They say in how-to books and classes about screenplay writing that the author must grab his audience's attention within the first 25 pages (roughly the first 25 minutes of screentime) or run the risk of completely losing their interest. One of the many qualities of The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976), one of the best and most unsung films of the seventies, is just how quickly it generates tension, mystery, and utter fascination. There isn't a movie quite like it, nor is it easily categorized: it's sort of a horror movie, something like a suspense-thriller, and partly something else, something maybe indefinable.
Jodie Foster stars as Rynn, who in the first scene is celebrating her 13th birthday (which is also, coincidentally, Halloween), lighting the candles of a birthday cake she has made for herself. There's a knock at the door of her small but attractive house (on the Canadian coastline), and creepy neighbor Frank (Martin Sheen), the wayward son of Rynn's unpleasant, racist landlady, Mrs. Hallett (Alexis Smith), pushes his way through the door and introduces himself.
Within minutes, it becomes clear that married Frank is a child predator setting his sights on Rynn. As he makes advances on her, she oddly dances around his moves rather than call upon her unseen father, a well-known poet apparently working in another part of the house. Later, there are obvious clues that neither Rynn's mother (dead, so she says) or father are around at all, and that somehow she's been living in the house all by herself for some time. Where are they? What happened to them?
To reveal any more would spoil the pleasure and fascination of this unique film. The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane was a Canadian / French / American co-production that was released in the U.S. by American International Pictures (AIP), the distribution company then famous for its drive-in movies but by the mid-'70s searching for a new identity when its market began to dry up. In any case, the film was quickly sold to network television, which is where this reviewer first saw it.
The film seems to have been one of those lucky accidents, where the right combination of talent collided and everyone was inspired to give the project their all. Screenwriter Laird Koenig, adapting his novel, worked in television before and after this. During the seventies he wrote the interesting east-meets-west Euro-Western Red Sun (Soleil rouge, 1971) for director Terence Young, but then teamed up with Young again for the notably bad Bloodline (1979) and the even worse Inchon (1980). One of his novels served as the basis for the French film Careful, the Kids Are Watching (Attention, les enfants regardent, 1978), featuring Red Sun's Alain Delon. That film is generally well thought of, so maybe Koenig's strengths are in novels rather than screenplay adaptations.
Similarly, Hungarian director Nicolas Gessner, working mainly in Europe, made films and TV shows of variable quality, few of which were released in English speaking countries. Among his credits are 12 + 1 (1969), a version of the same story that Mel Brooks adapted as The Twelve Chairs the following year; and Someone Behind the Door (Quelqu'un derriere la porte, 1971), a crime drama from Charles Bronson's European period.
In any case, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is intriguing and suspenseful, with excellent characterizations and a story unlikely enough to be somehow believable, if that makes any sense. One big shock in the film packs a wallop but doesn't hold up to scrutiny (at least not as filmed) and Christian Gaubert's odd score mixes well-chosen bits of Chopin with completely inappropriate original music better suited to a Dirty Harry movie. Otherwise, the film is nearly perfect.
Jodie Foster, who even as a child was so good an actress that at times she came off as a little adult, is perfectly cast as Rynn. Mature well beyond her years, Rynn reads Emily Dickinson, studies Hebrew and enjoys listening to classical music, and Foster captures all the nuances of Rynn's subtle manipulations. Sheen, in his last role before journeying into Hell for Apocalypse Now (1979), is completely believable and equally subtle as the perverted Frank.
The film is essentially a five-character piece, much of it staged in long (but always mesmerizing) takes within the house. (It would be interesting to know if Gessner took long takes using multiple cameras - in the manner of Kurosawa - or shot it one set-up at a time like a conventional movie.) Alexis Smith is up to Foster and Sheen's level as the bitchy Mrs. Hallet, and Scott Jacoby is fine as Mario, a teenage magician who befriends Rynn, but the real surprise is Mort Shuman as Miglioriti, a friendly local cop concerned about Frank's designs on Rynn.
Born in New York, Shuman wrote or co-wrote hit songs like "Viva Las Vegas," "Save the Last Dance for Me," and "This Magic Moment," and eventually co-wrote the hit play Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. He apparently stayed in Paris, working as a composer and sometime actor until his death in 1991. He's very good in The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, and his relative inexperience as an actor is more than compensated by his verisimilitude.
Video & Audio
Although the end titles state "Filmed in Panavision," The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane was in fact shot flat for 1.85:1 release, as it's presented here. The 16:9 enhanced transfer is very good, save for some ugly main titles that probably always looked as dirty and blotchy as they do here. The film is apparently the international cut of the picture, which includes a brief nude shot of Rynn (it looks like a body double) and perhaps other bits not in AIP's PG-rated release. The mono sound is acceptable, and optional English and French subtitles are included. There are no Extra Features.
If you haven't seen The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, run right down to your local video store and rent or buy it. It's a real original, captivating and full of suspense. Highly recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.