70s Cinema: Runaway Trains, Racing toward oblivion, Psycho-sexual machinations, and ‘the self loathing whore

PART ONE:


The early seventies witnessed a fertile moment in film-making that reflected a uniquely framed vision of sexual exploration and an ever changing measurement of morality. The studios too were taking more risks with their films conveying realism. What developed on screen was an explosion of symbolic portrayals featuring sex and violence and explicit imagery for American audiences to process. With the arrival of the women’s movement during the mid sixties through the seventies, until it was killed off in the eighties by Reagenism, these films did not push forward an evolved perspective or positive representation of women. Often the suggestion of women’s sexual freedom was portrayed as demeaning and counter-productive to women’s empowerment. As feminist theorist and critic Molly Haskell writes “the ten years from 1963 to 1973 have been the most disheartening in screen history.”

Conversely men were portrayed as rogue outsiders and anti heroes not unlike noir figures but pushing the envelope with a hyper violent masculinity often without the usual fatalistic culmination of judgement and universal law that bound their destiny. When they die, it is their decision, they are in a dance with death, it is not an unmitigated penalty for breaking the rules. In particular these themes are seen within the suspense-thriller.

The seventies offered a gritty, stylized world that enhanced and synthesized focus on the dark underbelly of society, cultural unrest, paranoia, masochism, neurosis and psycho-sexual wiles. From American Cinema of the 1970s: Themes and Variations — Movies and the Exploitation of Excess by Mia Mask “Women Take Center Stage: Klute and McCabe & Mrs. Miller- “For feminist critics and scholars, Alan J. Pakula’s Klute perfectly exemplifies this period’s ambivalence toward women, particularly in regard to its prostitute-heroine Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda). The film recasts and updates conventions of classic film noir by centralizing the investigatory/confessional pattern while making sexuality figure more obviously in the narrative.”

Klute (1971)

One man is missing. Two girls lie dead. …and someone breathing on the other end of the phone.

You’d never take her for a call girl. You’d never take him for a cop.

“There are little corners of everyone that are better left alone.”

Klute (1971) directed by Alan J. Pakula (The Parallax View 1974, All the President’s Men 1976, producer To Kill a Mockingbird 1962, Love with the Proper Stranger, , Up the Down Staircase and director of Sophie’s Choice 1982) written by brothers Andy Lewis and Dave Lewis who mainly wrote for television drama series. Cinematography by Gordon Willis nicknamed The Prince of Darkness (The Landlord 1970, The Godfather 1972, The Godfather II 1974, The Paper Chase 1973, Annie Hall 1977).

Pakula on Willis and setting up the framing of the cinematography- “From the visual point of view, I wanted Klute to be a vertical film. And with Gordon Willis, the director of photography, I tried to go against the horizontal format of Panavision, by seeking out verticals. Horizontals open out, create a pastoral feeling, and I wanted tension. Bree’s apartment should have been seen as if at the end of a long tunnel. I framed a lot of shots with the back of another character in front, to mask a part of the screen, or made use of other sombre surfaces as masks, in order to create this feeling of claustrophobia which reflects the life of this girl.” – from 1972

The evocative score adds to the illusory tension and arresting mood of the film. The music is written by Michael Small (The Stepford Wives 1975, Night Moves 1975, Marathon Man 1976, Audrey Rose 1977, The Postman Always Rings Twice 1981, Black Widow 1987). Small’s haunting lullaby blankets the film in a pensive swaddle, with the uneasy tinkling of a piano like a childlike music box and vocalizations. The score awakens a voyeuristic ambience as if someones is watching, which they are– throughout the entire film.

“New York City as a site of, and metaphor for, the extremes of urban existence.

It places them in film history, New York City history, and U.S. urban history more generally, finding that they offer an update on earlier century narratives of the connections between urban areas and deviant sexuality. In this modern version, it is not just a moral tale but also an economic one, where, because of the historical decline of the U.S.city and of New York in particular,sex work becomes a plausible, if unsettling means of support.These films find both narrative and spatial terms for advancing the contemporary anti-urban narrative, envisioning New York as an impinging vertical space and seeing possible redemption only in the protagonists leaving the city.” From Stanley Corkin’s Sex and the City in Decline: Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Klute (1971)-Journal of Urban History

The film stars Jane Fonda (who was coming off playing ingenues in Barefoot in the Park and Barbarella when she had her breakthrough performance in Sidney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses Don’t They? 1969) as call-girl Bree Daniels with a complex inner life, Donald Sutherland as the quiet spectator detective John Klute, Charles Cioffi as psycho Peter Cable, Roy Scheider as pimp Frank Ligourin, Dorothy Tristan as Arlyn Page, Rita Gam as Trina Gruneman, Vivian Nathan as the psychotherapist, Morris Strassberg as Mr. Goldfarb, the nice old Jewish john who works in the garment district, and Shirley Stoler (The Honeymoon Killers 1969) as Mama Reese. With appearances by Jean Stapleton as Mr. Goldfarb’s secretary, Richard Jordan as the young man who kisses Jane Fonda in the bar scene, porn star Harry Reems at the Discothèque and Candy Darling. 

The film brings into play various traditions of film noir as it lays out the search for the missing Gruneman and emphasizes the relationship between the cop and the call girl.

Klute was nominated for two academy awards, best actress and best screenplay, with Jane Fonda winning the Oscar.

From Mark Harris “menace seems to choke every frame, contains almost no violence at all”

The use of tape recorders as visually recurring iconography “finally deployed as a monstrous psychological weapon at the film’s climax.”

“When Alan J. Pakula began preparing for the production of Klute (1971), he screened a lot of Alfred Hitchcock films…{…} instead he came away dispirited at the thought that he was about to make might contradict one of Hitchcock’s central principles: “You don’t try to do a character study in a melodrama” Pakula said. “Klute, of course, is a violation of that.”

