Thursday, April 2, 2015

Tell Me in the Sunlight (dir. Steve Cochran, 1965)

The teaser: A 1965 low-budget indie black-and-white erotic-romantic melodrama shot on a semi-exotic location with all the seediness gloriously intact - not quite Last Tango in Nassau, but certainly an edgy, beguiling (and serious) piece of self-expression by an underrated talent.

Steve Cochran was a man of ambition. He was one of the earlier actors to form his own production company, Robert Alexander Productions (after his actual first and middle names) in 1953. The venture got off to a promising start with an excellent piece of Americana, Come Next Spring (1956) and became involved with international co-production on Michelangelo Antonioni’s Il Grido (1957). Both films show off Cochran’s talents as more than just an effective heavy.

The next few years after that didn’t bring equivalent opportunities, though, and when Cochran returned to self-production at the age of 47, it was with an even more unconventional and lower-budgeted movie, Tell Me in the Sunlight (1965/1967), shot entirely on location in Nassau in the Bahamas. After finishing this triple-threat project (actor/director/co-writer), Cochran went on a little yacht trip off the Pacific coast of Central America in order to scout locations for future films. Bizarrely (or not), he sailed with three women, one under-age, none of whom knew how to sail (but perhaps had other talents?). The jaunt was in keeping with Cochran’s lifelong reputation as a stud and womanizer, but went horribly wrong when Cochran died of an acute lung infection and the boat drifted around helplessly for ten days until it touched ground at the fishing village of Champerico in Guatemala. The women were rattled but not hurt.

This unusual denouement delayed the release of Tell Me in the Sunlight for two years until 1967, at which time it was barely noticed except as a footnote to Cochran’s personal drama. One commenter at the IMDB states that “Several minutes were cut from the original film…[Cochran] also shot 2 endings--the one used by the new distributor was not the one Steve chose.” I cannot vouch for the truth of this, although it all sounds plausible enough.

Paradoxically, what captures the attention here is the unshowiness, the low-key naturalism that seems akin to Cassavetes (but it is worth remembering that at this point, Cassavetes had only released one indie feature, Shadows). The film opens with a series of vignettes involving Cochran’s shore time in Nassau. He works as a supercargo for a merchant shipper, sometimes staying with the ship, sometimes flying ahead. Gradually the story hones in on Cochran’s immediate attraction to a beautiful woman in a trenchcoat, played by Shary Marshall, who turns out to be a stripper at the local joint Dirty Dick’s.

Cochran is a smooth pick-up guy, but lonely and quite clearly looking for a more genuine connection. Marshall began her stay in Nassau as a stranded member of a dance troupe and took up stripping as an economic expediency. It doesn’t thrill her, but it doesn’t burden her, either. She has a well-off patron in the person of an older gentleman, a doctor, but she is proud (one senses) to have her own little studio apartment and pet bird, that tiny measure of independence.

When these two people meet, it’s obvious that their needs and desires might make a nice fit, but also that a masculine ego such as Cochran’s seldom adjusts easily to the challenge of dealing with the past and present of a woman immersed in the lower milieu – even one as still-fresh and very sweetly appealing (but also smart) as Marshall. What will happen? Well, this is a movie, so there will be misunderstandings, and whether because this is a piece of honest naturalism, or exploitation drama (or both), one result is a sad and distressing scene involving sexual force. The movie retrieves itself rather swiftly to arrive at a “happy ending,” but it is a very provisional one: all the issues are still in play (and would probably have been, as well, with an alternate, less positive ending). Can this couple make a go of it? The odd thing, perhaps, is that even after Cochran has behaved very badly (many would feel unforgivably), the answer still seems to be a possible yes. This movie does not view its characters schematically, but as flawed and thus relatable human beings.

Needless to say, I like that honesty. Even though the two leads are undeniably attractive people, Tell Me in the Sunlight is so un-Hollywood. Cochran is looking a little older and more weathered here, and that totally works for the film. The screenplay is forthright and unaffected on the subject of non-marital sex. People sleep with other people, all the time, men and women both, for many and overlapping reasons, to satisfy urges, to assuage aloneness, to administer to the “universal pain in everybody’s gut.” No one needs to feel ashamed about this, but there are both emotional and physical risks involved (the latter highlighted by Cochran’s telling an unvarnished anecdote about syphilis!).

As befits the naturalistic approach, the minor characters are very real and well-observed, from the hard-bitten nightclub manager, to Marshall’s saucy fellow stripper, to an Artful-Dodger-esque pickpocket, to a knowing barber, to a desperate pregnant girl. You get the sense that if you had been walking around downtown Nassau those same nights, you might have encountered those people too. Best of all in that regard is Cochran’s shipmate played by George Hopkins (whose only film this seems to have been). Hopkins is a relaxed pal with a knack for enjoying life, a bit of a joker, always good company. The scene in the club where he realizes that Cochran has bested him in the pick-up game is a very enjoyable bit that any guy with a ladies’-man friend has lived through. But the joke is handled lightly, through the changing expressions on Hopkins’s face, not punched home as it would be in a more conventional film.

Tell Me in the Sunlight manages to impress without at all trying to do so. Looking at the movie with sympathetic attention, it is easy to see that Steve Cochran in his directorial debut was consciously remembering his experience with Antonioni, not his experiences in Hollywood. It is a more unusual effort than it appears at a glance.   

[Originally published at The Blackboard, a film noir discussion group, and slightly revised here.]

Tell Me in the Sunlight

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