Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Retro Review: HIGHPOINT (1984)

(Canada - 1984)

Directed by Peter Carter. Written by Richard Guttman and Ian Sutherland. Cast: Richard Harris, Christopher Plummer, Beverly D'Angelo, Kate Reid, Peter Donat, Robin Gammell, Saul Rubinek, Maury Chaykin, George Buza, David Calderisi, Ken James. (PG, 87 mins)

Aside from one good car chase and stunt legend Dar Robinson taking a dive off of Toronto's CN Tower, which at the time was the tallest free-standing structure in the world, the justifiably obscure Canadian tax shelter comedy-thriller HIGHPOINT is an absolute shit show. Filmed in 1979, subjected to reshoots in 1981, given a brief European release in 1982, and unseen in the US until 1984 in a drastically restructured version that was assembled following even more reshoots and post-production tweaking, HIGHPOINT was deemed a lost cause by anyone who came into contact with it. Director Peter Carter and co-writer Ian Sutherland had just made the Canadian survivalist horror film RITUALS, and intended HIGHPOINT to be a spoofy homage to NORTH BY NORTHWEST and other Hitchcockian "innocent man caught in a web of intrigue" tropes, even though Mel Brooks' HIGH ANXIETY did the job quite well in 1977. By the time HIGHPOINT was finally dumped in a handful of theaters on Labor Day weekend in 1984 (opening the same day as BOLERO and C.H.U.D.), the new regime at New World Pictures, which had just changed hands after being sold by Roger Corman, jettisoned the lighthearted score by Oscar-winner John Addison (TOM JONES) and replaced it with more bombastic, Jerry Goldsmith-style cues by Christopher Young, who would become an in-house New World composer on films like FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC and HELLRAISER before going on to a busy career with the major studios (he received a Golden Globe nomination for his work on Lasse Hallstrom's 2001 film THE SHIPPING NEWS). New World also excised as much of the comedy as they could, opting to retool it in the editing room as a relatively straight-faced, serious action-heavy thriller, with what appears to be half of the jobs in the credits being prefaced by the word "additional," and all without the involvement of Carter, who died of a heart attack at just 48 in June of 1982. As anyone who's seen Sam Peckinpah's THE KILLER ELITE can attest, taking a comedy and turning it into a serious movie in post-production is a terrible idea, and HIGHPOINT, which would be more accurately titled NORTH BY NORTHWORST, is such an ineptly-assembled dumpster fire of a movie that it's surprising it was ever released at all. And even after all the time, effort, and money (approximately $2 million) spent revamping HIGHPOINT as a thriller, New World's poster art sold it as a comedy anyway, further proof that no one at any point could reach an agreement on what they wanted from this project and that no one involved was on the same page. A new exposition-filled opening sequence was shot with co-stars Peter Donat and Robin Gammell after test audiences had no clue what was happening, and veteran Roger Corman associates Clark Henderson and Barry Zetlin are among the heavily-staffed behind-the-scenes triage unit credited with "additional editing," which is enough to seriously question whether HIGHPOINT was acquired by the Corman-owned New World prior to his selling the company in late 1983 and perhaps thrown in as a freebie for the new owners. Speaking purely hypothetically, if there was ever a wreckage so beyond salvaging that not even Roger Corman could get it in profitable shape, it's HIGHPOINT.

Unemployed accountant Lewis Kinney (Richard Harris, trying desperately to be Cary Grant) rescues a young woman from an attempted suicide by drowning and ends up getting involved in all manner of complex and incoherent machinations. The woman is Lise Hatcher (Beverly D'Angelo, who replaced a bailing Katharine Ross shortly before filming began), the adopted younger sister of noted playboy and con artist James Hatcher (Christopher Plummer), whose funeral she just left. But Hatcher is very much alive, faking his own death after absconding with $10 million of CIA cash that was loaned to the Mafia for a top secret money laundering scam code-named "Highpoint." When Hatcher's ailing mother (Kate Reid) hires Kinney to help locate her son, the nebbishy accountant finds himself targeted by government goons working at the behest of corrupt CIA agent Banner (Gammell), as well as incompetent, slapstick hit men Centino (Saul Rubinek) and Falco (Maury Chaykin), dim-witted flunkies working for mob boss Maronzella (Donat). The plot begins in Los Angeles before moving to NYC and eventually Quebec and Toronto, probably per the rules of the tax shelter incentive, but it's anyone's guess why anything happens in HIGHPOINT. One admittedly well-done car chase early on is still plagued by obvious post-production stitching, awkward cutting, and continuity issues that run rampant throughout, like two repeats of the same reaction shot of D'Angelo laughing. And while Robinson's jaw-dropping 700 ft free fall off the CN Tower in the climax (he's doubling Plummer in the scene) is the sole reason HIGHPOINT got any attention at all back in the day and probably why New World worked so hard to make this presentable, even it's handled in a way that ruins the moment, looking as if Carter and the crew didn't get enough coverage for the shot and had no way of cutting it together without asking Robinson to do it again. And to give you some perspective on just how incredible this HIGHPOINT stunt was, Robinson's famous free fall from the Peachtree Plaza at the end of SHARKY'S MACHINE, where he's doubling Henry Silva, was only 220 ft.

As this miserable film slogged on, the most interesting thought I had was wondering if, years later on the set of Clint Eastwood's 1992 classic UNFORGIVEN, Harris (as English Bob) and Rubinek (as bespectacled, tenderfoot biographer W.W. Beauchamp) reminisced about the trainwreck they appeared in together over a decade earlier. Harris and Plummer, both in the midst of a string of Canadian tax shelter gigs, walk through HIGHPOINT looking smug and punchable, delivering their lines with an annoyingly glib tone that might've been appropriate for a comedy but makes no sense now that these performances are in a thriller. The "comedy" cut is included in a 112-minute workprint version on Code Red's new Blu-ray, though I can't imagine anyone caring enough to do a comparison with New World's 87-minute US cut, which only came about because no one, from test audiences to the suits at New World, could follow the original version, even though executive producer William J. Immerman (TAKE THIS JOB AND SHOVE IT, SOUTHERN COMFORT) is on hand for an interview to defend the 112-minute cut as superior. Even in its restructured and streamlined incarnation, too much unfunny comedy remains, whether it's Harris breaking the fourth wall and winking at what I presume is a vacant theater where an audience was expected to be, or a long mid-film chase involving horse-drawn carriages, cars, and a portly guy chasing them all, with everything sped up Benny Hill-style complete with high-pitched voices, wacky music and zany sound effects. It sticks out like a sore thumb in what's supposed to be a thriller (imagine the Keystone Kops pulling up alongside Cary Grant while he's being chased by the crop dusting plane in NORTH BY NORTHWEST), but if that was an indication of what constituted "funny" in the original cut, then New World probably had the right idea, but just no way to make it better regardless of the tone. With today's constant crowing about the so-called death of physical media, I'm glad to see any obscure movie resurrected on Blu-ray, but does this film have any fans? Thanks--I guess--but special edition restorations don't get much more pointless than HIGHPOINT, currently the front-runner for my Buyer's Remorse Blu-ray of 2017.

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