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Bedroom Window, The
[] Buy posters from this movie
by Jack Sommersby

"A Killer Serial-Killer Thriller!"
4 stars

Director Curtis Hanson has written and directed a first-rate thriller that only occasionally missteps.

Before director Curtis Hanson's career hit the stratosphere with 1997's Oscar-winning L.A. Confidential he made a couple of passable Hitchcockian thrillers -- 1990's Bad Influence (with James Spader) and 1992's The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (with Rebecca De Mornay) -- but the first film to really get him noticed was 1987's The Bedroom Window, which he both wrote and directed. Based on the novel The Witnesses by Anne Holden (unread by me), the film details the exploits of Baltimore businessman Terry Lambert (played by Steve Guttenberg) as he attempts to bring a serial killer to justice. On a most fateful night, Terry has his powerful boss' wife, Sylvia (French actress Isabel Huppert), over to his place late one night after a company party. After a round of intercourse, he excuses himself to the bathroom to take a harmless pee, and Sylvia is startled by a scream outside the third-story bedroom window, where she witnesses the assault of a young woman. When she manages to throw open the window, she startles the red-haired, pale-skinned attacker, and he flees the scene, leaving his victim bruised but alive -- and leaving Sylvia worrying over whether to do the right thing by contacting the police.

The next day, Terry reads in the newspaper of the murder of a woman just a few blocks away from his apartment building which happened only a half-hour after the assault; he suspects the same man is responsible. If Sylvia altruistically comes forward, her extramarital affair might become unveiled. Acting the romantic fool, Terry abruptly phones the police and informs them it was he who witnessed the assault; not surprisingly, he winds up getting into more trouble than he could have ever imagined. Terry's a bright man, but he foolishly thinks he's got things under control when, in fact, he hasn't thought things through properly -- he believes everything will pan out like it does on television. For instance, during the detectives' initial visit, after already having confirmed that he doesn't smoke, a few seconds later, Terry's busy trying to stuff a pack of Sylvia's cigarettes that she left behind down his trouser pocket while the cops have their backs turned. Still, he manages to relay a sharp-enough detailing of the assault. The cops are satisfied, and so is Terry. He's in the clear, right? Nope. Otherwise there wouldn't be a film here, folks.

The cops require Terry's presence down at the police station the next day, and he thinks nothing of it other than they want to go over his statement again. But the assault victim, Denise (Elizabeth McGovern), is there, too, and next thing you know, Terry and Denise (who was attacked from behind) are asked to pick the suspect out of a line-up. We know the attacker, Henderson (Brad Greenquist), is among them, but Terry doesn't. Well, not quite -- he settles on Henderson due to Sylvia's uncanny description but, of course, cannot make a positive ID. The cops are disappointed because (as they inform Terry) one of the men from the line-up has a history of sexual assaults. Certain that it's Henderson, Terry follows him from the station and begins a surveillance of both his home and workplace at the docks. And it's at this point where you'll either willingly go along with or loathingly abandon the story.

By all rights, most human beings in Terry's position would plausibly shuck the whole thing off and be thankful for not having been found out. But a sense of civic responsibility overcomes him (as it did John Travolta's soundman in Brian De Palma's brilliant Blow Out), and he decides to follow up on his suspicion that Henderson is indeed the culprit. While Terry's staking out the suspect isn't exactly believable, one must remember that Hitchcock's thrillers weren't exactly chock-full of believability either, so we're willing to give The Bedroom Window the benefit of the doubt when plunging into similar territory. To be sure, there are a few plot holes -- like corporate big shot Terry apparently not having to make so much as an appearance at the office hereafter, and his vintage car parked in an alley right across from Henderson's home is fairly conspicuous. The twists and turns of the story, however, are jazzy enough to keep us from pondering over snafus such as these.

Without giving away a whole lot more, allow me to divulge that when Henderson is brought to trial, his canny defense attorney (a show-stopping turn by My Dinner With Andre's Wallace Shawn) tears Terry's testimony to shreds, and the story then shifts gears in another involving direction: the police begin investigating Terry as a possible suspect -- they know he's lying but don't know why.

