Long before Michael Haneke arrived on the scene with his original 1997 version of Funny Games (1997), a highly influential and deeply disturbing home invasion thriller, there were many precursors in this unsettling genre that date all the way back to 1939 with Blind Alley and its 1948 remake The Dark Past, in which a psychopathic killer and his gang crash a private gathering at the home of a psychologist. There have been varying tonal approaches to the subject over the years; some overwrought and pretentious like 1964’s Lady in a Cage, some meticulously detailed and artfully depicted as in the Oscar-nominated In Cold Blood (1967) and some purely exploitive and sadistic such as The Strangers (2008). But one of the lesser known but most intriguingly offbeat entries is The Penthouse (1967), the directorial feature debut of British director Peter Collinson.
The film opens as Bruce (Terence Morgan), a real estate agent, and Barbara (Suzy Kendall), his mistress, share breakfast after a night at their secret love nest at the top of an unoccupied high-rise. Their world is soon turned upside down when Barbara answers the door and lets in Tom (Tony Beckley), a man who claims he is the meter man. He is quickly followed by his co-partner Dick (Norman Rodway). The couple is provoked, taunted and terrorized until their relationship to each other and their tormentors becomes more ambiguous and disorienting. The surprise arrival of a third intruder named Harry (Martine Beswick) provides a cathartic closer to the madness.
The Penthouse has the look and feel of a Harold Pinter play and, in fact, it was based on a play by Scott Forbes entitled The Meter Man. Pinter had certainly explored this terrain before in some of his earliest plays. Take, for example, Pinter’s The Birthday Party (1957), which was adapted for the screen in 1968 and directed by William Friedkin: Two mysterious men arrive unannounced at a shabby seaside boarding house and proceed to interrogate and torment a lodger there (who doesn’t appear to know them) until they drive him to the breaking point. Disturbing and darkly humorous, the violence in Pinter’s play is purely psychological and rarely physical.
Although The Penthouse is clearly influenced by Pinter’s work, the threat of physical harm as well as the sexual tension is much more overt, resulting in something that straddles the line between arthouse thriller and trashy drive-in fare. And the fact that the home invaders in the film are creepy ciphers with no back story or rational motivation for their behavior is something that Haneke would take to extremes in both his 1997 and 2007 remake of Funny Games, which bare some similarities to The Penthouse.
Arriving toward the end of that period when films about “swinging London” were the latest craze – Morgan, Alfie, Georgy Girl, Blow-Up – The Penthouse could be viewed as a moralistic backlash against those movies and the hedonistic hipsters who populate them. Within the first five minutes of the film, the central couple, Barbara and Bruce, are established as illicit lovers. Barbara, who is your basic working class shop girl, is clearly frustrated by their sporadic trysts and Bruce, a married real estate agent, is equally wary of the “when-will-you-ask-your-wife-for-a-divorce” discussions which inevitably follow their couplings. But there is already tension in the air, established under the opening credits of The Penthouse, as two sinister looking men gaze upward at the top of a sterile new high rise, see the lights come on in the penthouse, and then with a knowing smile between them advance toward the building.
The penthouse in question turns out to belong to one of Bruce’s clients, who is on vacation in the Bahamas and Bruce is using it without his knowledge. Right from the get-go, Bruce is established as a cad. He’s unfaithful to his wife, takes advantage of his mistress and his clients and is a spineless jellyfish to boot. We know this as soon as he sends Barbara off to answer the door when an unexpected visitor comes knocking, afraid their affair will be exposed.
As soon as she opens the door, The Penthouse crosses over into theatre-of-the-absurd territory as first Tom, and then his partner Dick, invade the penthouse, posing as meter men who have come to take the gas reading. They end up taking more much in both physical and psychological terms, and as their mind games become increasingly sinister, the film develops a compelling claustrophobic tension between how far Tom and Dick will go and how much abuse Barbara and Bruce will take before they fight back or snap.
While Barbara is easily the more sympathetic member of the couple, neither character allows for easy identification because of the film’s highly stylized structure which emphasizes its stage origins. It allows us to experience the couple’s night of torment as a surreal, avant-garde happening – not hard-edged realism. Like other plays such as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, where souls are stripped bare and relationships built on hypocrisy crumble when forced to face the truth, this one ends with Bruce and Barbara forever changed and damaged by their ordeal, unable to face each other again. It’s as if Tom, Dick and Harry (more on “him” in a minute) were externalized versions of the couple’s worst fears come home to roost.
The type of funny games Tom and Dick favor seem to have no rhyme or reason other then breaking down their victim’s will. When they first gain entrance to the penthouse, they start by berating Barbara (she pretends to be the actual tenant) for not knowing where the gas meter is. Bruce, who pretends to be sleeping while overhearing Barbara’s harassment, finally rouses himself for a confrontation, only to be threatened with a switchblade.
Tom and Dick then bind Bruce to a chair with silk cords, spinning him around until he is completely ensnared and forced to watch while the duo force Barbara to get drunk and strip down to her underwear. And so it goes, one humiliation follows another and Bruce’s attempt to turn Dick against Tom by planting a seed of distrust between them leads nowhere. Finally the two intruders, after ravaging Barbara, pack up their things and leave the couple to sort the whole thing out.
Yet, just when you think the whole ordeal is over, the games begin anew with the introduction of “Harry,” who claims she is Tom and Dick’s parole officer. Verifying that she has the two men in custody and in handcuffs in her police car, she appeals to Barbara and Bruce to see the duo one last time so that they can apologize and ask for their forgiveness. By this point in this movie, you know that Bruce and Barbara are condemned to repeat the same mistakes over and over again and so The Penthouse comes to a close with one more round of WTF antics.
