Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Possession of Joel Delaney (1972)

Upper class divorcee Norah Benson's (Shirley MacLaine) well-protected life takes a turn for the difficult when her brother Joel Delaney (Perry King) is taken into custody for an attempted murder. Because he was clearly not himself when he did what he did, and because he's rich and white and has a connected sister, he soon gets released into Norah's care. However, Norah soon realizes that there's a lot she doesn't know about her brother's normal life in Spanish Harlem, and that something is very, very wrong with him.

In fact, he might be responsible for some murders; at the very least, he is friends with the man who most probably committed them. Or, he might even be possessed by the spirit of that man. Norah, who loves her brother deeply (perhaps quite a bit too much, even) does her best to help Joel with his troubles, even when that means having to let go of some of her class-based perceptions of life, and teaming up with the kind of poor brown people who usually clean her place. But even that might just not be enough.

Waris Hussein's film about possession or mental illness (depending on how you look at it and your ability to ignore the film’s ending) does quite a few things right: there's its slightly sarcastic view on American class and race politics, probably helped by the director being British and therefore having an outsider's view on the US specifics of the question; there is the film's often documentarian shooting style that doesn't feel the need to explain things it can just show, and knows how to show things so it doesn't have to explain them; there's Shirley MacLaine's nuanced performance of a character who would very easily have turned out atrociously unsympathetic in lesser hands but feels human in hers; and there's the film's low key and ambiguous concept of the supernatural, if it is even about anything supernatural at all.

The Possession of Joel Delaney's problem lies with the follow-through. While it is much better at (in this case) showing the poor Puerto Rican community of New York as people with actual lives and identities as human beings than films of its time and place usually are, it still does view them very much as The Other, sharing the view point of MacLaine's character who always seems to be standing on the verge of breaking through her own classist assumptions, but then never quite does - though a friendly interpretation could be that the film's ending turns out as it does because she doesn't quite manage the needed change, and not just because the script didn't have any better ideas.

Obviously, I found the film's ending particularly weak, with Perry King transforming into the absolute cliché of a Hispanic thug (and demonstrating that King's just not good enough an actor to pull that stunt off convincingly, though there’s probably only a handful actors in his age bracket and age who could have, so I can’t be too hard on him), and the film petering out without even attempting to resolve any of the thematic questions it has brought up. The very horror movie styled final kicker that's bound to destroy all ambiguity doesn't help in this regard at all. It's quite disappointing, really, for what came before contains so many interesting aspects (the near-incestuous relationship between MacLaine's and King's character, the question of how one can transcend one's class, not to speak of the question of how one should react to the mental - or spiritual - illness of a loved one) deserved more than the not very successful thriller ending they got.

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