Impulse came at a bad time in Sondra Locke’s life. She had never felt so happy professionally since the beginning of her career with the Oscar nominated role in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter in 1968. It’s the story of an undercover cop who feels tempted to have as much power as the role she’s playing. She gets mixed-up in a mystery, and true to film noir style, she’s a pawn in a game of mistrust where almost no one seems to be who they are. Can we trust our impulses when our professions start to infiltrate our private lives? How many faces do we have? Sondra Locke, the film’s director, shared some of her experiences about Impulse, a film I always thought of as neglected and that, in more than one way, started and finished her directorial career.
It’s unavoidable to mention Clint Eastwood’s “role” in Impulse. It was important, in the sense that he almost sent the film into some sort of unfair oblivion. During this period, Locke’s relationship with him was at its end. One mutual friend (at the time) was producer Al Ruddy, who approached Locke with a script, “and an escape”, as she later remembered. This came at a time when she thought she could “take no more”.
Sondra Locke told Wand’rin’ Star how she became interested in the project:
“Al Ruddy brought me the script for Impulse at a time I needed desperately to get back to work. My personal relationship with Clint was strained and I needed something positive to turn to. I liked the script primarily because of the leading character of ‘Lottie’. She is a woman who must survive in a dangerous world dominated by men. She is complex and longs for more in life than she has. Also, I like the film noir genre which Impulse falls into.”
In her autobiography, Locke describes: “It was a psychological suspense story, with a little action and a female lead. He [Al Ruddy] thought it would be great for a woman director.” Later on, Ruddy testified in court on behalf of Eastwood and against Locke. He was known as a “real schmoozer” in Hollywood and, during the trial, was very careful “to protect his own skin”. In fact, according to Locke, he lied in court under oath, denying he had been the go-between in the fraudulent deal Clint Eastwood arranged for Sondra Locke in Warner. As Ruddy was The Godfather’s producer, it’s fair to say that he was an adequate one. After his testimony, he had the gall to pass beside Locke’s table and compliment her with a “Sondra, how are you babe?” like some creepy Mafioso.
But it seems his instincts were right about Impulse.
“Ruddy also hired a woman screenwriter, Leigh Chapman, and the three of us met regularly at Al’s office in Beverly Hills. At Al’s suggestion we took the current draft to Warner Bros., where Terry Semel and Lucy Fisher got the studio on board and we went forward, rewriting and casting. It was originally called Sudden Impulse, but I suggested we change it to Impulse because it sounded too much like Sudden Impact, in which I starred with Clint.”
As it turned out, Eastwood didn’t like this from the start and tried to boycott Locke’s efforts. According to the actress/director, he urged her to travel with him when he knew she had important meetings regarding the production. When Ruddy phoned her, he sat down at the piano, “banging out Scott Joplin tunes as loudly as he could. Was he jealous?”
The film was “urgent” to Sondra Locke for various reasons, as she writes in her autobiography: “It was necessary for my own emotional well-being, but I didn’t know what impact it would have on our already wounded relationship.” Locke didn’t understand the “mixed signals” coming from Eastwood at this point: “His actions seemed another confirmation that he wasn’t trying to end our relationship; otherwise he’d be glad to know I had a film to direct, something that might keep me out of his hair, give me my own independence again.”
Eastwood then ruined Locke’s favorite time of the year, which she always cherished, Christmas. I won’t describe it in depth, since this article is about Impulse, but Locke thought he “pulled the pettiest, most mean-spirited, and cruelest act of all”. It was a very unhappy time.
She needed to concentrate her efforts in Impulse; was about to start directing it in Los Angeles and had a film crew waiting. “Somehow I had to keep it together so I could direct this film and go on.” She was allowed to make the film she wanted, without any interference from Eastwood. Unlike with Ratboy, he was not a producer or in any way officially involved with Impulse.
It was a scream of independence of sorts. As Locke claims in her book: “I fully understood what Dickens meant when he said ‘it was the best of times; it was the worst of times,’ because that was certainly true of my life at that point. No matter how long the hours, or how intense my focus had to be, I hadn’t been this happy in my work since The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.”