Story-wise, The Bedroom Window is about as convincing as a right-wing conservative's salutation of women's rights. Luckily, though, the film has a real ace in filmmaker Curtis Hanson, who executes his material lucidly and stylishly, as if it were bona-fide gold. Working with the superb English cinematographer Gil Taylor (who also lensed Hanson's Losin' It, a 1983 sex comedy with Tom Cruise), Hanson succeeds in shrouding the film with a consistently eerie, foreboding atmosphere of dread; he turns the city of Baltimore into a visual feast of gorgeous doom-laden catacombs, just laying in wait to ensnare the next unsuspecting innocent. In fact, the widescreen framing succeeds in capturing so much vital story-related background information in a single shot that Hanson can rely on a minimum of cuts to envelop and unnerve you, instead of employing a great amount of angles that would wind up drawing your attention to the film as such. Often times, two characters are framed with one another at the periphery of the 2.35:1 aspect-ratio image with something mysterious and off-kilter placed somewhere in between; upon seeing how ingeniously Hanson embraces the possibilities of expressive set decoration, you know you're in the hands of a first-rate director who knows exactly what he's doing.

Hanson never makes the amateur mistake of pushing things in a suspense thriller. Rather, he presumes the audience is intelligent enough to be led in a trusting yet not overly manipulative manner, and stops well short of obtrusively pushing easy buttons. While Hanson's screenplay isn't exactly iron-clad in the common-sense department, it's still witty and dexterous enough in the plotting to steer you from one point to another involvingly. Admittedly, to fully enjoy the film, you'll have to forsake realism for sensationalism -- which, given how shamelessly most directors deploy sensationalism, is not the worst thing when the person in the director's chair treats his audience with respect rather than contempt. What I'm basically trying to convey is that Hanson's work, while negligible in places -- like episodes with a car not starting at a crucial time, or the hero getting entangled in a dumb fight when he's needed the most -- is confident and intelligent, with a keen film sense for what will and will not play and how to get the most out of his technical contributors: the ominous music score scurries up in all the right places; the production design always manages to throw a visual zinger at us seemingly from out of nowhere; and the adroit editing is a mere but crucial second ahead of us more often than not.

The Bedroom Window is the darndest thing. Unlike most thrillers involving a serial killer, here's one where the story doesn't center on the identifying of the killer. He's in plain sight, untouched, unthreatened, and it's the hero who ends up obstructed, and not just by the police but by his fellow citizens as well. The way it plays out, throughout the film Henderson has an easier time of it as a serial killer than Terry has as a decent-hearted crusader. And this serves as terrific stuff for the audience because you're never quite sure what's going to impede Terry's next desperate action to make things right. Stacking the deck against your protagonist can sometimes backfire if the obstacles are piled on too high and too frequently; luckily, Hanson modulates the plot twists, placing them at strategic places to wow us yet far enough apart to allow us to drop our guard just long enough so we can be surprisingly goosed by the next doozy. For a thriller that doesn't rely on a whole lot of shock value (not one murder is shown), The Bedroom Window does an amazing job of keeping us on the edge of our seats even when nothing threatening is seemingly going on. (It's also the best-photographed film ever made in Baltimore: the architectural sense brought into the visual design is staggering.)

As middle-of-the-road critic Leonard Maltin noted of Police Academy alum Steve Guttenberg here, he's not exactly Cary Grant. But I could give a hoot. Of course a more exciting and dynamic actor would have been more involving to watch, yet I think Hanson's casting of Guttenberg was more shrewd than critics realized at the time: he's cast a mediocre actor who doesn't radiate all that much intelligence, which is perfect for a lead character who's been written as being bright but also a bit dim. If a more resourceful actor at the time like, say, William Hurt had been cast, the result would have probably been disastrous; his knowing, probing intelligence would have negated our buying into Terry allowing himself to walk into so many obstacles. When you get right down to it, Guttenberg isn't bad at all -- he underplays vividly and with the confidence that the camera will "get" the performance without his having to frail about finding incidental things to sustain our interest. Terry comes off as the perfect Everyman we can easily identify with, which draws us closer to him, closer to his plight, and, naturally, closer to the story.

