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!!!!!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
I’ve written enough here at The Last Drive-In, to sort of feel more relaxed about letting it rip sometimes. I’m hoping you’ll indulge me a bit while I go off on a tiny rant… I hope that’s alright…
Michael Winner’s film was a failure at the box office. So what!
You will have undoubtedly read 9 out of 10 reviewers who will make too convenient a statement about The Sentinel being a Rosemary’s Baby rip off. In terms of how I experience this film there’s more too it than just a pat dismissal and a flip accusation of being derivative. I had first read Jeffrey Konvitz’s book when it was published in 1974, and then went to the movies to see his adapted screenplay The Sentinel during it’s theatrical release– I was a ripe 15 year old who was captivated by the grotesque and eerie imagery. I also saw Rosemary’s Baby in 1968 as a double feature with The Mephisto Waltz 1971.
Perhaps there is a conscious connection or homage made by director Winner between the devilish residents of the infamous Bramford Arms with it’s history of murderers and deviants –the facade filmed of New York Cities Dakota with birds eye view of Central Park as Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse move into their house of Hades in Rosemary’s Baby 1968, perhaps my favorite film.
Alison Parker (Christina Raines) does come in contact with a similar Gothic building filled with oddball characters who wind up being the ghosts of murderers who once lived in the impressive Brownstone. I imagine the gateway to Hell would attract an evil ensemble of nasties. And to counterbalance Alison as the women-in-peril who must fight off the paranoia and heady mind games are the devil and his minions who toy with Alison in order to drive her mad enough to once again try commit suicide. Rosemary Woodhouse has a perseverance to keep her devils at bay and hold onto her precious baby even if he was to carry on his father’s legacy. Either way, it’s both buildings filled with eccentrics and the fog of paranoia that tie the two films together for me, but that’s where it ends.
As an amateur film buff and classic horror film aficionado I think I have some authority when weighing in on whether director Michael Winner’s The Sentinel is just derivative dreck and/or dribble.
And I discovered that it’s not just the average chimer-in nudnik on IMBd who feel the need to review this film in such a simplistic way that making the comparison to Rosemary’s Baby feels like just a cop out to me.
It is even referred to as such in writer John Kenneth Muir’s entirely comprehensive book Horror Films of the 1970s– citing two film reviews during the time of The Sentinel’s theatrical release…
Look, as far back as it’s theatrical release and the critique was, to lump all ‘devil’ in the city, good vs. evil tropes with the 1968 seminal film by director Roman Polanski based on Ira Levin’s novel Rosemary’s Baby.
“…a crude and obvious imitation of Rosemary’s Baby, but much creepier and more bizarre. The unnerving ending obliterates the memory of the rest of the film… makes good use of several past-their prime actors in small roles but attempts at psychological insight, subtlety or believability fall flat (it’s a horror story not a autobiographical story of Aimee Semple McPherson for crying out loud… believability.) The great special effects at the end justify the film’s faults however.” Darrell Moore. The Best, Worst and Most Unusual: Horror films, Crowne publishing 1983.
I say to that, we leave believability outside our un-conscious abject fear chamber that is our most hidden dread drenched mind when partaking in a little collective anxiety ridden purge, right Dr. Jung?
And if critic Darrell Moore is talking about Ava Gardner–a gorgeous 55 year old woman is NOT past her prime, I hate when sexism and agism rears it’s ugly head!, I’m heading toward the number, which continually amazes people, I read these kinds of misdirected comments all the time, some critic or person saying ‘she’ looks so good for her age-40ish!, does that imply that Ava and I should be embalmed already? Geesh, but in the words of Sophia Petrillo, I digress…
February 12, 1977 from The New York Times written by Richard Eder—“The confrontations are supposed to be terrifying but the most they offer is some mild creepiness… Mr. Winner has sweetened the mess with some nudity, a little masturbation and a dash of lesbianism.”
Interesting that the one bit of titillation Richard Eder manages to pluck out is the lesbianism. In fact that seems to be of most interest to many reviewers. Well, it’s 2016 and if a lesbian pops up in a film, it’s now about as outmoded and the shock obsolete as the landline and mullets… well I have seen people still sporting mullets.
And I’d like to say there’s more than just mild creepiness, there are absolute moments of mind jolting terror. The exquisite color palette and the eye for detail that supports the sense of mystery such as the fabulous Houdini poster in Michael’s apartment -a center piece in plain sight that one might miss though it is there to instruct us on our journey through the dark maze of the storyline
If anything, the film lies closer in relationship to Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (1976) where another protagonist Trelkovsky portrayed by Polanski himself, is being mentally tortured by a group of people (Shelley Winters, Lila Kedrova and Jo Van Fleet) in his building that may or may not exist ultimately driving him to attempt suicide. The fact that our heroine Alison is driven to madness and suicide by her seemingly harmless yet strange and quirky neighbors, that are actually, unholy denizens of hell definitely evokes comparisons in my mind with Roman Polanski’s equally disturbing THE TENANT (1976).
The fact that the main protagonist is driven to madness and suicide by her seemingly harmless but, actually, unholy tenants brings forth comparisons with Roman Polanski’s equally unappetizing in THE TENANT (1976)
I’d even go as far as to compare director Michael Winner and writer Jeffrey Konvitz’s film has something of a Alejandro Jodorowsky flavor to it, with the grotesque imagery and surreal processional. Or might have influenced the very hallucinatory Jacob’s Ladder (1990) that deals with a soul’s nightmarish journey through unfathomable realms of consciousness that conjures demons and angels alike.
