Cinema: A Centerfold Tragedy of Manners

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Snider is a man in thrall to the power of the first impression. He is quick with flattery and small gifts. He studies himself in the mirror, practicing smooth self-introductions to strangers. He advises Dorothy to remember the name of everyone she meets for future flattering reference. With his absurd faith in such niceties, Snider puts one in mind of Willy Loman and his need to be well liked, particularly since that modern archetype also practiced his wiles in similarly unpromising venues. Snider's equivalent of the New England territory is the wet-T-shirt contest, the dream of multimillion-dollar sales for a Dorothy Stratten poster. There is, however, this huge difference between these figures: where Loman was damp with pathos, Snider burns with rage as he watches his discovery moving up and away from him. Seeing through the hypocrisy of those who build empires on sleaze, he cannot believe they will shut him out just because he wears snakeskin cowboy boots to their revels or drapes a prematurely friendly arm around Hef's shoulders.

But, of course, they will. Snider's rage, turned inward, becomes the depression out of which he kills the uncouth self that betrayed him, as well as the girl who never knew she was supposed to be not just his lover, meal ticket and wife but also his better self, source of the ultimate good first impression. It is a cold Q.E.D. for a chilling movie that opens with shots of freeway traffic hurtling past the murder site, Snider's pad, and closes with shots of Dorothy's intimates going about their mundane business while her naked body lies covered with blood. It is hard to remember an American movie that has, from first to last, done less to court an audience's indulgence. But it is also hard to remember a more ferociously moral movie. Or one that relies so exclusively on sheer directorial technique, the assurance of its cuts and angles, its settings and costumes, to carry that moral without resort to fine words or grand, distancing posturings.

From Cabaret to Lenny to All That Jazz, Fosse has been rummaging through the junk heaps of our culture, looking for artifacts to symbolize his bleak view of human nature. In the process he has stripped away his self-indulgences, and he emerges here as a masterly director in full possession of a terrible vision.

Very few people will "like" this film. But a few, one hopes, will see it for what it is: the year's most challenging and disturbing nightmare. —By Richard Schickel

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