By James Kenney
Hi, I’m Cindy, I’m the perfect female type eighteen to twenty-five, I’m here to sell for you…Hi, I’m Cindy, I’m the perfect female type eighteen to twenty-five, I’m here to sell for you…Hi, I’m Cindy, I’m the perfect female type eighteen to twenty-five, I’m here to sell for you…Hi, I’m Cindy, I’m the perfect female type eighteen to twenty-five, I’m here to sell for you…
I stand in the television glow, just having finished my twenty-seventh (twenty-eighth?) viewing of Michael Crichton’s mostly reviled 1981 Ladd Company flop, Looker. I know the film is considered absolute rubbish– Leonard Maltin gave it a “Bomb” rating, Vincent Canby in the New York Times wrote “Mr. Crichton has fun sending up television commercials in one extended sequence, but his direction of the rest of the film is so sloppy one suspects that if he himself were a plastic surgeon, two ears might wind up on one side of the same head,” and Pauline Kael added “thinking about this movie could give you frostbite of the brain” –but it always proves soft sand for me when I submit to its frostbitten charms, giving in to its unreasonably entertaining ninety-three minutes of soft-headed eccentric futurism, cautionary social commentary and dry romantic comedy.
Looker is an unusual “suspense thriller” where Digital Matrix (back in ’81 this sounded sinister), a mysterious company run by a sinewy James Coburn and Soylent Green‘s Leigh Taylor-Young, duplicates live models via 3D computer rendering for use in TV commercials as part of a larger plot to control society by mind-manipulating it to elect Presidents and buy perfume. Albert Finney is a good-hearted, even-keeled Beverly Hills plastic surgeon who becomes an unwitting pawn of Coburn’s billionaire John Reston, being employed by models for seemingly imperceptible surgical procedures, part of Coburn’s nefarious (and rather muddy) plot to create the perfect mind-controlling commercial.
I know you think I’m beautiful, Dr. Roberts, but I have lots of defects to fix. My nose is point two millimeters too narrow, and my cheekbones are point four millimeters too high, and my chin has this little point one bump here, and my– aureolar? — Distance is five millimeters…and I have this mole here….so I need plastic surgery.”
Three of the four models are murdered at Coburn’s command and Finney is framed for the murders, although this part of the plot is never developed (and the cop investigating, played by no-nonsense Dorian Harewood, suspects Finney for all of six minutes of the film’s early running time, though his suspicions extend further in the original screenplay). The key loopy ingredient is some sort of “Light Gun” that if shot directly into your eyes incapacitates you, leaving you stunned and susceptible to malfeasance, whether it’s being forced to watch advertisements that wire directly into your brain and make you buy products (or Presidents), or be pushed helplessly off of a balcony.
In fact, why murder the girls at all? Wouldn’t all these dead girls piling up call unwanted attention to Coburn’s diabolic plan? Yes, and they do, especially as Coburn’s henchmen are really quite bad at their jobs, being seen at crime scenes and shooting up Finney’s lovely Beverly Hills Office one night without actually killing anyone. Why would Coburn assume the girls hadn’t already told everyone about Digital Matrix, his dummy corporation run by Taylor-Young that first demanded all the girls’ surgeries and later made computer models of them that made them disposable? What good would commercials starring dead models be, anyway? Questions, questions, questions!
Finney investigates on his own and attempts to shield the last remaining model standing, played by The Partridge Family‘s Susan Dey, from harm, while Harewood seems to pretty much figure that Coburn is involved and unhelpfully just hangs back and observes Finney’s clumsy attempts to investigate.
And, most importantly, tragically even, I learned what lying was when my dad took me to Looker at age 11.
He was just starting to take me to more adult fair after a childhood filled with Muppet movies, For the Love of Benji, Star Wars, Jaws, King Kong and Matilda, the Boxing Kangaroo. Of course imagine my surprise when (according to the Looker press materials that spend four pages on an actress who is on screen for all of five minutes) 36-24-36 Terri Welles showed up, nude, in the opening credits and in sexy lingerie for the remainder of her small part, which I’m pretty sure was re-voiced (which didn’t stop the producers and Crichton as talking her up as the next Rita Hayworth in the movie’s press materials!). As Looker‘s promotional material lasciviously reports, “even though [Welles is] killed off by Page 7 it’s not likely you’ll quickly forget her.”
I haven’t, forty years later.
