Wednesday, February 4, 2009

When bad producers happen to good films

As always... I finally got around to something, namely the film version of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, one of my favorite American novels. This isn't as much of a "finally" as usual, because it was only released on DVD very recently, and till then I had been hoping to catch it on someone's Tivo. The novel is mostly famous for its incisive portrayal of Europe's post-WWI ennui and barely concealed rage, as viewed through bitter American expat eyes.

I was always curious about this film not just because of the novel it's quite faithfully adapted from, but also because I, loving swordfighting films, always loved Errol Flynn's Robin Hood as a child, and this was sort of his mature character actor comeback in his turbulent middle age, right before his death. Unfortunately, I never really put that together too well with the novel to ask the logical question why someone so old and battered-looking was cast in the first place. It's one of the major flaws of the film -- the cast is mostly so old that it looks like the Lost Generation has survived the second world war and is lost again. There's not much effort to make it look like the twenties, either (I admit I am not a costuming expert, so maybe I'm wrong), and it just looks like a melodrama of middle-aged drunken drifters. With the exception of a horribly wooden young actor as the supposedly charismatic bullfighter who Brett runs off with.

The production values are reasonably lavish, though people in the production complained bitterly about filming in Mexico instead of Pamplona. As a matter of fact, they're too lavish for the film's own good. It just doesn't look right when Jake, the drunken newspaper writer hero who's probably the best and smartest of the lot, sleeps in freshly ironed striped pajamas and pulls on a lavish robe when Brett awakens him in the middle of the night. There's altogether too much pageantry around the bullfighting, some of which works to mirror the tangled emotions of the characters, but plenty of which is just show.

Adaptation's quite faithful, as I said, with three major flaws. Robert Cohn's Jewishness is entirely gone, which is something that it's possible to get away with only if you then emphasize his status as someone who didn't fight in the war. Without either, he's just damn annoying. The compression of time makes Brett look like a big whore, frankly, rather than a lost and desperate woman (even if she is commonly regarded as a nymphomaniac). And finally, and most awfully, the film doesn't have the courage to end with the bleak exchange, "Oh, Jake, we could have had such a good time together." "Isn't it pretty to think so?" Jake says it rather angrily in the last scene, rather than bleakly, but the film ends on the weak invented dialogue, "There must be an answer for us somewhere." "I'm sure there is." It's just as empty of any solution as the original, without the stoicism-cum-cynicism. Maybe Jake is supposed to be pacifying Brett, knowing full well that there is no answer, but in that case, why diverge from the great original lines?

For all these flaws, I blame Darryl F. Zanuck, who may have produced a few good films, but made a hell of a lot of bad ones to fill his Twentieth-Century Fox pipeline. Of course, solid but slightly stodgy director Henry King isn't exactly free of blame, either.

It bothers me all the more because I love the film for its ability to offer the one thing that you can't get from the novel: a look at Jake from the outside. He's the narrator of the novel, the most damaged ex-soldier psychologically and physically. The film takes care to spell this out by throwing in an awful flashback in which the doctor announces to him that he's going to be impotent, a word nowhere to be found in Hemingway. Regardless, watching Jake suffer is even more wrenching than reading his adjectiveless account of his suffering. Some of Tyrone Power's line readings were illuminating to me. Ava Gardner, as Brett, is lovely, Eddie Albert is a solid and sympathetic Bill Gorton, and even Mel Ferrer isn't bad as Cohn, but all in all, the cast could have benefited from much better direction and less stuff going on around them. A similar movie that springs to mind, filled with aging stars playing drifters, is Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable's last movie, The Misfits. It had a kind of spareness that this film unfortunately lacked.

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