Friday, August 6, 2010

A Debt We Can Never Repay

I was doing some cleaning around here the other day when I stumbled across a copy of a script I wrote a few years back, one that I spent a pretty long time on. Based on the date it was probably about as final a draft as there ever was so I sat down to read it for a little while. It actually wasn’t as awful an experience as I feared—I didn’t think what I’d written was all that bad. It wasn’t all that great either, a sobering realization in itself for something I put so much time into and I could see a number of reasons why what I’d been going for with it never quite clicked together. I mention all this partly because a friend of mine went to The Palm in West Hollywood for dinner the other night and reported back to me that there was an empty table made up for dinner with a lone candle burning in the center. Also on that table was the LA Times obituary for screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, who died on July 31 from pancreatic cancer at the too-young age of 68. As a small, elegant tribute to him the table was set in memoriam for the man who was apparently a regular customer at the restaurant for years, eating lunch there almost every day. Mankiewicz was one of those scribes who brought a definite style and wit to his work, quotable dialogue almost dripping out of the frame, the sort of thing that I guess I can’t help but aspire to at times.

Son of Joseph, nephew of Herman, that’s a big piece of Hollywood legend to live up to and with his success he proved his family name proud. He was hired to rewrite DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER at what looking at it now was a ridiculously early age and stayed in the Bond fold for much of the 70s but these days he might be better known for his credit as “creative consultant” on SUPERMAN and SUPERMAN II, essentially serving as the writer of the final draft as long as Richard Donner was there as director. He was a writer on THE CASSANDRA CROSSING and LADYHAWKE, did uncredited rewrite work on a number of other films, was considered the key creative force in the creation of the hit show HART TO HART and was apparently very much involved in the Writers Guild over the years. His brief stint into directing with films like the Aykroyd-Hanks DRAGNET and the John Candy vehicle DELIRIOUS weren’t quite as successful but this is nevertheless a career to be proud of. Anyone who came up with all the sharp characterizations and snappy one-liners he did through his career (“Why does the phone always ring when you’re in the bathtub?” “I didn’t know there was a pool down there.” I could go on.) deserves all the praise we can give him. One other film his name is on that I have a fondness for is 1976’s dark comedy MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED an unusual combo of wacky 70s hijinks and dark turns featuring a cast that would probably have only been brought together during that oddball decade. It has a director as well as stars that are probably better known for other points in their careers these days and it’s maybe a little too laid back to qualify as any sort of classic but its scrappy nature is endearing even if it probably would never have been made a few years later.

Loosely plotted as you could maybe only do during those days, MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED is set among the Los Angeles based F&B Ambulance Company, a ramshackle organization with the decidedly crooked, money-grubbing owner Harry Fishbine (Allen Goorwitz) and employees who can’t be trusted with the Hawkeye Pierce of the group definitely “Mother” Tucker (Bill Cosby) who barely seems to take anything seriously, loves terrorizing a group of nuns and thinks nothing of stopping off for a burger while his boss screams at him on the radio. Handling calls for the company is the very attractive Jennifer (Raquel Welch), nicknamed Jugs for obvious reasons and when an unfortunate accident leaves them short one man in comes Tony Maletesta (Harvey Keitel) a Vietnam Vet and cop nicknamed Speed undergoing an investigation for drugs who gets instantly thrown into the madness. The three soon discover that they’re just about the only ones they can depend on in this company which is in the middle of a major rivalry with the competing Unity Ambulance Company.

Directed by Peter Yates with a light touch that would make it an ideal pairing with his 1972 caper film THE HOT ROCK, MOTHER JUGS & SPEED always plays to me as a sort of Los Angeles equivalent to the New York-set THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE. Not in terms of plot, of course, but in how it’s a kind of serio-comic look at life in its particular city (mostly shot around Venice and West L.A.) with equal parts nastiness and dark humor, loaded with character actors and presenting a world in which seemingly everyone is corrupt in some small way, but the good guys in the world presented are somehow able to find their own nobility within that corruption. And just as PELHAM is non-stop sarcasm, MOTHER remains flaky in tone, fitting for the city they set it in. The slight, scrappy nature of MOTHER (Screenplay by Tom Mankiewicz, Story by Mankiewicz and Stephen Manes) makes it feel a touch lightweight even considering how dark it gets on occasion but it also features characters who are continually enjoyable to follow along with from Larry Hagman’s slimeball behavior to Allen Garfield’s memorable opening speech about the current state of America (based on what he says, some things never change). Bill Cosby’s loose but steady nature carries the movie throughout, somehow letting us know that we’re in good hands and I love how the movie basically stops for a few minutes for him to eat a cheeseburger which he insists on slathering with mayonnaise. The various combos of these people as they ride around in their ambulances on calls always offers something a little different and the three leads fit together surprisingly well considering how different each of their personas are.

