A Light-Hearted Romp through John Hustonian Darkness

“I’m often asked what lies behind my choice of material, with the implication that I have a special message to convey. I don’t. When I make a picture, it’s simply because I believe the story is worth telling. It has been said that I have a tendency to choose stories whose point is the irony of man’s pursuit of an impossibly elusive goal. If this has in fact been a consistent motif of my pictures, I must confess to being unaware of it. Admittedly, certain themes trigger a deeper personal response than others, and success stories, per se, are not really of much interest to me. I’m convinced that there are more failures than men of achievement among us….I made a series of films between 1968 and 1973 that were either outright failures or, at best, only moderately successful. There is no doubt about the meaning of the word ‘failure’ in the motion-picture industry. The industry operates for a profit, and a failure is a film that doesn’t make money.”–John Huston, An Open Book, p. 336.

People can’t be trusted with their own memoirs, and artists less so than anyone except politicians. How much of Huston’s professed surprise at his own motifs is modesty and how much is honesty? Certainly he became aware at a certain point of how critics were reading him, as he acknowledges above, and he virtually admits they have a point. Anyway, what an artist says can be interesting and revealing, and Huston sails through his period of sustained commercial failure serenely, persuasively, and quickly. It’s nice to be able to compare his remarks with the films, when we can get our hands on them.

Now available on demand are a critically and commercially unsuccessful film from deep in John Huston’s wilderness years, when most critics were writing him off as “less than meets the eye” (a phrase for which Andrew Sarris apologized), and the film with which he came out of that wilderness and slapped them on the head to the effect of “You fools, I can make a contemporary statement like Five Easy Pieces or any of these other slices of New American ennui. I get this failure stuff in spades.”

The wilderness film is Sinful Davey. This English co-production, set in Scotland but shot in Ireland, was positioned as a historical romp in the vein of Tom Jones and its imitators (a cycle actually initiated by Laurence Olivier in The Beggar’s Opera, if you want to know), the story of a rogue and rapscallion who wenches and thieves his way through society and even escapes a hanging.

One problem, as most observers observed, is that it wasn’t as funny and larkish as all that. Huston’s humor is darker and drier; check out Beat the Devil or Prizzi’s Honor for classic Huston “comedy”. When the action is indulging slapstick romps, with Davey jumping across roofs in putatively merry chase, the camera tends to stare more impassively at the antics than you’d think it should. This can summon descriptors like “lumbering” or “plodding”.

In these scenes at least, the director feels removed from the proceedings, although the Hustonian darkness is present throughout. It tends to be there in ways that undo the genre, which is typical of his approach to genres. His very next film, the very underrated (because it’s underwatched) A Walk with Love and Death, is a courtly medieval romantic “fairy tale” drenched in historically convincing mud, blood, and plague. And the film after that, The Kremlin Letter, is a spy film on the verge of implosion. Then too, Huston is the sort who’d take Tom Jones–that is, Albert Finney–and cast him as the desolate wastrel in Under the Volcano. That’s why it’s hard to be sure how intentional is the central casting problem of Sinful Davey.

As Davey, John Hurt is never the lovable rogue perceived by straitlaced heroine Pamela Franklin. He’s a weedy, scratchy-voiced, pompous squirt, aspiring to accomplish more than his hanged highwayman father yet clueless about his own inadequacies in his felonious ambitions, doomed ultimately for a life as a respectable nobody. In his ironic fashion, he belongs to Huston’s long line of failures, albeit one with a happy ending. As far as possible from Tom Jones physically and intellectually, Davey is a prototype of the clotted clod Huston would follow about in Wise Blood, seeking his redemption in sin. The movie doesn’t like him as much as it likes his primary victim (Robert Morley), a sympathetically subversive squire.

In other words, Huston made an anti-hero film in which the anti-hero really was an anti-hero, someone who almost actively arouses our antipathy and whose ambitions are a funhouse mockery of bourgeois aspiration. He begins his career by deserting from the army, a crime for which he’ll face hanging, and this in itself might have been a little too avant for 1969 America. Although you can understand affinities between this film and, say, Easy Rider, Huston’s film looks the more old-fashioned, the more seemingly identifiable with established entertainments it doesn’t quite respect or hasn’t quite committed to. I can’t bring myself to call it a deconstruction, but it’s a missing link between Tom Jones and Barry Lyndon. To my mind, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is a more satisfactory realization of the tone Huston was aiming for here.

If all this feels problematic to the non-auteur audience just looking for a rude escape without a diagram of Huston references, there’s at least Huston’s attention and respect to historical details and settings, his painter’s eye for placing his characters against deep background compositions and amid expertly herded crowds, and his writer’s respect for screenplay, in this case by James R. Webb. Somehow the DVD case sports an R rating, although in 1969 it was M (later PG).

In his memoir An Open Book (1980), Huston devotes two paragraphs to this film, a “light-hearted romp” which he thought “an altogether delightful affair.” He writes: “Like The Barbarian and the Geisha, it was ruined after I delivered my final cut. I turned it in and that was that until I next saw it upon release. I was aghast! Walter Mirisch, the producer, had given full sway to his creative impulses. He had taken a scene from the end and put it at the beginning, so that the whole story became a flashback. And he had added a dreadful narration! Under the circumstances, Otto Preminger would have brought suit. I sometimes wish I were Otto Preminger!”

