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Hipster Holy Grail: Sex Through a Window (aka "Extreme Close-Up") (1973)

The Hipster Holy Grail is my ongoing quest to review an obscure movie before it becomes cool to talk about it. Good, bad, doesn't matter.  It just has to be at least 10 years old and have less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Neither titillating enough for masturbation fodder, nor edgy or thoughtful enough for social commentary, Sex Through a Window is a complete waste of time.  It mostly just bored me, but what little it had to say annoyed the shit out of me, which means STaW gets the dubious honor of being the first movie of 2017 that I'm putting in the "Offensively Bad Movie" category.

My Rating: 0.5 / 5 (Offensively Bad Movie)

The Plot Summary

This week we continue Michael Crichton month with another of his early screenplays, 1973's Sex Through a Window.  This one is especially unique in Crichton's filmography.  All his other movies are either adaptations of one of his books or a directorial effort on his part.  This one is the only time, as far as I can tell, that a producer (Paul Lazarus) hired him to write an original screenplay for somebody else (Jeannot Szwarc) to direct.  Not only that - he didn't even come up with the story on his own; it was Lazarus's idea.

So what kind of movie would draw him out from that egocentric shell?  What sort of pitch would convince him to say, "Yeah, I'll write a script for your story this time and just sit back while somebody else makes it?"  Surely it would be, say, a bargaining chip to allow Crichton to direct something else, or maybe some kind of riveting story with far-reaching questions that was just too good to pass up, or maybe something that pushes technological and filmmaking boundaries, or....

...oh, shitty softcore?

Huh.

I'm going to be light on the plot recap this week.  Sex Through a Window is about as plotless as you can get, and that makes it all the more infuriating when you try to plod through its self-serious tone.


It opens when regularly-named regular guy / TV reporter John Norman (Jim McMullan) kicks off a week-long exploration of privacy in America.  He starts his work by interviewing a salesman (Al Checco) at a surveillance equipment store.  Checco shows John a bunch of nifty, new, high-tech equipment, like telescopes and super-powered microphones that can pick up on conversations from far away.

John makes the point here that anybody can come in off the street to buy or rent this equipment, no questions asked.  You don't need any kind of license, you don't need a warrant, you don't need permission, etc.  He'll turn straight to the camera and make this same point pretty regularly through the rest of the movie, so I hope you like having cautionary tales shoved up your ass.

John rents some of the equipment from Checco, ostensibly to test it out and show off its capabilities as part of his report.  Later, John goes to a doctor's office and peeks at a nurse's underwear when she bends over to write something on a desk.  This is apparently all he needs to give himself the greenlight to spy on her, so he follows her back to her house when she gets off work and uses the surveillance equipment to watch her undress.

Then he goes home to his wife, Sally (Katherine Woodville), and has sex with her.  She says that he's much better tonight for some unplaceable reason.

And... that's kind of it, really.  The movie basically does all of the above on loop like another four times and then it's over.


John keeps interviewing miscellaneous people about privacy and record-keeping, then he turns to the camera and tells us how shocking and grim it is that people might be able to exploit a careless system like this and violate your privacy, then he goes back to Checco to get more equipment, and then he watches ladies undress and/or screw.  When he gets tired of all that, he goes home and satisfies his wife like he apparently never could before.

There's not even all that much variety in his exploits.  There's one part where it almost looks like a movie is about to happen.  He spies on a high-powered socialite type who's been involved in some high-profile political such-and-such, and he sees her with her lover.  She catches him spying on her and then goes to catch him, demanding that he knock it off.  She pays him $5,000 to stop.  So, he does.

(I know you're going to check, but I did the inflation math already.  That's almost $28,000 in today's money.)

That plot thread is possibly the most aggravating part of the movie.  See, it's not just that the movie has a chance to actually start a legit plot and decides not to - it's also that the movie has a chance to give John some kind of punishment for his actions, and it completely lets him off the hook.  No, not even that - it pays him for it.

