Wednesday, March 24, 2010

RIP Robert Culp, 1930 - 2010

Robert Culp (August 16, 1930 – March 24, 2010) passed away today. Apparently he simply went for a walk (!) and fell and struck his head against something.

Everyone from my generation will remember Culp from the great TV show “I Spy.”

But I will always remember him for the extraordinary performance he gave in a very low budget, made-for-TV movie back in 1973. This was a thriller with horror and science fiction overtones called, “A Cold Night’s Death.” There were only three people in the whole movie, and almost the entire film was about Robert Culp interacting with co-star Eli Wallach.

This is the kind of film I dream of writing and making.

There are almost no special effects. It is just a story and two amazing actors bringing the story to life.

It’s the story of two scientists at a polar research station where experiments are being performed on a group of chimpanzees. A researcher has died mysteriously at the station and the two scientists are sent to continue the experiments on the chimpanzees and to see if they can figure out what happened to the researcher who died.

Robert Culp and Eli Wallach play the two scientists. They are both smart, buttoned-down men, both very capable, but they have different personalities. Robert Culp is a hard-bitten realist who always places rationality first and looks for nuts-and-bolts solutions to problems. Eli Wallach is more emotional and more inclined to look for psychological solutions to issues.

(Or, rather, this is how I remember their conflicting personalities. I haven’t seen this movie in more than a decade.)

Strange things begin to happen. Equipment seems to be set up wrong or operate improperly. Perfectly functional equipment breaks. Both men become stressed. They begin to wonder if there is someone else at the research station. They begin to wonder if the environment and the mystery of the earlier researcher’s death have become too much for them. Did one of them crack? Is one of them torturing the other?

Eli Wallach comes to believe Robert Culp’s strict belief in rationality and Culp’s inability to figure out the strange events has caused Culp to become unhinged. Wallach believes he has to protect himself from Culp.

But then Culp figures out what’s going on. Culp confronts Wallach and explains what has been happening.

Having his own beliefs about Culp undercut combined with the unbelievable but persuasively true arguments Culp makes becomes too much for Wallach. Wallach takes matters into his own hands. And then he discovers the real truth.

Thanks to YouTube this obscure but incredible movie is available to everyone.

Here is the final scene, where Eli Wallach is desperately trying to “protect” himself from Culp, and Culp’s revelation about what is really happening. And, then, what really was happening. It’s just a ten minute clip, but it’s an acting performance that to me is wildly wonderful.

For me, watching actors this cool in a story this interesting is real life magic. I love this.

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