Monday, April 8, 2013

Lauren Hutton is worth watching in John Carpenter's "Someone's Watching Me!"

Lauren Hutton's creditable work as an actress in the 1970s and 1980s has been somewhat forgotten in recent years as she has returned to her roots as a fashion model by becoming a ubiquitous infomercial hostess and spokesperson for her own cosmetics line.  In her mature years, she has gracefully settled into becoming one of the more accomplished and respected celebrities famous for being famous.  This is a shame, because Hutton was an earthy and appealing presence in movies and TV throughout her acting career, cutting a dashing and insolent figure as she often played worldly and intelligent women.  She did some solid work in movies like Karel Reisz's "The Gambler" (1974) with James Caan, Robert Altman's "A Wedding" (1978), and Paul Schrader's "American Gigolo" (1980) that helped establish her as one of the more successful models-turned-actresses.  However, despite her many accomplishments, I think her best work as an actress came from her lead role in the TV movie "Someone's Watching Me!" (1978), a tense and exciting suspense thriller written and directed by John Carpenter right before he made "Halloween" (1978).  In it, Hutton benefited from a meaty, juicy role that she could sink her famously gapped teeth into that allowed her to play an intelligent and courageous woman, with refreshing elements of humor and vulnerability, who was facing imminent danger at the hands of a sadistic stalker.

In "Someone's Watching Me!," Hutton plays Leigh Michaels, a TV director who has recently relocated to Los Angeles after the acrimonious end of a long-term relationship in New York.  She moves into a high-rise apartment building, unaware that she has become the object of a stalker who, the audience realizes from the prologue, has gotten away with harassing and murdering other women by making it appear that they've committed suicide by leaping to their deaths from their apartments.  The stalker watches her from the opposite building through his telescope; terrorizes her with menacing phone calls; enters her apartment unit while she is out; leaves notes at her front door; and sends her gifts in the mail, including a telescope and bathing suit, under the guise of enrolling Leigh in a promotional travel agency contest urging her to guess the location of her ultimate destination.  Leigh is initially unsettled by the stalker, but eventually mounts a formidable defense against him with the help of her co-worker Sophie (Adrienne Barbeau) and new boyfriend Paul (David Birney), who are concerned about Leigh's safety.  At one point, Leigh deduces which apartment the stalker is watching her from and goes across to investigate, as Sophie watches from Leigh's apartment.  When Leigh peers into the stalker's telescope, he sees the stalker enter her apartment, sneak up behind Sophie and murder her.  However, he leaves behind no traces of the crime by the time Leigh has rushed back to her apartment, which causes the police to disbelieve her when she reports Sophie's murder.  Leigh and Paul ultimately learn that the stalker is actually a city inspector of apartment buildings who, as part of his job, has knowledge and access to every structure in the jurisdiction.

On her own, Leigh breaks into the stalker's home and finds evidence linking him to his crimes.  She calls Paul and notifies him of her discovery.  Paul tells Leigh to meet him at the police station to present the evidence to the authorities, but Leigh first returns to her apartment in order to retrieve a bugging device she found earlier in her apartment that matches one in the catalogue of surveillance equipment she found in the stalker's home.  At the apartment, she finds a typed suicide note the stalker has prepared for her and discovers that he's locked her into her unit, disabled the phones and shut off the power.  By this point, Leigh realizes that the stalker has benefited from harassing her from afar, that he's afraid of getting too close to her, and she dares him to come out and show himself.  She smashes a window in her apartment to call for help, only to have the stalker, an insignificant-looking middle-aged man, finally emerge from the shadows and attack her.  Leigh clings to her drapes as the stalker attempts to push Leigh out the broken window.  She finally grabs a shard of broken glass dangling from the sill and stabs him in the back with it.  The stalker lunges at Leigh one last time as she jumps out of the way and he leaps to his death.  As she triumphantly looks down from upon her perch, Leigh ruefully comments "You got too close."

A taut and straight-forward thriller that puts many current, explicitly violent R-rated thrillers and horror films to shame, "Someone's Watching Me!" benefits immensely from John Carpenter's solid writing and directing, and from Lauren Hutton's impressive lead performance.  In the kind of role where she is almost always on-screen, Hutton confidently carries this movie by courageously allowing the audience to see Leigh's strengths and vulnerabilities.  Still bruising from the end of her romantic relationship in New York, Leigh is rather flippant and abrasive in the early scenes of the film, in an attempt to demonstrate a veneer of wit and confidence to her new friends and co-workers and to convince herself that she's going to be OK.  Nevertheless, we like her from the get-go due to her disarming candor, fierce intelligence, and human weaknesses.  Carpenter has given Hutton an ideal part that accentuates all of her strengths as an actress and personality, and gives us a fine example of the sort of roles that Hutton should have been frequently offered.  One of Hutton's best scenes in the movie is not a thriller/suspense moment at all, but a nicely nuanced moment when Leigh meets her future boyfriend Paul for the first time.  Leigh spots Paul reading a newspaper at a bar, cheekily walks up and introduces herself, and then walks away.  Leigh immediately turns around, walks back up to Paul and says to him "Hey there!  Haven't we met before?"  We realize that Leigh, for all her looks, intelligence and success, feels the same insecurities as anyone else when they meet someone they're attracted to for the first time.  Hutton makes sure that Leigh has no sense of entitlement about herself, which is why the audience is completely on her side when her ordeal with the stalker begins to take hold of her life.

