The “Studs Lonigan” trilogy, by American novelist James Farrell, was voted #29 on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century. In a totally bizarre coincidence, James Farrell died on this day in 1979 and Roger Ebert just put up a piece that he wrote about him back in 1968. Fascinating! Read it! The Studs Lonigan trilogy tells the story of a young Irish man living in Chicago in the 1920s (similar to Farrell’s own upbringing), and hanging out with his friends at pool halls and speakeasies, dealing with prejudice, getting in trouble, fighting with his parents, and struggling with his faith: a collage of the issues going on for Irish immigrants at that time. I have not read the books and I would love to talk to my dad about Farrell, since he was always up on anyone even vaguely Irish in the literary world. Farrell grew up on the tough South Side of Chicago, and his books were very personal. The books were such a big deal to audiences of the 30s that Studs Terkel named himself after the fictional character created by Farrell. There are so many writers like Farrell in the 1930s, issues-of-the-day writers, fine writers, but a lot of that work does not time-travel well. It is rooted in that era. The writing may be wonderful, but you cannot extricate it from its time. (Clifford Odets is a great example. You can’t “modernize” his plays. The Depression is always a character in his plays, as are the hints of Socialist ideas, so in vogue at the time. Pure 1930s stuff.) Studs Lonigan were “issues” novels, taking on the big topics of the day, stirring up controversy: racism and prejudice against the Irish, the plight of the uneducated workers (Farrell was a Trotskyist), what happens to people when they have no money, and no active part in their own destinies. Crime and poverty come from racism. Farrell had experienced it personally, and all of that went into his books. He was the reason why Norman Mailer decided to become a writer.
Fast-forward to 1960. Philip Yordan, an Oscar-winning screenwriter (for The Broken Lance in 1954), with two more nominations for scripts going back to Dillinger in 1945, wrote a screenplay for Studs Lonigan. He had a long career, and a very interesting one, kind of in keeping with the 1930s spirit of Farrell’s books: He fronted for many writers who had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Yordan would get the credit, but the blacklisted ones would do the writing. This went on for years. With his screenplay for Studs Lonigan, he signed on as an Associate Producer for the film with Longridge Productions, and Irving Lerner was chosen as Director. The key man in the crew, however, has to be Haskell Wexler, cinematographer, who would go on to win two Academy awards (for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Bound for Glory), not to mention three nominations (for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Matewan and Blaze). Wexler was cinematographer on what might be Elia Kazan’s most personal project: America, America (Kazan’s personal story of coming from Constantinople to America as a child), and they had a stormy relationship, to say the least. Kazan respected his talent, but they despised one another. Kazan said in an interview included in Kazan on Directing:
I was to discover two things about Haskell “Pete” Wexler. He was a man of considerable talent, and he was a considerable pain in the ass… And it happened that I did learn from him. He gave me my first experience with the hand-held camera. Pete could, with the smoothest motion, dip and turn, move in and out like a perfectly operated small crane, all the time making his focus-length adjustments. He was damned good, I had to admit.
Wexler was an uncredited cameraman on John Cassavetes’ Faces (1968), the be-all and end-all of handheld camerawork. Studs Lonigan was only his fifth job as cinematographer, and boy is he having fun. The noir angles are so out of control at times that it seems the camera is actually lying on its side. On the ground. Five feet away from the action. The shadows are so thick you could hack away at them with a machete and still be in darkness. Faces appear and glow through the black as though they have a tiny follow-spot on them. Haskell went to town with this shit.