And the nudity throughout! Susan Dey, of my beloved Partridge Family, reveals herself as she gets a computer scan for an extended scene about half an hour in (which isn’t gratuitous, and is one of the most beautiful and intriguing sequences of the film, but still….Laurie Partridge!). PG movies were never like this and Looker might have been one of the first times I really knew I was straight. After the film ended, my dad turned to me and asked me what I thought. And I without pause answered “Four stars!” (we were avid readers of the Leonard Maltin book). I excitedly asked him what he thought. He did pause, thinking about it.
“Two and a half stars.”
And that’s when I learned that fathers can lie to their sons. He clearly hated Looker, but to spare my feelings, he was willing to go as far as “two and a half.”
As that sank in, he then asked “Why did they have to kill the models?”
I don’t know dad, I just don’t know, but 7 pages of Playboy’s December 1980 Playmate of the Month,Terri Welles, a feature film’s worth of my childhood crush Susan Dey, and Albert Finney returning to the screen after abandoning it for a several-year run at London’s National Theatre ought to be enough! It was enough for me.
Still, I made a vow to myself that I would figure out a good reason why they were bumped off, I just knew if I could explain that, my dad would relent and Looker would end up a genuine three-star film for him as opposed to a well-meaning but fraudulent two-and-a-half stars.
Forty years later, I have uncovered the secret….
A Humpback Movie
Looker is a humpback movie – a mess, sure, but it offers up all sorts of interesting stuff and memorable sequences — and while an apple may be bruised, its core remains intact. So what if director/writer Michael Crichton, director and screenwriter of the original Westworld and Coma, author of the novels Congo, Disclosure and Jurassic Park, and creator of television juggernaut E/R, never explains why all the beautiful models have to be killed by Coburn and Taylor Young’s rather clumsy henchman with a porn movie mustache, played by former NFL player Tim Rossovich, in the name of Digital Matrix’s sinister program? (Rick Rossovich, of Streets of Fire, Top Gun and Roxanne, remains my go-to Rossovich, but Tim will do in a pinch)
Why do the models need to be physically perfected down to the millimeter by Finney, since the brainwashing is done through projecting lasers from the eyes, and the girls don’t prove “perfect” enough when in motion anyway? (a detailed sequence of Dey playing volleyball for a commercial featuring Weekend at Bernie’s Terry Kiser as a frustrated director is all about this issue– it’s not me nitpicking)
And doesn’t Mr. Coburn’s Reston, who obviously got where he got through guile and hard work, realize that killing four models who were part of his forward-thinking program would draw the attention of the police, here personified by the all-business Harewood, whereas not killing them might allow him to control the world quietly without anyone realizing what he was up to?
So with all that on the table, why have I seen Looker, oh, three hundred and twelve times?
Glorious Throwback to a Better Time!
One reason is the film plays like a throwback to the 1970s science-fiction films I used to religiously watch on the 4:30 movie on channel 7 in New York City, an ABC affiliate that would show seriously cut films in a 90-minute slot: Soylent Green, Omega Man, the Apes films, television stuff like Night Slaves. With so much of the films cut by a quarter or more, perhaps logical consistency was never the most necessary part of a film for me — Vincent Minnelli, Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse’s “The Girl Hunt” sequence in the Band Wagon is still my idea of the perfect action movie, which probably leads directly to my love of Walter Hill’s song-and-dance-and-fisticuffs-laden Streets of Fire. So seeing 72 minutes of the 100-minute Soylent Green on the 4:30 movie primed me for Looker. Some dull talky talky scene where they explain the murders would have been the first thing to go to fit the time slot. Looker, Crichton’s follow-up Runaway, and Freejack with Emilio Estevez are all more recent films that share that 1970’s sci-fi aesthetic, all not unreasonably trashed by critics, all beloved by me.
Then of course, the nudity. The opening credits begin with that burst of clinical but very revealing images of Lisa’s face and nude body pre-operatively, and this ten-year old was hooked. The film is filled with sexy actresses, who Crichton on his later DVD/Blu-ray commentary swears that producer Howard Jeffrey cast, not he, right down to the office manager of Finney’s Beverly Hills Plastic Surgery practice, played by Catherine Parks, “Miss Florida” and third runner-up to “Miss American in the 1978 Atlantic City beauty pageant. It can be defended as a filmmaker’s aesthetic choice because it heightens the anxiety of the models who submit to Coburn’s exacting demands of surgery; everyone in Beverly Hills IS beautiful and if you don’t keep up with the latest showbiz fad (as Finney’s office mate Daryl Hickman calls it) you will be left behind.
