The Wrongest Yard

I’d seen fragments of Jack Gold’s Jack Smight’s KALEIDOSCOPE on TV as a kid, but the impression that stuck with me was a lot of tedious card-playing (card-playing always seemed boring to me in films — still does, to a large extent — maybe it’s the 60s-70s equivalent of shots of people learning things on the internet — both poker games and computer activity are a lot less fun to watch than to DO, and movie-makers routinely portray both in a fatuously unrealistic manner calculated to offend anybody with a genuine interest). In fact, the movie has a lot more going for it, but it’s mostly buried in the narrative side-shows.

Not that there’s any problem with the central casting — Warren Beatty and Susannah York make a lovely couple. He’s his usual handsome, slightly abstracted self, and she maintains that air of wry intelligence that serves as a defence when acting in junk. The plot is derailed by a central structural blunder — instead of spending act one on Beatty’s ingenuous criminal scheme (marking the playing cards at source, at the Kaleidoscope Playing Card Factory), the movie distends this for the whole first half of the film, so that when Scotland Yard grabs him and forces him to go up against gangster and blackguard Eric Porter, the whole enterprise has just about run out of steam. The new dramatic tension does give it a kick, though, seeing it through to a reasonably enjoyable finish.

Apart from the belated appearance of suspense and drama, the scenes at Scotland Yard introduce a charming 60s quirkiness that I found irresistible. The place is first presented as a glossy marble corridor that looks more like a city hall than a police station, and it’s populated by smartly-dressed extras all doing eccentric “power walks”. It’s almost like Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks. Then we get top cop Clive Revill’s office, a split level museum of steam engines, which is naturally what I hope the head of the Metropolitan Police’s office is like, but alas I have my doubts.

This is all part of British cinema’s burst of self-confidence in the ’60s, where we suddenly learned that realism was something we could take or leave, as required. And the palpable joy of having an audience other than ourselves! “The Americans are watching! We don’t have to show them a realistic police station, they’ll believe anything we tell them!

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Revill’s top man is a sharpshooter called Aimes, played by the preternaturally camp Murray Melvin, to whom Warren takes an instant dislike, so we know that Warren is All Man. What’s nice about the movie is that (1) Murray Melvin kicks ass, blowing holes in bad guys with sociopathic serenity, and (2) Warren is shown to be less effective at action movie stuff than the slender, wispy-haired poof. In its way, KALEIDOSCOPE is one of the most progressive films of its time, because it casts a gay actor when it doesn’t need to, allows the audience to read him as gay, makes no comment about this, and has him do things which are markedly counter-stereotype — ultimately saving the hero and heroine from certain death.

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22 Responses to “The Wrongest Yard”

  1. david wingrove Says:

    Sorry, but i think the director on KALEIDOSCOPE was Jack Smight, who also made the deeply queer FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY (scripted by Christopher Isherwood, no less).

    Also notable is the casting of a very young Jane Birkin as a character called ‘Exquisite Thing’.

  2. You are, of course, correct. This reconfigures my entire view of the film since it’s now a film by an American tourist rather than an opportunistic local.

    Otherwise, Gold and Smight seem to have had comparable careers, with inexplicable highs and lows that don’t seem compatible as parts of the same two CVs, and I’m now waiting to find out that Jack Smight directed all Jack Gold’s good films, or vice versa.

    Yes, Birkin turns up in the inevitable boutique scene.

  3. Fiona W Says:

    A good point well made Mr Wingrove. I love Frankenstein: The True Story. Happy childhood memories of severed hands grabbing people and Jane Seymour having her head pulled off at a swank ball.

  4. Jenny Eardley Says:

    Yes! I loved that one, I was a fan of Leonard Whiting and I still use the line “For you, I picked it from the garden.” when offering things. I should have put that in the Verbals article comments.

  5. A good note for makers of future Frankenstein movies: the bride ALWAYS works. Oh, except maybe in The Bride. But even in the Branagh farrago, her bit is good.

  6. david wingrove Says:

    The Frank Roddam version of THE BRIDE (starring Sting and Jennifer Beals) is probably may favourite kitsch ‘guilty pleasure’ movie from the 80s. After LEGEND, of course…

    Another camp highlight of Jack Smight’s career is the immortal AIRPORT 1975, starring Karen Black as a gung-ho stewardess, Myrna Loy as a washed-up drunk, Linda Blair as an adorable child on life support and Gloria Swanson as…Gloria Swanson! You couldn’t make it up.

