Tuesday, July 30, 2019

The Last Run (1971)

The Last Run (Richard Fleischer—after John Huston, 1971)
"Father, I have sinned. Lately, I haven't done much of anything. I don't believe much. There's this thing I have to do and I want to do it right. It's the only thing I know. It's for money. But, I would like to do it right. That's all."
Harry Garmes (George C. Scott) is a driver. He used to work for the Outfit in the U.S. and for the past nine years has been living low in self-imposed exile in Portugal. His only child is dead. His wife's run off. He has few companions—his friend, Miguel, with whom he started a fishing business and ended up just selling him the boat; and Monique (Colleen Dewhurst), a prostitute with whom he is involved but not romantically. Both are business ventures. That's all.

If he has a passion, it's for a relic of the past—his vintage 1956 BMW 503 Cabriolet convertible, which Harry has customized with a supercharger—and Harry dotes on it, like a family doctor. In the title sequence—accompanied by a stately romantic theme by Jerry Goldsmith, dominated by cimbalon, strings, and harpsichord—Garmes does some final adjusting, listening, fine-tuning. We don't know it yet, but he's making final preparations for a job. It is his first in nine years, and he wants to make sure it is done right. At least, that he does his job right.
He does a test-run of the Beemer, pushing it to its maximum, and, satisfied, he does a final visit to Miguel and Monique. He leaves her with an envelope of money that he may need when he comes back—if he gets back. If, after a time, he has not retrieved it, the money is hers. Then, packing lightly, and securing a gun under the dash, he takes off for the job. On the way, he makes one last stop.
At a provincial church, he enters and takes a look around. Except for a single "vieja", the place is deserted. Seeing a confessional, he crosses over and kneels and slowly stammers out the speech at the top. Then he gets up. As he walks out, a priest comes out of the vestibule and asks if there's anything he can do for him. Harry realizes there was no one in the confessional, he was just speaking to empty air. "No, I've done what I need to do." He walks out.
His instructions are to drive to a certain spot and wait. He's given a photograph, which he memorizes and burns. He cleans his pistol and takes a long, scenic drive through the Spanish mountains to his rendezvous. He doesn't know what he's waiting for; he has the picture, the place and that's it. It's all he needs to know, except that he'll be driving his passenger to France to another rendezvous. Simple enough. 
It's never that simple. 

