Friday, February 1, 2013

Mourning Becomes Electra

MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA             C-                   
USA  (173 mi)  1947  d:  Dudley Nichols 

I prayed for him to be killed in the war. Oh, if he were only dead.               
—Christine Mannon (Katina Paxinou)

I had a queer feeling that war meant murdering the same man over and over, and that in the end I would discover the man was myself.

The only love I can know now is the love of guilt for guilt, which breeds more guilt, until you get so deep at the bottom of Hell that there’s no lower you can sink. You rest there.

Don't cry. The damned don't cry.                    —Orin Mannon (Michael Redgrave)

Eugene O’Neill is a theatrical revelation, the greatest American playwright whose breadth of work, four Pulitzer Prizes for Drama and the 1936 Nobel Prize for Literature, seems to only scratch the surface in terms of showcasing the true intelligence and depth of his work, introducing a searing realism into American theater while also creating experimental works that remain avant garde well into the next century.  Known for his deep characterization of shattered souls, battered consciousness, and disillusioned characters that face the bleakest of circumstances, his blisteringly realistic dialogue is like no other, often expressed in lengthy monologues, spilling one’s guts over drink and agonizing despair, where a night in the theater with O’Neill is one to remember, as the viewer can expect to be steamrolled into painful submission by the elegant poetry used to lay one’s soul bare.  His plays are never easy, are among the most difficult to endure, but can be revelatory in their confessional honesty.  Despite all the attempts to film O’Neill, and on IMDb there are nearly 100 such attempts, none provide the full breadth of dramatic reach as sitting in the theater and experiencing it for yourselves.  Having said all that, watching this 3-hour film version of MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA is like watching a painfully obvious trainwreck that screeches and jolts out of control as it continually rides off the rails.  Dudley Nichols worked as a screenwriter with director John Ford on 16 productions, the last being THE FUGITIVE (1947), when they had a falling out, never to work together again.  At about the exact same time, Nichols made his third and final attempt at directing with this film, writing scripts for another decade but never to direct again, so one can surmise this was not a particularly proud period in his life.  How many things can go wrong in one production?—this film continually asks that question.  First off, it is horribly miscast, using actors who aren’t remotely familiar with O’Neill character or dialogue, which is evidenced immediately, where despite being a lengthy family drama, there is nothing remotely similar about anyone in the cast.  And what about the acting?  Nichols exerts no control whatsoever over his actors who are allowed such free reign to overact in hysterical and melodramatic acting school fashion so that the film plays out as high camp, as if they are all channeling Gloria Swanson. 

For a man who worked with Ford, who was such a perfectionist on the set, Nichols shows no signs of understanding sound, as conversations are drowned out by approaching trains, or lighting, as much of his interior scenes are poorly lit, camerawork, as there’s little to speak of, but often the camera is either too far away or too close, never figuring out a cohesive pattern of bringing it all together.  And what about the acting?  Both Rosalind Russell and Michael Redgrave give cringe-worthy performances, yet both were inexplicably nominated for Academy Awards, one supposes for simply getting through the lengthy material, where they are onstage for the length of two films, but their wretchedly overwrought tone simply ruins the picture, turning this soap opera into a viciously cruel melodrama filled with backstabbing gossip and longstanding family squabbles, where it’s like watching cats squawking at one another continually trying to draw blood.  The intense bloodbath in the mother/daughter hatred between scheming matriarch Christine Mannon, supposedly sophisticated Greek actress Katina Paxinou who later appeared in Rocco and His Brothers (1960), and her spitefully spoiled and contemptuous daughter Lavina (Rosalind Russell, in real life only six years younger), play out their scenes like B-movie horror camp, as their arms flail back, as if in fright, while their eyes grow deliriously huge, as if seeing a monster, where the threat is so pronounced that they are at each other’s throats simply by entering a room, as if they can detect each other’s odor.  This paranoid and deluded catfight behavior is explained in the clearly dysfunctional family history, where Lavina is a daddy’s girl, worshipping the ground her father, General Ezra Mannon (Raymond Massey, never duller), walks on, while her brother Orin (Michael Redgrave), is coddled and pampered by his mother, where for each, their one and only love is their chosen parent to adore and idolize, while despising the other parent with corrosively poisonous venom.  Dudley Nichols is a career screenwriter, so it’s obvious he understands the complex literary ramifications of the words, but his idea of what constitutes theatricality is painfully overwrought self-indulgence.  Everyone in the cast has a wildly different accent, yet they’re all supposedly one distraught family.    

One other technique, often used in O’Neill plays, is hearing inner thoughts spoken out loud, supposedly representing what the characters are really thinking, but there’s no rhyme or reason to how this device is used in the film, so it just appears oddly weird, or in O’Neill’s vernacular “queer,” as we hear the sound of the voice but they’re not talking to anyone, nor is what they’re saying of any particular importance.  Onstage, especially in Strange Interludes (1928), this is a hilarious device, used as savagely satiric thoughts that are so devastatingly candid, one could never speak those words out loud.  Culled from the earliest period of Greek tragedy, a reworking of the Oresteia trilogy by Aeschylus, where each play serves as a chapter in a continuous dramatic narrative, O’Neill has reset the period to the end of the American Civil War, divided into three parts, each cut in half from the original play to about one hour in length, Homecoming, The Hunted, and The Haunted.  The film flopped terribly at the box office and was quickly recut from 173-minutes to 105-minutes, where a 3-part drama was reduced to only 2-parts, eliminating the final sequence altogether.  But even when revived to its overlong original form, this is clearly a massive failure in every respect, as the overwrought tone never changes, becoming stiflingly predictable and repetitive after awhile, an exhaustive rehashing of the Freudian Oedipus complex and Electra complex, played out to the extremes, where it’s just more and more of the same tortuous agony, each character haunted by their carefully calculated mistakes, which drives them to deplorable behavior, where a similar guilty conscience theme is much more beautifully developed and tangibly connected to the historical and poverty stricken times in John Ford’s The Informer (1935).  Without a trace of humor anywhere to be found, excerpt perhaps in the malicious nature of the gossiping Greek chorus seen at the beginning, housewives on the loose, the exaggerated overacting often leads to unintended chuckles, where it’s easy to laugh at just how ridiculous this is, where the plantation-like New England estate resembles a bank vault, a monstrous mansion with carefully kept secrets locked behind closed doors, where characters are continually locking personal items in locked drawers, and when family members have a private chat, they continually lock the doors behind them so other family members are intentionally shut out.  After awhile, Katina Paxinou had to enjoy slamming the door in the face of Rosalind Russell.  Unfortunately, these small pleasures are few and far between, making this a worst case scenario for viewing an O’Neill play on film, better stick to Sidney Lumet’s LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (1962) or his made-for-TV version of THE ICEMAN COMETH (1960), both films starring the incomparable O’Neill stalwart Jason Robards. 

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