Saturday, November 30, 2019
With Martin Scorsese’s THE IRISHMAN fresh on the brain, it’s impossible not to think of certain other late films by great directors which feel like summations of everything they’ve ever said and done. Something like THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE wasn’t really John Ford’s last film but it very much represents the last word of everything he was saying, just as THE IRISHMAN feels like the last statement on every Scorsese protagonist who was by himself at the end, isolated from everyone and everything he ever knew. Of course, there will likely be more Scorsese films to come, hopefully for years, but as is forever inevitable, sometimes the end is the end. And final films are usually not meant to be final films. For John Huston, THE DEAD can certainly be read as a coda to his long career but with John Cassavetes it was BIG TROUBLE, a favorite of mine but not at all one of his personal projects and one he reportedly disowned, unhappy it would be thought of as his final film. Plus there’s Alfred Hitchcock and FAMILY PLOT, Howard Hawks and RIO LOBO, Tony Scott and UNSTOPPABLE, Blake Edwards and SON OF THE PINK PANTHER just to name a few and it’s easy to read finality into any of these to look for some sense of completion. It’s what we do. In reality, these were likely directors still hoping to make more for as long as humanly possible which is how it should be.
Of course, BUDDY BUDDY will always be known as the final film directed by the great Billy Wilder so it’s hard not to look at it as the end of something significant. A comedy so cynical that there’s nowhere really to go once it’s over, it practically qualifies as a final, definitive statement of a world view. How much it succeeds as comedy is open to debate. An instant box office failure when released in December 1981, Wilder himself was never that kind towards it in later interviews and by now the very use of the title has become a short hand for an unfortunate late film, the sort of thing Quentin Tarantino says he wants to avoid by quitting after ten movies. BUDDY BUDDY has the potential elements for classic Wilder and even contains a few surface similarities to his 1974 remake of THE FRONT PAGE—a reunion with Jack Lemmon & Walter Matthau, a story based on previously filmed material, much of the film taking place in a single location and the two were even both released at Christmas. THE FRONT PAGE, likely no one’s favorite Wilder film either, did a little better but between the two of them it’s clear that by this point even Wilder was at the mercy of projects that could be easily packaged by an interested studio. Nobody seems to like BUDDY BUDDY. I sort of do, maybe because I really want to. That doesn’t mean I don’t see problems but there are still a few laughs and I could even look at its finality as a stripped down view of the world and humanity done by a director using two of his favorite actors as vehicles to deliver that verdict. And besides, since this is the end it matters that much more. As Rene Belloq would state with confidence, this is history.
A hitman named Trabucco (Walter Matthau), hired to eliminate witnesses in a massive land fraud scandal, arrives in Riverside, Califonia, where the final witness, a mob stool pigeon, is about to testify that day. As Trabucco arrives at the Ramona Hotel where he has a nice view of the courthouse steps waiting for him, television censor Victor Clooney (Jack Lemmon) checks in to the room next door hoping to reconcile with his wife Celia (Paula Prentiss) who has run off with Dr. Hugo Zuckerbrot (Klaus Kinski) head of the nearby sex institute the Zuckerbrot Clinic (“Ecstasy is Our Business”). When Celia refuses to meet with him Victor quickly and unsuccessfully tries to kill himself, leaving Trabucco forced to deal with his disruptive neighbor as he desperately tries to prevent anything which will bring attention to the job that has to get done.