On the very pretty widescreen print now available, the pre-credit scene setting up the flashback is all of a few seconds long: a shot of Davey writing his memoirs in a prison cell. And his narration is minimal, beginning with the nicely ironic “When fame comes to a man at so early an age, it can only be deserved.” There’s an odd sound problem here, as though one line has been layered on top of another and the older version is sticking through; presumably this is a problem with the print. Otherwise the whole thing seems orderly, and if Mirisch flexed his creativity, he must have done much more to arouse Huston’s ire. Or maybe this is just how Huston’s telling it.

While neither critics nor audiences took to Sinful Davey, critics shouted rapturous huzzahs at Fat City, which surprised them as much for its directorial source as for its substance. Here was the allegedly washed-up Hollywood dinosaur helming an utterly contemporary, more or less neorealist docudrama of people on Skid Row, a place in every town both metaphorical and crushingly real and specific. “It’s about people who are beaten before they start but who never stop dreaming,” writes Huston.

Fat City is scripted by Leonard Gardner from his own novel, and I can’t resist this opportunity to bang the drum for Huston as Hollywood’s greatest literary adaptor. Most of Huston’s films are adapted from works startlingly diverse in array, and this former screenwriter approaches every source with attention and respect. That’s how he was capable of filming projects like Moby Dick, Under the Volcano and even The Bible while avoiding utter disaster. And since Huston also studied to be a painter, he makes a unique combination of the word and the fine-art eye applied to cinema. That’s why he delivered one of cinema’s most exquisite biopics of an artist, Moulin Rouge on Toulouse-Lautrec.

Where were we? Oh yes, Fat City opens with a montage of mournful documentary footage of Stockton, California, emphasizing the poverty and urban decay of Skid Row while we hear Kris Kristofferson sing “Help Me Make It Through the Night”. It may be an awful vision in one sense, but Conrad Hall’s photography makes it almost elegant and crisp in the weary heat, and just wait till we get to the parts about migrant farm labor. This is very 1971, but what a molotov cocktail it must have been in the laps of jaded auteurists who’d never have associated this up-to-the-moment vernacular with Huston.

If what matters is how it plays today, the answer is just fine, thanks. That such a faded American dream came from a major mainstream master might cause us passing shame today, when we have to get similar images from indies like Ramin Bahrani or Mark Ruffalo. Still, Hollywood was also turning out the likes of Airport and various dire comedies and glossy sex dramas eclipsed by memory, so let’s avoid the nostalgia trap.

Stacy Keach, unfortunately forecasting his later problems with substance abuse, opens the film emerging from an alcoholic stupor, sprawled on a bed in a seedy room, bulging slackly in jockey shorts of the type nobody wears in movies anymore. The camera follows impassively as he rises and sashays uncertainly, looking for cigarettes and finally being driven to dress and go forth by his own self-loathing, his constant brooding over how he needs to start working out again so he can return to boxing, where he could have been a contender until he fell for a woman who left him. We don’t know this backstory yet, of course, but it floats out eventually in the litany of regrets and excuses.

He’s about to turn 30, and he meets an 18-year-old (Jeff Bridges, just a baby) who might be interested in a boxing career. The movie follows their alternate paths until they eventually meet again and Keach seems briefly on his way to a revival. The lengthy final bout may be the longest and most brutal in any boxing movie to that time, and it certainly eschews any of the darkly rapturous visual poetry of the classic fight films of before (and after, with Raging Bull). This is where the movie, for all its tatty glory, crosses from existential pain to actual pain, and you’re liable to groan in horrified sympathy and, Lord help us, excitement.

I haven’t mentioned that amid all this sadness, the film is a pained comedy in the Huston mode, observing the self-destructive behaviors and interactions of its stunned and blasted losers as closely as Jane Austen. Nicholas Colasanto (best known as Coach in the TV series Cheers) is the two-bit trainer who states frankly that he’d like to hook the audience’s interest with a white guy amid all the “colored boxers”. He’s an exhausted, irritable chatterbox, contradicting himself from one sentence to the next as needed, dredging up anecdotes and talking a good game while running in place along well-worn ruts.

The real piece of work is Susan Tyrell’s Oscar-nominated turn as a hilariously argumentative, shrill, obnoxious, yet transparently sad floozy who briefly falls into Keach’s orbit. Her every conversation is a sullen, sodden battle, mostly with her own confusion. After a temporary absence in jail, her African-American husband explains off-handedly, “We get along fine. I just ignore her.” Not actually repulsive yet never endearing either, she’s always hurtfully human.

The metaphor of life as a wearisome fight has never been more literalized as in this boxing film devoted to the world’s wash-outs. Its bitterest irony is that even the victories hammer you down. For Huston, the victory was more moral than financial, or a nice example of success as failure. He writes that he got a standing ovation when the film premiered at Cannes. “When that happened, I was sure it was going to be a success. But no. Wherever it was shown, it was beautifully reviewed, but audiences didn’t care for it. It’s a fine picture, no question — well conceived, well acted, made with deep love and considerable understanding on the part of everyone involved. I suppose the public simply found it too sad.”

If he’d redeemed himself with critics, he wasn’t quite back yet. He reports that his next entry, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, was “not exactly a failure, but you could hardly call it a roaring success” (it’s unruly and excellent, in my humble opinion), and then came the unequivocally failed spy film The Mackintosh Man, which I happen to find excellent as well. This was his Paul Newman diptych. And then, at long last, there came the critical and box office flash of The Man Who Would Be King.

Long missing in inaction, Sinful Davey is now out on demand from MGM Limited Editions, while Fat City is a slightly curious choice for Sony’s Choice Collection, considering that the 2002 DVD is still in print. Roy Bean, also on DVD previously, has been freshly reissued on demand from Warner Archive.

John Hurt in Sinful Davey (1969)