A few posts ago I was talking about chemistry. And how Jeff Bridges and Jane Fonda do not have it in the Lumet film The Morning After. So amidst my month(s) of Walter Matthau and Raul Julia I come across another Matthau film: House Calls. A chemically successful film.
When someone tells me that I should watch a light romantic comedy I generally am immediately disinterested. “Light” for me equals meaningless fluff. “Romantic”…well if Audrey Hepburn isn’t in it or Claire Denis didn’t direct it then I’m skeptical (a bit of an exaggeration, but the term has tended to mean anything where a couple falls in love, and no longer that mood that can refer as much to a time period as the actual act of physical romance.). “Comedy.” I’m not funny.
So this combination of words generally leads to me watching some Giallo to drown out the horrific images of Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler that immediately fill the mind. Nonetheless, I gave House Calls a run, and am very glad that I did.
House Calls is light, it’s romantic, and it’s a comedy, and it does all three of these well. The exception, and what puts this in a top class, is that the “light” part is deceptive. There’s a real underlying message in here, one that has weight and that is helped tremendously by a fantastic Matthau performance.
Plot: Matthau plays Dr. Charley Nichols, a famous, recently widowed surgeon. He’s enjoying his new bachelorhood with many-the-tryst, when he runs across the outspoken and “old” (in his words) Ann Atkinson (Glenda Jackson). The rest of the film finds Charley struggling with his obvious attraction and his fondness of single-dom.
It’s a film with a heavily predictable ending, but one that doesn’t ruin it. The weight of the film comes from the implied grief without any heavy-handed scenes. Charley grieves by being active and ignoring a repeat of what he had with his wife. We never see his wife on-screen, but her presence is channeled via Ann and constantly hovers through the frame. It’s not a ghost story, it’s a love story. But not a traditional love story. It’s a story about love, how love can transform, blah blah blah.
Director Howard Zieff knows what he has, and he lets Matthau run free. The role is deceptively difficult. Matthau must retain some pathos while essentially being a cad. He must remind the audience through body language that his wife recently died – and that he loved her – but also make it acceptable that he play the field. He must search for love without searching for it. He must be attracted to Ann without being attracted to her. It’s a great turn.
Back to that chemistry. Why do Glenda Jackson and Walter Matthau have what Bridges and Fonda could not? For one, and an easy answer, the writing is much better here. The one-liners are as sharp as Groucho’s and situations harken to classic screwball. There’s a hysterical moment where Charley and Ann decide to see if they can make love each with one foot on the floor. The ensuing round of sexual Twister is laugh-out-loud funny.
Why else with the chemistry? Another, more subtle reason, is that Zieff clearly lets his actors have freedom. I don’t necessarily mean freedom in lines, but in movement. Very little here feels directed in. There are beats that come long after-the-fact, motions that feel unscripted in their spontaneity (a testament to performance) and body language that feels as much Charley and Ann as it does Walter and Glenda. Lumet’s film, on the other hand, feels over-structured, over-marked, and over-beat(ed), which is ironic given the latter’s reputation as an “actor’s director.”
Why else with the chemistry? Chemistry can arise from the camera. Zieff only moves his moderately, but when he does it’s precisely planned. He does the old imply-emotion-via-a-dolly-in, but by keeping it wide and observatory he not only allows the aforementioned freedom, but also let’s the actors act with their full bodies. In House Calls awkward hand motions are nearly as important as smiles. The relatively neutral, and even stagey camera allows for this to develop, letting the chemistry of the awkward or flirtatious or romantic interaction come across in all it’s full-bodied glory.