Saturday, January 28, 2012

Director's Spotlight #3.9: John Huston's The Mackintosh Man

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. Next up, 1973’s The Mackintosh Man.

Grade: 20 (D+)
After The Misfits, John Huston hovered back and forth between projects he cared about (The Night of the Iguana, Reflections in a Golden Eye) and studio films he agreed to make(The Bible: In the Beginning, The Kremlin Letter). Too often Huston went from project to project, clearly uninterested in the script, needing to find an excuse to work. As the New Hollywood movement hit in the early 70s, the revitalized director combined his trademark style and wit with the freedom of modern filmmaking, resulting in offbeat favorites such as Fat City and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. Unfortunately, sometimes a director has to return to impersonal projects to finance the ones he cares about. Such is the case of The Mackintosh Man, a lifeless spy thriller which reunited the director with Roy Bean star Paul Newman.
Joseph Rearden (Newman) is an American working for British Intelligence in London. His boss is Mackintosh (Harry Andrews), who, along with his daughter (Dominique Sanda) sends Rearden on missions of espionage (supposedly). When the two send Rearden to steal some diamonds, their man is caught and sentenced to 20 years in prison. While in prison he tracks Slade (Ian Bannen), a former British spy and exposed KGB agent. Meanwhile, Mackintosh learns that Slade may be working for Sir George Wheeler (James Mason), a British politician who is secretly a communist.
If the plot description seems thin, it’s because The Mackintosh Man is frustratingly hard to follow and rarely clear about anything that’s going on, why it’s happening, or what the consequences are. The script was written by Walter Hill, a great writer-director behind genre fare such as The Driver, The Warriors, and The Long Riders. Known for cutting films to the bare essentials (and likely influenced by Huston), his script is bizarrely constructed to the point where it’s difficult to know when the film is being deliberately confusing or when it’s confusing because of how poorly thought out the story is. Rearden goes to jail, although it isn’t clear who fingered him, and claims to have orders to follow Slade…or doesn’t…and the men who help bust him and Slade out of prison work for…Wheeler, apparently. It’s difficult to put together, and worse, it’s impossible to care.
Newman was one of the greatest actors who ever lived, but for some reason he’s an American working for Britain pretending to be an Australian. If his fake Australian accent was supposed to be unconvincing, mission accomplished. No one in the film buys that he’s an Australian criminal, and it’s easy to see why (although that’s likely not the film’s intention). Worse, he isn’t given a real character to play, but rather a complete blank in the midst of a poorly put together spy thriller. The other actors don’t fare much better: it’s difficult to grab on to a character when it isn’t clear why anyone’s doing anything, other than a simple “Britain vs. Russia” motivation.
A lame plot could be overcome by good directing, but Huston is barely engaged here. Late in the director’s career, it’s clear which projects he cared about and which he didn’t. The Mackintosh Man falls strictly into paycheck mode: the director’s craftsmanship is clear, and he keeps things moving best as he can. But the script is lousy, and Huston knows it, so each scene feels like it’s signed with “Eh, good enough”. The framing of the characters is strong, but it’s just not clear who anyone is or why they’re doing what they’re doing. The film has no passion, and any potential to visit classic Huston themes (doomed alliances, outsiders) are glanced over. Huston was asked on the set by one of the actors which of his films he felt was his worst. His answer: “I believe we’re in the middle of that right now”.

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