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")


Anonymous said...

My favorite hobby is to find old movies that no one ever heard of, so I love this feature of yours. Here's one for you -- "Staircase" starring Richard Burton. Ever heard of it? If so, can you tell me more about it? A friend of mine mentioned it to me.

joe baltake said...

Barry- Yes, I heard of - and have seen -"Staircase." In fact, I wrote about it a year or so ago. Also, although it is not available on DVD, Turner Classics showed it as part of its Gay Festival earlier this year. Still, it's funny that it has essentially disappeared, considering its pedigree and all. I mean, it had Burton starring with Rex Harrison and Stanley Donen directing.

Anonymous said...

"Child's Play" is a real yawn. Never heard of the other one.

Robert said...

I was in the movie Child's Play by Sidney Lumet when I was 17. My screen name was Medley. Any idea how I would go about getting a copy of the movie?

joe baltake said...


Try A Million-And-One World Wide Videos:

They have literally everything or can track it down. Simply go to their home page, go to the bottom of the page and click on Get Free Information Now and type in your request.

Good Luck!

Anonymous said...

In high school, I went through a period of reading plays. Child's Play was one of them, and I really wanted to see the movie, but I don't think it played in my area (no shocker, since I was in Kentucky at the time). I always assumed it would eventually show up on cable, or get a VHS release, or DVD, but it remains elusive. There's got to be some underlying rights issue that's holding it up, right?

In the back of my mind I have a vague notion that Unman, Wittering and Zigo showed up somewhere in the last year or two -- Fox Movie Channel maybe?

Anonymous said...

Addendum: I guess that Paramount logo on the Unman, Wittering and Zigo poster makes a Fox Movie Channel broadcast unlikely.

joe baltake said...


Paramount messed up the release of "Child's Play," which was once scheduled for a spring 1973 release. At the 11th hour, the studio decided to rush it into theaters in New York and L.A. as a 1972 holiday release with an eye on the Oscar - for James Mason and possibly Robert Preston. A week later, it opened just as hastily in other big markets, accompanied by limited advertising. The reviews were unenthusiastic, the runs were short. It was gone by January. To the best of my knowledge, it was never released on Beta or VHS and, for Paramount, was eventually pushed aside for the Chucky "Child's Play" films. Sometimes, Hollywood people are overpaid to be inept.

Jeff said...

"Child's Play" is a great film, FIRST TIER Lumet, better than "Serpico" or "Network."

Sally said...

Merrick (& everyone else) thought "Gatsby" was going to be huge and therefore wanted "Gatsby" to be his first film (it was his second - "Child's Play" was actually his 1st). So they basically buried "Child's Play" (which actually got several favorable reviews) only to have "Gatsby" bomb. Oh, well...

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