After 25 years as a documentarian and Oscar-winning short-subject director, the amazing Chuck Workman finally gets around to directing his first feature film, A House on a Hill. It's not what you might expect from someone who has sprinted through a century of cinema lickety-clip (The First 100 Years for HBO and, now, TCM) or created those zippy montages for ten Oscar shows. This is a more stately, thought-filled cinematic journey.

Not without Workman-like tricks, of course. He is constantly playing the frame, expanding or tightening, blackening out portions of the screen to accentuate his focus. The closest point of comparison to his work here is the multi-image menagerie that blossomed on screen in the mid to late '60s (Grand Prix, The Thomas Crown Affair). And these tricky mannerisms are quite apt for the modest story Workman has scripted.

Philip Baker Hall's intelligent, character-creased face is perfectly utilized here in the role of Harry, a divorced, down-and-out architect reduced to teaching instead of building. His career went up in smoke, literally, years before when a fire destroyed the home he was building on a Los Angeles hilltop, taking with it his marriage, his will to work and his son's life.

A dizzy dilettante rich from the restaurant business (Rebecca Staab) comes across the charred ruins of the home years later and gets her husband to hire Harry to complete the original vision. Taking them at their word (a mistake), he allows his engine to kick in again--and it continues to run after the ditz, feeling empowered enough by the experience to divorce her husband and pull up stakes, opts to cancel her house-in-progress order.

Recording the building progress is a Workman surrogate, a video director (Laura San Giacomo) hired to document the event. She does riffs around the architect, interviewing him as well as his ex-wife (Shirley Knight) and a home-owner customer (Paul Mazursky).

If you did not know Workman was a film buff, you would suspect as much from the accessories that decorate this film. The wistful melancholy that his movie aspires to is conveyed on the soundtrack early on via Shirley Horn's rendition of an unjustly forgotten Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II ballad, "The Folks Who Live on the Hill." He even throws in a clip of Irene Dunne introducing the tune in High, Wide and Handsome (1937).

Also flickered into the proceedings are inserts from The Fountainhead to remind us what an uncompromised architect looks like (Gary Cooper's Howard Roarke). One character reaches the titular house on a hill with a breathless Cagneyism ("Made it, Ma! Top of the world!"). The best scene is a montage showing the architect's vision taking shape--to the majestic sounds of Aaron Copland's suite for Republic's overlooked The Red Pony.

A very sophisticated and uncommon sensibility is at work on A House on a Hill. Let us hope that Chuck Workman is allowed to flex these muscles more in the feature arena.

-Harry Haun