What a brilliant career Jodie Foster has had. Starting off in commercials, providing Saturday Morning cartoon voices and appearing in a number of TV comedies and dramas in the late 1960s and early 1970s, she later gained much attention playing an adolescent street walker in Martin Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER (1976) for which she earned an Academy Award nomination. During the mid 1970s, she continued to star in kiddy matinee fare such as FREAKY FRIDAY, BUGSY MALONE and CANDLESHOE, but somewhere in between was THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE. Made in Canada by a Hungarian-born director, LITTLE GIRL is the first really serious leading role for the young actress, and though it may be just a title on an enduring resume which includes two Oscar trophies, it’s an engrossing film worth revisiting and a showcase of how talented she was at such a young age.
A 13-year old giftedly intelligent orphan named Rynn (Foster) is determined to be self sufficient after the passing of her father, an acclaimed poet. Living in a seaside house in Maine that's paid up and leased for the next three years, she puts up a façade that dad is not home or in his study every time there’s a visitor at the door. The truth of the matter is he’s dead and lying in the cellar which can be entered through a trap-door opening on the dining room floor. The isolated world she has created for herself is threatened by the hatefully pushy landlady Mrs. Hallet (Alexis Smith, THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN), Mrs. Hallet's 30-something pedophile son Frank (Martin Sheen, THE BELIEVERS) and friendly but nosy police officer Miglioriti (songwriter Mort Shuman of “Viva Las Vegas” fame). Rynn does become friendly with a crippled older boy named Mario (Scott Jacoby, RIVALS) who does magic tricks and is pretty much an outcast himself. Cautious at first, she eventually tells him her dark secrets, and he covers up for her and defends her when it counts the most.
A pseudo psychological thriller with a plotline somewhat linear to PSYCHO, THE LITTLE GIRL LIVES DOWN THE LANE — which was shot in late 1975 — is a taut little suspense film, but not at all a hack and slash affair. The violence is all implied, and the repulsion of knowing what sights are actually laying beneath the house remain unseen, making it more unsettling to watch. Jodie Foster is intense as Rynn; sometimes naive, sometimes creepy, but always cunning and one step above the adults who try to challenge her. The character is well developed, always thinking and planning her next move and rushing her own adulthood with her “head of the house” status in which she does everything for herself. Rynn is a survivalist who only becomes monstrous when her freedom is threatened, and this happens quite often within the context of things. Still, it's irresistible for an audience not to side with this anti hero, especially with some of the despicable people she has to deal with.
The screenplay by Laird Koenig (adapted from his 1974 novel) is one of those efforts that allows some genuinely nice performances, however major or minor they might be. As the prying, snobby landlady Mrs. Hallet, Alexis Smith makes the character so despicable that you hope she gets done in any time she’s on screen. Before his breakthrough role in APOCALYPSE NOW, and after his unforgettable turns in THE INCIDENT and BADLANDS, Martin Sheen has a scene-stealing role as a perverted deviate who we assume has a sorted history. He is constantly harassing Rynn any chance he gets with intents of molestation, and he shows an ultimate cruel side when he rubs his cigarette out on her pet hamster and throws it on the fire. As Mario, Scott Jacoby seems irritating at first, but his character quickly adds flavor to the film, as a loyal companion to Rynn, and he has good chemistry with Foster. Seeing him in old age make-up, pretending to be Rynn’s father, is a highlight. Jacoby previously starred in BAD RONALD, a memorably morbid 1974 telefilm that might make a good double feature with this. Mort Shuman is also good as the likable cop who is naturally suspicious about Rynn and the whereabouts of her father. Shuman acted in films sporadically, but was better known as a songwriter who penned several hits for Elvis Presley, and he also served as musical supervisor here.
Though this Blu-ray (like MGM’s previous 2005 DVD) is the 92-minute version that AIP released here theatrically in 1977, a longer Canadian version is reported to exist. Though rated PG, it’s pretty shocking to see Foster’s older sister Connie standing in for her to do a brief nude scene for a character that supposed to be so young, and it’s surprising that this, along with Jacoby hollering the “F” word didn’t push the film to an R rating back then, even though the ratings system was far more liberal at the time.
Kino Lorber now presents MGM’s HD master of the film on Blu-ray, and it’s a sizable upgrade of their 2005 DVD release. Presented in 1080p in the proper 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the original vault materials must have been in great condition because the transfer looks flawless, with rich detail. There's no damage or dirt to be seen here, and the colors are bold, with well-defined skin tones, fine grain structure and excellent contrast. The English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track is also in great shape, with clear dialogue and the irresistible, very 1970s score by Christian Gaubert also sounding off nicely. There are no subtitle options on the Blu-ray.
The terrific extras on the disc were produced by Scorpion Releasing’s Walt Olsen. Director Nicolas Gessner goes solo for an excellent, well-rounded audio commentary, which starts with him apologizing for his French accent (he’s actually perfectly understandable). Gessner mentions how he was so pleased to be able to option the project (which was also optioned by famed producer Sam Spiegel), and describes it as not a horror film but a “teenage love story”. He goes on to delve deeply into the characters, the story’s “hide and seek” games, his approach to directing and getting the best out of an actor’s talent, the casting, finding the locations, the difficulties of it being a French-Canadian production, and the mood he was trying to create with his cinematic vision. He details the on-screen death of “Gordon” the hamster (he wasn’t harmed and actually adopted by a crew member, as dead hospital hamsters were substituted for his demise) and he also tells some great stories about some of the other movies he’s directed (including a killer anecdote about his lunch with Rod Steiger before a film shoot).
“Back Down the Lane: Martin Sheen on The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane” (27:27) has the actor sitting down and enthusiastically discussing his getting the role and how he thought it was an interesting part. He calls his director playful and encouraging and that he had a clear image of what he wanted to do, and that he made the project fun (he thought he did a “masterful” job with the film). Sheen recalls that the chance to work with Foster was the biggest attraction for him, and that he didn’t have reservations about his devious character since nothing was overt. In between his recollections of his character, he speaks fondly of his other co-stars (Smith, Jacoby and Shuman) and relates that shooting in Montreal was very cold (which was the only negative thing he has to say about the shoot). Sheen also describes the hamster-killing scene, assuring us that they used dead, possibly stuffed specimens for the scene. “Martin Sheen talks with Nicolas Gessner via Skype” (5:33) is exactly that and it’s very nice to witness the friendly reunion though modern technology. The original trailer is also included, and the cover sleeve is reversible (featuring the AIP ad art on the opposite side). (George R. Reis)
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