Sometimes movies are about the big picture. Triple Feature traces a common theme or element through three movies to see what they have to say about each other, and to us.
The camera moves a lot in City Of God—a Scorsese-steeped 2002 film chronicling several decades of shifting tides in a crime-stricken Rio neighborhood—but in one of the most queasily thrilling scenes in a film filled with them, it stays perfectly still. A sequence labeled “The Story Of The Apartment” watches as a small apartment forcibly changes hands over an unspecified stretch of time, first from Zelia, a small-time dealer/housewife who trades drugs for cash and sexual favors from local boys, including a tough named Big Boy. When Big Boy decides he’d like the place for himself, Zelia clears out, and not by choice. But Big Boy can’t hold on to it either, and it passes by mishap to Carrot, then Blacky, and then to Li’l Ze, who, from behind a gun barrel, tells his predecessor, “Who said it was your place?”
Good question. Big question, too. The apartment’s inhabitants change and the decor changes with them, but the rooms themselves essentially stay the same. And while the circumstances that cause City Of God’s apartment-dwellers to move in and out are more dramatic than most of us will ever encounter, they aren’t entirely unfamiliar, either. We rent these places, move in, fill them with our stuff, and call them our own. But in time, we leave, and it’s like we were never there. The place barely notices. (Ownership makes little difference; it’s the same process played out over a longer time.)
Still, we stake our claims, however tenuous. We have to. Where we live helps define us, even if sometimes we don’t like the definition. Witness C.C. Baxter, the low-level New York insurance worker played by Jack Lemmon in The Apartment, one of the best films from the long, fruitful partnership of director Billy Wilder and writing partner I.A.L. Diamond. Baxter works in a sea of desks on the 19th floor of a building that looks like a beehive and herds its workers like livestock. Yet he often lingers an hour or so before going home, having fallen into the habit of loaning his apartment key to his superiors so they can conduct their affairs with comfort and discretion (as opposed to, as one later complains, in Volkswagens at New Jersey drive-ins.)
The Apartment is, above all, a movie about people deciding not to let others tell them who they are or where they belong. And Baxter doesn’t belong in the apartment. Even without the arrangement he’s made with his co-workers, the place never looks fully like his. Posters of paintings by Picasso, Chagall, Rousseau, and Mondrian—his contributions—hang unframed beneath fusty wooden fixtures and over out-of-fashion secondhand furniture. With the arrangement, he can barely call it his own. Limited to a few hours in his own home each evening, and sometimes not even that, Baxter spends much of his time cleaning up after the debauches that take place in his absence.
I’ve seen The Apartment many times over the years, but I somehow always forget how long it takes Shirley MacLaine’s Miss Kubelik to realize she loves Baxter, and how suddenly, and strongly, the truth of her feelings hits her. But it makes sense. They’ve been drawing toward each other the whole movie without realizing how much they have in common. Both let others exploit them: he with the promise of advancement, and with it, somehow, an end to his loneliness; she with the promise of love. Their wishes remain only half-granted, and leave them adrift in their own lives. Wherever they sleep, they’ve got no place to call their own, except, in the movie’s final moments, the place they imagine together.
Wilder’s Manhattan is a place of cramped apartments, bustling Manhattan streets, and men wearing “junior executive” hats. It’s only 10 years and a bridge removed from the Park Slope of The Landlord, Hal Ashby’s striking 1970 directorial debut, but it seems much further away, just as the Park Slope of the film seems far-removed from the Park Slope of today. But The Landlord is, in its own way, just as much a film about the difficulty, and maybe the impossibility, of claiming a space as your own. Beau Bridges stars as Elgar Winthrop Julius Enders, a privileged—with that name, how could he not be?—29-year-old eager to leave his parents’ guesthouse. His solution: a row house in Park Slope whose residents he plans to drive out.
Eventually. Maybe. Arriving with a smile and a handshake that barely masks his fear of his new, black tenants, Elgar finds he doesn’t really have the heart to force anyone out, or much skill at collecting rent, either. But he does find ways to ingratiate himself, a process he begins by winning the approval of Marge (Pearl Bailey), the building’s anchor. Taking pity on him while taking advantage of his naïveté, she gives him a way into tenement—and neighborhood—life. Both barbed and humane, The Landlord sends up the good intentions and willfully colorblind thinking of white, liberal America before circling back to endorse some more pragmatic variations of the same. Elgar buys the house for selfish reasons, then finds he’s unable to act on his own motivations. He’s clueless, but not heartless, and the neighborhood works on all fronts to batter away at his assumptions. He owns the place, but that doesn’t mean he has the right to call it home.
