Always tottering on the brink of friendly madness, Roddy McDowell is a perfectly cozy host. Like Anthony Perkins, an invitation to his house will be sealed with a glass of milk, harmless niceties and finally homicide. In Hitchcockian fashion, the film clandestinely begins with the cold opening of a mysterious woman absconding with a satchel from a train station shortly before she is strangled and her ring finger is severed. It’s a nerve-jangling whopper of a start.
It’s a comedy of rent-control errors as SAG actress Katie (Mary Steenburgen) bustles to an audition session with Murray (McDowell). The whiteout atmosphere around the isolated house is pretty foreboding. The fuse to this powder keg is quite elongated (with a layout of Dr. Lewis’ (Jan Rubes) claustrophobic domicile) and Katie’s naivete is infuriating at times. She hardly flinches at the lack of the phone’s dial tone, her uncanny resemblance to the previous actress or the outskirts location of the production’s shoot.
Arthur Penn nimbly quickens the pulse when Murray is coaxed into sharpening his kitchen knife for a future act and while he is chopping vegetables with it, the audience is oracular to its future purpose. Penn employs Chekhov’s gun to almost farcical effect when Lewis reveals that his heart monitor is connected to the piano.
Ultimately, Katie’s complicity with the grand scheme is plainly implausible (the younger, more athletic Steenburgen could easily vanquish the wheelchair-bound Lewis and the feeble Mr. Murray). Besides that, the film is narcoleptic in its pacing. Penn waddles through several scenes of Katie attempting to be stealthy through the front door and the attic (which stores a very rubbery doppelganger of Steenburgen). Yet, the more melodramatic, hysteria-filled passages (such as Katie’s unsheathing of her ring finger) at least leaven it with a sense of urgency that it is otherwise sorely remiss with.
Rating: 2 out of 5