A remake of the Francis Veber-scripted French farce L’EMMERDEUR (released in the U.S. as A PAIN IN THE A--), BUDDY BUDDY is short and slight plus not as funny as it should be but there is a certain degree of integrity to its cynicism. Written with longtime collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, this was Wilder’s first association with MGM since co-writing the masterpiece NINOTCHKA back in 1939 and it would be nice to think the comedy is in that tradition but there’s not much trace of the Golden Age that Wilder became a legend in. The plotting doesn’t exactly stand up to close scrutiny even for a farce and it’s a sour film, with thinly drawn, unlikable characters living in a world that the director doesn’t seem to have much use for anymore, fed up with whatever it’s become with a dead body followed by the sight of Walter Matthau driving a milk delivery truck reading “FEEL BETTER LIVE LONGER” one of the better jokes. Jack Lemmon’s television censor Victor Clooney is an uptight prig apparently known as the ‘Iron Duke’ at CBS, a nickname I’ll bet he gave himself, who apparently left his wife and family years earlier only to now be dumped by the second wife with nothing to show for that marriage, happy to tell a total stranger he’s been throwing up because his wife left him. The implication to it all is that he hasn’t spent a second of his life actually living which suggests a more intriguing characterization than we ever get. Much of his backstory is revealed in one short driving scene and it’s about all we get of the character, just that and his suicide attempts and all the pleading for his wife to come see him. The way the film is laid out plays as if he’s the sort of putz who Wilder can’t stand while the Matthau hitman is more his speed. All we ever know about his past is a vague reference to being married, as he puts it, “Once. But I got rid of her. Now I just lease,” and everything about him is revealed by his habit of only buying one cigar at a time, never planning anything too far ahead, never letting a sliver of emotion slip through.
The humor in BUDDY BUDDY is not always as sharp as it should be, looking for some sort of middle ground between dark comedy and sex farce that all feels slightly outdated for ’81, with what I imagine was the unique sound at the time of Walter Matthau calling Jack Lemmon ‘shithead’ with Paula Prentiss musing on how the sex doctor she’s sleeping with will help her achieve ‘the ultimate orgasm’. The bulk of the plot is all contained within just a few hours, almost in real time and it’s so tight that there isn’t much chance for enough plot to actually happen but it still never moves all that fast and if the pace were picked up to a certain extent it might barely reach feature length. More than just the hitman plotline it’s really about the two leads, Matthau all stoic and Lemmon taking things to the nightmare end of his flopsweat persona, but the characterizations never get too deep and the way Trabucco acts annoyed towards Clooney you can barely believe that these guys actually just met. Incidentally, the film opened a week apart from the John Belushi-Dan Ackroyd NEIGHBORS, another darkly comic teaming mostly set in one location, but while a Lemmon-Matthau version of that film doesn’t sound very intriguing, the daydream of putting those other two stars into BUDDY BUDDY seems to offer a number of possibilities either way you’d go with that casting and feels like it would have lots of ways to expand on the characterizations.
It’s all set in a bland looking southern California where everyone is already slightly skeptical of whatever they’re being told with a flat, stop-start feel to the rhythm of scenes and the closest thing to any real visual consistency is the way the film seems to place as many palm trees into the frame as possible as though looking for some sort of respite from the stifling nature of it all. Many of the side details are more weird than funny whether the hippie celebrating the birth of his son named ‘Elvis Jr.’ as he gives celebratory joints to cops, the Sitar music that accompanies the scenes at the sex institute (which seems mostly populated by senior citizens, whatever we’re supposed to make of that) and Klaus Kinski dialogue about how “premature ejaculation means always having to say you are sorry”. The extensive rearscreen projection during driving scenes is one of those indicators that make it feel Wilder chose the project because of how logistically simple the production would be along with a Lalo Schifin score which is energetic but still feels like it would be more at home in a mid-70s ABC movie of the week. But even that doesn’t mean I don’t gladly sit through the end credits each time I watch the film and the pure feel of nasty defiance found in BUDDY BUDDY gives the film a certain integrity, even if not enough of the dialogue has the old Wilder-Diamond zing like the orderly at the sex clinic who protests when a woman about to have a baby arrives saying, “We don’t deal with the finished product here!” But the mere sight of Walter Matthau’s annoyance carries it far and the ninety-ish minutes go by in a flash, the work of someone maybe not at their best but always aware of how this should go together.
