Island of Lost Auteurs

What the hell happened to John Frankenheimer?

The Island of Dr. Moreau

Directed by John Frankenheimer

New Line Pictures

Where have all the directors gone? It’s difficult even to recognize the names of people making movies these days. Tom Shadyac, Harry Winer, Gilbert Adler, Arlene Sanford, and David Mickey Evans are a few of the auteurs whose work can currently be found in theaters. Who are these people? More than ever, Hollywood is an actor’s paradise. Not only must directors cope with the arbitrary aftermath of big-name package deals, but the actors themselves are free to impose what they consider to be their personal artistic vision on the work. The job of directing ranks a few slight degrees above cinematography and production design. An upcoming Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman sex thriller will be shot by a guy named Kubrick.

The Island of Dr. Moreau, a succès de désastre starring Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer (it briefly topped the box-office charts), ought to have provided a respite. According to the credits, it’s a John Frankenheimer picture, and that idea sets the imagination pleasantly racing. Back in the ‘60s, Frankenheimer made a near-perfect sequence of very good and borderline-great films: Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, The Train. Those movies are a feast for the eye, with their crisp black-and-white compositions, Carol Reed-style tilted camerawork, and electrifying fast edits. They are also, for the most part, beautifully controlled character studies. Dr. Moreau, however, is a herky-jerky mess, with mutually exclusive star performances. The obvious explanation is that the stars arrived with ironclad ideas about what they wanted to do, and no veteran director could persuade them to do otherwise.

It’s not that these two actors are uncreative idiots. Any committed Brando fan will be forced to endure The Island of Dr. Moreau to register the old man’s amusing, free-spirited turn in the lead. In this updated version of H. G. Wells’ novella, Brando is a renegade DNA scientist who has engineered a race of half-human animals. Contrary to widespread reports, he does not parody his role in Apocalypse Now. Instead, he delivers an affectionate caricature of British ham acting–Charles Laughton’s fey Moreau in the 1933 midnight masterpiece Island of Lost Souls, also some of Alec Guinness’ more offbeat efforts. The icon of Method realism lets himself loose in surrealist absurdity. He rides around in a vehicle that looks a lot like the popemobile. He wears an ice bucket on his head. One of his soliloquies touches on Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone system of composition.

But you can’t even imagine the movie in which this lunacy would play an integral part. And Brando’s escapades lack continuity (to put it mildly) with the languid sexual menace of Kilmer, who plays Moreau’s assistant Montgomery as a full-fledged second villain, a junkie psycho trapped in a California sun-god’s body. Kilmer does think he’s in Apocalypse Now; he’s trying to be Martin Sheen, Dennis Hopper, and Brando all at once. In mannerisms familiar from The Doors, he slurs dialogue drunkenly, advertises his endless torso, and leers at other actors (mostly at the bug-eyed David Thewlis, miscast as the innocent who survives Moreau’s island hell). Kilmer drips eros–the mere act of propping his legs up on a table is epically sexy–but Thewlis is an odd target for his come-ons, and in any case, none of this decadence helps advance the plot. Kilmer goes out delivering a convincing Brando impersonation, but not, alas, of the Brando who’s in this film.

I’m afraid I’ve made Moreau sound more interesting than it is. The Brando tour de farce will ensure esoteric cult value, but for the most part the movie is grimly awful. Brando and Kilmer die well before the end of the picture, and the last 15 minutes or so–it feels like 50–involve an incomprehensible melee among various factions of icky creatures, set against indiscriminate fires and explosions. Where was the director when all this was being shot? A few behind-the-scenes stories have suggested that Frankenheimer simply took the job for the large salary and let the stars run amok. In recent years, he has spent more time directing commercials and TV movies than feature films. The day may come when he will make a real Hollywood comeback, but Moreau was doomed from the day it was cast.

Your seven or eight movie dollars would be better spent on a handful of Frankenheimer classics at a good video store. Everyone knows The Manchurian Candidate (1962), the original conspiracy thriller, with its aggressively paranoid plot and subversive surrealist style. It actually may not be Frankenheimer’s best; the famous quirkiness of the dialogue smacks too much of idle-minded hip. Waiting for Moreau, I’ve been captivated by three of Frankenheimer’s movies with his favorite actor, Burt Lancaster. There, in very stark contrast to Moreau, was an eerie match between actor and director. Frankenheimer’s style has always been hot, showy, jumpy. (In Moreau, that style lapses into MTV-style camera flourishes that could have come from any of today’s anonymous first-time directors.) Lancaster, the master of icy self-possession, was the still point, the cold, immobile heart of the matter.

Take Seven Days in May (1964), the tale of an attempted right-wing takeover of the U.S. government. What might have been an excessively tidy left-wing message picture is deepened by Frankenheimer’s exhilarating new-waveish camerawork and Lancaster’s awesomely assured military chieftain, tilting his head back and delivering lucid arguments for totalitarianism. Lancaster was also blank-faced hero of The Train (1965), playing a French resistance fighter who stops a Nazi colonel (Paul Scofield) from purloining a trainload of “degenerate art.” Lancaster’s hero risks everything to stop the train but cares nothing for the paintings. He leaves them in heaps outside the derailed train, amid the corpses of his companions. Most haunting of all is Birdman ofAlcatraz (1962), with Lancaster as a vicious convict who acquires an encyclopedic knowledge of birds. He acquires a little humanity as the movie goes on, but not much. All these films are content to end in a note of mystery, not knowing what makes their characters tick.

Thinking back over those movies, and contemplating the wreckage of Moreau, I had a crisis of confidence in Frankenheimer’s auteurist cachet. Is his career really more of an homage to the genius of Lancaster, who exhibited the same chilly control in other directors’ movies, notably Sweet Smell of Success and Judgment at Nuremberg (and, incidentally, the 1977 version of The Island of Dr. Moreau)? The value of unfaked actorly intelligence certainly can’t be underrated. But the real lesson is that true auteurs are all but impossible in Hollywood: the best Hollywood films have always come from a sudden, precarious balance of intelligent acting and imaginative directing, a cease-fire between artistry and the star system. When uncontrollable thespian egomaniacs enter the equation, that balance becomes impossible. Brando’s performance is at the center of Dr. Moreau in the same way that a low-pressure zone is at the center of a destructive hurricane.

Frankenheimer’s career increasingly resembles that of Carol Reed, who created The Third Man, one of the most nearly perfect movies ever made, and ended up sleepwalking through spectacles like The Agony and the Ecstasy and Oliver! Frankenheimer admires Reed. In a recent interview, he said he was reading Nicholas Wapshott’s Reed biography. One wonders what he made of the chapter in which Reed ignominiously backs out of the fiasco of Mutiny on the Bounty, one of the first movies in which a star took over all aspects of the production. That star was, of course, the young Marlon Brando. Perhaps the mere fact that Frankenheimer stuck around for the entire shooting of The Island of Dr. Moreau shows that he is not ready to give up.

Brando explains his satanic experiments in genetics to an appalled David Thewlis

(31-second clip):

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