On Valentine’s Day we’re turning the House lights way down low, and offering a little special something…for the looooovers.
In the original, black-and-white version of Richard Condon’s bestselling thriller—the John Frankenheimer version, scripted by George Axelrod—the questing hero, Maj. Ben Marco (Frank Sinatra), meets a mysterious woman named Eugenie Rose “Rosie” Cheney (Janet Leigh) on a train, and engages her in a conversation so surreal that it makes you wonder if she, too, is a double-agent in a movie full of them.
Ben: “Are you Arabic?”
Rosie: “No, are you?”
Ben: “Put it another way: Are you married?”
Later in the story, after Ben has gotten into a furniture-smashing karate fight with the weirdly familiar-seeming Korean butler (Henry Silva) employed by brainwashed war hero Raymond Shaw (Lawrence Harvey), he telephones Rosie to bail him out. The following exchange occurs during the cab ride away from the police station as Rosie tends to Ben, lighting a cigarette for him, then dabbing at the cuts on his face.
Ben: “I’ve got to find Raymond. Maybe he’s home by now.”
Rosie: “All right, darling. Whatever you want. But first, I have something to tell you. Do you know what I was doing when you so cleverly had the police phone me? Don’t bother trying to guess—you’re too tired. I’ll tell you what I was doing. After I dropped you off, I went straight home, and when I got upstairs…”
Ben: “Apartment 3B.”
Rosie: “That’s right.” (Pause…She stares at him, surprised and pleased.) Very good. Before I even took my coat off, I telephoned my fiance…”
Awkward pause. He looks at her.
Rosie: “Well, I told you I wasn’t married. I never said I wasn’t engaged. Well, I called up my fiance, and he came over as soon as he could, which was instantly, and I told him I had just met you, and I gave him his ring back. I tried to convey my regrets at any pain I might be causing him. And then—just then—the police called and invited me to meet you at the 24th Precinct. So I grabbed my coat, kissed my fiance on the cheek for the last time in our lives we would ever kiss, and I ran. At the police station they told me you had just beaten up a very large Chinese gentleman…”
Ben: “Not Chinese. Korean. Least I think he was Korean.”
Rosie: “...a very large Korean gentleman, but that you’re a pretty solid type yourself, according to Washington, with whom they had apparently checked. So I figured if they went to all the trouble to get a comment on you out of George Washington, why, you must be somebody very important indeed. And I must say, it was very sweet of the general, with you only a major! I didn’t know you knew him. If they were the tiniest bit puzzled about you, they could have asked me. Oh, yes indeed, my darling Ben. They could have asked me. And I would have told them.”
Goofy stoner Nick Andopolis (Jason Segal) makes his love for classmate Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini) official the only way he knows how: in song. Specifically, Styx’s “Lady,” a Top 40 smash so cheesy that the record should have been sold with crackers. Nick—or perhaps I should say Segal, since I’m not convinced there’s any boundary between the two—sells the song with unsettling gusto. As Lindsay watches Nick sing along with the opening verses and then chime in during the instrumental part with a self-penned monologue, she seems on the verge of being moved to tears or vomit. The boy truly loves her—but even now she suspects she’ll never be able to love him back. He’s just too weird.
“See, Lindsay,” Nick says softly while Styx shifts into slow jam mode, “Nothin’ ’bout you and me should ever be rushed…I made that mistake before…But I’m not gonna make it with you…But we got time…We got all the time in the world…And you know why?...” Long pause. He grins…lets the song’s chorus kick in, then stands up and belts: “’Cuz you’re mah layyyyyyy-hay...DEH!”
I don’t believe this number is available on YouTube, and it’s probably for the best. Once you’ve seen Segal’s version, it’s impossible to hear to the original without picturing him singing and speaking over it.
Or is that an improvement?
Convict H.I. McDunnough (Nicolas Cage) falls for Ed (Holly Hunter), a sworn officer of the law, the instant she takes his mugshot. “What kind of name is Ed for a purty thing like you?” he purrs. “Short for Edwina,” she barks. “Turn to the right!” “You’re a flower, y’are,” he says, turning to the right. She stares at him, shocked by his effrontery. “A little desert flower,” H.I. clarifies. Then, as an officer pulls him away from the height chart, he smacks his own ass and says, “Lemme know how those turn out.”
