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Image Credit: 

above: Rosamund Pike in I Care a Lot (2020, Netflix) 

In the Dark

Smiling Through Clenched Teeth

I Care a Lot

Directed and written by Jonathan Blakeson ◆ Produced by Andrea Ajemian and Sacha Guttenstein ◆ Distributed by Netflix


The Shrike (1955)

Directed by José Ferrer ◆ Written by Ketti Frings ◆ Produced by Aaron Rosenberg ◆ Distributed by Universal Pictures

 

Rosamund Pike is one of the most versatile and accomplished actresses in film today. Whether she’s playing a woman whose family is killed by 1840s Indian savages in Hostiles, or a sociopath who plots to implicate her husband in her supposed murder in Gone Girl, she can be depended upon to deliver a flawlessly convincing performance. Even in her first film role, Die Another Day, in which she played the villainous Miranda Frost against Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond, she displayed a magisterial hauteur that was fully capable of freezing the socks off Her Majesty’s most debonair killer. And she was only 21.

Now, in the uniquely chilling I Care a Lot, she uses her talent to play frostiness to marvelous effect as Marla Grayson, a lesbian entrepreneur icily devoted to skinning the wealthy from behind a dazzling smile. The film is a curdled examination of America’s industrial approach to dealing with our geriatric population. It answers the frequently asked question: What should we do with our inconvenient geezers?

Grayson has the answer, and one can’t help admiring her studied treachery. She works slick scams on helpless elderly who are at the mercy of well-meaning lawyers and judges. With the help of a corrupt doctor, Marla targets seniors—“marks” she calls them—who are alone in the world. She has them declared incompetent to manage their own affairs, and it is an easy step from there to having herself declared the geezers’ guardian. And this is where the nasty fun begins. Seniors beware: This is not a reassuring film.

In no time at all, Marla’s marks find themselves taken from their homes and, with the help of several law enforcement officials, whisked to a nursing home. Following their speedy but ever-so-polite evictions, the guardian drains their bank accounts, liquidates their assets, and sells their houses, putting the proceeds into her bank account. With a little legal rigamarole, enough money, and a sufficiently ruthless strategy, what remains of these inconvenient folk has been converted into assets on the ledgers of an upscale nursing home.

Perhaps you recall the late Geraldine Ferraro’s hubbie, John Zaccaro, who was doing much the same thing as a lawyer, taking responsibility for his aged clients and tending rather too closely to their estates. He got in trouble for that and some other financial skulduggery, which likely doused the fires of his wife’s political ambition as Walter Mondale’s running mate in the 1984 presidential election.

Marla is a smoother operator than Zaccaro, but she nevertheless comes a cropper when she pulls her ruse on her latest victim, played by Dianne Wiest, who, despite appearances, turns out to be far from alone in the world. She is instead the elderly matriarch of a vast criminal network, who takes vociferous umbrage at being escorted from her home and deprived of her cell phone. When her son Roman, played with quiet menace by Peter Dinklage, finds out what’s happened, things become quite warm for Marla. Not that she can’t handle it—she only has to avoid being murdered now and again, which she does with aplomb. In one scene she awakens in a car that’s been sent hurtling into a lake. She merely unbinds her hands from the steering wheel of the careening vehicle, somersaults into the back seat, kicks out the rear window, and then swims to the surface. 

The wonder of this sequence is that Pike makes you believe it, even as she walks bedraggled into a service station and uses the manager’s phone to call a cab. Her crusade to survive becomes even more fraught as she and her lover strike back at Wiest and her associates. To say more would risk giving the film’s surprises away, which startles right up to the closing scene.

Throughout the film, Pike wears a sunny collection of upscale yellow and green pant suits that work with her incandescent smile to disguise her sinister intentions. Writer-director Jonathan Blakeson’s decision to write Marla as a villainous lesbian seems a risky choice in our rigidly correct times. At a guess, I’d say he decided to give an extra edge to Marla’s obvious delight at outwitting the men she comes across.