At one point Jack Lemmon buys a bunch of lighter fluid with the plan to light himself on fire and yells out, “Apocalypse now!” which is actually one of the better lines so there are scattered laughs and bits of business among the ones that don’t work but, in the end, BUDDY BUDDY feels like nothing more than a view of the world by men of a certain age looking back on what’s been accomplished in a life to think when all is said and done the answer is to say, well, fuck it. Why not just shoot somebody, what does anything really matter? The sex wasn’t worth it, you were probably bad at it anyway, the second wife didn’t solve all your problems and now there’s nowhere else to go with the wedding ring that’s been melted down into a charm necklace in the shape of her new man’s giant cock serving as a symbol for it all. There’s still more potential in the various plot elements like the Clooney marriage that the film doesn’t have time for so it feels like a waste to strand the great Paula Prentiss in such a one-note bitch role which I wonder if she took simply because it was Wilder. The end of BUDDY BUDDY is a message that you can’t fully escape the annoyances of the world no matter how far you run so why the fuck not just be your true self. And somewhere in this revelation is a kind of optimism. Billy Wilder lived just over twenty years after BUDDY BUDDY was released so for him it wasn’t really the end. Just the end of all we were ever going to learn from him through his films.
Probably the most consistent pleasure found in the entire film is the incisiveness of Walter Matthau who gets laughs from lines that don’t deserve it, continually showing what he can do with just a few words or no words at all, if necessary. The hitman is probably a better part but Jack Lemmon is simply a little too much in comparison, no subtlety or shading and can’t quite get the laughs out of a character who is a little too pathetic a little too much of the time. He’s apparently playing 48 for some reason, looking not a day younger than the 56 he was but as much as I love and miss Lemmon he just never gets the right moments here for his performance to fully come together. Incidentally, this was the last film Lemmon and Matthau appeared in together until they both turned up separately in Oliver Stone’s JFK followed by their final run of films together in the 90s. Klaus Kinski, who hated this movie, feels more robotic than comedic in almost every line delivery but it’s still enjoyable bizarre to watch him here anyway, making me wish there were more scenes with him and Paula Prentiss who is energetic all through her scenes but she’s still isn’t very much for her to do and it’s too bad. The familiar faces that turn up include Dana Elcar as the police captain, Miles Chapin from Allan Arkush’s GET CRAZY as the hotel bellhop, Ed Begley, Jr. as one of the cops guarding the courthouse plus Joan Shawlee from SOME LIKE IT HOT and THE APARTMENT who plays the receptionist at the Zuckerbrot Clinic.
And since I mentioned him here I may as well recount the story of the time at a party where I met Ed Begley, Jr. and while standing around in conversation for some reason the name Billy Wilder came up. “I worked with Billy Wilder,” he offered to which I piped in with, “Yeah! You were in BUDDY BUDDY!” At which point Begley looked astonished, hopped back a step and said, “How did you know that?” I think my answer was something like, “Because you’re Ed Begley, Jr. And you were in BUDDY BUDDY.” What I’m saying is, in this life we take our immortality where we can get it. L’EMMERDEUR was remade in France yet again in 2008 followed by a Bollywood version in 2012 and it’s a good question why this particular storyline needs to be revisited by anyone this many times. Maybe the recent remakes account for what may be certain rights issues since BUDDY BUDDY isn’t easy to see at all right now except through, um, certain disreputable means; maybe this is why the good people at Warner Archive haven’t released it on disc since MGM titles usually fall under their domain. But regardless BUDDY BUDDY, through the laughs it does have along with getting to see Lemmon and Matthau bicker together is at least one more Billy Wilder film. And with a hitman protagonist who, at the end, is isolated from everyone and everything he ever knew, it’s as much about death as THE IRISHMAN and, just as that film does, the last image of BUDDY BUDDY offers one final, definitive statement about that glimpse of death from the specific point of view of the great director who made it. None of which is a question of whether these films are good or bad but simply what they are. And if that’s not cinema, nothing is.
Riding through Mexico, a former Civil War solider named Hogan (Clint Eastwood) comes across a woman being terrorized by several bandits ready to kill her. Hogan dispatches them quickly enough but is soon surprised to learn that the woman is in fact a nun named Sara (Shirley MacLaine) who has been helping Mexican revolutionaries in fighting the French that she claims are after her. Since Hogan has already made a deal to help out the revolutionaries in exchange for half the French’s treasury if they are successful, he agrees to escort Sister Sara to them. But her unexpected behavior reveals her to be a somewhat unusual nun and it soon becomes clear that their journey will not be as easy as Hogan first anticipated.
TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA is the sort of star vehicle where by a certain point you realize you’re paying more attention to what the leads are doing than the plot which I honestly always glaze over on. Eastwood and MacLaine are definitely fun to watch together even if the two of them feel like they’re bouncing off each other during their scenes more than developing any real chemistry, the banter keeping things going until whatever’s being argued over is dropped and they just move on to the next scene. But even if no real fireworks develop between them it always feels assured as a film and photographed by Gabriel Figueroa (credits include THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL as well as KELLY’S HEROES, also with Clint, which came out the same year) it contains some of the most elegant camerawork found in anything ever directed by Don Siegel, giving the two stars some wonderful close-ups and making full use of the Mexican locations. There’s always a complexity to the shots which visually takes it far beyond some of the director’s other films from the period which can have too much of a ‘Filmed in Universal City’ feel even when they’re shot on location—these are likely distant memories of MADIGAN poking around in my head. DIRTY HARRY would be shot by Bruce Surtees (camera operator on TWO MULES) and in some ways it’s deliberately one of the ugliest looking films ever but in the case of TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA there’s a beauty to the way it places its two leads against the landscape, offering its own assistance to the growing relationship between them, as if the film itself is looking for ways to keep them in the frame together.
The visual beauty of the Mexican landscape glimpsed in the opening credits is combined with the pure heavenliness that is the Ennio Morricone score which of course is a slight extension of what that composer did for the spaghetti westerns a few years earlier. With a few cues utilized by Tarantino later on for DJANGO UNCHAINED, it provides the expected arch commentary but also takes the threadbare story to a different level, allowing us to accept the heavenly intervention at work even if no one onscreen can, providing this film with its own tapestry of searching for deliverance, however that may come. If I’m being totally honest the power of that music makes me want to like TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA even more than I already do but from the very first notes heard during the Universal logo that’s where much of the serenity comes from. The film seems willing a surprising number of times to just sit back and let some cues play out during transitions, looking beyond the fairly simple plot towards something else. It’s just what you want from Morricone, the right amount of quirk and beauty combined into something totally unique which makes the film more than it would have been otherwise.
Maybe it’s best described as the sort of movie where the sounds and images are among the best things about it so as a result the most notable aspects of the film may be what it might have been. The screenplay was by Albert Maltz, one of the Hollywood Ten and also a writer on films like THIS GUN FOR HIRE and THE NAKED CITY, from a story by the great Budd Boetticher who had hoped to direct for himself (and reportedly no fan of the film that was eventually made). Elizabeth Taylor was also intended to co-star with Clint but the deal apparently fell apart when she insisted on the film being shot in Spain where Richard Burton was working so Universal cast Shirley MacLaine who unlike Taylor wouldn’t pass as a Mexican (hey, it was a different time) but she was the star the studio wanted. It certainly changes whatever the film was originally going to be but MacLaine’s off-center screen presence finds the balance between the comic grouchiness of Clint and the more serious revolutionary elements the film really only has passing interest in. She brings needed gravity to what is otherwise a lark while playing off of the film’s wry amusement towards the increasingly perplexing way this nun acts and how much sense it makes when revealed why. “The lord grants dispensations in such circumstances” is what she says a number of times to allow for their transgressions while the phrase “Everybody’s got a right to be a sucker once” also gets repeated and the film is ultimately about finding the middle ground between the two to keep going, to give into the fear of losing yourself while with another person, which sort of makes sense for a movie where the two stars don’t totally click in a romantic sense.
