The Sentinel (1977)
Show me a 1970’s theatrical release with no less than sixteen “stars” I’m sure to recognize and I’d think I was sitting down to watch another disaster epic. Maybe the much anticipated sequel that combines elements of both The Towering Inferno and Earthquake for a doubled down epic sized disaster. Minus Newman, McQueen and Heston. And while some critics might have called this latest effort from director Michael Winner a disaster, I’m not one of them looking back at the film 40 plus years after it’s initial release.
The plot surrounds a young New York model played by Cristina Raines and her fiancé Chris Sarandon. She’d like a little space before committing to marriage and contacts local real estate agent, Ava Gardner, who sets her up in an older furnished apartment. She’s quick to point out that on the top floor there’s an elderly blind Priest who we will soon see sits in the window above as if he’s Norman Bates’ Mother. Not this time but you’ll be sure to recognize a very creaky looking John Carradine when he finally gets a close-up.
Raines will soon be treated to a tour of her new apartment building and the inhabitants once the giddy, energetic Burgess Meredith introduces himself as the man who lives a couple of floors above. Not surprisingly, Burgess is a scene stealer throughout the entire film. Through Burgess she’ll meet a weird looking pair of lesbians (Sylvia Miles and Beverly D’Angelo) and some decaying old timers at a birthday party for Burgess’ pet cat.
Yes there’s a creepiness to the whole meeting that has a certain Rosemary’s Baby feel to it by this point in time. Had me wondering if Chris Sarandon might be playing the John Cassavetes role?
When noises from an empty apartment over her own and chandeliers start swinging, Raines, is positive something is amiss in the building and approaches Ava about the problems she’s experiencing and the rather odd clients renting the other apartments. Things are going to get a bit eerie when Ava claims that aside from Carradine on the top floor, there are no other tenants in the building. Raines will quickly confide in Sarandon and we’ll also learn more about her abusive father in a disturbing flashback sequence. All this will lead to the creepiest scene of the film when she goes to the empty apartment above her to see just what is making all the noise and who owns the footsteps that she’s been hearing nightly.
I’m not about to play spoiler so check it out for yourself.
What you do need to know is that Detective Eli Wallach is going to be called in to the case and he’s been after Sarandon and Raines for a while over the apparent suicide of Sarandon’s first wife. And if you think you recognize that young partner of Eli’s on the force you’d be right. It’s none other than …… Still to come is a sure fire gauntlet of terrors for Miss Raines in a finale that almost harkens back to the 1932 banned film Freaks from Tod Browning. Not wanting to spoil anything I do like the way Winner handled the final few minutes and how he framed the retreating pack of demons from the room where the battle takes place.
Some of the other “faces” you might recognize include Martin Balsam, Deborah Raffin, Jose Ferrer and another Priest played by Arthur Kennedy who is hard to figure out until all is revealed at the end of this look into the battle of good vs. evil according to the Catholic Church. See if you recognize that young guy that shows up near the end to look at renting an apartment from lovely Ava or how about that guy trying to direct a TV commercial with Miss Raines as the feature model.
Do I like The Sentinel? Absolutely but somehow it misses the mark of being a true fright fest that might have elevated it into the same conversations as other 70’s demonic thrillers like maybe The Omen. Still one can’t argue with this cast that Universal packaged together for producer, screenwriter, director Michael Winner. Most film buffs will know Winner from his work with a certain mustached leading man on six films including the first three films of the Death Wish series. Which brings us to a little bit of trivia…
In The Sentinel you’ll spot a young actor we all know and love seen here in one of his earliest screen credits as a cameraman who is always on set for Miss Raines’ model shoots. Not sure why they dubbed him on the film but this marked his second role in a Winner film. He played one of the three creeps in the original Death Wish film who rape the daughter of Charles Bronson and it’s actually his hand that kills lovely Hope Lange in the opening moments of the film. Fast forward to 1985 and Winner would bring along two actors from The Sentinel to appear in Death Wish 3, Martin Balsam who had previously worked with Winner as far back as 1973’s The Stone Killer and Deborah Raffin who would be cast as the love interest in the third stanza of the vigilante series.
Impressive production? Could be if you consider that the cast combined adds up to a total of 5 Academy Awards and 18 acting nominations. One of those awards for a Life Time Achievement belonging to Eli Wallach while another is for the appearance of a “blink and you miss him” cameo by Richard Dreyfuss. If you enjoy reading autobiographies, give Michael Winner’s a try where he’ll discuss the film at length and his trying to get Martin Sheen cast in the Sarandon role and thinking Miss D’Angelo would have been far better suited in the leading role that Miss Raines scored. He also points out that he had worked previously with Miss Raines on The Stone Killer but her scene(s) ended up cut from the film
Looking to see The Sentinel in it’s uncut glory, nude scenes still intact? Grab a copy of Scream Factory’s blu ray release as I did and look for some of those other names and faces I’ve omitted here so you can discover them for yourself while playing “spot the star.”