Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Cult Classics Revisited: THE NIGHT OF THE FOLLOWING DAY (1969)

(US - 1969)

Directed by Hubert Cornfield.  Written by Hubert Cornfield and Robert Phippeny.  Cast: Marlon Brando, Richard Boone, Rita Moreno, Pamela Franklin, Jess Hahn, Gerard Buhr, Jacques Marin, Hugues Wanner, Al Lettieri.  (R, 93 mins)

Marlon Brando's performances in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951), THE WILD ONE (1953), ON THE WATERFRONT (1954), THE GODFATHER (1972), LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1973), and APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) just to name a few, are so legendary and so iconic that they're ingrained in the very fabric of film history and are frequently the roles cited by those who call him the greatest actor who ever lived.   Brando (1924-2004) was so great that people generally chuckle and give him a pass for his later paycheck gigs like SUPERMAN (1978), CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS: THE DISCOVERY (1992), and THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU (1996).  It's easy to forget that when Paramount was getting ready to put THE GODFATHER into production, Brando had to audition for the role.  The studio was firmly set on Laurence Olivier to play Don Vito Corleone, with Ernest Borgnine their second choice should Olivier decline.  Francis Ford Coppola fought for Brando against vehement protest from studio executives.  Brando's career was in the toilet by the early 1970s after a decade of flops and eccentric behavior that turned him into an unemployable pariah in Hollywood.  In the years leading up to THE GODFATHER, Brando was working almost exclusively in Europe. Though shot in France, Universal's THE NIGHT OF THE FOLLOWING DAY (1969) was his last Hollywood studio movie until his GODFATHER comeback.

Brando's image problems started with his notorious behavior in Tahiti during the filming of the gargantuan 1962 version of MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY.  Brando was coming off of his lone directorial effort (1961's ONE-EYED JACKS, which was to have been directed by Stanley Kubrick) and perhaps that's what precipitated his new "difficult" persona. With offenses ranging from undermining veteran, old-school director Lewis Milestone (1930's ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT) to, according to a Brando biography, pulling people off the film crew so they could decorate a friend's wedding, Brando didn't win himself any friends during the shoot, and after BOUNTY flopped, audiences gradually lost interest in him and subsequent films like THE UGLY AMERICAN (1963), BEDTIME STORY (1964), and MORITURI (1965) all underperformed. He also teamed up with Sophia Loren for Charles Chaplin's A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG (1967), the director's last and worst film.  Brando would go nearly a decade without a hit and his reputation suffered.  These lost, "Brando Behaving Badly" years have some interesting performances from the actor--Arthur Penn's THE CHASE (1966) remains one of the most underrated films of its decade and Brando, enduring one of cinema's memorably brutal beatings, is terrific in it; he's also good as Elizabeth Taylor's cuckolded, closet-case husband in John Huston's otherwise overwrought REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE (1967) where he was brought in as a last-minute replacement when Montgomery Clift died shortly before filming began--and while none of the films are completely terrible (well OK, 1968's psychedelic, all-star CANDY is pretty awful, but Brando is amusing as a sex-crazed guru), the frequently mediocre results and Brando's sullied name combined to make him persona non grata in the American movie industry.  Even the trailer for THE NIGHT OF THE FOLLOWING DAY tries to sell it with the narrator declaring "Brando...here's the old magic!" essentially telling audiences "You haven't liked him in almost a decade, but we promise it'll be different this time!"

Some of these films have gained critical respect in the ensuing decades, and THE NIGHT OF THE FOLLOWING DAY, which tanked in 1969, has enjoyed a sizable cult following over the years.  Sporting a blond wig that looks absurd in close-ups, Brando is Bud, a driver for a team of kidnappers who abduct a teenaged heiress (Pamela Franklin) from Orly Airport in Paris.  The crew includes Bud's drug-addicted flight attendant girlfriend Vi (Rita Moreno), her ringleader brother Wally (Jess Hahn), and the dangerous Leer (Richard Boone), who's initially soft-spoken and calming with the frightened young girl but quickly reveals himself to be a psycho and a sexual sadist.  They take the girl to an isolated beach house and contact her father (Hugues Wanner) with the ransom demand, but it doesn't take long for Bud to see that the whole plan is going to shit, with Vi's drug abuse and jealousy (she thinks Bud has designs on the girl) making her irrational and unreliable, and Leer's preoccupation with abusing the girl (at one point, Bud walks in on Leer beating her and holding her legs apart to peek up her skirt).  Panic and paranoia ensue as Leer tries to take command of the situation, which convinces Bud that Leer's only goal is to kill them all--including the girl and her father--and make off with all of the money himself.

