AND NOW THE STREAMING STARTS Presents:
THE MANIPULATOR (1971)
Review by Jenny Orosel
I have never been a fan of Mickey Rooney. It’s not one thing I can put my finger on, I just don’t care for his movies most of the time. Then why was I so drawn to watch a movie where he almost single-handedly carries the entire film? Morbid curiosity. I heard there was a movie where he played a sociopathic predator who kidnapped and tortured a young woman. Rooney. Andy Hardy his own self. For this singular reason, I sat down to watch THE MANIPULATOR (1971) and I was not disappointed. I cannot in good conscience say it was a great movie. I can say, though, that it was a fascinating thing to watch.
THE MANIPULATOR (aka B.J. LANG PRESENTS) opens with Rooney as B.J. Lang wandering through an abandoned warehouse, filled with old mannequins, dilapidated taxidermies, and old film equipment. Lang barks orders at an invisible crew while hallucinating images of tap dancers, old films, and white powdered “actors” of various ages and various styles of undress. When not directing a crew that isn’t there, Lang interjects random bits of philosophy like, “I don’t know what love is, and I haven’t had time to find out.” For thirteen minutes, it’s Rooney in charge of the screen, and it is fascinating. After those thirteen minutes, we find that Lang isn’t alone in the warehouse. He’s kidnapped a woman (another Hollywood veteran, Luana Anders), kept her tied to a wheelchair, and is starving her. How do we know she’s starving? Because the only line she gets for the next five minutes is, “I’m hungry, Mr. Lang!” Over and over again, she sometimes shouts it angrily, sometimes it’s a desperate coo. By the time it occurs to Lang to feed her from sad, unsterile baby food containers, she is sounding even creepier than the father in CREEPSHOW (1982) who just wanted his Father’s Day cake.0
After he’s fed her just enough to get her to thank him, he starts “production.” They are making a movie (with no cameras, mind you) of Cyrano de Bergerac, her as Roxanne, he as the long-nosed admirer. He gets the set ready in a hyper-speed slapstick scene straight from the Keystone Cops, and then appears in full drag makeup. During this scene, we find he is (or was) a makeup artist for films (and not, as reported in many reviews, a failed director). Convinced that it’s his hands that create the true beauty of films, he is going to make his own movie with the actress he “cast.” You might be thinking, “That makes no logical sense” and you’d be right. However, you learn quickly in THE MANIPULATOR to give up on having things make sense. I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes from the great director Lindsay Anderson: “You don’t ask why the coach turns into a pumpkin!”
It would have been nice to see more come from the actress’s character. She gets little to do besides go from desperate captive to woman in the throes of Stockholm Syndrome. It’s not her movie, though. This is Mickey Rooney’s time to shine, and he does not waste a single frame. He was given the opportunity to show every acting skill he has, from deep pain to vaudevillian comedy. THE MANIPULATOR gives Rooney a chance to channel every career frustration he’d had with the industry through his decades of ups and downs.
This was the directorial debut of screenwriter Yabo Yablonsky who went on to direct one other thing—a Willie Nelson Fourth of July concert. It’s a shame he never went on to do another movie, because that man has an audacity that is rarely seen in film. Few scenes are shot without either off-kilter angles, strange filters, slow motion or double-speed. The soundtrack goes from moody to gaudily electronic. His gluttonous style is a perfect match for such a hallucinatory film. There is one sequence where the actress tries to escape and runs desperately through a meat locker that is creepy as all hell…until you get distracted by asking why a meat locker is in a movie prop warehouse. The best visual treats come in the psychedelic visions and dreams. Yablonsky may have filmed the only orgy to involve Mickey Rooney, marijuana, whipped cream, Saltines, and a baby.
THE MANIPULATOR is a fascinating movie, just not a very good one. Even for a psychedelic, visual film, there is no story. There is the middle of a story with no beginning, and a sad excuse for an ending. All the plot holes in that middle have completely destroyed any structural integrity it might have had. The hallucination scenes, as fascinating as they are, don’t fit together well enough to be cohesive. The non-Rooney actors are wasted. Anders is great with what she’s given, but Yablonsky didn’t give her much. Another veteran character actor, Keenan Wynn, gets a meaningless role as Old Charlie, a homeless guy who wanders into the warehouse only to be felled by Lang’s wrath moments later. And, while the visuals are fascinating, it is Rooney who makes this movie worth watching. Rooney has said this was the greatest movie he ever made. It certainly is among his greatest roles. He was given a great chance to show off every emotion he ever thought of feeling, and he did it well.
THE MANIPULATOR has joined SKIDOO (1968) in my growing list of great psychedelic movies with stars who have no business in psychedelic film. But without Mickey Rooney, THE MANIPULATOR would have been a very different and lesser film. Yabo Yablonsky loved this story so much he later adapted it as a stage play called “B.J. Lang Presents” which is still occasionally staged. While a part of me would be curious to see a production, I can’t imagine it would be anywhere close to the same thing. The wild camera antics would be gone and, most importantly, the real draw of Rooney in the lead would be gone. This was his film, and as bad as it was, it is a shame that it’s been forgotten.
WHERE TO SEE THE MOVIE: THE MANIPULATOR is currently streaming on basic Amazon Prime.
© Copyright 2017 by Jenny Orosel