Sweet Revenge (Schatzberg, 1976)

This is a pretty unsung Jerry Schatzberg film and, though no Scarecrow or Puzzle of a Downfall Child (what is?) it’s really worth the watch.

Stockard Channing plays Vurrla Kowsky (she’s actually got multiple identities), a car thief with a crazy plan to make enough illicit money to buy the car of her dreams. Sam Waterston is the public defender who falls for her. But it’s Franklyn Ajaye as Edmund, Vurrla’s friend, who really steals the show.

One thing I like about this and other Schatzberg films is the breezy way that it’s filmed. Sure, Schatzberg has a style, and one that’s often bound by classicism, but he also has scenes that are unexpectedly short and unexpectedly long. That might make for some uneven pacing, but it also fits the reality of the world he’s working in. A reality which, for Sweet Revenge, is both comic and ineluctable.

Sweet Revenge reminds me of a bunch of other 1970s films that are nihilistic in their own right: Straight Time, Electra Glide in Blue, and Looking for Mr. Goodbar. I love all of these films for the unique combination of sad comedy, hysteria, and ultimate tragedy. You could probably put the final frames from all of these films side-by-side and find a common theme. Here’s the final image from Schatzberg’s film:

Screen shot 2015-10-19 at 4.12.13 PM

There’s a nice section towards the end of the film where Vurrla and Waterston’s Le Clerq have an intimate conversation. Schatzberg uses a technique that I most associate with Chabrol in his Le Boucher (1970). The conversation appears to be happening in real time but he transitions from shot to shot via dissolves:

Screen shot 2015-10-19 at 4.11.21 PM Screen shot 2015-10-19 at 4.11.34 PM Screen shot 2015-10-19 at 4.11.40 PM Screen shot 2015-10-19 at 4.11.51 PM Screen shot 2015-10-19 at 4.11.58 PM

This is pretty anti-classical. In fact, it’s something that drives me nuts with student films: dissolves and fades are so frequently used to replace hard cuts, but with no rhyme or reason. Of course one of the traditional meanings of a dissolve is the passage of time. here Schatzberg uses it to indicate anything but. It works here because of he uses a dissolve for every cut in the sequence – it clearly becomes a motif.

And given the context it makes sense: Vurrla and Le Clerq’s relationship is oddly timeless. It doesn’t really make sense, but they somehow make sense. The dissolves have the effect of stopping or slowing time – their opposite usual usage – when used within a real time conversation. It’s like the continuing scene is fighting against the transition, which wants to either move ahead or stand totally still.

Here’s the first shot of the film:

Screen shot 2015-10-19 at 4.13.10 PM

Vurrla looks at her dream car with her friend and ex-lover Andy (Richard Daughty). Schatzberg frames them as a reflection, clearly separating her from her goal. It’s prison-esque, and the way that the car, rotating slowly on its show-platform, very nearly runs them over anticipates a critical sequence towards the end of the film.


About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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