Director: Edward Dmytryk (The Sniper)
Writer: Peter Stone, based on a story by Walter Ericson
Stars: Gregory Peck, Diane Baker, Walter Matthau, Kevin McCarthy, Jack Weston
The Story: In the middle of a power outage, a Manhattan executive suddenly realizes that he’s not sure where he’s been for the last two years. When he discovers that there are people trying to kill him, he hires a P.I. to help him figure it out. He soon realizes that he is the lynchpin of a vast conspiracy centered on an aerospace giant.
How it Came to be Underrated: I mentioned how The Red House was hurt by entering the public domain, but this is a good example of how the opposite can happen. The movie has a lot of the same appeal as Stone’s previous movie Charade, but that movie was re-discovered in the ‘80s because it was in the public domain and widely available on VHS. This one, on the other hand, was poorly distributed by its rights-holder. It was briefly available on VHS but then it was out of print for years.
Why It’s Fun:
- There’s something so post-modern about amnesia movies. The hero doesn’t remember his past life and feels as if he was invented from whole cloth when the movie began, which is, of course, true. As his friends try to convince him otherwise, the hero remains dubious and it’s hard not to be on his side. We know he’s right. These movies, if done cleverly, force us to question our own readiness to accept narrative conventions, then re-build our acceptance as the hero finds a “better” explanation—but the disquiet remains.
- The movie turns on a clever insight into human nature: If we can’t do something, like recall a memory, then it doesn’t register in the brain as a disability but rather a dislike. When people ask Peck certain questions, he gets his back up—“What right do you have to ask me that?”—which keeps him from admitting that he doesn’t have the answer. It’s like kids who need glasses but just assume that they don’t like to read. Unfortunately, it’s an instinct that often keeps sick people from realizing they need help.
- This was Stone’s most serious movie, but the dialogue is still witty and brisk. As usual, nobody did better with his words than Matthau, though we see way too little of him in this one.
- The movie is way ahead of its time in terms of its blandly evil global-corporation villains, who use a utopian-sounding think tank as a front for their ever-expanding profit-seeking. They sound just like BP when their shill calmly explains, “I can’t respect any legality that would impede progress.”
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: In Stone’s ouvre, this was bookended by two great Stanley Donen spy-comedies, Charade and Arabesque. Stone’s last great screenplay was The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, then he moved on to Broadway.
How Available Is It?: It’s on a bare-bones but nice-looking DVD.
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