Saturday, February 23, 2008

Lumet's Journey through theater

Blogging about Equus (how does an 18-year-old get buff like that? Why didn't/don't I have that physique? God's gifts are parceled so unequally. "Mediocrities--I absolve you all!"--Amadeus) reminded me that I have the 1977 film version of Peter Shaffer's play on my DVR. It's one of the blue-chip titles (three Oscar nominations) that is not part of Film Forum's ongoing retrospective of the 83-year-old director's work, which this Wednesday brings one of the supreme stage-to-screen adaptations, 1962's Long Day's Journey Into Night.

Already shown was his first film, 1957's Twelve Angry Men, another superior filming. The brig-setThe Hill and The Offence (the latter airing on the Encore Action channel tomorrow morning), part of his underrated collaboration with Sean Connery (they've made five films together, and those two play adaptations boosted Connery's status as a serious actor) were also part of the retrospective, and it's my hope that an enterprising play producer or two saw them from Film Forum's more comfortable new chairs--to the best of my knowledge never produced locally, they would make terrific premieres, with strong roles for the performers. The Offence, detailing a cop's relentless grilling of a suspected pedophile, is the kind of pressure cooker tailor-made for a small, no-escape Off Broadway house.

Due this Tuesday is a double bill of 1959's The Fugitive Kind, from Tennessee Williams' Orpheus Descending, and a rare screening of his 1961 take on Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge, an Italy/France co-production with an odd transcontinental cast. Shown last week was an admirable try at The Sea Gull, from 1968, which I saw. It's not Lumet's fault that the print was distractedly ragged, nor that Chekhov's distinctive stage rhythms resist the camera. (He would never had made it in Hollywood.) A weakness for foreign-born stars in English-language material is: Anna Magnani is a good try opposite a snakesuit-jacketed Marlon Brando and Joanne Woodward in the Williams, but Simone Signoret's accent as the domineering Arkadina in The Sea Gull smothers many of her lines in a thick French sauce. Pauline Kael noted that when her character says "I'm on the qui vive," audience members mistook it for "I'm on the TV" and were rightly confused at the apparent 20th century-ism; the same thing happened at Film Forum, 40 years later.

But Vanessa Redgrave made a spectacular Nina, and her Morgan! co-star David Warner (as Kostya), James Mason (as Trigorin), Harry Andrews (Sorin), and Kathleen Widdoes (Masha) were right behind (Denholm Elliott, as Dr. Dorn, lost points for a curious white hairpiece that sat strangely on his head). Lumet, an actor himself (the first, Yiddish theater-inflected play he was in, 1940's Morning Star, was revived off off Broadway last summer), knows that casting is key, and his best films, on and off stage as it were, are perfectly judged in this regard. The bad decisions linger: There's a reason The Last of the Mobile Hot Shots (another stab at Williams), the forlorn and atypical spectacle of The Wiz, and the deadly version of Deathtrap aren't getting a spin on the marquee, though I'd like to see what he made of the stage thriller Child's Play.

Long Day's is very much what happens when everything goes right. The film devastated me when I saw it on TV many years ago, worked me over when I caught it again at college, and deeply affected me once more when my movie group screened it last year. Much acclaimed though it was, the 2003 stage revival (with a hammy Redgrave) played like one of Lumet's worthy but unsatisfying clinkers; only Robert Sean Leonard seemed to be on the proper O'Neill-ian wavelength. Not so the film, an unrelenting portrait of domestic hell indelibly peopled by Katharine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson (in a part Gabriel Byrne must play the next time the show is revived), Jason Robards, Jr., and Dean Stockwell (such a deep resume--what an autobiography he could write). It's a Journey that must be taken at least once, and Lumet at the top of his judgment (ideal casting, appropriate, and minimal, "opening out" of the material, conservative but highly effective camerawork) gave it a first-class passage to the cinema.

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