Saturday, September 3, 2016

Queen Watch: "The Adventure of the Two-Faced Woman"

Many things, positive and negative, have been said about Sigmund Freud and his psychoanalytic theories as science, and about their impact on society. I'm not opening that can of worms now - suffice it to say I'm not a zealous advocate but not a Scientologist either - but gut Doktor did make a great contribution elsewhere. Namely in art. This is not just because his British grandson Lucian Freud was an esteemed figure painter. Psychoanalysis influenced the Stanislavsky technique, changing the face of acting for the second half of the twentieth century. Novelists took new psychological approaches to their characters, even those who hated the new study, like the alternately fascinating and tiresome Nabokov. Surrealist art also has its roots here.

The mystery and thriller field changed under the new regime as well. Notably, Helen McCloy created the character of Dr. Basil Willing, who consulted with the NYPD and functioned as both a therapist and what would now be called a criminal profiler. In the realm you can't ignore Hitch. Hitchcock's Spellbound is in good part set in a sanatorium, features Ingrid Bergman as a shrink, and centers on repressed memory. Vertigo stars Jimmy Stewart as a difficult-to-like phobic whose romantic inclinations are just a step up from necrophilia.
One might also mention Psycho, although this is based on a novel by psychiatry skeptic Robert Bloch, and Dr. Richman never really seems to get a grip on Norman's madness.

It's into this heady field that Ellery Queen ventures with "The Adventure of the Two-Faced Woman." Actually psychoanalysis dovetails with the modern art world, also interesting. There are a few slips along the way, but mostly it holds up.

Lillian McGraw, a high society woman, sits alone at night, having dismissed her maid. Something bothers her about a painting she recently bought. There's something else inside it, she knows this. And so she starts to peel off the outer layer to reveal another picture beneath. Someone interrupts her, someone she's not initially afraid of, but then she screams, and a shot is fired. This is actually a rather clever edit to Simon Brimmer's show, where a prop gun is being fired. As we'll learn, Lillian was stabbed.

Ah yes, Lillian. Remember I said there were some slips? Well, she's one of the major ones. You see, Lillian McGraw is one of the show's more substantive victim roles. Yes, she's killed in the first scene, but she'll show up again in flashbacks. She's complicated, or should be. Sympathetic, if a little overindulged. Much of the episode is about plumbing her depths.

So you'd want to have a pretty good actress playing her, right? And for this central character we get... Dr. Joyce Brothers. Dr. Joyce Brothers was not an actress. She wasn't really a psychologist either, at least not in public life - can't speak to her private practice. Brothers was a perennial talk show guest, and patron saint of reality TV. I don't know if she was a fan of the show who wanted to be on it and no one could say no to her, or if Levinson and Link were in the bargaining stage of cancellation and wanted to prove they were open to stunt casting. But when she's on-screen she shows a sharp awareness of where the camera is but a stiff cluelessness about how her character would comport herself.

Still, as mentioned before, Simon Brimmer is back, in all his bratty glory. The way he rides the sound effects man on his show, you figure he must have a pretty high employee turnover rate. As a detective he does show good sense of where to go, even if he keeps drawing the wrong conclusions when he gets there.

It's on a tip from Brimmer that Ellery and his father learn that the artist behind one of Lillian's purchases has claimed she bought a forgery. Vargo, the French artist played by Austrian actor Theodore Bikel, is written, acted, and costumed as a full-fledged cartoon, but Bikel at least makes him an entertaining one. (Seriously, both a beret and a cape.) Anyway, he quickly reverses course on whether that's his painting or not. But what he can't change is that the signature that's been revealed by the corner of his picture being peeled off. The big-talking Texas widower orders the surface painting to be removed. What we see is a portrait of Lillian McGraw, done in an overly polished sunny realism that suggests the artist would have done well in a totalitarian society. Either Nazi Germany or Stalin's Russia would work.

The Vargo isn't a forgery, but there's a forgery in the episode. Maybe nothing but. Everybody seems to be lying. The art auction house where Lillian bought two paintings the day she died turns out to be a complete criminal enterprise. The victim's cousin by marriage - played by Psycho veteran Vera Miles - tells a harrowing and ultimately self-serving story about her past. Her psychiatrist (Victor Buono) asserts doctor/client privilege, but abandons it with a little cajoling from Ellery. So much deceit makes it hard to decide who's really guilty.

Ellery does, though. His presence is a relief, and absolutely necessary. It certainly helps that after Simon fingers the wrong suspect and things look very bad for that suspect, Ellery puts things right. It's good to be back on this beat. When it's over all too soon, I'll miss it.


susan said...

You've introduced me to another term I'd never known before - namely, the Stanislavsky technique of acting. While I'm familiar with 'the Method' approach (at least as much as any non-actor would be), I'd never heard of the Russian actor's contribution to our perpetual appreciation of the art. That was a very interesting wiki entry I just read. Funny too, that I just happened to be looking at some examples of Lucian Freud's unfinished pieces last week that included a very intense self-portrait (lightyears away from the one of young Dr. Brothers). That his work strongly influenced the other arts comes as no surprise at all but is very interesting to consider. Although I far prefer Jung's interpretations it could be argued he may have practiced in obscurity without the early collaboration with Freud to set the fires of psychoanalysis alight.

You're right that seeing Dr. Joyce Brothers play such a prominent role made for a good dose of irony in this episode right from the start. It was also a relief to catch another appearance of the periennially entertaining Simon Brimmer again. Seeing Theodore Bikel doing his outlandish reading of a 40s French artist was wonderful. All he needed to complete his look was a palette and a brush.

I didn't guess the solution to this one until the story was so far along it was impossible to miss the grasping nature of the culprit. A bad one all around but Ellery came through in very good form.

There are only a few of them left now, aren't there? I know you'll miss watching them when the series comes to an end, but remember, they'll always be there to enjoy again when the mood strikes you. Meanwhile, we're both really enjoying your reviews.

By the way, the wife of the neurosurgeon I worked for in Portland early on was a grand niece of Dr. Sigmund and also one of the wackier people I ever met. She once sat on the floor at the front of an airplane screaming and blocking the entry door when she found they'd assigned her to a smoking section. Needless to say, the flight crew was quick to find her another seat.

Ben said...

I did use Stanislavski's system pretty much interchangeably with the Method, which not everyone would necessarily agree with. But both approaches to acting do emphasize internalization, grounding the performance in one's own experience, and I thought that fit my theme pretty well here.

Hee-hee. Indeed Lucian Freud's work, self-portraits included, are quite different in style and tone from that which the prop department came up with for Dr. Brothers' character. He does demonstrate some influence from Egon Schiele, I think. Similar textures, same sense of frankness.

I was fascinated reading Jung's work in high school and college. He wrote a lot so I'm sure I've just experienced the tip of the iceberg. He and Freud probably have similar levels of influence. The underside of that is that they both seem to be misunderstood and oversimplified in the public mind.

I can very easily see Bikel's character with that palette and brush in his studio, ranting and raving as his tastefully obscured nude model holds a bunch of grapes over her head. And Brimmer was good to see. Good thing Hillerman was such a good sport.

It was kind of poignant seeing the husband's response at Ellery's reveal. Much as he seemed like kind of a horse's ass, you had to feel bad for him as his trust in his family was betrayed.

Meanwhile, we're both really enjoying your reviews.
Well the back-and-forth with you is a big part of what I'll miss. You know, much as I love the sound of my own voice. :)

Your ex-boss's wife does sound like a firecracker. I wonder if her outburst was the reason why they eventually gave up on having smoking sections on airplanes.