Christopher Presswell’s Candlestick is a fun, “juicy” suspense movie. This independent film takes a relatively small number of elements and makes a full five-course meal out of them. And, although there are a few flaws and mistakes that can easily diminish the believability and impact of its narrative for some, the picture is still a worthy effort. It will be welcomed by fans of Alfred Hitchcock’s work, especially, although that same connection may also cause problems for others.
The story begins with two lovers sharing a post-coital moment. She (Vera, played by Isla Ure) is getting dressed, while he (Jack, played by Andrew Fitch) lazes in his own bed. As Vera searches for her missing earring, Jack suggests that she leave her husband. But the lady blows him off, expressing contentment with her own marriage and her extra-marital arrangement. When she leaves, Jack purposefully digs his hand under a pillow and draws out the earring Vera had been looking for.
What follows soon thereafter is a dinner party full of awkwardness, barbed dialogue, and intrigue. What is Jack up to, and why? For what reason has a cop, Inspector Marcus Evans (Dan March), been invited? And why does Jack insist on including his mistress as well as her husband in this gathering?
This dark, tense movie forces the audience to wait as new people push their way into the unfolding story. What it doesn’t do is hide the fact that the lead is employing several forms of manipulation on the friends around him. Some of it comes down to the tone established by the beautiful opening credits sequence, but Andrew Fitch’s demeanor as Jack does a neat job of conveying it. The lead’s behavior seems inexorable, even though his aim is left unclear until the very end.
Candlestick is all about waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it largely makes that wait worth the viewers’ while. Soon, Jack’s neat and spacious London duplex is inhabited by his friend, Frank (Nigel Thomas), and Jack’s uncle, Major Jamie Burns (Tom Knight), and then again by Vera – but it’s entirely possible that only freaks like myself will get some sense of where this is all going. I’m fairly familiar with Hitchcock’s CV.
Jack displays a lot of charisma, and you can see why people take him at face value, even though his seemingly-good manners are artificial to anyone who’s looking. That itself creates a seemingly unintentional (or intended, but unstated) theme for the picture: how much people actually pay attention to the words, actions, and intentions of their close companions and acquaintances.
Or maybe my intuition was inspired by the fantastic Hitchcock-esque score that kicks off the film, and the magnificently-designed credit sequence that feels straight out of a 1950’s or 1960’s picture. I know it’s usually a very minor element to a movie – and that it allowed Mr. Presswell to place the credits at the start, like an older film would – but it really is a lovely and atmospheric idea. And it’s so well-executed.
I waited to watch this movie until I had both free time and a chance to forget the story synopsis. My first impression was that the script doesn’t really start so much as it kicks in like a track runner pushing their feet off of metal brackets – and that it’s immediately very reminiscent of a stage play. The latter comparison is no slight to the quality of the writing, but I think it’s the best description of how pointed it is and how so many exchanges consist of tense repartee. The dialogue is clearly affected – or to put it another way, it’s very mannered.
Similarly, at the beginning, it’s easy to see that the camera work is half-successful: early on, the frame often feels very forced, in a way I don’t quite like – even though the ultimate result looks good (and look great after the rough start). Also, while I don’t mind the single-set location, the obvious Hitchcock comparison makes a mockery of the frequent tight- and mid-range shots. I suppose a bigger visual flaw is the constant cutting from one angle to another. Still, it’s hard to complain when the actual content generally looks so good. Also, the Hitchcockian composition and angles grow more pleasant with each passing scene. It’s all good enough that I feel less annoyed with the frequent cuts than I feel impressed by the editor’s work (which, haha, ends up being Presswell himself).
The biggest problem, then, is that between the opening credits and the end of the first scene, I was thinking that this looked like a one-man version of the movie Rope. I feel that Candlestick would’ve been better served if it hadn’t created this impression so early on, or if it had filled the picture’s middle-third section with an added sense o ambiguity.
More importantly, the narrative really requires you to accept what happens, no matter how unnatural any character’s choice or motivation may seem as the movie proceeds. For all the quality of the production, I don’t quite buy into the direction that the story goes in, what it telegraphs about events to come, and that what it’s driving to is a well-recited yet still awkward monolog… Bonus points, however, are awarded because of the great use of an indie budget, the underlying performances, and because the score and direction are good. Presswell’s second feature is a strong directorial effort, and I enjoyed Candlestick a bit, even if I didn’t like it quite as much as the filmmakers would have wanted me to.
It’s worth noting that Alfred Hitchcock was not a perfect storyteller, either. Many of his movies had characters who behaved in an incredibly affected manner (e.g., Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief, most of his antagonists). And Hitch would end a film so soon after the resolution of the main problem that I’ve frequently found his conclusions to be jarring and disappointing (North by Northwest is a prime example).
But something tells me that Alfred would’ve probably made this story and its odd turn land a bit better (unless he was stuck in Frenzy mode, man that was a mess). Even a more modern, comparable film like In the Company of Men made its tale feel more natural, engaging and credible, and that pic is likely the only good thing Neil LaBute will ever make…
Candlestick is a nice modern callback to old Hitchcock-era suspense films. It’s packed with good performances and a great visual design. But the script and plotting need a little bit of work for this narrative to really achieve the effect that I think the filmmakers were going for. If it wanted to be a stealth version of Rope, it could’ve been far more subtle for a longer stretch of time, or used more elements to distract the viewer. Where Presswell’s picture could have been a true homerun, we end up with something more like a solid double.
Candlestick was released in select theaters and on-demand on April 11th, and will be released via DVD and Blu-Ray on April 14th (you can get it directly through the film’s website store or on Amazon). If you’re a fan of suspense films, especially those with a retro-vibe, please check it out.
This motion picture was submitted for review to Man, I Love Films. Any filmmaker that would like their picture to be reviewed by the site should contact Dylan Fields ([email protected]) and Kai Parker ([email protected]) with details about their picture and how they will send in their submission.