February 28, 2012

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This is the third part of a series discussing the complete filmography of director Robert Mulligan. Click to read Part 1 and Part 2.

As the 1960s ended, so did Robert Mulligan’s collaboration with producer Alan Pakula. After seven films together, Pakula embarked upon a successful directing career of his own, beginning with the college romance of The Sterile Cuckoo in 1969 (which would earn Liza Minnelli her first Oscar nomination). Mulligan also tried his hand at courting the youth market,  starting production on The Pursuit of Happiness late that same year, although it was not released until 1971. It was the first coming-of-age story that Mulligan directed since To Kill A Mockingbird, and its melancholic sense of lost innocence pervades all of his work in the early 1970s.

As with all of the Pakula-Mulligan productions, The Pursuit of Happiness was adapted from a novel, this time by Thomas Rogers. The rights were purchased by David Susskind, a prolific producer of TV movies who re-entered theatrical features with this low-key story that was shot late in 1969 (he made the hit sex comedy Lovers and Other Strangers (1970) immediately afterward). Sidney Caroll (The Hustler) wrote the script, but a revision by George Sherman introduced so many changes that Caroll requested his name be changed to Jon Boothe. The final draft follows lapsed-radical William Popper (a morose Michael Sarrazin) as he argues with his student-activist girlfriend Jane (Barbara Hershey) and accidentally sulks his way into prison. There he decides to drop out of society for good.

Working on location in NYC with D.P. Dick Kratina, who had just shot seedier parts of the city in Midnight Cowboy, Robert Mulligan crafts a sympathetic, though distant, portrait of a disaffected ex-Leftist youth. Mulligan, who had joined the Marines at the tail end of WWII, was an outsider to the violent revolutionary stirrings of the 60s, saying that, “We were in the process of a nightmare that I didn’t understand. and that I didn’t feel anyone else understood. I mean, the riots were going on, the campuses were being burnt, the ghettos were being burnt, the marches were going on, people were being killed. It just didn’t make any sense.” Pursuit is his attempt to comprehend a generation he is entirely disconnected from, and the result is a film of great sensitivity and sadness, because he can never bridge that gulf.

Kratina and Mulligan open the film on a close-up of a toy sailboat, bobbing in a park pond, inter-cut with shots of William. He is instantly identified as adrift and alone, cutting through a sea of humanity, each protesting inaudible causes. Kratina’s camera roams with a cinema-verite freedom, the frames crammed with idealistic bodies that William swiftly navigates away from.William ignores them, Sarrazin’s face holding a persistent dopey calm, a smirk perpetually creeping up his lips. He slices his way to his girlfriend (an engagingly perky Barbara Hershey), who was originally inflamed by his passion, and now vaguely annoyed by his apathy and creeping nihilism. Their academic world is filled out by their Hippie pal Melvin (an adorably manic Robert Klein), who is seen mostly sleeping in William and Jane’s bed.

Their circumscribed world comes apart when William is involved in a car accident, and faces serious jail time. Then the world outside floods in, and with it the revelations that he comes from a rich, well-connected family, and political resentments ooze out of every corner. His aunt asks, “still a communist?”, while his grandmother bluntly states how her neighborhood declined once the “negroes and jews” moved in. Because of his wealth, he gets fine representation from a blustery E.G. Marshall, who pithily comments that “when you got in trouble, you came straight for the reactionary bastard.” The sense of class betrayal is ever-present, no more so in the painfully bittersweet scene when William declines his Grandmother’s offer to inherit the family mansion. She, like William Buckley Jr., wanted to “stand athwart history, yelling stop!”, but had to watch her grandson embrace the multi-cultural future instead.

When William decides to escape America once and for all, it should be a moment of triumph, and would be in a traditional counter-culture movie of the period. But Mulligan senses tragedy in this breakdown of society, no matter how nakedly corrupt he has shown it to be. Their departure sequence occurs in near-silence, after an uncomfortable barter with a smarmy pilot played by William Devane. The transaction is starkly capitalistic, as if the couple is swapping one exploitative system for another (one of crime). So when they take to the air, headed for Mexico, the overwhelming emotion is not one of release, but of unutterable sadness. The lovely Randy Newman song that plays under their escape captures this ambivalence perfectly:  “Let me go, let me go, let me go/Don’t give me the answer/cause I don’t want to know”.

