Does United Artists plan to double-bill William Friedkin's messily deplorable "Cruising" with Gordon Willis' exquisitely deplorable "Windows" in the near second-run future? Their timing and loathsome tendentiousness make them uniquely compatible co-features. That decadent double stand-by at the Circle -- "The Night Porter" and "The Ruling Class " -- may finally have some competition.
"Windows" commences with the most hateful sequence in recent memory, no small achievemennt in this day and age. (Of course, all precedents may be shattered as soon as Bob Guccione's "Caligula" comes to Washington.)
Talia Shire, briefly identified as a young woman named Emily who intends to divorce her husband and has some kind of job at a Brooklyn museum, is overpowered by an intruder seconds after unlocking the door to her apartment. The assailant straddles her stomach, presses a knife against her throat, cuts her bra straps, orders her to disrobe partially and finally holds the knife against the roof of her mouth. At the same time, he has activated a cassette recorder and demanded that she repeat certain words and sounds, particularly when the weapon is inserted in her mouth.
Fadeout. Comes the dawn, and viewers who haven't obeyed an early impulse to walk out discover that the victim has summoned the police. A handsome, gentle detective with soulful eyes (Joseph Cortese, who looks like Joe Bologna crossed with Sylvester Stallone), destined to function as The Romantic Interest, draws our attention to several volumes about the treatment of stammering on the heroine's bookshelf. He looks sincerely concerned. In fact, that look is the whole performance.
Attention shifts to a jogger revealed to be Elizabeth Ashley in a sweatshuit. After some enigmatic lingering at the corner, she enters the apartment and introduces herself as a concerned friend of the victim. Ha! As if Ashley's mere presence weren't enough to arouse suspension, her character (called Andrea) gives herself away with furtive glances and hostile remarks when the policeman tries to question Emily ever so delicately.
Since the filmmakers blow their "mystery" before the first reel is over, the ususal ground rules about whodunnits may be ignored. The obvious dirtyminded secret revealed by Barry Siegal, the offending screenwriter, is that Ashley has hired the assailant to molest Shire out of some demented lesbian lust that dares not express itself less drastically.
It's also a form of demented passion that defies credibility.
You can't help wondering how the filmmakers contrived to rationalize this idle mixture of the vicious and the ludicrous to themselves.
Did Siegel sincerely beleive that his gratuitous nastiness was a speculative interest in abnormal psychology? Gordon Willis was probably preoccupied with pictorial abstraction. Like many talented cinematographers offered the chance to direct, he arranges portentous compositions without finding it essential to justify the plot or characters he's busy getting portentous about. Indeed, the imagery is designed to transcend the content.
It's obvious that Willis thought of the project as a visual exercise recalling Hitchcock's "Rear Window." When Shire takes an apartment on the East River in Lower Manhattan, Ashley takes a loft directly across the river in Brooklyn Heights and peeps through her beloved's conveniently undraped windows with a high-powered telescope. During the last hour or so, the "continuity" resolves itself into scenes of Andrea peeping and panting at Emily alternated with scenes of Andrea sharing a lack of communication with her shrink.
Willis seems to know a lot of nice places from which to photograph the Brooklyn Bridge, but that's the only valuable perception he bring to Siegel's wretched material. Until further notice, Ashley and Shire will have to be regarded as the dumbest actresses in America for allowing themselves to participate in a thriller which depends solely on the obscene notion that one woman is avid to degrade and brutalize another.
Ashley will have some tall rationalizing to do if she contemplates a sequel to "Actress." I await the chapter explaining Andrea with keen anticipation.