While The Penthouse can be self-consciously arty and unapologetically sordid at times – Barbara’s transformation into a docile sex toy is helped along by John Hawksworth “blue movie” music cues– it is also compulsively watchable with a powerhouse cameo by Hammer Films sex siren Martine Beswick (Slave Girls, One Million Years B.C.) as Harry. She receives third billing but doesn’t appear until the final fifteen minutes.
Beswick’s dominatrix-like presence – she arrives in male drag and soon “lets down her hair” with a wicked laugh – is as much fun as Amanda Donohoe’s camp turn in Ken Russell’s The Lair of the White Worm (1988). In addition, the movie has some striking Pinter-like dialogue. When Bruce blurts out, “Why’d you have to do this? We haven’t done you any harm.” Tom responds, “Well, it’s not a question of that. It’s more a question of the harm you might do us.” Haneke’s dialogue in Funny Games follows the same ying-yang logic.
Tom and Dick may be absurdist creations but their enigmatic relationship remains one of The Penthouse’s most intriguing aspects. While they both have their way with Barbara, their flamboyant behavior and bitchy banter wouldn’t be out of place in The Boys in the Band. At odd moments in the narrative, Bruce and Barbara’s degradation becomes secondary to Tom and Dick’s passive/aggressive role-playing.
There is one scene where Dick is having fun trying on Bruce’s clothes as his victims watch and Tom sarcastically comments, “Dick’s rich you see. He’s terribly rich. You should see all the clothes he’s got. I don’t know where he keeps them all.” Disgusted, Dick strips off the jacket and throws it at Tom, saying, “I think this coat will fit you better than me.” Tom then flashes him an intimate look and says, “Maybe I’ll try it on a bit later” which brings a sly grin to Dick’s face. But the game remains a secret despite occasional signs that a clue will be revealed.
It’s pointless to fight a tight, airless contraption like this but there is a certain fascination in monitoring your own reaction to it. What would you do if you were in Bruce or Barbara’s situation?
Tom Beckley, the actor who plays Tom, might look familiar to you. That’s because he played the twisted psychopath who terrorized Carol Kane in When a Stranger Calls (1979), his final film before he died of cancer in 1980. He was also appropriately creepy in Robert Hartford-Davis’s The Fiend (aka Beware My Brethren, 1972) and offered memorable support in Get Carter (1971).
Norman Rodway as Dick is less familiar to American audiences since he spent most of his career working in British television but you can see him in Four in the Morning (1964), a bleak portrait of working class life, Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight (1965) and Michael Winner’s I’ll Never Forget What’s ‘isname (1967), which also starred Welles. Terence Morgan, in the role of Bruce, is also an actor who received little exposure stateside but appeared in numerous British B-movie melodramas such as The Shakedown (1959) and Tread Softly Stranger (1958) and a few A-list titles such as Alexander MacKendrick’s Mandy (1952).
Those of you who enjoy Italian giallos and swinging sixties cinema from England need no introduction to Suzy Kendall, who first made favorable impressions in the James Bond imitation The Liquidator (1965) and To Sir, With Love (1967). Her film career has been eclectic, to say the least, and she’s appeared in a variety of genre films from the international espionage thriller Fraulein Doktor (1969) to the horror anthology Tales that Witness Madness (1973) to nunsploitation Diary of a Cloistered Nun (1973). However, it is her appearances in giallos that have earned her an international cult following for Dario Argento’s The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970), Sergio Martino’s Torso (1973) and his subsequent thriller Spasmo (1974).
As for Peter Collinson, he followed up The Penthouse with Up the Junction (1968), also starring Suzy Kendall, in a working class expose that was firmly in the “Kitchen sink” school of British realism. His next film, The Long Day’s Dying (1969), a grim anti-war drama, received critical acclaim and won two awards at the San Sebastian Film Festival. But most of Collinson’s later work was ignored by the cinema intelligentsia though he is probably best known for The Italian Job (1969) starring Michael Caine. He died of cancer at the age of 44 in 1980, the year Tony Beckley died of the same disease. The Penthouse is still not currently available on any format. I recently viewed it again on VHS from a cable TV recording in 1984 courtesy of WWOR in Secaucus, New Jersey. While the visual quality of the recording left much to be desired, this is a film with a desaturated color scheme and the dominant color is gray. The skies are gray (one of the few exterior shots shows an urban landscape dwarfed by an industrial complex where toxic clouds of smoke are billowing forth from its towers) and the interiors are gray with some black and white highlights. Here and there are shades of sickly green on the walls and furniture. And Arthur Lavis’s cinematography concentrates on eerie shadows across faces, the shiny sweat on foreheads and the low florescent lightning that emphasizes the bleak tone. All of it adds quite effectively to the movie’s sense of alienation and despair and John Hawksworth’s alternately brooding and sleazy score is the putrid icing on the poison cake.
Most American film critics ignored or dismissed The Penthouse but Roger Ebert wrote, “The Penthouse,” quite simply, is a pretty good shocker. Shockers are standard fare in the movies and always have been, but successful ones are rare. It’s a relief to find one that’s made with skill and a certain amount of intelligence. “The Penthouse” isn’t in the same class with “Psycho” (1960) but it’s in the same school.”
*This is a revised and expanded version of a blog post that first appeared on Movie Morlocks, Turner Classic Movies’s official blog (later renamed Streamline).
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