Klute features Donald Sutherland as the film’s protagonist John Klute, a Tuscarora Pennsylvania private investigator hired to locate a friend Tom Gruneman who has vanished in New York City and may be living a double life. Obscene letters to a NYC prostitute have been uncovered in his desk at work “written by a very disturbed man”. Gruneman went missing six months prior and John Klute offers to leave his suburban shelter to investigate in the big bad city. The trail leads Klute to a complicated and seductive New York call girl Bree Daniels an “emotionally introspective” prostitute (skillfully brought out by Jane Fonda). Bree is an unwitting connection to a brutal murder and Klute becomes her paternalistic protector/lover. Bree is shut off from her feelings, driven by her instincts of suspicion, ambivalence and low-self esteem. “I wish I was faceless and body-less and be left alone.”

Bree is a complex character who seeks to emotionally remove herself from society through the flawed principle that she is in control of her life and her body. Frequenting a psychotherapist, going on modeling cattle-calls, (similarly she is peddling her flesh, though legally and publicly) studying acting, smoking grass, and reading books like Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs, a primer of the seventies metaphysical movement. Living in her own private world of her Manhattan apartment with her calico cat, Bree surrounds herself with the only space that truly insulates and isolates her from the vicious and people-eating world. A world of sin, glitter and wickedness. A world of voyeurs.

Klute watches as well as listens to Bree’s conversations recording equipment to tap her phone from his little dank room as one of her voyeurs. She tells him “go get those tapes and we’ll have a party.”

“Men would pay $200 for me, and here you are turning down a freebie. You could get a perfectly good dishwasher for that.”

She also admits to him that she’s in the midst of paranoia “I’m afraid of the dark, it’s just nerves I’m a nervous broad.” But this is not paranoia, the fear is real… everyone is watching everyone else.

He watches her when she visits the old Jewish widow where Bree dresses like a cabaret singer, regaling the gentle Mr. Goldfarb of her nights in Cannes with a sophisticated older man not unlike himself. She tells Klute he never lays a hand on her. Klute’s silent, morally superior, unemotional manner seems to provoke Bree’s animosity toward family type men and uptight provincial.

“What’s your bag, Klute? What do you like? Are you a talker? A button freak? Maybe you like to get your chest walked around with high heeled shoes. Or make ’em watch you tinkle. Or maybe you get off wearing women’s clothes. Goddamned hypocrite squares!” When he asks her about the john who tried to kill her and beat her up, “he wasn’t kidding, usually it’s a fake out.”

She shrugs Klute off, “Look, will you please just try to get it from my side? A year ago I was in the life full time. I was living on Park Avenue. It was a very nice apartment, leather furniture… and then the cops dropped on me, they caged me. They started asking me about a guy, some guy, that I’m supposed to have seen a year before that. Two years ago! He could be in Yemen. Gruneman… what does that mean? It’s a name! I don’t know him! And they start showing me these pictures, and they don’t mean anything to me. And then they started asking me if I’ve been getting letters from some guy out in Cabbageville.”

After Bree comes down to Klute’s little room in her pajamas and they have sex, she mocks him “Don’t feel bad about losing your virtue. I sort of knew you would. Everybody always does.” Once Bree starts to feel some kind of emotion toward Klute, she feels the need to destroy it, she had more control with her tricks.

During her various appointments with her shrink, Bree asks her “why do I still want to trick?” Her therapist becomes more forceful explaining that she can’t just fix Bree, telling her she has “no magic potion.”  “Cause when you’re a call girl you can control it. They want a woman and I know I’m good… And for an hour… for an hour, I’m the best actress in the world, and the best fuck in the world.” “Why do you say you’re the best actress in the world.” “Well, because it’s an act.”

There is a bit of not only a slight intrusion of a laugh, in the midst of all the darkness, when Bree is in bed with a john and she’s doing an acting job as if he’s turning her on while he’s on top of her, she coos for him- “Oh my angel! Oh my angel!” looking over his shoulder at her watch… It’s telling of how Bree can cut herself off from being a sex-worker and the men she is with, and how she aspires to be an actress and basically how many women may feel while they are having sex they feel nothing. Bree is great at role playing believes there is nothing wrong with it morally and doesn’t enjoy it physically.

Bree- “You don’t have to feel anything, care for anybody, just lead them by the ring in their nose. In the direction that they think they want to go in. Get a lot of money out of them in as short of period of time as possible. And you control it, and you call the shots, and I always feel just great afterwards.”

Therapist- “And you enjoyed it?” 

Bree- “No”

Therapist- “Why not? You said there’s nothing wrong with it. Why not?”

Bree- “Well there’s a difference. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it morally, I didn’t enjoy it physically. I came to enjoy it because it made me feel good. It made me feel like I wasn’t alone. It made me feel like I had some control over myself that I had some control over my life. That I could determine things for myself.”

We learn about Bree’s impressions of the world, her motivations and hints at past trauma through the scenes involving sessions with her therapist (Vivian Nathan). As a neo-noir film, it follows that the heroine experiences alienation and is punished for her female sexuality and excesses. Even as the film opens depicting a scene at a ‘family’ dinner, the intrusion of Bree’s lifestyle shows the downfall and breakdown of the American family. Invading bourgeois landscape, we see the tableau of desperate junkies, disco dives, the pimp’s flat, — all decadent and corrupt secret underworlds of the city, damned for it’s self-indulgence, materialism and perverted gratifications.

In some ways there are certain divergences from the noir traditions of the 1940s. There is a linear movement in the narrative with the hero retaining control of the events, in contrast to the revolving story, reversals and breaks in the plot. In terms of the investigation and the heroine’s sexuality, Bree’s place is different within the story, she is not the catalyst of Tom Gruneman’s fate she is the signpost to discovering his outcome. Therefore the relationship between John Klute and Bree is very different from what is usually the case in classic film noir. In this way Pakula explores the potential of the genre through a contemporary lens. “The metaphoric power of noir conventions is brought into more conscious play” (Gledhill)

Another consideration of Pakula’s film depicting a feminist backlash is how the women are positioned as ‘objects’ and physical products, emblematic not only by the scenes where Bree is selling her body, but where she sits in a line-up with other beautiful women waiting to be chosen for a modeling job. The agency executives heads are cut off in the scene which accentuates the human disconnection and impersonal enterprise of being picked for profitability and worth. Each one scanned then dismissed because of their perceived faults, both models and prostitutes symbolize the fetishization of desirability and society’s measurement of a woman’s value. If dissecting the film’s symbology more closely there are carefully placed clues as suggested by Judith Gustafson who observes the images behind the models impersonal scrutiny and the wall photos behind them of a face dotted in silver like ‘bullet holes’ on either side depicted by the identical image yet in negative that makes the female face appear as an ‘alien being.’

