Thursday, September 2, 2010

Quickies: LORD JIM (1965)

Like a lot of my fellow bloggers, I watch many more movies than I write about. There are some I don't feel inspired to write about at all, whether I liked them or not, and some that might be worth a comment, but not worth a full-length review or even an "In Brief." For such films, I hope to keep "Quickies" to some minimal length that would let me do several a day, depending on my mood, or at least have something new every day.

I'll start with Richard Brooks's adaptation of Joseph Conrad's novel, starring Peter O'Toole in a role that reminded too many early reviewers of his T. E. Lawrence for David Lean. Looking at it now, I'm reminded less of O'Toole's past than of Conrad's future as raw material for cinema. This is, after all, a Conrad story largely set somewhere in Southeast Asia -- it was filmed in Cambodia -- so you can imagine Francis Coppola or John Milius or George Lucas watching Lord Jim and experiencing the first hint of Apocalypse Now in his imagination. That might be the film's only real contribution to movie history. On it's own, Brooks's film starts strong with the hero's moral crisis aboard the supposedly-doomed steamship Patna, but once the story settles down in beleaguered Patusan it turns into a ponderously pretentious action film. The villains ruin the film. The first is Eli Wallach, back when Hollywood considered him the next J. Carroll Naish, in one of his more ludicrous portrayals of an ethnic villain. He struts about in a variety of silly outfits, most unforgettably in a black sleeveless vest that suggests an imminent invasion of Times Square circa 1980 rather than the conquest of a Buddhist village. Worse, his every utterance is some sort of thematic statement tied in to our hero's concerns with courage and honor. His sidekick, Curt Jurgens, is treated as if he were some truly loathsome wretch, but the actor confines himself to moping and grumbling. Later, after Wallach is eliminated, Jurgens seeks out a new master, a greater badass than the last, to salvage Wallach's loot. He summons a bearded, bowler-hatted James Mason, who simply seems lost. None of the villains acts broadly enough to live up to their silly costumes or their roles in the plot. When they aren't bloviating or philosophizing they utter such complete cliches as "A calm night...too calm." O'Toole acquits himself well by comparison, but is trapped by the story's requirement that he face one moral crisis too many. Brooks, writing as well as directing, isn't satisfied with demonstrating Jim's dilemmas through action. He must hammer the theme home until your head hurts, the action stops making sense, and you no longer really care what happens to Jim. I read the novel long ago, and I don't remember it ending as stupidly as this movie does. The film is nearly watchable for its widescreen location work and its antique ships, but most of that's out of the way by the time we reach Patusan, and it's not enough to justify sticking around for the rest of the picture. I often think of myself as a sucker for the epic films of the Fifties and Sixties, and in this case sucker sounds exactly right.

1 comment:

Ivan said...

"Ponderously pretentious" is a nice summation of Riochard Brooks' output. I'll watch Lord Jim (available on Nflix insta-view), but I know that'll be a Brooks movie, meaning some interesting moments surrounded by preachy, heavy-handed intellectual bullying. His sermonizing even spoils The Professionals for me. BTW, the novel Lord Jim is just pure awesomeness (and I really should reread it).
Keep up the good work!