Is Wes Craven’s Red Eye A Real Hollywood Thriller?

Wes Craven’s Red Eye, from a story by Carl Ellsworth and Dan Foos, happily emerges as the kind of movie that people say Hollywood can’t or won’t make anymore—that is, an efficient thriller unburdened by any intimations of social significance or subtextual grandiosity. The best thing about it is that its tingling narrative is never overwhelmed by explosive special effects or prolonged pursuits in heavy traffic. Hence, the two main characters have a chance to breathe and to develop a range of defining idiosyncrasies.

Talk about odd couples: Lisa Reisert (Rachel McAdams) is a cool-headed hotel executive who is terrified of flying. Jackson Rippner (Cillian Murphy) is a blue-eyed stranger who seems, at first, to be the smoothest pick-up artist any pretty girl could hope to meet in an airport lobby during a long wait for the weather to clear. Within a few minutes, he’s making jokes about his name, especially when people call him Jack. When their plane is finally cleared for boarding, Lisa is happy to find that she and Jackson are seated together. She could be forgiven for imagining that the fates have conspired to promote their spur-of-the-moment romance, but, as Jackson tells her almost immediately, the fates have nothing to do with his apparent flirtatiousness. In fact, he has been stalking her for weeks and knows all of her habits and routines, as well as those of her widowed father, Joe Reisert (Brian Cox), who is waiting for her to call him when she arrives in Miami.

It turns out that Jackson is part of a terrorist conspiracy to assassinate Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Charles Keefe (Jack Scalia, presumably no relation to the controversial Supreme Court justice), as well as his entire family. What Jackson wants Lisa to do is to call Cynthia (Jayma Mays), her tremulously insecure subordinate at a luxury hotel in Miami, and tell her to change the room at which Keefe and his family are staying. If Lisa refuses to follow Jackson’s instructions, one of his confederates parked outside the home of Lisa’s father will be given the signal to kill him.

Lisa’s dilemma isn’t exactly that of the heroine in Hitchcock’s two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 and 1956). The choice faced by Edna Best (in 1934) and Doris Day (in 1956) was whether to jeopardize the life of her child by interfering with the planned assassination of a foreign statesman who is a complete stranger to her. By contrast, Lisa knows Keefe and his family from their stays at her place of employment, and she is determined to find some way to save them from the terrorist group without getting her father killed. And she must do this completely on her own, without any help from a competent Prince Charming in or out of government.

At first, she simply plays for time in the battle of wits with her wily antagonist. Jackson proves to be as slick in reassuring the passengers and attendants on the plane that nothing is wrong between Lisa and himself as he was in picking up Lisa. It’s largely a cerebral contest between the two, because at no time is the plane itself or its passengers in any danger. After being thwarted by Jackson time and again, despite the ingenuity of her deceptive stratagems and delaying tactics, Lisa improvises one final desperate act of violence that will ensure a climactic battle to the death between the two, which is resolved by a completely unexpected (and unlikely) deus ex machina.

Red Eye is one of the few films in recent years to empower its female characters by refusing to depict their intelligence as being overwhelmed by their feelings of vulnerability. It is not only Lisa who prevails, but also her loyal but vulnerable assistant, Cynthia. The film ends on a note of female bonding such as is seldom even attempted in contemporary movies.

Mind you, I’m not claiming masterpiece stature for Red Eye, just a solid professionalism in the acting, writing and direction that seems inextricably related to the modesty of its intentions. Still, once Lisa is hit in the eye, literally and figuratively, with the truth about Jackson’s objectives, a negative chemistry comes into play between Ms. McAdams and Mr. Murphy, which is to say that their characters’ implacable hostility toward each other becomes curiously sexy in the old movie manner. It probably helps that we never find out anything about the terrorist cell of which Jackson is so clearly a prominent part. We are thus spared any speeches on the righteousness of causes, good or evil as they may be. I am beginning to wonder if all the apparent chaos in today’s world has any arguable rationale. Certainly, it is difficult to imagine the applicability of any “intelligent design” to the horrors unleashed by Hurricane Katrina.