Shadows shoot off to the side in a crazy slanting elongated manner, and it’s all a bit top-heavy and self-consciously artistic for a so-called realistic gritty story about Irish kids in 1920s Chicago, but at least the look of the film distracts (as much as it can) from the terrible acting of Christopher Knight, in his film debut as “Studs Lonigan” himself (he is not to be mistaken with another Christopher Knight who is better known as “Peter Brady” and also “the husband of Adrianne Curry”). This Christopher Knight only made one movie after Studs Lonigan. I can see why. Christopher Knight is gorgeous, in a completely cinematic way: dramatic coloring (dark hair, pale skin), thick eyebrows, luscious lips, he’s got a face made for the camera, even down to the cleft in the chin, but he has zero acting ability. It’s painful to watch him and even more painful to listen to him, which is unfortunate since so much of Studs Lonigan is voiceover. Now what do I mean by zero acting ability? I think it’s good to try to be specific. His voice sounds uninhabited. He cannot “fill up” the text with things that make it sound real, the way talented people do automatically. What things would those be? Oh, little pauses, breaths, giving the illusion that he is not reading a script, but making it up as he goes and thinking on his feet … Christopher Knight cannot do that. It’s not a matter of not being directed well or being mis-cast. He’s cast fine. There has to be some aptitude for acting, and from the first second Knight opened his mouth here, I thought; “Uh-oh.” He can’t help it. He is so clearly out of his league. His voice tells it all, before you even see him. When he is required to show emotion, he contorts his face in an alarming manner, to “show” his sadness/lust/grief/horror … everything is very “presentational”, meaning, he has one eye on the proscenium arch and the audience out in the seats, so he tries to present everything to us very very clearly (a dreadful “technique” to have in film acting, although I imagine Knight would be poor in any venue. You’ve either got it, or something approximating it, or you don’t.) The WORST time to be “presentational” is in a close-up. Close-ups are about psychology. This goes back to D.W. Griffith and the other pioneers, Carl Dreyer, et al. Film is not theatre. Action and thought do not need to be presented. You just move the camera in close and watch a character think and feel. That’s the medium. Christopher Knight does not understand this, and actually ratchets up his presentational acting when the camera moves in close, which makes for some pretty gruesome moments.
Back up, for God’s sake!
Let’s get to Nicholson.
Studs Lonigan tells the story of Studs (or Bill, to his parents and his “nice girl” girlfriend, Lucy) and his three buddies, friends since childhood, palling around in pool halls on the South Side of Chicago. It makes me think of other group-buddy movies that have always been in vogue (phone call for Howard Hawks) but were about to come into style again in a whole new way: Easy Rider, and then later, Deer Hunter, Once Upon a Time in America. A group, the dynamic of the group, and what happened to all of the members of said group. It’s the high-flying 1920s, when Prohibition ruled the land. These are all first-generation Irish kids. Studs’ parents are named Mary and Patrick, of course, although his father’s Irish accent comes and goes from scene to scene. Mrs. Lonigan holds out hope that her son will “receive the Call” from God to be a priest, and Mr. Lonigan scoffs, “If that boy can be a priest, I can be a Shriner!” What does Studs want to be? He tries to be a big-shot. He can’t hack it. He tries to learn the saxophone so he can play in a big band. He has an ongoing friends-with-benefits situation happening with an old teacher of his from high school, a lonely woman. He is madly in love with a girl named Lucy (why is not made clear: she seems like a drip, beginning to end). He drifts, he wanders, he whines to us in voiceover, “I don’t even feel like I belong to this damn family”. Having not read the books, I cannot speak to them personally, but here, the focus seems to be not so much the details of the Irish experience with racism and prejudice and poverty (all very 1930s literary concerns) but instead is a coming-of-age tale, showing a brooding rebel, an outsider, a guy torn between hanging out with his friends and settling down with a nice girl. It may take place in 1920, and it may be overloaded with noir elements, but this is a 1950s movie, in every moment. Studs is a juvenile delinquent, Studs deals with peer pressure, Studs wants to make something of himself and be his own man. Studs behaves badly. His parents fret and worry. He drinks. He has sex out of wedlock. He goes to see strippers. But he is tormented, I tell you, with hopes and desires and dreams for something more. Which he tells us over and over again in his uninhabited phony-actor voice in the insistent over-used voiceover. So.
Jack Nicholson had a busy year in 1960: He appeared in Too Soon to Love, The Wild Ride, Little Shop of Horrors and a couple of TV shows. Here, he plays Francis Riley (nicknamed “Weary”), and for the most part he is just one of the crowd, although he does have a key scene near the end of the film where he rapes a girl at a political celebration and gets busted for it. From what we have seen of this guy up to that point, it does not come as a surprise. He is completely corrupt. Nicholson plays corrupt very very well.
