When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand

I was sitting in Shanghai’s domestic air terminal this week, flipping through a Chinese fashion magazine.  While looking at photos of clothes (an art form that pingpongs between decorative and functional elements, overload and restraint) I decided to grapple with the merits of a lame / fascinating / bizarre / ho-hum movie from 1963.

Perhaps it’s the Cinematic Bad Boy in me, but I’ve decided to praise the M-G-M 1963 drama IN THE COOL OF THE DAY.

GREAT COLOR THEORY: which of the 4 elements doesn't belong?  Angela Lansbury, the Acropolis, Jane Fonda or Peter Finch?

GREAT COLOR THEORY!  Which of the 4 elements doesn't belong? Â Angela Lansbury, the Acropolis, Jane Fonda or Peter Finch?  Finch and Fonda's clothes are dyed to match the hues of the Acropolis.

The film has all the flaws that drive conventional critics and reviewers up the wall:  uneven presentation of material, unresolved issues, meandering development and storyline.  Yet IMHO it’s a fascinatingly beautiful work.

What fascinates me about this film first is that it was a big gamble.  After producing works for lionized directors such as Fritz Lang, Max Ophuls, John Frankenheimer and Vincente Minnelli (including the decade-long artistic winning streak of tortured, overrripe Minnelli films such as THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, THE COBWEB, LUST FOR LIFE and TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN), producer John Houseman pulled together this film.  The movie’s director Robert Stevens was no way in the league of Houseman’s usual cohorts–and that raised questions from the get-go:  was a lower-tier director brought in because this film was a riskier investment (Stevens could bring in a movie underbudget and on time), or did the producer want to be more of a Top Dawg than when working with uncompromising A-List directors?

Another gamble was the decision to load the work with gifted-yet-unmarketable actors:  none of the cast had a star’s power and reputation at the time.  Yet the producer’s gift to persuade a carload of brilliant thespians to sign onto a less-than-sure-fire project is staggering.  The always unpredictable Madeleine Sherwood (SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, THE FLYING NUN) has a brief scene as the hostess of a literary cocktail party; former Oscar-nominee Alexander Knox also has a single scene, with great readings of lines and powerful pauses.  Constance Cummings — whose career spanned from playing in a James Whale comedy/mystery (REMEMBER LAST NIGHT? from 1935, in which she gets to plug another current Whale movie by making the crack, “I feel just like the Bride of Frankenstein!”) to playing opposite Laurence Olivier in LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT in the ‘seventies — has some great scenes as Fonda’s bitchy mother.  Arthur Hill plays Jane Fonda’s husband (this was during the same two year period where he also originated the role of George, the male lead in the original production of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? on Broadway). 

The top trio in the cast, Jane Fonda, Peter Finch and Angela Lansbury, were recognizable names and respected as actors, but not box office draws at the time. 

Another risk:  the film was shot on location in the U.K. and in Greece (with some well-selected rear projections of Manhattan for the stateside scenes).  This may be another clue as to how big the element of risk was in this production:  M-G-M and the other studios could only take out a certain percentage of their box-office profits from the United Kingdom.  So, when there was a load of money that couldn’t be moved to Hollywood, a film was shot in Europe.  (When I heard Robert Wise speak, he explained that was how THE HAUNTING was able to be made.)  So if “use it or lose it” funds were at stake, that could explain the Gambler’s Rush that seems to permeate this film.

Great Moment / Great Actors:  Alexander Knox and Jane Fonda share a subtly intense moment.

Great Moment / Great Actors:  Alexander Knox and Jane Fonda share a subtly intense moment.

So here you go:  if you start your viewing of IN THE COOL OF THE DAY by questioning why an army of talent would give their all to a peculiar and dubiously-successful film, you can savor the richness of the experience and the dignity of risk.  Like pearls being strung one-after-another on a necklace, the aesthetic pleasures created by a highly diverse pool of talents keep coming at you:  from the tawny Metrocolor (which gives off particularly red and gold autumnal hues during single shots where opticals –such as dissolves or fades– occur), to the high-drama musical underscore during the visit to the Acropolis, to the aforementioned actors’ performances.  These elements (plus the art design, cinematography, etc.) are all testaments of strong, gifted work.