Get It On

Judd Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin, from a screenplay by Mr. Apatow and Steve Carell, has been No. 1 at the box office for two weeks running and has received generally favorable notices, but count me among the naysayers, though not in a spirit of complete revulsion. Newcomer Steve Carell, in the title role, is too engagingly earnest a personality to arouse negative vibes, even when he becomes entangled in many silly and unconvincing situations. Still, the whole premise of the movie repelled me. Who knows how many 40-year-old males in real life have yet to experience the ecstasies of sexual intercourse? I am not trying to suggest (albeit grotesquely) that they represent yet another pressure group out there demanding respect; I am merely trying to point out, in an admittedly old-fashioned way, that it should be nobody’s business but the 40-year-old male virgin’s. Of course, in the last dying days of the Production Code, Otto Preminger defied the Hollywood censors by using the word “virgin” in The Moon Is Blue. The use of the term was regarded as particularly offensive given the context, a witty exchange between William Holden’s male pursuer and Maggie McNamara’s forthrightly virginal object of pursuit. (He asks her why she keeps announcing that she’s a virgin; she asks him what’s so wrong with that; he replies that you only advertise what you want to sell.) It’s hard to believe, even after more than 50 years, that the V-word could have stirred up such a fuss in its time.

Still, movies may have gone too far in the opposite direction by suggesting or even demanding that every male of whatever age has a constitutional right (and obligation) to get laid, no matter how. When the hapless Andy of Mr. Carell tries to bluff his buddies at Smart Tech, an electronics superstore, into thinking that he spends his nights womanizing, he lets the cat out of the bag by comparing a woman’s breasts to bags of sand. The supposedly more sophisticated buddies leap to the challenge of devirginizing Andy, thus setting the stage for a series of comedy skits of overwhelmingly witless banality. It’s not so much the fault of the performers as it is of the characters they play: The three buddies—David (Paul Rudd), Jay (Romany Malco) and Cal (Seth Rogen)—are, individually and collectively, far less appealing to women than Andy, to whom they are supposedly teaching the ropes. This is the one bit of charm in the movie.

Consequently, when Andy meets the true love of his life, Catherine Keener’s Trish, we root for them to overcome the clumsy plot contrivances strewn in their path. Along the way, Andy survives a car crash with a drunk-driving, hot-to-trot pickup named Nicky (Leslie Mann, who is also the director’s wife), as well as encounters with Beth (Elizabeth Banks), a too-beautiful-to-be-true blonde pushover that he meets in a bookstore, and Paula (Jane Lynch), Andy’s boss at Smart Tech, who promises to initiate him into a world of forbidden delights.

The only deeper chord is struck by the film’s brief glimpse into the alternate world that the asexual Andy inhabits, one well stocked with games and toys. But such an abridgement of the sexual symmetries is always given short shrift at the movies.

A Wilder Time

The Museum of the Moving Image (35th Avenue at 36th Street in Astoria, Queens) is opening “Some Like It Wilder: The Complete Billy Wilder” with The Major and the Minor (1942), one of the least-known of Wilder’s great comedy romances, and one of the most evocative expressions of America’s pre-war mood on the eve of Pearl Harbor (even though the movie was released after we had entered the war, and ended up serving as a prophetic rebuke to the widespread isolationist feeling in America). Ginger Rogers, Ray Milland, Rita Johnson, Robert Benchley, Diana Lynn, Frankie Thomas and Norma Varden comprise the smoothly functioning cast of ultra-professionals capable of making a smooth transition between the wildest and wackiest farce and the most stirring and rousing romance. It was the first film that Wilder directed in Hollywood after a brilliant screenwriting career in the 30’s with Charles Brackett, with whom he co-wrote The Major and the Minor. (Saturday, Sept. 10, at 2 p.m.)