Unlike The Wild Ride, where he played a cool smileless tough-guy (not really Nicholson’s natural milieu), here he plays a wild sneering character, up for anything, and filled with contempt for women. It’s not a stretch. There’s a prolonged scene at a burlesque show, with whooping male audience members, and Nicholson is out of control in the scene. He is so excited and drunk and horny that he literally bounces in his chair the entire time. The guy is dangerous. He can suggest that, no problem, without “presenting” it to us in an obvious way. He’s in the zone of the character. The camera just seems to catch him, as opposed to him “playing for” it (a la Christopher Knight).
The thing about Nicholson that I am so glad eventually was allowed to come out in his acting … the thing that people always say about him, as a man, foibles and all … is how sweet and supportive he is. Of everyone. There is a kindness there. Despite the devilish eyebrows and the leering grin, he is kind. The world perhaps wants to thrash it out of him (we see that in many of his parts, most explicitly in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but it’s there in a lot of others), and maybe he is a bit too worldly-wise to only be kind, he’s seen too much, but it is a quality that cannot be killed. When he eventually was allowed to mix those two elements – the cynical and the kind – it would be a slam-dunk. Think of his incredible shouting match with Ann-Margret in Carnal Knowledge, or playing the piano in the back of the truck in Five Easy Pieces, or the complex courtship with Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment and the way he looks at Diane Keaton in a pained yet devastatingly sizing-up way in their last scene in Reds. There’s nobody like him when he’s allowed to just go. In Studs Lonigan, though, we have the corruption, and not the kindness.
Frank Gorshin is in the film as well, as one of the buddies, so Christopher Knight is at a serious disadvantage when he’s on the screen with these two actors. They barely have any lines and they act him off the screen.
The movie is so busy, with a jazzy jaunty soundtrack underneath every scene, and upside-down angles looking up people’s nostrils, and unmotivated artistic shots, not to mention the wooden and yet overwrought amateurish performance of the lead actor that it is, I admit, difficult to sit through. A voiceover that declares, in the middle of a love scene, “Lucy, I love you.” The voiceover tells us what we already are seeing. (Although, as I mentioned, the entire love story fell flat, which is unfortunate, because so much rides on it. Lucy was boring, Studs wasn’t convincing, and etc. – but still: to be in the middle of a love scene and have the character tell us, “I love you, Lucy” is just Amateur Night.) But one of the fun things about this particular series is honing in on just one element, to watch for Nicholson, to see what is there, what he is working on, where he is at.
There’s a scene reminiscent of the great scene in Carnal Knowledge where Nicholson and Garfunkel sit off-screen at a bar, competing to make Candice Bergen laugh. And boy, does she laugh. It’s an extended take, the camera only on Bergen’s face, as she gets more and more out of control (I wrote about the scene here), and you can hear the nudging competitive voices of the two men off-screen. It’s a fascinating way to film an event. I wish more directors would take such chances. In Studs Lonigan, the four guys sit in a speakeasy, and notice a bleached blonde passed out at a nearby table. They decide to have a little fun with her (at Nicholson’s character’s insistence). So they crowd around her and start to pour compliments on her, which throws her into a confused tizzy. She glances at herself in a little makeup mirror. They tell her how beautiful she is. They tell her they want to set her up in an apartment. She deserves to live the high life. They lay it on thick. But the entire time, this is going on, the camera stays on her face. She looks up at the four men, slowly dragging her eyes from one to the other to the other, facial expressions flickering over her features, hard to define … sad, hopeful, burnt-out. There are two close-ups of Nicholson that book-end the scene. His first line, telling her how beautiful she is, and the last line, when they reveal that they’ve been busting on her, and he bursts out laughing, in a frightening aggressive way, the camera right in on his face, and it’s a really good moment: electric, cruel, unforgiving.
It was my favorite sequence in the film.
It’s a glimpse. A glimpse of what was to come when Nicholson finally found his stride.