THE NAKED FACE (1970) by Sidney Sheldon

Sheldon-Naked-Face-pbIn the 1970s Sidney Sheldon became one of the biggest names in publishing after an already highly successful career as a screenwriter and producer, his dozens of film and TV credits ranging from the musical Easter Parade to the sitcom I Dream of Jeannie and the screwball Thin Man ‘homage’, Hart to Hart. He made his debut as a novelist with this Edgar-nominated mystery about a Manhattan psychoanalyst investigating several murders.

I offer the following review as part of the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog – for links to other participants’ reviews, click here; and Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her Pattinase blog.

“Who would want to kill him?”
“We were hoping you could tell us, Dr Stevens” said Angeli.

Dr. Judd Stevens is a brilliant doctor who, following the death in a car accident of his wife and their unborn daughter, has buried himself in his work and built up a highly successful practice. The novel opens with the stabbing of one of his patients, killed while wearing the doctor’s raincoat. Shortly afterwards Stevens’ devoted secretary is horribly tortured and killed. The doctor claims to have no enemies so does this mean that one of his patients has cracked and is out for some kind of twisted revenge? Lieutenant McGreavy has a different theory, believing that the Doctor may in fact be the culprit, despite any lack of apparent motive. Why would the police think this? Well, it turns out that the detective has an old grudge against Stevens dating from the time when the doctor gave evidence in favour of an insanity plea for the man who killed his former partner five years earlier. McGreavy’s new partner, Angeli, tries to be more sympathetic and so helps the doctor where possible, but clearly won’t stretch his loyalty too far.

“No one had ever given Teri Washburn anything in her life that she had not been overcharged for”

Sheldon-The-naked-face-pb03Stevens reviews his list of (surviving) patients for possible suspects. These include Anne, a mysterious woman he is secretly attracted to; a highly paranoid business executive; and Teri, an ex-Hollywood starlet with low self-esteem. After being stalked at night in his office after the power has been cut off – a well handled suspense sequence with a decent payoff when the doctor uses his battery-powered tape recorder to fake out his potential assailants that he is not alone – Stevens calls the police but is rebuffed by McGreavy (Angeli unfortunately is off with flu). As the police won’t believe him, Stevens seeks out alternative help. Enter Norman Z Moody, a rotund PI with an aphorism for every occasion.

“He was literally putting his life into the hands of the Falstaff of the private detective world”

Moody is a terrific character, a gigantic blob of a man and a highly unlikely hardboiled character that really lifts the book at the right moment – found through the yellow pages, Moody quickly proves indispensable when he disarms a bomb in the doctor’s car. Stevens finds himself confiding in his new ally, wryly noting how this is a reversal of his usual professional relationships. I wish Moody had returned in other books as his absence is very marked when he leaves the story after unearthing the clue that will ultimately unlock the case and reveal the killer’s true identity – or as Stevens puts it, the ‘naked face’ beneath the mask.

“Can you make me heterosexual?”
“That depends on how much you really want to be”

Sheldon-The-naked-face-pbSheldon’s book is written in straightforward and uncomplicated prose, has a decent plot (despite a motive that while certainly unforseen does also strain credulity) and towards the end delivers some very nice twists too as Stevens even starts to question his own sanity. But this book is also full of the kind of asides that just made me want to hurl it across the room. For instance, it turns out that the first victim, the patient who was stabbed after being mistaken for the doctor, was being ‘treated’ for his homosexuality and had in fact just been cured! Surely 1970 wasn’t so long ago, was it? And a couple of pages later, when we flashback to when Stevens first helped Carol as a 16-year old prostitute facing serious jail time, he tells her:

“You can’t help being born a Negro but who told you you had to be a black dropout pot-smoking sixteen-year old whore? “

This pep talk is apparently all she needs to straighten out her life before going off to become his secretary – times sure have changed … This is an enjoyable yarn in terms of plot but this kind of retrograde crap is something that is utterly intolerable so this is what you might call a mixed bag. In his screenplay Bryan Forbes would thankfully excise all of this offensive material.