During this creative period, as always, Locke had Gordon Anderson at her side. He told her that her relationship with Clint Eastwood was a dead end.
Eastwood then hired George Dzundza and Jeff Fahey (when they were in the middle of filming Impulse with Locke) to star in HIS next film, White Hunter, Black Heart. She was astonished: “I’d hired them, he’d even put them down when I showed him their pictures. To her, the gesture felt “creepy and incestuous”. Sondra Locke reasons that it was Eastwood’s way of casting a shadow over Impulse, because if he did “his usual rush release, his film with his actors would come out first and I’d be viewed as having copied him. It was perverse.”
As it turned out, and we can tell 23 years after the fact, White Hunter, Black Heart is a weak, boring and pretentious film. Impulse is not.
Then, on the day she was filming a complex scene – when ‘Lottie’ (Theresa Russell) waits for the mysterious killer, near the end of the film –, Locke learned that, out of the blue, Eastwood had evicted her from their house on 846 Stradella Road and changed the locks. Eastwood had informed her via a letter from his attorney sent to Gordon Anderson’s house. Gordon Anderson called him a “sissy” for the cowardly way he handled it, and told Locke he would “pay someday”, which he did.
Locke then filed a lawsuit against Eastwood. She was in fact directing another scene in Impulse when she told her then lawyer to go ahead: “I knew that the ceiling of my universe was now caving in completely.” The press quickly grabbed the story, Locke felt like “a complete wreck”, but she knew she had to finish Impulse.
This was in itself a hard task, to say the least. There were some mutual “friends” that were quick to take Eastwood’s side. Staying at the house of some of these “friends”, Locke returned each night after filming, and would crash in the guest room.
During that time, Sondra Locke also found her car window smashed. Her director’s log for Impulse, along with some legal papers concerning the lawsuit against Eastwood, had disappeared. Sometimes we wish that Columbo visited Eastwood and told him before going out of his office, “just one more thing…” Unfortunately, films aren’t real life, although some fictional characters have more truth in them than some real persons who carry the power of myth.
When Locke finally found a house, one of her few possessions was the photograph Bob Willoughby took of her – a promotional photo from The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Locke stood looking at the picture and thought: “Somewhere behind Bob Willoughby’s image of that gangly girl on the Staten Island Ferry was me. In so many ways, she hadn’t changed at all; in so many ways, she no longer existed.”
A PERSONAL IMPULSE
I mentioned in another article about Sondra Locke and her book that her state of mind during this whole period was dark. In one occasion, she and other people couldn’t be accommodated at a restaurant. There, she looked at the people “with their safe little reservations. There are so many different lives we could live in so many different places. How, I wondered, do we get the ones we get? Do we really choose them?”
Interestingly enough, this topic could be explored in the context of Impulse, suggesting that Locke’s approach is more personal than it might seem at first. The director told Wand’rin’ Star:
“I don’t think I consciously personally connected with ‘Lottie’, but I was drawn to the way she is searching for more, looking for a new path. Despite making many wrong choices, she remains sympathetic. I liked that. The best heroes are flawed.”
As soon as filming started, Sondra Locke found a welcome “distraction” from her personal problems. Not everything was depressing – the director “got along beautifully” with her star, actress Theresa Russell, who had by then done a long list of risky films, with Nicolas Roeg and Ken Russell. At the time, (and this is still true today) she kept both critical and public acclaim.
Beautiful and talented, Russell was a perfect to the difficult role of ‘Lottie’, a character who is tempted by the power of not being herself – a freedom that comes with a high cost for some. In her case, it’s because she’s a tough and dedicated undercover police officer.
Far from being stupid – she’s intelligent, professional and sarcastic –, ‘Lottie Mason’ thinks, “all men have a pervert inside them, waiting to come out”. Of course, the Assistant DA ‘Stan’ notices that this tough nut has a soft center and asks her if that’s what a failed marriage did to her.
