Sometimes you wonder if there’s any way to get past something only to realize the true impossibility of ever doing it. Those things never leave you. That’s just the way it is. The 60s could be thought of as John Frankenheimer’s decade with some of his best films coming during that period--THE YOUNG SAVAGES in 1961 followed by the likes of BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, GRAND PRIX and of course the all-holy SECONDS
. His last film of that decade was THE GYPSY MOTHS, a nearly unknown film now which apparently never got much of a release by MGM at the time and went mostly unseen for several decades until it came out on DVD in 2002, soon after Frankenheimer’s death. But it’s a lovely, sad film, almost like the end of the road for the world he was portraying in the 60s, much of which was an outgrowth of what he may have thought of as ‘the 50s’ and the America that was being represented. It certainly recalls a few of his other films in what it wants to say about fate, about where you’re going in life, how far you try to get away from yourself and if it’s too late to ever change. That question of can you transform into something else or is the path you’re on already set. Not all of the answers in THE GYPSY MOTHS are ones you want to hear. But sometimes those wishes are just impossible.
A trio of professional skydivers made up of team leader Mike Rettig (Burt Lancaster) savvy go-getter Joe Browdy (Gene Hackman) and the younger Malcolm Webson (Scott Wilson) who travel through the Midwest putting on their show arrive in the small Kansas town of Bridgeville (“If you lived here you’d be home now”) where Malcolm is originally from. They stay with Malcolm’s Aunt Elizabeth (Deborah Kerr) and Uncle John (William Windom), where Malcolm strikes up a rapport with their boarder Annie (Bonnie Bedelia), a local student, and Mike immediately takes a silent interest in Elizabeth as they continue preparations for their big show the next day.
At one time the Kansas small town depicted in THE GYPSY MOTHS might have been filmed mostly on a backlot depicting pure Americana and even the Labor Day excitement of 1955’s PICNIC was drenched in Technicolor stretching as far as the eye could see. But by the time of this film it feels like everything has died off just a little, the warm feeling of community has gone away, even in a town that apparently has a college and missile base everything feels a little bit dead. With screenplay by William Hanley based on the novel by James Drought, THE GYPSY MOTHS is set around the Fourth of July, generally an exciting holiday but that’s never really felt here and any talk of celebration almost comes off as more of an obligation than anything. Looking like the sort of place where trains that go on forever are always passing through, the town of Bridgeville is picturesque but feels stifled as if it’s filled with homes of unfulfilled promises and empty rooms belonging to children who went away but haven’t returned. Only the girlie bar with a ‘THEY SOCK IT TO YOU’ sign out front serves as a reminder of what year it really is and there’s something intentionally stifling about the film as well, even down to dialogue about windows being kept closed. Aside from a brief shot of moths circling the light outside the aunt and uncle’s home the film never bothers with an explanation of the title to underline its themes which are kept deliberately oblique; the interior lives of the characters feel ready to explode but we still don’t learn very much. One person talking about the past is abruptly cut off and there’s no speech drawing in the metaphor to underline why certain things happen so when some of them do talk about their regrets and private fears it’s hard not to wonder about what greater pain they’re leaving unspoken.
A few characters remark to the men how insane what they do is and they’re right but there’s never very much of a response to the obvious and there’s an emotional chill to much of the world of THE GYPSY MOTHS—the house where they stay is forever quiet, as if there isn’t so much as a record player to bring some life into it. There’s mostly sadness and regret hanging in the air even when Gene Hackman’s Browdy tries to take control of the conversation laughing just a little too loud. THE GYPSY MOTHS isn’t top rank Frankenheimer maybe because there’s so much unspoken it makes the film feel almost too constricting but the lack of melodramatic urgency causes the personal nature of the story stand out all the more, making it more satisfying than the Cinerama spectacle combined with the more soapy drama of GRAND PRIX. What we see of the skydiving here is very much an extension of the auto racing in that film, the daredevil nature of attempting to come that close to death. In that case it was more exciting, appropriate for a popcorn movie but this is more fatalistic, as if Frankenheimer was attracted to the material based on the marketable aspect of the skydiving then found himself more drawn to what it all really meant—it says something that the Film Score Monthly CD
of Elmer Bernstein’s music contains a few cues of carnival-like excitement that mostly went unused. It’s almost something that can’t be put into a subtle speech revealing why they do it since they can barely put it into words themselves. There’s a lot here you have to take on faith—the sadness, the feeling of loss, with the unspoken thoughts of what didn’t happen.
