Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: We pay our respects to unconventional families, and the movies that feature them.
Geraldine Page was coming off of two Tennessee Williams movies when she made Toys In The Attic in 1963, and must have felt right at home in another twisted Southern drama. This time, though, the drama was based on a Tony-nominated Lillian Hellman play, and featured family in a fatal brand of romance. Page starred as Carrie, who lives with her sister Anna (Wendy Hiller) in a crumbling old New Orleans house, where they wait for visits from their ne’er-do-well younger brother Julian, played by Dean Martin. Julian returns to town with an unstable young bride and a mysterious pile of cash, and as is so often the case in Southern gothic dramas, the stress of this visit causes long-buried family secrets and desires to flood to the surface.
The maniacal twists and turns of the script are fun to navigate, and Page proves why whole theaters are named after her. But the real revelation here is Martin, going toe-to-toe with the grand dame of the American stage. Hellman based Julian on her own father, a charismatic traveling salesman who was doted on by his two sisters. Martin channels his considerable charm and vulnerability into the part, visibly brightening the gloomy old house with his arrival. As the young bride, Yvette Mimieux is so lovely, it’s hard to believe she didn’t have a bigger career, and Gene Tierney makes the most of her brief appearance as Julian’s new mother-in-law, a New Orleans society force to be reckoned with.
The bond between the three siblings is the only family (and for the sisters, the only basic human contact) that they know. Toys In The Attic goes to great lengths to depict the downside of that much sibling isolation and devotion. George Roy Hill, directing only his second movie about a decade before winning the Oscar for The Sting, crafts the bleak camera angles and stark black-and-white contrasts as adeptly as any horror movie, which is actually what Toys transforms into. Carrie starts out fluffy and inconsequential but slowly becomes monstrous as her attachment to Julian consumes her. Julian is all brash and polish until his secretive sides are exposed. It’s such a master class in everything—acting, cinematography, screenwriting, yet its only Oscar nomination was for costume design—it’s hard to believe this movie appears to have fallen off the pop-culture landscape (give or take an Aerosmith title track). It shows up on TCM occasionally, but it’s not as readily available as some other classics from the era. But Toys In The Attic is worth seeking out, even if just to see Dean Martin’s greatest cinematic performance that’s not cowboy-related.
Availability: Toys In The Attic is available on DVD from Amazon and possibly your local video store/library.