To find out more about the late Mr Sheldon and his work, visit: SidneySheldon.com

In late 1983 Bryan Forbes started shooting his adaptation of the novel starring the then current 007, Roger Moore, with the action relocated to Chicago. In typical fashion he approached his first whodunit as a director with customary seriousness to deliver a sometimes slow-moving but always plausible-seeming film, toning down some of the book’s more risible elements and improving it in several ways too. Forbes’ handling of the various patient case histories is very interesting, jump cutting from the various sessions with which Stevens has filled his life to fill the gap left by his wife and daughter. Most of the red herrings are thankfully chopped out so that we eschew the obvious strategy of focusing on which of the patients (the most notable of which is played by Anne Archer) might secretly be a psychotic (the Bruce Willis movie Color of Night springs to mind), which has always annoyed me as a plot device as it also suggests that the psychiatrists in question can’t be very good at their job.

Forbes was usually uninterested in flashy stylistic devices (his movie Deadfall is a major exception and I’ll be reviewing that one shortly) so what we have here is a restrained, modestly budgeted, low-key whodunit which focuses on a doctor clearly in mourning who tries his best to help his patients in a down to earth, unspectacular manner. As a result the film can seem a little slow and staid in its attempt to provide a realistic framework – it is also a little bit maudlin, an effect emphasised by a mournful score by Michael J Lewis as befits an often somewhat sombre movie bookended by scenes set in a cemetery. Moore, wearing a large pair of specs throughout, gives a notably understated performance, one that stands in marked contrast to his usual lightly comedic approach and it works extremely well. The film was clearly designed to provide the star with a change of pace and is very successful in this regard – indeed one wishes Moore had played more serious roles in this vein. His characterisation certainly contrasts greatly with the one given by Rod Steiger as McGgreavy, who here provides one of his very typically ‘loud’ performances. While this is partly motivated by plot requirements, one wishes that Steiger (in a rather ill-fitting toupee) could have occasionally dialed his performance down a bit. Elliot Gould plays Angeli in his usual laid-back manner and is perfectly decent, as is the always splendidly reliable David Hedison, an old chum of Moore’s who turned up in several of his films and who here plays – well, an old chum of Stevens.

However, it is Art Carney who steals the show as Moody, the private eye, who goes from being a butterball Southerner to an ageing and hard of hearing part-time horologist and all-round cat fancier, a role that is very closely patterned on the one he had previously essayed in Robert Benton’s The Late Show (read Jeff Flugel’s glowing review of that film over at his Stalking Moon blog).  Stevens hires him after the cops’ desultory efforts and, as in the book, one wishes he were in the story longer and that he’d been spun off into his own TV show. The movie is surprisingly faithful to the book, replicating some of the dialogue and keeping most of the plot and major sequences though it adds a nasty little turn of the knife at the end and also makes Stevens surprisingly less of an active participant – that is to say, less heroic (and less like James Bond) and more like an a real person caught in a dangerous and confounding situation. As a result Forbes also chose to largely ignore the book’s romantic subplot, further reducing Anne Archer’s already fairly small role. This is a bit of a shame as it does tend to make it a story populated almost exclusively by middle-aged men, which may not be everyone’s idea of a fun two hours – which would be a shame as this is an unusual mystery that is well worth seeking out.

DVD Availability: The best version available on home video at present is a Blu-ray currently only on sale in Germany but which offers the film in English (without subtitles) as well as a dubbed version – the image is very sharp and the colours quite strong if perhaps a little too bright (doing few favours for Anne Archer’s makeup)

The Naked Face (1984)
Director: Bryan Forbes
Producer: Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan
Screenplay: Bryan Forbes
Cinematography: David Gurfinkel
Art Direction: William B. Fosser
Music: Michael J. Lewis
Cast: Roger Moore, Anne Archer, Elliot Gould, Rod Steiger, David Hedison, Art Carney, Deanna Dunagan

***** (2.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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27 Responses to THE NAKED FACE (1970) by Sidney Sheldon

  1. Sergio – I have to admit, I’ve never been a Sidney Sheldon fan. Just not my cuppa. Still, I’m glad you found the movie worth watching.

