Friday, January 27, 2012

Forgotten Films Revisited: WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART (1990)

(US - 1990)  

Directed by Clint Eastwood.  Written by Peter Viertel, James Bridges, and Burt Kennedy.  Cast: Clint Eastwood, Jeff Fahey, George Dzundza, Marisa Berenson, Alun Armstrong, Timothy Spall, Richard Vanstone. (PG, 112 mins)

This review was originally published on the Mobius Home Video Forum in a different form in July 2010.

It's hard to believe there was once a time when Clint Eastwood was considered washed-up and had to kiss ass to get pet projects made. It really wasn't until 1984's TIGHTROPE that critics bothered to notice Eastwood was a real actor and not just Dirty Harry. But by the late '80s, his star was fading (he even took time off to serve as mayor of Carmel, CA), and as he approached 60, Eastwood was determined to be Taken Seriously, if not as an actor then as a filmmaker.  But he had to play ball with the studio. In order to get his 1988 Charlie Parker biopic BIRD released, he had to give Warner Bros. another Dirty Harry outing with the same year's THE DEAD POOL (and his boredom is obvious throughout) and the 1989 comedy PINK CADILLAC, and for this adaptation of Peter Viertel's fictionalized account of John Huston's adventures while filming THE AFRICAN QUEEN, he had to provide a LETHAL WEAPON knockoff, teaming up with Charlie Sheen in 1990's THE ROOKIE.  It's easy to forget that UNFORGIVEN was a major comeback for Eastwood after several years of uninspired and increasingly unpopular star vehicles and ambitious serious efforts that met with critical acclaim but audience apathy. Shot mostly on location in Zimbabwe, the $24 million WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART grossed just $2 million in the US, making it one of the biggest box-office bombs of Eastwood's career (and, when adjusted for inflation, according to Box Office Mojo, it IS the biggest bomb of his career), and one that I found suffocatingly dull when I saw it as an 18-year-old.  It's still the closest he's come to making a stuffy, PBS-ready Merchant-Ivory film.  But, looking at it with fresh eyes after a couple of decades, and watching it with the knowledge of some of his later works after establishing his auteur credentials, it's much easier to appreciate WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART today than it was in 1990.

Eastwood delivers a very uncharacteristic and sometimes (especially in the early scenes) mannered performance as egocentric director John Wilson, based on the larger-than-life John Huston. He's about to head to Africa for a film shoot and insists his writer friend Pete Verrill (Jeff Fahey, who's absolutely terrific here and should've had a much bigger career ahead of him) join him on his quest to bag a great elephant. This hunt comes at the expense of the actual film shoot, much to the consternation of his producer (George Dzundza, slipping in and out of a Gert Frobe-ish accent) and his British backers, and the bewilderment of his stars Kay Hooper (Marisa Berenson, doing an impeccable Katherine Hepburn) and Phil Duncan (Richard Vanstone, only vaguely Bogart-like). There are some almost-typical Eastwood moments--a brawl with a racist hotel manager, and a lacerating verbal bitchslapping of an anti-Semitic society woman, but it's a very (for the time) atypical Eastwood venture, one that fans flat-out ignored.  It just took the general public a couple of years and the right Eastwood project to catch up.

WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART is rarely mentioned these days, and it isn't deserving of its black sheep status with his fan base.  He's made a few missteps here and there in his career--I'd probably rank FIREFOX and INVICTUS as the worst films he's directed, though I'm prepared to give FIREFOX another look--but in hindsight, WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART is a fine film.  In terms of style, pacing, and tone, the mostly low-key UNFORGIVEN really isn't really all that different from WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART.  But it took a western--familiar ground for Eastwood and his fans--for him to find a project that would finally provide both the artistic bona fides and the box office to put him back on top.

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