Monday, July 27, 2020

“Like Capillaries Under a Microscope” - The Manipulator (1971) - Film #183

The great actor Mickey Rooney has graced a handful of horror films--including, of course, Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker (1991); The Intruder (1975); and a 2012 movie called The Woods with which I'm unfamiliar that features Mr. Rooney, Franco Nero, Jon Polito, and Michael J. Pollard. One of his finest is The Manipulator (1971), an arthouse film about insanity and unrequited love.

Many, many of your universe's critics believe The Manipulator to be a poorly made film. For example, reviewer Ithseldy1 writes, "This movie is not only the most awful movie that I have ever seen, it makes no sense at all whatsoever!!" Reviewer very-tillotson-1 complains, "While trying to make sense of this horrible mess of a movie, I tried to understand why the once Hollywood legend, Mickey Rooney, had gotten mixed up in this atrocity?" And reviewer camcost writes, "Truthfully this film is totally hallucinogenic trash, perhaps one of the worst films I've ever watched."

Read on for details about Mickey Rooney in The Manipulator...

The film begins outside in the rain, with an image that no doubt formed the basis of Friedkin’s famous “arrival” shot in The Exorcist (1973).

A bearded Mickey Rooney drives to a warehouse and rides a freight elevator to the top floor while hallucinating images of a funeral and white-faced zombies. When he reaches his loft, it is full of cobwebbed mannequins and cow dummies. He climbs a ladder to a higher floor, which appears to be a prop warehouse.

Mr. Rooney sits down in an armchair, then immediately stands up and frantically moves around the room, talking to himself as if he is every member of a filmmaking crew—mostly the director, B. J. Lang. He talks to a mannequin named Wally. “We haven’t seen each other since that flick we did in Europe, huh?”

Moving elsewhere in the room, he manically describes the scene to be shot today: “This first setup of the three men coming in and the old man. The old man has three sons with him and all of a sudden one of the sons gets into a fight, a horrible fight, and there’s blood all over the place, and finally he sits down at the table with the old man. He says, ‘How’d I do, Pa’ and Pa slaps him across the face and the blood goes spurting all over the place and he says, ‘You took too long with him. Haven’t I taught you to kill better than this?’ Okay. That’s it now.”

A projector whirs to life, projecting white light on the cluttered room with a strobe effect. Mr. Rooney sees something different, however: two pale, nude figures dancing. 

“I don’t know what love is,” Mr. Rooney says, “and I haven’t had time to find out.”

He addresses a woman named Carlotta. “Your thinking fascinates me, Carlotta. When you start to have a thought forming I can see it go to your eyes like capillaries under a microscope.”

Then, of course, he starts singing “Chattanooga Choo Choo” while the ghostly nude people laugh behind his chair.

There follows a five-minute sequence in which Mr. Rooney gives flowers to the nude people, possibly indicating his jealousy that they got married and he never knew what love is.

After a few more minutes, he pulls back a curtain to reveal Luana Anders tied to a wheelchair. He calls her Carlotta. She says, “I’m hungry, Mr. Lang” over and over but he ignores her, though eventually he wheels over a tray of baby food jars for lunch.

Mr. Rooney turns off some lights, after which Ms. Anders has an hallucination of her own: She sees Mr. Rooney moving in fast-motion as if in an incorrectly projected silent film. Mr. Rooney “performs” a “comedy” “routine” in which he appears to be imitating Charlie Chaplin dancing, sweeping, and riding with a broomstick between his legs. Then he disappears.

When Mr. Rooney reappears in real life, he has made himself up quite fetchingly.

He applies makeup to Ms. Anders’s face, revealing that he used to be a makeup artist to Marilyn Monroe. 

He explains his philosophy to her lucidly: “Everybody in this lifetime spends a certain amount of his life in fantasy. Caught in it, living it. And it’s a kind of black magic. It consumes. When the bottle is open, it consumes, dominates. It consumes again.”

The filmmakers cut to Mr. Rooney wearing a putty nose. He puts on a feathered hat, ready for his role as Cyrano de Bergerac. He wheels Ms. Anders next to an eagle statue, then talks to his “background people,” a collection of female mannequin parts hanging in a rolling trolley. 

Mr. Rooney calls, “Action” and Ms. Anders recites her lines. Unfortunately, Mr. Rooney is not happy with her performance so he encourages her by strangling her. Then he references her character’s name by briefly singing the Police song “Roxanne” before transitioning into another rendition of “Chattanooga Choo Choo” for some reason.

When Ms. Anders admits she is afraid of Mr. Rooney, he favors her with a monologue: “Fear is the universal disease. You must remember. Do you remember that it...that fear is the energy that crumbles and rebuilds emotions. It crumbles and rebuilds. It crumbles and rebuilds and forces us to build dikes against the sea. It forces man to be more of one, to fight it, to beat it, to be the monster within him. Fear, my darling...fear, my darling is as much a part as much a part of life as it is death. As much a part of love as it is hate. Fear is the...the bludgeon hand.”

They finish the scene. Mr. Rooney hears wild applause all around. He takes off his hat to take a bow. 

Mr. Rooney then has a flashback about an elegant, glamorous Hollywood costume party where everyone eats saltines.

The flashback lasts at least five minutes. At the end, he asks where someone named Elaine went and then he picks up a baby.