  7. Today’s ridiculous blockbusters are rarely THAT ridiculous, and often kind of joyless and self-regarding, so there’s a case for AIRPORT ’75 as a positive role model for makers of bad movies. The Poseidon Adventure remake looked like it was headed in that direction, but they needed more Fergie to make it work. Actually, they probably needed to cast royal Fergie alongside Black Eyed Peas Fergie.

  8. Smight is quite an interesting talent. Harper, his Ross MacDonald adpatation with Paul Newman, Janet Leigh, Robert Wagner, Pamela Tiffin (my favorite 60’s toootsie!), Julie Harris (as a jazz singing drug addict), Strother Martin and Lauren Bacall — with a great Johnny Mandel score — was a big hit. Roger Tailleur wrote a piece about it in “Positif” that Godard cited as the sort of thing CdC should do. Among other Smight delights: The Travelling Executioner and No Way To Treat A Lady. As for Frankenstein: The True Story the script was a Chris and Don collaboration. Don tells me they wrote another for Universal called The Lady From the Land of the Dead. It was a Mummy movie with a female Mummy. Universal still owns it, so. . .

  9. Interestingly Kaleidoscope was the title of a thoroughly mad seriel killer project that Hitchcock wanted to do, but Lew Wasserman of Universal turned thumbs down on. Bill Krohn has written about it — so go Google.

    Several of that projects ideas ended up in Frenzy

  10. Oh, if only Universal was in the business of making films!

    Harper kickstarted William Goldman’s career but doesn’t seem to have sent Smight onwards with comparable force. The Secret War of Harry Frigg seems utterly forgotten (that title can’t help!) and he plunged back into TV with surprising haste. The Traveling Executioner sounds like an interesting cult item though…

  11. I saw this film when I was very, very young. It made me want a career as a handsome card shark. Reality unfortunately prevailed, but I never disliked the film even when I saw it about 10 years ago. I thought it one of those ’60s pop items with spies and fast cars which was one of my guilty pleasures even in bad films.

  12. Funny, I was just re-reading an old Bordwell blog entry where he refers, in an aside near the end of the post, to the problem of making card-play interesting onscreen:

    http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2006/12/14/can-they-make-em-like-they-used-to-continued/

  13. For those in the know, poker players I’ve spoken to, movie games are always absurd and frustrating. They always go for improbable combinations of high-scoring hands, whereas the real skill is in working with average or below-average cards. “Whenever anyone gets a full house they’re treated with absolute scorn,” said one, since that’s just sheer luck.

  14. Smight also directed The Illustrated Man, which is admirably strange and also a bit on the queer side. Not sure if it’s any good, though. It’s been a while since I watched it and my main lasting memories are of a surprising amount of male nudity and Rod Steiger yelling ‘They’re not tattoos, they’re skin illustrations!’ in a shaky Southern accent. And that the Jerry Goldsmith score was pretty superb.

    Count me in as a fan of Frankenstein: the True Story as well. It’s virtues are virtually limitless. James Mason playing basically a 19th century Bond villain is an obvious highlight, but any film that finds time for cameos from Agnes Moorhead, Gielgud, and Tom Baker is clearly an important one.

  15. The Illustrated Man is certainly odd… I think it lacks energy, which is not something you can lay at Bradbury or Steiger’s door, they always suffered from an excess of the stuff.

    No Way to Treat a Lady is one I recall with affection, but I need to re-see it. It seems to be Steiger’s biggest bit of ham, balanced by the always-controlled Segal and Remick. A shame they didn’t use William Goldman’s premise of two competing serial killers, that still seems like the ultimate high-concept lark.

    Has anyone seen Rabbit, Run, with James Caan as Updike’s Rabbit?

  16. The Illustrated Man is certainly odd… I think it lacks energy, which is not something you can lay at Bradbury or Steiger’s door, they always suffered from an excess of the stuff.

    I posted this clip on Hitchcock’s Kaleidoscope, featuring some alluring test shots:

    No Way to Treat a Lady is one I recall with affection, but I need to re-see it. It seems to be Steiger’s biggest bit of ham, balanced by the always-controlled Segal and Remick. A shame they didn’t use William Goldman’s premise of two competing serial killers, that still seems like the ultimate high-concept lark.