With The Sentinel some people are fascinated, some are repulsed and some just think The Sentinel is truly a retread of Polanski/Castle’s superior masterpiece.
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre (1989)
First off, my impression of classical 70s horror is that it’s hard for that decade to be derivative when it started an entire trend of moody, pseudo-violent social commentary’s that had a limitless freedom to go down an adventurous road. If 70s horror took its cue from older decades and genres, perhaps a nod to Tod Browning, Val Lewton, French New Wave cinema and the surrealists like Jean Renoir and René Clément, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Federico Fellini. But please arm chair critics that spend time comparing a 70s horror gem to a a film without the constructive reasons to support it, or to even hold it up against a contemporary film by saying it lacks a good body count and special effects, I hope I don’t offend thee, but –please!!! You’re out of your element– stick with Saw and films like The Conjuring by James Wan… You don’t understand the 70s decade of horror and it’s unique contribution. Sorry to be so snotty here…
Now it’s even been compared to The Omen (1976) and The Exorcist (1973) as well. I suppose where ever the devil lurks, it’s automatically a Rosemary’s Baby, Exorcist, Omen rip-off. Well… the element of paranoia exists in the film as Alison Parker goes through a nightmarish journey through a maze of surreal events, while she devolves toward her ultimate fate. There are elements of minions from Hell that lurk and groups of diabolical characters that come in and out of Alison’s orbit. And like The Omen and The Exorcist, the film does open up in Italy with a sense of ancient religious underpinnings hinting at the inner workings of the church. It then brings us to a church in New York City where Monsignor Franchino and a colorful group of acolytes convene in a ceremony, with a quick cut to Alison posing in a post-modern sheer black flowing cape as if moving Martha Graham style, a dark looming allegorical winged bird or augury swathed in black like the angel of death.
The juxtaposition of the old and the modern is a nice touch. BUT… that’s where the comparison ends. The film has it’s own unique story. It has been blamed for being too simplistic a story. Okay fine. Perhaps, too many mainstream contemporary narratives have gotten so convoluted and disorienting that a simple plot is not enough. Then again, there’s the complaint that it’s predictable. Well, then don’t watch it, if the journey isn’t worth the end result. Plot holes is another gripe– Well, perhaps during that simplistic story, they weren’t paying attention. The film explains as much as it can, within the visual narrative. And that’s enough…
The Sentinel is perhaps one of the most engrossing, nightmarish, surreal a horror film as any of the 1970s… with it’s origin based on the story of the Garden of Eden and the angel Uriel who was entrusted to guard the entrance from the Devil. Alison Parker (Christina Raines) has been chosen by providence and by lot for her past transgressions, her two suicide attempts–now to be groomed by the secret order of the Catholic church to redeem her damned soul, taking the place of the blind priest Father Halliran and become the new Sentinel, Sister Theresa to guard over the gates of Hell in– Brooklyn Heights.
Dante Alighieri wrote his allegorical epic poem between 1306 and 1321. Virgil is the guide who takes the reader through the author’s examination of the afterlife, which travels through the Inferno (Hell), the Purgatorio (Purgatory), and the Paradiso (Heaven).-source wikipedia
The Sentinel 1977 is another extraordinary occult film whose ambiance benefits from being shot on location in Brooklyn Heights and Manhattan. 10 Montague Terrace in Brooklyn Heights with the Promenade off Remsen Street. The building is still there…
As writer Jack Hunter describes in his chapter Flesh Inferno from Inside Teradome: The Illustrated History of Freak Film he talked about Federico Fellini’s Sartyicon 1969 and immediately The Sentinel floods into my mind- —“His vision of Petronius’ ancient Rome, Fellini willfully fills the screen with a succession of grotesqueries, images both beautiful and bestial, ghastly and gorgeous.”
Aesthetically, the scattered surrealism works, because it supports the religious mythology and dark fantasy of the oddball characters and the story. The moody camerawork by Richard C. Kratina and sense of realism within the disorienting story offered by set design Ed Stewart works to create a surreal atmosphere of anxiety and ambivalence. No one will believe that she isn’t just having another emotional crisis. The building reveals its dark origins, the entire film is decorated with dread and kitschy late-seventies embellishments filled with hallucinogenic moments of abject agony (a la Alejandro Jodorowsky and Federico Fellini Satyricon 1969, Juliet of the Spirits 1965) soul tormenting— ominous and sinister visions and flashbacks, profanity, debauchery, cannibilistic malevolent Milton’s Inferno and Dante’s Divine Comedy as archetype and the ‘fallen woman’ as fetish.
Dante’s Inferno is a weary journey emblazoned with fire and perdition… a landscape occupied by devil’s, lost souls and shades.
