Monday, July 5, 2010

Gordon Willis' Windows (1980)

A notorious failure that was yanked from most theaters shortly after its limited release in January of 1980, Windows was the first and last directorial effort from legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis. A fascinating train wreck of a film, Windows is a bizarre collision between a super stylish European Art-Film and a gritty downtown American exploitation-picture. Directed with extraordinary care by Willis from a hollow and lethargic script from Barry Siegel, Windows isn’t a good film but it has a disquieting and haunting quality that makes it entirely too hard to easily dismiss thirty years after its release.

Recently separated from her husband, shy Emily Hollander’s life is permanently fractured when she is sexually assaulted inside her apartment one evening upon returning home. Understandably terrified, Emily quickly moves into a supposedly safer high-rise apartment to feel more secure. After getting involved with a policeman, who had been assigned to her case, Emily realizes that the person behind her attack was none other than her best friend Andrea, a deranged woman who has become completely fixated on her.

The first and most striking thing about the ultra-bizarre Windows is that this absolutely looks like a film that you would expect the great Gordon Willis to direct. Close your eyes and remember your favorite shots in any of the numerous classic films he photographed, from The Godfather to All the Presidents Men to Annie Hall, and you will be able to picture Windows. Willis’ first and only film as a director is, even in a faded full-screen transfer, quite astounding to look at. Framed immaculately and photographed with the skill only a true master could bring to the screen, Windows is a visual triumph. Sadly, the look of Windows can’t save it from its stale storyline, poor plotting and wooden dialogue. Willis brings his all to the look of the film, from the first frame to the last, but it is ultimately regrettable that he bothered to give such care to a script in need of so much work.

Gordon Willis was on fire as the seventies gave way to the eighties. He had just shot Woody Allen’s gorgeous black and white Manhattan, and his work throughout the seventies had garnered him the justified reputation of being one of the best cinematographers in film history. The leap to the directors chair didn’t seem like a stretch for the talented Willis and in 1979 he got the okay from United Artists to helm his first film, a mystery from the pen of Barry Siegel. Despite the fact that Siegel had never had a screenplay brought to the big screen before Windows (and he never would again), UA and Willis threw caution to the wind and proceeded with filming even though the script had major issues. Armed with an extraordinary crew (which included Editor Barry Malkin, Production Designer Mel Bourne and Composer Ennio Morricone) and a winning cast (featuring Talia Shire, Elizabeth Ashley, Kay Medford and Joseph Cortese), shooting commenced on location in New York City throughout the fall of 1979.

Looking to make a splash with his first film as a director Gordon Willis, simply put, directed the hell out of Windows. Perhaps sensing that something was indeed wrong with the script he was working with, Willis brings a carefully studied and calculated cool to every shot in Windows. The film is finally over-directed, and could have ultimately used a little more of a free-wheeling hand, but there is no question that Willis had an eye for creating a scene and building tension, and his work on Windows shows a talented director in the making. It is a shame that the film's disastrous reception caused Willis to never sit in the director’s chair again as one can see clearly he had a great film in him.

Willis wasn’t the only one with something to prove in 1980. Talia Shire’s place in film history was already well-secured due to her work in The Godfather and Rocky films but she had yet to show that she could carry a film completely on her own. She had been solid in both Old Boyfriends and Prophecy (each 1979) but neither film had really caught on with the critics or the public. Windows would turn out to be the last time the talented Shire was given a film to carry, but the film’s miserable reception damaged her career badly. Shire wouldn’t make another film for nearly three years before the incredible Rocky III in 1982 helped put her back on the map. Ironically, her work in Windows is quite remarkable and she channels the shattered Emily Hollander incredibly well. Shire, like Willis, is clearly working her ass off here and she is good even when the script fails her, as it often does throughout the films near 95 minute running time.

The rest of the cast doesn’t fair as well as Shire and can’t rise above the material. This is especially regrettable as Cortese and Medford (appearing in her final film role) are splendid actors, but they just don’t have anything to work with here. Especially hampered is Elizabeth Ashley, a usually reliable actress who slips over the top into an unfortunate and quite annoying caricature as the obsessive and sexually confused Andrea Glassen. Of course one can’t blame Ashley for the material but her performance, which seems shipped in from another film, all but destroys Willis’ meticulous set-ups every time she appears on screen.

Windows had problems enough but the terribly clichéd character of Andrea Glassen would draw the wrath (some of it justified) of gay-rights groups who protested the film heavily upon its release. The protesters claimed that Willis’ work continued to foster an unfortunate negative stereotype of lesbians in film, and it’s easy to see their point as Glassen is indeed an ugly and clichéd ridden character. However unfortunate the fact was that homosexuality had been presented in such a bad light throughout cinema history, the anger directed towards Windows was more than a little misguided. Willis is obviously not making some sort of defining and sweeping statement against homosexuals with Windows, he just happened to be saddled with a script made up of poor choices at every turn, with the worst being the character of Andrea Glassen.

Despite everything that is wrong with Windows, and there is plenty, it has moments that are sublime. My friend Chris, who provided me with this film, mentioned that Willis seemed to be attempting to channel Antonioni and the film's opening, set in a stunningly lit train tunnel, feels like Michelangelo shooting a horror film. Also incredible is the spare but haunting Morricone score (another aspect that connects Windows with the Italian Art-House) and the New York locations are used splendidly. Fans of William Lustig's Maniac, which was shot around the same time as Windows, will delight as Willis uses one of that legendary slasher's key locations throughout. You can feel a brilliant work bubbling under the surface throughout Windows and, frankly, even at its worst it is still more arresting and memorable than most of the studio released nonsense seen today.

Among the first films of the eighties, Windows was pulverized during its short run in theaters. Willis and Shire took most of the fire and the film was withdrawn from distribution quickly, due mostly to the protests and critical disdain. The film would get a whopping five Razzie nominations and it would all but vanish shortly after. Released on VHS in England, in a version missing several minutes, and occasionally popping up on TV, Windows has still yet to be granted a DVD or Blu-Ray release.

1 comment:

Jeff said...

I just contacted the prize winning journalist Barry Siegel. It turns out there are two Barry Siegels. The journalist Siegel did not write Windows. He did invite the Windows-writing Siegel to lunch when the movie came out. Minor point, but just want to bring it up.