What I also like is how Hutton effectively demonstrates how the stalker has unsettled her life in a way that most people would be able to identify with.  She begins to lose some of her wit and spirit as we realize the extent to which Leigh's sense of security, confidence, peace of mind, and personal safety has started to erode.  Compare Hutton's finely nuanced work in "Someone's Watching Me!" with the shallow performance of Morgan Fairchild in "The Seduction" (1982), where Fairchild plays a newscaster stalked by a persistent fan, and you see the extent to which Carpenter and Hutton were able to accomplish great things with Leigh's character.  In "The Seduction," Fairchild acts in an entitled, petulant manner to being stalked, as if she's annoyed that her manicure has been interrupted.  In "Someone's Watching Me!," Hutton effectively creates a character whose life has been turned upside down, but whose strength and resolve eventually allow her to effectively fight back against her stalker.  When Leigh calls the police to tell them about her stalker, and is told that they can't do anything unless he actually threatens her and that she should call them back in case he does anything further, a frustrated Leigh sardonically retorts, "In case he does anything?...Well, if he kills me, you'll be the first to know!"  Because Leigh has somehow managed to retain her sense of humor under difficult circumstances, we realize that the stalker has found a formidable opponent and that, even though she'll look to her boyfriend Paul and friend Sophie for moral support, she will ultimately be able to resolve this situation on her own.

In another of Hutton's best scenes in the movie, Leigh is driving in her car, attempting to flee from her apartment, when she hears a recording of Sophie's murder emanating from a walkie-talkie the stalker has placed in the back seat of her car.  As Leigh attempts to reach behind her to turn the walkie-talkie off, she pulls the car off to a side street and breaks down as she finally allows herself to grieve over Sophie's death and over the crisis that has enveloped her life.  Hutton always stood out from other actresses from the 1970s, who projected a neurotic and eccentric image reflective of the "Me Generation," by projecting a cosmopolitan sophistication and assuredness more in-keeping with the leading ladies from the classic era of Hollywood.  In this scene, Hutton is finally given a scene where she can go for broke as an actress and demonstrate feelings of rage, grief, frailty, and sadness as Leigh is finally at wit's end over being stalked.  We see the extent to which the stalker has almost broken her spirit.  And yet, because we already like Leigh's character very much, we eagerly wait to see when she will eventually pull herself together and take control of her life again.  It's one of the finest moments of her career and gives us further example of the untapped potential Hutton had as an actress. 

And Hutton doesn't disappoint in the finale when she finally confronts the stalker and puts an end to her nightmare.  When she returns to her apartment, finds the typed suicide note he has prepared for her, we see Leigh's mounting anger and sense of resolve as she realizes he finally has gone one step too far even for her.  Hutton projects a look of disgust and bemusement for her stalker as she says aloud to him "You're hiding aren't you?  You're afraid of me.  You're afraid to get too close.  Come on.  Face me.  I'm still scared.  You've got a good chance."  Hutton smiles slightly, as she realizes that she has finally tapped into her stalker's vulnerability and weaknesses.  When the stalker doesn't respond to her, Leigh angrily continues "Just like that?  I don't even get to see who you are?"  Leigh is appropriately outraged at realizing the cowardice of her stalker and that he doesn't even have the guts to take her on, face-to-face, on a level playing field, but prefers to come at her from a distance or sneak up from behind.  We realize that the stalker, actually, never had a chance against Leigh because her forthright and direct personality were her inherent strengths against his cowardly harassment of her and that, if given an opportunity, she would easily put him in his place.  And she does, at the end, when he attempts to shove her out her window, she finally stabs him in the back with the shard of glass, just as easily as he would have attacked her from behind, and puts an end to his reign of terror.

When Carpenter finally shows us who Leigh's stalker is, he brilliantly reveals him to be a slight, balding, wimpy-looking, middle-aged man with no sense of genuine character or strength to his face.  (Carpenter takes advantage of the narrow framing required for television movies at the time to allow the stalker to sneak up on Leigh without warning.)  In a brief close-up of the stalker, Carpenter provides the audiences all the back-story we need to explain why this insignificant-looking man would derive such pleasure from exerting control over the lives of others.  We sense that the stalker was likely a meek, wimpy man in his own regular life and was only able to have any sense of strength about himself by trying to take control of other women's lives from afar.  He was, in essence, a coward, which is why it is such a pleasure for the audience to see such an inherently stronger person like Leigh finally put this milquetoast in his place.  When Leigh looks down from her apartment window, after the stalker has fallen to his death, she has almost a look of compassion and pity for him, as if she now realizes that he was no match for her from the start.  Lauren Hutton's work in "Someone's Watching Me!" is unique in the horror/suspense genre in that it's only in retrospect we realize the heroine was always stronger than her stalker from the get-go and that she would ultimately triumph over him.  In a sense, the audience should have been more concerned about his safety than about hers.  As mentioned earlier, because the 1970s was filled with neurotically self-indulgent actresses who were incapable of projecting strength and resolve, it becomes apparent how Lauren Hutton was the only person who could have effectively played Leigh Michaels in "Someone's Watching Me!"

1 comment:

  1. I think you are right about Hutton, generally, though I do not recall this movie. I liked her then, and now, reflecting back on her roles (e.g., American Gigolo), I recall her as very good. She was so down-to-earth with what you describe as her "famously gapped teeth." Still looking for your book of these analyses!


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