The Reluctant Revenant

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My trawl through the less-explored Minnellis continues — thanks to David Wingrove for recommending this one. Introducing Martin Scorsese’s personal Technicolor print of THE BAND WAGON in Bologna, Ian Christie remarked that Marty considers Minnelli to be still an underrated auteur. Very well, I say, let’s take him seriously, which means looking for themes and stylistic motifs in his lesser films as well as the acknowledged classics.

GOODBYE CHARLIE, modestly opened-out from the play by George Axelrod (THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH and others of note), has maybe the most transgressive plot premise of any Minnelli. Pair it with ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER and call it his Diptych of Reincarnation (doesn’t Eddie “Rochester” Anderson get restored to life at the end of CABIN IN THE SKY? Could we call this an informal trilogy? This auteurist is drooling at the thought). Charlie, a hypermasculine screenwriter rake/heel, is shot dead when caught in flagrante with a movie producer’s wife, falling into the sea — only to emerge, post-funeral, in the form of Debbie Reynolds. (One wants to say “alluring form,” and one could, as Debbie is cute as a button, but one does get the impression the script has something more like Jayne Mansfield in mind.) Best buddy Tony Curtis has to deal with the fallout.

I wonder how this worked as a play? It doesn’t work as a film, in strict plot terms — audience identification is split between best buddy Tony Curtis and his back-from-the-dead transgender pal; subplots tantalise with the possibility of Reynolds actually getting intimate with (another?) man; a homicide detective turns up to make Tony nervous, but why? On Broadway, was some immoral element explored that had to be chopped from the movie script, leaving lacunae and shapelessness? I’m not too bothered, because what’s left is highly entertaining and quite peculiar.

Opening credits — director’s name revealed in the purple interior of a yawning clam. Well well.

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Scene 1 is part of the opening out — it shows how Charlie met his maker (but not how he gets remade). Minnelli, perhaps assuaging the nervous hetero element in the crowd, gives us generous footage of a Playboy Playmate doing the twist, a dance which mostly seems to involve shaking her tits (I had never thought of the twist this way before). Fiona admired her dress. I admired the way her breasts jostled for supremacy (partly) within it.

Minnelli accompanies this action with strange handheld lurches, leering in on several of the characters, which at first seems like a subjective drunkenness effect, then like a seasick thing, then becomes completely inexplicable, resembling the mad bursts of handheld frenzy in LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN or TRAGIC CEREMONY — handheld disorientation served up purely as a stylistic garnish.

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A very Minnelli widescreen shot. Burstyn on the right.

Then we’re into ninety-very-odd minutes of typically elegant Minnelli mise-en-scene, with occasional outbursts of excess pizzazz. Tony Curtis confirms his status as capable farceur, and Reynolds is fantastic, not overdoing the butchness or underselling it either. Astonishment: there’s Ellen Burstyn (before she took that name), playing comedy with gusto and skill. This could maybe form a duologue for her with THE EXORCIST: both are insider Hollywood stories in which a girl is possessed by a male identity and the solution is arrived at by defenestration.

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Further astonishment: the manslaughtering movie producer, clearly based on Alexander Korda (he’s a Hungarian and a knight) with maybe a side-order of William Randolph Hearst (jealous yacht-based assassin), is played by Walter Matthau. Old scrotumnal-face had mainly been making his living in hero’s pal or sneaky villain roles, but I guess ENSIGN PULVER had just unveiled his comic chops (and what chops they are!). However, the manic silliness of his work here is beyond anything he’d attempted on the big screen to this date, making even his most excessive moments in A NEW LEAF seem restrained. His “accent” is a wonderful creation all his own, owing nothing to any set of sounds previously mouthed by modern man. One has no idea whether his self-description “not unattractive” would have been so hilarious if anyone else had played the role — Matthau, of course, is an extremely attractive player, but for him to play a man who uses that phrase is priceless.

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Another highlight is Pat Boone. Enjoy that sentence as this is likely the only chance you’ll ever get to read it. Boone plays the mother’s-boy son of a millionaire businesswoman, mollicoddled since conception. He falls for Charlie immediately, based on her looks (she’s naked when they meet) and her knowledge of sports cars. There’s a spectacularly smutty exchange of double entendres about Boone’s malfunctioning Maserati.

Jesus, did Boone know what he was doing to himself with this role? “I do drink on special occasions: mother’s birthday, or the election of a Republican president.” Curtis gets a scene where he almost necks with Reynolds, and comes to his senses feeling squicky, but Boone actually kisses her/him. And the mother obsession is astonishing — mother is apparently absent attending to her many businesses, but when Pat leads Debs down to the wine cellar we half expect to find momma mummified in a corner. At one point, Minnelli jump-juts straight down the line on mum’s portrait, as if she were the Frankenstein monster or the eyeless farmer-corpse in THE BIRDS.

Boone was either completely clueless or a very good sport — I hate to give him credit, but I think he was at least somewhat aware. He gives really good stooge, and you can’t do that unknowingly in a comedy.

If you can manage it, I highly recommend seeing this crazy thing. You get Minnelli’s playful/transgressive side given freer reign than even in TEA AND SYMPATHY. You get his undiminished suavity as a master of camera blocking. This is probably his last good movie. It’s not wholly successful, but all the disconnected bits are good — we’re back to the FRANKENSTEIN metaphor again.

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8 Responses to “The Reluctant Revenant”

  1. Goodbye Charlie worked fairly well as a play. I saw the original production, which starred Lauren Bacall. Debbie is of course WAY butcher than Betty. But overall this is Axlerod outsmarting himself. He wanted to parody womanizers by having one of the “come back as a woman.” But having “come back” Charlie has nowhere to go.

    Pat Boone is truly baroque casting. One day I must read you the letter he sent to me in response to my favorable review of The Last Temptation of Christ. Bing a dirty Christ-killing Jew like Lew Wasserman (who the film’s opposition saw as is real auteur, not Roman Catholic Marty) I was going to Hell. But Pat volunteered to pray for me anyway and offered a last chance at forgiveness if I would kiss his ass.

    AS IF

  2. La Faustin Says:

    “If I were not Hungarian by birth, I would be speechless!”

  3. Wow. I knew Boone was a dick politically, but I didn’t realize he was part of that anti-semitic movement. Even Schrader was surprised by that flavour of the protests against Last Temp.

  4. I have a TON of Hate mail. “Unbelievable” but All Too True.

  5. You should publish it as a book!

  6. I saw a very strange Minnelli last week in the noir season at the Cinematek – Undercurrent (1946) in which tomboy spinster scientist Katharine Hepburn marries rich Mr Perfect (Robert Taylor) – only to find he’s pretty much a sociopath. Have you seen that? Reminded me of Ophüls’ (much better) Caught, but it’s sunk by miscasting – I just can’t take Hepburn seriously as a damsel in distress, plus I find Taylor a bit wooden and charmless. Robert Mitchum plays his mysterious brother, who is described as not good-looking.

    There’s a preposterous ending involving horses, but the best bits – and the scenes in which Minnelli seems most at ease – are the high society parties where Hepburn finds herself out of her depth. Karl Freund was cinematographer and studio was MGM, which I gather wasn’t best known for its noir output.

  7. Oh, MGM was constitutionally unsuited to noir!

    But Undercurrent is interesting, if unsuccessful. It’s almost a Gothic, and they could do Gothic (they did Gaslight). But yes, Taylor is dull and Hepburn too tough for that kind of story.

    When I wrote about the film, I mainly wrote about Robert Mitchum’s gay house.
    https://dcairns.wordpress.com/2013/06/18/who-lives-in-a-house-like-this/

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