Divine Comedy opening verse—the plaque in the basement of the brownstone that Michael uncovers reads as follows
Now the hint that the brownstone is the gateway to Hell and she has been chosen as the next sentinel to guard over it, as a way of redemption for her past suicide attempt cutting her wrists in a graphically bloody scene while she’s wearing her Catholic girl short plaid skirt white blouse and penny loafers, Mary Janes or black and white saddle shoes. is chosen by a secretive and distant association of Catholic priests to be the next “sentinel” to the gateway to Hell, the idea of blinding these Sentinels is to prevent their eyes to fall upon evil horrors that might induce fear and influence them away from their guardianship. All sentinels had tried to kill themselves, now priests or nuns in the files. They didn’t exist until after their attempted suicides showing up as clergy. Raines’ father is a gnarled, bony old man and he is shown so scrawny as to be suffering from pernicious anemia and putrid bile, his cadaveric screeching mannerisms like a vicious desiccated old buzzard.
Both the operatives of good and the minions of evil, work to try and get her to either take up the mantle of guardian or try to kill herself and become another soul won over by the devil, thwarting the secretive group of the secret sect of the Vatican to protect the gates of Hell from re-opening, watching over her to keep her from being terrorized into another suicide attempt.
Writer Jeffrey Konvitz Produced and wrote the screenplay for the film Directed by Michael Winner (The Nightcomers 1971, The Mechanic 1972, Death Wish 1974) the film was scripted by Jeffrey Konvitz (Silent Night, Bloody Night 1972—-The Stone Killer (1973)) based on his 1974 novel which the film does an excellent job of paying tribute to. The story unfolds beautifully with twists and turns and an extremely creepy and campy bizarre ambience.
Composer Gil Melle created the resplendent orchestral vibe, majestic horn section,haunting woodwinds and resonant strings that cry out. Les Lazarowitz is credited as the sound recordist who creates a sonic landscape of terrifying wails, metallic splashes and waves of dark moody textures.
And Richard C. Kratina (camera work on Midnight Cowboy 1969) worked on the interesting camera angles and cinematography. Costumes and wardrobe by Peggy Farrell, Set Design –Ed Stewart. Film editors Bernard Gibble (The Man in the White Suit 1951) and Terence Rawlings (Our Mother’s House 1967, The Devils 1971, The Great Gatsby 1974, Alien 1979)
Someone on IMBd pointed out that Michael Winner’s audio commentary for the UK DVD spotlights the director regaling you with the tale of how Universal head honcho Ned Tanen rejected Martin Sheen and insisted on Chris Sarandon for the lead only to wonder who was “that awful Greek waiter.”
Director Michael Winner caught a lot of flack when it was realized that he had used actual disfigured people who were born with physical disabilities instead of special effects to represent the demons rising up from the bowels of hell. Something that Tod Browning experienced when he released his film Freaks in 1932. Or consider director Erle C. Kenton’s characters adapted from the H.G. Wells story of Island of Lost Souls (1932). Why Tod Browning’s film Freaks was banned for over 30 years, when in retrospect Browning portrayed his ‘freaks’ as sympathetic heroes that we not only saw as very human but empathized with, the accusation that the film was exploitative seems unwarranted.
Dick Smith did the make up which interspersed the real life ‘freaks’ with the make up costumed damned souls from hell. There’s a man who has testicles for a beard, I’d like to know if he was that way real life or created to as one of the denizens to shock. One of the sideshow ‘devils’ also appeared in the Thomas Tryon adapted film directed by Robert Mulligan —the incredibly atmospheric The Other (1972)
With special make up designed by legendary Dick Smith who also worked on The Exorcist 1973 and music by Gil Melle special effects by Albert Whitlock (The Birds 1963, Earthquake 1974, a few episodes of Star Trek, The Thing 1982, a few episodes of Star Trek) additional Make up by-Robert Laden —although people with real facial deformities were also utilized… -a whole crowd of real-life freaks and disabled extras as the denizens of hell. real-life freaks (some of whom are said to have also featured in Jack Cardiff’s THE MUTATIONS .
Without giving away a few secrets, I can say that the climax is riveting as the devils and damned start to pour out of Hell, unleashed by Chazen at their side.
As John Kenneth Muir aptly puts it, about the controversial use of real life people with actual deformities to plays Hellish monstrosities “it is no doubt the strongest in the film, “The idea of physical deformity (i.e.”evil”) is one of The Sentinel’s more powerful conceits.”
The Sentinel is one of the most definitive horror films of the 1970s decade. The cast of characters, and the story-line, the imagery and the intensity play out like a grim yet colorful nightmare, without shock value for the sake of just being graphically violent. I do have a bit of an uncomfortable time watching a certain scene with Beverly D’Angelo as Sandra who performs a sexual act on herself while Sylvia Miles goes to get the tea, in order to shock and upset Alison. I wish the scene had been more suggested and toned down, it still would have served its purpose. I understand that the idea was to be vulgar and offensive in order to express how profane these characters were to develop but it makes my skin crawl to watch it, as it’s only moments it seems to last forever until the look of ecstasy and climax washes over the beautiful actresses face. This is an extremely awkward moment for Alison and a very unusual welcome to the building to watch the couple fondle each other in their leotards and wild teased out coiffed hair.
Charles Chazen matter of fact tells Alison as he points with his own flamboyant style “This is where the lesbians live,” and exchanges like Alison asking Gerde “What do you do for a living?” She answers “We fondle each other.”
I suppose in 1977 even the allusion to the idea that lured and sexually explosive lesbians existed on screen was in itself a titillating and provocative notion, today the use of them as a ‘fetish taboo symbol” has lost its luster to shock and tantalize..
