Thursday, June 3, 2010
Here On The Bottom
I could try to write something coherent about John Frankenheimer’s gangster satire 99 AND 44/100% DEAD but that might possibly be beyond my abilities. Hell, I just saw the thing and I barely know what to say about it. Almost as bizarre is the fact that the New Beverly recently showed a pretty terrific looking 35mm print of this film originally released in 1974 at a midnight screening and it even got a pretty sizable crowd. But maybe that’s not such a surprise. After all, there’s probably at least a few people in L.A. who would be interested in the combination of Frankenheimer, Richard Harris, 70s, action, not to mention how the movie is totally MIA these days, never on DVD and the last VHS release was decades ago. I hadn’t seen it for years and remembered almost nothing about it except for one scene at the beginning. And now right after seeing it again I’m still not sure how much I remember. I don’t even think I could adequately describe the plot. By a certain point the New Beverly audience seemed stunned into silence with only occasional bursts of laughter and I’m still a little flummoxed even now. Now, I’m a die hard John Frankenheimer fan from years back as anyone who knows me would tell you but when it comes to this film, well, words kind of fail me.
Let’s try this—When a mob war escalates hit man Harry Crown (Richard Harris) is brought in by Uncle Frank (Edmond O’Brien), head of the syndicate, to help out. Crown also has an interest in schoolteacher girlfriend Buffy (Ann Turkel) but soon gets caught up in the war involving Big Eddie (Bradford Dillman) who is going up against Uncle Frank to take over the city, who has the vicious Marvin “The Claw” Zuckerman (Chuck Connors), a vicious killer with one arm (thanks to Harry) who will stop at nothing.
Well, it’s probably the best film to ever feature a car chase that includes a school bus driven by Ann Turkel, I’ll give it that much. After all these years the one thing I remembered from the very bizarre 99 AND 44/100% DEAD was a scene near the beginning (which I mistakenly recalled as being the credit sequence) featuring a tableau at the bottom of a harbor showing all the people who had been dropped down there by the mob, feet encased in cement, and left to drown. The idea apparently originated in very early script versions of ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA in the early 70s when this film’s screenwriter Robert Dillon (Frankenheimer’s later FRENCH CONNECTION II, among other credits) was involved with that project and he wound up using it here, which certainly didn’t please Sergio Leone. A striking dark comic image it always stayed with me, backed up by sardonically lighthearted narration from star Richard Harris (“Losers. All of them, losers.”) and jaunty honkytonk music by Henry Mancini but in context the scene actually sort of drifts away, the joke just left to hang there and so does much of what follows. The film could be considered a forerunner of Tarantino’s stuff, not to mention the knockoffs that followed in the 90s—there’s old school gangsters in suits and hats, a city that goes unnamed (mostly shot in Seattle with a little of L.A.), arch humor throughout. The only time any police are ever seen is during a big parade held in the city that the characters seem to pay no attention to, simply walking across it to get to the next big shootout. It’s all presented in that sparse 70s style but it’s done in a weird slow-motion feel that all becomes a little deadening, particularly when seen at that late hour. It also contains what feels like very little ambient sound ever heard which, even if it’s unintentional, only adds to the strangeness of the tone and there’s the impression that numerous scenes could have been cut way down but then maybe the film, running 98 minutes, wouldn’t have been feature length.