Columbia Pictures delayed the release of The Pursuit of Happiness for over a year, perhaps because of how “square” the film would look next to Easy Rider (1969), and put it out to little fanfare in February of 1971. In the interim, Mulligan shot the deeply personal Summer of ’42, which Warner Brothers released to enormous box office in April of that same year. It’s a nostalgic coming-of-age tale of three young boys as they spend a summer on Nantucket. Seemingly tailored for Nixon’s so-called Silent Majority, with its loving evocation of small-town American life, it nevertheless retains the ambivalent melancholy of The Pursuit of Happiness, its youths also lost inside of different kinds of American myths.

Herman Raucher wrote the autobiographical script in the 1950s while as a TV writer, but he couldn’t get anyone to look at it. He was acquaintances with Mulligan from those days, and once the director gained enough clout, was able to get the picture funded for “a million dollars” (interview in the TC Palm). The story centers on Hermie (Gary Grimes) and his infatuation with Dorothy (a dreamy Jennifer O’Neill), the beautiful army wife whose husband is fighting during WWII.

It is Mulligan’s first collaboration with the great DP Robert Surtees (The Last Picture Show), and they opt for heavily filtered images of browns and greens, the beaches fading like old Polaroids. This sense of the movie as memory is enhanced by the voice-over, which is read by the director himself. The events are clearly past, mythologically so, with scenes of troops sailing off to war, first dates at the movie house, and fumbling over an old sex manual. These are scenes that could come out of a Budweiser commercial, but Mulligan invests them with such emotion and detail they become monumental. He shoots Hermie’s hand marching down the shoulder of his date as if he was conquering Normandy. One starts to notice the expressivity of clothes and objects, the gritty texture of Hermie’s beach shoes and rolled up slacks, as if a Victorian orphan in short pants, unfit to be seen in the presence of Dorothy’s snug cable sweaters and J. Crew yachtswoman wear. Through Hermie’s gaze, Dorothy is a mystical object.

The penultimate sequence, in which Dorothy falls into Hermie’s embrace, is a marvel of tonal ambiguity, as unexpected as the close of The Pursuit of Happiness. What should be Hermie’s glorious climax is a scene of mourning and cold comfort. Hermie enters her room, and Mulligan and Surtees isolate objects of her presence: a cigarette, a skipping turntable and a crumpled letter. The room is heavy with her presence, a ghostly atmosphere. Hermie resets the music, and Michel Legrand’s score fills the room, opening a space for Dorothy’s entrance. She enters, and it’s become clear her husband has died. The music ends and the clicking sound repeats with grief-stricken repetitions. Dorothy falls into Hermie’s arms, and Mulligan continues to focus on details: feet, hands, shadows on wallpaper. Neither are whole individuals, Dorothy is slowly collapsing, Hermie overwhelmed to keep her together. The lurid climax of the usual hetero sex comedy has turned into something tragic and uncertain. In the end, the ghostly Dorothy disappears, and Hermie is left to look at the ruins of his childhood, saying in retrospective voice-over, “I lost Hermie, forever”.

The Other (1972) is also about loss, but fudged into the Manichean machinations of a boilerplate horror tale. It’s adapted from actor-turned-author Tom Tryon’s best-selling novel about twin boys who have a penchant for astral projection, hallucinations and a few murders. It is 1935 and Holland and Niles Perry live an idyllic-Satanic life in Connecticut, stealing jam from the neighbors and a finger from their dead father. The family’s maid, Ada (Uta Hagen, in her first screen role), has been teaching the boys how to astral project their bodies, but has begun to suspect these lessons are not being used for good.

It retains the thrust of his other work in this period, of the tragic death of childhood illusions (and no viable afterlife), but the vehicle for this idea is a rickety one. Tryon’s script never develops a coherent character out of either twin, both just inexpressive conduits for a few slaughters, with no childhood left to mourn. Without this emotional undertone, the film becomes a slog of unmotivated plot twists. The child actors, Chris and Martin Udvarnoky, are eager but uncharismatic, never gaining the unaffected naturalness of the kids in Summer of ’42 or To Kill a Mockingbird. These tots are always over-emphasizing their lines, more or less pounding them flat. Despite all these dramatic flaws, the film still looks gorgeous, with Mulligan and Surtees bathing it in a golden-green glow, and pulling off some impressive subjective camera shots, which become fractured along with Niles’ psychology.