Christina Raines plays a young model with an afflicted soul –Alison Parker. Her boyfriend is portrayed by Chris Sarandon as the smarmy mustachioed sketchy Lawyer who was marvelous as Leon -Sonny (Al Pachino’s) lover who wants a sex change so bad, Sonny’s willing to rob a bank for the money–it’s a true story also set in NYC of course I’m talking director Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975). Sarandon apparently was not happy with the film post production.
Then there’s José Ferrer as a “Priest of the Brotherhood” Arthur Kennedy as Monseigneur Franchino , the magnificent Ava Gardner in a short cameo is sophisticated and outré Vogue as Realtor Miss Logan who I believe to be literally an ‘outside’ agent in the true sense of the word, working for the secret Catholic society trying to strategically ensure that Alison will be in place and ready to take over as the Sentinel because on the appointed date Father Halliran (John Carradine) who is now fading psychically too weak to uphold his task as Guardian over the Gates of Hell will need a successor. John Carradine looks decrepit and spooky with his fixed gaze and staring off white eyeballs, and although he has a distinctive voice we all love, he has no dialogue in the film which works.
Burgess Meredith -Ebullient, mischievous and intellectually charming, a little impish, a dash of irresolute cynicism wavering between lyrical sentimentalism. He’s got this way of reaching in and grabbing the thinking person’s heart by the head and spinning it around in dazzling circles with his marvelously characteristic voice. A mellifluous tone which was used often to narrate throughout his career. Meredith has a solicitous tone and whimsical, mirthful manner.
And his puckish demeanor hasn’t been missed considering he’s actually played Old Nick at least three times as I have counted. In The Sentinel 1977, The Twilight Zone episode Printers Devil and Torture Garden 1967. He also played a malevolent character along side Eileen Heckert as Arnold and Roz Allardyce in Dan Curtis’ equally creepy Burnt Offerings (1976).
While in Freddie Francis’ production he is the more carnivalesque Dr. Diabolo–a facsimile of the devil given the severely theatrical make-up, goatee and surrounding flames… he is far more menacing in Michael Winner’s 70s non humorous gem he’s splendid as the spiffy little eccentric cultivated Charles Chazen.
Veteran supportive actor Martin Balsam the scatterbrained scholar, Professor Ruzinsky, who translates the Latin passages into English for Michael Lerman, Beverly D’Angelo plays Gerde’s girlfriend Sandra a mute pixie, the guttural Sylvia Miles (Murder Inc 1960, Naked City 1961-1963, Midnight Cowboy 1969) plays Gerde the guttural pythoness who adds that bit of titillation everyone seems to like to point out, as they are vulgarian Lesbian ballerinas lazing in their leotards.
And of course the uncomfortable scene where Beverly D’Angelo delightedly pleasures herself in front of Alison while Gerde is getting the tea. When she comes back with the tray and finds Alison getting up to scram -Gerde replies like a Diva “It’s very rude to drink and run” I particularly loved this description of the classic actress- “featuring predatory Teutonic lesbian Sylvia Miles.” I just adore both actresses!
Fred Stuthman who has appeared on more television and theatrical features than you can imagine plays Alison’s horrible, skeletal, degenerate father and an even more repulsive looking damned soul, blueish toned, white eyeballed phantasmagorical corpse.
Eli Wallach plays the sarcastic cynical New York City homicide Detective Gatz who has believed in the guilt of Michael Lerman (Chris Sarandon) who has some secrets and sins in his life meaning he might have killed his first wife. Jerry Orbach plays a director of commercials Alison is working on. Jeff Goldblum plays Jack a fashion photographer.Tom Berenger, the wonderful William Hickey plays the a professional safe cracker Perry that Michael (knowing his share of shady characters and criminals as he’s a defense lawyer) hires to break into the church and grab the files on Father Halliran , and Christopher Walken as Rizzo, Detective Gatz’s partner, who utters this telling line “She went to a party with eight dead murderers” and Deborah Raffin plays Alison’s best friend Jennifer. Hank Garrett plays Brenner the private investigator Michael hires to dig into the back story about Father Halliran and the involvement with the Catholic church.
Kate Harrington plays Mrs. Clark who was at Jezabel’s birthday party and appears in the mug shot that Gatz and Rizzo look at. She murdered her boyfriend violently. Then there’s the Clotkin sisters, Lillian and Emma played by Jane Hoffman and Elaine Shore murderous cannibals and hedonists. All the neighbors become menacing, and nothing is as it appears on the surface. The decorated apartments, wind up being revealed as vacant shells in disrepair.
Christina Raines (The Duelist 1977, Nashville 1975) plays an afflicted soul–Alison Parker a high fashion model in New York City who also does shampoo commercials, who lives with but can’t make a commitment to her boyfriend lawyer Michael Lerman (Chris Sarandon) She craves her independents and holds Michael’s proposal’s of marriage at bay. Soon after an argument with Michael about moving out on her own Alison gets word that her father has passed away at her family home in Baltimore, which triggers memories of her childhood trauma, leading to her first suicide attempt. After the funeral she returns to the city and finds an advertisement for a lovely Brownstone in Brooklyn Heights.
So goes to meet with the chic Realtor Miss Logan (the voluptuous Ava Gardner) unaware that she is being followed by a priest. She finds that the apartment is unbelievably reasonable for a New York rental which is owned by the Catholic church —She agrees to take the place from Miss Logan who obviously wants Alison to move in, dropping it’s price from $500 to $400 as if Alison heard it wrong the first time she complained that it was out of her price range — “I can’t afford $500.” Alison says, with which Miss Logan misses no time in saying ”$400 is not excessive.”
