Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Director Spotlight #13.17: Elia Kazan's The Arrangement/The Visitors/The Last Tycoon

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on 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. This edition’s director is one of cinema’s finest directors of actors, Elia Kazan.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

The 1960s and 1970s saw most of the masters of Old Hollywood failing to adjust to changing times. Frank Capra and Howard Hawks retired from directing. Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder made an equal number of interesting late-period works and embarrassing failures. There were certain exceptions (John Huston being a notable example), but by and large, their time had passed. Elia Kazan seemed like someone who might make a smoother transition to the New Hollywood era than most of his peers, given his progressive nature and influence over a generation of Method actors about to conquer the world. Yet Kazan’s last three films show an important artist floundering trying to adapt to modern filmmaking styles, like someone who might have something to say but can’t quite find how to articulate it.

The Arrangement Grade: 7/D-

Kazan’s problems started with 1969’s The Arrangement. Following the release of America America, Kazan took a six-year break before adapting his novel of the same name. It was a mistake. Where the novel found some favorable reviews, the film version of The Arrangement was wildly derided upon its release and helped effectively end his directing career in Hollywood. The film is no doubt a personal statement, but it’s also glib and wildly pretentious, mimicking new film styles without understanding them.

Eddie Anderson (Kirk Douglas) is a successful advertising man in the middle of an existential crisis. His relationship with his mistress (Faye Dunaway) has broken down because he refuses to leave his wife (Deborah Kerr), with whom he’s completely miserable. After a failed suicide attempt, Eddie’s life starts to take a downward spiral while he goes through a period of self-examination. He also restarts his relationship with his mistress while visiting his dying father (Richard Boone).

There’s a lot of potent material to be mined here- satire of the advertising age and consumerism,  a look at the breakdown of the family- but Kazan botches it badly. Most of the material dealing with Eddie’s cigarette ad-man advertisements are slick and shallow, and they can’t find anything interesting to say about selling out that hasn’t been said in any number of media satires before it, Kazan’s own A Face in the Crowd included. Where the earlier film was sharp and precise, The Arrangement is blunt and leaden. What’s worse, the psychodrama material is largely made up of overwrought shouting matches between Douglas, Kerr, and other family members, with characters openly trying to work out their hang-ups in a style that grows increasingly tedious. Kazan complained that he couldn’t get Marlon Brando to agree to the lead role and that Douglas was miscast as the introspective Eddie. Douglas is indeed overheated, but it’s doubtful that anyone could make much from this material. Only Dunaway comes close to having a genuine emotional moment. 

The film’s form matches its risible content and tone. Where Kazan’s past works had shown a masterful mix of noir-like expressionism and American realism, The Arrangement shows Kazan throwing in European and New Hollywood flourishes without much skill for them. The film gets off to a bad start with an early morning routine showcasing the distance and banality of Douglas and Kerr’s married life- they’re far apart at all times, but they do the same thing. It comes off as a pretentious sub-Antonioni affectation more than a profound statement on married life. A number of the early scenes intercutting Douglas’ troubled married life with moments of him fooling around with Dunaway on the beach play like attempts to capture Federico Fellini or Jean-Luc Godard at their most playful (not to mention John Boorman’s unconventional editing techniques on Point Blank), but after half an hour of this it starts to reek of desperation. It’s admirable that Kazan tried new things when New Hollywood started, but his first attempt ended up being his very worst film.
 
The Visitors Grade: 32/C-

The Arrangement flopped so badly that Kazan had to self-finance his next film, the equally personal The Visitors. Again, it’s admirable that Kazan wanted to try something new, and in theory, this $160,000 thriller could have been a bold step in a new direction for the filmmaker. It was not to be. The Visitors wasn’t as embarrassing as The Arrangement- Kazan toned down his European art cinema pretensions- but it still stands out as a particularly weak entry into his filmography.

