Thursday, June 23, 2011


In 1963, larger-than-life-in-a-Hemingway-er-way director John Huston perpetrated a hoax on audiences far and farther. Not a huge hoax; actually more like a dirty trick. Thankfully, it was concealed inside a terrific movie.

A soft-spoken little thriller set amongst the near-royalty of the British top-most crust. After we witness a night-time murder and a name scratched from a list, we meet first Anthony Gethryn (George C. Scott), formerly of British Intelligence MI5, then unassuming writer Adrian Messenger (John Merivale). Messenger believes that a series of accidental deaths weren’t so accidental and that the men were likely murdered. He asks Gethryn to look into these seemingly unrelated events, then promptly meets his doom when his plane inexplicably (to everyone who is in the movie and not the audience) explodes. Before dying, Messenger manages to croak out a few disjointed sentences to the plane’s only survivor, Raoul Le Borg. Le Borg, as it turns out, was Gethryn’s Great War ally in the French Resistance, and he joins the former agent in his quest, now that it’s become personal. The main clue in Messenger’s utterings is the word “broom”, which Le Borg misremembers as “brush”. But who is giving the brush to whom?
Gethryn and Le Borg investigate Messenger’s list and their hunt takes them all over England, bringing them into contact with a crippled Cockney soldier (“Lost me barrel and keg [in Burma]”), a mysterious gypsy, an Italian food-cart vendor, and fox hunt protestors (“It’s the unspeakable after the uneatable!”), not to mention joining a couple of fox hunts themselves upon the Bruttenholm estate. All the while, the mysterious killer remains one step ahead of them, donning a series of disguises before revealing himself to be Kirk Douglas—er, George Brougham.

Incidentally, “Brougham” and “Bruttenholm” are both pronounced “broom”. And once we discover that old George is not only a distant heir to the Bruttenholm legacy but was also a prisoner of war in Burma with the entirety of the dead men on the list, it’s not too hard to place the rest of the pieces in the puzzle, especially when the corners are so well-defined and the size of dinner plates.

Ultimately, there’s not a lot of mystery in The List of Adrian Messenger, but there is an awful lot of fun. With Scott as our guide through the foggy underbelly of England to the magnificent grounds of the Bruttenholm estate, we meet a wonderful assortment of characters and red herrings. The opening credits boast a lot of names—Frank Sinatra, Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum—and they’re present in the film in disguises, just like Douglas’ Brougham. In the film’s post-script coda, all the disguised cameo characters unmask themselves and reveal their famous faces. And we all laugh and delight in the trickery.

To modern eyes, the made-up characters are extremely easy to spot. Douglas’ first quick-change in a rest room, slipping out sclera contacts and replacing a bald cap, is still a marvelously-staged sequence, and was likely quite a shock to ‘60s audiences. Now that every film fan is world-weary, delighting in proclaiming “that’s so fake!” at every movie’s slight-of-hand, the masquerades designed by Bud Westmore in Messenger will be unlikely to impress. But if you’re heart isn’t two-sizes too-small, you’ll let it go and just have a good time.

But here’s where Huston’s hoax really comes into play. As it turns out, his trickery was not in the disguises but the disguised. With the sole exception of Robert Mitchum playing a sinister soldier, none of the famous actors are in the movie. They’re only in the unmasking sequence! Accounts differ as to who played whom and to what extent, but character actor Dave Willock definitely doubled for Douglas during some of the lengthier disguise sequences while the rest were likely portrayed by Space Patrol’s Jan Merlin. In fact, Merlin’s novel, Shooting Montezuma, involves the making of a movie where disguise and deception plays a key role. To add insult to injury, the legendary Paul Frees provided the voices for Sinatra, Curtis and Lancaster.

In the end, Huston makes monkeys out of us all twice. It’s up to the deceived to decide if it was a low-down rotten trick or a mastery of public relations. After all, he didn’t have to pay exorbitant fees for his cameo-ees, outside of a couple hours’ worth of scratch for the masking and reveal, and he still got some glamorous mugs for the curtain call and the advertising. You can’t say that Sinatra or Lancaster aren’t in the movie, just not in the way you expect. Not a rare rug-pull then and it’s still used today. The “Famous Face on the Box” Deception.

But that doesn’t make The List of Adrian Messenger any less a joy to watch than do the visible wires attached to the actors during the climactic fox hunt. It’s all Hollywood magic trickery, from the exciting but predictable plot (based on the 1961 book by Philip MacDonald) to the bombastic acting to Scott’s amused grin permanently-affixed beneath his impressive moustache. It’s a Golden Age film for an audience growing more and more sophisticated with each release.

