Archive for January 8, 2018

Oh God! You Devil!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 8, 2018 by dcairns

SATAN NEVER SLEEPS on the one hand would have made a great entry for The Late Movies Blogathon but on the other hand it’s simply too depressing. One thing that makes a director’s disappointing final opus more than just dispiriting is when said director references previous, better movies. Auteur status is simultaneously confirmed and travestied. And so it is in this 1962 turkey from Leo McCarey, filmed on location in matte-painting China and on the hillsides of Wales.

There are insistent callbacks to earlier, better McCarey films, and I may have to raise my estimation of GOING MY WAY and THE BELLS OF ST MARY’S since compared to this they look like the masterpieces some benighted souls claim they are. William Holden plays a priest sent to relieve an older, more staid priest, Clifton Webb (GOING MY WAY is basically reprised in this idea). A new element is added: Holden has saved the life of France Nuyen and she’s fallen in love with him and is basically stalking him. Then again, the story posits old-fashioned religious values against the dread communism, staged as a kind of father-son conflict (repeating MY SON JOHN). The wicked commie, Weaver Levy, dismisses the kids from the mission school upon his arrival, upsetting the nuns, as Bing Crosby does in THE BELLS OF ST MARY’S, then falls in lust with Nuyen and rapes her. When she bears his child and he tries to apologise, he falls into double-talk straight out of THE AWFUL TRUTH — “If things were the same, it would be different…” etc. Holden reunites the couple to create a nuclear family, again like Crosby in TBOSM does with William Gargan and Eva Novak. That’s right: Holden marries Nuyen to her rapist for a smiling, laughing happy ending.

This scene is made weirder by all the characters being superimposed into the church setting, and Holden’s poorly-matted vestments turn transparent like the parrot in CITIZEN KANE. Is he a ghost? Are we in space? Those painkillers poor McCarey was hooked on must’ve been some really good shit.

The characters walk down this road, there’s a cutaway to where they’re headed, and then they walk through the same shot AGAIN. Surreal.

The idea of harking back isn’t an obnoxious one in itself, and McCarey had always done it, repurposing gags from his early Charley Chase and Laurel & Hardy films in features like THE AWFUL TRUTH and MY FAVORITE WIFE. Even the idea of stealing bits out of the reassuring, sentimental priest movies and deploying them in a dysfunctional, creepy movie full of neck-snapping tonal shifts might work for me because I kind of dislike the priest movies, in case you hadn’t noticed. But the film doesn’t display any of Leo’s early sure-footedness: there are a few small laughs (Burt Kwouk!) and some dramatic moments that aren’t totally abortive, but the playing is often wildly mistimed: Nuyen and Webb might be acting via satellite link with time-lag. McCarey knew there was a problem: he told Daney & Scorecki (and Bogdanovich, in identical language) that he didn’t like Holden, Webb or Nuyen. Probably, as director and producer, he shouldn’t have cast them, then.

At least with Holden his dislike seems motivated: he claimed Holden nixed his preferred ending, which would have seen the character looking to the heavens for a sign from God, and being inspired by a helicopter (rather anachronistically for 1948 China, I suspect), and then giving his life to save the others. The revised climax leaves Holden standing as an impotent witness to a lesser character’s sacrifice, so it’s hard to imagine an action star preferring this, and Holden had cheerfully died for Wilder and Lean and would do so again for Peckinpah. I’m probably missing a few. I think it might have been the helicopter-as-sign-from-God bit that Holden objected to, since this isn’t used in the film as it stands, where it could presumably have been retained. But then Holden could still have died.

Anyhow, Leo lost all enthusiasm and let his assistant finish the last week of shooting.

Weirdly, the movie, at two hours and five minutes, is EXACTLY the same running time as both GOING MY WAY and THE BELLS OF ST MARY’S. Theories welcomed.

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