Bill Schmidt (an alarmingly young James Woods) is a Vietnam War veteran living with his longtime girlfriend Martha (Patricia Joyce), their infant son Hal, and Martha’s reactionary father Harry (Patrick McVey). When two of Bill’s army buddies (Steve Railsback and Chico Martinez) show up without notice in the winter, Bill reacts strangely but doesn’t tip off Martha what’s wrong. It turns out that these are two of the soldiers Bill had court-martialed for murder and rape. The soldiers bond with Harry as they start to intimidate Bill and Martha.

To Kazan’s credit, he starts the film off well with a stark, minimalistic feeling that’s aided by the 16mm film stock. Kazan also stages his actors well to capture a quiet, low-key menace that promises a slow build to something disturbing and unexpected. Woods is particularly strong in these early scenes as a man trying hard not to reveal his own fear of his old friends, lest he cause a panic.

The problem starts after the reveal of exactly what’s going on with these old friends and why Woods should be afraid- his low-key reaction is made unbelievable considering the ill will these men have towards him. As the film goes on, it becomes even less believable that Woods and Joyce wouldn’t try to kick out the soldiers or call the cops. More problematic: Kazan chooses to bait the audience with casual nudity, didactic speeches about masculinity, war, and politics, and one of the weirdest Chekhov’s guns I’ve ever seen in a movie. Rewrite of the rule: if a dog shows up and annoys a character twice in the first act, it’ll get shot and dumped on the porch by the start of the second (no, really).

What’s too bad is that Kazan had a chance to do something great here. The film is inspired by the story “Casualties of War”, the same one that would be brilliantly adapted by Brian De Palma in 1989. The idea of taking these characters and placing them in a post-war environment is a good one, but Chris Kazan’s didactic script and Kazan’s audience-baiting plays less like a bold artistic experiment from a visionary dramatist and more like Straw Dogs as reimagined by a wannabe John Cassavetes who thinks he’s got something new to say about war and the men who fight it. In short, this film is not very good.
 
The Last Tycoon Grade: 57/B-

Kazan’s final film, an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel The Love of the Last Tycoon, was a for-hire project for the director, but it’s oddly the most inspired of his final three films. That isn’t to say that The Last Tycoon matches Kazan’s best work- it’s clunky, uneven, and only partially successful. But the film shows what Kazan was great at better than most of his late-period work, and for that it deserves a second look.

Monroe Stahr (Robert De Niro playing a character loosely inspired by Irving Thalberg) is a brilliant producer in the middle of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Monroe is used to teaching screenwriters (Donald Pleasence) how to do their jobs better, working against his chief rival (Robert Mitchum) within the studio, building up neurotic actors (Tony Curtis, Jeanne Moreau), and generally overseeing everything related to production. His rival’s daughter (Theresa Russell) openly pines for him, but Monroe is haunted by the death of his actress wife years ago. One day, Monroe sees Kathleen (Ingrid Boulting), the spitting-image of his dead wife, and falls madly in love with her. As Monroe’s obsession with her deepens, his health declines, he has difficult relations with a communist union organizer (Jack Nicholson), and he starts to lose power and control.

The film gets off to a great start with a meticulous recreation of Old Hollywood that’s so authentic that one could believe that Kazan got into a time machine and found long lost sets and films. The film’s early dealings with the ins-and-outs of the business (De Niro demanding rewrites, watching dailies, and quarreling with other studio heads over business) are largely terrific, in no small part due to a fantastic, internal lead performance from De Niro that suggests a semi-reclusive genius who only knows how to live through work (remember when he was the greatest actor alive?). Kazan and De Niro sells Monroe’s loneliness and isolation perfectly- he’s a man in a gigantic house with no one to live for, and his discomfort whenever Russell flirts with him is clear.

The film starts to wither as soon as the relationship with the utterly comatose Boulting takes over. Kazan keeps the images lovely and lyrical, and De Niro suggests a man who’s so preoccupied loving a ghost that he starts to lose control, but there’s no spark or interest to their love, so it’s hard to care. It’s an especially frustrating film, considering how much great stuff is going on in the margins (Donald Pleasence as a drunken screenwriter, appearances by Dana Andrews and Ray Milland, Mitchum’s philandering studio man, Russell’s frustration with both Mitchum and De Niro) and how little is going on in the central story.

