' Cinema Romantico: Forgotten Characters: SFC Cunningham in Signs

Friday, October 30, 2015

Forgotten Characters: SFC Cunningham in Signs

My friend Andrew has a regular piece at his site, Encore's World of Film & TV, where he examines Forgotten Characters, those who made a significant impression despite minimal screen time. Today, I once again pay homage (rip him off).

Ted Sutton in Signs
as SFC Cunningham

Typically when someone tells you a ghost story or claims to have seen a UFO or swears that one time they saw Champ, the Lake Champlain Monster, you smile and laugh and nod your head and play along. This person’s a crackpot obviously. Let ‘em have their make-believe moment and then go about your day. It was an amusing story anyway, fun to listen to, so no harm done. But every once in a while, someone tells a ghost story and…it’s not that it sounds real necessarily, but it sounds like it could be real. It sounds like the person telling the story isn’t just making things up or suffering from a screw being loose. Something in their tone, something in the telling, something in the details of the telling, makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. You feel it. You try not to admit it. You try to smile and laugh it off. You still dismiss the storyteller as a crackpot. But then you go home and lock the door and turn on all the lights.

“Signs” (2002) is a movie about an alien invasion. The title refers to crop signs. It’s a fine choice as a harbinger because crop circles have been debunked. So, when people see them in the movie, they can shrug it off, the work of local hooligans or copycats, and go about their day. But then, they wonder. The crop signs on the Hess Farm in “Signs” give way to weird noises and strange sightings. It seems like something’s going on. But why would something be going on? Then, a TV report shows crop signs cropping up all over. Something’s definitely going on. But why would something be going on?

The Hess Family escapes into town to try and get their minds on something else. Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) wanders into a local army recruiting branch. (Watch it here.) He’s looking at a poster on the wall. He hears a voice: “I’ve got it figured.” Then he turns to his right and drifts, just slightly, off to the side of the camera, revealing SFC Cunningham lurking in the shot’s background, seated at his standard-issue desk. He looks cut straight from an Uncle Sam catalogue. But notice the coffee cup in his hands. You can almost picture him downing mugs at that desk all day long, just waiting for someone to come in, someone to whom he can espouse the theory he’s devised and about to unleash on Merrill. He continues, halting between sentences, like we wants to ensure that he’s saying takes hold: “I’ve had two separate folk tell me that there have been strangers around. Can’t tell what they look like, ‘cause they’re staying the shadows... covert-like. Nobody's been hurt, mind you, and that’s the giveaway.”

At this point, Merrill humors him. He grins, kind of, offers an “I see.” It sounds like a fun story. Let the Sergeant tell it. The camera switches, behind Merrill again, still creeping forward, inching toward Cunningham, just as the music, flutes creepily tingling, subtly invades the soundtrack. “It’s called ‘probing,’” explains Cunningham. “It’s a military procedure. You send in a reconnaissance group, very small, to check things out. Not to engage, but to evaluate the situation, evaluate the level of danger. Make sure things are all clear.”

Now Merrill’s lost the grin. He’s not buying in to this theory, per se, but he’s listening, he’s definitely listening. “Clear for what?” he wonders.

And then the camera stops. A medium shot of Cunningham. The perfect pause. And then… “For the rest of them.”

Cunningham is played by Ted Sutton. He doesn’t have a lot of acting credits, and hasn’t had one since 2007. But he has a distinct voice. Boy, does he, and he utilizes it to exemplary effect in this scene, his only one. His voice sounds like there might be a bat or two in the belfry, yes, but its eeriness is pervasive. You can’t shake it. It scratches something. And the exactness of his annunciation… it haunts. It makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. You feel it. You try not to admit it. You try to smile and laugh it off. You dismiss the guy as a crackpot. That’s all he is. He’s just a crackpot. Right?

[Looking over shoulder. Turning on lights. Double-checking door is locked.]

He’s just a crackpot.

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