Sunday, July 31, 2011

Peter Falk/A Woman Under The Influence

Peter Falk died two weeks ago. A great actor who performed superbly in many different roles.
My first and lasting memory of him was as a cab driver in the 1963 slapstick "It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World."

Most people remember him as Colombo, the disheveled TV detective that aired on alternate Sunday nights in the early to mid 70's.

I read many of his obituaries. There was the obligatory Colombo citing. But one columnist wrote of his best performance: A Woman Under The Influence.
I heard of the movie but never watched it. The name alone would have made me turn away. Too much 1970's New Age psycho babble about middle class/feminine dysfunction caused by who else, men. But I checked out some reviews on Netflix and put it on the top of my queue. I watched it last night with my dog and a bottle of wine. In a word, devastating. I cannot get it out of my head. The story is about a working class family whose mother, Gene Rowlands, suffers from some sort of mental illness that affects her family to the point that she must be institutionalized. She has three young children. Her husband, Falk, is a blue collar worker who, from what one gathers, works for a utility repairing broken power lines and the like. It is dangerous work. He is a moral, decent, man, who does his best to deal with something he was never really intellectually equipped to understand.
But he moves on. Like a good father and husband so typical of millions of average men of the era, he did not complain but did what he had to do and asked for nothing in exchange. The movie is made in docudrama mode. Think Curb Your Enthusiasm without the laughs. The cultural backdrop reminded me of The Deer Hunter. The rest is just one depressing thing after another.
But some scenes stand out. At the beginning of the movie, Falk desperately wants to return home from work to be with his wife. He arranges for his children to go to his mother's for the weekend. But he gets called back to work and must deal with another utility emergency. His wife goes out for a drink and meets a bar hanger on and goes back to her house and sleeps with him. Falk returns home later oblivious to the transgression. Almost makes you cry. Later on, Rowlands is watching a friend's children who are playing with her own. The father picks them up and finds the children have created a huge mess in the house. He tries to get his children out of the house and ends up in the bedroom. Falk returns home and discovers the chaos. He sees another man in his house and assumes something that is not true. He slaps his wife across her face. It is all very sad. An honest family man has had his zone of sanctity invaded. And lastly, the children. They will be forever scarred by their mother's illness. I wondered how I would have felt if in the early 60's my mother went off the deep end and my father, a man strikingly similar to Falk's character, had to deal with it. People back then laughed at such things: nut house, funny farm, loony bin. My friends would have ridiculed it and I too if the shoe were on the other foot. But thankfully for me, it was not to be.
So if you want to see another side of Falk, rent this movie. It is worth the two and half hours.

1 comment:

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