At one point Burt Lancaster’s Mike Rettig quotes an old friend by calling the act of skydiving “not only a way to live but also way to die…” but even when the actor says this in giant closeup it still doesn’t reveal much about this character who floats above it all in his head anyway, having separated himself from everyone else as if he’s already checked out and is just looking for one more reason to stick around. Gene Hackman’s Browdy might be a little too boisterous in his overzealous nature but he still comes off as the responsible one of the trio. He’s the pragmatist who knows his limitations up there in the sky, not in it for the metaphor but for the money and, presumably, for the good times as long as he’s able to get to church on Sunday to pray away his sins. He talks of wanting to go out to Hollywood to be a stuntman—maybe he’ll get to be Hal Needham. Malcolm, played by IN COLD BLOOD’s Scott Wilson, doesn’t know who he is or what he’s going to be—he only knows who he wasn’t. Bridgeville might have been his home but, to go by the ‘If you lived here…’ welcome sign, it isn’t and he’s wondering what his own limitations are up there. Malcolm tells Rettig, “You can only stay up so long, then you have to come back down” and it’s as if Lancaster’s character is thinking about coming back down for a romance or whatever something deeper it is with the married Deborah Kerr. The romance makes it impossible not to think of the infidelity they already shared in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, only made more frank this time with nudity by both actors in this late 60s film that’s surprising not only due to their age (50s and 40s, for what it’s worth) but also because of its connection to the famous imagery from that earlier film and how there seems to be that much more desperation this time around, the possibility of connection matters that much more. It’s not even clear why they’re so instantly drawn to each other unless it’s some vague awareness they’ve met before in some other film which makes as much sense as anything and they seem to understand each other without knowing why. It’s almost as if when directing their big scenes Frankenheimer kept telling Lancaster and Kerr, “Less, less” to fill in the blanks for ourselves and it somehow works, making the longing in their eyes even sadder. It adds to the inevitably of what eventually happens so you know why it does even though you’ll never know.
The quiet moments through the film are sometimes what linger and John Frankenheimer’s direction is assured enough to allow that to happen, bringing life to even scenes of two characters standing there awkwardly. He knows who these people are, he knows what he wants them to be and the way he frames them, whether he’s shooting close-ups or the stuntwork, is always extremely powerful. Damn, he was good. The skydiving footage and even some establishing helicopter shots never simply feel like second unit work, always adding to the story along with the simple homespun majesty of the Elmer Bernstein score which captures all that longing and regret in the night air. Even if the skydiving footage is secondary to the drama, it’s still jaw-dropping with a few point of view shots that are particularly impressive. But whatever else you want to say, unlike the awesomeness of GRAND PRIX which was really about that spectacle, the heart of THE GYPSY MOTHS is elsewhere even if a few times the film is trying to compensate for what was originally the selling point--one sequence from deep in the film appears to be moved up to the very opening presumably to five us skydiving footage up front since that’s what they were selling. A few rear projection closeups of the actors supposedly skydiving also aren’t so great but whaddyagonnado (of course, professional skydivers did the actual work) and that’s pretty minor stuff. The film always remembers to stay with the characters and only breaks away from them for a runner involving the local high school marching band preparing for the big parade which is cute but maybe unnecessary and a reminder that humor wasn’t always Frankenheimer’s strong suit. Still, the gag makes clear that the seemingly halcyon days of PICNIC in these small towns are over. The outside world is encroaching, filled with all the tragedy and death and cynicism that comes along with that even on the 4th of July and there’s nothing that can be done to stop it. Very little can be done to stop the inevitable and when Lancaster tries to get Kerr to go with him, as if looking for a way to start anew, looking for meaning away from loneliness, maybe part of a dream to transform from moth to butterfly. On a fatalism level THE GYPSY MOTHS is essentially GRAND PRIX meets SECONDS, complete with its own version of ‘the next stage’ as Jeff Corey referred to it in the latter film which feels just as unavoidable this time around even if the emotions attached to it can’t be fully explained.