When Harry gets to the spot, he witnesses a rather elaborate set-up for a prison-break and his "package" escaping undetected by the guardia or anyone else. It is Paul Rickard (Tony Musante) and Garmes makes quick work of stashing him under the back-seat, throwing him a wig and a change of clothes and then gearing out of there while the authorities are still confused. It is miles before, he lets Rickard see the light of day and peppering him with questions about what he knows (nothing). But, he does find out that Rickard is more of a hired-gun than a safe-cracker, that he has plans beyond just getting to France—like hooking up with his girlfriend, and that he is one irritating, cocky son-of-a-bitch. "The job" just got that much worse.
It just gets "better" and "better." When they get to the hotel that Rickard has specified, they find Claudie Scherrer (Trish Van Devere), who has been waiting for them for two weeks. Garmes is annoyed—she gives the trigger-happy Rickard a gun, while the young tough decides he's in charge constantly needling Garmes by calling him "Uncle" and a "dinosaur." Garmes already feels like a third wheel on this job, and he sees which way it's going.  He decides to give the couple his intended double room, taking the single Claudie had been staying in, but on his way out asks to speak to Rickard privately out in the hall.
He slams Rickard into a wall face-first and puts a choke-hold on him, rasping that he's in charge and he won't be anyone's punch-line. Rickard, mollified for now, sulks back to his room, while Garmes goes up to the girl's room, finding the sink filled with her soaking underthings. 
He dutifully hangs them to dry and gets some fitful sleep. His run is suddenly more complicated and a lot more dangerous—what do his old mob-cronies want Rickard for? He's a hit-man, not a safe-cracker and hit-men are a dime a dozen. Who is on the other side of the trip to France and why do they go to all the trouble for this punk?
It turns out Garmes fears are warranted. Rickard is in jail for assassination and is to be delivered to France for disposal. That's the job. But, having completed his task, Garmes can't help but go beyond the bounds of the job and do a little over-time, getting involved against his better judgment. Why? Claudie may have the answer: "We're his family." And, as irritating as Rickard is, Garmes can't help but feel protective towards Claudie, even though he suspects Rickard is using her to influence him.
Fleischer is adept at using the film's widescreen format to show the
obvious triangulation between Harry, Paul and Claudie. It might have
 been too obvious a visual trick for Huston.
The three turn into a dysfunctional triangle of fugitives, on the lam from the very people Harry is working for, and the longer that they are in his care, he's in danger. So, he finds an alternate way to get them to a sort of safety, against his older, wiser, better judgment.
The tag-line in the film's promotional material is "In the tradition of Hemingway and Bogart," (although Bogart only did one movie based on a Hemingway story—Howard Hawks' To Have and Have Not) and Scott, in an interview in Time Magazine at the time of filming, said he was making the movie because it reminded him of old Bogart movies. Scottish writer Alan Sharp—who also wrote Arthur Penn's Night Moves—may have had that intention (the Garmes confessional scene certainly has the feel of a disjointed Hemingway monologue) and the film feels a bit like the earlier mentioned Hawks movie as well as a similarly-themed film by John Huston, Key Largo. In both, a principled, if shaded, man must make a decision he wants to avoid, as circumstances are forced on him. The Last Run certainly carries that theme, but with much more of Hemingway's existentialism than with a studio-enforced happy ending.
Interestingly, Richard Fleischer wasn't the first director on the project. John Boorman was but left the project (going on to make Deliverance, instead—good move). John Huston took over the project, having worked with Scott twice before—The List of Adrian Messenger and The Bible: In the Beginning—but the two got into loggerheads about script re-writes and the casting of Tina Aumont (daughter of Maria Montez and Jean-Pierre Aumont) as the female lead. Huston left the production quite soon after the start of filming, taking over quickly and efficiently, and working with Ingmar Bergman's director of photography Sven Nykvist.
The film did not make money, and wasn't considered a success, either at the box office or artistically, despite Scott's post-Patton notoriety. He would bounce back the next year with The Hospital (written by Paddy Chayevsky) for which he was again nominated for the Best Actor Oscar—which he again refused to acknowledge.

I recently participated in an episode of the podcast Forgotten Films where I helped discuss this rarely seen troubled Scott film. Hope you give a listen.

Scott and Huston in the early days shooting The Last Run

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Don't Make a Scene (Redux): The Wings of Eagles

It takes a lot of time to do the "Don't Make a Scene" feature that I put up every Sunday (all those screen-caps!), so while I'm preparing a bunch more, I'm going to take a break and re-post the ones that have gotten the most "hits," counting down from the 10th highest to the first. When I started compiling them, I was totally baffled by the results (enough that I'm considering posting a couple of my favorites that resonate a lot with me, once we're done with this). I would never have thought that these would be the most looked at, but here they are, as part of "Don't Make a Scene (Redux)."

The Story: Director cameos are no longer a rare occurrence. Now, you practically have to pay directors not to show up in their own movies. Hitchcock, of course, made an "in-joke" of it after he inserted himself in a scene in an early movie that needed a couple more extras, and, subsequently, did it for every film after, no matter how elaborately he had to do it (but to his credit, he usually put them towards the beginning of the picture to get it "out of the way").  

Of course, some directors you couldn't keep away from appearing before the camera—Orson Welles, for one—and most actor-directors, once they acquire the power to take "the chair" behind the camera, usually have to commit to appearing in the film as well, in order to get the chance to direct. John Huston, gets the award for hubris, though, for his work in The Bible: In the Beginning (which he directed), where he played The Narrator, Noah...and God. Type-casting.

