Tuesday, March 12, 2013

It's All About the Benjamins

"In all your Amours you should prefer old Women to young ones."

-Benjamin Franklin

"Mrs Robinson, you're trying to seduce me."

-Benjamin Braddock

When I was in high school, the slangs "MILF" and "Cougar" had not entered the vernacular. When referring to a good looking, sexy, mom-aged lady, we usually used the title, "Mrs Robinson". I was lucky enough to live across the street from a "Mrs Robinson" all through my formative years. She scandalized the neighborhood and got tongues wagging by having the temerity to ride her bike and do her gardening in short shorts. I had a front row seat to her supposed lasciviousness as my bedroom window faced her garden. It was torture, but the good kind, if you know what I mean. I was painfully shy and had a tough enough time getting to first base with a girl my own age, much less, swinging for the fences with an older woman, but nevertheless, I did wonder...

The fascination with my high school neighbor probably goes a long way in explaining my love of the formerly taboo-breaking cinema involving younger man/older woman romances. There were a flurry of these type of films, that came out between 1967 and 1973 including The Graduate, Harold and Maude, Summer of '42, The First Time and 40 Carats. It's not surprising that they are all comedies given the success of The Graduate and the inherent, sexually charged subject matter of the films. Joking about the age difference between the leads makes it a much more palatable affair but, unfortunately, also lessens the drama and outright shock value. What is surprising, is that all the aforementioned movies were beaten to the screen by a somewhat risque, 1961 melodrama called, A Cold Wind in August that features a relationship between a 17-year old maintenance boy and his sophisticated stripper neighbor.

Iris (Lola Albright), is a worldly stripper who keeps her business on the low-down and outside of New York where she resides in her brownstone apartment anonymously. As the story begins, she receives a visit from her loser, ex-husband who begs her to perform at a local club he's booking. Iris' air conditioner is on the fritz so the scene plays out in sweaty desperation with Iris giving her ex a reluctant maybe response while he looks out the window on a youth below who's playing with a broom he's just set alight. The youth turns out to be Vito (Scott Marlowe) the son of the building's maintenance man (Joe De Santis). When Iris calls to get her A/C fixed, Vito's father dispatches him and the fun begins.

The most surprising aspect of the movie is that it's played as a straight-up drama from start to finish, and although it does slip into melodrama near the end, it respects its characters throughout keeping them both believable and sympathetic. Although Iris does initially put the moves on Vito (and boy, does she ever) she's neither predatory nor pathetic in her pursuit. She seems somewhat of a lonely person and weary of the people that populate her life. She genuinely falls for Vito, seemingly in a large degree, because he's not a part of her other life. Vito himself is age appropriately innocent, although he does chase girls occasionally bringing them up to the roof for make-out sessions. What I particularly enjoyed about Marlowe's performance is that he didn't play Vito as a jittery, clumsy dork. Vito is certainly out of his element with the more experienced Iris, but he doesn't fall apart in the face of her considerable sultry, sex appeal or sophistication. One of my pet peeves in these type of stories is that no intelligent, experienced woman would ever go for a hapless geek because he has nothing to bring to the relationship table or bedroom for that matter. Vito has confidence born out of boyish charm, good looks and success, albeit limited, with the opposite sex. This is what makes his character, and thus the relationship, believable. 

Another element that came as a pleasant surprise was the incredible sweetness of the relationship, not only between Vito and Iris, but Vito and his father. I kept waiting for Joe De Santis wise, old father character to pull his son aside and chastise him for being with an older woman, but the character stunned me by not taking the same old hackneyed moralizing path and actually had a genuine talk with his son about not denying emotional involvement and behaving like a grown man. The loving, involved, believable relationship between father and son was incredibly refreshing and something that's rarely seen in modern cinema. Although Marlowe and De Santis only have three or four brief scenes together, they really resonate and are well written and performed.

In addition to the sweetness, there is an overt, undeniable sexiness to the Vito/Iris relationship that, for the most part, is played very matter-of-factly. Certainly, there are notable exceptions, as when Iris is flirting early on and asks Vito to light her a cigarette. When he attempts to hand it to her, she refuses to take it in her hand and motions for him to put it directly into her mouth (God, I miss smoking). For the most part though, their sexual intimacy is portrayed very casually, playfully and balanced making it that much more authentic and erotic. It doesn't hurt that Albright and Marlowe are two of the better looking character actors of their time and seem to have genuine chemistry not too mention a lot of acting experience between them.

The film was Alexander Singer's first directing turn and he did an excellent job especially in framing the shots. Singer would go on to be a journeyman TV series director for the next four decades, most notably directing no less than 22 episodes of the later Star Trek incarnations, but his cinematic skills are apparent even in this initial effort. The crisp, black and white photography was shot by Floyd Crosby who did a lot of great genre stuff, not the least of which was the Corman/Poe films of the early sixties as well as classics like The Old Man and the Sea and High Noon. The music, by Gerald Fried, is one of the few flaws of the film as it is overblown, big band stuff that is mostly at odds with the quiet intimacy of the story. 
In summary, the film is a surprisingly serious and somewhat erotic romance that doesn't take it's characters or story lightly. It's intelligent, mature and sexy especially considering the year it was made.

Score: 7.25/10