Warren Beatty was coming off three flops and megger Arthur Penn had just been fired by Burt Lancaster when they came together on this dark, but soggy tale. It’s a riff on THE HUSTLER/’61, with Beatty playing nightclub comic rather than tortured pool shark. (And don’t think Beatty didn’t spot the similarities; he’d just finished a miserable shoot with HUSTLER’s writer/director Robert Rosson.*) It’s sure looks swanky, glistening with shiny b&w city-scapes & rainy reflections, as it follows a wary Beatty, on the lam from the mob and trying to earn a buck without exposing himself. (He really shouldn’t worry, he must have the least compelling act in town.) What makes the film both fun and aggravating is seeing Penn work like mad to incorporate all those new, cool French New Wave attitudes & film techniques. Truffaut’s the main influence, specifically SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER/’60, but Godard, Malle, et al. also come into play. It’s like a weirdly professional student project. But, in trying to be wildly ‘filmic,’ Penn’s borrowed stylings never rise past applique to organic. So, for example, when he tries something with a bit of comic-tinged slapstick violence, he’s quoting Truffaut & Co. whereas those guys would have been quoting from originals like Mack Sennett & the Lumière Bros. Maybe a less self-conscious approach would have worked. The leads (Beatty & Alexandra Stewart) are certainly gorgeous, and there are nifty, eccentric choices in the supporting cast (Franchot Tone, Hurd Hatfield, Teddy Hart). Oh well, Beatty & Penn would have better luck next time with BONNIE AND CLYDE/’67.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: As mentioned above, Truffaut’s SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER is what Penn was aiming at, but see Jean-Paul Belmondo in Godard’s BREATHLESS/’60 for an idea of what Beatty thinks he's up to. Elsewise, if you want to see a mainstream commercial Hollywood director truly engage with the French New Wave, try Stanley Donen’s enchanting, heartfelt dramedy TWO FOR THE ROAD/’67.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Oddly enough, Beatty’s co-star in Rosson’s poorly received LILITH was that muse to the French New Wave, Jean Seberg.