Sunday, 8 January 2017

The Love Machine [1971]

THE LOVE MACHINE is an American melodrama that was directed by Jack Haley Jr and adapted from the novel by Jacqueline Susann.  It was originally released in August 1971 by Columbia.  It stars John Phillip Law, Robert Ryan, David Hemmings, Dyan Cannon, Jackie Cooper and Jodi Wexler.  Law is Robin Stone an amoral and ambitious TV reporter who becomes the protégé of IBC network chief Greg Austin (Ryan).  The film charts his meteoric and controversial career rise as well as his prolific sex life.


Blimey, where does one start with a film like this?  Probably with the source, in this case the original novel by the original bonkbuster author Jacqueline Susann.  Most famous for ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls’, Susann’s is not a name one hears much these days but she was staggeringly successful in the 60s and 70s.  I read a quote about her once, from Andrew Bergman, who said:

She had a miserable life.  But she was determined to be famous.  She willed herself to be famous.  That’s what she wanted.  She was a failed actress, a failed gameshow host.  She was a sort of joke until the novels.
Jacqueline Susann appears in an uncredited cameo as a news anchor
And that could go for one or two of the characters in THE LOVE MACHINE because they simply will do anything to be successful.  Robin Stone exploits women, his boss, his colleagues and the television viewing public: by the time he becomes Production executive he is peddling what even he recognises to be crap purely because he knows the public will settle for it.


Greg Austin and Robin Stone
The boardroom politics are of less interest to Susann, and this film, than Stone’s complicated love life.  His is introduced to an endless supply of beautiful young woman by his only true friend, the homosexual fashion photographer Jerry Nelson (Hemmings).  The first we meet is Amanda, a needy young woman who soon becomes in thrall to Stone’s mix of narcissist and ladies’ man.  He was a good looking lad was John Phillip Law so it’s easy to see why the women fall for him but the character is such a blank space you are left scratching your head as to why they become quite so besotted with him.  In turn that makes you wonder whether the woman are all stupid and once you start thinking that about the characters you realise the whole is meant to be taken as seriously as a lager commercial.

Supermodel 'Amanda'(Jodi Wexler) ...

... and publicity girl Maureen (Ethel Evans), falling for Robin Stone
For THE LOVE MACHINE is not a drama, or even a melodrama, as I have stated above; it is a fantasy.  Susann herself said:

I write for women who read me in the goddam subways on the way home from work.  I know who they are because that’s who I used to be …  But here’s the catch.  All the people they envy in my books, the ones who are glamorous, or beautiful, or rich, or talented – they have to suffer, see, because that way the people who read me can get off the subway and go home feeling better about their crappy lives.
That quote reinforces the film as fantasy: there are almost no scenes involving the general public, no interaction with the great unwashed.  The vast majority of interiors – and it is mainly interiors – are boardrooms, naturally, luxury flats and mansions; nightclubs; TV studios and so on.  That is to say, exclusive locations – the habitat of the rich and famous, not the man in the street.  Susann does in her novel precisely as she says in that quote: there are the characters and there are real people.  In other words, she isn’t striving for reality or even heightened reality – she is peddling fantasy, a fact reinforced by the outrageous / ridiculous costumes sported by Dyan Cannon and Jodi Wexler.






Dyan Cannon, suffering in leopardskin
Fantasy of a particularly lurid type, as it goes.  There is more face-slapping, hair-pulling, miaowing and drinking neat vodka than in almost any other film I’ve ever seen.  A lot of it is done by David Hemmings, perhaps the least recognisably human character in the film.  I accept that it was made a long time ago but his depiction of the homosexual fixer Jerry Nelson is outrageously bad by today’s standards and could well have been even then.  He is from the leering, arch, effeminate, innuendo-laden, mincing school of gay cinema that would be recognisable only to Bette Midler.  Not only that but “faggot” is used, liberally, as a term of abuse.  Greg Austin and his consigliere attempt to break Stone from his lucrative contract by invoking the morals clause; not because of his bed-hopping, oh no, driving women to suicide because of his infidelity is fine, as is, seemingly, beating up prostitutes, but any whiff of homosexuality and he’s be out on his ear.

Robin Stone and Jerry Nelson
I can’t believe I’m saying this but despite its awfulness, THE LOVE MACHINE is terrifically watchable; probably because of its awfulness.  I don’t mean that in a ‘it’s so inept it’s funny’, Ed Wood sort of way (a thing I don’t actually agree with), but rather that because it knows what it is and pursues that through to the absolute bitter end – and the final punch up has to be seen to be believed – it achieves a kind of purity.  

