Horror/Suspense Mystery/Noir

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane

Hollywood superstar Jodie Foster had a remarkable 1976, with five movies hitting the theaters. They showcased her talent and poise — both startling for an actress who has just become a teenager — and also the tendency of 1970s cinema to lionize teenage liberation while at the same time exploiting it through sexualization. Foster’s Oscar-nominated turn as a child prostitute in Taxi Driver is the best known example, and the same themes are present in an effective low-budget shocker that was released the same year: The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane.

Appropriate to its mood, the movie opens with its central character, Rynn Jacobs (Foster) walking on a deserted beach. As the film progresses, we learn that Rynn’s independence and isolation are in some mysterious way connected to her poet father, who purchased them a house together in a small town but has never been seen by the locals. Rynn manages the finances, cooks her own food, sets her own schedule and makes her own way in the world.

What could possibly impinge on her freedom? Horrible adults of course. Most particularly the vile local family of influence, led by a frosty, bigoted WASP named Mrs. Hallet who has the town and her pedophile son Frank under her thumb (Alexis Smith and Martin Sheen, both credibly menacing). The only kindness available to Rynn comes from the Italian immigrants that the Hallets despise, specifically a creative, polio-stricken, local lad who falls in love with her (Scott Jacoby) and a friendly police officer who tries to shield her from harm (well-played by famous songwriter Mort Shuman!).

This movie works well on two levels. First, it’s a character study exploring the tension between children’s desire to be independent and adults’ desire to control and/or protect them. Foster’s emerging greatness is a major asset here, particularly as she holds her own in her scenes with seasoned adult actors. Second, this is a suspenseful tale in the mystery/horror vein, both because of Sheen’s unnerving performance and the enticing nature of the film’s central riddle: Where is Rynn’s father, and for that matter her mother? The resolution to Laird Koenig’s macabre story is easy to guess wrong, which only makes the film more engrossing.

The small budget of this Canadian film shows, both in the limited number of sets (which makes one think incorrectly that it is an adaptation of a play rather than a novel), the by-the-numbers production and camerawork, and the cheap wig on Foster’s head. But that doesn’t stop the Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane from holding viewers’ interest and the edge of their seat as well.

p.s. There was some controversy about young Foster allegedly appearing nude in this movie, and that brief scene was cut by censors in some countries. However, as in her character’s sexual scenes in Taxi Driver, Foster’s older sister body doubled her for the shot.

Drama Mystery/Noir

The Turning Point

LOS ANGELES'S ANGELS FLIGHT by Jim Dawson - "The Turning Point ...

Recognizing that post-war audiences were gripped by more realistic, torn from the headlines crime stories, Hollywood producers were giddy over the Kefauver Committee’s investigation of organized crime. Many Americans were transfixed by the hearings, both because they provided their first glimpse into the workings of the Mafia and because they were on this new fangled gizmo known as a television. A raft of films followed that were based on the hearings either directly or obliquely (the latter including one of my recommendations, Bullitt). Many of the Kefauver films were cheap and unimaginative, but 1952’s The Turning Point is quality cinema.

The strong cast features Edmond O’Brien as John Conroy, a special prosecutor appointed to take down a criminal syndicate run by the slimy, brutal Neil Eichelberger (Ed Begley), who poses as a legitimate businessman. Conroy’s hard-nosed childhood pal (William Holden), now a crime reporter, comes along for the ride, not because he believes anything will come of the investigation but because he admires his old friend and also, rather guiltily, has eyes for Conroy’s gorgeous, idealistic assistant (Alexis Smith). Meanwhile, John’s father, a beat cop played by reliable veteran character actor Tom Tully, is also in the mix, but what side he’s playing is a subject of mystery.

Warren Duff never became famous as a screenwriter, but he was very good in his niche of tough crime stories. He does a particularly admirable job here creating dramatic face off scenes between each pair of principals. Lionel Lindon’s skilled camerawork makes the film pleasing to the eye (love the long tracking shot with Holden and O’Brien early on) as does William Holden, who looks fabulous in a series of tailored suits that the legendary Edith Head picked for him (I guess ink-stained wretches could afford those kind of threads and fashion advice back then). The broad-shouldered screen icon has real chemistry with his equally toothsome co-star Alexis Smith, who puts spine and depth into her character rather than just being eye candy. She and Duff’s script are particularly good at ripping apart the cynical facade of Holden’s character, which is potent stuff for Holden fans given how often he played this type.

The Turning Point has a few weaknesses. After a gripping first 45 minutes there is a lull in the action at the actual commission hearings, which should have been a highlight of the film, especially with an actor of Begley’s stature at center stage. There are also a couple small logical holes and overly worn elements in the plot. As a result, I would not call The Turning Point an all-time classic crime melodrama. But it’s definitely exciting and entertaining, with a cast that is aces right down the line.

p.s. Plug ugly Neville Brand, who made a career out of playing nasty thugs, appears at the end as a hired killer. Both he and O’Brien were another of my recommendations, D.O.A.