Now, the usual sturm and drang: The List of Adrian Messenger can only be found on the Warner Brothers Collection DVD-R-on-Demand service, unless you want to try and catch it on cable (TCM runs it frequently). It might be one movie where the remastering is to its detriment. The clarity of the wires and seams (both in terms of make-up and plot threads) are made too visible by technology.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

O. C. AND STIGGS (1987)

My name is Mike Watt and I’m here to make a confession: I’m not a fan of Robert Altman. I heard a few cheers above the boos, so at least I know I’m not alone in this cinematic sin. But it is true: the consummate actor’s director makes movies that, save a few exceptions, I cannot get into. Yes, I know; heresy, thereasy, everywhereasy. Sorry but Nashville left me cold, Gosford Park left me cold and hungry and the actors were given so much freedom on The Prairie Home Companion that it was neglect. I will give you Brewster McCloud, The Player and half of M*A*S*H. The half with Robert Duvall, anyway.

There’s one Altman film, however, that I can say with certainty that I’m virtually alone in liking. That one movie is today’s entry, O.C. and Stiggs. In the mid-80s, Altman of all people was approached to make a raunchy teen comedy, ala Private Resort, Porky’s, Private School, etc. After virtually owning the ‘70s but hitting a recent slump with such fare as Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean and Popeye, it must have made some sort of sense in the mind of Hollywood to bring this type of project to one of the biggest iconoclasts in the business. Like Ingmar Bergman’s Meatballs or Stanley Kubrick’s The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh.

Based on recurring characters created by Tod Carroll and Ted Mann for the popular “entertainment” magazine National Lampoon, with a script from Mann and Donald Cantrell, the original intention was to tell the story of “the amazingly spectacular and lunatic summer” of the title characters, complete with sleeping around with friends’ moms, driving drunk, skinny dipping with “The Sluts” and terrorizing the Schwab family. The novel-length story that inspired the script dominated one particular issue of Nat. Lampoon and had developed a cult following within and without fans of the magazine. Look again at the above. Perfect material for Altman, right?


Altman, as it turned out, was not a fan of the horny high schooler genre of films but liked the idea of doing a satire of those sorts of things. Stripping away the “asshole” nature of the title characters and focusing on the anarchy, Altman’s vision of O.C. and Stiggs became the story of two best friends who live outside the realm of social graces. Oliver Cromwell Ogilvie (“O.C., it stands for ‘Out of Control’, sez Stiggs) and Mark Stiggs (“I want you to call me Stiggs; it sounds more ridiculous,”) live in a world of their own making. Bored to death in suburban Arizona, they look for original ways to pass the time. One of their primary sources of amusement is in the torture of the “horrible Schwab family”. Patriarch Randall Schwab (Paul Dooley) owns the successful Schwab Insurance Company (“In business for just over 11 years, Misery loves our company”), makes for a typical Altman target: sheltered, nouveau riche, bigoted and tacky. The rest of his family consists of his drunken wife Elinore (Jane Curtain), daughter Lenore (Laura Urstein), who is about to marry their “caddy”, Frankie Tang (Victor Ho), and last and definitely least, Randall Schwab, Jr. (Jon Cryer), with whom they attend school, so they get to torture him there, too (via exploding water fountains and general disdain).

But there is logic behind this laser-focused harassment, as Stiggs tells African President Bongo over the Schwab’s phone. You see, Schwab Sr. cancelled the insurance of O.C.’s demented ex-cop grandfather (Ray Walston), and now he’s going to lose his home and then O.C. will have to go live with hillbilly relatives. This doesn’t sit well with Stiggs because O.C. is his best, and only, friend, for reasons that are clear from the opening moments. The problem with their little vendetta is that Schwab Sr. is barely aware of who they are and has no idea that he’s in a war at all. In Schwab world, all misfortune is caused by foreigners and drug addicts. So when the pair, say, give Schwab Jr. a machine gun at Lenore’s wedding, Schwab Sr. bellows for someone to call the cops and laments at the money already wasted on marrying his daughter to some chink caddy.

This scene contains the funniest exchange in a film rife with funny lines:

Stiggs: “Randall, how would you like to have more fun than you've ever had in your life?”

Randall: “I don't know. I've had a lot of fun. I have Legos, you know.”

When they’re not torturing the Schwabs, they’re figuring out new ways to torture everyone around them. One ingenious idea they have is buying “The Gila Monster”—an enormous and hideous truck with which to terrorize their surroundings. Which leads to the film’s second-funniest exchange with the car dealer:

Stiggs: “Number 1, we want zero miles to the gallon.”

O.C.: “Right. No MPGs. It has to be a vulgarly inefficient mode of transportation.”

Stiggs: “Loud, real loud. It has to generate a terrifyingly seismic field of noise. If we could combine really loud noise with the ugliness of poverty, we'd have the ideal car.”