There is a cool 70s vibe to it all as well as a genuinely oddball feel, which certainly helps, but Frankenheimer was never a director who displayed much of a sense of humor in his films—unless the joke was meant to be deadly serious like in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE—so there’s no real consistent tone with the jokes here (When Harris punches a goon repeatedly in the stomach somebody shouts, “Harry! He just ate.”) The way it plays is that the weird touches throughout, like Ann Turkel having the feathers she’s wearing gradually removed by Harris in a seduction scene while she talks about teaching third grade, just play weird. She is nice to look at, though. I could believe this all plays better in the script but as it is the movie makes it tough to tell how much of this is supposed to be a joke—the answer, of course, is all of it but it still just kind of sits there. The film’s title and pop-art opening credits indicate a heightened style and there are certainly hints of that, with shots of alligators once flushed down toilets roaming around sewers and gangsters smoking huge cigars, but just not enough. One lengthy sequence late in the film involving diffusing a bomb doesn’t generate much of any suspense since we’re barely invested in what’s going on anyway. Coming six years after Frankenheimer stood close by while his friend Robert Kennedy was shot dead at the Ambassador Hotel, the most personal touch in the film feels like the American flag seen in the opening shot, slightly ripped on the edges and floating over all this madness completely unobserved. As it is, the film feels like the work of a man searching for humor in how absurd the world has become but the type of filmmaker he is means that he’s unable to locate it. (Frankenheimer himself in the 1998 book “The Films of Frankenheimer” by Gerald Pratley: “…it didn’t succeed. I just don’t think I did the right job on it because, looking back, it was not the right material for me…There were many good moments but to me as a whole the movie does not work.”). Some of the action and stuntwork is staged in the most expert way possible—this stuff is definitely in the director’s wheelhouse—and it was great to see how all this was framed in Scope but much of it is ultimately just a puzzler. And to think that I still haven’t gotten around to writing about Frankenheimer’s BLACK SUNDAY.
Certainly one of the best things in the film is the main title theme by Henry Mancini which is ultra-cool, so catchy I wish it would play whenever I walk down the street and any film that has a good amount of Mancini source music sprinkled throughout is going to have some enjoyment for me including one track (taken from the song “Easy, Baby,” that gets featured here) which turned up later on in SILVER STREAK, another film with a Mancini score released by Twentieth Century Fox. There’s a vague similarity to other action titles from the period that offer a what-the-hell-am-I-watching vibe, particularly something like PRIME CUT so I shouldn’t have been surprised when looking up his credits that Robert Dillon wrote that as well. Of course, in that film’s case director Michael Ritchie was able to find a definite tone, as twisted and perverse as it was. With 99 AND 44/100%, it all just kind of drifts away even while watching it. If all these elements I’ve described sound interesting I can’t blame you and maybe I’d want to see it again someday to try to figure it all out but I have a feeling that there’s nothing much to uncover about it. It feels like a movie where they never figured out what the movie was.
Richard Harris displays a nice coolness with his hitman character but he’s badly in need of a movie around him that would go with that vibe. Interestingly with the way his hair looks and the glasses he occasionally wears I kept thinking of Michael Caine in the role (shades of the slightly similar PULP, which isn’t fully successful either) and wondered if he was offered the film first. The truly striking Ann Turkel brings a likable quality to Buffy, schoolteacher and bar floozy, partly spacey, partly earthbound. The chemistry she has with Harris is obvious and brings some kind of reality to their scenes, even if it’s the reality of a goofy movie, so it makes connecting with these sections somewhat easier. The two of them met on this production and married soon after so at least some good came out of it all—they later appeared together a few other times including in THE CASSANDRA CROSSING. Edmond O’Brien in his last film plays things straight and nasty as Uncle Frank with the right amount of humor, but Bradford Dillman seems off in his own world as Eddie and it doesn’t feel like Frankenheimer gave the actor much direction to work out a consistent tone when he plays against other actors. As the young turk in a snazzy white suit who Uncle Frank teams Harry with on his assignment, David Hall makes little impression. As the two other girls used ornamentally, Kathrine Baumann and Janice Heiden make little impression as well. Chuck Connors certainly does make an impression as Claw Zuckerman, getting some laughs as he brings out various devices to attach to his arm (and it certainly isn’t the only time we’ve seen this joke), but it’s too bad that he doesn’t have more screen time.
The overriding quirkiness isn’t enough to carry the film but the chance to see it is so rare that I was still glad that I’d gone out for it. And it was kind of cool to see the surprising number of people who had also shown up, no doubt curious to see this little-known oddball film from the wilds of the seventies made by a hugely respected director, to figure out what the hell this thing was. They were mostly quiet throughout the running time and when the lights came up at the end the vibe in the room was such that I’m not sure they had any more of an idea of what it was than I did. But I suppose that’s always part of the risk with these things. As I drove home in the middle of the night I thought about how the New Beverly has become a certain refuge in this town for film lovers with open minds, willing to seek out what isn’t getting shown otherwise in this day and age, wondering if the next film will be that hidden gem you’ve long been looking for. On some occasions you wind up with 99 AND 44/100% DEAD. Other times you get luckier. But it's all part of the thrill of the hunt.