Mulligan followed up this misfire with one of his greatest works, The Nickel Ride (1974)Mulligan depicts the decaying mental state of an aging paranoiac through cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth’s palette of rotting browns, and lead actor Jason Miller’s remarkable ability to deflate himself into the posture of a crumpled paper bag. Miller plays Coop, a low-level fixer for the Los Angeles mob who is getting pushed out of his position by a young, sweetly psychotic Southerner (Bo Hopkins, channeling Jon Voigt in Midnight Cowboy). One of Eric Roth’s (Forrest Gump) earliest scripts, it is also his most effective, a film about the cruelty of time’s passing and the crueller tricks of an addled mind. Instead of youth passing into adulthood, it is about middle-age passing into death.

Originally called 50-50, Eric Roth recalled in Backstory 5 that it was supposed to be about “a man turning fifty, a film noir with intimations of mortality.” Robert Mulligan agreed to make it for producer David Foster, his first film after making McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), who had secured a distribution deal with 20th Century Fox. The lead was originally intended to be played by George C. Scott, but he had to drop out, leaving the part to relative newcomer Jason Miller, fresh off of The Exorcist. Miller is extraordinary, giving a performance of hollowed-out intensity. He painfully maintains his everyman persona at the local watering hole and with his painfully young wife (Linda Haynes), as his fears start to devour him. His speech becomes clipped and his face draws ever tighter into a skeletal mask. At his lowest point he is stalled by the side of the road, an infernal red tail light edging his body, sure that his life is about to end. He just sighs, “Things change.”


December 13, 2011

nickel ride

It’s that festive time of year again, when family ties are maintained through the ritualized exchange of fabrics, wrought plastics and optical discs. This joyous occasion ensures that husband and wife, or parent and child, can contentedly ignore each other until the next wallet-busting holiday. I am here to ensure the smooth operation of this essential human activity, providing an idiosyncratic list of new DVDs and Blu-Rays that, if wrapped in glossy paper, will blind your favored loved one to your significant shortcomings. To prove my goodwill, my wife and fellow writer Andrea Janes will close out the list with her thoughts on a movie I asked her to watch, as a distraction from my lax grooming habits. Seasons Greetings!

The Nickel Ride (1975, DVD)

Released today on DVD from the canny studio library raiders at Shout! Factory (in a set with John Frankenheimer’s dire 99 and 44/100% Dead), this gorgeously elegiac gangster film should be exhibit #1 when making an over-enthusiastic case for the work of director Robert Mulligan. Remembered mainly for his adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), he was an elegant craftsman who could completely inhabit a character’s point-of-view. In Mockingbird and The Man in the Moon (1991) he restricts it to children through low-angles and gliding, youthfully quick tracking shots. In Nickel Ride Mulligan depicts the decaying mental state of an aging paranoiac through cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth’s palette of rotting browns, and lead actor Jason Miller’s remarkable ability to deflate himself into the posture of a crumpled paper bag. Miller plays Coop, a low-level fixer for the Los Angeles mob who is getting pushed out of his position by a young, sweetly psychotic Southerner (Bo Hopkins, channeling Jon Voigt in Midnight Cowboy). One of Eric Roth’s (Forrest Gump) earliest scripts, it is also his most effective, a film about the cruelty of time’s passing and the crueler tricks of an addled mind.


Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)

For the 70th Anniversary of the Pearl Harbor bombings, 20th Century Fox released a handsome Blu-Ray edition of this sober, ambitious docu-drama of Dec. 7th, 1941. Darryl Zanuck was eager to recreate the box-office bonanza of The Longest Day (1962), and takes that film’s gimmick of telling the historical event from different points of view, and with entirely different crews, an idea which Clint Eastwood adopted for his WWII diptych, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. In this case, Richard Fleischer was tasked to direct the American side, and Akira Kurosawa the Japanese (Joseph McBride notes that John Ford was eager to take on the project, but was never considered for it). Kurosawa dropped out early in the production, after endless disputes with American production supervisors. Fleischer, in his autobiography, writes that Kurosawa, “felt this was a gross intrusion and an insult to national honor.” He was used to total artistic freedom, and that wasn’t the Hollywood way. Toshio Masuda and Kinji Fukasaku (Battle Royale) took over. Fleischer claims the only scene in the film shot by Kurosawa was one of the American ambassador in the U.S. embassy in Tokyo, and “it is the worst scene in the picture.” The film was hugely expensive to make, and was a massive failure at the box office. Part of the problem was that The Longest Day dramatized a victory, and Tora! Tora! Tora! an ignominious defeat, hardly an audience grabber. As a film, it is fascinatingly dry, a top-down version of history, in which gray-suited men sit in mahogany chairs and make history. Massive amounts of research went into the film, with Dr. Gordon Prang, appointed by General Douglas MacArthur as the official historian of the Pacific War, hoarding material at the University of Maryland. Fleischer, Masuda and Fukasaku create some pleasing diagonals out of the lines of secretaries, functionaries and soldiers, but for the most part the film plays as a luxuriously illustrated lecture.