It’s like this:  viewing a late Hans Hoffman painting at a museum a few weeks ago, I became overwhelmed.  I began to ask myself how oil and bristle and turpentine and binder and pigment and cloth could be combined by the miracle of a creative mind into the sublime canvas before me??  I had to sit down for a minute and ground myself.  A movie can create the same reaction and ask a similar question:  how can a pinhole of light passing through a dome of polished glass,  plus thousands of tiny aesthetic decisions,   create a movie?  From this point of view, IN THE COOL OF THE DAY is a great ride.

There’s a line in Mary McCarthy’s novel The Group, describing one of the characters as being like a laundry:  taking other people’s ideas and returning them pre-shrunk and labeled.  The approaches of the majority of film critics and their reviews of this movie –noting the flaws and areas of underdevelopment and indicating unnecessary aspects of this work– are as distasteful to me as an essay about the lack of physical development and symmetry in the body of Stephen Hawking.  I gladly acknowledge all the creative elements don’t seamlessly mix — instead the elements seem to spike now and then (a densely lit and photographed shot, followed by an actor’s reading of a line, followed by surprising art direction, etc.), but this drives home the always present element of high-risk in making this film.  Bringing the whole shebang back to clothes and fashion, this movie has a function as a narrative drama yet has many decorations that fire it up with aesthetic pleasures and curiosities.  In some ways it’s restrained (the main plot of two people married to the wrong people who fall in love isn’t a new scenario), yet an occasional moment by an actor, a stunning use of Color Theory, a line of dialog, a shaft of the cinematographer’s light, can send this movie into a realm of greatness.

The film may not solidify into a smooth and polished surface, but there are so many rushes throughout that I just don’t care.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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4 Comments to “IN THE COOL OF THE DAY (1963)”

  1. Arthur says:

    I am with you on this one. It is a very good film that was shortchanged by the critics.

  2. Ralph Benner says:

    The Robert Stevens-directed “In the Cool of the Day” has received a deserving honor — being named one of Ed Margulies and Stephen Rebello’s “Bad Movies We Love.” Their review, listed under the chapter title “No, But I Saw the Book,” gives you the screamer details, so I’ll only provide what they don’t. Jane Fonda looks diuretic — much beyond what’s required for her character, who’s suffering from the fear of her mother and from one of those mysterious movie diseases. (You’d be too if you were married to Arthur Hill.) With puffy face, swept brows and perpetual bad hair dayz, she’s almost oriental in an Anne Heywood sort of way, and she hardly seems to know what to do with her limbs. As Peter Finch’s scarred wife, Angela Lansbury, in pink and orange and lavender ensembles, entertains as a cross-pollination of Dorothy Malone and Constance Ford, very clearly present during her exit sequence in which she’s packing her suitcases while telling Finch she’s off to engage in a cathartic affair with lounge lizard Nigel Davenport. As usual, Finch is the prince of urbanity, though here he occasionally suggests Edmund O’Brien. (Like Deborah Kerr, Finch got trapped in his share of stinkers: in addition to this one, he also did Stevens’ “I Thank a Fool” the year before, and there’s “Elephant Walk,” “The Sins of Rachel Cade,” “The Legend of Lylah Clare,” the musical “Lost Horizon,” “Judith,” “The Nelson Affair” and “The Abdication.”) This tourista special sanctifies the adultery between Fonda and Finch only after they’ve been accused of what they haven’t yet done, and of course Fonda’s in-remission illness flares to punish them. If only Angela had reappeared at the end to put a new bitch low to “I told you so!” (After all, Stevens gave Diane Cilento her lowest imaginable moment in “I Thank a Fool.”)

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