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The Big Cube

The Big Cube(1969)


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The Big Cube (1969)

Old and New Hollywood collide with psychedelic results in The Big Cube (1969), the last big studio film for actress Lana Turner, starring here as aging stage actress Adriana whose upcoming nuptials to bigwig Charles Winthrop (Dan O'Herlihy) have his adolescent daughter, Lisa (Karin Mossberg), so distraught she runs off into the arms of suave, smarmy, LSD-pushing Johnny (George Chakiris), who hangs out with acid-dropping hippies at a super-swinging nightclub called Le Trip. When a honeymoon cruise goes very wrong, Johnny convinces Lisa that her stepmother killed her father and is trying to grab her trust fund which can only be released on Lisa's 25th birthday or upon the event of her marriage... to a man of whom Adriana approves. The only solution, per Johnny, is to drive Adriana over the brink with a few well-placed doses of "the big cube," kicking off a trip from which she might never return...

At the time of this film's release in 1969, Hollywood was being turned upside down by the success of Easy Rider and a spate of deeply conflicted "youth culture" movies such as Wild in the Streets (1968) and The Trip (1967) which seemed to regard the Woodstock generation as a lucrative but dangerous crowd whose loose morality could easily spell the downfall of America. The Big Cube certainly represents an extreme example of this mindset, fusing a diatribe against drug-sodden kids while spinning out a particularly wild variation on the "drive-the-heiress-crazy" plotline already familiarized in glossy melodramas like Gaslight (1944) and Midnight Lace (1960). This co-production between the United States and Mexico received much of its financing from Warner Brothers/Seven Arts, the studio's permutation from 1967 to 1972 which unleashed some of the most colorful titles in its history ranging from colorfully bloody Hammer releases and The Frozen Dead (1967) to Cool Hand Luke (1967), Bullitt (1968) and The Wild Bunch (1969). This film falls somewhere in between on the sleaze spectrum, aiming for both an older audience with the presence of glamour-queen Turner and the younger crowd with scenes of go-going hipsters, "daring" glimpses of topless nudity, and hysterically-presented drug use.

An actress whose controversial private life often threatened to overshadow her screen persona, Turner became famous as "the Sweater Girl" for her clinging costumes in They Won't Forget (1937) and Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938), soon becoming a symbol of blonde, bigger-than-life star power in classics like 1946's The Postman Always Rings Twice and 1948's The Three Musketeers all the way to Peyton Place (1957). Her eight marriages and a sensationalistic homicide involving her daughter Cheryl and lover Johnny Stompanato in 1958 made her a tabloid mainstay, but she always rebounded most dramatically after that scandal with her most enduringly popular role in Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life (1959). That film solidified her foundation as a reliable leading lady for glossy Technicolor potboilers, a skill demonstrated via innumerable costume and wig changes in films such as Portrait in Black (1960), By Love Possessed (1961), Love Has Many Faces (1965), and Madame X (1966), all of which carried unmistakable echoes of her real-life tribulations. The Big Cube marked a career slowdown for Turner, who only returned to appear as a regular on two TV soap operas (Harold Robbins' The Survivors and Falcon Crest) and occasional independent film roles such as the bizarre cat-themed horror film Persecution (1974), the 1976 incest drama Bittersweet Love, and the oddball 1980 comedy Witches' Brew, another loose adaptation of Fritz Leiber's Conjure Wife.

Turner's high-wattage personality receives most of the camera's attention in The Big Cube, but her three male co-stars offer a truly unexpected combination. The biggest name at the time, pompadour-sporting Chakiris, had earned an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor as Bernardo in West Side Story (1961) and was amassing a diverse filmography including Diamond Head (1963), 633 Squadron (1964), and Jacques Demy's Les demoiselles de Rochefort (1967), quite a switch from a few years earlier as a bit musical performer (including escorting Marilyn Monroe during the musical number "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953). Like Turner, The Big Cube proved to be his final major studio release before segueing into a career in television.

Meanwhile busy, well-liked leading man and character actor Richard Egan began his career in 1950 playing opposite another intimidating Hollywood grand dame, Joan Crawford, in The Damned Don't Cry, and he continued with a string of memorable titles including Highway 301 (also 1950), Gog (1954), Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), Howard Hawks' notorious Underwater! (1955), A Summer Place (1959), and Pollyanna (1960); as with Turner, this film closed out his busiest onscreen period of activity.

