Since writing the "Bonnie and Clyde" post last week, I've been on a gangster kick. I've read Public Enemies by Bryan Burrough (all 652 pages of it) suggested by Bruce Appelbaum in the Comments (thanks Bruce) and about five dozen Wikipedia pages about various aspects of the 1933–34 War on Crime, and watched several gangster-related flicks.
As I watched "Murder, Inc." last night (1960, directed by Burt Balaban [father of Bob] and Stuart Rosenberg, whose best movie was "Cool Hand Luke" seven years later), an old thought popped into my brain: sometimes things work, sometimes not so much.
Seems obvious, but honestly, I sometimes think it's the core mystery of creativity. For instance, one photograph can be magic while another similar photograph that has all the same elements is a dud.
Why does that happen? I'm certain that every young musician who ever had a big hit thought to themselves "That was easy; I'll just do that again." But 90% of them never can—try as they might, the moment inexplicably passes, and the magic chemistry turns out to be not so easily replicable. It's that way in all the arts to some degree.
[Spoiler Alert: I'm going to thoroughly filet the plot of "Murder, Inc.," so if you've been meaning to watch it but haven't quite gotten around to it for the past 56 years, don't click through the break.]
"Murder, Inc." has many elements that perhaps ought to have made it a successful film. It features not one but two major screen debuts: that of Peter Falk, an outstanding actor who who later became famous as TV's "Columbo," and the jazz singer Sarah Vaughan. The story is historically based and legitimately sensational. A romance, check. The noir-ish B&W cinematography by Gayne Rescher is exceptionally good in places. Falk's performance is a standout—it got him nominated for an academy award. And of course there are murders all over the place. What could go wrong?
Peter Falk in his superb movie debut, in the unfortunately flawed
1960 film "Murder, Inc."
Well, lots, it turns out. Granted, the movie was probably fatally crippled by having a budget that was just too low for such a large story. Despite some inspired casting, some of it is wrongheaded. The worst example wasn't even the moviemakers' fault: early in the movie who gets murdered but Morey Amsterdam, who immediately afterward went on to a long run playing Dick Van Dyke's wisecracking comedy writer sidekick "Buddy" on TV. Who would want to kill Buddy? It's like seeing Mr. Ed made into dog food. The music is overwrought. That romance I mentioned has so little real chemistry that it reminded me of those YouTube videos in which animals of different species inexplicably befriend each other. The cinematography is limited in range (big on interior sets where the camera can't move around much) and often spoiled by 1960 details in the ostensibly 1930s time period, such as a crowd scene in which the actors are the only ones in period-appropriate clothing. The movie is propelled by Falk's show-stealing acting in the early going (particularly good is the "you take!" scene, sampled at about 1:20 in the trailer), even though he's too broadly drawn as pure evil, but later the plot plods and gets talky and dull—although it runs only 99 minutes, the movie seems to drag on too long. A "faux documentary style" interlude in the middle seems patched in, and even Sarah Vaughan's song seems like a cameo because it barely manages to intersect with the plot.
The writing unfortunately doesn't quite rise to the standard of "workmanlike." Not only is the lover/hero, Joey, a sap, but he doesn't get the girl in the end—instead, she gets whacked, in a scene that's meant to be suspenseful but mainly succeeds at being puzzling. Then, after some typical suspense tropes (a shot of feet quietly creeping toward the hotel room where the cops have him stashed), the villian gets murdered—but, disconcertingly, the body that falls from the window is clearly a stuffed dummy, and then, to add injury to insult, the movie doesn't even reveal who the killer was! Ouch. I suppose we're meant to think that it was Joey finally standing up and acting like a man, but, since his girl is already dead, that possibility flunks at being satisfying, a shutting of the proverbial barn door after the horse has run off.
Enough. The point here is that "Murder, Inc." has some great components and yet flatly fails to come together. Despite a lot of assets and a lot of the right ingredients, the ingredients fail to cohere, and its assets can't save it. I don't know how you'd grade it—on a scale of ten, 6 or even 7 if some aspect of it (like Falk's acting debut) charms you, or you found yourself diverted; 3 or 4 if you were more hardheaded and realistic about it. I could give it no more than a 5. Number rankings and their false fastidiousness aside, artistically and creatively the overarching point is simply that the project fails.
Not a great flick. That simple.
Know what I mean?
I think you can apply the basic idea to almost all the arts: sometimes everything comes together, mostly they don't. If creative endeavors sometimes magically gel and sometimes fail to, though, nowhere is that more evident than in movies, because movies are such cooperative endeavors with so many distinct aspects. Sets, cinematography, writing, directing, acting, storylines, all of which combine to create intangibles like chemistry and involvement. The real masterpieces are like those songs of which you can say "there isn't a note out of place."
I was a hound for movies in my youth, sometimes watching three or four a week before the era of Netflix, Amazon Prime, cable, DVDs and other forms of movies-on-demand. But now, and for years now, I haven't been much of a movie-watcher. (Now I read instead—I might actually hit 100 books this year, or come close.) Can anyone else think of good examples of movies that should have been good but failed to gel, or that didn't have much promise on paper but somehow hit on all cylinders anyway? How about other art forms? I'm talking purely artistically and creatively, not in terms of popularity or box office or renown and notoriety.
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Featured Comments from:
Sophia: "There is also the issue of timing. Sometimes hits are hits because they came along at the right time for the public and sometimes we personally are struck by a work of art because it touched us exactly where and when we were waiting to be touched. It takes a very long time, if ever, to be able to distinguish whether it was a true hit or just a perfectly timed ordinary work."
David Kieltyka: "The failed film that comes to mind for me is David Lynch's version of 'Dune.' There are some brilliant and lovely visual flourishes, particularly a repeating slow-motion shot of dripping water (the story takes place largely on a desert planet) but overall the film is stodgy and dull. A huge disappointment for anyone enthralled by the expansive and thoughtful Dune novels by Frank Herbert. I saw it on the day of release with a friend and fellow Dune-head…we were both so let down we switched from our normal post-film pints of beer to many shots of bourbon. :-) "
Mike replies: I might have added that the late billiards writer and columnist George Fels thought that "The Hustler" was a great film but "The Color of Money" was lousy. I say "might have" because as most readers know I never mention pool.