… The beautiful layout is in Brooklyn Heights right across the water from Manhattan, decorated with gorgeous Gothic furniture, high ceilings and ivy growing up the sides of the building and a blind priest Father Francis Matthew Halliran (John Carradine), who just sits and appears to be looking out the window on the top floor. Although the Brownstone was a steal, and furnished as well, somehow it managed to be lensed by Dick Kratina with a sense of eerie and dangerous foreboding.
Alison’s response to learning that occupant of the top floor is Father Halliran a blind priest “Blind? Then what does he look at?”
Once she moves in, she starts to meet very odd and mysterious tenants who begin to give her the pip and the whim whams. First she meets the droll little character in 4B Charles Chazen…
Alison’s sense of independence starts to deteriorate after a series of disturbing events. Charles Chazen (Burgess Meredith — or the little dapper ‘devil’) is played to the hilt by wonderful character actor Burgess Meredith who runs rampant with his nifty asides and axioms, who has a sovereign reign over his legion of “devils.”
The door bell rings. The animated little puck like old man, which a yellow parakeet on his shoulder and tuxedo cat in his arms flashes his delightful smile at Alison…
“Chazen is the name Charles Chazen. I’m your neighbor in 4B and this is Mortimer. Um he’s from Brazil. And this on the other hand so to speak… this is Jezebel. Say hello to that nice lady Jezebel. (Meowww) That’s it darling. She’s got indigestion.” Alison introduces herself, “Well hi I’m Alison.” Charles Chazen-“Really, may we uh, (he enters her apartment) oh! what a lovely apartment. Absolutely lovely.” Alison-“I was wondering when I was going to meet my new neighbors.” Charles Chazin-“My, you’re so pretty. Haven’t I seen you before, on television? Now don’t tell me I know you’re in a ” Alison answers – “I’ve done some tv commercials.” Charles Chazen responds unenthusiastic– “Oh… really, I thought you were an actress…[…] Oh my dear your taste is impeccable. I wish you’d help me redecorate my poor place someday would you, hum?…Were you waiting to go out?” Alison- “I’m waiting for a friend.” Charles Chazen-“Ahh well, friendships often blossom into bliss as they say, and speaking of bliss Mortimer loves his belly rubbed would you..” Alison-“Do you know any of our neighbors” Charles Chazen-“Yes I know all of our neighbors and they’re very nice, except that priest who lives above me, he’s a… (waving his hands dismissively) well however he’s quiet most of the time.”
Charles Chazen leaves a picture in a gold frame on her fireplace mantle, leaving with her some mirthful advice, “remember you eat and drink in moderation my dear.”
Alison also meets the lesbians Gerde and Sandra…
As soon as she moves into the building her sleep is disturbed by loud footsteps and clanging sounds that make the chandelier swing back and forth. Alison meets the Realtor to find out more about the neighbors in her building, in particular the person occupying the floor above her, as their heavy footsteps and loud banging kept her up all night.
Alison goes to inquire about the tenants and the person who occupies the apartment above her telling Miss Logan about the noises that kept her up all night. Logan is shocked to hear about this as the only tenants in the building are supposed to be Alison and the blind priest, the only tenants who have inhabited the building for years. Alison is disturbed by this news and returns home to find that Mr.Chazen’s apartment is truly vacant and the dust tells the story that it’s been sorely neglected by time.
“My dear Miss Parker aside from the priest and now of course you, nobody has lived in that building for three years.”
Miss Logan and Alison take a cab back after having the conversation in the cafe about being kept up all night by someone making so much of a ruckus on the floor above her. Monsignor Franchino stands behind the blind priest his hand grasping a cobweb covered statue baring an insignia ring belonging to their secret sect, he tells Father Hilliran “I am here holy father I have come so that you may shed your burden in peace.” and Alison takes Miss Logan through the apartment building, showing her vacant furnished rooms that looked cob webbed and dust covered as if it has been neglected for years. Alison informs Miss Logan –“This is where the lesbians live.”- Miss Logan hands Alison the keys dropping them into her hands with a gesture of skepticism before she opens the door.- Miss Logan handing Alison the keys- “Be my guest.”
the continual shot of the stairs leading upward seem symbolic of spiritual ascension and the death journey of the soul as in the story of Jacobs Ladder.
As Alison and Miss Logan begin to walk around the room she tells her that the furniture was different in there before. “Oh come now Miss Parker these pieces have not been touched in years.” Miss insists that she has to get back to the office, but Alison takes her to 4B where Charles Chazin lives, staring out the window she sings to herself, “Happy Birthday dear Jezebel… believe it or not, I attended a birthday party here last night… for a cat.” Miss Logan smiles with a superior air “Sorry I missed it.”
Then Alison urges Miss Logan to let her into Father Halliran’s apartment as she wants to see the old priest, but she tells Alison that it would be highly improper. The priest is taken care of by The Diocesen Council of New York sees to his needs. Monsignor Franchino breathing a sigh of relief that Miss Logan hasn’t let Alison into the priests apartment.
We then see Alison on a commercial shoot where she has her first fainting spell, begins to suffer from severe migraines, begins looking pale as death.
