With The Woman Chaser, Robinson Devor has captured the mood and eccentric tone, the surreal, bare-knuckled Weltanschauung, of Charles Willeford’s 1960 novel about a used-car salesman who tries to save himself through art. The movie is glorious pulp pastiche without the smirks, which is fitting given the author’s ironic humanism. Willeford’s gifts went widely unnoticed until 1984 and Miami Blues, the first of his four Hoke Moseley novels and the basis for the movie with Fred Ward; but those gifts had been getting a workout for years in fiction and nonfiction books alike. Willeford, who died in 1988, published novels, volumes of poetry, two autobiographies, a book about the Son of Sam case, even a pamphlet about his hemorrhoid operation (a grisly hospital noir). His métier, in the hospital or out, was pulp, but his subject was invariably the same: how humanity crawls, walks or runs from one bad day to the next.

As The Woman Chaser opens, Richard Hudson isn’t yet running, he’s clocking traffic, gauging the number of potential customers passing the used-car lot he’ll soon wrest from its owner. Hudson is a brilliant salesman, and he’s brilliantly played by Patrick Warburton (who must be sick of being mainly identified with Seinfeld, in which he played Puddy, one of Elaine’s boyfriends). At once a raging narcissist (“To me!” he toasts) and a bloodless observer of the human condition, Hudson is given to twisting knives, but his cruelty has a detached cool that makes him seem more efficient than brutal; he can’t be bothered with kindness. Mainly, though, he’s bored, then depressed, which is where the story lifts off. Marshaling his cultural savvy (in the book, his apartment is outfitted with Henry Miller watercolors and Herman Miller furniture), Hudson settles on art as a kind of self-therapy. Since writing and painting take too long to master, he decides on movies: “I knew what movies were all about! I had seen thousands; well, hundreds, anyway.”

Devor wears his influences openly (he’s clearly taken a few looks at Touch of Evil and I Am Cuba), but there’s nothing slavishly imitative about his film. The Woman Chaser looks and sounds great, but more impressive still is how those looks and sounds summon up not only a lost world, but a consciousness fast on its way to getting lost. Devor pulls off the difficult trick of remaining faithful to Willeford’s world-view, as well as to the early-’60s Los Angeles in which that world-view is played out, but it’s in the fissured personality at the story’s center that he really does Willeford justice. The unreliable narrator is a notoriously difficult creature to translate from page to screen, but Devor manages it, both through Warburton’s gutsy performance and the filmmaking itself. Kramer Morgenthau’s velvety black-and-white cinematography and Daniele Luppi’s score don’t just amp the period verisimilitude, giving off a sheen of queasy nostalgia, they suggest, with a few sour notes and a wide-angle lens, an entire universe in which everything is slightly, menacingly off.

Hudson makes his movie — a hilariously grim cautionary fable involving a truck driver, a squashed kid and an angry mob — but as with all of Willeford’s heroes, some crazy, some tragic, he runs up against a hurdle that seems insurmountable, in this case a Hollywood studio. It would be unfair to tell what happens next. Willeford himself lived to see one of the two earlier films made from his books; he has a role in Monte Hellman’s 1974 Cockfighter, which starred Warren Oates (who else?) and is reputed to be the one movie that lost producer Roger Corman money. It’s hard to imagine that The Woman Chaser will make much money either, which is too bad. In the novel, shortly after Richard Hudson experiences the epiphany that will change his life forever, he explains, “My primary desire was to create something with my own mind and hands. Firmly interlocked with this desire was the knowledge that nothing is truly creative unless it means something. Unless an art form contains a message or a universal truth it is meaningless.” That’s pretty good stuff for a used-car salesman; it’s even better for a filmmaker.

You know that a movie — or rather, its
audience — is in trouble when you begin wishing, then feverishly rooting for the hero’s sudden, bloody end. In What Lies Beneath, the hero is a married mother of one, dourly played by Michelle Pfeiffer in a performance that’s meant to be important but mostly brings to mind Jon Lovitz’s erstwhile Academy Award appearance as a thespian. With her nostrils flaring like Seattle Slew’s, and eyebrows soaring to the precarious heights of the Arch of St. Louis, Pfeiffer plays Claire Spencer, a frau whose Martha Stepford lifestyle is jeopardized when she realizes that there’s a ghost in her perfect house, and that the ghost may be her otherwise perfect husband’s ex-lover. As the aptly named Norman, a respected professor at the college founded by his father, Harrison Ford barks and bristles at Claire and generally acts unsupportive, which in modern Hollywood, where being married is either sacred or profane, means that something is decidedly rotten in this little Vermont town, and not just the acting, writing and directing.

Robert Zemeckis, whose Cast Away, starring Tom Hanks, is slated for release at the end of the year, may simply have been too distracted with his other big movie to notice that the screenplay for What Lies Beneath is dreck. Credited to Clark Gregg, from a story by Gregg and Sarah Kernochan, it is at once illogical and insultingly stupid, filled with dead-end twists and the sort of dialogue that makes a mockery of actual adult relations. Does anyone associated with this film actually believe that people talk to each other the way Norman and Claire do, unless one of the concerned parties has been lobotomized? Or that a woman like Claire, who the screenwriters insist is as smart and talented as she is beautiful, would have left her brilliant music career, which took her from Juilliard to Carnegie Hall, to tend house and cut roses (much less leave her cello to languish in the damp of a garage)? It isn’t just that Claire lacks self-actualization — she’s as dumb as a post, in the way of many of the bimbos who once ran seminaked through slasher movies like Slumber Party Massacre.

Since the bimbo here is played by Michelle Pfeiffer and her co-star is Indiana Jones and the director is the man who made Forrest Gump, this slasher movie comes with expensive talent and production values; it also makes generous use of the Hitchcock oeuvre, from Rear Window to Alan Silvestri’s Bernard Hermann–like score, even as it references Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique and tries to siphon off the paranormal hijinks of the phenomenon known as The Sixth Sense. There was a time when few filmmakers in Hollywood brought as much pop élan to the movies as Zemeckis. Back to the Future, its even better sequel and Who Framed Roger Rabbit were not the work of an appointed genius — their easy charms were part of what made them soar, and, of course, has allowed them to endure as entertainments. In What Lies Beneath, there’s nothing remotely Zemeckis-like beyond a few showy camera tricks (in one scene, the camera looks up at a prostrate Claire as if the wooden floor had suddenly turned transparent), along with the drift toward self-importance that left such a bitter aftertaste in Forrest Gump. Self-importance is lethal when it comes to pop movies. And as much as the filmmakers would like us to believe that what lies beneath is something along the lines of I see dead people, instead I see dead careers.

THE WOMAN CHASER | Written and directed by ROBINSON DEVOR Based on the novel by CHARLES WILLEFORD | Produced by SOLY HAIM Executive produced by JOSEPH McSPADDEN | At the Nuart Theater, Friday–Thursday, July 21–27

WHAT LIES BENEATH | Directed by ROBERT ZEMECKIS Written by CLARK GREGG | Produced by ZEMECKIS, STEVE STARKEY and JACK RAPKE | Released by DreamWorks and 20th Century Fox | Citywide

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