“Has anybody talked to you about the financial arrangements? Well that depends naturally on how long you want me for, and what you want to do. I know you, it will be very nice. Well I’d like to spend the evening with you if its, if you’d like that. Have you ever done it with a woman before, paying her? Do you like it? I mean I have the feeling that that turns you on very particularly. What turns me on is because I have a good imagination, and I like pleasing. Do you mind if I take my sweater off. Well I think in the confines of one’s house one should be free of clothing and inhibitions. Oh inhibitions are nice, cause its always to nice to overcome. Don’t be afraid, I’m not. As long as you don’t hurt me, more than I like to be hurt. I will do anything you ask. You should never be ashamed of things like that. I mean you mustn’t be. You know there’s nothing wrong. Nothing. Nothing is wrong. I think the only way that any of us can ever be happy is to, is to let it all hang out ya know. Do it all and fuck it!”

When Klute meets Bree she toys with him, flaunting her independence and manifesting a casual attitude about his investigation. Her self aligned liberation dictates contempt for convention and criticism. Hard-edged Bree enjoys her freedom though she is seduced by the need to pick up the phone and maintain her high-class status as a pimp free call girl. Roy Scheider plays her old predatory pimp Frank Ligourin who flashes his Italian silk shirts and his Mephistophelean smile. Ligourin and call-girl Janie McKenna who was jealous of Bree are the ones responsible for sending Bree to the psycho john who beat her up. “put the freak onto Bree.”

Though it’s not what drives the story, in the darkened halls of the film is the sadistic degenerate Peter Cable ( first time actor Charles Cioffi), affluent businessman and friend and associate of the missing Tom Gruneman (Robert Milli) and detective John Klute.

Cable is a psychopathic misogynist who obsessively listens to his secret recordings of his exploits with Bree. He begins stalking her, suspecting that she may reveal his identity as the perverted John who beat her up and murdered her friend Janie and eventually kills another prostitute, a strung out junkie Arlyn Page (Dorothy Tristan).

“Make a man think that he’s accepted. It’s all a great big game to you. I mean, you’re all obviously too lazy and too warped to do anything meaningful with your lives so you prey upon the sexual fantasies of others. I’m sure it comes as no great surprise to you when I say that there are little corners in everyone which were better off left alone; sicknesses, weaknesses, which-which should never be exposed. But… that’s your stock in trade, isn’t it – a man’s weakness? And I was never really fully aware of mine… until you brought them out.”

Pretty much into the beginning of the picture we know who the killer is. The plot-line is more focused on the journey and relationship/character study of silent John Klute and turbulent Bree Daniels, and drawing the killer out into the open. It is the examination of the darker side of human nature, collective disorder and the undercurrent of psycho-sexual machinations as one of the central points to the film.

According to Joan Mellen not only is Klute a study in female sexuality, villain Peter Cable is the “projection of Bree’s self-contempt — a materialization of her fear of the dark.” Though the film presents an atmosphere of paranoia the threat is very real. Cable is “he also represents what she believes she deserves, the all destroying punisher who will make her pay for having bartered herself so cheaply.”

Jane Fonda’s Bree Daniels is shown in her room as Willis’ camera pulls back it informs us that she is afraid of the phone ringing and the menacing breather on the other end. This is when John Klute first shows up. There is an interesting correlation with the two men, cop and killer. 

The idea that this film is feminist in nature because of the sexual freedom of it’s central character is best challenged by feminist scholar Christine Gledhill. “The ideological project surrounding this version of the independent woman stereotype is the same as when it emerged in the 1890s under the guise of the New Woman… However fascinating, different, admirable the would-be-emancipated woman, struggling to assert her own identity in a male world, and professing a new, nonrepressive sexual morality, in the end she is really neurotic, fragile, lonely and unhappy.”

Critic Pauline Kael had a much different experience of the film upon its initial release, she called Bree Daniels “one of the strongest feminine characters to reach the screen” though Fonda’s brilliant performance creates a complexity worthy of analysis, in the end, she is still an object of male fantasy.

While the film’s critics focus mainly on feminist shortcomings there is also the understanding by some that it also shines a lens on masculinity. Klute “lacks dynamism” “sexless” and “out of place” perhaps or virtual psychopaths, and castrated males. Perhaps a commentary on men’s sweeping fear of the women’s movement and the transformations of femininity and masculinity. Also an interesting observation by Mia Mask is how the protagonist John Klute and psychopath Peter Cable though essentially an antithesis of each other’s persona’s there is an element of a ‘doppelgänger motif’. Diane Giddis points at the the threat of Cable, Bree’s potential killer can be seen as the incarnation of the emotional danger she feels threatened by with the emergence of John Klute. From the beginning of the film, “the two men are almost always shown in juxtaposition.” The morning after Bree gets the eerie ‘breather’ phone call from her stalker, Klute appears at her door.

