Monday, January 30, 2012

Director's Spotlight #3.12: John Huston's Under the Volcano/Prizzi's Honor/The Dead

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. January’s director is master craftsman and storyteller John Huston. This week’s entry wraps it all up with a look at Huston’s final three films: Under the Volcano, Prizzi’s Honor, and The Dead.

Under the Volcano Grade: 83 (A-)

After John Huston’s disastrous, bloated adaptation of Annie, the director and actor Albert Finney chose another, more appropriate collaboration: Under the Volcano, an adaptation of Malcolm Lowry’s semi-autobiographical novel. The film is one of the finest in Huston’s New Hollywood period, one brimming with life and energy. How odd, then, that it is about a man at the end of his life; indeed, it is one of the first Huston films to deal with the director’s impending death.

Geoffrey Firmin (Finney) is a former British consulman, a master speaker, and all-around cut-up. Mostly, though, Firmin is a hopeless drunk in the middle of Mexico. His loving wife Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset) has left and divorced him, and although she still writes him, he has refused to read her letters. Firmin boozes along, gets into spats, and annoys any locals not enamored with him. It’s the Day of the Dead, 1938, and Yvonne has returned with the hopes of bringing him back from rock bottom. But it’s no use. He lives in Hell, and it is Hell he has chosen.

If the plot description makes Under the Volcano seem like an unbearable dirge, fear not: Huston’s trademark wry sense of humor comes in to make the experience more bearable. The film opens with a stirring, off-the-wall mariachi score from Alex North that plays as skeleton puppets wave back and forth. There’s humor to be found in death, Huston says, even if that humor is black as night. The film wouldn’t work without an actor capable of bringing humor with the pathos; fortunately, Finney is more than up to task. His lines range from boisterous bellows to sly smacks at anyone who crosses his path, and when he’s not on the offensive, his drunken stories and ramblings are sadly funny. If we didn’t know what was coming, we might find him a jolly good fellow. As it is, the comedy in his difficulty getting himself together is often too painful to truly laugh at. There’s a thin line between tragedy and comedy; Finney and Huston pretend it doesn’t exist.

What makes Firmin a remarkable protagonist is his ability as a storyteller. The character works as a stand-in for both the author, Lowry (a writer rather than a diplomat), and director Huston, who was no stranger to booze and the seedy side of life himself. His drunken ramblings are almost always delivered as a speech or a story, as if his current predicament is directly connected with a past experience or otherwise being made up by his own accord. He’s slowly losing any remaining control, but he’ll be damned if he can’t tell a story about it. Huston would be dead in three years. His drinking may have slowed down, but he clearly knew his time was limited.

That knowledge of doom carries over to both the time and place and the specific relationship between Firmin and Yvonne. Firmin encounters a German “ally” (it is a year before World War II), and he doesn’t buy the peace between the U.K. and Germany. He’s no longer part of the system (another Huston trope), and he’ll say what he damn well pleases. He claims that “the whole world will learn to laugh at the sight of stinking cadavers” and that there will be “corpses on trains, waiting for transport with first-class ticket holders”. He even claims that the upcoming war will be more or less the same one as the last. When someone claims that this will be over souls rather than territories, he scoffs. He, like many Huston protagonists (and Huston himself), is skeptical of religion, and takes any hint at the supernatural as a hopeless joke. In an earlier scene, he claims that asking the Virgin Mary for his wife’s return is like “asking the Fairy Godmother for three wishes.”

But return she does. Huston’s films often feature doomed relationships; this is no exception. Yvonne is as unsatisfied with her lot in life as her husband, and although she loves him, there’s something within her that knows he won’t change. Her return is a last ditch effort to redeem him, and he’ll try to make it work. But it’s no use: his need for drink is overpowering. He visits a local barmaid, who tells him his wife will return. When he informs her that she’s already back, she ignores him and repeats herself. He’s stuck in an endless cycle, so why shouldn’t everything around him be just as so? As Yvonne finally asks him to leave the country and go somewhere less obsessed with death and drink, he cruelly rebukes her. Huston was married and divorced several times in his life; it’s doubtful he ever found satisfaction or happiness in marriage himself.

Under the Volcano combines several of Huston’s greatest strengths as a technical filmmaker: an economic template, strong sense of location, and strong sense of space of relationships. Like all of Huston’s finest films, there’s not a single scene without purpose or with a wasted moment; it’s looser and more liberated than his pre-New Hollywood films (sometimes a bit too loose), but it combines a shaggy feel within the film with an exact precision in structure. Mexico feels as real and alive as it ever has (Huston knew the area well, having filmed The Treasure of the Sierra Madre there), and as Finney shambles throughout it’s easy to see both the virtues and vices of the setting.

