Tilt is a movie where the title character, a fourteen-year-old pinball whiz-kid played by Brooke Shields, is taken across state borders from her broken home in LA by an aspiring country music singer from Corpus Crispi, Tx, in an effort to hustle money out of pinball gamblers and ultimately humiliate his old boss, a bar owner called “The Whale.” And its screenplay was written by Donald Cammell.
Perhaps that last statement sets up an unfair expectation (of course it does) seeing as Cammell left the production when the studio refused his suggestion of casting Jodie Foster in the title role. Replacing him is Rudy Durand, a film maker of little repute (Tilt is his only film) but active in theater and commercials. His script neuters most of what one can see of Cammell’s influence. But it shines through, occasionally. Tilt’s shirt reads “trouble” and while hitch-hiking, she tells a trucker that she’ll go home and make with him and his wife.
It isn’t really what one would assume, based on the names attached to it. Tilt doesn’t exploit Brooke Shields nearly so much as Pretty Baby or Blue Lagoon. Some of the dialogue sounds like Rudy Durand wrote it so that the audience would in no way assume that the character Tilt is involved in anything other than honest pinball hustling. “I haven’t been down with anybody…” she tells Neil Gallagher as they make their way to a hotel on their first night of their pinball road-trip. “This is strictly business right?”
Shields is more awkward here than she would be even a year later. She’s a smart-assed runt who spouts innuendos which somebody must have thought were cute. In fact, tons of embarrassing witticisms and retarded pseudo-proverbs litter the script. My favorite: “Life's like a seagull. The more you feed it, the more it dumps on you.” Although, “watch your head, boy, because your ass always goes with it” is a close second. Actually, there’s one statement that really sums up the film quite nicely, stated by Tilt’s first pinball gambling manager, the owner of a bar where Neil finds her: “It’s okay to use people, if you throw in a little bit of love.” It’s really a very mean-spirited little movie.
And it’s bad too. It looks low rent and the theme song, “Long Rode to Texas” grates. It’s badly written and Ken Marshall, Brooke Shields, and most of the supporting cast act poorly. Some California scenery takes the place of Corpus Christi, and is wholly unconvincing. In fact, the premise itself is inherently uncinematic. How does one make pinball visually exciting?
Well, you can have Charles Durning (with extra padding on his already impressive girth) dancing around to cheesy rockabilly, hitting the flipper levers with his butt cheeks and generally being huge. Durning is a fantastic actor and he outperforms pretty much the entire movie. The interspersed close ups of rolling pinballs and actors trying to act like they’re interested somehow seem a little bit more enjoyable when Durning is hamming it up. He’s supposed to be the villain, but he’s the only character with anything resembling class and likability. I rooted for the villain.
So what is Tilt? It’s a bad movie. Really bad. But it isn’t too hard to watch. The local independent video store (which has everything) probably hasn’t rented their video tape to anybody else in years. Had Donald Cammell actually made this film, it would probably be playing on TCM Underground on Friday nights. But I watched it on video late at night and wished that I had found it on a UHF channel when I was thirteen. It’s the sort of bad movie that you wish you could remember so that when somebody talks to you about “Lipstick Jungle,” you can ask them, “ever see Tilt?” and laugh as they try to figure out what you mean when you talk about pinball hustlers and The Whale and the words written on the butt of fourteen-year-old Brooke Shields jeans.