The film looks at life as three possibilities—taking the path you know you’re destined for, leaving the past behind as you head to the unknown or simply making that unexplainable choice not to pull your chute at the right moment. What really terrifies a person, it asks, being close to death or not living at all? It may be surprising to hear the director on the audio commentary near the end call his film “a positive picture” considering how downbeat much of it is and how devastating what occurs feels in the end. But production began on THE GYPSY MOTHS not long after John Frankenheimer dropped off Robert Kennedy at the Ambassador in Los Angeles for his California primary victory speech, intending to drive him back a short time later. But this event never comes up on the director’s commentary of this film in which people are forced to finally deal with choices that were never made but maybe at the time thinking about the possibilities of that choice was about as hopeful as Frankenheimer was able to get at the time which at least may have been a start.
Looking back at the film all these years after it was made serves as a reminder of these performances but also how the film, coming as the 60s were about to become the 70s works a little as the passing of the torch from a movie star of one age (Lancaster, doing his last of five films with Frankenheimer) to the next (Hackman, in his first of two). Burt Lancaster, gives a moody, wonderful performance which works as a reflection of his work in THE SWIMMER, almost like the next step in his middle aged persona finally coming face to face with what he’s been denying. Gene Hackman, meanwhile, does some of the best of his early work here fully commanding the screen There’s still some raw scrappiness to his presence as late as BONNIE AND CLYDE but here, with THE FRENCH CONNECTION still to come, he seems totally confident bringing an authority to how he works the camera that is already in full bloom here. Scott Wilson, a last minute replacement for John Philip Law who pulled out after an injury, doesn’t have as showy a role but it’s the right sort of quiet, never fully sure if he’s allowed to say what’s on his mind. Deborah Kerr has maybe the most difficult role in what she isn’t allowed to say but there’s a directness to her performance, fully willing to look the other person in the eye while not revealing a thing which goes with the overwhelming guilt her character clearly feels. It’s as if she’s daring William Windom as her husband to say something, anything, to her since she’s not going to volunteer any private feelings but he plays it just right as someone seemingly more interested in his pipe collection than what his wife might have going on. Bonnie Bedelia, apparently in her feature debut, projects curious innocence as Malcolm’s almost-love interest while the awesome Sheree North is the waitress (and stripper) who has no complaints about going home with Hackman for the night.
The problems involving the film’s release (or lack of it) back then extended all the way to the director’s commentary on the DVD which censors out what is presumably a reference to MGM head James Aubrey, presumably done for legal reasons but he’d died in 1994 and by the time these comments were heard by anyone Frankenheimer had passed away as well. But the film is still there, highly recommended for anyone interested in the people involved. Plus for those always hoping that Gene Hackman will make one more film—hey, here it is and still available from Warner Archive
. In a subtle, heartbreaking touch near the end—much of THE GYPSY MOTHS is subtle, or maybe ‘subtle in a direct way’ to quote a line of dialogue from it—a handshake between two characters turns into an embrace by the end, yet it still feels like it’s holding back, just like too often we hold things back ourselves in life, much to our everlasting regret. But you can’t get the past back after those times when you’re not very observant, you can’t get what you really want and maybe that one small embrace is the best you can ever hope for. I can’t put the reasons for some things that happen in THE GYPSY MOTHS into words even if I do understand. Sometimes you just don’t have the answers. Frankly, there’s a lot I don’t have the answer to right now.
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