Saturday, November 30, 2019
One At A Time
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.