Rapture (1965)

John Guillermin is not a director whose work I had sought out, although The Day They Robbed the Bank of England (1960) lingers in the memory as a bracingly cold-hearted and fleet-of-foot heist film. (In)famous for the cheap thrills of The Towering Inferno (1974) and the King Kong remake (1976), I was totally unprepared for the psychosexual  intensity of Rapture, which Twilight Time has just released in an excellent Blu-Ray, available through Screen Archive. Shot in silvery B&W CinemaScope on location off the coast of Brittany, it’s an easy movie to get lost in. The novel Rapture in my Rags was initially adapted by frequent Fellini collaborator Ennio Flaiano (8 ½), although the final script credit goes to Stanley Mann (Conan the Destroyer). It follows the blighted life of Agnes (Patrica Gozzi), a young girl who lives in a crumbling mansion with her eccentric, haunted father Frederick (Melvyn Douglas) and blowsy blonde maid Karen (frequent Bergman actress Gunnel Lindblom). Frederick is an ex-judge who writes crackpot newsletters in his study, while Agnes’s only wish is to build a scarecrow so she can have a friend to call her own. Agnes’ married sister recommends she be confined to an insane asylum. But after she builds her scarecrow, a soulful escaped prisoner (Dean Stockwell) appears wearing its clothes, and it looks to Agnes like her sexual desires have blossomed violently to life. While it has its narrative lulls and repetitions, this is the rare coming-of-age film that captures the inchoate madness of adolescent lust.


Fright Night (1985)

Recently re-made with Colin Farrell, the original is an amiable bit of Hammer horror nostalgia graced with a delightfully mischievous Roddy McDowall performance. Another lovely Blu-Ray from Twilight Time, it shows high-schooler Charley (William Ragsdale) discovering a vampire-next-door, played with evident self-regard by Chris Sarandon. Ragsdale and his girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse from Married, With Children) seek out Peter Vincent (McDowall) for help, an ex-star of Hammer-style gothic vampire flicks who now hosts a late-night horror movie show. Recently fired and facing eviction, Vincent readily accepts Amy’s cash to flush out the would-be demon, which he assumes is Charley’s childish fantasy. When Chris Saradon’s flowing locks and insatiable thirst for blood prove to be all-too-real, the trio has to fight for their lives. The imaginative creature design from the team under visual supervisor Richard Edlund (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ghostbusters) is refreshingly physical, and an appropriate homage to the menacing effects of the Hammer titles writer/director Tom Holland (Child’s Play) is clearly so enamored with (Christopher Lee is even glimpsed on TV). McDowall is the main reason to see the film though, adding unexpected layers of pathos to this beaten down ham.


Special Capsule review by Andrea Janes:  Night Watch (1973, Warner Archive)

At first Night Watch evokes such circa-70s portmanteau films as Tales from the Crypt, with its Gothic tale of a rich neurotic housewife obsessed with the decaying house behind hers (which she views from a Rear Window-esque vantage point through the back garden). Then the 1973 thriller — stuffed with creepy neighbors, incredulous policemen, remote husbands, and resentful housekeepers — froths into a soapy, pulpy revenge drama. Ellen Wheeler (Elizabeth Taylor) navigates this labyrinth of menace in a haze of cigarette smoke, her trembling hands restlessly rearranging the pieces of the enormous jigsaw puzzle perennially strewn across her parlour table, while the haunting memory of her dead former husband keeps her nerves unstrung and her beautiful cameo face blanched with worry. At long last, though, the smoke clears and, as Ellen says of her jigsaw puzzle, “It’s easy to figure out once you see where all the pieces should be.” A third-act reversal is none the less enjoyable for being somewhat expected, and Taylor hammers it home with good old fashioned bloody delight.