“Like Cable, Klute appears uninvited at her door. He, too, spies on her through windows and from archways. He, too, violates the privacy of her telephone by secretly recording her calls, just as Cable secretly records his session with her. The film even emphasized these parallels by showing the men in similar shots…{…} Ultimately Klute and Cable are two sides of the same male personality. One side punishes women for their sexuality and power plays; the other neutralizes the threat by inviting child-like dependence.” –Judith Gustafson from Cineaste (1981) The Whore with the Heart of Gold

At the time of Klute’s release it gave the appearance as not only a straight suspense story but that of a radical film, filled with contradictions between what feminist critics would say is artifice and what represents women in real situations. Within this ‘new American cinema’ the film purports to be about a ‘liberated’ heroine inhabiting the structure of a thriller with an homage to the femme fatales of film noir. The contradictory implications lie between the film’s ‘modernity’, psychotherapy and the problem of women places it within a humanist realist tradition of European art cinema’ (Gledhill). Yet it also bares the stylistic qualities –a highly detailed visual polish and ‘baroque stereotypes’ in noir thrillers, an atmosphere predominately summoned by American films of the seventies. “The real world and fictional production” Gledhill asserts that stems from the Women’s Movement rather than studies in film theory. The idea of realism and genre are in total opposition with each other. Klute presents as an independent heroine yet each frame reveals the attack on Bree’s free will.

“While realism embraces such cultural values as ‘real life’, truth or credibility, genre production holds negative connotations such as ‘illusion’, ‘myth’, ‘conventionality’, ‘stereotypes’. The Hollywood genres represent the fictional elaboration of a patriarchal culture which produces macho heroes and a subordinate, demeaning and objectified place for women.”

And beyond the constructs of film noir, seventies thriller genre and criticism by feminist theorists of Pakula’s Klute, Bree Daniel’s conflicts are a universal struggle for women ‘the assertion of love vs the affirmation of self-determination. Bree’s uneasy self reflection makes the perspective of a movie prostitute as a breakthrough characterization. She isn’t a tragic figure nor is she weak nor contemptible. Bree explores her compulsion and potential self destructive behavior as a sex worker as an externalized symptom stemming from past mental and internalized physical injury and she strives to uncover the answers in her own way.

Pakula re-invents some of the noir traditions and places them within an examination of the modern world. With his masterful film, he strives not only for visual ecstasy, the dramatic flourish of the thriller genre and though there has been acute dissection of his film, he seeks to the divulge a truth that becomes a revelation of acting by Jane Fonda.

In a 2019 interview with Jane Fonda conducted by Illeana Douglas, Fonda refers to Alan J. Pakula whom she worked in subsequent films, Comes a Horseman and Rollover, as a “still director.” “He allowed time for things to happen.” Jane Fonda explains that she loves films from the seventies because there was time left for things to happen. “more silence, than words.”

During the rehearsal for Klute Jane Fonda in order to prepare for her role as Bree Daniels, arranged to spend a lot of time with call-girls, streetwalkers and madams. Prostitutes on the bottom rung, strung out from the underbelly of the city and very wealthy madams, whom Fonda said made it clear the more money the client the weirder the sexual appetites and fantasies. She also talked about her decade living in France where she got to know the legendary Madam Claude, famous for taking beautiful women and molding them into high price call girls. Jane Fonda got to know many of them. Many she met were tough, often sexually aggressive she she said, and also sexually confident. She had learned that often they were the survivors of sexual abuse. What she referred having their ‘agency taken away’. These women inspired Fonda to model Bree after them. This is why Fonda’s performance pivots so well from self-confidence to vulnerability.

Illeana Douglas compliments Fonda by telling her that there’s “something going on in your eyes” which made Fonda recall that acting instructor Lee Strasberg had told her the very same thing in his class, that something was going on in her eyes that made him think that more is going on.

Fonda also had what she calls a ‘hair epiphany’. She had just come off filming cult sensation directed by husband, Roger Vadim’s Barbarella where she had all those blonde waves. Her friend hairdresser Paul MacGregor who lived in the village worked on what is now her iconic hair style from Klute.

Jane Fonda worried that as a white privileged middle class actress couldn’t possibly bring to life a prostitute and make it believable. She insisted to her director Alan J. Pakula that he hire Faye Dunaway instead. Pakula burst out laughing.

Jane Fonda was allowed to add a lot of her own insight into the character of Bree, little details and director Pakula often took them as excellent suggestions that worked well with the story. For instance, it was Fonda’s idea to live in the apartment for weeks. She lay there at night as if she were Bree trying to get inside Bree’s head and summon up the things she would do within her private time. We don’t know the backstory behind Bree Daniels many permutations. We are only to privy to hints of the damage.

Jane Fonda conceptualized many of the set’s subtleties. What would Bree read, what would adorn her little space. She thought of having a cat, because cats symbolize independence and Fonda imagined that Bree’s persona wanted a companion that would be more like herself. In many ways, Jane Fonda dressed the set with these little introspective details. The film became a very personal experience for her. And one that initiated her feminist transformation. Even when she was smoking the spliff in her apartment, it wasn’t in the script but she spontaneously began to sing that little hymn, it was very natural and emphasized how real her character was. Fonda tells of how this was a very spontaneous improvisation as a plot detail that was not in the script but struck her at the moment.

Illeana Douglas also astutely pointed out that there was a lot of glamour to the film. There were moments where Klute was framed with close ups of Bree. Even with the evocative Cymbalon melody – the Klezmer (traditional Eastern European Jewish music) movement that guides the scene it reminds of the languid strut of Marlene Dietrich, the allure of Greta Garbo and had the flavor of night club singers in Paris and Germany. When I watched the incredibly thoughtful and in-depth interview it hit me how much that was true. I saw it as clear as day, that Jane Fonda’s aura did truly give off that mystique that essence of glamour of the great actresses’ personae. Superb fashion and costume designer Ann Roth chose the alluring dress that Bree wears when she visits the old man, Mr. Goldfarb. 

Jane Fonda also points out that Bree could have been a great actress but within her craft something would have triggered her to return to selling her body, which is a violation to the soul, and it’s very different than acting, as it comes from a deep place of trauma and the need to control and not open up her heart.

[voiceover] “I have no idea what’s going to happen. I… I just can’t stay in this city, you know? Maybe I’ll come back. You’ll probably see me next week.”

 

Continue reading “70s Cinema: Runaway Trains, Racing toward oblivion, Psycho-sexual machinations, and ‘the self loathing whore”

What a Character! Blogathon 2017- Martin Balsam: The Average Guy!