Stiggs: “...making people think that you're poor, so they know you've got nothing to loose if they crash into your car... Here's a list of places I want this car to be totally unwelcome. Number one: funerals. Number two: affairs of state, you know, real formal ones...ones with...chamber music. Number three: wet golf greens. Number four: the acropolis.”

O.C.: “Ah, yes. Driving this car right in the acropolis should be completely horrifying to every civilized guy on earth.”

As their covert war escalates, Stiggs employs the assistance of a lunatic Vietnam vet played by the quintessential Vietnam Vet-playing-actor, Dennis Hopper. A burned out former-military photographer (sound a wee bit familiar?), who grows acres of marijuana and shares company with an always-armed pilot named Goon and has audible flashbacks during conversations, Sponson is the source of all their mischievous needs. And when the boys are cornered by Schwabs, it’s Sponson who leads the aerial assault on Suburbia. “Where are you, Crazy Boy? All the houses look the same!”

O.C. and Stiggs is sheer elegance in its defiant inelegance. Instead of the intellectual Porkys they’d hoped for, the producers received this manic, stream-of-consciousness tale of hijinx set against a backdrop of adobe and cactus. As is his nature, Altman fills the screen with details and oddball characters (like Stiggs’ mother who, to get into her role for a community theater performance of Cactus Flower, has filled the house with cacti and shapes food into cactil shapes). It’s not all cacophony, however. There’s an under-developed romance between O.C. and a local socialite, Michelle (Cynthia Nixon), that serves as a subplot, as does a skinny-dipping-at-the-Schwabs comedy of errors sidetrip to the home of Pat Coletti (Martin Mull), the Muumuu King.

Like many of Altman’s movies, O.C. and Stiggs is short on characterization and long on bizarre sequences. There are a lot of deus ex machina resolutions to plot threads and an extended performance by King Sunny Ade that never seems to end. O.C.’s romance with Michelle never really goes anywhere, and even after things wind up predictably hunky and/or dory for our protagonists, they continue to plague the clueless Schwabs, which makes more or less sense than in the original magazine story where they harass Schwab Jr. for the duel reasons that “He lives near us and has an enormous head”.

The key to the film is in the performances of the main characters, played by Daniel Jenkins and Neill Barry. Obviously, if you don’t like them, if you find them more obnoxious than endearing, you’re going to hate this movie, which even strident Altman fans did. However, the two wonderboy Merry Pranksters have a certain charm, even if they are indistinguishable from time to time (Stiggs wears sunglasses). And they have an unbreakable bond that gives their relationship gravity. Many modern reviewers have criticized the pair for their “homoerotic” tendencies—skinny dipping together, never appearing apart—but that isn’t apparent, particularly when viewed through ‘80s eyes. They’re inseparable chums because no one else gets them—because they don’t want anyone else to get them. They wear sombreros to the mall precisely because no one else does. Near the end, when Sponson lowers O.C. from the helicopter to Michelle’s window, the occasionally-jealous Stiggs yells out “I love you!” and gets one in return. They feel like a genuine exclamations, summing up the chaos of the day.

At the same time they’re being accused of homoeroticism, the same reviewers accuse them of homophobia, because of the way they stalk and harass two closeted teachers at a Mexican carnival. Yes, what they say seems intolerant today and yes it’s meant to be mean-spirited, but it doesn’t come off as particularly homophobic to me. Instead, it seems to strengthen the idea that these two “don’t-give-a-damns” hone in on the biggest insecurities of their “lessers” and exploit them for fun or for leverage. Combine this cruel trait with some of their sweeter or crazier moments, and they come off as real human teenagers, who are notoriously all of the above and more.

Like most other Altman movies, O.C. and Stiggs feels less like a complete story and more like a voyeuristic snapshot of the lives of disparate people. Nothing is wrapped up neatly because life doesn’t do that either. For better or worse, Altman obviously worked hard to make this fratboy lowbrow comedy into something more than the sum of its parts.

But audiences didn’t like it. After sitting it on a shelf from ’84 to ’87, MGM advertised O.C. and Stiggs as a typical Porky’s knock-off and felt cheated by the indifferent pacing and seemingly random storyline (despite the fact that the majority of the Porky’s-inspired films have similar episodic stories lacking in pacing or characterization). There’s also less nudity or profanity than one would expect from this type of thing. And hardcore Altman fans felt that their master had either flipped out or sold out, even moreso than when faced with Popeye.

So maybe it’s the contrarian in me that likes this particular Altman offering than his others. It sure isn’t because it seemed like Bob cared more about the characters. In fact, on the DVD, he spends more time apologizing for the film than discussing it. That could have something to do with my affection for this underdog as well.

Or maybe it’s because my best friend and I used to wear sombreros to the mall, and terrorized the neighborhood for no particular reason. Whereas I’ve never been to a French fashion show nor ever had anything to do with Lily Tomlin. Everyone needs something they can relate to.