14 January 2006 | django-1
Flawed but interesting loose adaptation of Simenon novel--strong James Mason performance
Of the 150 or so Georges Simenon novels I've read, STRANGERS IN THE HOUSE (at least the English translation by Sainsbury) would rank in the lower third. It's an excellent character study--as is virtually any Simenon work--and the concept is interesting, but it lacks suspense and ends with a whimper, not a bang. The film also is an interesting character study of a man (here Anglicized and played by James Mason) who was once a brilliant attorney, but after his wife left him, he became jaded and turned to drink, raising his daughter (here played by Geraldine Chaplin) on his own, but remaining very distant from her to the point that she has a separate life as a late-teenager that is completely unknown to him, even though it's happening within his own (large) home. One member of the gang she hangs out with is killed in the home, her boyfriend is charged with the crime, and Mason comes out of semi-retirement to defend him, cleaning up his life in the process and getting a new sense of spirit and motivation. The general plot of Simenon's book has been retained, but most of the specifics have been changed and a number of new elements introduced. Mason is quite impressive both as a cynical alcoholic and as a man reclaiming his spirit and his youthful idealism. Geraldine Chaplin looks quite young here, and does fine as the marginalized daughter who eventually begins to trust and even somewhat respect her father again. Bobby Darin is cast as some kind of thug sailor who is older and more experienced than the gang of teens but becomes a member of their group (and who is very different from "Big Louie", the equivalent character in the novel). When I first saw this film about ten years ago, Darin's performance reminded me somewhat of Robert DeNiro in TAXI DRIVER, although this second time I've watched the film I see less similarity. Still, Darin's character is brooding, thuggish, and repeats "Ain't it so" or "Aint' that so" throughout the movie (the song of the same name by Eric Burdon and the Animals is played a few times throughout the film). Mr. Darin probably viewed this as a good opportunity to re-build his acting career as a character actor (he later played the gigolo in Richard Brooks' THE HAPPY ENDING, see my review of that), and he certainly creates a memorable character here, as much as we might like to forget this annoying character!!! The weaknesses in the film are many--some sections move too slowly, others move too fast and lack tension. The ending, for instance, is quite abrupt and not adequately build up to. Some members of the daughter's gang are played by actors who do not convince--Paul Bertoya as Chaplin's boyfriend, a Greek Briton who faces discrimination, is awkward and hurts whatever scenes he is in. Worst of all, there's a phony "swinging sixties" and hippie undercurrent here that's a total misfire. Many films made then that attempted to be hip did succeed--BLOW UP, for instance (and there's a brief homage to BLOW UP in one scene here--I'll let you find it yourself)--but these twenty-three year old teenagers are laughably UNhip. At least when the thirty-five year old Bowery Boys were playing teenagers, they did it for laughs and the actors were in on the joke too. Here, it's just grating and ridiculous. The teenagers depicted in films such as RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP or MARY JANE are far more realistic than the ones here, and neither of those films is a masterpiece (although Mary Jane is quite underrated). And the identity of the killer is telegraphed so far in advance, and his character is played so broadly, that only someone sleeping through the film would NOT know who did it! On the whole, I can't really recommend this film, except for James Mason's performance. If you are at home recovering from the flu and will watch ANYTHING that's on, this is probably better than an OPRAH or MAURY show, but don't go out of your way to see it. And why Anchor Bay Video released this in its ROCK AND ROLL CINEMA series is beyond me! Trust me, except for bits of the Burdon/Animals song played here and there in the movie, there is no rock and roll content whatsoever.