  2. neer says:

    It has been a long time, Sergio, since I read this and I don’t remember much of the plot but I enjoyed the post. Thanks.

    • Thaks Neer – as I understand it, this is quite different from most of his books (not least for being quite so male-centric) – I wasn’t too impressed but it was a fun read despite its more objectionalble bits!

  3. Colin says:

    Thanks for this Sergio. I’ll have to see about tracking down the movie if not the book.
    Moore was the Bond that I grew up with, and I thought I’d seen pretty much all his non-Bond roles of the late 70s and early 80s. However, I seem to have missed this one somehow.

    • Well, it was made for Cannon … Who, to give them credit, did generate several films in the 80s that are we worth revising such as John Frankenheimer’s 52 Pick-Up and Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train certainly standing out. And then there is that timeless gulti pleasure, Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce. As far as I know the Blu-ray of Naked Face is only available in Germany. It’s Forbes’ only movie in the format thus far, for shame …

  4. Sergio, many popular authors of Sidney Sheldon’s era, including Arthur Hailey, Jeffrey Archer, and Lawrence Sanders, to name some, wrote “straightforward and uncomplicated prose” that didn’t require much taxing of the brain. These authors are still popular among Indian readers, especially youngsters, even now. I do read these authors occasionally with the exception of Jack Higgins whose books I read and re-read with unerring regularity. THE NAKED FACE, which I read some three decades ago, is by far Sheldon’s best-known book though a lot of people would nominate THE OTHER SIDE OF MIDNIGHT as his best. I remember it as a rather thin paperback. I’m absolutely certain I’ve seen the film version partly on account of the familiar poster; however, your excellent take on it is tempting me to see it (again).

  5. My wife read all of Sidney Sheldon’s books and watched all the min-series on TV. I was busy reading Richard Stark.

    • Ditto – or rather, I think I did get as far as watching some of the mini-series – all lost in the mists of a mis-spent youth. Always loved the ‘Irving Sidney’ sppof in Amazon Women on the Moon:
      Amazon Women

      • Todd Mason says:

        Specifically getting at Sheldon and Wallace with one (Irving) Stone…

        I never had the pleasure of Sheldon fiction (as opposed to inane drama), but if Robbins is comparable, I never went further than childhood skipping around in THE BETSY and finding it highly improbable even at that inexperienced state that, for example, semen might taste like sweet heavy cream, as one woman character cheerfully reports…

        • Jeez Todd, I obviously I didn;t know when I was well off, did I? Right up there with some of the worst of Heinlein (I’m thinking of ‘The Number of the Beast’ and the infamous, “Our teeth grated and my nipples went spung!”).

  6. TracyK says:

    Sergio, a very interesting post. I am not sure about the book, but I would love to see the movie someday. All the actors are favorites, and especially Art Carney.

    But I would say, yes, the 1970′s were that long ago in terms of attitudes. Of course, I come from the southern part of the US, but women were definitely treated differently then on the job. About that time I moved to California where things were marginally better. I was young then and more open minded (than older people I knew), but I don’t remember homosexuality discussed much at all until I moved to a more progressive company in the early 1980′s. And one reason I liked that place is that women were actually on an equal footing (very unusual then).

    • I definitely preferred the movie TracyK – I don’t know if it’s on Netflix or the like but it is distributed by MGM. I guess we have come a long way in terms of some attitudes, though it’s hardly far enough and it is distressing how polarised it all is. I dare say you’re right and that Sheldon’s references were seen as being fairly racy for the time – but just as well we’ve moved on a bit.

