Friday, November 7, 2008

Esther Blodgett Would Approve

Many years ago I saw a play in Washington, D.C. about three people, Joseph Meggesy (Megs), David Flanagan and his sister Martha Flanagan. The title of this play about Vietnam vets struggling to put the past behind them was Strange Snow. That's a title I've always liked, alluding to a trout fishing trip of theirs on one occasion, and it didn't hurt that the play was superbly performed by its three cast members. When I heard a few years later that a movie was being made of it I was excited to see what they would do with its intimate setting, small cast and period detail. It never occur ed to me for a second that they would change the title. Why would someone change a title so beautifully woven into the fabric of the characters' experience? Because they're Hollywood and they're stupid. That's why.

The movie, starring Robert DeNiro and Ed Harris, was released as Jacknife, and to justify this title they change Meggesy's nickname from "Megs" to, you guessed it, "Jacknife." Good grief. Had the movie been half of what I saw on the stage I might have grimaced and accepted the title change but the whole thing felt slapdash and fragmented. As a result I was even more annoyed that the movie had lost such a great title.

Famous plays and novels don't have to worry about title changes or have minor changes such as Bridge Over the River Kwai becoming The Bridge on the River Kwai or The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde losing the first four words. Others are changed to avoid confusion. Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi was changed to goodfellas because of the popular television show Wiseguy on the air at the time. I've never liked the title goodfellas, but understand the change.

And others are adapted from book to screen and keep the title intact even though the given title stinks in book or movie form. And somehow they still manage to make a good movie. Which finally brings us around to the subject of this post, Floods of Fear, released in 1959, directed by Charles Crichton and starring Howard Keel and Anne Heywood.

The book it was based on had the same archly pulpy title but prior to that it was presented as a serial in The Saturday Evening Post under the equally pulpy title A Girl, a Man and a River. The series and novelized versions were written by brothers John and Ward Hawkins who wrote pulp and knew how to title it. For the record, I love both titles, Floods of Fear and A Girl, a Man and a River. It's just that for the movie, it appears the title may have done it in, giving people the impression they were going to see a disaster flick instead of a taut thriller.

Floods of Fear is a surprisingly engrossing noir in which a couple of escaped convicts are eluding the authorities and, in the case of the Keel character, Donovan, trying to find the person that framed him. And all of this is done in the midst of massive flooding in a small town. Keel was known for his musicals and this was his first step outside the genre into the gritty world of noirish surrealism. He does a good job with the role as does Anne Heywood as the woman caught between the convict and the law but it's Cyril Cusack who steals the movie with his menacing and snivelling convict, Peebles, providing a dangerous tension where the characters don't know whether to fear the floods or him more.

Impressively directed by Charles Crichton, noted comedy director from The Lavender Hill Mob to A Fish Called Wanda (he even directed the Golf Story Segment I didn't like in Dead of Night), Crichton uses his affinity for comedy editing to great effect here by not lingering over any shots or scenes in keeping the film moving at a swift but not rushed pace.

And for a low budget film the effects are quite good, mixing together stock footage with location shooting to miniatures and on the set wave machines. Its one problem may be that, being made in England and using British actors but set in the states, not everyone is completely convincing with their accents. But this is a minor quibble for such a well made pulp noir. Don't let the title fool you, Floods of Fear is a fine film for those in search of a solid, if predictable, late era noir but you'll have to catch it on television. It's never been released on DVD or, to my knowledge, VHS. But if you can find it give it a look. It's won't knock you over like a tidal wave but it won't drown your expectations either.