Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Thursday, April 7, 2011


THE MAD ROOM (1969). Director: Bernard Girard.

This is loosely based on a creaky stage play that was filmed once before under its original title, Ladies in Retirement, which starred Ida Lupino and Isabel Elsom. In this very updated version Stella Stevens as Ellen Hardy replaces Lupino as assistant to the wealthy and slightly eccentric Mrs. Armstrong (Shelley Winters in the Elsom role). Ellen is engaged to marry her employer's stepson Sam (Skip Ward), but she's keeping a lot of secrets. Major among them is that her younger brother George (Michael Burns) and sister Mandy (Barbara Sammeth), who have come to live in Mrs. Armstrong's sprawling house, have just been released from a mental institution where they've been living since one or both supposedly butchered their parents with a knife twelve years before. [We're asked to believe that a four-year-old girl and six-year-old boy would be capable, or even suspected, of such an act!] The title refers to a "mad room" or quiet, private place where the two siblings can go to work out tensions and think over their problems. It isn't too long before a bloody body turns up [although the film is so awkwardly put together at times that it isn't exactly clear who the victim is for quite a while], and somebody or other starts going nutso. The Mad Room begins very well with a suspenseful pace, intriguing story line and interesting, fairly well-developed characters, but once the hacking starts it simply falls apart. Although director Girard handles some sequences well, he isn't up to the Hitchcockian challenge of wringing tension out of scenes and bits of business that desperately cry out for it. The film is generally well-acted even if Stevens -- looking odd in her doll-like hairdo and dresses -- chews the scenery a bit towards the end. Great Old Movies' favorite Beverly Garland plays the wife of a supposedly philandering masseur who attends to Mrs. Armstrong; Garland has a great scene where she has a meltdown telling off a crowd of ladies attending a charity auction at the Armstrong mansion [although it has little to do with the rest of the movie]: "Don't raise your hands, ladies, raise your legs!" Although some may consider this the bowdlerization of a classic, the original Ladies in Retirement wasn't as distinctive as all that. The Mad Room could have been a memorable film with more care and better direction. Dave Grusin's musical score is no help at all. That same year Michael Burns appeared with Sandy Dennis in another kind of psycho-thriller, Robert Altman's That Cold Day in the Park.

Verdict: Comes very close -- but misses. **1/2.

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