The Underneath

Early in Fight Club, Edward Norton’s nameless narrator muses cleverly about single-serving friends—people with whom you share a brief, essentially meaningless interaction while you’re seated together on an airplane. But I’ve always been a sucker for what you might call single-serving performances, in which an actor you’ve never seen before, or at least never previously noticed, proceeds to steal the movie for the duration of just one unforgettable scene. It’s a category distinct from the more familiar cameo appearance (before someone brings up Bill Murray in Zombieland), and it’s also slightly different from the classic star-making supporting turn (say, Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise). Sometimes the actor in question goes on to bigger things, but she might well never make a significant impression on you again; it was just some miraculous confluence of her personality and that particular role. And even if the character turns up elsewhere in the story, it’s only the one big scene that matters.

If I had to name the quintessential single-serving performance, it would be Forest Whitaker’s spellbinding turn as Amos, the gabby pool shark who hustles Fast Eddie in The Color Of Money. But because I’ve already tackled that film in this column, I’d like to look instead at my favorite scene from one of Steven Soderbergh’s least-heralded films. Released in 1995, The Underneath (or just Underneath, going by what’s actually onscreen) is Soderbergh’s updated adaptation of Don Tracy’s novel Criss Cross, previously filmed in 1949; it stars Peter Gallagher as a luckless armored-car driver who schemes to rip off his own vehicle, with predictably dire results. One such snag lands him in the hospital, where he can’t help but notice, while drifting in and out of consciousness, that some suspicious-looking dude seems to be hanging around for no good reason. So he has the nurse—cameo by Shelley Duvall!—call the fellow in for a friendly little chat.

The other actor here is Joe Chrest, who’s been working steadily in film and TV for nearly 20 years and has appeared in no fewer than seven Soderbergh joints—you may remember him from Out Of Sight as the smarmier of the two ad execs who hit on J-Lo before Clooney shows up to show them how a real man can romance and bone a gal in two locations simultaneously. Matter of fact, Chrest was Soderbergh’s original choice to play Graham in sex, lies and videotape, back when he assumed he’d be making that film on the super-cheap. (They must know each other from college or something.) I’m happy that James Spader wound up with the role, as he’s brilliant in it, but I do sometimes wonder what the no-budget version starring Chrest might have looked like, largely on the strength of this superbly enigmatic performance. The random stranger who may or may not be a threat has been a staple of thrillers since forever, but few day players have walked the line between innocuous and menacing with so much casual aplomb.

Part of the credit, admittedly, belongs to Soderbergh, who also wrote the screenplay (using the nom de plume Sam Lowry, from Gilliam’s Brazil). I’ve never read Tracy’s novel, but the corresponding scene in Criss Cross bears so little resemblance to this one, apart from its basic structure, that I assume most of the dialogue was invented. In particular, this version owes much of its power to the inspired double fake-out in which Gallagher springs the oldest trick in the book—“Oh, really, you must know so-and-so? AHA! there’s no such person!”—only to see Chrest extricate himself in a way that instantly gives him immense credibility. Had he said “Nope, never heard of her,” we’d just be inclined to believe he was too clever for that old ruse; that he pretends to recognize the name, then looks relieved when called out on it, puts genuine doubt in your mind, especially given Chrest’s slightly disgruntled delivery. 

In fact, that’s the beauty of this performance. A bad actor would attempt to project an ominous air, thinking that will increase the tension. A good actor, identifying that pitfall, might be apt to overcompensate with exaggerated friendliness, signaling a bit more subtly that something is awry. Chrest does neither. Throughout, he creates the impression of someone who’s struggling to be cordial when that doesn’t come naturally to him—an approach that makes perfect sense both for a regular guy preoccupied with his injured sister and for a contract killer awaiting the right opportunity to strike. Even his little snit when Gallagher accuses him is brusquely half-assed, as if he can’t be bothered to expend too much emotional energy on either a) some crazy man he doesn’t know or b) assigned victim #628. There’s an intriguing absence at the performance’s center that makes it all the more unnerving, even if you’re pretty sure (as I was the first time) that no movie would squander this much screen time on a character who doesn’t ultimately prove sinister‑Chrest still makes you feel like you’re overreacting.

I’m reluctant to beat up on an unsung character actor from old Hollywood, but if you want to get a real sense of how much suspense Chrest brings to this tiny part, compare him to Robert Osterloh in Criss Cross. (The scene in question begins roughly five minutes in.) Admittedly, Soderbergh’s version of the scene provides much more to work with; Lancaster’s suspicions fade as soon as the guy produces his order book instead of a pistol. (Speaking of which, dig the retroactive comedy of Chrest saying “they’re convenient” of his hoagie-sized portable phone, even as he struggles valiantly to replace it in his jacket pocket. Nice whack in the face with the antenna, too.) But Osterloh plays it too overtly heavy when he first enters the room—he really looks like he’s late for a scheduled pillow suffocation—and too accommodating thereafter, with none of the arresting uncertainty that Chrest locates in the character’s dutiful pleasantries. Had I seen Criss Cross before The Underneath rather than immediately afterward (checking my sad nerd log, I see I rented the video the very next day), I doubt I’d have even remembered this scene, much less considered it the movie’s clear standout. There’s just no zing to it. It’s plot filler, nothing more.

Back in ’95, I made a point of noting Chrest’s name in the closing credits, confident that he’d soon graduate to more prominent roles after receiving such a terrific showcase. Hasn’t happened for him. He works steadily, but always in fleeting glimpses; I’m not sure that I noticed him in The Ring (“Doctor”) or The Aviator (“Hell’s Angels Director of Photography”) or I Love You, Phillip Morris (“Steven’s Dad”). In a way, though, that anonymity just keeps his performance in The Underneath pristine—I still enjoy watching Amos strut his misleading stuff in The Color Of Money, but I’m always hyper-aware that it’s The Young And Then Largely Unknown Forest Whitaker. There’s something kind of magical about an actor who knocks it out of the park once for just a few minutes and then effectively vanishes. Sometimes a single serving is enough.