Charles Chazen throws as sort of a welcoming party for Alison and introduces her to the rest of the odd tenants in the odd old building.
He invites Alison to the birthday party he is throwing for his black and white cat Jezebel, before he takes her inside to meet the guests, he blindfolds her with a red scarf. Jezebel is a perfectly delicious name for a devil’s cat. “Black and White cat… black and white cake…” -quoted by the murderess Mrs. Clark -Jezebel the tuxedo cat wears a pointed birthday hat with streamers at the top, very slick element to the quirkiness of the ghostly damned tenants.
Later on that night Alison hears more clamorous noises from the floor above her apartment which is supposed to be vacant. Alison starts to experience weird happenings in the apartment as well as her health starts to deteriorate as she begins getting striking headaches, looking paler, anemic and practically deathly.
Michael is becoming concerned for Alison’s safety and hires a private investigator James Brenner (Hank Garrett) to keep an eye on her.
We experience her past by way of flashback. Alison has a history of emotional distress, two suicide attempts, once as a teenager, after she saw her father’s sexual antics— a bacchanalian orgy— explicit menage a trios scene with assumed ladies of ill repute and then some time after Michael’s wife apparently committed suicide though detective Gatz (Eli Wallach) has been daunting him since it happened, believing Michael had something to do with her untimely death and it might turn out to be murder!
Alison’s strained relationship with her creepy philandering father who used to bring prostitutes home to the house and gallivant around the house with them, when Alison comes home from catholic school and finds them cavorting with cake and wine… In a protest to her religious schooling Alison’s father rips her silver crucifix from her neck and tosses it on the floor. She quickly runs to the bathroom and slices her wrists.
Since her past childhood trauma, her connection with religion and failed suicide attempts, she leaves her faith and the Catholic church behind.
Alison chases phantoms all through the building like Alice in Wonderland. It is more than mildly creepy as written, it is all out frightening as hell, and still is…
That night begins the first of horrifying visions that assault Alison’s world. Visions of her decrepit father who lurks and lunges in the shadows. Armed with a butcher knife and a flashlight she decides to go investigate the vacant apartment above her. When she sees him!
She is suddenly smack in the middle of a nightmarish sequence as she encounters the specter of her father, a ghoulish corpse, lensed with quick cuts to project an eerie type of movement by the phantom who spurts from behind the bedroom door of the apartment upstairs first hidden in shadow then walking quickly without an awareness of her presence at first, then he appears to come after her prompting her to slash at him with her knife, the blood sputtering out of the bluish corpse.
Slashing at her father’s ghost, she runs screaming out into the night blood splashed across her white slip, as people gather around her. Detective Gatz questions Michael the next day. Michael puffs on his Italian cigarette, “This isn’t police business” Detective Gatz “A girl running through the street at 4am saying she’s knifed her father, blood on her, that’s police business.” he shrugs staring out the window. He gives Michael Lerman a dig, making a comment an inappropriate hand gesture about his wife’s supposes suicide plunging off the Brooklyn Bridge. “The mistress of the bereaved husband took an overdose… but lived.”
Alison is resting at the hospital unable to respond for quite as she’s been drugged to keep her calm. Back at the police station Det. Gatz is discussing the case with Rizzo “She’s in the hospital blurbing about neighbors that don’t exist… except one, a priest, and he wouldn’t know if the building burnt down.”
Yet another theme has been developing that of paranoia and the protagonist experiencing alienation and disbelief by everyone surrounding her.
An un-credited Joe Hamer plays the detective who recognizes Anna Clark’s name. “It’s funny I know that name from somewhere.” Gatz tells him it’s one of the invisible neighbors. Cut to a book with crime history filled with murderers and a photograph headlining the infamous Anna Clark. Michael shows Alison the photo and ask if she’s seen that face before. “That’s Anna Clark she was at Charles Chazen’s birthday party.” Michael reads, “Mrs. Anna Clark convicted murderess, sent to the electric chair at Sing Sing March 27, 1949 for the murder of her lover and his wife.” Jennifer takes the book from Michael and continues reading “when he refused to leave his wife, she chopped them up in bed with an axe… charming.”
The quality in terms of how powerful The Sentinel holds up to a big production like The Omen or the vastly mimicked but never successfully redone William Peter Blatty /Director William Friedkin’s striking masterwork that is The Exorcist, The Sentinel is a self contained little jewel that must be seen through a very warped kaleidoscope of horrors. It’s tropes of good vs evil, secret religions sects, and the devil in the city exists for sure, but it’s bursts of horrors from the Id and unsavory characters create a world inhabited by a different set of innocents, angels and demons.
Perhaps the most startling vision in the film aside from the climactic ending which as said I won’t reveal here, is the moment her cadaveric father lurks behind her bedroom door hidden at first by shadow, in an almost paused moment in time, as if appearing from another realm, his movements otherworldly and alien, as she recognizes this ghoulish apparition as her recently deceased bastard of a father. I know it still rattles me to this day. It’s a gruesome scene as she stabs at his face, glazed over whitened fish like eyeballs and deathly comatose stare she thrusts away slashing at him with a large butcher knife.
The night she sees the ghost of her father she also has a lucid vision of killing her recently deceased father by slicing into his face, cutting an eyeball (the surrealist short Un Chien Andalou 1929) and cutting his ghoulish blue nose off!
