THE FILMS OF ROBERT MULLIGAN, PART 1

January 31, 2012

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As part of the 100th Anniversary of Universal Pictures, the studio is remastering a series of classic library titles for Blu-Ray, including a 50th Anniversary edition of To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), which comes out today. The movie has become embedded in American culture, but the quiet craftsman behind the adaptation has been largely forgotten. Over the next four weeks I will be doing an exhaustive (but hopefully not exhausting) film-by-film analysis of Robert Mulligan’s directing career. You have Kent Jones to blame for this, who organized the revelatory 2009 retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, in which I discovered Mulligan’s masterful use of point-of-view and his innate, deeply affecting sympathy for society’s outsiders. He was trained in television like Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer, but his elegant style and temperament is straight out of the old studio system. Today I’ll cover his work from Fear Strikes Out (1957) through To Kill A Mockingbird (1962).

Robert Mulligan was born in the Bronx on August 23rd, 1925. After Navy service in WWII and completing a bachelor’s degree from Fordham University, Mulligan got a job as a messenger with CBS. He climbed the ladder to become a television director, most prolifically for “Suspense” (1949 – 1954), a live half-hour drama for which he directed 29 episodes. In 1957 Mulligan made his first theatrical feature, Fear Strikes Out, an adaptation of Boston Red Sox center-fielder Jimmy Piersall’s memoir. It was the first of seven films that Mulligan would make with producer (and later director) Alan J. Pakula (The Parallax View), who also hailed from the Bronx.

In the first of Mulligan’s neurotic protagonists, Fear Strikes Out (1957) stars Anthony Perkins as Piersall, an insecure outfielder who has a nervous breakdown soon after getting called up to the majors. After a year of therapy, and dealing with the excessive pressure pinned on him by his striving father (Karl Malden), Piersall returns to the bigs. He ended up playing parts of 17 years in the league, with two All-Star appearances and Gold Gloves to his credit (here is his Baseball Reference page). Paramount paid a modest $50,000 to secure the rights to Piersall’s pop-psych bestseller, with a production budget of just under a million dollars.

Production head Don Hartman assigned his old assistant Pakula to produce and Mulligan to direct, both first-timers. It is an assured debut for both, shot B&W in the VistaVision process (Paramount’s widescreen competitor to CinemaScope) by veteran DP Haskell Boggs (The Furies, The Geisha Boy).  The live TV shows in which Mulligan cut his teeth used a very mobile camera to create different set-ups on the fly, and Mulligan carries this over to Fear Strikes Out. In one striking sequence, the Piersall family’s poverty is expressed in a few wordless shots. Karl Malden walks inside their spartan home (that overlooks a baking factory), exchanging a bitter look with his wife. Then the camera follows as he walks to the sink, and starts doing the dishes. Mulligan pushes the camera closer to their backs until he finally starts speaking, and it becomes clear he had lost his job, equally embarrassed to tell the camera as his wife.

Anthony Perkins presents another wounded bird for his remarkable menagerie of neurotics, his Piersall a jangly-limbed obsessive who’d rather practice his slide than talk to girls. As Piersall’s world constricts to the one on the field, and his state-of-mind is determined by his batting average, Perkins taps into his inner psycho and rips out a freak-out more outsized than Norman Bates’ sneer. After a slump-busting home-run, Piersall races to the stands behind home plate, and in a full-throated roar asks a dumbstruck Malden if that was good enough, screaming the question until his body convulses into a spastic fit. Francois Truffaut was a young admirer, calling it one of the best of the year, describing it as a “bitter and disillusioned film that doesn’t make you want to live in America. But if there were French directors as lucid and talented as Mulligan…the image of our country on the screen would be a bit less simplified.”

The Rat Race (1960) is not likely to lead anyone to book an American vacation either. The first of two star vehicles Mulligan made with Tony Curtis, it an adaptation of a Garson Kanin play (again made for Paramount), for which Kanin also wrote the script. Curtis is a Midwestern jazz musician who moves to NYC hoping to join a big band, auditioning for the likes of Gerry Mulligan. Debbie Reynolds is his disillusioned roommate, her dreams of modeling already diminished into a job as a taxi dancer who endures harassment from her pervy boss (a menacingly seedy turn by Don Rickles). It’s a dark romantic comedy, with laughs derived from robbery, poverty and desperation. It is another portrayal of outsiders adapting to an antagonistic society, with Curtis and Reynolds forming a shell of defense through their rapport of wisecracking flirtation. Reynolds is especially affecting as a worn-down cynic in one of her first purely dramatic performances. Mulligan does seem hamstrung by the simple studio sets, making do with the materials of what is little more than a filmed play, but it is still a tough, affecting little farce.

Mulligan and Curtis moved to Universal to make The Great Impostor (1961), a comedy based on the true story of Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Jr., a talented con man who passed himself off as a doctor, a warden and a monk. Mulligan and screenwriter Liam O’Brien present Ferdinand as another disillusioned kid, using con-games and play-acting to deny the reality of his impoverished upbringing. While in the army, Ferdinand realizes he can’t get a commission because he lacks a high-school diploma, so he forges a whole illustrious educational career, and he’s off to the multiple-identity races.  While the characters of Fear Strikes Out and The Rat Race find ways to defend themselves from reality (through therapy or love), Ferdinand simply decides to ignore it.

