Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Cult Classic?

You can’t buy money with happiness. Michael Caine in Deadfall

Just what constitutes a cult film is not exactly clear. What is generally agreed upon is that cult classics retain a very loyal subculture of fans. Many are considered cult films because they deal with controversial topics or fall outside of standard narrative and/or cinematic conventions. Harold and Maude or The Big Lebowski are examples. Another variety is the It’s-so-bad-that’s-it’s-good kind. Mommie Dearest and Plan 9 from Outer Space are examples of the latter.

My nomination for new cult classic—Deadfall (1968), directed by Bryan Forbes—falls somewhere between the previous two categories.

The movie is based on a novel by the once prolific thriller writer, Desmond Corey. The plotline contains all the seeds for controversy. Jewel thief extraordinaire, Henry Clarke, (played by Michael Caine in his early Harry Palmer days), goes to incredible lengths to get close to his victims, even going so far as becoming an alcoholic and getting admitted into a Spanish sanatorium. There he is recruited by a visitor named Fé (played by the lovely Italian actress, Giovanna Ralli) to collude upon more heists with her and her much older husband (played by Eric Portman). Predictably enough, Henry falls in love with Fé and unwittingly becomes entrapped in a diabolical triad. He learns that Richard (Portman) is an ex-Nazi and homosexual. (As a sidenote, in real life, Eric Portman was a Nazi sympathizer.) But the real shocker is what he learns about Fé. I won’t divulge the secret, but suffice it to say that Henry’s physical deadfall mirrors his descent into a world of moral decay among the affluent and beautiful.

The film seems to have more flaws than qualities to recommend it. First, the recommendations. The music score by John Barry is hypnotic and brilliant. In fact, Barry himself makes an appearance in the film, conducting an orchestra while Henry and Richard perform the heist. And the same lady who sang Goldfinger, the Whitney Houston of her day, Shirley Bassey, sings the theme song: My Love Has Two Faces. The photography, shot in Spain, is gorgeous and compliments the romance between Henry and Fé as well as underscoring by irony-- the ensuing tragedy. Also, Caine turns in another fine performance and Ralli is stunning to watch.

The flaws. Forbes uses too many close-ups that over dramatize. The pacing is off. The romance between Henry and Fé is rushed. The heist itself, while exciting, is too incredible to be believed. And the film sags somewhat after the first heist.

So why am I nominating this film to cult status?

I love this film not despite its flaws but because of them. I remember the late sixties and being naïve enough to believe that romance is not incompatible with sultry sex. I remember the idealism of a generation that is captured in the film’s meandering conversations, those concerning love and philosophy. But most of all, I remember a time when I could be shocked, when my ideals crashed against the hard wall called reality. In life, many of us take a deadfall but manage to live on.

---Published in Silkworms Ink, June 2010

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