The locations are beautiful, everything is sleek and magnificent in Looker, as if to suggest a world of constant beauty that could be seen to be closing in on the girls to the point where every mole and disproportional aeriola must be fixed. Finney’s office is done up with actual Jasper Johns lithographs, a Saul Steinberg watercolor, and three Claes Oldenburg wash and crayon and crayon and watercolor prints from Crichton’s own collection (as the press kit helpfully lets us know); Coburn’s mansion of evil is gorgeous, with a dining-room-in-a-greenhouse a key aspect of an important scene deleted from Looker but reinstated for its network television airings (more on that later).
It is all seductively shot in a 2:35-1 ratio by cinematographer Paul Lohmann that reminds one of John Carpenter’s stylish early work with Dean Cundey, where the camera is another character, especially in certain key action moments where Finney was put on some rails so they could do a memorable take of him being tossed through a laboratory window without a stunt double.
Also aiding the John Carpenter vibe is Barry DeVorzon’s pulsing electronic Carpenter-reminiscent score; the theme song “Looker,” co-written by De Vorzon and sung by Sue Saad, has stuck in the minds of many youth who grew up on HBO or Wometco Home Theater in the early 1980s.
Finney received bad press from Pauline Kael upon release (“Finney gives what looks to be the laziest performance by a star recorded on film” (!)), but I think he and Dey make a really cute, fun couple, and I would have happily watched them solve more crimes in high-society like in an 80s version of The Thin Man series or something. Good actors underact sometimes when they’re worried about what’s going on around them, but Finney’s underacting is a choice here, and after several self-imposed years off from the cinema to work exclusively in theater, I don’t think his sensibilities failed him. He felt (rightly) that with all the ridiculous, puzzling, comical and downright baffling things happening in Looker, the only way to play it realistically is as a man who puzzles things out, a quiet non-action hero.
Finney’s no plastic surgeon-who-is-also-an-ex-Marine-who-secretly-knows-karate here, he is a plastic surgeon who likely never got in a car chase or a fistfight in his life and finds himself clumsily, quietly, but winningly trying to save the world. His dry underacting is the right route; it’s why heavy Coburn underestimates him, it’s why model Dey is deeply attracted to him and trusts him, and it pays off in his subtle, almost demure attraction to Dey and genuine interest in keeping her alive while not using it as an excuse to bed her down. After a party, slightly drunk, Dey expects him to make love to her and is baffled when he lays her out on a bed in his beach house, promises her eggs and a 6:30 am wake up call in the morning, and leaves.
I sincerely think seeing Looker at an impressionable age, with its bevy of lovely ladies surrounding a perfect gentleman who treats them all with respect and refuses to quickly bed the leading lady even when she makes herself available, and winning her in the end, really did wonders for my long-term relationships with women. Yes, women are uniformly physically beautiful in Looker, superficially objects with capitalistic value, like Crichton’s paintings hanging all over Finney’s office, but Finney from the very first scene pointedly makes no judgements purely on that beauty, and like George Peppard in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday, to name two other films I saw as a kid (that my dad would give actual four-star ratings), Finney is well-mannered, purely respectful and protective of them. Finney’s Dr. Larry is certainly a better role model than Batman for children on how to relate to women.
A Fine Romance…
Dey and Finney know each other before the film begins, his having done her pointless surgery, but while they don’t “meet cute” we meet them being cute with each other. She’s a happy California girl, not yet jaded, popping gum and pleasantly yammering about Tahiti while he stoically tries to check how the surgery went, and when Harewood’s Lieutenant Masters first comes to discuss the case, she suggests “You should really pay those parking tickets. I always cry and they let me off.” Later, Dey suggests ““You’re falling for me but you’re shy” as she can’t quite conceive of why a man in love wouldn’t attempt to seduce her, not in Beverly Hills in the 1980s. The chaste yet erotic bond between Finney and Dey might have been invisible to Pauline Kael, but I sure clocked it at age ten.
Looker succeeds as a screwball romantic comedy, which may not have been what Crichton intended but what Finney and Dey deliver to him; in a film criticized for its lack of humanity, it’s the human-scale wary flirtations of the leads that really keep me thinking about Looker forty years later. These two junior detectives, hopping on robotic trash collectors in Digital Matrix’s surprisingly penetrable fortress to gain access to prohibited areas, are a fun couple, and neither actor tries too hard to sell the charm, warmth and subtlety of their coupling. Thank goodness billionaire John Reston had to kill those models to bring these two together!!!
