Saturday 11 June 2016

Room at the top… The Penthouse (1967)

I don’t know if I like this film: it’s well-acted and may have some points to make about class privilege, selfishness and truthfulness but it’s just so… unpleasant. There’s intimidation, forceful role-playing, at least two rapes (apparently) and actual bodily harm and, in the end, all for what? It’s a trial by endurance for one couple’s ill-founded relationship but does she necessarily have to see the light after being forced to get drunk and stoned and to have intercourse with two men who have invaded their home?

Based on C. Scott Forbes’ 1964 play, The Meter Man, the film was described by director Peter Collinson as being about “…the horror that lurks in the minds of men” and self-knowledge. More importantly, it is by way of a fantasy… what you see isn’t necessarily what you get and that is frankly confusing as I don’t believe there was sufficient narrative skill deployed to bring this across in spite of the excellence of the performers. I mean, Peter… if you could only have given us a clue!?

A rose between two 'orrible thorns
But maybe he was over-ruled by a denouement re-write that effectively just repeated the trick of the first three quarters leaving the audience shaken but not necessarily stirred. Had they stuck to the original plot, the relationship trajectory of the two leads would have made more sense but as it is we’re left with a simpler, more visceral modern horror. The English critics didn’t care for the film but it played very well in the US and elsewhere… perhaps High-Rise Horror was a genre with more appeal in Manhattan’s art-house flea-pits.

As the great Roger Ebert said in his review at the time: “This isn't an evil movie, and it's not an example of the pornography of violence… "The Penthouse," quite simply, is a pretty good shocker... It's a relief to find one that's made with skill and a certain amount of intelligence.”

Lights are on and there's almost nobody home...
The film opens with two men approaching a twenty storey block of flats, a light flicks on in the penthouse and they turn to each other and smile.

Meanwhile we discover that the light switch has been turned on by Suzy Kendall who will likewise do the same to parts of the audience (with thanks to Ian Anderson for that one). She plays Barbara, a shop girl who is having an affair with a rich and powerful estate agent called Bruce (Terence Morgan) who is at this moment struggling to wake up, lounging in their bed whilst she makes him breakfast.

Morning doubts
Their affair has reached the point when he needs to put up or shut up and come through on his promise to leave his wife for the younger model: he reassures Barbara but we’re not convinced especially as he has two daughters and particularly given the look of sheepish duplicity on his face as he cuddles his lover – physical contact substituting for emotional honesty.

Bruce looks sheepishly at the emotionally-honest Barbara
Meanwhile the two men have been climbing all of the stairs in the building to reach the top… the lift is either broken or not part of the fun and the building is empty save for those two at the top. One of the men, Tom (Tony Beckley) knocks on the door and tells Barbara that he’s come to read the meter. Now we don’t think Tom is a meter man, especially as he seems oddly selective in the rooms he checks and, more importantly, hasn’t bought his pencil. He wanders round the flat, not really looking and commenting, rather inappropriately, about the man he finds in Barbara’s bed.

Tom’s strangeness is only the half of it as Dick (Norman Rodway) arrives and, in addition to being very good at meter reading, also may have that elusive pencil… There’s also a “Harry” of course, who is waiting in the van or some such.

The meter man arrives and sharpens his pencil
Rodway and Beckley are superbly accomplished maniacs it has to be said and work on an off-beat relationship to reality and each other right from the start.

At first Barbara and Bruce just think them fools and respond in the way you would to two children but when Tom starts sharpening his pencil with a large pen-knife, the pennies begin to drop. We’re not sure what the two interlopers want either, theft would be too simple and nowhere near unsettling enough… no, they are here for something far worse: a good time.

The penny drops...
Dilly-dallying out of the way, Bruce is tied to a chair and Barbara is forced to drink a pint of whiskey as a “party” is prepared… the threat is fleeting and ever-present and both take turns in soliloquising their increasingly terrified/intoxicated hosts. Tom tells a potentially revealing tale about pet crocodiles surviving after being flushed down so many indifferent toilets by uncaring owners; it’s an urban legend that was strong in the seventies and probably says nothing about their motivations.

The "party" gets underway...
Barbara is now so lost in liquor and well-rolled joints that she will do anything she’s told, first with Tom and then with Dick whilst, horribly, Bruce is left helpless being ranted at by the other.

It’s at this point you wonder how things can possibly end and, in fairness, so do Tom and Dick. How can they leave after making such a scene and expect B&B to not tell the Police? Bruce, by now showing a weaker character than his lover, swears he won’t whilst Barbara is honest enough to say she doesn’t know.

Under pressure
Logically there cannot be any escape from these men but then, as suddenly as they arrived they’ve gone… is that it? As Barbara and Bruce look at each other with new eyes there’s a knock on the door and it’s Harry (Martine Beswick)… apparently the boys’ probation officer…

Barbara, Bruce, Harry, Tom and Dick
Dusty Verdict: The Penthouse is challenging and occasionally harrowing viewing that touches our deepest fears about loss of control and home invasions. It has the feel of more coherent work from Harold Pinter or Samuel Beckett and it would be interesting to see the original play and whether it was more overtly political.

Suzy Kendall
Suzy Kendall does very well as the women wronged by all the men in the story whilst Rodway and Beckley steal the show with their nervous, stage-honed theatricality…. You really wouldn’t want to meet these two on a dark stairwell let alone pushing in to check your meter reading.

The film is now very hard to find but in the right mood – buoyant, optimistic, sunny day all round… it’s worth seeking out!

Alligator exotica

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