at all.