It’s finally here! The sixth annual What a Character Blogathon! 2017

It’s great to once again be contributing to this wonderful blogathon. It’s become my favorite event each year. And I’m grateful to all three marvelous bloggers who put this bash together! It’s a fantastic line up so stick around for the next few days and enjoy the tribute being paid to those wonderful character actors and supportive players who made the movies full of… well CHARACTER!!!!!

Hosted by that fabulously fanatic film friend Aurora from Once Upon A Screen…

Paula from Paula’s Cinema Club & Kellee from Outspoken and Freckled

This year I’m focusing on one of my all time favorites, one of those great familiar faces–Martin Balsam!

“I think the average guy has always identified with me.“-Martin Balsam

“The supporting role is always potentially the most interesting in a film.”

ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Jason Robards, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, 1976

“I’ll tell you, I still don’t feel whatever change you’re supposed to feel when your name goes up above the title. I think that’s because this star thing has never been the first consideration with me. Never. The work has always come first.”

George Peppard and Martin Balsam offer to light Audrey Hepburn’s cigarette in a scene from the film ‘Breakfast At Tiffany’s’, 1961. (Photo by Paramount/Getty Images)

Martin Henry Balsam nicknamed “The Bronx Barrymore” by columnist Earl Wilson, was born November 4, 1919 in the Bronx to Lillian and Albert Balsam. His mother was born in New York City to Russian Jewish parents, and his father was a Russian Jewish immigrant. Martin Balsam is like a comfortable friend, he could even be my father.

Martin participated in the Drama Club at DeWitt Clinton High School in New York. After high school, he attended the New School for acting. But when WWII started, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force. After WWII, Martin worked as an usher at Radio City Music Hall, and was selected by Elia Kazan and Lee Strasburg to join the Actors Studio. A struggling actor living in Greenwich Villege, Balsam started acting on Broadway in the late 1940s,“I ate a lot of mashed potatoes in those days. It was 1950 and I was 30 years old… I thought I had better learn to do something with my hands before it was too late.” He finally established himself as an actor in 1951 in Tennessee Williams’ “The Rose Tattoo.” He won a Tony for “You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running” and an Obie for “In Cold Storage.”

After his success on Broadway, Balsam began working in television, becoming known for regular parts on shows like the United States Steel Hour, The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, Studio One in Hollywood, and the Goodyear Playhouse. In 1955 he starred in  episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone , and as a result was offered the supporting role of Detective Milton Arbogast in Psycho (1960). After Psycho, he played strong parts in films like Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Cape Fear (1962) and The Carpetbaggers (1964). In 1965, he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for “A Thousand Clowns.” His later television appearances included a regular role as Archie Bunker’s Jewish business partner Murray in “Archie Bunker’s Place.”

During his 50 year film career he worked with top film directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Elia Kazan, Martin Scorsese, John Frankenheimer, and Sidney Lumet. After his success in the U.S., he accepted roles in European films, spending much of his later years in Italy.

Balsam was married 3 times. Actress Talia Balsam is his daughter, with his second wife, actress Joyce Van Patten. He died while in Rome from a heart attack on Feb. 13th, 1996 at age 76. He was survived by his third wife Irene Miller and three children, Adam, Zoe and Talia.

Balsam could play anything: a vengeful mob boss, a blustering pompous politico, a Mexican stagecoach driver, an Italian train line director, a flaming antiques dealer/caper crew member, a disgruntled subway motorman turned lukewarm hijacker with a tale-tell head cold.

Balsam could either play at being the old school seasoned good cop, or the jaded bad cop, a humble talent agent scraping by to make a living but comfortable with who he is, an average Joe, he was perfect as a non confrontational jury foreman, an over-eager opportunistic Colonel, or a quirky snake oil salesman in the wild west who keeps losing parts of his body. Several times he played the old Hollywood studio mogul, and a private investigator who gets more than he bargains for when he meets a psychotic old lady wielding a very large knife at the Bates Motel. And many more supportive parts that helped the sum total of whatever he was performing in to become even better because of his presence.

For over 55 years Balsam entertained us on the theatrical stage, in feature films,  in television plays and tv series as well as serious made for tv movies. His roles run a wide range since his first appearance in 1949’s tv show Suspense, to later on appearing in several Italian crime thrillers in the 70s.

He deservedly got the nomination for the Golden Globe Awards – (1974) Best Supporting Actor – Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (Nominated) and won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor as Jason Robards brother Arnold in A Thousand Clowns 1965.

Martin Balsam is an everyman. His familiar comfortable face and voice is easy for us to make a connection with because he appears to be one of us. My father was raised in the Bronx and also worked in the garment district like Martin’s father -til the mid 70s- I myself am a Russian Jew. Whenever I see him in something I think to myself, now we have the whole mishpocha, he’s like kin!

Every performance of Martin Balsam seems to be seasoned with a dash of significant flavor -his presence always makes whatever he’s appearing in more potent, salient and that much more comprehensible.

He more often in his roles exudes an authentic and, likable personality. Balsam is a ubiquitous guy, his performances always manage to deliver an extra special bit of realism or something familiar that makes it feel special. He exudes true accessibility as an ordinary 5’7 guy. But he also has the ability to transcend that average guy persona we can relate to and adopt a quirky either lovable or despicable character. Yet- he is not only the everyman. He’s also one of the most versatile actors, never playing the same character or role twice. Sometimes mild-mannered, sometimes bombastic, at times a face of still waters, at times a volatile geyser of emotions!

While he does epitomize the ordinary guy, Balsam stretched his range that included Italian crime films, serious teleplays, made for tv movies, feature classic films as well as a few quirky offbeat films

It may seem easy to be an ‘everyman’, to portray an ordinary fella whose personality is based on conformity and quiet acquiescence. But to be a regular guy who possesses many layers and dimensions, who isn’t just a flat cut out figure to fill out the plot… that takes talent, that is acting magic!

Martin Balsam draws you in and makes the experience memorable. That’s what makes him one of the most versatile and recognizable actors. I wish I had been able to see him on stage in the theater, but I regret that I was too young to experience that great time in our culture when the New York City theatre was thriving with Strasberg trained actors.