When the film returns to the present, Mr. Rooney whispers his philosophy, affected by the fact that he never had any friends: “Zero is the coldest number of the lot.”

He then prepares to shoot the dueling scene, but he falls to the ground.

Ms. Anders says, sensitively, “You’re dying? Don’t die.” She is then given the chance to emote wildly, first accusing Mr. Rooney of acting and then telling him she hates him, screaming (as all of us have at one time or another in our lives), “I never want anything purer in my life than my hatred of you!”

There follows a long scene in which Mr. Rooney mutters “pills” repeatedly from the floor while Ms. Anders attempts to get out of the wheelchair to find his pills. Mr. Rooney helps her rip the sheet tying her to the wheelchair. She frees herself and, unsurprisingly, starts kicking Mr. Rooney in the head.

In the end, Mr. Rooney says, “That, my dear, was beautiful acting.” Then he tries to rape her.

Fortunately, she pushes him away and runs. He chases her in slow motion with a sword but becomes stuck in a curtain for a long, long, long time. Cleverly, she also holds him at bay by keeping a spotlight on him.

Eventually, Ms. Anders climbs to the top of some scaffolding and crawls along a board above Mr. Rooney. He fantasizes that he’s filming her, and, adhering to the Rule of Threes, he sings “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” for the third time. 

Suddenly, Ms. Anders is on the floor again, now pushing through a multitude of theatrical costumes while we hear rain, crickets, frogs, and monkeys on the soundtrack. 

She also stumbles upon Keenan Wynn, who has apparently been living among the costumes. “I’m Old Charlie,” he tells her before Mr. Rooney discovers both of them. He recites an odd poem before thrusting the sword into Mr. Wynn, killing him.

Ms. Anders then runs through another part of the attic, one that is lined with hanging beef carcasses. She stumbles upon a string quartet playing (though we hear woodwinds and electronica) while a butcher prepares the beef so she dances for a while. However, the beef is simply an hallucination symbolizing the shock of witnessing murder, and Ms. Anders is still with Mr. Rooney and Mr. Wynn’s corpse.

Mr. Rooney offers to free her if she says, “I love you, BJ” and gives herself to him. However, he tells her to run and she runs away. Eventually, she finds the freight elevator and runs outside to Mr. Rooney’s car, locking herself inside. Mr. Rooney uses a trash can to smash the window. He climbs inside, then forces Ms. Anders to walk back to the attic.

“How does it feel to be adored?” he asks her. “I mean really adored? Something close to madness.” He adds, “I know I’m mad. But I don’t feel mad. Not any crazier than any other lover. That’s what love is. It’s madness, isn’t it?”

She laughs at him.

In a reflection of his madness, the inanimate objects around him, including the movie camera and various prop animal heads, start laughing at him, perhaps an inspiration for the famous cabin scene in Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (1987).

“Please don’t laugh at me,” Mr. Rooney says. 

After some poetic self-pity, Mr. Rooney plunges a sword into his chest and falls over. After some more poetic self-pity, Mr. Rooney dies.

Ms. Anders hears wild applause all around her. In a spotlight, she takes her bows.

The End

What studio--indeed, what audience--could resist the pitch of Cyrano de Bergerac meets Carnival of Souls starring Mickey Rooney? None in my universe, and I'll wager none in yours could resist either. Written and directed by Yabo Yablonsky (famous for co-writing 1989's soccer film Victory, starring soccer star Pelé) from an idea by John Durren (famous as the screenwriter of 1974's marvelous Devil Times Five, and also as a character actor), The Manipulator stretches its simple concept to feature length in the best possible way: by allowing Mickey Rooney to rant almost continually, by allowing Luana Anders to rant once or twice, and by allowing Keenan Wynn to rant not at all. The addition of psychedelic music and camera angles, as well as dozens of uncredited extras (some of them nude), makes The Manipulator impossible to resist.

Like most masterpieces, The Manipulator also leaves the audience with a plethora of questions. Was Mr. Rooney's character BJ Lang actually a makeup artist as indicated in many synopses of the film? In his fantasy, he is the director of the film, and his stories of making up Marilyn Monroe appear no more credible than his other fantasies. Also, his makeup jobs on himself and Ms. Anders are not what one might describe as "professional quality." I believe his pre-psychosis identity is as much a mystery as that of Ms. Anders, who is presumably an actress, though there is no proof of this in the film. The only character whose identity is clear is Mr. Wynn's Old Charlie, who is obviously a professional wino based on the fact that he carries a jug of wine with him.

The film asks many other questions it does not feel compelled to answer. Is Ms. Anders really Carlotta, or is that the name of someone Mr. Rooney might have loved in the past? Why is Mr. Rooney's character plagued by the dancing nude ghosts of an elderly couple? Are these people Mr. Rooney might have loved in the past? And most mysteriously of all, who is the baby Mr. Rooney picks up in his flashback about the saltines party? During the flashback, he asks, "Where'd you go, Elaine?" Is the baby Elaine? Or is it a symbol of his lost innocence? Or is it a baby?

We will never know the answers to these questions. But thanks to The Manipulator, we are able to ask them again and again, over and over, until they either make no sense or allow us to see the answers in our minds, like watching Mickey Rooney play Charlie Chaplin in fast-motion. For the rest of time.