What other film can offer you David Hemmings bitch-slapping Dyan Cannon as John Phillip Law wrestle a homosexual in the background?
This is presumably why bonkbusters, or airport novels, call them what you will, sell by the bucketload: if they give you what you want and demand then they’re irresistible.
John Phillip Law looked every inch the movie star and is a perfect fit for this particular role. 

John Phillip Law as Robin Stone
Most of the rest of the time he wasn’t much cop, frankly, but his impassivity, bordering on the sociopathic, is Robin Stone to a tee.  As I watched him cavort in his immaculate penthouse apartment I couldn’t help but think of Patrick Bateman from Bret Easton Ellis’s revolting ‘American Psycho’ and ironically Law doesn’t look unlike Christian Bale from the 1997 film adaptation.  Apparently he was only cast at the last minute because another actor had a traffic accident; there wasn’t enough time to alter the costumes so allegedly one can see his cuffs are too short.  I didn’t spot that I must confess but it’s not the sort of thing I generally keep an eye out for.  In the right part, as here, Law was good – such as the blind angel Pygar in BARBARELLA, or the superhero Diabolik in Mario Bava’s DANGER DIABOLIK [both 1968], and Sinbad in THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD [1973].  There’s a pattern there no?  Supermen.  And that’s what he looked like.

Law in THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD
From the mid-70s onwards the star began to wane and, like a lot of good-looking second-string actors, he went to Europe and made lots of genre movies.  When, particularly, Italian exploitation cinema faded away he moved back to the States and started appearing in the American equivalent, which in practice means people like Fred Olen Ray.  Now, I don’t mind Fred Olen Ray, I think his films are entertaining for the most part but when an actor finds himself appearing in them it’s pretty much curtains – I’m talking titles such as ALIENATOR and SPACE MUTINY.  It’s weird to think that there is only one degree of separation between Ray and one of my all-time heroes Robert Ryan, who in THE LOVE MACHINE delivers a professional if uninspired performance.

Robert Ryan as Greg Austin and Dyan Cannon as his wife Judith
David Hemmings is another actor I like, not so much because he was a great actor but because he made interesting films.  He is most famous of course as the iconic star of Michelangelo Antonioni's classic BLOW-UP [1966], a role he was apparently lucky to get and in which he played another photographer.  However, like Terence Stamp, who I believe was also considered, he just had that 60s look that was perfect for the role.  He lost his lean physique and good looks quite early on for a movie and pretty quickly was playing second lead parts, such as he does here.  Perhaps that's why his thoughts turned to direction at a much earlier stage than most actors, if they ever do.  He made JUST A GIGOLO [1978], the David Bowie film that was reviewed on this site almost exactly a year ago, just after Bowie's untimely passing.

David Hemmings as Jerry Nelson
Among Stone's conquests are former Playboy Playmate Claudia Jennings who became a reasonably successful actress after her glamour model beginnings, especially in B movies - specifically hicksploitation (love that word) such as GATOR BAIT [1974], MOONSHINE EXPRESS and THE GREAT TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE [both 1977].  Tragically, Jennings died in a car crash aged just 29.  Stone was also fortunate enough to bed two more Playmates in sisters Mary and Madeleine Collinson who were less successful in the movie business, being limited to a handful of dolly bird roles including the Hammer vampire flick TWINS OF EVIL [1972].

You don’t need me to tell you who Jack Haley Jr’s more famous father was so I won’t bother.  Suffice it to say that Jr carved out a reasonably successful Hollywood career as a producer, no doubt thanks to Dad’s contacts.  As a director of features, as far as I can tell he only made a couple, of which THE LOVE MACHINE was the second.  The DP was Charles Lang who was 69 when he shot this film and for most of the shoot probably wondered what the hell had happened to the movie business.  He won an Oscar in 1932 for A FAREWELL TO ARMS and when his Paramount contract ended he shot a lot of bid-budget productions for various studios, including some real belters like THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN [1960], Marlon Brando’s one and only directorial effort ONE-EYED JACKS [1961]and the Cinerama feature HOW THE WEST WAS WON [1962].  One final technical note: the theme song is performed by Dionne Warwick who is inexplicably billed as Dionne Warwicke.

Doh.

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