Over the next few years, as H.I. moves in and our of prison via the revolving door of justice, he flirts with Ed more brazenly. Appearing before her a second time, he notes her choked voice and asks what’s wrong.
“My fi-ance left me,” she replies.
“That sumbitch,” Ed mutters, enraged at the injustice visited upon his desert flower.
Turning to face her, H.I. says, “You tell him I think he’s a damn fool, Ed. You tell him I said so: H.I. McDunnough. And if he wants to discuss it,” he continues, pacing in front of the height chart and cupping his ’nads, “he knows where to find me: In the Maricopa County Maxiumum Security Correctional Facility for Men, State Farm Road Number 31, Tempe, Arizona!”
As he’s yanked out the door, he shouts, “I’ll be waitin’!”
Then he reappears just long enough to repeat, in a whisper: “I’ll be waitin’.”
The setup: George Bailey (James Stewart), once an optimistic small-town dreamer, is turning into a warped, frustrated young man. The pressure of running his dad’s struggling savings and loan has put him in a foul mood. Romantic frustration makes it fouler. He’s convinced that his rival, the entrepreneur George Wainwright, has George’s should-be sweetheart Mary (Donna Reed) all locked up. “Nice girl, Mary,” his mother tells him. “Kind that will help you find the answers, George.” “Sam’s crazy about Mary,” George protests. “Well, she’s not crazy about him,” his mother says, then urges him to court her because “...Sam Wainwright’s away in New York, and you’re here in Bedford Falls.” Unpersuaded, George announces, “I think I’ll go out and find a girl and do a little passionate necking.” He means the town babe Violet Bick (Gloria Grahame). He finds her downtown swarmed by men and asks her to join him in a trip to Bedford Falls, the town’s namesake. “It’s beautiful up there in the moonlight, and there’s a green pool up there, and we can swim in it. Then we can climb Mt. Bedford, and smell the pines, and watch the sunrise against the peaks, and…we’ll stay up there the whole night, and everybody’ll be talking and there’ll be a terrific scandal…” But Violet kills his ardor. “Walk in the grass in my bare feet? Why, it’s ten miles up to Mt. Bedford.”
George mopes over to Mary’s house and, in his defeatist funk, pushes her away. They argue. He storms out, then returns just as she’s receiving a call from Sam Wainwright.
This wrenching two-parter finds Deadwood’s lawman, Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), coming to blows with the town’s gangster boss, Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) and losing his gun and badge on the same day that Bullock’s wife, Martha (Anna Gunn) and son William (Josh Eriksson)—the family he inherited from his dead brother—arrive in town. The plot thickens: Martha discovers that during her absence, Seth forged a relationship with a widow, Alma Garret (Molly Parker), that consists of more than social intercourse. (Sorry, couldn’t resist; it’s hard to write about a David Milch production without lapsing into Milch-speak.)
At the end of Part 1, Seth is humiliated by Al’s defiance and his wife’s awareness of his infidelity (made plain during Alma’s ill-advised attempt to welcome her with a gift basket). Soldiering on, he escorts Martha and William through town toward the home he built for them—a wooden house atop a hill studded with rocks and cut by a man-made stream.
Martha stands outside the doorway with her son. Her discomfort at Seth’s secret recedes a bit, and how could it not? The evidence of his devotion is all around them.
“May we go inside?” she asks.
“Did you get the letter about the house?” Seth counters, mustering the nerve to look her in the eye.
“I did get that letter,” she says. “It’s at the very top of my trunk.”
“That has all my thoughts,” he says.
Martha looks at him for a moment, remembering the weight of the emotions conveyed in the letter.
She looks at William, then at Seth. “May we go in?” she repeats.
“I should go back now,” he says. “You and the boy go in.”
“Let’s go in the house Mr. Bullock has made us, William,” Martha says.
William looks up at his surrogate father and says, “Come on, Mr. Bullock.”
Seth says, “Not just now, William.”
William asks him, “Don’t you want to come in?”
“I can’t come in…just now.”
“After you’ve seen to the camp?” William presses. “Gotten your gun and badge back?”
Seth does not reply.