As was usually the case with Dino De Laurentiis' DEG productions, casting director Mary Colquhoun outdid herself in selecting pitch-perfect actors for the supporting roles. The great Paul Shenar isn't given enough to do as Terry's brazen boss, but he cooks and sizzles with creative intensity every moment he's on screen. Carl Lumbly and Frederick Coffin play off each other perfectly as the responding detectives who soon make Terry's life a living hell. Robert Schenkkan has fun with the role as the State Attorney who gets caught with his pants down when Terry's botched testimony allows Henderson to be acquitted. Brad Greenquist, as the killer, has only three lines but exudes a palpable menacing presence. And even the smallest roles have been cast with a sharp eye, like veteran character actor Maury Chaykin as a pool-hall toughie and Kate McGregor-Stewart as Terry's flirtatious neighbor.

The two main actresses, though, give the film problems. Isabel Huppert is much more comfortable in urban Baltimore than she was in the Montana plains in Heaven's Gate a few years back, but she still hadn't developed much range or variety. The character of Sylvia is basically a cold-hearted bitch; and Huppert makes the mistake of playing Sylvia as a cold-hearted bitch, rather than a three-dimensional human being who just happens to be a cold-hearted bitch. Huppert scrunches her face up and cuts her words short when trying to act tough, and relies on bygone mannerisms when acting sultry that went out in those film noirs back in the '50s.

As for the lovely Elizabeth McGovern, she starts out well. She feels through her line readings and is just as expressive when listening and responding to her co-stars. The role of Denise is a good one, and in the early scenes McGovern runs with it and gives her strongest, most emotionally accessible performance since the beautiful 1982 Dudley Moore comedy/drama Lovesick. But in the film's latter half, something goes terribly wrong: McGovern starts deliberately acting "tough," like a gum-smacking gun moll with delusions of grandeur. In fact, the performance is so off-putting at times you assume she's doing some kind of send-up or parody. But this is a psychological thriller, not a Mel Brooks or Zucker Brothers production, so you have to wonder why Hanson (usually a superb director of actors) didn't have McGovern apply the overacting breaks almost immediately. It's mind-boggling: sometimes she's fantastic; other times she's unbearable -- as if Out of the Past's Jane Greer or Double Indemnity's Barbara Stanwyck had invaded her soul in a jealous act to derail her career. Luckily, at the end McGovern loosens back up, and she and Guttenberg have one of those nice closing exchanges that puts a smile on your face as the lights come up.

Actually, that last line isn't altogether true. For considering just how assured, imaginative, nerve-jangling, and just plain entertaining The Bedroom Window is from start to finish, that departing smile will likely be the very same one you'll wear throughout the film's delicious two-hour running time. No, it's not a serial-killer classic like Michael Mann's Manhunter, Bruce Robinson's Jennifer 8, or David Fincher's Se7en, but it's good enough to justify a last-minute excursion to your local video store immediately after reading this.


Anchor Bay has outdone themselves and given this fifteen-year-old film a great makeover. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is gorgeous, with a stiletto-sharp image. Grain is occasionally a problem, but video noise is minimal and, considering the many scenes in neon-lit bars, the absence of bleeding is remarkable. For years, fans have had to make due with horrific pan-and-scan VHS transfers. Well, time to trade up. The 5.1 Dolby Digital audio track is satisfactory for the most part yet could have used some tweaking in the back channels. Special features are bare-bones, though: only a theatrical trailer is included. Still, another stellar accomplishment by Anchor Bay.

This little-seen goody deserves to be re-discovered.

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originally posted: 12/27/02 03:58:29
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User Comments

9/13/17 morris campbell a killer thriller 4 stars
3/06/07 action movie fan very clever hitchcock like predicament thriller 4 stars
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  02-Mar-1987 (R)



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