Classics Illustrated

The American Film Theater brings repertory theater to the screen and Raymond Chandler's Marlow gets a new treatment from Elliot Gould.

January 1974By Comments

IT’S BEEN CREEPING UP ON us over the years, this inter-media spillover that gives us new movies that are old-hat television. Broadway productions that sweat and strain to be cinematic and television that is nothing more than quickie-flickery. And the single-hatted critic, coming from the age of puristic expertise. is in trouble, let alone way behind the layman of more catholic interest. The television critic finds himself hailing a work as “unusual and successful television” the movie man sees as a B movie no one would pay to see; the movie man finds perfection in a film of an O’Neill work that the drama critic sees as a contravention of the essence of the work; the drama writer giggles over the wit of a stage farce that the television man knows would barely make it as a sit-com on the tube. It’s a time—well, if not for Renaissance men—at least for the critic to have an awareness of other worlds and to have witnessed a bit of the prime action therein.

When two worlds blend—as in the American Film Theater—neither film nor theater critic can function as a purist. Judge its productions—and we’ve seen three of its eight monthly subscription offerings so far—as either movies or plays per se and you are in a no-man’s land. These are not film versions of plays; they are filmed plays with the camera eye—i.e. the director’s—serving as a one-man audience on your behalf, looking in close-up at the speaker, or the listener, drawing back, turning away—whether you, or the playwright, or even the performer would want you to or not, given the freedom of the live-theater situation. In theater, ideally, it is the playwright (via director and cast) who directs your attention; in film and on film, it is the camera. So what we hoped for, via the AFT, is a record of fine performances of worthwhile plays, helped or hindered by the casting of stars (chosen, admittedly, to provide a box-office attraction in the hinterlands but offered too, considering the budgeting of the project in movie terms, as labors of love by actors who would not be available or accommodated in the economics of today’s theater). And while we are between two worlds, the play is the thing we hope to see survive, with film values a secondary matter.

Certainly the first AFT offering, The Iceman Cometh, fulfilled this minimal expectation, with the incandescent power of O'Neill transcending the primary fact that film abnegates its setting—which for me is the entire barroom, the ever-present world of the pipe-dreamers who surface and subside and resurface and slip away again into the depths of the drugged dreams of their survival. John Frankenheimer's television origins serve him well in his relative restraint in directing the film, but the very nature of the camera eye's selection, that forces us to follow it rather than the impulse of the drama, intrudes upon the work. It is, with O'Neill, however, only an intrusion, one that emphasizes the heaviness of Lee Marvin's stolid portrayal of Hickey (star miscasting if ever there was, for those of us who saw the fey spirit that James Barton and Jason Robards have brought to the role) and the disappointing uncertainty of Jeff Bridges' Don, but that, in counterbalance, emphasizes the depths of the late Robert Ryan's subtly death-soaked Larry, the excellence of Fredric March, Hoses Gunn, Sorrell Hooke. The play survives—it dominates in its purity and power.

Harold Pinter's The Homecoming fares even better because Pinter has provided a screenplay for movement, not revision, and Peter Hall, his stagewise direction and, more importantly, because the quintessence of the play-wright's work lends itself so well to the close camera eye—the vicious sputter of a sweet homily, the dream-like composure of the woman, the pause that reveals the distance between men seated side by side. On film somehow this major play becomes more Rorschach test than ever, more fascinating because, with two changes from the 1967 Broadway cast, it opens new dimensions for interpretation. The nucleus of the impotent male household is intact: Paul Rogers still the superbly vicious old father, Max; the sons again Ian Holm as the sadistic pimp Lenny, and Terence Rigby the stupid boxer Joey. Cyril Cusack, however, as Max's brother Sam, adds an insidious bit of dignity to the mousey chauffeur and Michael Jayston, taking over the role of Teddy, the son who's a professor of philosophy in the States bringing his wife to visit the family, adds a strength to the role that ends all thought of his defeat. For me, this stringent black and ever-blacker serio-comedy, is of the homecoming of the woman, Teddy's wife Ruth, Vivien Merchant's triumphant worldy-madonna-like creation, back to her roots and to her role of ruling the roost, of dominating the males however they think they use and misuse her. And Michael Jayston makes Teddy more than the defeated and abandoned man. There is an edge of triumph to his escape, unscathed by the family that has sought to reduce him to its level, freed of the woman who has, perhaps, settled for easier game. This is a work so sparkling with insight, so soaked in the mystery that lies between the lips that move and the words that emerge, that the closer the camera brings us to its bitter heart the better. The quick cuts (uncomfortable blackouts on a stage), the sudden explosion of character (static pauses had to highlight them in the play) and the careful arrangement of images seem very much the stuff of film—and The Homecoming emerges dominant, using another medium to add to its fascination.

A Delicate Balance is a far lesser work in theater and in Edward Albee's repertoire, a talky static domestic drama distinguished by the craftsmanship and by the spark of civilized wit that mark the least of that playwright's accomplishments. Even in 1966 its exploration of husband-wife, parent-child and sibling relationships, affected by the death of a child, by adultery, by indifference and by drink; of the values of friendship, and of the dearth of love to ease the anguish of living, was a little naive. It becomes more so in the magnification of the screen, the surprisingly heavy hand of Tony Richardson's direction and the collection of a cast of stars that not even excesses of makeup and hideous costume design can transform into mutually related characters. One realizes how much the original Broadway cast (Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn as husband and wife, Rosemary Murphy as the wife's alcoholic sister, Marian Seldes as their daughter) gave belief to the drama of a suburban household in crisis when a neighboring couple, friends of forty years' standing, arrive, driven by a nameless terror, to live with them.

