One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic and quarantine, Part 11
By Laurence Lerman
Our seemingly unending real-life disaster movie continues to unfold into 2020’s preempted summer blockbuster season, and it ain’t nearly as fun. In a disturbing mutation of traditional gallows humor, there’s a certain level of distraction to be found in the unprepared, bellicose performances regularly made by our bloated Commander-in-Chief. That it’s clear he couldn’t even follow a script if it was stapled to his sebaceous schnoz makes it all the more ridiculous.
Following a week of whatshisname rolling out his usual reprehensible repertory, I jumped back into my own streaming festival with 1971’s The Mephisto Waltz, none-too-subtly inspired by my recent streaming of István Szabó’s Mephisto from 1981.
While Mephisto found Klaus Maria Brandauer selling his soul to the Nazis in exchange for superstardom in Germany on the eve of World War II, The Mephisto Waltz finds an aging Curt Jurgens’ concert pianist transferring his soul to the body of younger pianist Alan Alda so he can continue tinkling the ivories while also getting up close and incestuous with his adult daughter Barbara Perkins. Jurgens doesn’t get any help from the Nazis in this modern-day tale, but rather the Devil himself, who undoubtedly signs off on these kinds of soul sacrifices regularly if the proper ritual is performed.
The only theatrical feature produced by television titan Quinn Martin (whose TV dominance in the Sixties and Seventies includes The Fugitive, The F.B.I., The Streets of San Francisco and Cannon, among other smashes), The Mephisto Waltz was one of a string of Satanic shockers that followed in the wake of Rosemary’s Baby. Like Polanski’s 1968 masterwork, it leans artier and is far less explicit than 1974’s The Exorcist, which kicked open a far-more-graphic gate to hell.
Directed by television veteran Paul Wendkos (whose lengthy resume includes 1975’s made-for-TV movie The Legend of Lizzie Borden with Elizabeth Montgomery), The Mephisto Waltz unsurprisingly smacks of a distinctly small-screen flavor, particularly in its staid stretches of exposition which then give way to some stylish if cheesy party and dream sequences. Filled with canted angles, wide-angle disorientation and eerie music courtesy of the great Jerry Goldsmith, it’s those scenes that bring the movie to life. Or, as in the case of a very good Jacqueline Bisset as Alan Alda’s suspicious girlfriend, possible death.
Hell, if we’re gonna swap souls, then it’s time for my favorite Alan Parker film, the 1987 occult noir Angel Heart starring Mickey Rourke and Robert De Niro. (I also bring this up this week as the boys appear to be sniping at each other, with De Niro reportedly slamming Rourke to a friend, and Rourke recently responding with an Instagram take-down proclaiming Bobby D to be a “punk ass” and a “big F-ing crybaby.”)
Based on the pulpy 1976 novel Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg, the Parker-penned Angel Heart finds sweaty Brooklyn gumshoe Harry Angel (Rourke) hired by the long-nailed, ponytailed Louis Cyphre (De Niro), a mystery man looking to collect an outstanding debt from a presumed dead crooner named Johnny Favorite. Angel’s search for Johnny takes him from Fifties era New York City to steamy New Orleans, where he crosses paths with Southern voodoo queens Lisa Bonet and Charlotte Rampling ahead of a deliciously devilish climax.
Dripping with atmosphere and foreboding (and set to a captivating Trevor Jones score, abetted by saxman Courtney Pine and blues performers Brownie McGhee and Lillian Boutté), Angel Heart still delivers with its creepy story, superlative production values and two great performances, including a career-high for Rourke (that’s right, more so than 2008’s The Wrestler) and one of De Niro’s finest supporting turns. Their four scenes together—which run no more than 20 minutes all in—are the anchor for the movie and its central mystery. (Back in the late Eighties, De Niro was still hitting his leading roles out of the park while similarly flying high with smaller bits in films like Angel Heart, De Palma’s 1987 The Untouchables and Terry Gilliam’s 1985 Brazil.)
In the most awkward of segues, I’ll put aside the Italian-American De Niro and backtrack a decade earlier for the all-Italian Luchino Visconti and his final film, 1976’s L’Innocente.
An adaptation of an 1892 novel by Gabriele d’ Annunzio, Visconti maintains the magnificent, operatic style he embraced during the second half of his career. Set in 19th Century Italy, it concerns wealthy aristocrat Tullio (Giancarlo Giannini) who neglects his lovely, soft-spoken wife Giuliana (Laura Antonelli) in favor of his monied and possessive mistress Theresa (Jennifer O’Neill, who definitely looks the part even if her voice is dubbed into Italian). Tullio’s interest in his wife is rekindled when he learns she has embarked on an affair with a preening novelist, leading to even greater problems when he discovers that she is pregnant. Passion, pride, betrayal and societal demands collide in a climax as tragic as it is inevitable.
Produced prior to his death from a stroke in 1976, Visconti reportedly directed this final work from a wheelchair following an earlier stroke and a broken leg. If he weren’t all there physically, he definitely was in a creative sense as L’Innocente lives up to the filmmaker’s lavish-bordering-on-the-decadent aesthetic while delving into some of his favorite themes, namely family misfortune by way of betrayal and infidelity. Misfortune never came off so good, with Pasqualino De Santis’s widescreen color cinematography looking so luxurious you want to dive right in.
Moving forward—or, backward, sort of—the good people of the Criterion Collection recently issued a sterling edition of Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman (1928), one of the celebrated comedian and filmmaker’s last great feature films. The first project Keaton made under his contract with MGM, it also marked the last time he had complete autonomy as a filmmaker, which had been the case over the course of the previous decade. During those years, Keaton’s extraordinary output of ten remarkable feature films (including 1925’s Seven Chances and 1926’s The General) immortalized him as one of the greatest actor-filmmakers in the history of cinema.
Rather than attempting to single out one of the Keatons—there are no fewer than four that demand to be screened and screened again!—I’m going to jump on the 2018 documentary The Great Buster: A Celebration by Peter Bogdanovich. As its title implies, the 2018 documentary is as much an appreciation of Keaton’s artistry and influence—the big chase sequence in Bogdanovich’s 1972 What’s Up, Doc? is pure Keaton—as it is a chronicle of his life and career.
Along with the usual complement of clips from Keaton’s work (shimmeringly remastered by current rights-holder Cohen Media), the Brims with comments from nearly two dozen devotees, ranging from Mel Brooks to Quentin Tarantino to Jackie Chan to Johnny Knoxville, who nearly killed himself attempting to recreate Keaton’s building collapse stunt from 1928’s Steamboat Bill, Jr.). Talk about a jackass…
In putting together his doc, Bogdanovich proceeds with a traditional chronological narrative, but then notably skips Keaton’s golden period in the middle and proceeds to his career decline and later years, doubling back to give Keaton’s greatest accomplishments their due in the final third of the film. In other words, Bogdanovich’s saves the good stuff for the end.
Would that life played out like that!
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.