Double Indemnity, with Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Edward G. Robinson, Porter Hall, Jean Heather, Tom Powers and Fortunio Bonanova, was one of the earliest Hollywood film noirs. Wilder’s long-time screenwriting partner Charles Brackett bowed out of the project over concerns with the seamy plot, which has the two leads embroiled in a grisly murder for profit. Classic mystery writer Raymond Chandler replaced Brackett as Wilder’s collaborator. Robinson almost steals the show as an intuitive insurance investigator, but MacMurray made the greatest leap forward from his prior status as a very light romantic lead. (Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 10 and 11, at 4 p.m.)

The Bad Seed (Mauvaise Graine) (1934) was directed by Wilder and Alexander Esway in France while Wilder was there in flight from Nazi Germany. It would hardly be worth mentioning except for the presence in the cast of a very young Danielle Darrieux in this otherwise forgettable melodrama about car thieves on the loose in the French countryside. (Sunday, Sept. 11, 2 p.m.)

The Seven Year Itch (1955) has been wildly overrated because of the iconic scene with Marilyn Monroe standing over a subway grate, her skirt being blown in too many upward directions for her then husband, Joe DiMaggio. The only laughs in the film come from Tom Ewell’s wild, womanizing fantasies (reprising his triumphant performance in the Broadway stage version). The cast includes also Evelyn Keyes, Sonny Tufts, Victor Moore, Oskar Homolka, Carolyn Jones and Robert Strauss. Wilder collaborated on the screenplay with the playwright, George Axelrod. Although the plot was cleaned up at the insistence of the Production Code office, no one foresaw the worldwide repercussions of Marilyn on that subway grate. (Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 17 and 18, 2 p.m.)

Kiss Me, Stupid (1964), the most underrated of all of Wilder’s films, is presented here in a restored, uncensored 35-millimeter print with Dean Martin, Kim Novak, Ray Walston, Felicia Farr, Barbara Pepper, Doro Morande, Henry Gibson and Mel Blanc. Wilder collaborated with I.A.L. Diamond on the screenplay. Much like the film itself, Kim Novak has always been ridiculously underrated vis-à-vis Marilyn, who always struck me more as an icon in the two dimensions of photography than in the three dimensions of cinema. That is why her films are seldom revived and her photos are omnipresent. Frankly, I like Ms. Farr better than Marilyn, too. (Saturday, Sept. 17, 4 p.m.)

The Lost Weekend (1945) was much ahead of its time in its grim, realistic depiction of failed writer Don Birnam (Ray Milland) and his descent into an alcoholic, hallucinatory hell during a weekend binge. Despite winning Oscars for their adaptation of Charles Jackson’s searing novel, Brackett and Wilder were later criticized for having softened the author’s downbeat ending and completely eliminated his gay subtext. Still, the film was uniformly well-acted by the Oscar-winning Milland, Jane Wyman (in her first major role) as his supportive sweetheart, Phillip Terry as his long-suffering brother, Howard da Silva as the philosophical bartender, Doris Dowling as a memorable bar girl, Frank Faylen as a slyly sadistic male nurse in the alcoholic ward, and Mary Young as a nosy neighbor. John F. Seitz’s blistering cinematography of the El-shadowed Third Avenue was one of Hollywood’s rare on-the-scene depictions of the city at the time, and Miklós Rózsa’s theremin-punctuated musical score added its own spell. (Sunday, Sept. 18, 4 p.m.)

Some Like It Hot (1959) is still the funniest transvestite comedy ever made in Hollywood, with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis doing the honors in high heels and lipstick while fleeing a Chicago mobster (George Raft) and his gunmen after accidentally witnessing the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Along the way, Curtis seduces Marilyn Monroe (playing a songbird in an all-girl band), and Lemmon is picked up by dirty old rich man Joe E. Brown with the funniest film-ending laugh line in movie history. Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond provided the screenplay, and Pat O’Brien and Nehemiah Persoff added their talents to the straight plot. (Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 24 and 25, 4:30 p.m.)

Is Wes Craven’s Red Eye  A Real Hollywood Thriller?