Starring Peter Falk, Vicki Frederick, and Laurene Landon
My rating: ★★★ 1/2 stars
Surprisingly entertaining sports movie about female pro-wrestlers and their manager.
The measure of a film’s quality is not a film’s subject matter. Too often, we judge films based on what they’re about. If we did that with …All the Marbles, we could slap on an easy zero stars and not even bother to watch the movie. After all, a movie about female tag-team wrestlers and their two-bit manager doesn’t sound promising. However, the execution of this questionable premise is outstanding.
The film follows The California Dolls and their manager, Harry Sears (Peter Falk), as they wrestle their way through cheap arenas in search of bigger paydays and recognition. Director Robert Aldrich and screenwriter Mel Frohman capture the rhythms of the day-in-day-out hand-to-mouth existence of their life on the road. The film features some wonderfully clever dialogue. More importantly, it presents interesting, well-rounded characters.
One of the fight promoters dismisses the Dolls as merely “t&a,” and this film could easily have slipped into the realm of exploitation. Instead, the women, Iris (Vicki Frederick) and Molly (Laurene Landon), have fully developed personas, their own demons and drives. Early on, the movie gives them a strong scene where they discuss their feelings and their lack of options. We get insight into their relationship as the older Iris advises Molly. It’s an unglamorous scene where women are allowed to talk about their lives in a way that bucks clichés. This scene, which runs longer than most scenes of conversation in movies today, doesn’t lag, largely due to the performances of Frederick and Landon. Frederick is outstanding throughout the film as the more fully realized character.
The key performance in the movies is Falk’s. Vincent Canby in his New York Times review calls it “one of his best performances ever,” and he’s not exaggerating. The role, which seems tailor-made for Falk (despite, reportedly, being written for Paul Newman), allows him to showcase his talent for witty delivery and, also, gives him great moments of dramatic complexity, as a character who’s sleazy, corrupt, loving, and lovable. He cheats and lies and, yet, shows an almost perverse dignity in the way he struggles to get by and move up.
The film perfectly depicts the ugliness of the Rust Belt at the time. It creates an atmospheric world for the story to inhabit, one that’s grungy, cheap, and corrupt but feels genuine. Every detail—the settings, the car (almost a character in itself), the costumes (by Bob Mackie)—shows the care that the filmmakers put into this movie.
The excellently-performed supporting roles, notably Burt Young as a shady fight promoter and John Hancock as a surprisingly honorable manager, add to sense of realism; the viewers can believe that these are real people who populate this world.
The wrestling scenes provide the highlights of the film. They’re excellently choreographed. I admire the ultra-realistic performances by Frederick, Landon, and the women who play their opponents, including Tracy Reed and Ursaline Bryant-King as the Dolls’ archrivals, the champion Toledo Tigers. Most of the stunts are done by the actresses themselves, and they’re outstanding. The final fight, which unfolds in essentially real time over the last half-hour of the film, is one of the most exciting sports sequences in film. However, to appreciate these wrestling scenes, the viewers must suspend their disbelief that professional wrestling is anything more than scripted entertainment.
This movie, by its subject matter, is one that viewers could easily choose to scoff at. However, if they do allow themselves to be caught up in the movie, they’ll find it well-made and rousingly entertaining.