Oh God! You Devil!

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.

13 Responses to “Oh God! You Devil!”

  1. Going by the bizarre number theories that David Lynch lives by (see Twin Peaks: The Return DVD extras) Two hours five minutes = 125 minutes, 1+2+5= 8.

    If 10 is the “number of completion” (see Peaks) what is 8?

    A lazy google reveals
    “The number 8 represents Infinity and everything good in the universe which is infinite, such as infinite love, infinite supply, infinite energy, infinite time . . . in other words, 8 represents complete and unending abundance without any lack.”

    Pretty wise number for your religious movies.

  2. Then there’s Crazy Eights.

  3. One of the best books ever written about Hollywood, “The Cleopatra Papers” consists of the correspondences between the film’s publicists Jack Brodsky and Nathan Weiss. They were hired when FOC thought the film wasn’t getting enough publicity. By the time they were brought on Taylor and Burton had erupted. It was all they could do to keep up with events spiraling out of control Meanwhile the studio was falling apart for other reasons. Weiss to Brodsky: : I just saw the ad in the Sunday “Ties” on “Satan Never Sleeps” and it needs no comment. It is the incredible of all time. A Chinese girl raped in front of a priest and Fox is trying to tell the world it’s another ‘Going My Way’ !!”

    Clifton Webb as a pries is truly hilarious. He’s confused by the sight of France Nuyen in that, being a Catholic priest he was obviously expecting an altar boy to fuck.

  4. I haven’t seen this film of McCarey’s and I think from reading this, it’s best to avoid it. I remember reading WHO THE DEVIL MADE IT, Bogdanovich’s interview with McCarey and he expressed disappointment in it. I haven’t seen McCarey’s penultimate film either: ”Rally ‘Round The Flag, Boys”.

    MY SON JOHN though is I think a great film. A movie made by a guy totally confused about stuff, and it reflects that, and I think it’s the movie that really puts across the mentality of the McCarthy era in a way that no one in that time managed.

  5. “Rally Round the Flag Boys” is a very entertaining comedy with no political content whatsoever. The Newmans star and Tuesday Weld and Joan Collins play lively supporting roles.

  6. I wrote about Rally , not unsympatherically I hope: https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/the-forgotten-leo-mccarey-s-rally-round-the-flag-boys-1958
    It’s an odd and uncomfortable film too, but often in good ways.

    I was trying to think what would make me like My Son John. I think it would have to engage with actual politics, and I don’t think it could have Van Heflin as a noble HUAC operative.

    A crazy infinite eight seems a good number for McCarey.

  7. To me what makes My Son John work is Helen Hayes’ performance, and the whole intensity of her fixation on Robert Walker as her son. Tag Gallagher wrote about it here (http://www.screeningthepast.com/2014/12/going-my-way/).

    Van Heflin’s FBI Agent is not entirely sympathetic and the way the narrative frames the surveillance of the government doesn’t come across as supportive or lionizing in any way.

    None of this is to say that My Son John is secretly of the devil’s party or any such thing. It is a Pro-HUAC, Pro-McCarthy film and that has to be acknowledged and accepted, but it’s made by someone from the inside who understands the mentality of the people who have that attitudes, and it gives some sense of the mentality, the paranoia, and the utter fear and despair in the nuclear family that leads people to turn to that. James Baldwin pointed that out. He wasn’t a fan of the film obviously but he noted that the film seemed confused and unwittingly self-condemning, and he noted that the movie still made Robert Walker the most appealing character.

  8. In part because Walker IS McCarey: the educated son of, in reality, a boxing promoter. Talking to Bogdanovich, he seems most engaged by the idea of the son being embarrassed by the father who paid for his education. I guess the movie needs the communism thing as a plot motor for the bits that feel well-observed and interesting, but it’s the plot that lets it down.

    It amazes me how those rabid anti-communists never seemed to know anything about it: “It’s not on the level,” was the best Gary Cooper could do. Probably the atheism was the only thing that mattered, not the human rights violations.

  9. What makes “My Son John” “work” for me is Robert Walker’s performance — which is the gayest thing in code-era Hollywood outside of Clifton Webb. He makes Franklin Pangborn look butch!

  10. It makes total sense that they finished the film after his death with repurposed shots from Strangers on a Train, where again he’s a gay-coded transgressor with an angry father and a smothering mother.

  11. Well American communists were involved in African-American enfranchisement, affirmation action, and union advances. There was a lot of good stuff the American communists did, even by the same people who were okay with Stalin. That’s a huge story that nobody is willing to tell.

    After all the American anti-communist movement didn’t really care about the USSR’s human-rights record, not in any real sense as the Cold War proved.

    Communism in America became a kind of “other” in which one could define “the real America” which tended to be white/male/straight and in a lot of cases pro-Confederate…and Robert Walker’s character in MY SON JOHN in the way that he projects homosexuality reflects the persecution of homosexuals in America in the same time (of course homosexuals were also persecuted by communist nations in the same time, which goes to show how little it was really about human rights or actual communism). And of course McCarthy, Hoover, and Roy Cohn were in the closet and obviously quite keen to repress and identify with the hegemony (whose ghost has a rich afterlife as in the career of his last and most successful apprentice, the current Prez)

  12. Well said.

    The Cohn connection is fascinating: in a sane world, nobody connected to that guy would have a chance in modern politics.

  13. Well the people connected to Cohn were fairly successful for a while. McCarthy was certainly popular and successful and Eisenhower piggybacked on him to get elected before deep-sixing him. And of course Trump is the most successful demagogue in American political history, going further and succeeding where McCarthy and others failed. So I think maybe Cohn understood American society more than we would like to credit him. By that I mean he understood American power and how it worked not that he had a vision that was valid or a viewpoint that was defensible, which he didn’t.

    I think we should give up the whole “sane world” hypothesis. I mean after Trump, movies like ”Citizen Kane” and ”A Face in the Crowd”, and even ”Network” became dated because their particular assumptions about American norms was no longer true. Kane lost but Trump won. Lonesome Rhodes lost out after he was caught mouthing off in public, but Trump won regardless. Howard Beale was cut down by the all-powerful cabal of the Network but in real-life the likes of Beale (Alex Jones, Bannon, Trump) won over the executives and smart-alecks. So all of that, regardless of what you think about them as films and how accomplished they are, is dated and useless as satire, because their particular vision, their warnings went unheeded and they were too optimistic.

    THE KING OF COMEDY is the only movie that really works in terms of its view of mass media and the way celebrity and the flouting of norms leads to a more amoral public space. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET likewise since DiCaprio’s Belfort and his speeches are pretty prophetic of the Trump rallies.

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