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At some early point in his career, James Woods decided to have a substantial nose job. The surgery was a success, retaining Woods' memorable features while trimming the snout down from a radical Karl Malden-like appearance to a less conspicuous Dustin Hoffman dimension. The reason I know this is because I just watched Woods' very first movie, THE VISITORS (1972), in which the profile shots in particular reveal a different face than the one that became famous in the '80s.
A more obvious starting point for The Visitors might be the observation that this is one of very few post-'50s movies directed by the great Elia Kazan, once prince of Hollywood and maker of stars like Marlon Brando and James Dean. I'm not entirely sure, but I would guess that the empty hole that Kazan's filmography turns into from 1958 onwards is fallout from his notorious disclosure of commie names in the McCarthy hearings. It is said that Hollywood has short memory, but in the matter of HUAC the shadow from Kazan's testimony would grow to cover several decades, not allowing him back into the fold until an honorary Oscar in the late '90s.
That this was a great loss for American movies is a given, and even a minor work like The Visitors demonstrates what Kazan could have done in the '70s, a period when many of his disciples were revolutionizing studio films in both directing and acting, and where he likely would have found himself right at home. The synopsis and script are quite good and give strong indications of being adopted from a stage play or even a novella, but reportedly was the creation of Kazan's oldest son. True or not, it is a psychological drama that delivers a slowly mounting tension around five people during a couple of days and nights in a rural house.
For those familiar with Casualties Of War (later filmed by Brian de Palma with Michael J Fox), The Visitors examines the interesting notion of a sequel to that story, asking what might happen if two army buddies paid their whistle-blower colleague a visit a few years after the events in Vietnam, when they're all back in the US. This backdrop is not revealed until halfway into the movie, and two differing accounts are given with no obvious priority for the viewer, which is another indication of the mature intelligence behind The Visitors. Inevitably the mood grows darker and more threatening, and a fascinating power struggle between the leading visitor (Steve Railsback) and the young mother in the rural household (Patricia Joyce) brings the viewer through several complex scenes, as the woman struggles to understand the brutal actions in the past while also trying to offer a forgiveness of sorts. Meanwhile her defensive husband (Woods) tries to keep his mind off the events of the past and his possible guilt as a 'snitch' on his plutoon comrades. But the relentless plot machinery of The Visitors brings these threads to an inevitable confrontation and resolution much in line with the realistic-nihilistic perspective often expressed in New Hollywood movies.
Indeed, one of several noteworthy things about The Visitors is how modern it feels--in some ways it's actually more like an indie 1990s movie such as Sean Penn's Indian Runner than the often eccentric auteur works of the '70s. Undoubtedly a deliberate choice, there is none of the hippie or counterculture stylings usually found in early '70s films, which contributes to its timeless feel. Shot on a low budget with a small crew, Kazan manages to make terrific use of lighting inside the rural house, where Steve Railback's eerie, unpredictable character is frequently shown with his eyes cast entirely in darkness, while James Woods' pock-marked, skinny face is presented brightly for the viewer to illustrate his relative naivetë. The movie's shoestring production is evident in a couple of scenes where the lighting is completely wrong, for which there apparently weren't enough resources to re-shoot.
Mention must be made of a sub-plot involving the young woman's father, a middle-aged writer who lives on the property, and is smitten to relive his own violent army past in the company of the two visitors. Even if a minor thread in the storyline, it's very skilfully handled in both writing and acting, as the obscure TV actor Patrick McVey delivers a naturalistic performance that would have made Gene Hackman proud. The father's instinctive attraction towards the 'evil' side of the visitors precludes the dark but logical turn of events during the final act, giving further support to a view of the world that is fatalistic and cynical and, again, quite modern.
Kazan always preferred to work with unknown actors, and The Visitors marks the screen debut not only for James Woods (who is OK, but lacking full commitment) but also for Steve Railsback, who delivers the most memorable performance of the four main parts. Known mostly for his part as Charles Manson in Helter Skelter (1976), Railsback has a natural eeriness and charisma that is not unlike Jeremy Sisto, and it's a shame that he has done mostly B and C-movies after a decent run during the 1970s. Further proof of Kazan's skill in casting was Patricia Joyce, who essentially both came and went with her admirable performance in a complex role that is arguably the core wheel of the entire film.
It may be due to a poor digital transfer rather than cheap film stock, but my DVD of The Visitors was both grainy and washed out color-wise, making it look almost like a blown-up 8mm film at times. It was easy to adjust to however, as the storyline and acting demanded attention from the very start and never once broke its trajectory. There are a few minor objections to be made with reference to the undeveloped character of the second ex-army visitor, a tendency towards grimness over precision, and of course the question how this would have come across with a full Hollywood budget (e.g. the sound is clearly below par), but ultimately The Visitors is an experience that is fully satisfactory as it is. 7 of 10