Can he earn it? The Landlord never fully answers the question, but it doesn’t dodge it, either. As the film moves on and Elgar settles in, he starts to look less like a man from another world than like a man from the world to come, one where old divides between black and white—those created by hate and fear—would have to give way, one way or another. The film ends on a note of hard-earned hopefulness that doesn’t necessarily jibe with the way things work out. The Elgars move in. The Marges move elsewhere. Racism and inequality persist. But the film captures a moment, playfully but without losing sight of the stakes, when the hot political temperatures of the late ’60s and early ’70s made change of one kind or another look inevitable. And it captures that building, now undoubtedly someone’s multimillion-dollar Brooklyn home, as it once was: a place where neighbors lived atop one another, following a particular set of rules that outsiders ignored at their peril, even if they held a deed.
Neighborhoods change, but traces of what once stood there never fully fade. In the 1992 horror film Candyman, Virginia Madsen plays Helen Lyle, a graduate student whose research on urban legends brings her to Chicago’s notorious Cabrini-Green housing project. She hits a breakthrough in pursuing the legend of the Candyman, a hook-handed boogeyman said to appear in mirrors for those who recite his name three times. Helen discovers her own luxury apartment was converted from a former housing project, one with the same floor plan as Cabrini’s, down to a cost-saving structural quirk that makes it possible to force her way into a neighbor’s apartment by knocking down the bathroom mirror that connects them.
Score one for rational investigation. Except Helen’s discovery, which leads to the arrest of a local drug dealer using the Candyman legend to scare people, doesn’t make the boogeyman go away. Instead, it brings out the real Candyman (Tony Todd), who appears with the line “You were not content with the stories, so I was obliged to come.” A former slave and talented artist, he was killed by an angry mob after falling in love with the daughter of a wealthy businessman who hired him to paint her portrait. The site of his murder: Cabrini-Green. People come and go, but places remember.
Writer-director Bernard Rose adapted Candyman from a short story by Clive Barker, who also produced. While much of the film plays like a late-to-the-game ’80s horror film—drawing heavily from A Nightmare On Elm Street in particular—the details that set it apart, from Philip Glass’ ominous score to Todd’s simultaneously threatening and seductive performance, also elevate it. But the location makes the film. Rose shot key exterior scenes at Cabrini itself, and the place’s history seeps into Candyman.
Whatever good intentions built Cabrini-Green couldn’t sustain it, and the buildings themselves make it easy to see why. If humans ever could live like that—packed tightly into tiny apartments joined by open-air passageways bounded by chicken-wire—the buildings would need constant attention. But Candyman portrays Cabrini as it was, a neglected island in an urban sea, and a place whose soul-deadening decrepitude looked all the more pronounced thanks to the prosperity surrounding it. It’s a place no one would choose to live, and one seemingly designed to chip away at those who do live there. In 1981, Chicago mayor Jane Byrne moved into Cabrini to make a point. She lasted three weeks. In 1992, the same year Candyman hit theaters, a boy died of a gunshot wound while holding his mother’s hand on the way to school. In 1997, a 9-year-old known only as Girl X was found in a stairwell after suffering a brutal assault that left her paralyzed, blind, and mute. But even without the headline-making crimes, the day-to-day atmosphere of need and dread kept Cabrini horrific.
Remarkably, Candyman never feels like it’s exploiting or trivializing these conditions so much as repackaging them in a familiar form, playing out the horror of the return of the repressed on a citywide scale. Closed last year and now on its way to being fully demolished, Cabrini-Green still stood when I first moved to Chicago, and like everyone else who could, I avoided it. The portion used in Candyman (and, incidentally, the opening credits of Good Times) could be seen from the old A.V. Club offices. Now my train passes by its rubble every day. Soon even that will be gone, and some other building will take its place. Most likely, the gentrification creeping up from downtown will take over. People with means will move in and know none of the indignities and fear of those who used to live there, but the history will remain. And even if there’s no Candyman haunting them, they might wonder who told them the place was theirs, and whether they belonged there.
Next: New-Hollywood gumshoes