The opening scenes of Six Ways to Sunday aren't promising: We meet Harry Odum (Norman Reedus, who looks like a cross between Leonardo DiCaprio and Edward Furlong), a bland, wimpy young man who lives in a rundown house in Youngstown, Ohio, with his nauseatingly possessive mother (Debbie Harry). Son Harry is such a neb that his main reading is Dog Enthusiast magazine -- even though he doesn't have a dog. (Presumably, Mom couldn't take the emotional competition.)
But the film is just setting us up: When Harry's friend Arnie (Adrien Brody), a gofer for the local mob, takes him along on a debt collection errand, Harry goes berserk and nearly kills the deadbeat. To Arnie's surprise, this explosion of violence immediately gives Harry credibility with the underboss, Abie Pinkwise (Peter Appel); to Arnie's dismay, Abie displays a confidence in Harry that he has never had in Arnie.
Even though he's a gentile, Harry's psycho qualities quickly make him a chief enforcer for the local Jewish mob family, run by Mr. Varga (Jerry Adler). But the same qualities also make him a little too unpredictable for such a risky occupation, particularly when he lays eyes on Mr. Varga's beautiful, lame maid, Iris (Elina Lswensohn).
Bernstein delicately balances Six Ways to Sunday on the edge between tragedy and grotesque comedy. Harry is such a pathetic sad sack, so damaged by the grasp of his mother's Oedipal talons, that he starts out sympathetic, despite his blandness. But, as his psychoses become clearer, he grows increasingly offputting. Unlike, for instance, Norman Bates -- and the film makes at least one explicit acknowledgment of its debt to Psycho -- Harry becomes more psychically impenetrable as the film progresses. We may get to understand him better, but our understanding makes us more distant: He becomes an object of our twisted interest rather than our doorway into the film's world.
Bernstein and co-writer Marc Gerald based the film on Charles Perry's 1962 novel, Portrait of a Young Man Drowning. They take many of the classic elements of the gangster films of the thirties and forties and push them to a level that would have been unthinkable back then. Harry's relationship with his mother is an extension of the devotion that dogged Jimmy Cagney characters from Public Enemy to White Heat. Harry is like White Heat's Cody Jarrett, taken to the logical extreme. (And you thought that Jarrett already was the extreme.)
In some ways, this explicitness is a fault: It is precisely the inability of those old films to be up-front about their seamier themes that gives them much of their power; the surface ambiguity of their psychological pathology makes the characters even creepier.
Still, you don't want Six Ways to Sunday to be any creepier than it already is. It is shocking enough just to see Debbie Harry playing a grown man's mother -- time sure does fly, doesn't it? -- but her performance makes it even more shocking. She plays Mom as such a guilt-monster that, by comparison, Nancy Marchand on The Sopranos is a pussycat. Harry resembles the wacky moms of Ruth Gordon (in Where's Poppa?) and Gloria Grahame (in Head Over Heels), but without their charm.
Perry's novel was set in Brooklyn in the thirties; the transplanting into contemporary terms is not always successful. As soon as you meet the Varga mob, you think: Old-style Jewish crime families still operate? Communicating in Yiddish, no less, and listening to Yiddish pop songs? And Youngstown, Ohio, is big enough to support this kind of operation?
But realism is clearly not Bernstein's goal here. Both the temporal dislocation and the low budget -- the milieu always feels unnatural, as though the crew were shooting quick and dirty on real locations and there wasn't enough money for extras -- put us in some grungy internal landscape of the mind inside a dirty dreamworld where Freud and W.R. Burnett are queasy bedfellows.
Six Ways to Sunday.
Directed by Adam Bernstein. With Norman Reedus, Debbie Harry, Peter Appel, Elina Lswensohn, Adrien Brody and Jerry Adler.