Monday, February 5, 2018

"Here Comes the Busby Berkeley Quartet" - For Love or Murder (1970)

It is time to discuss Theodore Gershuny's existential crime film For Love or Murder (1970), known originally as Kemek, the only film as far as I know to combine the titanic acting talents of the great Al (David) Hedison and the even greater Mary Woronov.

It is difficult to find reviews of Kemek on the internet, so I will assume that it is considered a classic by most critics, who simply declined to review it because everyone considers it such. However, I did find one negative review on IMDB: Mike17 calls the film, "An exasperatingly bad film with a generic plot about a mad scientist's mind-controlling drug." (Although Mike17's conclusion is erroneous, I must give him credit for inferring that the drug in the film is a mind-controlling drug, as that is something I must have missed).

In any case, it is time to look at For Love or Murder in great detail so we may appreciate its excellence.

The fascinating opening evokes silent cinema, with black and white, blown-out images reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

“This is a film about a new drug,” states a female narrator. (What a marvelous world it would be if all films began with narration saying “This is a film about...”) She continues, “The drug is called Kemek. It is a drug that changes people’s minds. Black is white and white is black. Even murder can be beautiful or an act of love.”

The narration is shown over shots of a man touching an electrified rod until he falls, unconscious or dead.

The film then cuts to more traditional territory, as we see a motorboat on a river and we hear the familiar sound of Martha and the Vandelas. Two men from the boat, one a cowboy-hatted Texan and the other apparently an Italian mobster, walk about a mile to a mansion on a hilltop.

The two men are looking for someone named Mary, but they don’t find her at the house. They only find two girls in a swimming pool who tell them Mary might be a on a big boat. So they turn around and walk down to the riverside.

In one of many scenes that makes no sense to the conscious mind, the two girls run down to the dock, past the two men, and jump into the river. Subsequently, the two men get back on their motorboat and head out onto the river, apparently not seeing the girls.

“We’re looking for a big white boat,” says one of the men.

The big white boat is only a few yards away, and the girls have swum to it from the dock, but the motorboat takes several minutes to find it.

On the boat, the men find Mary Wonderly, played by Mary Woronov. “Yeah, I’ll talk to you,” says Ms. Woronov. “Up at the house.”

Everyone returns to the mansion on the hillside, and the film has thus expended 11 brilliant minutes going back and forth while making no narrative progress whatsoever.

When they reach the mansion, everyone has changed clothes. The men make themselves comfortable in the tiki bar-themed rec room. Ms. Woronov then enters to serve them drinks. She puts down a glass on the coffee table. “I don’t drink,” she says. “I don’t know what you wanted.”

The Texan, Shannon, never picks up the drink. He explains he is here looking for his wife.

“The worst thing in the world happened to her. Paul happened to her,” says Ms. Woronov.

“Chiclets,” says Shannon. Apparently his wife called Paul by the nickname “Chiclets.” “He was always smiling,” Shannon says, as if that explains why someone’s nickname would be Chiclets. “It wasn’t a warm smile. It was evil.”

“Who the hell is this Chiclets character?” asks the other man, Hagan, a private detective. “Is that the Nazi bastard you been tellin’ me about?”

“Not quite a Nazi,” explains Ms. Woronov. She puts a videotape into a machine and shows them nothing less obscene than a corporate promotional video. The narrator explains that Kemek is a corporation that makes drugs and plastics. This is illustrated by the graphic injection of a drug into an elderly woman, who looks at the camera, smiles, and waves.

“He used all those innocent people for guinea pigs,” Ms. Woronov explains. Then she narrates a flashback in which a man drives Shannon’s wife through Italy’s Amalfi Coast. The wife, Marisa, climbs a mountain to find Dr. Geismer in a stone shack. “Dr. Geismer?” she says to a sleeping man. “Are you sleeping?”

He wakes up and reveals everything: “Geismer has a secret, a bit of knowledge interesting to politicians and fanatics, and they must find it, maybe kill for it.”

Later, Marisa finds Geismer murdered and his house burnt to the ground.

We are next introduced to a character named Nick, played by a turtlenecked David aka Al Hedison of The Fly (1958) and TV’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. It seems Mr. Hedison has learned Dr. Geismer’s formula for the Kemek drug. Chiclet assigns Marisa to seduce Mr. Hedison, which she does at a disco in a cave. They go outside to walk along a stone wall in the dark.

“You’re not married,” Mr. Hedison guesses.

“Nope, never,” says Marisa.

“And you’re not inhibited, right?”

“Just sort of wicked,” she admits.

Later, she tells him, “I exist. That’s hard enough.” Then they play a game of pick-up-sticks on his bed.

As the flashback unfolds, the film periodically returns to Ms. Woronov’s mansion, as Shannon and Detective Hagan discuss how much of Ms. Woronov’s story is true. This allows director Theodore Gershuny to include a shot between the legs of the overweight Mr. Hagan as he stands on a diving board and observes a group of young women swimming in Ms. Woronov’s indoor pool.

“Here comes the Busby Berkeley Quartet,” says Hagan, oddly referring to the three women in the pool as a quartet.