John Ford, never had aspirations to be an actor, although he appeared in some silent films (his brother Francis was the actor in the family). But, when he made The Wings of Eagles, the life-story of the man who wrote They Were Expendable for Ford (Wead received screen-credit for one other Ford film, Airmail), the story came for Wead's introduction to Hollywood, and the director chose to model the director Wead first works with on himself (the first scripts Wead worked on were for directors George W. Hill and Frank Capra), calling him "John Dodge" (Ford? Dodge? Get it?). And it's all there—the cantankerousness, the drinking, the ubiquitous handkerchief and pipe, the dark glasses that hide the bad eye, the Western decor (messy), the four Oscars, the contrariness.

The arc of the scene is fun, and subtle in the way most people don't recognize Ford as being subtle. The set-up and through-line of the joke is that Wayne is paralyzed, and when these "Hollywood types" first see him, they are surprised, solicitous, stopping in mid-"Hollyspeak kiss-off boilerplate" to consider the man and his predicament: Miss Johnson swings open the gate for him (which Wayne gruffly thanks her for, not making a big deal of it); Dodge is stopped in mid-rant by the sight of Wead in the door-way, thinks twice about using his cane-flask for an afternoon libation ("the joke" isn't particularly funny in present company); he tries to offer a hand when Wead starts to struggle off the couch (which is rather crankily refused). Then, when the formalities are over, the agreement made, they abandon him, leaving him to his own resources, wondering what just happened, and to make his own way. Nice. And it's a statement, and it's funny, and it's character-based, and it's all done with pictures. Pure Ford.

And Frank Wead. This is not a "typical" Wayne performance. It has all the trappings of "Oscar-bait"—a debilitation—in this case, paralysis—which Wayne carries off nicely, as Wead got around with braces and canes propping up his dead legs. Think of this: in one scene, Wayne has to pull off an emotional break-up with his wife, with him lying prone on his stomach, his face hidden. Thing is, he's got such screen-presence, he still manages to pull it off, with no other gifts but his voice (and the considerable help of Maureen O'Hara, one of the few actors Wayne couldn't overshadow). Here, they dress him up in too-big, loose clothes to make him look frailer, and towards the end, he even appears—for the only time on-screen—without his toupee. It was a different Wayne role, but one that had the ring of truth to it, printed legendary (of course) to become truth...in the Ford style.

The Set-Up: Former Navy pilot Frank "Spig" Wead (John Wayne) has had his flying career ended by a fall down a flight of stairs in his home, that has left him paralyzed below the waist. Encouraged by his buddies, he has still managed to make himself walk with the use of two canes and braces on his legs. It is in this way that he manages to walk into the offices of movie director John Dodge (Ward Bond), who has made Wead an offer to help the Navy get funding, by writing scripts about the Navy for the movies.


COMMANDER FRANK 'SPIG' WEAD: I’m  Cmdr. Wead.  I think I’m…
MISS JACKSON: I’m sorry, but Mr. Dodge…
MISS JACKSON: I believe, he’s expecting you, Cmdr. Wead.
 WEAD: Thank you.
MISS JACKSON: Cmdr. Wead is here.
DODGE: -blast it, “Stonewall,” I told you I was in conference!  
DODGE: I’m not supposed to be disturbed under any circum…
DODGE: (recovering) Come on in.
DODGE: Come in, come in.  It’s good to see ya.
Dodge goes to shake his hand, but claps him on the shoulder, instead.
WEAD: Fine.
DODGE: Come here.  Sit down.  Make yourself comfortable.
DODGE: Gotta watch that couch.  It’s got a hidden spring in it someplace that surprises you sometimes.
Dodge grabs his cane.  Looks at Wead.  
He thinks twice about it, but brings it over, anyway, hoping to not offend.  Wead grunts his way onto the couch.
Wead looks at the odd pictures on the wall,* and notices Dodge’s cane, as the director sits down next to him.
DODGE: Watch that door.
Dodge fumbles under the cushion and produces two shot-glasses to Wead’s amazement.
DODGE: Here…
WEAD: Familiar?
DODGE: Ah, Commander.  I find that about this time of the afternoon, a little drink’s very good for ya.
DODGE: Good for the old pump, ya know?
WEAD: Yeah? I used to make excuses when I drank in the afternoon, too.
WEAD: Funny thing is…a man always makes the loudest excuses to himself.
DODGE: Yeah.  It’s a fact.

