Sunday, July 7, 2013

Provocative Overlooked and Forgotten 1980 Film


In 1901 Ed and Jack Biddle robbed a small store in Mt. Washington, Pennsylvania and the owner was fatally shot. After a blazing gun battle, the gang of two was captured and they were convicted and sentenced to hang. Kate Soffel was the wife of the warden at the jail and she took an interest in the prisoners and attempted to rehabilitate them ... an occupation not unusual for her. However, a romance flourished between her and Ed and with the help of a guard she smuggled a gun to him and they escaped shooting a guard in the process. They made their way north into Butler County to the Graham farm where McGovern had laid a trap for them. The Biddle's were killed in a shoot-out with police in which Ed shot Kate at her request. Kate survived to stand trial and served several years in prison. After her release she made a brief attempt at acting but the play was closed by the courts. She became a dressmaker and died of typhoid fever in Pittsburgh.
 the actual Kate Soffel in a tabloid story about the prison break-out and scandalous affair

This story is so sensational, it would seem that there would be lots written about it and lots of places to find facts. In actuality, little was actually written at the time, and most of that was in a piece called "Buck McGovern and the Biddle Boys" written by Arthur Forrest, who wrote for small, trashy magazines around the turn of the century  (similar to The National Enquirer, magazines which were not very accurate but were packed with information), so I'm not entirely sure how much of the film is a presentation of true events and how much was glamorized for the pulp magazines and re-glamorized again for the movie. One thing was clear: the Biddle brothers and Mrs. Soffel were all especially attractive, and though the brothers were criminals and Mrs. Soffel was married - to the jail warden no less! - they all had their admirers and would-be sweethearts.

So few facts are known that the actual last years of Kate Soffel's life are misty and unclear. One thing is clear - during the final shoot out with the police, Ed did shoot Mrs. Soffel at her request. Some recounts have her dying. Others have her surviving and serving a prison term. Some say she she lived a few more years as the owner of a seamstress shop before succumbing to tuberculosis - others say that before she became a seamstress, she took her biographical tale to the stage, until the authorities shut it down and it was banned.

So there was a plethora of material available - some bona fide, some questionable - in 1984, when Gillian Armstrong (Little Women, Oscar and Lucinda, My Brilliant Career, among many others) made her film version with Diane Keaton, Mel Gibson and Matthew Modine. And, in many ways, the film is as indefinite as the facts surrounding the story. There is no definite hardline that the brothers are guilty of the crime for which they are to hang (in real life, apparently there is no question about that part of the history); we never really know why Mrs. Soffel falls in love with Ed Biddle (beyond a heartbreakingly beautiful young Mel Gibson's face and physique); we don't know why Mrs. Soffel is so strangled and unhappy in her marriage to the average pleasant Mr Soffel (played by Edward Herrmann). These are all facts to be taken for granted by the viewer, and nothing more to be said about it. But, as in the hands of all master filmmakers, it works. I never questioned any of it for a moment (until the film was over and I thought about writing this piece about it LOL).
 The film is dark, moody, atmospheric, claustrophobic - and yet, oddly, beautiful to watch. It's as if the camera has been used to loving photograph every soot-covered slab of stone and rank puddle of water. The director also shoots the men, Gibson and Modine, in a manner usually reserved for men photographing the beauties of their day. Her languorously long close-ups of Gibson reminds one of the care taken when photographing Julie Christie in Doctor Zhivago or Faye Dunaway in Chinatown. To realize the care used in photographing him, one only has to remember that within two years, Gibson will make Mad Max and Lethal Weapon - when his handsome face is a roadmap of wrinkles; yet, in this film, his skin is absolutely flawless without even the hit of future wrinkles. Diane Keaton, of course, has always been a singular beauty, but even Matthew Modine, as the younger Biddle brother looks handsome and alluring. For two men living on gruel in a prison cell, their skin has the radiant glow of an inner light.

If you haven't seen this film since the 1980's, revisit it. It's a journey well taken. And if you have never seen it, grab a cup of something warm and comforting and settle in for two hours of atmospheric provocation. Measured and meandering, the film takes its time to get to where it's going (110 minutes), but you'll enjoy every step. There is time to ponder the questions posed (but never answered): is the three month illness Mrs. Soffel has at the beginning of the film a physical ailment, or is her recuperation the end of a bout of depression?; did the director intend for the prison to be symbolic as both Mrs. Soffel's physical and emotional incarceration?; Did Ed Biddle truly love Mrs. Soffel, or did he play her like a harp, seeing in her the possibility of getting the files and guns required for a prison break?; unlike Nora in A Doll's House, there is little distress at Mrs. Soffel leaving behind her children - is this a character point? an oversight? a point that has been glossed over for time's sake? Anyway, it is not addressed - and seems to be an important one. Again, these are questions to engage in after the film is over, and not to be taken as criticism, as I feel they add to the overall mystique and intrigue of the film.

It also should be noted that Diane Keaton was nominated for a Golden Globe award for her performance and Gillian Anderson was both nominated and won several European awards for her directing of the film.

I hope you enjoy the film - I don't know why it was so overlooked at the time of its release - and when it's finished, go make something beautiful!
♥´¨)
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(¸.•´ (¸.•´♥ Tristan
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