They find Brenner’s body dumped in a land fill, with the exact wounds described by Alison claiming she inflicted on her father. They also find Alison’s file and Michael’s name in Brenner’s office, connecting them to his murder.
She goes to Church and seeks out counsel from the priest who has been secretly trailing her the entire time. Monsignor Franchino (Arthur Kennedy) tells her that it’s time to ‘embrace Christ’ and that the lord has a purpose for her.
Alison goes to church and lights a candle and prays. Monsignor Franchino who has been secretly trailing her comes to her side, he tells her that it’s time to ’embrace Christ’, “You came to be heard.”
What winds up being revealed is that Alison really killed Brenner and not the apparition of her father, it was the private Brenner hired by Michael. Detective Gatz and Rizzo. (Wallach and Walken) make connections between Michael Lerman, his hysterical girlfriend and now two murders, seem to link them all together some how. During her waking nightmare, running out into the dark streets collapsing in her scant white nighty drenched in her own blood, holding the knife, she is now suspected of murder along with her boyfriend the sleazy attorney Michael Lerman.
Drawing attention to herself by screaming out in the streets all blood soaked leads police detective Gatz (Eli Wallach) and partner Rizzo (Christopher Walken) to investigate both Michael and Alison with certainty that it all somehow leads back to Michael Lerman’s first wife who supposedly killed herself. Detective Gatz has an eternal hate on for this hot-shot lawyer who once showed him up in court regarding the whole wife’s suicide. That case is really a motivating factor is Detective Gatz’s dogged approach to finding out whose blood was really on Christina and if Michael Lerman has anything to do with it. Alison is taken to the hospital that night.
While the police do some investigating from the descriptions and names of the party guests Alison gives them. The cops uncover that one of her ‘imagined’ party guests and supposed neighbor is Anna Clark , a murderess who went to the electric chair for chopping up her boyfriend and his wife with an axe.
Michael starts to believe that Alison is experiencing some kind of uncanny paranormal phenomena, when she returns home he begins to quiz her randomly pulling out books from the shelf of the vacant apartment 4B… As he shows her pages, she begins to fluently read Latin phrases though it appears to her as being written in English. Of course Michael is suspicious of Father Halliran mysterious blind priest on the top floor. When he tries to question him, there is no answer and the door is locked.
Back at the brownstone she shows Michael the vacant apartment, pulling select books off the bookcase, “The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendahl, Techniques of Torture by Illard.. you’ll like this one for variety, all the pages are the same.” Michael, “Alison there’s nothing strange about this book.” “What do you mean?” “All the pages are different.” “All the pages are the same… all of them!” “Alison either one of us is lying or one of us is seeing something that isn’t there now, tell me what do you see in this book” She slams the book closed… and insists “Latin, I see nothing but Latin, everything in there is Latin” Michael takes a pen out of his pocket and tells Alison to write down exactly what she sees. Michael points with his finger, words like “Though the Church and superstitious” Alison begins to write down what she sees-“TIBI SORTU…” etc. “Jesus Alison you really are seeing Latin.”
They try to get inside Father Halliran’s apartment, but the lock has been changed.
Michael then takes the translation to the dotty absent minded Professor Ruzinsky (Martin Balsam) “You know when you phoned I thought you had a serious problem something challenging. A few word more and I’ll have it Eldridge” Michael corrects him, “It’s Lerman, Michael Lerman” Ruzinsky agrees, “Yes, Eldridge Lerman… there we are, well, -‘to thee thy course by lot is given charge and strict watch that to this happy place no evil thing approach or enter it.’-“
“It’s been a long time Mr. Lawyer you take a high chance.”
“William O’Roarke Father Halliran William O’Roarke disappeared July 12, 1952 after attempted suicide. “ Perry-(Hickey) says “They’re the same man. William O’Roarke became a priest named Halliran.” “Yes but why?” Perry shrugs-“I just open doors” Michael digs through each file expounding- “Before Halliran there was Father David Spinetti,who started life as Andrew Carter declared missing, Carter reappeared as Spinetti and died the day that Halliran started life as a priest. Before him Mary Thorne becomes Sister Mary Angelica. All of these people going back for years lived ordinary lives and then became priests or nuns. All of them sometime or another… attempted suicide…. […] if these files are right Father Matthew Halliran dies the same day that Alison Parker disappears and becomes Sister Theresa.” (insert sweeping Gil Melle style strings…)
So he hires offbeat character actor William Hickey as Perry the safe cracker and ace lock picker to break into the Diocese and lift the files on the quiet Father Halliran. Before becoming a priest, he too had tried to commit suicide, just like Alison. Michael also finds a file on Alison Parker who is next in line to become Sister Theresa who is due to take over– tomorrow!
This as writer John Kenneth Muir brings out how it begs the question about redemption, does Alison have free will? Was she chosen by God to be a servant or did her fall from grace, her suicide attempt cause her to owe her life to Christ?
Detective Gatz –“Rebecca and Malcolm Stinnet, Sandra (Narcotics Addict) Gerde Ingstrom, Emma and Lillian Clotkin, Anna Clark, all people the Parker girl said she met.” Rizzo-“All killers all dead. She went to a party with 8 dead murderers.” Gatz heartily replies- “Doesn’t everybody?”