The only actor to remain busy after this film, Irish-born Dan O'Herlihy, began his career with substantial roles in two classics, Carol Reed's Odd Man Out (1947) and Orson Welles' Macbeth (1948), and remained busy for decades appearing in such films as Luis Buuel's Robinson Crusoe, The Black Shield of Falworth (both 1954), The Cabinet of Caligari (1962), Fail-Safe (1964), Blake Edwards' The Carey Treatment (1972), and another performance opposite Turner in Imitation of Life. While he also primarily turned to TV work after The Big Cube, he rebounded to achieve pop culture immortality in the 1980s with a quartet of indelible performances in Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982), The Last Starfighter (1984), RoboCop (1987), and John Huston's final film, The Dead (1987), as well as a recurring role on Twin Peaks.

Turner's participation in The Big Cube may be the most obvious attempt to exploit her persona, though its berserk climactic theater performance staged to cure the leading lady's acid-induced amnesia is certainly a new twist. Even over a decade later, the long-running public fixation still lingered over the fateful night on which her 14-year-old daughter, Cheryl Crane, stabbed Turner's abusive, mob-connected boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato, which led to a dramatic inquest (with a verdict of justifiable homicide) and years of rollercoaster publicity. As Crane discusses in her autobiography, Detour, she rebelled against the Hollywood lifestyle and became involved with drugs, leading to stints in juvenile halls and a mental institution before finally getting her life on track at the age of 21. Like most of Turner's films beginning with Imitation of Life era, she was cast as a single mother whose remarriage or turbulent love life causes strife with a rebellious daughter, often with a murder thrown into the mix. The Big Cube capitalizes on all these elements, with the character of Lisa becoming the most extreme and drug-addled of Turner's troubled onscreen children. Of course, the fact that the villain is also named "Johnny" completely erases any doubts about intended similarities to the Stompanato scandal.

Producers: Francisco Diez Barroso, Lindsley Parsons
Director: Tito Davison
Screenplay: William Douglas Lansford; Tito Davison, Edmundo Baez (story)
Cinematography: Gabriel Figueroa
Art Direction: Manuel Fontanals
Music: Val Johns
Film Editing: Carlos Savage, Jr.
Cast: Lana Turner (Adriana Roman), George Chakiris (Johnny Allen), Richard Egan (Frederick Lansdale), Daniel O'Herlihy (Charles Winthrop), Karin Mossberg (Lisa Winthrop), Pamela Rodgers (Bibi), Carlos East (Lalo), Augusto Benedico (Dr. Lorenz), Victor Junco (Delacroix), Norma Herrera (Stella), Pedro Galvan (University Dean), Regina Torne (Queen Bee).
C-98m. Letterboxed.

by Nathaniel Thompson

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teaser The Big Cube (1969)

By the time LSD was made illegal in California in 1966, the drug had already attracted such far-flung users as Aldous Huxley, Cary Grant, and John Lennon. William Castle's The Tingler (1959) had branded acid (even when taken in a clinical setting) as the gateway to a guaranteed freak-out and subsequent movies, from Roger Corman's The Trip (1967) to Byron Mabe's The Acid Eaters (1968) and even Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider (1969) did little to dispel the notion. Four months before the acid-fueled murders of Sharon Tate and six others in August 1969 by acolytes of messianic madman Charles Manson, aging Hollywood icon Lana Turner starred in The Big Cube (1969), as a high society widow whose coastal showplace pied-a-terre is invaded by hippies. "Cubed" by gigolo George Chakiris (who hungers for wealth rather than enlightenment), Turner hallucinates up a psychedelic storm through The Big Cube's kaleidoscopic midsection but the film - whose third act is a Hamlet style theatrical reenactment performed to spur Turner's memory - is less an LSD scare strategy than a kissing cousin to the trippy psycho-thrillers then coming out of Italy. The Big Cube's triangulation of mother-daughter protagonists against a predatory male antagonist offers an eerie echo of Turner's involvement with Latin lover Johnny Stompanato, who was fatally knifed either by Turner or daughter Cheryl Crane back in 1958.

By Richard Harland Smith

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