Tony Mastroianni Review Collection

"Desperate Characters" Views Despair in the City

Cleveland Press October 30, 1971

Movies have reflected the violence, dirt and poverty of modern American cities, but I suspect "Desperate Characters" is the first to zero in on urban despair, the numbing desperation of the spirit as physical things all around us decay, the paranoia that finally grips many city dwellers.

Frank Gilroy, author of "The Subject Was Roses," has written the script and also directed and produced the picture. He is very successful in capturing a mood, much less so in making movie.

The whole piece is overly stagy, much of the dialog tending to overemphasize what has already been indicated visually. Subsidiary characters come on to say their bits, to reinforce a message already delivered. The movie also fails to flow; instead is almost broken into set scenes.

But even with these flaws "Desperate Characters" occasionally touches a nerve. Not only is happiness missing from his characters' lives, so is contentment.

Sophie (Shirley MacLaine) and her husband Otto (Kenneth Mars) are a middle-aged, childless couple. They are reasonably well off, own their own brownstone in Brooklyn.

But they are people living in a state of siege -- locking the doors, setting the burglar alarms.

Around them are empty buildings, senseless vandalism, garbage, a man lying on the sidewalk (is he drunk or sick -- who cares?).

The movie is about a weekend in their lives. Otto is upset because his law partner has left the firm. Otto is fleshy and uptight, trying to be indifferent to the world around him.

Sophie still has a trace of compassion in her which leads her to feed a stray cat which in turn bites her hand.

Since it is a weekend there's no point in calling their doctor -- all they would get is the answering service.

"Answering services are meant to muffle the sounds of the dying," says Sophie.

So add to the other tensions a concern about rabies. The other tensions are the ex-partner who likes to hold nocturnal conversations, running into a man with whom Sophie had once had an affair, lunch with a woman whose remarried husband occasionally lives with her in a passionless affair.

Some of the fear and tension are overdone. Nastiness even follows them into the country.

Mostly they sit and talk, sparring and probing but never really fighting, just tolerating. Their love making is without tenderness.

Miss MacLaine, cast against type, offers an intelligent, quiet performance, indicating moods with a look, a glance or the way she walks.

Mars just seems wrong in the role -- too cold, too stolid, too remote. One has the feeling that Sophie would have walked out on him long ago.