Martin Balsam has been imprinted on our collective consciousness with his legendary death scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho 1960 as Detective Arbogast who gets up close and personal with Norman’s knife wielding rage filled mother only to stumble backwards (wonderful bit of camerawork by John L. Russell) down the staircase at the Bates Motel—the quintessential cinematic scene still remains a shocker today!

While Jason Robards delivers a superb portrayal of an iconoclast living outside of society, railing against conformity, trying to raise his wonderfully compassionate nephew in search of a name, played by Barry Gordon (who also did the character on stage) in the film version adapted from the stage play of 1962, A Thousand Clowns 1965, Balsam’s performance as his brother Arnold is the quintessential downtrodden man who has risen above the grind to find inner peace and satisfaction with who he is: Balsam plays Arnold without a hint of artifice.

It was this impassioned performance in A Thousand Clowns that won Balsam’s Best Supporting Actor Academy Award.

Mr. Blue:{Robert Shaw} “What did they catch you doing?” Mr. Green:{Martin Balsam} “Nothing. They framed me. The beakies needed a fall guy.” Mr. Blue: “The beakies?” Mr. Green: “Transit cops. Undercover guys. They got wind of a gang passing dope, you know, transporting from downtown uptown and giving it to a motorman, somebody picking it up in Harlem. They tried to pin the evidence on me but they didn’t find anything.” Mr. Blue: “You were innocent?” Mr. Green: “Course I was innocent. Do you think I’d do a thing like that? What’s the matter with you?”

A few of my favorite performances are his flamboyant decorator/ in on the caper Tommy Haskins in director Sidney Lumet’s The Anderson Tapes 1971. And of course I particularly love his Harold Longman aka ”Mr. Green”, the reluctant subway train hijacker with a that pesky head cold, which ultimately gets him pinched because of an ironic ill-fated “atchoo” just as the dauntless Walter Matthau’s police Lt. Zachary Garberin is leaving his NYC apartment checking up on Longman as a suspect in the original 1974 classic version of director Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). I loved his portrayal of the wise Mendez in director Martin Ritt’s Hombre 1967, And then there’s Bianchi who is quick to pin the murder on everyone Poirot interrogates in director Sidney Lumet’s wonderful Murder on the Orient Express 1974. One of his most heartbreaking roles is that of Dr. Harry Walden, eye doctor who is beaten down and haunted by the ghosts of war, married to Joanne Woodward an ice queen in Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (1973). As Professor Ruzinsky the dotty academic who translates the portion of Paradise Lost Balsam’s characterization of an eccentric adds humor to Michael Winner’s frightening 70s horror masterpiece The Sentinel (1977). And in Contract on Cherry Street (tv movie) 1977 Balsam plays the hardened and world weary Capt. Ernie Weinberg who is beaten down and beleaguered and just can’t deal with the reality of fighting against the system that allows criminals to reign over his beloved New York City.

Balsam started out as part of the Method actors led by Lee Strasberg along with actor and friend Shelley Winters who shared the stage with him in the 1950s.

Shelley wanted to return to the theater after feeling strangled by her 7 year contract with Universal Studios. At that time, she was friends with Method actors like Elaine Stritch, Ben Gazzara Kim Stanley Virginia Vincent Tony Franciosa (her then husband) Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and our wonderful Martin Balsam. Shelley wanted to do a Summerstock tour of her play Wedding Breakfast. Shelley and Marty met with a hot new director Sidney Lumet hoping at the end of the play they could shoot it as a film script. Unfortunately Shelley didn’t have faith in her erratic husband Tony Franciosa and so she cancelled the project, which made Lumet angry.

The two would come together again on television in 1964 for Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre “Two is the Number” Later once again they both co-starred in The Delta Force 1986.

At the Actor’s Studio Balsam was in the great company with friends and co-stars the likes of Geraldine Page, Rip Torn, Ben Gazzara, Julie Harris, Barbara Harris, Anne Bancroft, Maureen Stapleton, Jane Fonda, Anne Jackson, Eli Wallach, Burgess Meredith, Walter Matthau, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Estelle Parsons, Marilyn Monroe and Franchot Tone. Working with writers, Arthur Penn, Arthur Miller, William Inge and Clifford Odets.

You can see a full list of his work at IMDb but here is a list of some of my favorite Martin Balsam’s filmography stopping at the mid 1980s:

Television shows such as: Suspense 1949, Inner Sanctum 1954,  Goodyear Playhouse (TV Series) 1954-1956, Kraft Theatre tv series 1958, Studio One in Hollywood (TV Series) 1957-1958, Decoy tv series 1958, Playhouse 90 (TV Series) 1958-1959, Have Gun – Will Travel (TV Series) 1958-1960, Roald Dahl’s Way Out (TV Series) 1961, Alfred Hitchcock Presents (TV Series) 1958-1961, The New Breed (TV Series) 1961, Naked City (TV Series) 1959-1962, The Untouchables (TV Series) 1961-1962, Route 66 (TV Series), The Twilight Zone (TV Series) 1959-1963, The Defenders tv series 1961-1964, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. tv series 1965, Dr. Kildare tv series 1926-1966, The Fugitive tv series 1967, The Name of the Game 1968-1970, The Six Million Dollar Man 1973, Police Story tv series 1973, Kojak 1974 tv series, Maude 1976 tv series, Quincy M.E. 1982 (Tv Series), Archie Bunker’s Place (tv series 45 episodes) as Murray Klein–Previously they had performed together in the The Sacco-Vanzetti Story on Sunday Showcase (1959)

Television Movies : The Old Man Who Cried Wolf (1970), Night of Terror (1972), Trapped Beneath the Sea (1974), Death Among Friends (1975), The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case (1976), Raid on Entebbe (1976), Contract on Cherry Street (1977), The House on Garibaldi Street (1979), The People vs. Jean Harris (1981), I Want to Live (1983) remake 

Feature Films: On the Waterfront 1954 uncredited as Gillette, 12 Angry Men 1957 as the Foreman Juror 1, Time Limit 1957 as Sgt. Baker, Marjorie Morningstar 1958 as Dr. David Harris, Middle of the Night 1959 as Jack, Psycho 1960 as Detective Milton Arbogast, Ada 1961 as Steve Jackson, Breakfast at Tiffany’s 1961 as O.J. Berman, Cape Fear 1962 as Police Chief Mark Dutton, Seven Days in May 1964 as Paul Girard, The Carpetbaggers 1964, Come Back Little Sheba 1965 as Doc Delaney, Harlow 1965 as Everett Redman, The Bedford Incident 1965 as Lt. Cmdr.