Finney’s relationship with Bisset, meanwhile, is best defined in two scenes. In the first, Bisset stands at a saloon door, waiting for her drunken, estranged husband to notice her. He doesn’t for the longest time. He looks back, and perhaps notices her, but gives no clear sign. Only after he’s done talking does he say anything. In the second scene, the two walk closely together as they discuss their lives. Finney is smashed, but he tries his hardest to not act drunk. It only makes his drunkenness more obvious.

In the film’s final sequence, Firmin has more or less lost sight at his noble quest for redemption (failed quests are yet another Huston trope). He winds up in a seedy bar and brothel, where he’s hustled by a dwarf. The man offers him women (and boys), but Firmin only wants drink…and his wife’s letters, which he left there the last time he was there. He’s eventually convinced to have a visit with a prostitute. His wife arrives and learns what he’s up to. His redemption is failed. As Firmin drunkenly makes his way out of the bar, he’s robbed and coerced by a group of men. He tries to talk his way out of death, sometimes avoiding the question altogether through attempts at storytelling. It will do him no good. His final words sum it up appropriately: “What a dingy way to die…”

Prizzi's Honor Grade: 84 (A-)
Following the critical triumph of Under the Volcano (capped off by lead actor Albert Finney’s Academy Award nomination), Huston started production on his next film, 1985’s Prizzi’s Honor, despite his failing health (emphysema had hit him pretty hard at this point).  A film about a family in the mafia, it doubled as a family collaboration: Huston’s daughter, Anjelica, won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, and her then-boyfriend Jack Nicholson starred. The result was Huston’s biggest critical and commercial hit in years, and at 79, he became the oldest person ever nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director.
Charley Partanna (Nicholson) is a rather dim enforcer for the New York crime family, the Prizzis, run by the nearly skeletal Corrado Prizzi (William Hickey). Charley has sworn an oath of honor “more important than anything else”, though his history with the family is complicated: once engaged to Corrado’s granddaughter Maerose (Anjelica Huston), the two broke it off after an argument, and now Maerose has been shamed out of the family. Charley meets Irene Walker (Kathleen Turner) at the wedding of one of Corrado’s granddaughters. The two fall madly in love…only to find out that they’re both hit men (or, in her case, a hit woman), that Walker might have ripped off the Prizzis, and that their lives are about to get complicated.
Prizzi’s Honor is one of the best showcases for Huston’s wry sense of humor; it’s a film that mocks the codes and conventions of mob films that has the audacity to open with a wedding (a la The Godfather) that shows the Sicilian family as a dysfunctional unit rather than a nuclear family. All the major players are introduced: Charley, looking like an ape (Nicholson’s stiff upper lip is a nice detail); Irene, radiant with beauty; Maerose, an outsider in her own family; her father, Dominic (Lee Richardson), calling her a whore for her flashy dress; and Corrado, barely awake during any of the overly solemn, dull ceremony. Right from the beginning, it’s clear who everyone is and what part they’ll play. Huston keeps things moving along briskly while bringing life and sometimes zany humor to every frame. The director gets a lot of mileage out of the ridiculously over-the-top love scenes (Nicholson and Turner roll around in bed like a couple of lunatics), the comical hits (a woman gets shot after getting off on the wrong floor), and precise framing of each characters (in one meeting, Charley’s just on the outside of the frame, away from everyone else).

Prizzi’s Honor comes near the end of Nicholson’s hot streak of great roles from the late-60s to the mid-80s (give or take a flop or two), before he stopped acting and started doing Jack Nicholson impressions (around the time of Witches of Eastwick or Batman). As an actor, Nicholson was always charismatic and shrewd, so it’s hilarious to see him play a numbskull like Charley, who’s pushed around and manipulated often without even knowing it (Huston’s advice before each take: “Remember, he’s stupid”). Turner, for her part, doesn’t have quite as juicy a role, but she’s nevertheless effective as a gorgeous, bright contract killer whose love for Charley doesn’t negate her hunger for a buck. Great character actors like Robert Loggia and John Randolph populate the margins, but Anjelica Huston and William Hickey are the film’s secret weapons. Hickey represents the old guard, one with a sentimental streak (his offering cookies to Huston is never not funny) , but one that only extends so far. Huston, meanwhile, brings her exotic beauty and intelligence to a role that requires her to alternate between pain, lust, cunning, and all-out ruthlessness.
Huston explores the dark side of capitalism, to an extent, with a group of miserly mobsters, but the focus is much more on love unfulfilled. Charley is in love, but he’s too dumb to know what’s going on. Irene is his soul mate (despite their having known each other only a short while), but she’s ripped off the Prizzis, and that can’t go unpunished. It doesn’t help that Maerose wants Charley for herself, and she’ll stoop to anything to get him. When it looks like Charley’s going to be the new boss of Prizzis (because “he’s a thinker”), it’s no surprise that Maerose has been the architect behind everything; in a way, she’s the real boss: she takes what she wants, no matter what it costs, no matter who she hurts (not to mention she’s a lot smarter than Charley). Above all else, Huston points out that not all families are purely functional worlds; they can be downright killer.

