Directed By: Peter Yates
Written By: Walter Bernstein
Produced By: Peter Yates, Robert F. Colesberry
Cast: Kelly McGillis, Jeff Daniels, Mandy Patinkin
MPAA Rating: PG
Runtime: 101 minutes
Review Date: December 10, 2010
If the Hitchcock thriller is the golden child of the family, this movie is the attention-starved, amateur younger brother trying to follow in its footsteps, but who just hasn’t yet discovered his true calling in life.
The House on Carroll Street is a gigantic yawn of a movie, a ho-hum political thriller directed by Peter Yates about a mystery involving smuggled Nazi scientists that never fully held my attention. Perhaps the more enticing mystery is how Yates, responsible for films of such rousing personality as Bullitt, The Hot Rock, and Breaking Away, could have managed to put together something so dreadfully lackluster here.
The story opens in a 1951 House Un-American Activities Committee hearing, where we’re introduced to Emily Crane (Kelly McGillis), the unflinching photography editor for Life Magazine. After refusing the demands of McCarthy witchhunter Ray Salwen (Mandy Patinkin) to name names on her staff, she’s subsequently fired from her job and hounded by a pair of FBI agents. She rebounds fast, and takes a new job as a little old lady’s caretaker. One day, while stepping out back for a smoke, she can’t help but notice a heated argument through an open window across the way, between an angry German and Salwen. With little else to go on, she shoves herself into the heart of a conspiracy reaching up to the federal level.
I’m a big fan of the “curiosity killed the cat” narrative mechanism, and there were a few times where I felt like the film was at the cusp of something interesting, but Emily’s discoveries never failed to underwhelm. Even the most giddy conspiracy theorist would have a hard time getting into this car and taking it around the block.
The Nazi Paperclip scientist plot is intriguing but dangles too little to be of any real interest. Modern, X-Files-raised audiences will be bored to tears.
I wanted to enjoy it as a Hitchcock tribute, at the very least, but even a Hitchcock movie (or should I say especially a Hitchcock movie) has punch. This one has slipped through the cracks, and I’m content with leaving it there.
I kept fantasizing about what this movie would look like today, if some politically-charged director came along and gave it the old Hollywood overhaul: would it have a more satiable hook, per chance? A quickened, seizure-inducing Bourne Supremacy pace? I wish I can say it was because I was inspired by the story’s relevance; but the truth is, these occasional flights of fancy were the only lifelines saving me from utter boredom; I clung to them for survival.
Emily Crane, despite a great performance by McGillis, just isn’t that compelling a protagonist once you get past her unshakeable, two-dimensional grit and her Nancy Drew nosiness. I wanted to see some quirks, or some insight into her past, to really round out her character. And maybe someone will challenge me on this one, citing the film’s peculiar nude scene as proof of her complexity. But I doubt even this would inspire much discussion.
I do admire, after some reflection, the fact that Emily consistently and doggedly drives the entire plot, instead of haplessly falling into one situation after another. That aspect of the narrative deserves some recognition but the fact remains that there are just too few rewards at the end of the rainbow.
For the film’s subplot, Emily and Cochran (Jeff Daniels), one of the FBI agents following her, go through the familiar motions of a romance. There’s no reason for them to fall in love other than at one point, Peter Yates glanced down at his watch and said, “Well, it’s about that time for the female lead to sleep with somebody…hmmm, who’s it gonna be…?”
Cochran is a more intriguing character, but never won me over. He’s kind of a teddy bear who’s either got a lot to learn, or has already been broken by the drudgery of his job, bogged down by the routine. His heart’s in the right place but his competence is lacking. I got the impression he was the guy at the FBI Academy all the other guys left alone, or made fun of. He’s the agent who gets stuck with all the shit jobs, casing a place and the like. In a sense he reminded me of Fox Mulder — that is, a much less endearing version completely drained of all signs of life.
More than once I felt like I was watching a live-action adaptation of a Scooby Doo episode because Emily and Cochran never quite transcend the function of “those meddlesome kids.”
The movie’s only real pleasant surprise comes in the casting of Mandy Patinkin — you may remember him from The Princess Bride. A worthy antagonist, Patinkin nearly makes the film worth it. In the first scene, he’s grinding into Emily with the indifferent callousness of a child pulling wings off a fly; the smack of a gavel later and he’s the ever-charming socialite amongst dignitaries. You really hate him. He delivers his lines with a businesslike curtness — a nod and a smile every now and then as if to say he knows he’s holding all the cards. The scenes between him and McGillis are easily the best.
There were a few scenes that were hard sells on me, notably one where Salwen dumps an entire bottle of ketchup onto the tablecloth at a nice restaurant to elucidate some abstract point; another the scene immediately afterward, where he wires Emily’s apartment to blow up — since, of course, it’s natural to want to kill her for being the first Nancy Drew to arrive at some vague hypothesis, without proof, which may or may not implicate him. Other scenes are just plain silly: a chase in the middle of a stuffy used bookstore where flimsy bookshelves can continuously thwart pursuers, yet barely raise a commotion when they topple over.
I found the mechanics of the climax equal parts baffling and hilarious. I do have to give Yates props for putting together what has to be one of the most scrumptiously awkward death scenes in the history of cinema. It’s something I’m sure is on Youtube somewhere and exists as go-to entertainment for some group of bored college kids.
The House on Carroll Street most likely raised some interesting points on the interpretations of patriotism, but by the time the credits rolled around I was still too distracted by the ridiculousness of that death scene to care about any thematic resolution.
Josh Medcalf is a freelance writer living in Chicago.