Looker takes place in a sleek, slightly zonked out Los Angeles where everyone is high on their neurosis (the models who scurry from job to job and look for every opening, such as Dey initially declining dinner with Finney until he mentions it’s at Reston’s estate) or power (Coburn’s Reston’s already having it all but still wanting more), with only the well-meaning but a bit slow Finney and the cynical but honest cop Harewood representing decency, with Dey not yet destroyed by the town, all gum-popping intelligent good humor, but perhaps only because she hasn’t had her turn at the plate. The rather terrible acting of all the ill-fated models is strangely winning, they seem more vulnerable, more human because of their dire line readings, and Finney’s concern for their daffy complaints makes us like him more, too.
Michael Crichton: The Prophet.
The film’s theme about the possibility of mind control through electronic manipulation hasn’t dated, even if the technology has (or more to the point, society has quickly embraced everything Crichton brings up in Looker and has developed it even further, see the news of Tig Notaro digitally inserted into the latest stupid Zach Snyder film ). A scene where Day goes home to get some clothes and is greeted by parents who say affectionate things to her but can’t take their eyes off the television screen before them is certainly a preamble to the modern addiction to phone screens shared by all of humanity.
The film also reveals some imagined technology that is all too real now. After Doctor Larry watches a commercial at Digital Matrix with galvanic sensors on his fingers and a vertical rod with attached mirror over his eys, Taylor-Young’s Jennifer reveals it has been recording his “visual fixation” which is not on the product, but on the model’s breasts.
With a few punches on a keyboard, the product being advertised is moved in front of the breasts that had drawn Finney’s interest: “Here the computer’s redesigning the commercial to take into account your specific responses: making you look at the product.” Taylor-Young’s Jennifer, in a deleted bit of dialogue, also talks about “baseline-corrected matrices for major audiences, age segregated. Depending on the audience, we can change programming—altering the model. For example, if we are attracting a predominately male audience, we increase secondary sex characteristics…for a predominantly female audience, we create another image” while a 3D computer rendering of Dey’s Cindy increases and decreases its bust measurements.
“Hi, I’m Cindy, I’m the perfect female type eighteen to twenty-five, I’m here to sell for you…”
“He won’t get elected President on a facelift, will he?”
The film explores the world of plastic surgery before people spoke about it openly, and, perhaps due to Crichton’s medical background, provides a relatively benign take on it. When the girls all want ludicrously minimalist procedures, Finney’s Doctor earnestly tries to talk them out of it before being convinced by an associate that “someone less competent than you will do it” if he doesn’t; his major personal concern is an expensive new burn center that he wants supervillain Reston to help fund, and when his associate talks up an eye job he’s doing to make an Admiral hoping to make Joint Chiefs of Staff look “young and vigorous…guy’s a military genius, but he just doesn’t look macho,” Larry replies “Maybe he’s right.”
But as the film points out, this step is simply the first step to the next, where whatever human imperfections that can’t be erased by surgery will instead be erased through computer manipulation (Finney even frets to Taylor-Young on seeing her program in action “This is gonna put me out of work”). In Looker, this next step is led to its inevitable conclusion that humans themselves will be erased by the computers, as once the computer has Cindy’s measurements, what need could there be for Cindy?
A Loss of Nerve?
One reason Looker tantalizes without every fully planting a kiss on our eager lips is an apparent loss of nerve (or failure of execution) from Crichton, whether pressured by the studio or poor test responses or whatever. All key elements of Looker have been muted a bit in the final released version: the sense of humor, the classic mystery archetypes, the thought-provoking theme. Harewood’s Lieutenant Masters is suspicious of Finney’s character throughout most of the screenplay, saying things like “No question, he killed them. Very cool. This guy is a major freak,” to a fellow officer about Finney early on, and his later ranting to Finney about how the rich get away with murder (“but not this time!”), predates the O.J. Simpson and Robert Blake cases; all this was deleted from the finished film.
Another curious deletion from the finished film are two beach babes who show up throughout, Pammy and Tammy, who act as foils to Dey. They are also commercial actresses, but unlike her they are not landing gigs because computers keep picking other girls; they actually team up to try to seduce the staid Finney into a threesome not knowing he’s been put under the spell of the Looker gun for a rather broad comic sequence missing from the final release, and they actually prove key in one getaway when one knocks a gun out of Reston’s hand late in the film! Pammy and Tammy are completely removed from the final product, but apparently this stuff was shot, as one production still hints at their part in the film.