Perhaps even more interesting is how Huston handles the subject of death in the margins of the film. The director always had a darkly comic view of the subject (see: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle, Under the Volcano), and this is no exception. Aside from the unfortunate fate of one of the major characters, there’s the fact that Corrado Prizzi is a practically a walking corpse, a wheezy bag of bones who’s too frail to be of any real harm (except that he’s giving the orders). Huston no doubt saw his death around the corner, and Corrado’s appearance is a nice, black as night joke poking fun at it.
The Dead Grade: 78 (B+)
Huston addressed death once more in his final film, 1987’s The Dead, based on the short story by James Joyce from the collection The Dubliners. At this point, Huston’s emphysema was near crippling. The director had to film The Dead while relying on an oxygen tank to breathe; he died a few months before the film’s release. Yet where most of Huston’s films offer a darkly comic view of death and its absurdity, The Dead is a tender, sweet, highly romantic film that serves as a final sigh of a great artist. It is the portrait of a man who knows what’s around the corner, and who has accepted his fate. It joins Robert Altman’s swan song A Prairie Home Companion as one of the most relaxed looks at the end of life ever made.
Dublin, 1904: Kate and Julia Morkan (Helena Carroll and Cathleen Delany) host a party. They invite Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann), their nephew, and his wife Gretta (Anjelica Huston); Irish nationalist Molly Ivors (Maria McDermottroe); Gabriel’s drunken friend Freddy (Donal Donnelly); their Protestant friend Mr. Browne (Dan O’Herlihy); retired Irish tenor Bartell D’Arcy (Frank Patterson), and other friends. They spend the night dancing, singing, eating, and generally enjoying each others’ company. Some minor conflicts pop up, but that’s life. When D’Arcy is coaxed to sing the song “The Lass of Aughrim”, Gretta is deeply moved. When Gabriel asks why, he finds that it brings memories of a former lover who died young.

Give or take a detail or two, that’s the whole plot. It doesn’t sound like much, and The Dead tellingly runs a slight 83 minutes. But Huston’s primary concern, at least before the climactic revelation, is in creating and exploring a fully developed world. At the end of the day, Huston could be a warm and funny man, and that warmth comes through in light but elegant family scenes and minor quarrels that brim with love. The Dead may be a bit slight to power a feature film, but it’s a triumph nonetheless.
There’s more: Huston was proud of his Irish heritage, and Joyce was the man who made him want to be a writer. Here, Huston took The Dead as a chance to go back to his roots and explore a world he fell in love with. There’s more: while Huston’s death was around the corner, he was also a sickly child who wasn’t given long to live. With The Dead, Huston looks back on what might have been had he not gone on to live, and what impact that might have had. It’s melancholy and bittersweet, but at no point is this note a dirge. It is merely a final reflection on the significance of life and death, and the acknowledgement that one gives meaning to the other. And with that, Huston was done.

And with that, Director's Spotlight on John Huston is finished. I've kicked around a few different filmmakers I've wanted to write about, but in the cold month of February, sometimes all we want is to laugh. And February is the month of love, right? Who better, then, than the writer-director of some of the funniest and most romantic films ever made, and one of my all time favorite filmmakers: Woody Allen. Schedule to follow, but here's the current entry plan:

4.1: What's Up, Tiger Lily?
4.2: Take the Money and Run/Bananas/Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask
4.3: Sleeper/Love and Death
4.4.: Annie Hall
4.5: Interiors
4.6: Manhattan
4.7: Stardust Memories
4.8: A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy/Zelig/Broadway Danny Rose
4.9: The Purple Rose of Cairo
4.10: Hannah and Her Sisters
4.11: Radio Days/Another Woman
4.12: Crimes and Misdemeanors
4.13: Alice/Shadows and Fog
4.14: Husbands and Wives
4.15: Manhattan Murder Mystery/Bullets Over Broadway/Mighty Aphrodite
4.16: Celebrity/Sweet and Lowdown
4.17: Match Point/Scoop/Cassandra's Dream
4.18: Vicky Cristina Barcelona
4.19: Whatever Works/You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger
4.20: revisiting Midnight in Paris

Other possible entries, if I can get ahold of them: Everyone Says I Love You, Deconstructing Harry, Anything Else
Sidetrack: Play It Again, Sam
These aren't available or loved/loathed enough, so I'm just gonna skip 'em: September, Small Time Crooks (I've seen it, it's mediocre), The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, Melinda and Melinda

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