January 19, 2010

THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE (1976) - early Jodie Foster thriller

(1976, Canada/USA/France)

Martin Sheen as a very nasty man...

1976 was the year when Jodie Foster became a star! At the time, I hadn't seen Taxi Driver, but there was plenty of publicity about her controversial role. Amazingly she was still appearing in Disney films!

Bugsy Malone was a big hit in the UK. With goodtime girl Tallulah's slicked-down hair, she nearly wasn't recognisable. But her raunchy and mature attitude was fun - it certainly seemed to scare Scott Baio! Director Alan Parker's success with this children-playing-adults gangster musical led to his next project, the very different Midnight Express!

Foster had appeared in Disney productions as early as 1970, continuing after Little Girl with Freaky Friday and later Candleshoe. The original Freaky Friday was another popular hit for her in the UK, Foster being one of the few youngsters who was intelligent and rebellious enough to be 'cool', acceptable to teenagers who normally wouldn't be seen dead watching a Disney double-bill. In it she plays a tomboy with a skateboard who swaps bodies with her Mom.

The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane was another very different film for her repertoire, and seemed to represent what I imagined her own personality might have been. Independent, private, wanting to be treated like an adult. Interested in learning more about everything. There's a great interview that was shot on the set, maybe it was a publicity film, where she says that eventually she wants to direct. She was deadly serious, at a time when there were even fewer women directors, ridiculously young. But if anyone was going to do it, she sounded like she could, and also knew where she was going.

Her character, Rynn, is supposed to be from England - the creepy Frank (Sheen) has to explain some of the customs of Halloween 'because the English don't celebrate it'. Proof that before the movie Halloween was a hit the UK, we Brits didn't even consider it as an opportunity for fancy dress, let alone trick or treating.

Little Girl feels like quite a small film, but has a uniquely odd atmosphere. So much action is centred on Rynn's home, it could very easily be adapted as a play. There are even several key moments that are described rather than shown, robbing the film of some potential shock moments. More damagingly, it's quite hard to follow everything unless you listen to every line of dialogue. I always forget the storyline because I haven't witnessed everything. This also keeps the film in the mystery/thriller genre. While it verges on horror, it needs a few more explicit moments.

A small cast of characters adds to the claustrophobia, especially with the early arrival of the sleazeball played by a young Martin Sheen, when he usually played sleazeballs. He was on the wrong side of the law in Badlands, a hustler in The Cassandra Crossing, and here a dangerous paedophile.

Foster's character is aged 13, but Frank is still very interested in her. The problem is that his mother is also her landlady, one of the most powerful landowneds in the area, with maybe even the police in her pocket. Everyone locally knows what Frank is capable of, but are reluctant to intervene. From his first appearance, we know he's threatening to probe the secrets of her mysterious family. She gains an ally in likeable local boy Mario (Scott Jacoby), but an accident threatens her precarious hope that everyone will leave them alone.

Once again, the film-makers were keen to exploit Foster's image sexually at such an early age. While she'd been a prostitute in Taxi Driver, and a vamp in Bugsy Malone, the actress understandably baulked at a nude scene. Doubtless wanting a little more respect despite her junior status. To be treated with more respect - not to mention gender equality - her star status failed to remove the scene from the script.

So there's this huge (very seventies) paradox. The villain is a paedophile, but the film-makers still want a gratuitous nude scene of a character who's only 13! This was actually performed by Foster's 21 year-old sister, flashing breasts and butt. But the brief scene fooled us all at the time into thinking we were seeing Foster nude, which again she was far from happy about.

It's a sufficiently intriguing film with some unnerving moments, good twists and engaging characters. Besides Foster's age, the film is dated by the music score - some nasty keyboards and wakka-wakka guitar detract rather than complement the atmosphere early on in the film, but thankfully this disappears as the plot thickens.

It's fascinating to see Jodie Foster as a child star, years before she found success as an adult, and Martin Sheen's career off-course before he starred in the awesome Apocalypse Now.

For a long while Little Girl was absent from DVD but eventually appeared in both the UK and US (with subtly different cover art) and apparently uncut. It's more generously framed than the VHS release (above), to which I can now finally say goodbye...


  1. Thanks for reminding me of this. I'm a fan of both Foster and Sheen from that era, yet I've never seen this! You make a good point about the irony of the pitfalls of sexualizing pre-teen girls: filmmakers want to condemn it but also trade in its taboo nature. Foster has always been a class act.

  2. Also cool is Sad Café's take on the movie, "Strange Little Girl"
    from the 1978 album "Facades".

  3. You beat me to it! Was going to mention Sad Cafe (honest). Listening to the lyrics again, I'm pretty sure it's a homage to the film. But when the single came out, I didn't believe that anyone would reference such a modest movie.

  4. >>There's a great interview that was shot on the set<<

    Now this would be great to see for a fan, do you have it? I´m interested in any material from behind the scenes of TLGWLDTL. Please visit rynnjacobs.blogspot.com

  5. your review is great, I like this part most >>and seemed to represent what I imagined her own personality might have been. Independent, private, wanting to be treated like an adult.<< just perfect.

  6. The behind the scenes footage I remember was around the time the film came out. But I might have seen a clip again in a more recent documentary about Foster. If I ever find that i still have it, I'll let you know.

  7. Was just watching this on A&E this eve. Great film, with Shean just oozing around the sets and Foster's brilliant performance. I saw and loved this film on late night TV in the 70s, and it made a lasting impression and impact on my taste in the "fairer" sex. Pretty is nice, but Smart beats pretty hands down.

  8. Mark, did you ever find the footage we talked about? I'm pretty sure it was in the 1978 documentary "Americans" by BBC's Desmond Wilcox (aired in the US, also available as book). One episode has JF but this show seems somehow "lost", only once saw a few stills. It also features JF's first directorial work, a short named Hands of Time. So if you ever come across a taped version let me know.

  9. Just an update...The interview was probably part of the 1978 show "Americans" by BBC's Desmond Wilcox (aired in the US, also available as book) but the episode with JF seems 'lost'. Only once saw a few stills from it. So if you ever come aross a taped version...

  10. Once I dive into my pile of movie documentary VHS tapes I might get lucky. Currently digging through audio tapes

  11. I have a funny history with this movie as it was a favorite when I was about 10 years old and later gave my daughter the middle name of Emily, based on Rynn’s favorite poet. Years pass and she has a daughter of her own…on Halloween.