The various scenes of time-lapse, particularly Finney’s as he loses an afternoon in a trance as things in the apartment around him slightly change, are effectively offbeat and intriguing in the finished product, although again the released film loses some of its more outre examples: at one point Finney, brainwashed by the Looker gun to respond to whatever commercials were playing whilst he was stunned, goes to a supermarket looking for Feminine pads, saying to a bewildered fellow shopper “New Liberty Feminine Pads have unmatched protection, super comfort and super absorbency you get only with Liberty Pads. They let you live free. Believe me, take Liberties wherever you go.”
Scenes like this heighten the satirical elements of Looker, but none moreso than the deleted sequence (that was reinserted for broadcast television and is available as an extra on the Warner Archives Blu-ray) where Finney and Dey, trapped in Coburn’s mansion while he gives a dinner party for “the future President of the United States” downstairs, confront him about the murders.
Why did the models have to die!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!
Coburn says, straight-faced to the captive Finney and Dey, “those three girls – and Cindy here – were walking examples of our computer research. They were the measurements. We had to destroy the database. And it’s corporate policy to shred all old documents to keep them out of the hands of the competition.”
So at some level Coburn was hoping no one would find out about Digital Matrix’s involvement in the surgeries (which he ultimately considered a corporate mistake) by having the girls all die before they could share with the larger world what they did and why they did it, and frame it on Finney’s Doctor–one assumes they signed non-disclosure agreements? It’s a ridiculous, poorly thought-out plot, that makes Coburn’s character seem, well, daft, but it was a mistake to remove the scene as it does lay out his rather baroque reason for all this mayhem and does provide an additional suspense sequence where Dey and Finney escape across the roof of Coburn’s greenhouse dining room, only to be spotted by him in a reflection off the lid of his cigar box.
Why it was removed is an utter mystery (even if reinstated, the film would clock in at a reasonable 100 minutes) and allowed people like Kael and my dad to complain about Looker‘s lack of logic. The scene itself is acceptably shot and scored, no aesthetic reason to remove it, particularly as it explains the whole damn thing and offers one more escape sequence! Well, if I only had the screenplay back in 1981, or a handy workprint, I could have at least shared Crichton’s intent, which includes Senator Harrison giving a lofty speech in the greenhouse during their escape where he declares “Television is the most powerful source of order in the post-industrial world! Television dictates opinions more effectively than armies or secret police! Television can rule!”
Reston himself later gives a speech that verbalizes Crichton’s main theme, a fairly serious one that is indeed muddied by the comic-thriller tone he chose to express it with: “Who could have predicted that free people would voluntarily spend one-fifth of their live in front of a box with pictures? Fifteen years sitting in prison is punishment, fifteen years sitting in front of television is entertainment. And the average American spends more than one and a half years of his life just watching television commercials.”
As a final bit of Crichton’s muddled but intriguing futuresight in the fascinating if malformed Looker, Senator Harrison runs a distinctly Trumpian campaign, seducing audiences through mind-manipulation while ranting “My friends, there’s hope—and I am the hope.”
(Make America great again!)
He adds “I will save you from the media.”
Is Steve Bannon, a Hollywood exile, a closet Looker fan?
Did he use its screenplay as a how-to manual to get that monster Trump elected? And while the film ultimately allows Larry to save the day and get the girl, the original script doesn’t end with them walking off arm and arm, but instead returns to “a montage of television commercials from around the world – in Swahili, in Thai, in German, in British, in Malay, in Tamal…” (in the released version, we return to some of the mock American commercials we’ve seen throughout the movie, a slightly less ambitious and cost-effective move that nonetheless makes the same point, with a voice-over repeating the amount of our lives wasted intaking commercial pitches).
By this point, my dad didn’t care, but this an Invasion of the Brain Snatchers with an ending as unresolved as Siegel’s original ending for Body Snatchers. Yeah, Larry gets to go to bed with Cindy finally (he tells her he’s not her doctor anymore, reminding us of proper medical ethics and that Finney is a real straight case even as the end credits role), but we’re all still going to keep intaking all this crap selling us soap and fragrance.
“Hi, I’m Cindy, I’m the perfect female type eighteen to twenty-five, I’m here to sell for you… Hi, I’m Cindy, I’m the perfect female type eighteen to twenty-five, I’m here to sell for you… Hi, I’m Cindy, I’m the perfect female type eighteen to twenty-five, I’m here to sell for you… Hi, I’m Cindy, I’m the perfect female type eighteen to twenty-five, I’m here to sell for you… “