There is an older film that shares similar concerns, but in a much darker tone than I Care a Lot. This is director José Ferrer’s The Shrike, in which he cast himself and June Allyson as a troubled husband and wife struggling with incompatibility brought on by both professional and romantic jealousy. We first meet his character, Jim Downs, as a theater director who seems to be at the start of a promising career. His wife, Ann Downs, wears a smile not wholly unlike Pike’s, although not consciously in the same sinister range.

0421-SMILING-2_copyWith Jim’s early stage successes, they’ve managed to move into an upscale Manhattan apartment. Everything seems rosy, but trouble surfaces when Ann expects Jim to cast her in leading roles. She hasn’t the talent, however, to convince his producers that she is capable. The tension of Ann’s frustrated ambition spills into Jim’s work and results in several theatrical failures.

To save his career, Jim feels he has no choice but to place Ann in minor roles or to exclude her altogether. She continues to insert herself into his plays with directorial suggestions he feels he must honor, even though they are palpably misbegotten. His plays begin to fail and his commissions dwindle. The couple have to give up their apartment to move into cramped, low-rent quarters.

Then sorrow befalls them when Ann miscarries what was to be their first child and they’re told she will not be able to conceive again. As their misfortunes mount, Jim falls into depression and attempts suicide. As he recovers in the hospital, he discovers that he won’t be able to leave unless Ann approves his release. Given the whip hand, she refuses to sign the necessary release papers. Her motives are not unmixed. She wants him to fully recover, of course—but she also wants to keep him away from his mistress.

I saw this movie by accident when I was 14 years old. The trials of a theater director and his difficult wife were not my usual entertainment choice at this period in my life—Hopalong Cassidy and Tarzan were my preferred characters. I suppose The Shrike was the second feature on a double bill, as they called it in those days. The kids weren’t expected to stay for such fare after the curtain came down on the first film. Whatever my reasons for staying on, I found myself entranced by this somewhat lachrymose but well-acted melodrama and it has stayed with me throughout the years.

One scene in particular has remained vivid in my memory. Jim’s brother comes to visit him in the hospital bringing a paper bag filled with fruit. When Jim desperately appeals for help, his brother advises him to lie to his doctors, to tell them he’s no longer depressed and is ready to resume normal life. When he does, he agrees with his doctors that he should give up theatre. The hospital psychiatrist believes his former profession will be destructive of his personal well-being if he doesn’t leave it. 

After Jim walks his brother out of the ward, he returns to his bed carrying the raggedy bag of fruit. This detail spoke to me of the utter hopelessness Ferrer’s character was feeling. T. S. Eliot would have called that image an objective correlative—a term no longer in critical use, but perfectly illustrated here. When I first encountered the concept in college, it vividly evoked this scene for me.

The Shrike is not a great film but it is very effective in its way, despite its maudlin evocation of human helplessness and its now unfashionable presentation of feminine resentment. Today, it would be verboten to refer to a woman as a shrike, a word that comes from the bird that uses its long beak to stab its prey to death. Be that as it may, you might try the film the next time you’re in the mood for a little despair over the human condition.

0421-SMILING-3_copyToday the movie remains a memorable curiosity from my movie-going experience and, as such, has its place in my appreciation for something other than, say, John Sturgis’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which so fascinated my adolescent self in 1957. This is the Western whose depiction of bravery was heightened considerably by the toothy, menacing smiles of Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, which were nearly as dazzling as the smile that beams from Rosamund Pike’s pretty face.

Such cinematic smiling also reminds me of the silent German film The Last Laugh, made by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau in 1924. Without any dialog at all, Murnau was able to deploy the smile and laughter of his principal actor, Emil Jannings, to convey the story of a doorman’s pitiable self-esteem, followed by his despair at being let go from his position, and then his return to unearned self satisfaction with an unexpected windfall.

Murnau’s film constitutes an essay on the power of facial expression in close ups that film has relied on from its beginnings. You can sample examples for yourself on YouTube, that increasingly invaluable resource for everything from film history to fixing frozen windows and clogged drains. Yes, there are some blessings worth smiling about in our modern age.                   

George McCartney

George McCartney

George McCartney, a professor of English at St. John's College, is film editor for Chronicles.  He is the author of Evelyn Waugh and the Modernist Tradition (Transaction).

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