    Has anyone seen Smight’s Rabbit, Run, with James Caan as Updike’s Rabbit?

  17. Never realized NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY & FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY were directed by the same guy. F:TTS is definitely one of my favorite post-Hammer Frankenstein adaptations. And yeah, NWTTAL is Steiger at his hammiest, but it’s at least not dull.

  18. Smight’s not any kind of auteur, so it’s not so surprising I confused him with someone else and you hadn’t associated his films with one personality. But he obviously brought consistent professionalism to the table, with an ability to channel fashionable styles, and a willingness to give Steiger his head.

  19. Oh, there’s poker and there’s Movie Poker. Movie Poker is where someone gets dealt a royal flush, or where a full house is a lousy hand. Amusing in a way but never to be taken seriously. Television is the same. There are also other games played in films which never turn out the same way in real life, mostly for being too boring to film. Who wants to see bridge played? Yet somehow Grand Slam is a hoot, and Harpo and Chico make bridge funny by obvious cheating.

    Wasn’t Steiger pretty full-throttle in The Illustrated Man? I have this memory of him hissing lines in something like a Cajun accent while lounging on a sofa in between the dull bits. I saw a whole week of Steiger films on TV back in the ’90s and it was an education.

  20. Andrew DeSelby writes —

    “both poker games and computer activity are a lot less fun to watch than to DO”

    i don’t agree. i like watching poker on tv and have learned a lot abt the game by doing so. the drama is v different than the drama of playing — one gets v interested in the personalities of the players, and there are some v vivid ones in the field. in addition, since one knows which cards everyone is holding, and since so much of poker consists of representing a hand you don’t have, it gives one a cool — i guess one cd almost say “brechtian” — insight into different modes of performance

    “They always go for improbable combinations of high-scoring hands, whereas the real skill is in working with average or below-average cards. “Whenever anyone gets a full house they’re treated with absolute scorn,” said one, since that’s just sheer luck.”

    i don’t know, it seems it can be a challenge to play a strong hand well too. in games i’ve seen that pitted pros against amateurs the latter will often signal the strength of their hand in the most obvious way possible, by making a big bet, in part because they have unlikely (statistically speaking) fears that one of the other players will make a better hand. such behavior usually tips pros off to exactly the hand their opponent holds, and they usually fold right away, so the amateur wins v little, only the blinds. the deeper skill is being able to milk a good player for a lot by disguising the strength of your hand

    in the past six years or so a new and v aggressive style of play has sprung up, daredevil players who will place big bets with just abt any two cards. in those cases it may often be less abt how they play average or below-average hands than the utterly unknowable and reckless image they’ve built up. since they cd be holding absolutely anything, opponents are willing to credit them w/ having made some really against-the-odds out — or to be holding aces, since they might play aces the same way they would 8/5 offsuit

    i think the “real skill,” to go back to yr statement, is knowing how to work w/ whatever hand you have, good or bad, in the circumstances yr in. that may sound v general but i think it’s more accurate. part of that skill is kind of math-y, a thing i’m not much good at, of being able to estimate the likelihood of making a good hand and the amount of money the chance is worth, but the other part is psychological — “playing the players rather than the cards,” as they say. there’s a weird empathy involved, since the player has to project him/herself into the minds of opponents and try to figure out what cards and what strategy would lead them to act as they have

    poker’s a complicated and fascinating game

  21. The “aggressive play” is something that reckless kids do almost naturally, much like the kid in baseball who runs the bases past all sanity and doesn’t get tagged out simply because the defense is inexperienced or inept. I’m not surprised that someone has crafted it into a style of playing poker. It would take some time to shoot down a skilled practitioner, since a player like that is not giving anything away.

  22. A conversation I had with David Cairns offsite comes to mind: the “competing serial killers” schtick of Goldman’s source novel for No Way to Treat a Lady was brilliantly re-used in the Yugoslavian film Strangler Vs Strangler, which (among other interstitial delights) quotes Jean-Pierre Melville (actually, just lifts an entire scene, the old cop going home to his cats, and does a shot-for-shot restaging) and the score from Kiss Me Stupid. I cherished the idea of doing an English-language remake until DC disabused me of the notion that this plot was entirely original.

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