Still, the film is worth seeing for a pair of particularly inspired sequences. In one, De Niro has been dumped by Boulting, who has married another man. Heartbroken, crying, and drunk, he reluctantly meets with Nicholson’s communist union man. Kazan puts them in gorgeous spaces but accentuates their distance and the pauses between their responses to one another- it’s no secret that Nicholson detests De Niro, and the sad drunk can’t help but pick at him. For most of the film, De Niro has been powerful, uncompromising, and perfectly willing to fire writers and directors if they don’t fall in line with his vision. Here, he’s just a shambling mess who can’t match Nicholson’s wits or, when he challenges the already irritated man to a fight, physical power. Nicholson’s quip that he “always wanted to hit 10 million dollars” is a particularly nice indication of how the men in power start to lose ground to unions. Kazan no doubt believes that this is right, but he can’t help but feel empathy for Monroe’s fall from grace.

That’s even clearer in the final sequence, which echoes an earlier speech Monroe gives a flustered screenwriter about “making pictures”. In the earlier scene, De Niro illustrated the magic of movies by writing a scene in his head involving a voyeuristic scene watching a girl. The roving camera follows De Niro around until he trails off. Screenwriter Donald Pleasence asks him what happens? “I don’t know, I was just making pictures”. Contrast that to its bookend, where a lonely and powerless De Niro repeats the speech while we finally see the scene in his head: Boulting going off with his rival, Mitchum, who has taken the studio away from him. He’s a man without anything, not even the ability to “make pictures” the way he’s always loved to do. As he walks off into an empty studio lot, saying “I don’t want to lose you” in a way that could easily apply to his lost love for a woman or for the movies, Kazan’s final film ends. It’s perhaps not the swan song some might call for, but it’s a lyrical image to end on nonetheless- the old guard can’t stick around forever, but their memory remains.

And with that, Kazan’s film career was finished. He wrote constantly for the next twenty-five years, published novels and his acclaimed autobiography A Life, received an Honorary Oscar presented by Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro in 1999 (though a number of actors, notably Ed Harris and Nick Nolte, refused to applaud the HUAC witness), and gave a number of interviews about his work until his death in 2003. Many people will never forgive him for his unfortunate participation in one of Hollywood’s darkest moments. But I can’t help but look at that body of work and say that they’d be ignoring a masterful artist.

1.     On the Waterfront (98/A)
2.     A Streetcar Named Desire (97/A)
4.     East of Eden (96/A)
. . A Face in the Crowd (95/A)
5.     Baby Doll (93/A)
6.     Panic in the Streets (91/A)
7.     A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (90/A-)
8.     Wild River (86/A-)
9.     Splendor in the Grass (85/A-)
10. Viva Zapata! (83/A-)
11. America America (74/B+)
12. Man on a Tightrope (67/B)
13. Boomerang! (64/B)
14. The Last Tycoon (57/B-)
15. Gentleman’s Agreement (44/C)
16. Pinky (40/C)
17. The Visitors (32/C-)
18. The Sea of Grass (17/D)
19. The Arrangement (7/D-)

Best Actor: Marlon Brando (On the Waterfront)
Runner-up: Marlon Brando (A Streetcar Named Desire)

Best non-Brando Lead Actor: James Dean (East of Eden)
Runner-up: Andy Griffith (A Face in the Crowd)

Best Actress: Vivien Leigh (A Streetcar Named Desire)
Runner-up: Patricia Neal (A Face in the Crowd)

Best Supporting Actor: Rod Steiger (On the Waterfront)
Runner-up: Karl Malden (A Streetcar Named Desire)

Best Supporting Actress: Eva Marie Saint (On the Waterfront)
Runner-up: Kim Hunter (A Streetcar Named Desire)

Best Screenplay: Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront)
Runner-up: Budd Schulberg (A Face in the Crowd)

Best Director: On the Waterfront
Runner-up: East of Eden

Best Scene: I Coulda Been a Contender (On the Waterfront)
Runner-up: Hey, Stella! (A Streetcar Named Desire)

The next Director Spotlight might take some time to get started, but that’s OK. I don’t think any of you want me to botch Orson Welles.

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