Henry Jaglom’s fractured A Safe Place comes with great performances from Tuesday Weld (who annoys me sometimes, admittedly, but she kills it here…no Looking for Mr. Goodbar, though), Philip Proctor, and Jack Nicholson, and a pretty hammy turn from Orson Welles, though one that possibly influenced one of that director’s masterpieces F for Fake a few years later.
As far as New Hollywood non-linear, obscure, female-centric narratives go, A Safe Place is no Puzzle of a Downfall Child. It’s also not Petulia, which is maybe the best of its kind. But still, director Henry Jaglom takes his improv-feeling (though it was scripted), Cassevetes-influenced stageplay to the screen in interesting ways.
If anything, this film reminds me what a great actor Jack was (how many actors are known by their first name alone? Arnold. Marilyn. Who else?). In ’71 he’s in the midst of a really incredible run: Five Easy Pieces, Carnal Knowledge, The King of Marvin Gardens, The Last Detail, Chinatown, The Passenger. Here he’s less featured than the other three, but he shines when on-screen. He’s the predator to Proctor’s (and in many ways, Weld’s) prey. That cheshire smile is huge on-screen, but, like his best roles, he plays the wounded anti-hero to a T. He’s almost like Terence Stamp in Teorema: he comes in, wreaks havoc on an odd relationship, and then abruptly leaves.
Jaglom favors a lot of tight close-ups where characters talk either directly to, or just off of camera:
He seems pretty obsessed with Weld and often lingers on long close-ups of her, sometimes in warm, dreamlike color schemes:
What’s odd is Weld and Proctor’s first conversation, where Jaglom intentionally keeps her off-screen for the opening majority of their conversation, keeping her at a distance, almost like a myth or a thought, and not a real person. That’s apt: she’s flighty and vague to say the least. Her free-wheeling, unstable Susan (or Noah, she goes by both) is at extreme odds with Proctor’s Fred’s buttoned-up outsider.
Jaglom also favors long monologues and meandering – but quite interesting – conversations. Gwen Welles gives a good one about being hit on on the street. The speech gradually segues into her own thoughts of self-worth. It’s a nicely written and delivered bit of dialogue.
Welles’ magician character is pretty out there. Is he a father-figure to Weld? I think so. She’s often shown as a child opposite him. He’s weird. He tries to make animals at the zoo disappear-
-and he loves slight of hand:
It’s hard to cast Welles and ignore his shadow. He’s the master manipulator (which he’ll prove in F for Fake), a grandfather of cinema, and an amphoric stage/screen actor. His build envelopes the frame, but everytime he’s on-screen he also feels somewhat comical. He’s no child of the 60s/70s and there’s the sadness of a displaced soul to him.
Some of the better moments in A Safe Place are small techniques. An overhead POV that could be Weld “flying” away and recalls an earlier bit of dialogue:
A POV from Fred-
-that feels totally askew. I get that he’s looking out that window at an angle, but the world below feels so foreign, crowded, and different from the rest of the film that it hits the point that he’s separate.
Reflections and tableaus that are both funny (that second image below in particular. It just feels so staged, and an attempt to make something meaningful) and seem to be references to Jaglom’s taste in art (he spends time examining several paintings in Fred’s parents’ apartment):
An odd moment that casts Fred as a random father figure where he unexpectedly gives a boat ride to a lost child. It’s never followed-up on; the girl is clearly a Weld stand-in:
I wonder what A Safe Place would look like as a linear film. In some ways, this very question makes it feel like a failure. I never wonder the same things for Puzzle, Petulia, or any films by the master of time manipulation, Resnais. There are moments in here that justify the non-linearity: those where we see the drastic, instantaneous evolution of Weld from shot-to-shot. But at times I find myself just wanting to see the relationship unfold in normal temporal terms.