But on screen there is no possible blood or generational link between Katherine Hepburn, the cool patrician, and Kate Reid, the blowsy wench, as sisters, or marital tie twixt Miss Hepburn (and how cruel the movie camera is in contrast to the charming informality of the video eye during those recent three hours with her, courtesy of Dick Cavett!) and Paul Scofield (trapped between swallowing his English accent and penetrating the gray putty-like old-age makeup used to make him seem like his wife's contemporary). Each of the three does his role but it is, somehow, solo performance all the way, with concentrated close-ups becoming painful. Lee Remick does adequately as the daughter home again to mourn her fourth marriage and Betsy Blair and Joseph Cotten do very well as the friends, perhaps because they are given no major orations and fewer closeups. It's a case of being trapped with people magnified beyond their situation or significance, with the unappealing caftans in which Margaret Purse has buried the ladies adding to the clutter of the over-blown over-wallpapered over-furnished affluent-suburbia settings. Ironically, this is the very claustrophobia that Mike Nichols should have captured in filming Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In this filmed play it simply makes the repetitious talky-talk more pointedly boring.

The buccaneers have been making the Hollywood headlines in recent years, what with the dismantling, absorption and swapping of studios, but it's the adventurers, the creative risk-takers and myth-breakers, who keep those survival transfusions coming and provide the lifeblood of our movie experiences.

One of the most adventurous movie-makers of the past several years is Robert Altman, who has shattered the Hollywood mold with each of his five films in as many years, from M*A*S*H to Brewster McCloud to McCabe and Mrs. Miller to Images and now with The Long Goodbye. It was completed in January, released briefly in the boondocks (including Los Angeles) to negative responses, and hastily withdrawn for rerelease now, 8 minutes shorter (and improved thereby) and with a new advertising approach. Once again, Altman has dared—and, as before, has caught the public unprepared. He has taken Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, son of Sam Spade and godfather of Lew Archer, and seen him plain—just as his creator saw him in his own commentaries on his works. For Chandler saw his tough but idealistic and decent and ethical private eye as the figment of a romantic imagination, knowing with a realist's acceptance that it takes dirty men to thrive in a dirty business. Certainly, even in our films, we've come to recognize the cop as cop and not the heroic agent of righteousness of the Hollywood factory assembly line. Are we ready to have one of our favorite dream figures of detective fiction and movies put in focus? After all, we're steeped in the tradition, with five earlier embodiments of Marlowe carrying it on: Dick Powell in 1944's Murder My Sweet (Farewell My Lovely); Humphrey Bogart in 1946's The Big Sleep; Robert Montgomery in the 1946's The Lady in the Lake; George Montgomery in 1947's The Brasher Doubloon (The High Window), and James Garner in 1969's Marlowe (The Little Sister). Naturally and nostalgically we want more of the same—but isn't that what revival houses are for? It's twenty years later—exactly, in the case of The Long Goodbye, Chandler's second-to-last and most wearily complex novel—written six years before his death—and it's another world.

It is into the 1973 world that Altman has thrust his Philip Marlowe and seen him, half in sorrow and half in laughter, as a man out of his time, clinging not only to the clothes, the unfiltered cigarettes and even the car (a 1948 Continental convertible) but also more importantly the ethic and morality of a time gone by. And, unfashionably at the moment but with remarkable success, he has embodied him in Elliott Gould, that capable actor over-exploited and misused after his initial success, who makes of Marlowe, a loose man, too rational and too caring a man for now, a sotto-voce commentary his bulwark, that foolish grin a facade for the devastating perception of where people are at. And when he puts his values on the line because he alone still cares about right and wrong, and gets "You'll never learn—you're a born loser" in exchange, he does what the last righteous man has to do—in 1973. And down the road he goes, a shattered myth behind him and a surging swell of "Hurray for Hollywood" flooding the sound track.

With a lean tight screenplay by Leigh Brackett, whose credits include her co-adapting The Big Sleep with William Faulkner, Altman has clung to the essence of the Chandler novel with the major elements of the book's several sub-plots retained and one character reversed, which may offend purists (who are invited to try to develop a faithful script that would run under five hours). But the result, with some offbeat and thereby excellent casting, with the lagniappe of multi-leveled satire on the genre and its period, is a first-rate suspense melodrama. Beyond Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography exquisitely muted to enhance the dream-like quality of the Los Angeles and Mexican locations, there's a grand joke in John Williams' score, with the title song, by Williams and Johnny Mercer, saturating the film with a variety of radio and barroom renditions and even a Mexican funeral march version.

The casting is adventurous, particularly with Nina Van Pallandt, who came to prominence with the Howard Hughes biography hoax, proving herself a beauty in performance as well as face and figure, as the lady in distress; sportscaster Jim Bouton proving himself a performer as the friend who involves Marlowe, and comedian Henry Gibson showing versatility as the unfunny sinister psychiatrist. And such pros as Sterling Hayden as the alcoholic author, and Mark Rydell as the sadistic-bourgeois gangster (complete with a today version of the multi-ethnic gang}, come through in grand style; and there are lovely bits, chiefly by David Arkin as a dumb hood and Ken Sansom as a movie-crazy gatekeeper. If you can not only take but also relish a bit of "now" (rather than future) shock, and bear to have another of our movie-myths shattered, in pure movie-movie terms and high style, and with love as well as wit, The Long Goodbye is yours to revel in.

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