He hands Martha the welcome basket that Alma gave her earlier. She receives it with discomfort.
William says, “I’ll take it, mother.”
“Thank you,” Seth says to William.
Then, unexpectedly, Martha tells Seth, “Thank you.”
Martha and William go inside. Seth descends the hill and walks alone through the streets en route to Alma’s place. Over shots of Seth moving amid the townspeople—glancing about nervously, as if wondering what silent judgments they’re rendering—we hear him read the letter in voice-over.
The dramatic architecture of this scene is characteristic of Deadwood’s brilliance. The characters’ feelings are clear, yet they’re conveyed elliptically, indirectly, subtly. Seth’s dryly factual letter is a glorified laundry list telling Martha what he’s been up to while they were apart—the materials he used to build the house, the effort invested by his workmen. After all that effort, he didn’t enter the house, because he felt he didn’t deserve to.
The letter about the house reads as follows:
Dear Mrs. Bullock:
Your house is near finished. My satisfaction does not exceed the camp’s lumbermen and sawyers whose patience I have tried by my over-watchful eye for greenness and for good, square-edged quality in the cut-boards. I’ve chosen pine, one year seasoned, for the sills, posts, floor joists and rafters. The other framing timber is of spruce. Where partitions bear upon them, I have doubled the beams and supported the floor with locust posts set three feet into the ground. I think you may laugh to see the mullioned windows with their view of the camp from out the parlor. Being unfinished, they look like unfocused eyes. I’ve left these and all final decorative choices to your superior judgment and sensibility. I hope that you and the boy may arrive in good health and safety. I look forward to our opportunity to better get to know each other. I pray that in my brother’s stead I may be permitted to be a father to the boy as good as Robert would have been, and as to your care and comfort and safety, as good a husband to you.
The letter concludes as Seth enters the hotel where Alma is staying. He knocks on Alma’s door, and Alma opens it—but rather than let him in, she goes out into the hall to embrace Seth. The embrace isn’t sensual, but tender: comfort for a broken man. Alma’s failure to invite Seth in is a tacit acknowledgment that their affair is wrong and must end.
But she doesn’t close the door completely. She leaves it half-open, paralleling Alma’s final “Thank you,” which likewise leaves the door of her relationship with Seth half-open.
This sequence, more than any other in Deadwood, confirms the series’ status as the ultimate revision of, and re-thinking of, traditional Western characters, situations and themes. The most iconic image in the genre’s history is the final shot of The Searchers: John Wayne’s cavalry scout Ethan Edwards, who moved heaven and earth to rescue his kidnapped niece from Comanches, returning her to her home, then waiting as her loved ones go inside the house with her before turning around and walking away into the desert. We last see him through an open door which then closes, shutting him out. The image echoes Ethan’s earlier explanation of why he shoots Comanche corpses through the eyes: because in that culture, a warrior with no eyes “can’t enter the spirit land, has to wander forever between the wind.” Now here he is at the end of the story, at the moment of his greatest triumph, doing just that. In The Searchers, as in nearly all Westerns, domesticity is equated with paradise. Ethan spent much of his adult life committing unspeakable acts in the name of creating and defending Eden (or the white man’s version of it). By walking away from the once-broken home he did so much to restore, he acknowledges the central paradox of his life: the things he did to create paradise render him unfit to live in it. The door closes. The story is over; the West is over; Ethan is over.
On Deadwood, Seth Bullock, like Ethan Edwards, is a savage in civilization’s service. But Milch doesn’t close the door on him because the west of Deadwood, unlike John Ford’s West, is an unfinished story full of unfinished characters—a world in a perpetual state of becoming; a world that was evolving long before we met these people and that continued to evolve, while retaining its unruly essence, long after the land was covered in starter homes, telephone poles and asphalt. (That’s why each episode of Deadwood, a series set in the 1800s, ends with a western-inflected pop song from the 20th or 21st century.) In the name of taming the frontier around him, and the frontier within him, Seth did what he had to do, and what he thought he had to do, and what believed, for self-justifying, emotional reasons, that he needed to do (including taking a mistress to assuage his loneliness). Seth, his wife, his mistress, and the whole town know what his choices have cost him. He’s a man trapped between half-open doors, awaiting an unwritten ending.