In 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”
Stevens 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’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