Martin Balsam as Lt. Cmdr. Chester Potter, M.D., U.S.N. in The Bedford Incident (1965) also shown James MacArthur as Ensign Ralston-

Chester Potter, M.D., U.S.N., A Thousand Clowns 1965 as Arnold, Hombre 1967 as Henry Mendez, The Good Guys and the Bad Guys 1969 as Mayor Wilker, Catch-22 1970 as Colonel Cathcart, Tora! Tora! Tora! 1970 as Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, Little Big Man 1970 as Mr. Merriweather, The Anderson Tapes 1971 as Tommy Haskins, The Stone Killer 1973 as mob boss Al Vescari, Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams 1973 as Harry Walden, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three 1974 as Harold Longman aka Mr. Green, Murder on the Orient Express 1974 as Bianchi, Mitchell 1975 as James Arthur Cummings, All the President’s Men 1976 as Howard Simons, Two-Minute Warning 1976 as Sam McKeever, The Sentinel 1977 as Professor Ruzinsky, Silver Bears 1977 as Joe Flore, The Delta Force 1986 as Ben Kaplan, St. Elmo’s Fire 1985 as Mr. Beamish along side real ex-wife Joyce Van Patten.

director Damiano Damiani’s Confessions of a Police Captain 1971 Martin Balsam as Commissario Bonavia

Special note of Balsam’s Italian Crime films: Confessions of a Police Captain 1971 as Commissario Bonavia, Chronicle of a Homicide 1972 as Giudice Aldo Sola, Counselor at Crime 1973 as Don Antonio Macaluso, Smiling Maniacs 1975 as Carlo Goja, Season for Assassins 1975 as Commissioner Katroni, Meet Him and Die 1976 as Giulianelli, The Warning 1980 as Quester Martorana 

HERE ARE SOME MEMORABLE SCENES FROM BALSAM’S IMPRESSIVE CAREER

A Thousand Clowns 1965″I have a talent for surrender”
Directed by Fred Coe Famous broadway play comes to the screen with memorable performances by all the principles in standout jobs by Jason Robards as a talented non conformist and Barry Gordon as his precocious ward. They struggle against welfare bureaucracy in order to stay together. Funny and poignant throughout. Martin Balsam’s performance as brother Arnold lends the axel of normalcy to the entire shenanigans with his fresh fruit and common sense filled equilibrium.

12 Angry Men 1957

Directed by Sidney Lumet. Martin Balsam plays the unassuming jury foreman who tries to keep the proceedings run by the rules but soon finds out that many of the jurors are racist, filled with rage, apathetic and just in a rush to get the ballgame even when a young man’s accused of murder’s life hangs in the balance.

Little Big Man 1970

Directed by Arthur Penn, Dustin Hoffman plays Jack Crabbe who recalls 121 of his adventurous years ending with General Custer’s Last Stand. Told in flashback it tells of numerous encounters in the Old West. One of the most touching relationships is with his chosen Grandfather Old Lodge Skins played by Chief Dan George. Martin Balsam is perfect as the irascible Mr. Merriweather a snake oil salesman who with each town he get’s chased out of, winds up losing an eye, an ear, then a hand then a leg. And after all that getting tarred and feathered to boot! But he still has a mouth to crack wise with and ponder life’s deep questions

The Carpetbaggers 1964

Directed by Edward Dymtryk. Howard Hughe’s like millionaire George Peppard Jonas Cord is a rude and unfeeling rich young tycoon makes movies love and enemies in the Hollywood of the 1920 & 30s. Alan Ladd as a Tom Mix clone helps in this his last picture. Carroll Baker is steamy very tame compared to the porno edged Harold Robbins novel. Martin Balsam plays studio Mogal Bernard B. Norman.

Murder on the Orient Express 1974

Directed by Sidney Lumet. Albert Finny is astonishing as Agatha Christies Belgian detective
Hercule Poirot who is stranded on the train by snow, and a murder where nothing is as it seems. With an extraordinary cast of characters Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset. Jean-Pierre Cassel, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Wendy Hiller, Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Roberts, Richard Widmark, Michael York, Colin Blakely and of course Martin Balsam is animated and hilariously radiant as the Italian Bianchi -head of the train line, who suspects everyone!

Contract on Cherry Street 1977

Directed by William A. Graham
When Frank Sinatra’s partner is killed, NYC detective Frank Hovannes and his organized-crime squad go against the mob run by Martin Gabel, despite strong objections from his superiors and the legal-departmental restrictions that hinder him. Martin Balsam plays Capt. Ernie Weinberg a career cop who is just worn down by all the bureaucracy. The chemistry between Sinatra and Balsam is terrific. Very well done for a made for tv film. Good supporting performances by Harry Guardino and Henry Silva.

Catch-22 (1970)

Directed by Mike Nichols. This black comedy about the absurdity of war stars Alan Arkin as a soldier during World War II. The dilemma of trying to avoid the insanity or to embrace it in order to get out of duty. Orson Welles plays a rabid general who keeps scheduling more and more bombing missions, and Martin Balsam as the blustering opportunistic Colonel Cathcart adds an extra edge of preposterous folly and audacity

Hombre 1967

Directed by Martin Ritt
Henry Mendez (Martin Balsam) plays a sage Mexican who himself has been treated less than by the white man because of his heritage. Mendez tells John Russell (Paul Newman -Hombre) the stagecoach line is shutting down because of the railroad and urges John Russell to return to his White Man’s roots and take over a boarding house left to John by his deceased stepfather.