Michael goes on to investigate further, rummaging around the old brownstone he finds a boarded up plague in the basement that tells the opening saga of Dantes Divine Comedy revealing that the building has been built over the portal to Hell and the lost souls who wander there. Michael finally goes up the stairs to confront Father Halliran strangling him to death then he himself is struck down by an unseen figure in the shadows who cracks him over the head with a religious statue.
When Alison returns home, she finds Michael there, who proceeds to explain that she has been daunted by ‘devils’ and that she is to be the next Sentinel.
The ending is a grotesque morality pageant that might terrify or even offend certain people, but if you’re willing to investigate a rare 70s horror story with a dark atmosphere and a visual journey into darker realms… dare enter!
John Kenneth Muir Horror Films of the 1970s
“Seventies films such as Frenzy (1972), The Last House on the Left (1972) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973), The Hills Have Eyes (1977) were also more explicit, and far more intense, than previous horror productions had been. This was a result of the “new freedom” in cinema to freely depict graphic violence and bloodletting and a shift to the paradigm of existential ‘realism’ over the romantic ‘supernatural.’” continuing Muir writes “Seizing on this spiritual doubt and vulnerability was another blockbuster movie trend of the 1970s, the religious horror film. The Exorcist (1973), Beyond the Door (1975), The Omen (1976), and The Sentinel (1977) and many more that found stark terror in the concept of that the Devil was real, and that mankind’s eternal would was in jeopardy from demonic possession and the Antichrist, among other iconic boogeyman”
A term used called it ‘savage cinema’ and was unique to the 70s although not much anymore since the rising of the ‘torture porn’ movement.
The climax has very disturbing imagery, not unlike a parade of oddities and gruesome atrocities you’d see in a Jodorworsky (El Topo 1970, Santa Sangre 1989 or nightmarishly gory visions of hell from Lucio Fulci.
Once again from Muir’s book he at least insightfully makes the connection between The Exorcist 1973 and The Omen 1976 by endowing the type of good vs evil films coming out of the 70s as they “set forth a conspiracy in the Church, a kind of possession by evil, the corruption of the innocent,and other common elements of 1970s Hollywood supernatural flicks. The Sentinel is not as powerful a film as either The Omen or The Exorcist, but it does feature some startling moments and is a solid horror film despite an overload of clichés. The film’s greatest power comes in its jolting, surprising revelations.”
Image courtesy of: Fangoria-from Torture Chamber (2013)
It’s here again! The most fabulous blogathon honoring those unsung stars that add that certain singular glimmer to either the cinematic sphere or the small screen sky–The character actors we’ve grown to love and follow adoringly. Thanks so much to Aurora at Once Upon A Screen, Outspoken & Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club for hosting such a marvelous tribute once again!
This post’s title comes from the opening narrative for Rod Serling’s favorite Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough At Last.” ‘Witness Mr. Henry Bemis, a charter member in the fraternity of dreamers’ From Season 1 episode 8 which aired on November 20th 1959.
Directed by John Brahm, “Time Enough At Last” tells the story of a little bespectacled bibliophile bank teller named Henry Bemis ,a bookworm, a slave to the iron fisted hand of time and all it’s dreary inescapable obligatory scars and yearnings.
Browbeaten by his wife, boss and even the public at large who see him as an outcast because of his ravenous appetite to read books! Henry can’t even sneak away to read a newspaper during work hours. He’s forced to resort to studying the labels on condiment bottles. She won’t even let him read the ketchup. His harpy of a wife Helen ( Jacqueline deWit) even blackens in the lines of his books at home, calling it “doggerel“– One day as fate would have it, he steals away to the basement vault of the bank to catch up on his beloved preoccupation, when –as many Twilight Zone episodes had been infused with a dose of Rod Serling’s nihilism (as much as there is his hopeful message), the feared 50’s bomb annihilates our vision of the world that was swarming just a few moments before. Suddenly poor Henry seems to be the last man on earth. But wait… perhaps not poor Henry.
As he stumbles through the debris and carefully placed set pieces– the remnants of man’s destructive force, Henry comes upon the city’s public library filled with BOOKS!!! Glorious books…
While he must struggle against the approaching loneliness of the bleak future ahead, he begins to see the possibility of a new world where he could dream, and wander through so many scrawled worlds. Already an outsider he could finally live a life free to be as his boss rebuked him, a “reader.’
Henry starts to amass various piles of selected readings. There was time now. Time enough at last to read every word on the written page without interruption, interference or judgement.
Yet…fate once again waves her fickle finger via The Twilight Zone and leaves bewildered Henry without his much needed glasses, now they have fallen on the great stone steps, crushed by Henry’s own feet. As with every role Meredith brings to life the character of Henry Bemis with so much mirth and pathos.
He’s always just a bit peculiar, idiosyncratic, eccentric, lyrical, salty, sometimes irascible, but always captivating and distinctive, His voice, his persona, his look, his style… Burgess Meredith could always play the Henry Bemises of the world and grab our hearts because he has that rare quality of being so damn genuine.
Let’s face it even when the prolific Burgess Meredith is playing a cackling penguin– nemesis to the caped crusader Batman or the devil himself (alias the dapper and eccentric Charles Chazen with Mortimer the canary and his black and white cat Jezebel in tow) in The Sentinel 1977 based on the novel by Jeffrey Konvitz and directed by Michael Winner–he’s lovable!