Stars: Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, Frankie Avalon, Fred Clark, Michael Constantine, Frank Gorshin, John Phillip Law, Peter Lawford, Burgess Meredith, George Raft, Cesar Romero, Mickey Rooney and Groucho Marx
To me, it works best as a trainwreck, a movie that we just can’t look away from, even as we wonder what could possibly have happened to create such a mess. Groucho Marx, appearing in his last film as a crime lord called God, described both his performance and the film as ‘God-awful!’ I wouldn’t go quite that far, but he has a point. The film has certainly become a guilty pleasure for some fans of offbeat cinema, but mostly it’s regarded poorly by fans and critics alike. Those who choose to watch the film are less likely to be doing so for the picture itself and more for its incredible cast of stars who, like Preminger, were most prominent a decade earlier. Jonathan Rosenbaum describes them as ‘a legion of Fifties TV corpses’, with the film itself an ‘endlessly fascinating aberration’. I share that opinion because I found that I was unable to look away from the screen, even though I was clearly watching a disaster unfold and I had no stake in the cast of legends because I didn’t grow up knowing who most of them were.
He’s ‘Tough’ Tony Banks. No, not the keyboardist from Genesis, this Banks is a renowned hitman who had enough clout to successfully retire and remain so for seventeen years but not quite enough to avoid God pulling him right back in the moment he thinks Tough Tony is the right man for a particular job. We can’t quite buy him as a tough guy here, because he spends an apparently endless opening scene struggling with his wife, Flo, played by Carol Channing, over which TV channel they should watch. I enjoyed the odd set of clips and commercials far more than the so-called comedy, which is how I caught that one channel is broadcasting a bunch of gangsters appearing before a senate committee. ‘Eggs’ Benedict appears in a swathe of bandages that hide 23 bullet holes; he explains that, ‘I was cleaning my gun and it went off.’ It would seem that Tony can’t get away from the life he’s left behind. Hechy and Angie show up out of the past and surely the ’37 Rolls outside can only be the Puerto Rican mob.
So far, the film has been interesting. Gleason seems eager to be flustered as Tough Tony, Channing has a wide collection of the worst outfits I’ve ever seen and we’re starting to see a flood of recognisable names and faces. Yet the film was supposed to have been sparked by Preminger’s fascination with his son Erik’s life as a hippie dropout in Greenwich Village; when a sample of writing by Doran William Cannon showed up on his desk, featuring hippies tripping out on LSD, he leapt at the chance to film just that sample. This film never really focuses on that and, when the trips begin, they’re not being taken by the counterculture characters who steal all the early scenes. I needed to avert my eyes from Flo’s wardrobe choices and the topless chicks getting bodypainted were easy targets. Law is consistently entertaining and there’s a cool, if overdone, section in wild split screen that recounts a flashback in the style of an old silent movie, right down to the outrageous facial hair. But the film’s about to lose focus.
And there are plenty of them. The one who gets away with his reputation most intact is probably Mickey Rooney, playing Packard, whose nickname of ‘Blue Chips’ is explained by the ticker tape machine to help him manage his stock portfolio from his private prison cell in Alcatraz. He’s turning states evidence in an attempt to take down God, who believes that Tough Tony is the only man who can get to him, given that Packard is his best friend and his daughter’s godfather, with those seventeen years of retirement as icing on the cake. So into Alcatraz goes Banks. He’s bunked with an old con, soon to be Emmy-winning Michael Constantine as Leech, and new guy Austin Pendleton as a draught dodger called Fred the Professor, who turns out to be the spark behind the only thing that this film really achieves. It was never really going to be about Packard challenging God or Tony taking down Packard or Flo taking in a hippie collective. It was always going to come down to the LSD the Professor smuggled into Alcatraz as envelope glue.
The last is the one that might resonate as the point of the picture. While Tony initially resisted the call of God, capitulating only when his friend, Harry, played by Arnold Stang, is murdered as a warning, he goes on to do everything that God asks up to this point. After he comes down from the acid trip, though, that’s all over. He’s not going to ‘kiss’ (ie kill) Packard any more and he’s not going to rot in Alcatraz either. He’s going to put a plan together to get out of there and take care of God. This is Otto Preminger, through his scriptwriters, telling us that acid is better than therapy and it’ll help us focus our lives to discover what’s really happening, man. Does he need half a movie to build up to that? Not in the slightest. Does he need the other half to bring it all home? He can’t be bothered. All I believe he had in mind for this picture was an effects-ridden acid trip, a subsequent reinvention and a madcap rush to the end credits. We lost the opening ones when Tony changed the channel, but the end ones are sung, in entirety, by Harry Nilsson.
Meanwhile, on God’s yacht, which had been loaned to Preminger for the shoot by John Wayne, the faces keep on coming. Groucho Marx, wrapping up a legendary career at 77 years of age, is so awful here that we feel that he’s unable to play himself. Preminger wanted him to be his old self but he just isn’t up to it. He’s more like a caricature played by another comedian, but not so well that I could figure out which. He isn’t as fast and he isn’t as funny as we remember. Madcap comedians shouldn’t age. The only part that he really nails from God’s character is his confusion, as he’s firmly at the top of the Tree, the hierarchy of the protection racket, but is so wanted that he can’t even leave his boat. He’s stuck playing bumper pool with a giraffe of a supermodel and hurling orders at his captain. The former is Luna, the first black model to appear on the cover of Vogue and the latter is George Raft, almost unrecognisable from his heyday as a real mob-connected actor playing believable gangsters in thirties Warner Brothers pictures.