Pool Sharks

Photographic consultant Haskell Wexler — and so we get some striking and not-yet fashionable long lens shots…

STUDS LONIGAN carries its literary origins somewhat heavily, as if producer/screenwriter Philip Yordan really felt the weight of responsibility of adaptation. But it’s a fascinating artifact — Irving Lerner, a talented pulp B-movie specialist with a flair for two-fisted minimalism akin to Jack Webb’s, does his best to create prohibition Chicago out of a few doorways.

As an indie no-budget studio-bound art film, the movie is nicely suis generis, and has genuine merits. “Jerrald” Goldsmith’s rambunctious score tries hard to tie the fragments together (Yordan has gutted James T Farrell’s trilogy and served up his favourite bits with little regard to flow or structure), and the cast sparks moments of excitement. Christopher Knight tries hard in the lead, and when he’s taking his lead from his co-stars, he’s quite good. When he tries to emote along to his voice-over, trumping up facial contortions to accompany each line, he’s awful. But his gang includes Frank Gorshin (ever-morphing between his Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas and Richard Widmark impressions), Robert Casper (great nasal voice, clapped-in mouth, a real character) and Jack Nicholson, who isn’t uncomfortable and outclassed as he appears in Corman’s THE RAVEN, but utterly in command of every scene and moment. The role of young rake seems to suit him.

A lengthy burlesque show scene has Nicholson baring his teeth and bouncing on his seat as a woman walks about the stage in a shiny dress and opera gloves for minutes on end. Never gets dull. Midway through, Lerner cuts to Studs visiting his sexy, lonely former schoolteacher (Helen Westcott), and keeps the bump and grind music going, then tracks in on the drunk Studs and shows the schoolteacher doing the burlesque act, and doing it well, as the real teacher prattles on about Mozart, sound faded way down, and the squiffled Studs psychs himself up to rape her. With flash-cutting between the real and fantasy, the scene reaches quite a frenzy, before mercifully and unexpectedly defusing itself with tenderness. If the movie had more sustained scenes and less voice-over… well, it still wouldn’t have a cinematic structure.

Lerner holds close-ups for minutes on end, turning the lack of production values into a benefit, and slashes together dutch tilts to trump up tension when the actors can’t quite muster it. His Chicago consists of one little Old New York street set and a few bare interiors. Little wonder Wexler’s ideas must have been helpful: throw everything out of focus except one item/actor. (I recently watched the Outer Limits episode The Man Who Was Never Born, shot by Wexler — he was a genius right from the off.)

Lerner’s collaborator on the acclaimed doc MUSCLE BEACH, Joseph Strick, spent his whole career tackling unfilmable literary classics, with debatable success. This was Lerner’s one real attempt at doing the same, but his tiny, unpretentious and edgy thrillers are probably of greater value. Still, as curate’s eggs go, STUDS LONIGAN is endearing, both for its modest merits and for the way it points to a putative sub-genre of cheap classic adaptations (like Welles’ MACBETH, in a way) that never quite managed to come into existence.

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6 Responses to “Pool Sharks”

  1. Funny that you should mention “The Man Who Was Never Born,” since I watched a lot of OUTER LIMITS as a child and that was one of my two favorite episodes. (*Love* Martin Landau in it and, especially, Shirley Knight). But I hate to say that the cinematographer for that episode — whose work is, indeed, outstanding — is Conrad Hall, not Haskell Wexler.

  2. My other favorite episode, since you aksed, was “Demon with a Glass Hand.” Directed by Byron Haskin, script by Harlan Ellison, starring Robert Culp.

  3. You are correct (damnit)!

    Photographically, there are correlations, but the Outer Limits episode is prettier.

    I’m planning to see the Ellison also. It was one of the stories he sued James Cameron over, claiming that The Terminator ripped them off. In fact, The Man Who Was Never Born ALSO anticipates the central plot conceit of that movie — as does John Wyndham’s Consider Her Ways, adapted by The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. So I’m curious to see how much there is in common.

  4. Reference was made to the above by Anita Pallenberg in Performance

  5. The Outer Limits is quite Borgesian at times, which ties it nicely to the Roeg-Cammell classic.

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