If that was part of a greater or better-thought commentary about how society rewards people who violate our privacy, then maybe I'd applaud the movie for its gritty realism.  But instead, it just seals the deal.  I hated this movie.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

I should probably save myself the energy and wrap up quickly since this is a tiny movie that virtually nobody has seen, but between STaW's wretchedly high IMDb rating (thanks a lot, Crichton fanboys), historical context, and the glory of hindsight, I think I have myself a genuine hate-watch on my hands.  This is possibly going to go in my annual recap as the worst movie I saw in 2017.


And before anybody goes and tries to say, "Well, it wasn't Crichton's fault, he just wrote the screenplay," let me set that record straight: this is absolutely his fault.  Wikipedia cites an interview with him about the movie in which he stated that he wanted to make an X-rated movie "that was also a good movie."  In context it sounds like he and Lazarus thought this would be a novel concept; I guess they never saw Midnight Cowboy.

Crichton blamed the softening of the movie to an R-rating as the reason it didn't turn out very well, and that speaks volumes about exactly why this movie is garbage.  It seems the creative team behind STaW was in love with the idea of putting gobs of sex and nudity into their movie first and foremost, with everything else being an afterthought.  Trust me - more sex isn't the answer.

See, the sex is irrelevant.  I don't give a shit about the sex.  Put all the naked women you want, have 'em all bent over, greased up, humiliating themselves in front of the camera while fat, hairy Hollywood producer types leer creepily and jerk off in the corner.  I don't care.  None of that changes the two basic problems with this movie:

1) It has no story to speak of.

2) It has nothing of value to say.

Sexual exploitation by itself is one thing - we call that porn and we're all just fine and dandy with it.  But when you stand next to the exploitation with a suit and tie and give us superficial Philosophy 101 morsels like, "Gee, it's like we want our privacy to be violated, huh?", then you're just being a pretentious wank and you can go fuck yourself.  You're not an artist just because you took a pornographic still and put it in a pretty frame.  You're a lazy asshat, and I didn't need to sit through 80 minutes of your bullshit to know that our rights to privacy are under threat.


So, what, you thought you were going to be clever and just rile up some controversy, and by virtue of getting people annoyed you would have created a "great movie?"  That's not how it works.  Controversy is a side effect, not an objective.  Great movies become controversial because they dared to explore new ground or because the things they have to say are upsetting.

It's a bafflingly stupid movie.  The early 1970s were a time of significant political and social strife in the United States, much like today, but STaW chooses to focus on perhaps the most superficial possible aspect of privacy.  Abortion, birth control, women's rights, government corruption, deregulation of industries that control sensitive information - these are all nascent topics of the day that defined the modern political era, beginning right around the time when STaW was made.

So what did they decide to make their movie about?  Just some idiot who peeks at ladies in their bedrooms.

What, did you honestly think you were pushing boundaries just by pointing out that people can spy on you?  Did you know that binoculars were invented before 1973?  Did you know that voyeurism existed before 1973?  While we're on the topic of privacy - did you know that there was a whole scandal involving government intrusion on private lives during the Red Scare of the 1950s?  Did you know that that kind of shit has been going on for literally hundreds of years?  Why would you think you're being so clever making a movie about a Peeping Tom in 1973? What, just because Deep Throat was so successful the year before?  Did you know that porn has been around for decades, too?


And look, if you really wanted to make an engaging, frank, X-rated movie that had something to say about privacy and sex in America, you at the very least have to put in some kind of stakes.  Put John in the hot seat.  Put his job on the line.  He gets caught peeping and somebody blackmails him, or maybe they turn the tables and record him while he has sex with his wife, and now he has to buy the film back from the mob or something.  And while all that's going on, you seed in caution by showing us that A) what's happening to him could happen to anyone, and B) the government is gradually, but surely, allowing people to get away with that kind of exploitation.

What an absolutely useless movie.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

Who gives a shit.

Okay, fine.  It gets 45 hipster cred out of a possible 100 due to its obscurity.  But, really, who gives a shit.

Where You Can Watch

Don't.