In the flashback, Ms. Woronov visits Chiclet the Nazi in his concrete bunker, which features fashionably inflatable orange chairs.

“I need you tonight,” Chiclet says to her mysteriously, “but you mean nothing to me.”

“You want a plastic girl, one who doesn’t care,” says Ms. Woronov, to which Chiclet of course replies, “Yes.”

Later, David Hedison confronts Marisa in a church. He asks her name for the first time. She replies profoundly, “I’m Marisa Love, as in ‘make love.’ Do you like it?”

“It’s like your car,” he says, using a line thousands of men must have used over the years. “I don’t quite believe it.”

She explains, obliquely, that Mr. Hedison is in danger because of his relationship with the late Dr. Geismer. But Mr. Hedison protests he does not know Geismer and has never heard of him. This fact does not faze Marisa, who believes some secret is tied to the missing watch of a murdered poet.

It is only later, after Mr. Hedison sleeps with Marisa, that he begins having visions of Dr. Geismer, the watch, and a shotgun. He realizes that Geismer has somehow erased his memory, and at one time he did know the chemist. He tells Marisa. She brings him to Chiclet the Nazi, who asks him some not-so-pressing questions.

Marisa then tries to convince Mr. Hedison to run away with her to Paris. “Oh, Nick,” she says, “think of us in Paris.”

“I do,” he replies, perhaps mishearing her statement, as she only brought up the idea seconds earlier.

After she leaves the room, he says to himself, “A man knows everything around him. Then one day he sees himself, and then he doesn’t.” Mr. Hedison takes the drug, presumable the Kemek of the (alternate) title.

The drug causes nausea and, as a side effect, a desire to make hand gestures and dance.

The filmmakers present a tour de force depiction of a Kemek drug trip. As Mr. Hedison becomes aware of memories featuring Dr. Geismer, in the real world he stumbles around his circular bedroom. The camera spins. Mr. Hedison fumbles through his record collection in preparing to put one on the turntable, but Marisa grabs his arms to prevent him from performing such an atrocity.

Apparently in response, Mr. Hedison picks up a big carving knife and struggles with Marisa. Shockingly, nobody is harmed by the knife. It is discarded and soon forgotten.

In Mr. Hedison’s visions, Dr. Geismer repeats the words “watch” and “time” over and over. Unfortunately, Mr. Hedison’s character—and perhaps, in the eyes of the filmmakers, the audience—is too dense to understand, so the flashback Dr. Geismer explains more clearly: “It’s in the watch, on microfilm.”

Mr. Hedison stumbles outdoors, then kisses the ground and rolls around in the grass. Forgetting the watch and the microfilm, he and Marisa make plans to catch a ferry for Naples, and then for Paris.

Based on the flashback structure of the film, however, the audience knows the ending will not be purely a happy one. Marisa tells Chiclet the Nazi, unwisely, that she plans to go to Naples with Mr. Hedison. Surprisingly, he lets her take his convertible. Less surprisingly, after Marisa leaves, Chiclet says to Ms. Woronov, “Kill her.”

Rather than simply running Marisa over with her own car, Ms. Woronov waits for Marisa to nearly be united with a smiling Mr. Hedison.

There is a gunshot. Ms. Woronov has taken Marisa out with a hunting rifle, in plain view of anyone who might be watching.

In a shocking twist, the next scene shows Chiclet the Nazi in his boat. For no apparent reason, the boat explodes.

The film cuts back to the present, to Ms. Woronov’s mansion on the cliff. Shannon says to Ms. Woronov, “Everything was in that watch, wasn’t it? The microfilm? The formula?” (The perceptive viewer might wonder why this is the man’s response to Ms. Woronov’s admission that she murdered his wife, but such ambiguity is part of this film’s charm.)

He kisses Ms. Woronov, but she rebuffs him. Then, in the surprise ending, he drowns her in the pool.

Theodore Gershuny (aka Mr. Mary Woronov) made this film with his wife two years before he made another existential film, also with his wife: Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972), starring Patrick O'Neal and not to be confused with the notorious slasher film Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984). (These films may be distinguished by a mnemonic device. The earlier film--Silent Night, Bloody Night--is less bloody and more deadly, while the later film--Silent Night, Deadly Night--is more bloody and less deadly.)

This film also features Mr. Al David Hedison in probably his sexiest performance ever, as well as Mary Woronov in probably her least sexy performance ever.

Additionally, like Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998), much of For Love or Murder is a flashback narrated by a character who was not present for most of the events that occurred in the flashback. Because of this, Mr. Gershuny's film can be considered highly influential, the precursor to one of the most financially successful war movies of all time.

For Love or Murder is above all a spiritual journey, and like most spiritual journeys it is a big waste of time. This is not to say the film is a waste of time, however, as it is such a creative work that on first viewing it appears to be all filler and no story. On second viewing, such an opinion is only strengthened. Perhaps its most significant contribution to world cinema is the presence of not one but two MacGuffins--the microfilm and the watch. The purpose of both is completely unknown and unexplained, and neither MacGuffin is found by the end of the film. Ingenious!