Film

Short Cuts - Forgotten Gems: The Comedians (1967)

Elizabeth Taylor in Dahomey, West Africa, 1967

The Comedians (1967)

Dir: Peter Glenville

The Burtons, after a string of colossal flops, (Cleopatra, The V.I.P.s, The Sandpiper), were basking in the success of their bold collaboration with Mike Nichols -- Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -- and were looking for another piece of daring, unconventional source material for their next project. The left-wing political maelstrom of Vietnam America may have motivated them to cast their eye onto a story of the horrors of Third World dictatorship. Graham Greene’s stories of flawed, convictionless British anti-heroes discovering their humanity in turbulent countries (The Third Man, The Quiet American, Our Man in Havana) seemed to be a recipe for art-house success; in any case, they provided actors with memorable character roles and crackling, ironic dialogue. Torrid love amidst political unrest in the tropics was a formula that had been popular in Hollywood since Casablanca, only in Greene’s love affairs no one ever came out a hero.

“The Comedians:”: Smith (Paul Ford), Jones (Alec Guinness), and Brown (Richard Burton)

Greene’s The Comedians tells of self-indulgent British and American expatriates emotionally going to pieces during the nightmarish regime of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier in 1960s Haiti. It blended the aching bitterness of The End of the Affair with the postcolonial anxiety and malaise of The Heart of the Matter. Greene noticed that in times of utter hopelessness, people coped through humor and self-delusion. The comedians of the title are two Brits, Brown (Richard Burton) and Jones (Alec Guinness), and an American, Smith (Paul Ford). The deliberate banality of their names echoes some bad men’s room joke (“Three men, Jones, Brown, and Smith, walk into a bar...”). Their neurotic personalities, amidst the tragic scale of death and murder in Haiti, are meaningless, and their identities, are essentially interchangeable.

Brown has just returned from New York in a failed effort to sell the depilated hotel he inherited from his late mother. His real reason for coming back to Port-au-Prince is to resume his affair with the Brazilian Ambassador’s German wife, Martha (Elizabeth Taylor). Smith is a do-gooding American politician, an ex-presidential candidate of ’48, who has come to Haiti to set up a school and health center devoted to vegetarianism in the slums. He and his wife, played by the extraordinary silent-film actress Lilian Gish, were Freedom Riders during the Civil Rights Movement, whose ordeal in Mississippi, they believe, has prepared them for anything. Jones is an amateur arms dealer who has come to supply American weapons to the Tontons Macoutes (Papa Doc’s sunglassed secret police). Unfortunately, his business partner in Miami has absconded the cash advance and fled, leaving Jones at the mercy of cold blooded criminals. Jones is the catalyst of the story, and his attempted escape from the Tontons, is the farce that unseemingly unleashes a domino effect of mistaken murders and thwarted relationships.

Peter Glenville directing the voodoo ceremony scene

The director of the film was a talented veteran of British theatre, Peter Glenville. His 1965 film, Beckett, also starting Burton, and Peter O’Toole, made him a popular, “classy” filmmaker at the time. But The Comedians would wind up finishing his career. The movie was such a critical and financial failure, that Glenville would never work in Hollywood again. This is one of those unfortunate incidents where history is against an ambitious project. The Comedians opened in the wake of the Black Panther Movement of the late '60s, and the memory of the Civil Rights riots was still fresh. Scenes of menacing black men in sunglasses assaulting white women, murdering people in broad daylight, were unsettling for American audiences -- a reminder of latent dangers at home.

The film’s lukewarm reception and the audience’s disappointment (most moviegoers were misled by the title, expecting to see the Burtons in romantic comedy of the Doris Day-Rock Hudson mold) caused it to be largely forgotten until the a recent box set of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s films for Warner Brothers. In hindsight, The Comedians was a daring picture for its time. The crew was, naturally banned from Haiti, and had to film in Dahomey, West Africa, where the blistering white heat and humidity can be sensed in nearly ever scene. Greene’s screenplay is the taut, slyly ironic suspense-thriller he mastered writing, as with The Third Man. The movie boasts an early, graceful performance from the young James Earl Jones, as a surgeon moonlighting as a rebel leader. Actor-raconteur, Peter Ustinov, brings disarming pathos and tenderness to the relatively one-dimensional role of Taylor’s cuckolded husband.

The real star turn of the movie, however, does not come from the Burtons. They both give rather mediocre performances here (Burton is relentlessly gloomy, while Taylor is inauthentic and passive). No, it arrives in the form of Alec Guinness in the role of the hapless arms-dealer. Jones was based on Greene’s former accountant, who embezzled thousands of pounds worth of Greene’s royalties and fled to South America. A charismatic inveterate fraud, he was intended to come off as a sort of memento mori, a reminder to us of our own selfishness, of how we are willing to value liars and cheats so long as they entertain us. Guinness adds a fey, music-hall insouciance to the role of Jones, a man who fabricates stories about being an exalted officer in WWII in order to win sympathy and trust from his clients; he’s the antithesis of his dutiful, hard-headed Col. Nicholson in Bridge on the River Kwai. Jones is the weasel to Nicholson’s wounded lion. Mendacious in part for survival, and in part, for pleasure, he’s only truly alive when he’s acting. It’s the kind of subtle comic performance that’s influenced a generation of British character actors, from John Hurt to Geoffrey Rush to Bill Nighy. Some of the film’s most affecting moments involve Jones’ undoing; the scene where Brown and the rebel leader/surgeon trap Jones into leading a guerrilla revolt over a game of gin rummy at the ambassador’s mansion is priceless in its mordant black humor.

It’s a shame that The Comedians is not more widely seen and appreciated. It’s not an outstanding film, but it’s a brave one in it’s own way. Today’s audience may easily find it patronizing and colonial: a hot jungle hell of black magic and political corruption that serves as the backdrop for a group of prominent whites. But certain scenes stay with you: the unsettling young men in dark sunglasses who vandalize the funeral hearse of a dissident, small schoolchildren in starched white uniforms being led to watch a public execution, a crowded, smoke-filled voodoo ceremony where a live chicken is decapitated and the priest brandishes the blade in the air to point it to a sacrificial inductee.

If anyone has the balls to taunt a Third World tyrant, it would be a best-selling author and a celebrity power couple. Imagine Christopher Hitchens and ‘Brangelina’ collaborating on a movie about Kim Jong-ill. The Burtons-Greene partnership opened the world’s eyes to Haiti, made them take notice of the abuse of power and trust that was going on in this small island country. Together they gave it color through a host of colorful characters, and their depiction of the nation -- its poverty, its fetid jungles, its colonial French legacy, intoxicating voodoo rituals, the terrifying blackouts and nighttime raids of the Tontons Macoutes, gave an urgency to the country’s turmoil; The Comedians brought the horrors of Third World dictatorship to life for a complacent late 60s audience. At the time, sadly, few cared.

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Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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