Tuesday, February 17, 2015
Must See Streaming Movie of the Week: The Third Girl From the Left (1973)
Airdate: October 16th, 1973
Peter Medak is my favorite director that I never talk about. He has moved effortlessly from the big to small screen, and is behind so many films I absolutely adore (The Changeling, The Krays, The Babysitter… lots of movies starting with the word The). Very early in his career the Hungarian born director was offered a chance to direct both Kim Novak and Tony Curtis in their telefilm debuts. He does not disappoint, and The Third Girl from the Left (which is songwriter Dory Previn’s lone screenplay) is an exquisite and poignant look at how even in the fast lane, life can pass you by.
The main credit sequence fixates an almost fetishistic lens on Novak as she applies her makeup. Despite being an already beautiful woman who transforms herself into an idealized knockout in a matter of seconds, there is a definite sense that Novak’s character Gloria is an unhappy woman in an unhappy place. Even though she is the “number one showgirl” in New York, she works in a small revue and has to deal with younger dancers who constantly vie for her coveted spot. In this respect, the title reflects a sad anonymity for a well-known showgirl, because despite her small grasps at fame she remains a somewhat undistinguished figure languishing in the dying (and decaying) NYC chorus girl circuit.
Previn wrote the script based on her own experiences as a struggling chorus girl. She said in an interview, “The girls never have names. The choreographer says, ‘Third girl from the left, you’re out of step.’ Some try suicide. In my album, Mary C. Brown and the Hollywood Sign, the starlet jumps off the letter H because she didn’t become a star… I wonder about our planet. Is it a lonely little starlet out in the sky? What happens when youth is gone?”
Now, in 2015, the telefilm evokes memories of last year’s Oscar’s, where Novak’s face became the object of derision, criticism and outright bullying. In this context, Third Girl takes on an extra layer of poignancy as we see Gloria as a woman whose age is quietly critiqued by everyone, including herself. She is constantly touted as a “relic” who is seen as either the stereotypical “good girl” that her philandering comedian boyfriend (Tony Curtis) puts on a pedestal while still managing to ignore her, or, in one of the film’s bluest moments, she is relegated as a celebrated antique by a group of young partygoers who only see her as the last of the great chorus girls. All, except for David (Michael Brandon, who would fall in love with Novak during production and spend the next year as her boyfriend), a young delivery boy who is clearly smitten. The two embark on a sad affair. Not sad in any kind of visibly tangible sense, but tragic in that it becomes obvious that he is also not the right guy for a girl who desperately needs the right guy.
There’s some heavy-duty stuff happening in Third Girl, but while a melancholy permeates every frame, the film never overwhelms itself with gloom. Novak is a stunner as Gloria the dejected dancer. The actress came out of a self-imposed four-year absence from acting, stating later that she liked the idea of working in television’s fast paced production atmosphere, while also bemoaning that “There’s too much time wasted in features.” And then, probably after she realized the hectic pace and the temporary life of the telefilm, she added later with some humor, “It sounded like a good idea at the time.”
Heartbreak is the name of Gloria's game and Novak keeps her sympathetic and easy to root for. Previn’s script is very of its time, and she even contributes a wistful folk song about the protagonist (which you will either love or hate, it’s that kind of tune). Produced by Playboy Pictures, Hugh Hefner cast his then-main squeeze, Barbi Benton in a small part as Curtis’ no nonsense mistress. It’s an early role, but she’s already commanding the lens and is one of the more memorable supporting characters.
Third Girl is also a wonderful, if bittersweet, time capsule, capturing the last days of the showgirl, the not-too-hard-knock-life of the Vegas comedian, the dark, grimy streets of New York, and some fantastic not very over the top seventies wear, which Novak wears with style. Whether they knew it or not, Previn, Medak and company composed a love letter to a time that feels too far away now, and despite the less than happy ending, Third Girl is a unique kind of treat and worth a look.
Third Girl From the Left is available on DVD and is currently streaming on Warner Archive Instant.