  7. John says:

    You sold me on the movie if only to see Art Carney do a retread of that fabulous PI he played in The Late Show, a movie I still remember vividly. The scene where they fInd the dead body in the fridge will haunt me forever. It was Lily Tomlin’s second dramatic role in her post “Laugh-In” days (after her amazing turn in Nashville) and I think it’s still one of her best overall.

    “…this kind of retrograde crap” perfectly sums up my opinion of Sidney Sheldon as a novelist. Curing gay men through psychiatry? At least it wasn’t electroshock therapy. Or was it? I bet he wrote The Naked Face back in the early 1960s and had it sitting around in a trunk before he got up the nerve to sell it. Probably rewrote it a bit too. I was going to tell you an anecedote about finding a copy of A Stranger in the Mirror that my mother was reading back in the 1970s and what me and my brother (both dirty-minded teens at the time) found in its pages, but I’ll spare you. After reading your review of this Sheldon book I’m already having a flashback to my two days with TIffany Thayer’s THIRTEEN WOMEN and I can’t bear to tell another story about a lurid sex scene.

    • Thanks for that John – the ‘curing’ was all done though discussion apparently (just thinking about it winds me up again). Early encounters with the ‘naughty bits’ in adult fiction always make an impression, don’t they? Still remember my first (and last) Harold Robbins in the shape of the comparatively restrained 79 PARK AVENUE.

  8. Todd Mason says:

    Sadly, we still have plenty of folk who are quite certain that homosexuality is a curable disease…one of my teen-years friends is involved in the Xian version of that sort of thing, and certainly that is one of the major draws of a certain cult whose most famous members these years tend to be actors and to a lesser extent musicians. The notion that a good one-sentence talking-to will pull anyone out of street life is probably still about as popular (also being offered a well-paying “straight” job along with that might actually work a lot better). Yes, clearly THE COLOR OF NIGHT found some inspiration here. See also, at least the film version of NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY. 1968 not so very long before 1970.

    • I haven’t watched the film adaptation of Goldman’s novel (for which I have great esteem as previously expressed here) – thanks for that Todd, need to seek it out again and see what Steiger gets up to in that one.

      • Todd Mason says:

        Steiger’s typically florid performance isn’t the worst of that. I’m not surprised to gather that Goldman’s novel is more savvy than the film as presented, with script by one John Gay. Koff.

        Is Angeli a major character in the Sheldon? Do you have the kind of slight start that comes with a similar (even if not identical) name popping up in a narrative one’s (if one is me, at least) taking in?

        • Now now, John Gay was a pretty successful screenwriter in his day you know! Angeli is actually a fairly integral part of the plot in the end but no, the name doesn’t exactly pull me up short – I mean, heavenly links asides, it’s a pretty darn common name back home!

          • Todd Mason says:

            Yes, I was aware of Gay, but in the context of the film, it’s an insane coincidence.

            Yeah…Todd and Mason are common names in the Anglophone world, but I do have a second or so of dissonance (even with Tod and Masson).

          • Suddenly have images of Orson Welles selling wines …

  9. DoingDewey says:

    A lot of the movies you watch seem a little dark for my taste, but this sounds like a thriller I think I would really enjoy. And I never thought about it before, but it’s really nice that in a movie the “retrograde crap” can be edited out!

    • Thanks Katie (I think) – I do seem to pick ‘dark’ films, you’re right I suppose as I’m such a fan of Film Noir. My family always complain that my movie shelves are packed with too much atmospegere an not enough cheer! In fact the next film i have scheduled is a really bleak one … OK, must to somethign about this!!

      • DoingDewey says:

        I don’t think it’s a problem – you seem to have built up an awesome group of fans of the genre and I’m always impressed by how knowledgeable both you and the people commenting are. It’s great that you have a niche :)

        • Niche is a very nice word for it Katie – ta! None the less, some cominc capers, topical thrillers and spy stories are being added to the roster. Watch this space …

  10. Pingback: 2013 Book to Movie Challenge – completed | Tipping My Fedora

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