Henry Mendez is the stagecoach driver paid by Alexander Favor to transport him and his family. Mendez decides to take the back road to Bisbee Arizona because of a suspicious group of men (led by outlaw Richard Boone), in the area. Alexander Favor (Fredric March) makes Henry do his dirty work and tell John Russell that he has to ride on top with Mendez when Alexander finds out that John Russell is a White Man raised as an Apache. Mendez doesn’t see the point in fighting this because he has seen how it isn’t worth making trouble. Co-stars Barbara Rush as Alexander Favor’s wife Audra.

Cape Fear 1962

Directed by J. Lee Thompson Cape Fear is a taut thriller about a lawyer (Gregory Peck) and his family being menaced by a vengeful psychopathic ex-con Max Cady played with authentic relish causing real chills by Robert Mitchum. CADY blames Sam Bowden (Peck) for sending him up the river and now that he is out. he’s got disturbing plans for his family. Martin Balsam plays Sam’s friend Police Chief Mark Dutton who tries to help him protect himself though it seems Cady has ways of getting around the law.

The Sentinel 1977

Directed by Michael Winner. This is a simple nightmarish adult fairy tale about a young model Alison Parker (Christina Raines) who has been picked by a secret cult of catholic priests to become the next sentinel to watch over the gates of hell, which happens to be a brownstone in Brooklyn Heights. (the building is still there) While renting this lovely furnished apartment she meets a host of weird characters that may or may not exist. When odd occurrences begin to drive Alison mad, her boyfriend lawyer Michael (Chris Sarandon) looks for help from various criminal elements lock pickers, private eyes and our man Martin Balsam as Professor Ruzinsky to help translate a passage in Latin. Balsam is hilarious as the forgetful & nutty old professor. Co-stars Ava Gardner, Burgess Meredith

Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode “The Equalizer” aired February 9, 1958

 

Marty plays a mild mannered accountant Eldon Marsh who is called “little man” too often after the new company hot shot who is much bigger and stronger Wayne Phillips (Leif Erickson) humiliates him and steals his wife (Norma Crane). Eldon gets punched a lot but still defends his honor by challenging Phillips (Erickson) to a fight to the death

Naked City episode “Beyond Truth” aired July 7 1959

 

Directed by John Brahm

Martin Balsam plays Arnold Fleischmann who is haunted by a reoccurring nightmare. Arnold has served time in jail for manslaughter when driving drunk he hits and kills a little girl. Now his wife seeks out the help of Det. James ‘Jimmy’ Halloran (James Fransiscus) of the 65th Precinct to re-investigate the case, as she has never believed that Arnold was driving that night. But Arnold refuses to co-operate with the police and just want to leave it in the past. But the evidence does look like Arnold’s been framed for the killing and that the wrong man has been convicted. Balsam plays a sobering and sad guy who has come to accept the hand he’s been dealt.

The Twilight Zone episode “The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine” aired October 23, 1959

 

Written by Rod Serling. Ida Lupino plays Barbara Jean Trenton a faded film star who lives in the past, constantly re-watching her old movies and shunning the outside world. Martin Balsam plays her agent Danny Weiss who tries to get her to come out of isolation, even getting her a part in a new film, though it’s not a lead nor glamorous role. Danny tries so hard to get Barbara to see that it’s no good living int he past, and though she refuses to embrace what’s new, Danny stands by her loyally ultimately with frightening and uncanny results.

Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams 1973 “I have to stand someplace, someplace that I’ve stood before!”

Directed by Gilbert Cates the story follows the journey of depression experienced by housewife Rita Walden. At the opening of the film, Rita loses her overbearing mother played by Sylvia Sidney. Martin Balsam does an incredible job of stoically navigating around Rita’s ice water emotions, though he has ghosts of his own that he quietly battles. Somehow through all the harsh words and bitter detachments, the couple seem to find each other again at the end. Balsam was nominated for the 1974 Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor as Dr. Henry Walden unloved by his unemotional wife, finally articulates his feelings and confronts his pain head on while on a trip to France revisiting Bastogne where he was stationed during the war. It’s an outstanding performance which shows Balsam’s acting range, as he shakes off the average guy persona and reaches deep inside and bares his soul.

Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams 1973

Psycho (1960)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock After Marion Crane steals money from her employer and runs off into the night staying at the Bates Motel run by the gentle young man Norman -which leads to her terrifying demise, her sister and lover Lila Crane (Vera Miles) and Sam Loomis ( John Gavin) hires a private detective Det. Milton Arbogast to find Marion. Balsam plays the edgy Arbogast who isn’t buying sweet and humble Norman’s story that he’s never seen Marion Crane. Arbogast is not one to be put off, he suspects Norman’s mother knows something and secretly goes up tot he house on the hill to investigate. to his ‘down fall’ Sorry for that cheap pun!

The Anderson Tapes 1971

Director Sidney Lumet’s taut action thriller about an ex-con (Sean Connery) under surveillance who wants to pull off The Big Heist, consisting of loot and treasures from the affluent tenants of a high rise apartment where his lover/call girl (Diane Cannon) lives. Martin Balsam plays the wonderfully exuberant interior designer Tommy who helps out with the caper.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three 1974

Directed by Joseph Sargent -Walter Matthau plays the belly-aching gum chewing Police Lt. Zachary Garber chief of security on the New York City subway. A band of clever thugs led by Robert Shaw as Bernard Ryder aka Mr. Blue has hijacked a commuter train with,demanding a ransom of $1 million dollars or they will start killing the passengers one by one. Martin Balsam plays Harold Longman aka Mr. Green plagued by a really bad head cold, and sneezes throughout the film so much so that Lt. Garber recognizes it, even replying “Gesundheit” . Green is also a bit reluctant throughout the caper, but he’s disgruntled for having lost his job as a transit worker.

Well this is Joey giving you all the Bronx Cheer for me and Marty!!! But I mean it in the nicest way!