Friday, October 10, 2008
cinema obscura: Sidney Lumet's "Child's Play" (1972) and John Mackenzie's "Unman, Wittering and Zigo" (1971)
Effectively buried by the Chucky franchise, Sidney Lumet's "Child's Play" was the second film produced by stage hand David Merrick under his contract with Paramount Pictures. (His first was Robert Redford's "The Great Gatsby.") Merrick, who also produced the Robert Marasco play that starred Pat Hingle, Fritz Weaver and Ken Howard, had recruited Marlon Brando, James Mason and Beau Bridges, respectively, to play the lead roles.
Brando, his career at a low point (remember, this was prior to his "Godfather" comeback), balked when he realized Mason had more lines and bolted the production. Merrick, true to form, sued Brando, bringing in Robert Preston, then enjoying a post-"Music Man" career revival, to take over the role. Preston also starred in "Junior Bonner" for Sam Peckinpah the same year.
Marasco's play, adapted here by Leon Prochnik, is a tingly to-do set at an all-boys Catholic boarding school where two teachers - one, played by Preston, popular with the boys, and the other, played by Mason, despised by them - are engaged in a nasty feud that seems to have brought out the darker side of the school in unsettling ways. Suddenly, violence overtakes the student body. Caught between the two teachers - and caught up in the rampant sadism overtaking the school - is its new gym instructor (Bridges), a former student there.
This is by no means a great film - it is clearly second-tier Lumet - but the filmmaker effectively creates a creepy ambience and Mason, Bridges and particularly Preston do wonders with their roles. All in all, it works as an unnerving provocation. Its bizarre disappearance from the movie landscape is hardly deserved.
Working as a companion film to Lumet's movie - and working more successfully in general - is John Mackenzie's "Unman, Wittering and Zigo," made a year earlier, also by Paramount, and also based on a play (by Gilles Cooper) and also set in a boys' school where mayhem reigns.
David Hemmings plays a new teacher who comes to suspect that the man he replaced was murdered by the students, with escalating paranoia and mistrust taking over.
Mackenzie, who would go on to direct "The Last Good Friday," "The Honorary Consul" and "The Fourth Protocol," oversees everything with a chilly precision that Hitchcock would appreciate. Mackenzie takes familiar material and reinvents the form with a disconcerting jump-cut style that effectively keeps us on edge and with luscious and scenic cinematography.
The film's unusual title, incidentally, refers to the last three names on Hemmings' daily role call. Of course, the Zigo of the title could be a left-handed trubute to French filmmaker Jean Vigo who directed the grand-daddy of all malevolent boys-school thrillers - "Zero for Conduct"/"Le Zéro de conduite: Jeunes diables au collège"(1933).
Cinema Obscura is a recurring feature of The Passionate Moviegoer, devoted to those films that have been largely forgotten. Suggestions welcome.
(Artwork: Poster art from Paramount's "Child's Play" and "Unman, Wittering and Zigo"; still shot of Robert Preston in "Child's Play")
Posted by joe baltake at 9:16 PM