...All the Marbles 

April 22, 2021

DIRECTED BY

Robert Aldrich

 

STARRING

Peter Falk

Vicki Frederick

Laurene Landon

Burt Young

Tracy Reed

RATED

R

RELEASED IN

1981

 

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 53 Mins.

W

restling World ranks the California Dolls as the third-best female tag team nationwide. Notoriety, though, doesn’t always beget a proportionately remarkable lifestyle; the Dolls currently live the 

contradiction. Composed of a pair of Amazonian 20-somethings — the inevitably blonde and brunette Molly and Iris (Laurene Landon and Vicki Frederick) — the Dolls travel the country by tan

sedan with their scrappy manager Harry (Peter Falk). Frills are not welcome aboard. Harry is so (necessarily) penny-pinching that the classic rejoinder to even needed “indulgences,” like a muffler repair or a breakfast out, is “those frills cost money.” (The women hear this so regularly that all they have to do is hear Harry begin a sentence with “those” and be prepared to mockingly say it along with him, like a team chant.) But this trio — so much like a family now that palpable love sits at the center of spats — is so determined to find success together that they are willing to put up with the succession of tablecloth-free restaurants, roach motels, freezing-cold cross-country drives (turning the heater on could cause an explosion, Harry says), and the intermittent demeaning gig if it means shortening the proximity to a breakthrough. 

 

...All the Marbles (1981) turned out to be director Robert Aldrich’s last movie; this swan song is among his lightest, easiest-to-enjoy projects. It engages as a road comedy and can also be spirited the way one expects a good sports film to be. The climactic fight, against the Detroit Tigers tag team at the MGM Grand, is unflashily shot like it was unfolding in real time. You can feel the room’s vibrating enthrallment and the participants’ increasing exhaustion. At its most emotional — there are several blowups between Harry and his team in the course of the movie — ...All the Marbles can be reminiscent of a fraught family drama where we can’t be sure if this particular squabble will be quickly forgiven and forgotten or if its verbal wounds will heal into scars. It’s never made clear how long these three have known each other. But their impressively natural rapport has an organic kind of lived-in tension you might see between roommates who were best friends until they moved in together. (Now they’re a chosen family whose members’ interpersonal annoyances with each other are also in some ways unintentional signals of affection.) Falk, Landon, and Frederick are all stellar; Falk particularly makes good use of his recognizably warm, streetwise avuncular charm. 

 

Some oversights in the writing impede additional emotional depth. It isn’t ever discussed what attracted Molly and Iris to this line of work, or how they initially got into contact with Harry. It also isn’t really talked about what Harry had been doing before he started representing these women. The movie offers us some foundational details about Molly and Harry (though, strangely, not Iris, aside from the suggestion that she and Harry have at some point been romantically involved). We know that he hails from an Italian immigrant family and that his sister is somewhere with a husband in Queens, his mother in a rest home in Newark addled with dementia, his former tailor dad long deceased; that Molly didn’t finish high school, has no one to come home to, and sometimes wonders if she should forego wrestling for conventional work in real estate, advertising, or the art world. (Maybe she’ll float back to the answering-service job she hated.) 

 

But the movie treats these details as if they were telling of everything we needed to know when they really only scratch the surface. Although we don’t spend much time with anybody other than ...All the Marbles’ primary leads, we never substantively know them. The movie is plenty amiable; I liked being with these characters. But writers Rich Eustis and Mel Frohman underestimate how fleshing out characterological circumstance could lend the film extra resonance. We want to know more because we come to like their creations so much.

 

These are not the only areas of ...All the Marbles to have a flimsiness. A late-in-the-movie supporting character — the brassy, more-than-6-feet-tall wrestler Big Mama (Faith Minton), who is also set to compete at the MGM Grand later on — is introduced mostly so that she can offer comedic commentary as she watches the climactic Tigers/Dolls fight from her hotel-room TV. Her one-liners unfailingly flop — Minton conflates loud delivery with funniness — and soon tacitly groaning whenever the cameras cut to her for her input becomes our immediate response to her. Why does she need to be here? Appearing recurrently throughout the movie as the Dolls’ arch nemeses, the Tigers are emptier than they have to be — vessels of villainy who, given how much space they take up, deserve to be written as more than projections of menace. ...All the Marbles almost sticks the landing; you can sense how much sturdier its delivery would be if some of its disregarded narrative elements weren’t looked at like frills that cost too much money. B