Sunday, June 10, 2007

Movie: Rollercoaster (1977)

You gotta get a gimmick, as the song says. What you don’t want is a gimmick that overwhelms.

If Rollercoaster is remembered at all, it’s as one of a handful of movies released in Sensurround, Universal’s experiment in plaster cracking. Which is too bad, because it’s a clever, underrated thriller. I’d go so far as to call it the best movie ever released in Sensurround, a claim that deserves to be in the Guinness Book of World Records as “smallest boast.”

The movie marked a rare foray into features by William Link and Richard Levinson, the storied team of television writers who created Columbo, Mannix and Murder, She Wrote.

The first sign of their consummate craft is their villain, identified only as “Young Man” and played by Timothy Bottoms. He’s a pleasant, low-key sort, never saying a word in anger. He’s also smart, putting his knowledge of demolition to work by rigging bombs on theme park rides and blackmailing the park owners into paying him.

We never learn how he acquired this knowledge. Link and Levinson boldly decide not to explain the character’s motivation or history. The only hint into his past comes in a chilling early scene. Bottoms, killing time before showing off his handiwork, stops by a shooting gallery and drills target after target. The impressed carny rolls up his sleeve to display a military tattoo and asks Bottoms where he was stationed in Vietnam. Bottoms smiles, takes his prize, and walks wordlessly away.

But the movie’s true genius is in its choice of hero. It’s not a hard-bitten cop or an obsessed FBI agent, although there is one of the latter ably played by Richard Widmark. Instead, it’s George Segal as an amiable public safety inspector who gets drawn into the cat-and-mouse action. He’s an everyman, a divorced dad (future Oscar winner Helen Hunt makes her movie debut as his daughter) trying to quit smoking. But his feisty civil servant proves more than a match for Bottoms’ psychotic.

Segal is at his absolute best here. He’s one of the most appealing actors of the 1970s. At the height of his fame he was a late night TV fixture. In William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade, he talks about seeing Segal be dazzling on a talk show. Segal told him he treated the appearances as acting exercises: “I tell myself I’m playing a character who’s enjoying himself.” Segal has had a long and varied career, but my favorite performance remains his Andy Kelp in The Hot Rock. Every time I read one of Donald E. Westlake’s Dortmunder novels, it’s Segal I see in the role. Kelp is genial, optimistic and a true professional, just like Segal.

Rollercoaster’s not perfect. The story is a bit formulaic, there are too many thrill ride shots meant to showcase the Sensurround technology, and by the time it’s over you never need to hear the song “Big Boy” by Sparks again. (Not that you’ll ever hear it anywhere else.) But it’s also a well-constructed, unpretentious movie that deserves to be more than a technical footnote.

Miscellaneous: Link

ESPN’s Bill Simmons on how greatness recedes in memory. It ain’t just true in sports.