They seem like fish trapped in an aquarium at a certain point, as Locke’s directorial eye suggests. ‘Stan’ leads a double life although he doesn’t hide it: He’s after a mobster, a big fish, like a hound. In private, as ‘Lottie’ discovers, he’s easygoing and collects baseball cards; a total slob, truth be told. This is intriguing to Lottie.
The true villain of the piece is ‘Lt. Morgan’ (George Dzundza) a competent but corrupt cop (her superior) who wants to seduce ‘Lottie’. He isn’t too happy when she resists. Then he notices ‘Lottie’ and ‘Stan’ are having an affair.
The film has a low IMDb rating for its quality, which is no big news. Roger Ebert himself regarded these ratings as quite curious concerning public acknowledgment of cinema as an art. In the case of Impulse, there’s obviously the strange prejudice, the simpleminded rule that every fan or admirer of Clint Eastwood must automatically close down every thought of Sondra Locke as an artist in her own right. This is funny as it is tragic, and obviously reflects the confusion people make about artistry and celebrity.
After being neglected for 22 years by Warner, Impulse finally got its long-awaited DVD release in November 2012 and is available for home viewing.
Impulse is a game of mistrust. Is trust an impulse we may regret? There’s acting within acting in the film, which brings us to Sondra Locke in her “role” as a director. In the interview Locke gave Wand’rin’ Star, she expressed she felt more at home directing than acting. So I wanted to know how she approaches a role and how this worked in the context of Impulse, as she was behind the camera:
“My own personal approach to acting is that I feel much about the character lies between the lines of the script. It’s more about what the character may actually be thinking or feeling which goes beyond, or is even antithetical to, what she is saying. That is what is so nice about film acting vs. stage acting. You can use the close up to build the character. I like to create some sort of history or emotional profile of the person outside [before] what takes place in the story of the script. This is always present for me, an under layer to everything she does/says onscreen in the film. For me, it gives meaning where none may obviously exist in the words of the script. I shared this approach with Theresa. It worked very well for her. She has a natural mystery to her face that makes you want to know what is really going on inside her head. I always think less (“acting”) is more. I prefer finding a level of ‘being’ instead.”
The film really works because of the actors. As Sondra Locke told Wand’rin’ Star:
“Theresa was my first choice. She had all the right qualities, a natural mystery to her face and demeanor. Also, she is physically tall and strong which makes it believable that she could handle herself in the dangerous world of an undercover cop.”
The director had seen a small film that Jeff Fahey had done, called Split Decisions, “I liked Jeff a lot so I cast him.”
“I felt he showed a sensitive quality that suggested he could fall for the troubled character of ‘Lottie’, but at the same time he showed an intelligent yet hard enough edge for his job.”
During the shoot, Sondra Locke found out that Fahey needed to be approached in a more diplomatic way than Theresa Russell:
“Directing Jeff required a delicate approach. He was very sensitive to anything that seemed like criticism, and so I always had to take a positive approach, praising him for all that he was doing right”, she told Wand’rin’ Star.
“But ultimately he was always open and responsive”, Locke concludes in her book.
For Locke, George Dzundza was her “rock among all the actors. Not only he is enormously gifted but his insight is keen and his heart big and encompassing”.
“With George I could almost direct in shorthand. He understood my point before I completed my thought. He had no interference of ego.”
“Theresa Russell and I got along beautifully. She was a consummate professional, always ready and cooperative. We respected each other and she never balked at any direction I gave her. I thought she was perfect casting for ‘Lottie’ – the police detective who works vice and, as a result, finds herself drifting toward the darker side of her own personality.”
“WATCH OUT FOR SONDRA LOCKE”
Impulse, which biographer Patrick McGilligan considered a “taut, well-made crime film”, was released in the spring of 1990, and “was pretty much dumped by Warner Bros”, according to Sondra Locke.