Based on Lionel White's 1953 novel The Snatchers, THE NIGHT OF THE FOLLOWING DAY has a tense first and third act but really suffers from a draggy midsection that spends too much time away from the beach house, where the claustrophobic tension, suspense, and sense of mistrust work best.  The clichéd plot twist at the end probably didn't do it any favors with 1969 audiences, and plays even less successfully today.  Still, it's an interesting film, very well-shot by famed Belgian cinematographer Willy Kurant, very European in its style and execution, with some top-notch performances by the five leads, particularly Boone as the repulsive Leer.  Boone adds some odd little details to the character, like the peculiar way he removes his glasses, but your stomach will turn as he gets himself spiffed up with a hat and tie as tells an offscreen Franklin "Thank you for a charming interlude."  Only later, when Brando's Bud finds Franklin nude, strung up, and covered with cuts and burns do we realize the horrific extent of Leer's depravity.

But the Brando Behaving Badly antics probably reached their all-time high on THE NIGHT OF THE FOLLOWING DAY.  He didn't care for director/co-writer Hubert Cornfield and he reminded Cornfield of that fact constantly, which the director discusses at length on the 2004-released DVD's commentary track.  Cornfield, who retired from movies in 1978 and died in 2006, only made a handful of films over his career, and this was his first since 1962's PRESSURE POINT with Sidney Poitier and Bobby Darin.  Brando thought he was incompetent and started out by calling him "Herbert" when he knew his name was Hubert.  When that didn't work, Brando started intentionally sabotaging takes by making funny faces or arriving on the set drunk.  Undaunted, Cornfield found ways to work around his uncooperative star, who responded by telling Cornfield point-blank that he just tried to seduce his wife.  The unflappable Cornfield thanked him and said he was flattered that he found his wife so attractive.  The end of the shoot was approaching, and running out of time and options to piss off his director, Brando finally refused to be on the set with Cornfield and demanded that Boone direct his last scheduled scenes.  Boone didn't really want to be pulled into the situation, but did so anyway, probably because it seemed to be the easiest way to get Brando's work done and get him off the set.  Cornfield stepped aside, left the set, and let Boone direct Brando's last required shots.  Considering his constant attempts to torpedo the movie, Brando's performance is actually pretty good, and other than the silly wig, which looks OK in long shots, he looked better, leaner, and much more fit than he had in recent years and would ever look again.  Who knows why he did what he did?  Boredom? 

If his incomprehensible, one-sided war with Cornfield wasn't enough of an on-set distraction, Brando was also working with Moreno, years after the two ended a tempestuous, on-again/off-again relationship that culminated in a 1962 Moreno suicide attempt after he dumped her and married his MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY co-star Tarita.  Happily married and in a much better place psychologically by this time, Moreno was comfortable working with Brando on THE NIGHT OF THE FOLLOWING DAY.  In her memoirs, she wrote that they got along fine and eventually became friends again in the mid-1970s, though Brando did relentlessly--and unsuccessfully--try to cajole her into a fling during filming.

After this film died a quick death in theaters, Brando's career self-immolation and transformation into Hollywood box office poison was complete and he ended up in Europe, starring in Gillo Pontecorvo's Italian-made colonial epic BURN! (1970), followed by the British horror film THE NIGHTCOMERS (1972), and then the Brando image was reborn later that same year with THE GODFATHER, obviously one of cinema's great comeback performances.  One is hesitant to say Brando's worst period was in the '90s because he wasn't working that much and when he did, it was usually a small role for big money, though if you want to see Brando cut loose and get really crazy, he had his biggest late-career role in his penultimate film, the low-budget, little-seen 1999 comedy FREE MONEY, which skipped theaters and premiered on cable.  The ten-year stretch from 1962 to 1972 was probably Brando's career low, and it was a slow process that never really scraped bottom.  There's something worthwhile in all of these films--even CANDY--and even when Brando was inexplicably making life hell for those colleagues around him, the results proved at least intermittently interesting and his performances were never bad.  Hell, THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU proved that even a bad Brando performance is still required viewing.

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