It’s a sort of western AFRICAN QUEEN in a way but for long stretches the plot barely seems to matter much at all, veering between the two of them bickering and the genuinely serious glimpse at the revolution in Mexico against the French that it brushes past, putting off actual movement in the main plot until after the hour mark. Even the title barely matters since Sister Sara trades her mule for a burro fairly early, making nonsense of the phrase unless Hogan himself is supposed to be the second mule being dragged along. All this maybe makes it more of a buddy movie than a love story in the closeness that develops even though roughly half of the film is just Eastwood and MacLaine, no one else to share the screen with. But it rarely drags, with the most drive coming during a prolonged sequence in the middle section involving Hogan being hit with an arrow by an Indian attack that Sister Sara has to remove followed by the matter of blowing up a bridge to keep a train with supplies from getting through. It all culminates in some very impressive miniature work and putting aside that it’s hard for me to dislike any film with a spectacular train crash done this way the film still always remembers to be about the two of them so it becomes maybe even something deeper than just a love story, but about two people who respect each other in spite of everything and, ultimately, need each other no matter what plans they otherwise made. But spending so much time with just the two leads still doesn’t allow for very much variety; one expects them to run into an old friend of Hogan’s played by some familiar character actor to liven things up which wouldn’t have been a bad idea and, as it is, there are barely any significant supporting characters at all, with most of the other actors in and out in one scene, either adversaries to be gunned down or cohorts ready with information. The third billed actor in the entire film is Manolo Fabregas playing the Colonel in charge of the Mexican revolutionaries that Hogan is looking to rendezvous with and he has a fair amount of screen time in the second half but even his character is entirely in service to the two leads, everyone else pretty much forgotten by the end.
Which still makes sense since Clint’s Hogan is a loner, sort of a Bogart in CASABLANCA-type more interested in the profit than the cause and surprisingly the film, set in Mexico with two white leads that apparently matter more than anyone who actually lives in the country, never asks him to change his mind. Hogan’s dream is to go to San Francisco, where UNFORGIVEN’s William Munny supposedly wound up after the end of that film, but his desire to stay on his own is upended by Sister Sara and a few of the most unexpected moments in the film gives us a rare look at a Clint Eastwood character who’s at a genuine loss for words thanks to her. In comparison, Shirley MacLaine is, well, the Shirley MacLaine-type much of the time but when she finally takes action the actress finds the needed gravity to the moments which help remind us that there actually is a plot going on and they’re some of the best moments in the entire film. TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA is a good popcorn movie and I’m not sure it’s anything more than that but there’s nothing wrong with being that either. Even when Hogan and Sara hatch a plan near the end against the French to break into their fortress, the climax has a little too much of a second unit feel when the battle breaks out, losing the stars in the mayhem for much of it except for when Clint gets in some Gatling gun action but at least some of the explosions are pretty cool. TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA has that but also remembers to find the grace notes to pause among the landscape and the music with a final shot that serves as a reminder of what it means to stay with another person against your better judgement while still never entirely losing yourself and who you really are.
Because of all this it comes down to the two leads and how they work off each other to make them evenly matched so instead of sparks that come it’s an easygoing camaraderie which pays off whatever’s been growing between them throughout the film. Clint Eastwood combines the coolness of his spaghetti western persona with the patience of having to deal with this nun he can’t quite understand and considering it would be several decades before he would again co-star with an actress of equal stature (all respect to the likes of Jessica Walter, Tyne Daly, Sondra Locke and Patricia Clarkson) he seems totally comfortable sharing the screen, always aware that just his presence in the frame can be what’s needed. Meanwhile, Shirley MacLaine and her physicality are always engaged with the setting, displaying expert comic timing when needed and holding back her true self until just the right moment so when the façade is ripped away she plays the scenes as barely moving a muscle to underline the gravity of the moment and how there will be no arguing with her.
In his autobiography “A Siegel Film” the director seems pleased with how TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA turned out even though producer Martin Rackin took control for the final edit but mentions with some confidence that he had shot the film to be cut a certain way regardless. Shirley MacLaine, meanwhile, later on said that she loved Clint even though he was a republican and, yes, this is a struggle many of us have had through the years. But maybe this film is really about looking beyond that surface to what can develop in spite of everything, the way Hogan and Sister Sara discuss whether certain things that happened were in fact miracles or just simple accidents. Which is often a good question to ask as you move through life, to understand what led to those domino effects that changed things for you irrevocably, with no way to turn back. Maybe there was a reason. Or maybe there is no answer and the decision of whether you’re going to be alone through all this is up to you. Even westerns can ask these questions, even if that turns out to be only a minor element of the film in the end. Maybe I respond to the beauty of music by Ennio Morricone so much because it sounds like fate, the sounds of what you can potentially discover as you ride through life, trying to find the answers to the life you really desire and if it’s really possible to ever find that without giving up your greatest dreams.