Nonetheless, she was thrilled by the great reviews the film got, which focused on her direction. “Siskel and Ebert gave it an enthusiastic ‘Two Thumbs-Up’ and called it ‘the best directed film they had seen in a long time… watch out for Sondra Locke’”. However, the feeling we get, 23 afterwards, is that most of the media tied the film with the much publicized split with Eastwood and didn’t pay enough attention.
Warner barely released the film, according to Sondra Locke, and didn’t use the “Two Thumbs-Up Siskel & Ebert review”, a much sought after item among studios to promote their films. This happened both in the advertising campaign (newspapers) in the videocassette release, and 22 years later in the DVD edition. It seems Warner was shooting itself in the foot, but apparently, everything that pleases Clint is some sort of voice of God.
At the time, a cinema magazine, Film Comment, published an article about Theresa Russell and said Impulse was “directed by Clint Eastwood and his protégée Sondra Locke” even though Eastwood had no involvement or credit on the film. An LA Times film critic, Michael Wilmington, wrote a good review but made a horrible comment. I must quote, since its stupidity is incredible:
“This movie’s press-book, unsurprisingly, makes no reference to Clint Eastwood, Locke’s ex-lover and longtime director/co-star. Watching Impulse, you almost wonder whether this seemingly angry pair couldn’t forget the tabloids and lawyers and call a truce. They might have a few more good movies together left in them.” As Locke commented in The Good, the Bad and the Very Ugly, this sort of comment doesn’t belong in a review especially as Eastwood had not at all been involved with the production. Why would he be mentioned in its press book?
Contrary to the “rules” of movie business, the critically acclaimed and very well-made Impulse didn’t please WB because Locke and Eastwood were having problems and Eastwood was their major asset. What they did was to drop “regrettably” all three other projects Locke had in development at the time. This, of course, almost suppressed the film, practically ended Locke’s career as a director and actress, and today you can check out the IMDb ranking the film gets (which is quite different from the Amazon one). Because, and this is not quantum physics, if someone is a fervent admirer of Clint, he or she must automatically disregard Locke’s talent: I insist, a demonstration of stupidity and simple-mindedness.
BEHIND THE MASKS
Roger Ebert was one of the critics who made a good analysis of the film. In April 20, 1990, he wrote: “Impulse is the second feature directed by Sondra Locke, whose first film, Ratboy, quickly dropped from view in 1986. She seems to have learned a lot about directing since then. The movie is good to look at and painfully intense at times – not so much when the plot is squeezing in, as when we’re invited to identify with Russell when she’s looking for trouble. You know the feeling? It’s something you’re not supposed to do, and you could get in trouble if you’re caught, but you want to, and you’re tired, and nobody loves you, and there’s this seductive stirring inside you, and temptation has thrown an arm over your shoulder and is signaling the bartender with the other hand? It’s this impulse that makes the movie interesting, and worth seeing.”
I find the second part of the review a bit more subjective. Who can say “this is what happens in life”? We all say it. But we have our own set of values, a camera, so to speak, and the point of view varies.
In Impulse, the action and suspense sequences are also well handled. And we get the sense that the camera watches the characters as an omnipresent eye. It doesn’t interfere, but it guides the viewer (as Sondra Locke suggested in the interview) much like Kieslowski, her favorite director, did. That’s one of the strongest points about the film: Are other people behaving the way we want to believe or are we doing exactly the same thing, therefore falling in that very same trap which only damages us as human beings?
I find Roger Ebert may have a point, in the less favorable part of his review:
“The other stuff – the relationship with Jeff Fahey as the assistant district attorney, the details of the criminal situation – are taken off the shelf, given a quick polish, and stuck in where they fit. (…) Would anybody in the audience have been seriously disappointed if Impulse had simply followed the Russell character? What if Locke hadn’t felt the need to solve the plot and tie up the loose ends? What if nobody ever found out what Russell did, and she was left to think about it? Isn’t that what happens in life? And isn’t it more fun, and more dangerous, that way?”
“What if” is a matter that impulses usually take care of, and we usually pay the price, regardless of fun, danger and whatever the results may be.
Special thanks to Sondra Locke