The tone ranges wildly, from madcap farce (like the Novacane overdose teeth-pulling session) to sober melodrama (a prison riot). Curtis is an able chameleonic blank, turning off the charisma spout and turning on the sobriety where necessary.  Mulligan does a workmanlike job with this star vehicle, although unwisely tries to goose the antics with punchline zoom-ins that over emphasize jokes that work well enough on their own. The Great Impostor is a winning trifle that is major in its own way, for it was the first time Mulligan worked with legendary art director Henry Bumstead (Vertigo). A relentless hard-worker and polymath, Mulligan told Bumstead biographer Andrew Horton that the art director “knew infinitely more about the practical, nuts and bolts business of putting a story on camera than you did”. Bumstead had to quickly erect sets for all of Ferdinand’s professions, the most memorable being the arches of the Holy Cross monastery, which seeming recede infinitely into the distance, the sense of divine infinity nicely contrasting with Ferdinand’s get-identity-quick schemes. They would collaborate four more times, culminating in Bumstead winning an Oscar for his work on To Kill a Mockingbird.

The duo would work together again for Universal on Come September (1961) the first of two big-budget spectacles they would make starring Rock Hudson. This one is a frothy generation-gap comedy in which stinking rich capitalist Hudson sees his Italian mistress Gina Lollobrigida every September at his villa in Portofino. Unbeknownst to him, the villa’s caretaker turns the estate into a hotel the rest of the year. So when Hudson shows up unannounced for a summer dalliance, his place is stuffed with a busload of rebellious American teens in heat, including Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin.

Rock Hudson is presented as pretty adolescent himself, secretly sketching a scantily clad woman at a business meeting and expecting Lollobrigida to to be charmed by the scraps of attention he gives her. Considering that he is Rock Hudson, and wears form-fitting white suits, this works for a time, although eventually she rebels and reveals him to be the sniveling juvenile he really is.

Shot in CinemaScope and Technicolor by William H. Daniels (Some Came Running), the frame oozes with bright daubs of color to offset Hudson’s dazzling whiteness, which Lollobrigida obliterates in whirling dervish performance of screwball mania and lithe sexual intensity (her character’s last name is Fellini – coincidence?). Anytime she’s off-screen the pace lags, especially with the milquetoast Darin-Dee couple, but thankfully her absences are brief.

Alas, The Spiral Road (1962) is sans Lollobrigida, and is a long slog at 145 minutes without her. An awkward combination of medical soap opera and psychological thriller, it is about an atheistic young doctor who travels to Indonesia to learn about the containment of leprosy, and then shifts into a nonsensical adventure tale when he pursues (and is driven mad by) a voodoo medicine man. It is adapted from the novel of the same name by Jan de Hartog, and not even an early score from Jerry Goldsmith, cinematography from Russell Harlan (Gun Crazy) and a wily performance from Burl Ives (channeling his wacko survivalist routine from Wind Across the Everglades) can save it from its paternalistic moralizing and slack pacing.

By the time The Spiral Road was released in August of 1962, Mulligan had already shot To Kill a Mockingbird, which received its official premiere in Los Angeles on Christmas Day. Russell Harlan returns as DP, Henry Bumstead as art director and Alan J. Pakula as producer, with whom Mulligan had formed Pakula-Mulligan Productions, Inc. Graced with his finest script to date by Horton Foote, and very comfortable with his regular group of collaborators, Mulligan was free to experiment with his visual style, tinkering with subjective camera-positions for the first time since Fear Strikes Out, a technique he would hone the rest of his career.

After the credit sequence, Mulligan lays out the geography of a small Alabama street. In an elaborate crane shot, which starts high in the tree branches, the camera lowers to eye level and travels left along the turn in a road, before getting distracted by a horse and gliding back to the right. It is as if an impatient eye was diverted by the stout animal, and right as if on cue, Scout (Mary Badham) swings from one of those same tree branches off-screen right into the edge of the frame, announcing herself as the enunciating force of the movie.

Mulligan experimented with POV shots in Fear Strikes Out, memorably so in an aural hallucination of crowd noise, but with To Kill a Mockingbird he structures the whole movie around the technique (with a few necessary cheats in the courtroom scene). The movie exerts such an emotional pull because Mulligan masks the adult world from Scout’s view, choosing low-angles that peer half-obscured truths that she can not yet process. She is shown peeping into the courtroom (with no matching counter-shot), staring over a fence at the Radley home, which is lit like a haunted house of a child’s imagination, and when they get close, Boo Radley’s shadow passes over them like Nosferatu’s when he climbs the stairs – Scout and Jem’s own Universal horror movie.

When societal horrors come to the fore, and Atticus reveals the nature of his case, the POV subtly shifts, from a birds’ eye view of Scout in the balcony to Atticus’ eye-level view down on the courtroom floor. This shift in POV matches Scout’s maturation, that her stubbornly gained knowledge of life’s real terrors are often more awful than her imagination. It is a beautiful, trembling film, that all of the cast and crew bring to shuddering life, highlighted by Gregory Peck’s performance of exhausted virtue, each of his dignified acts becoming more wearying with age.

The Universal Blu-Ray is predictably pristine, the funereal grays of Harlan’s cinematography popping out in granular detail. This will likely be the only Robert Mulligan film to make the leap to HD, but it is only the beginning of his stylistic experimentation with the subjective camera – he uses it to brilliant ends in horror (The Other), gangster movies (The Nickel Ride) and coming-of-age tales (The Man in the Moon). Next week I’ll look at the rest of his films from the 60s, from Love With the Proper Stranger (’63) through The Stalking Moon (’68).

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