Director Yates and Mankiewicz produced the film together and the credit at the beginning even reads, “A Yates-Mankiewicz Production” suggesting that this is one case where the writer may very well be as much of an auteur on the project as the director was. Tonally the movie veers from one extreme to the other in an almost whiplash fashion going from wackiness, including a dry run for a certain famous gag in THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, towards more sober character development, one or two genuinely shocking developments and maybe a shade too much melodrama for its own good during the second hour. This was something that both Roger Ebert and Vincent Canby complained about in their reviews at the time but while it may not be as darkly iconic as MASH or as hysterically offensive as FREEBIE AND THE BEAN, MOTHER JUGS & SPEED has a tone that in its own low-key way is shabby, endearing and funny, focusing on its characters in a 70s way which makes it compulsively rewatchable, with each new viewing turning into another fun chance to hang out with these people during that very loose decade. It feels like the filmmakers were very careful with some of the violence, sleaze and general ‘adult situations’ to get the PG rating they managed to achieve, even with a visit by none other than Bill Cosby to a massage parlor and it does feel slightly like a feature-length TV pilot—no big surprise, there was an attempt to turn it into a series with other actors later on which never made it past the pilot stage, aired once during the summer, with the nickname for the female lead changed slightly to ‘Juggs’ apparently to make it more palatable. Even if that show didn’t happen, the brainy yet gorgeous company secretary named Jennifer played by Welch definitely feels very much like it was an inspiration for the brainy yet gorgeous secretary also named, um, Jennifer played by Loni Anderson on WKRP IN CINCINNATI. All these elements crashing together makes it kind of a hodgepodge overall, but even with the more serious moments it provides a loose vibe that I find infectious and in its own way kind of optimistic. While I don’t want to make any claims for the film being the ultimate lost 70s classic when it hits the final gag as the main theme “Dance” bursts onto the soundtrack for the end credits it gets a big smile out of me, a genuine feeling of satisfaction. Come to think of it, SUPERMAN made some pretty extreme tonal shifts itself and that film holds together pretty well too.

Cosby in particular is fantastic, carrying the lighthearted moments along with the heavier sections with ease and more than anyone here, I wouldn’t mind another movie that focused on just his character. Keitel’s quiet intensity makes him appropriate as an outsider to this group (this is one of his first major non-Scorsese roles which provides an interesting subtext) and Welch brings sharp humor to her star power as Jugs, although unless I’m mishearing things her character is supposed to be 23—the actress looks great here but I’m not sure that she pulls that off. Larry Hagman is particularly good as one of the other drivers, making a very memorable sleaze—he’s a prick, but he’s somehow a believable prick (Is the Mankiewicz connection the reason for his SUPERMAN cameo?). A young Bruce Davison is quietly likable as Cosby’s shotgun rider, Allen Garfield who apparently appeared in every movie made during this period is enjoyable as always, L.Q. Jones has some nice moments with Cosby as a pragmatic cop, Valerie Curtin is fun as Fishbine’s wife, Severn Darden is the company’s shyster lawyer, Allan Warnick, the “not a lending library” clerk in CHINATOWN, is one of the F&B employees and Arnold Williams, the cabbie who keeps turning up in LIVE AND LET DIE (Another Mankiewicz connection!) is a driver for the rival Unity Ambulance Company.

“High concept is the enemy of the writer,” Mankiewicz once said. “The friend of the writer is the human being, the full-blooded character interacting with another character.” Those might be unexpected words from somebody responsible for various films that featured James Bond and Superman but it’s the character moments and genuine wit that can be found in those films which provides much of the reason why they remain so entertaining to this day. And it’s in how each of the film’s characters relate to each other, how they figure out a way to keep going throughout all the madness, that is much of what MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED is about in the end, much more than any fake jeopardy that would be provided by a plot that it doesn’t need. Such allegiance to characterization is hardly in vogue with blockbusters that get made these days but it’s still a thought worth remembering and I’ll try to do that with my own work as well. As a key creative force behind such memorable films he probably knew what he was talking about in these matters and what he left us with is certainly worth paying whatever tribute we can.


le0pard13 said...

An absolutely splendid tribute to one of hell of a writer, Mr. Peel. Looking at all of the films he was associated with, and they include so many of my favorites. I think I appreciate them for exactly what you cite in your piece:

"... it’s the character moments and genuine wit that can be found in those films which provides much of the reason why they remain so entertaining to this day."

le0pard13 said...

I'm too quick with the keyboard... damn RETURN Key!

Anyway, I'm so glad you showcased MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED in your post, too. During my stint as projectionist back in the mid-70s (you rightly labeled it as "... that oddball decade."), I actually showed that film for a week at the theatre I worked. Let me tell you, watch a film many times over the course of week and you'll quickly learn if it's worth watching. And M,J & S certainly was, and you cover why that is in your usual, worth-reading fashion.

This was one fine salute to Mr Mankiewicz. I think I'll break out DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER and THE EAGLE HAS LANDED over the weekend for my own appreciation of the man. That, and finally get off my butt and go and pick up MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED disc for my library. Thank very much for this, Mr. Peel.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

I still need to see THE EAGLE HAS LANDED! Months ago I actually started a piece on THE CASSANDRA CROSSING, which I like, then never finished it for no particular reason so maybe I'll have to go back to that one soon. Glad you liked the piece and glad you'll be taking another look at MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED!