These are the movies that make the bad ones worth sifting through. After recently enduring - and "enduring" is the right word - Otto Preminger's fascinating but awful Hurry Sundown (1967) I braced myself for the director's virtually forgotten Such Good Friends (1971), the nail-in-the-coffin that killed Preminger's multi-picture deal with Paramount Pictures. A black comedy-drama about a wealthy Manhattanite (Dyan Cannon) trying to come to terms with her marriage after her husband slips into a coma, the picture - incredibly - is like a proto-Annie Hall and just about as good. Most of the credit would seem to go to Elaine May, who adapted Lois Gould's novel under the pseudonym "Esther Dale," though to his credit Preminger culls great performances out of his large cast of New York-based actors, and except for a few missteps early on the film enhances rather than detracts from the rich material.
The DVD is one of 2011's big finds, a very pleasant discovery, and kudos to Olive Films for sub-licensing this unwanted title from Paramount, and giving it the chance on DVD it almost certainly otherwise never would have received. It's a good, 16:9 enhanced transfer of less-than-pristine secondary film elements, but otherwise perfectly watchable. There are no extras, a shame, as the movie deserves rediscovery and a Criterion-scale retrospective.
As with most of Preminger's movies, the poster art is by the irreplaceable Saul Bass
As in Gould's novel, Such Good Friends is told stream-of-consciousness (and fantasy wish-fulfillment) style (think Marshall McLuhan's memorable cameo in Annie Hall) from the point of view of Julie Messenger (Cannon), a mother of two children whose husband, Richard (Laurence Luckinbill) is Life magazine's art director and the recent author of a best-selling children's book. He goes into the hospital to remove a nonmalignant tumor on his neck, but develops complications and falls into a potentially fatal coma.
Close friends Dr. Timmy Spector (James Coco), Life staff photographer Cal Whiting (Ken Howard) and his girlfriend Miranda (Jennifer O'Neill), and Julie's mother (Nina Foch) rally around Julie, but Richard's condition only triggers a flood of mixed emotions, most relating to his self-centeredness and impotence. His gradual decline also prompts a steady stream of boorish behavior and unwanted confessions from the various women Richard had openly been sleeping with, though Julie herself had been clueless. Among the women Julie encounters in the hospital waiting room: Marcy Berns (Louise Lasser, freshly divorced from Allen in real life), Doria Perkins ('50s screen siren Rita Gam), Mrs. Gold (Doris Roberts), whose husband is also in Intensive Care, and Emily Lapham (Ken Howard's 1776 co-star, Virginia Vestoff), a bisexual friend (and ex-lover?) of Julie's.
The stream-of-consciousness device starts out rather shakily, with a broadly comic scene in a taxi followed by a genuinely startling one in which Julie imagines distinguished author Bernard Kalman (Burgess Meredith) cavorting in the nude: the alarming sight of Meredith's flabby, pink torso, with full-frontal nudity barely averted by a copy of one of Kalman's books, precariously held in place like a g-string. Fortunately, this soon gives way to some really clever, subtle cutting between Julie's real and imagined life, providing real insight into her sometimes bitter, sometimes ambivalent emotions.
Such Good Friends is extremely cynical, with all the business of Richard in intensive care funnier and arguably more subtle and observant than The Hospital (1971). Richard's condition has a real air of medical verisimilitude; somebody did her research. It's also way ahead of its time in the way it anticipates the culture of overconfident doctors ("Now that we have your signature we can start to assault Richard's gallbladder") pressuring Julie to sign releases for endless and sometimes unnecessary procedures while indelicate insurance providers chomp at her feet.
The movie is also refreshingly adult and frankly sexual, featuring two outstanding sex scenes (one especially hilarious and audacious) of the type hard to imagine in today's much more prudish movie culture, at least in American movies. Future director Joan Micklin Silver (Between the Lines, Crossing Delancey), as well as Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, all worked on the script at various points, but the densely-packed, sometimes overlapping and consistently witty dialogue bears Elaine May's stamp:
Nurse: "Have you ever had venereal disease?"
Julie's Aunt Harriet: "No, I've never even been in the tropics!"
Dr. Spector: "I don't like rodents. I was the only one in my science class who enjoyed seeing mice die. Not out of malice, you understand, but because, to me, it meant one less mouse in the world."
The film also perfectly captures the concerns and pretensions of Manhattan's smug, moneyed class just as Allen movies would in the years to come, and like Allen against the backdrop of the city's historical and cultural landmarks. In what should have been a star-making vehicle, Dyan Cannon is terrific: sexy, introspective, and intelligent. She's equal parts of Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow, maybe the dialogue is more Keaton-esque while the angst more like Farrow's, with Ken Howard in the Tony Roberts/Michael Murphy part.
Video & Audio
Filmed for 1.85:1 projection, Such Good Friends looks just fine in its 16:9 enhanced presentation, though the film elements sourced are pretty grainy and there's a lot of room for improvement. The mono audio, not supported by subtitle options, is fine, however. This region 1 disc has no alternate audio options, either, and no Extra Features.
If you're a fan of Elaine May, Woody Allen, and/or New York movies, rush out and get yourself a copy of Such Good Friends, a real revelation and one of the biggest surprises on DVD so far this year. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's audio commentary for AnimEigo's Tora-san, a DVD boxed set, is on sale now.