Dodge dismisses the philosophy and hides the cane under the couch.
DODGE: It sure is a fact.   Alright, Commander...
They clink glasses.

DODGE: There ya are.
They drink.
WEAD: ..."Commander" of a portable typewriter.
DODGE: They can be a lot harder to handle than a battleship.
WEAD: I found that out.
DODGE: Hm.  Well, I know you haven’t had much experience, writing.  And none at all in pictures.
DODGE: But, I’ve heard aboutcha.  It all sounded like you were just the man I wanted to write a story about the Navy.
DODGE: I don’t want a story…just about ships and planes, I want a story about the officers and..
WEAD: Yeah. And the men that run them.
DODGE: That’s exactly it.
DODGE: For example, do you know any Chief Petty Officers?
WEAD: Do I!  Hand me that cane!
DODGE: Sure.
WEAD: No, I’m  kidding…
DODGE: Well, I..I want this story from a pen dipped in salt-water, not dry martinis, you know what I mean?
WEAD: Yeah. “Damn the martinis.  Full speed ahead.”
DODGE: Wouldcha like to take a crack at it?
WEAD: That’s why I’m here.
DODGE: Well, That’s good.  C’mon, let’s go.  Can I give you a hand…
WEAD: No! I’m alright.
DODGE: Oh! I’m sorry. Sorry.
DODGE: I didn’t know this man was injured.  Whyn’t you tell me?  Clean out that office across the way.  See that he gets everything he wants.
DODGE: Commander.  What do they call ya?  “Spig,” isn’t it?
WEAD: That’s right.
DODGE: Mind if I call ya “Spig?”
WEAD: Not at all.
DODGE: This is Miss Jackson. 
DODGE: “Stonewall” Jackson, meet Cmdr. Wead.
MISS JACKSON: Hello, Commander.
WEAD: Hello, Miss Jackson. 
WEAD: Mind if I call you “Stonewall?”
MISS JACKSON: Not at all.
DODGE: “Stonewall” has been with me for 22 years.  She’s my barometer.  
DODGE: If she likes a script, I throw it away. Wouldn’t know what to do without her.  Now, go to work.

Dodge starts to go back to his office, but stops for one last thing. 
DODGE: Oh! You didn’t ask about your salary.
WEAD: Well, I figure you’ll pay me what I’m worth.
WEAD: What you have to worry about is if I’m worth what you pay me.
DODGE: It’s a deal.
WEAD: Well, wait a minute…is that all?
DODGE: Well, whattaya need, pencil and paper?
WEAD: Well, what do I write about?
DODGE: People.  Navy people.
Dodge shuts the office door behind him. "Stonewall" goes to prepare his office and Wead is left to contemplate what just happened.
Not sure, he starts off in the direction of the office.

Pictures by Paul Vogel and John Ford

The Wings of Eagles is available on DVD from Warner Home Video.

The real Frank Wead, and the fake (and real) John Ford

* IMDB's trivia for The Wings of Eagles says that the drawing that keeps showing up around every corner (and hangs on the last shot) is an early head-shot of John Wayne. It's not; Wayne never used that much make-up on his eyebrows. But that's, for sure, Harry Carey, in the photograph on the left. No, but they do make a joke of Wayne sitting on the couch and glancing up at a Norman Rockwell sketch of himself from The Long Voyage Home hanging on the wall of Dodge's office.