Thursday, April 23, 2009

To Kill A Clown(1972)

Before he was Hawkeye, Alan Alda was Major Ritchie!

Favorite Monologue: Put your shirt on. Button it. I want that shirt buttoned. Every single button buttoned. There were wild savages roaming around for 1000 years before buttons came. Buttons changed this country. The United States of America is what it is because of buttons. What do you wanna wear? Beads? Feathers? Run Around Naked? You don't deserve to wear buttons.

The year is 1972. The Vietnam War is still creating havoc and Nixon is about to win in a landslide. The only major studio film about the Vietnam War made while it was being fought was John Wayne's Green Berets. However, it was OK to portray a Vietnam Vet disillusioned by the war as long as the film wasn't specifically about Vietnam. For instance, Warner Bros. didn't care about Tom Laughlin's politics as long as Billy Jack wasn't explicitly about the war. Likewise, To Kill A Clown was released by 20th Century Fox, has a Vietnam Vet character and politics that clearly aren't pro-Vietnam, but none of that matters as long the film isn't about the war.

The film is then a topical retelling of The Most Dangerous Game. Lily (Blythe Danner in her screen debut) and Timothy (Heath Lamberts) are a bickering married couple who rent a cottage on a beach island to save their troubled marriage. Timothy is a hippie-like artist, mime performer and photographer. Their landlord, Major Ritchie(Alan Alda), is a crippled Vietnam Veteran with 2 Dobermans by his side. Timothy has some suspicions about Ritchie but Lily feels sorry for him due to his handicaps. It is clear that Ritchie is attracted to Lily.

One night, Timothy, Ritchie and Lily are drunk. Timothy tries to mime a gorilla but is too drunk to perform. Ritchie talks about gorillas and how men imprisoned them. He then asks if Timothy could handle being locked up. Lily doubts it but Timothy says he could, no problem. Ritchie wants to give him that chance.

The next day, Timothy discovers Ritchie at his door and learns last night's challenge was for real. Ritchie commands him to stand at attention and clean up around the island. He makes sure that one of the Dobermans guards Timothy wherever he goes. Ritchie then rids their cottage of any knives, belts or blades and has their car towed away. Realizing that Ritchie has imprisoned them, Timothy and Lily try to escape but are unsuccessful. Timothy now understands he must shed his pacifist hippie beliefs and fight Ritchie and his Dobermans to survive.

Describing the plot doesn't capture the essence of the movie. Every scene ends with a freeze frame. The late Heath Lamberts told me that all the actors had to improvise their dialogue. The improvised dialogue leads to some pretentious-like scenes; Lily notices Timothy drawing pictures of his hand repeatedly. When she asks why he is doing it, he replies, "It is like keeping a diary."

Because there were huge anti-Vietnam sentiments in the film, director George Bloomfield was unable to make a director's cut. The result is a very choppy film. For instance, there's a fourth character in the film, Stanley, played by Eric Clavering. It is not clear what he does in the film. Nor does his character have any relevance to the main storyline. Also, the ending is not very clear on what happened to Timothy.

Despite its many flaws, the film does work when it comes to suspense. This is mainly due to the chilling performance of Alda. People were surprised by Alda's villainous turns in Crimes and Misdemeanors and The Aviator. Clearly, they hadn't seen To Kill A Clown. The pre-MASH Alda is excellent throughout, especially in a complex scene where Lily tries to seduce him into letting both her and her husband off the island. We see both his anguish in being unable to respond to her and his anger knowing that she doesn't really care for him.

While the movie is not a classic, it nevertheless remains a minor film emblematic of a time showing how Hollywood was dealing with an ongoing and unpopular war.

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