Two for the Seesaw Review
Despite a prolific directing career that encompasses five decades and seemingly every available genre, Robert Wise is still likely to be best remembered as the editor of Citizen Kane. It’s not that his filmography is littered with duds, however, on the contrary it includes Curse of the Cat People, The Set-Up and The Day the Earth Stood Still to name but three. Rather the films it contains therein lack any defining characteristics. More often than not the key player is someone other than Wise, whether it be co-director Jerome Robbins on West Side Story or Susan Hayward, star of I Want to Live!, and when one doesn’t exist - as in Rooftops, for example - the whole enterprise falls apart.
In the case of Two for the Seesaw, the key participant is playwright William Gibson. (Being 1962, this Gibson is, of course, not the Neuromancer author, but the man behind The Miracle Worker.) Despite not working on the film itself, his source play of the same name overshadows everything else. Essentially it’s an odd couple comedy tracing a relationship from first encounter to break up. The kookier half of the pair is played by Shirley Maclaine, with Robert Mitchum taking on the more taciturn component. Or at least he would were the filmmakers not so in thrall of Gibson’s original. The opening finds him mooching around New York, dwarfed amongst its widescreen skyscrapers. It’s a scene that works especially well with Ted McCort’s black and white visuals complementing Mitchum’s silent demeanour perfectly (as does André Previn’s jazzy theme). But then the film traps him within the walls of various lofts and apartments and lumbers him with seemingly incessant dialogue, something which undoubtedly clashes with Mitchum’s usual laconic outdoors (preferably Western or film noir urban) type. The role itself isn’t too much of a stretch - there are shades of Charles Delacro, his character from The Grass is Greener made the previous year - but still he seems hopelessly miscast.
Moreover, the relationship which forms between Mitchum and Maclaine appears equally circumspect, with neither portraying a genuine warmth towards the other. Part of the reason may be down to the setting, as Mitchum looks particularly ill at ease amongst the bohemian Greenwich Village setting and discussion of sexual politics. (That said, the moment in which Maclaine asks Mitchum whether or not he is “a queer” has a genuine frisson.) Maclaine, on the other hand, slips into her role easily, which to a degree is the point, but then it’s not one that the filmmakers successfully pull off. Indeed, there appears to be some hesitation on their behalf as to what exactly the film should be. At the start it could be a grittier cousin to Pillow Talk complete with split-screen ’phone conversations, but instead favours a clumsy lurching towards a more dramatic centre (which doesn’t really exist) whilst maintaining the strained but still relentless rat-a-tat comic dialogue. It’s particularly disconcerting in such a setting, especially as an early party scene populated by various Ginsberg types puts one in mind of Pull My Daisy and prompts a slight hope that some influence will rub off. Yet the rhythms are awkward rather than snappy, and ultimately Two for the Seesaw plays more like a bad sitcom than any kind of hidden cinematic gem.
Surprisingly, as this is another of MGM’s bare bones back catalogue releases, Two for the Seesaw arrives on disc looking quite spectacular. An anamorphic transfer of the original 2.35:1 ratio is perhaps to be expected, but not of a print of such excellent quality. Occasional minute scratches may blight Ted McCord’s photography at times, but never enough to even remotely distract from admiring his excellent deep focus use of black and white. Sadly, the filmmakers don’t use the New York locations often enough, but then this could hardly be the fault of the disc manufacturers.
As for the sound, the two-channel mono is equally fine. Being almost entirely dialogue driven save for André Previn’s score, the disc has little to contend with, and as such demonstrates no discernible problems.