Saturday, August 30, 2008

Daniel was a witness

Dennis Cozzalio at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule is currently offering up another round of cinematic posers in his ongoing series of “Movie Quizzes,” and while I always tell myself that should take a crack at one (actually, I think I may have on one occasion) I usually opt out when I see a question like this:

27) Antonioni once said, “I began taking liberties a long time ago; now it is standard practice for most directors to ignore the rules.” What filmmaker working today most fruitfully ignores the rules? What does ignoring the rules of cinema mean in 2008?

Yeah…check please! Oddly enough, the question that stumped me on this particular occasion was “Favorite Sidney Lumet Movie.”

I just couldn’t be satisfied with my answer. My gut says go with The Verdict (1982)…but I’m not certain if that’s my true favorite or just one of the privileged films with the ability to stop my remote control (others, of course, include Winchester ’73 [1950] and The Glass Key [1942]) in a nanosecond. There are just too many great Lumet films to consider: 12 Angry Men (1957), The Pawnbroker (1964), Fail-Safe (1964), The Hill (1965), The Anderson Tapes (1971), The Offence (1972), Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976), etc. So, with Lumet obviously on my mind, I decided to watch one of his lesser-known films purchased recently at the Legend Films sale held by Daniel (1983), the film adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel (his fourth novel, published in 1971).

Twenty-five-year-old Daniel Isaacson (Timothy Hutton) is the son of Paul (Mandy Patinkin) and Rochelle Isaacson (Lindsay Crouse), a left-wing couple (modeled after the real-life Julius and Ethel Rosenberg) tried and executed by the U.S. in the 1950s on charges of allegedly conspiring to provide atomic bomb information to the Soviets. The experience has taken its toll on the jaded and cynical Daniel, who nevertheless is spurred to investigate the case further after his sister Susan (Amanda Plummer) attempts suicide and is placed in a mental hospital.

Because I’ve always been fascinated by that period of the late 1940s/early 1950s when cold war paranoia was at its height, I went into Daniel with very high expectations…and emerged somewhat disappointed. It’s a thought-provoking film, to be sure—and it’s a nice evocation of that era (the story is told back-and-forth via flashbacks, allowing the viewer to witness the meeting of Paul and Rochelle and the development of their political consciousness) when lefty politics were in vogue, complete with Paul Robeson songs on the soundtrack. But because Lumet and Doctorow (who also wrote the screenplay) make no attempt to establish any point-of-view (other than an anti-death penalty polemic that creeps into the film in its last third) it leaves the viewer a bit unsatisfied. What exactly did the Isaacsons/Rosenbergs do?

I did enjoy how Lumet approaches Daniel as a pseudo-suspense thriller, having the film’s protagonist interview people involved with the case in an attempt to get at the truth. But in the film, Daniel constantly finds himself running down blind alleys into stone walls: the people he confronts all have their own agendas and are ultimately of little help to him. A reporter (Lee Richardson) who wrote sympathetic articles on the case tells Daniel that he knows first-hand his parents were railroaded—but he’s still not convinced of their innocence, observing “They must have been guilty of something.” The wife of the now deceased defense attorney (Ed Asner) blames the couple for her husband’s ill health and ultimate passing, and refuses to provide any additional information (after first being so hospitable and cordial). Even Daniel’s foster parents (John Rubinstein, Maria Tucci) are close-lipped about the case, convinced that it was in the best interests of both Daniel and his sister Susan never to discuss the details. Finally, Daniel confronts the daughter (Tovah Feldshuh) of the man (Joseph Leon) whose testimony convicted his parents after learning that the father may have lied to protect his own family. In the assisted living home where the man resides, Daniel finds an individual whose mind has clearly been ravaged by age and senile dementia—and he makes the decision that some ghosts are best left unchased.

The performances in Daniel are outstanding for the most part (Crouse, Asner, Plummer and Rubinstein are superb); I like Timothy Hutton but his turn as the title character can’t quite match the individual depicted in Doctorow’s novel (a real tool who does endearing things like torturing his wife—played by a young Ellen Barkin in the film—with a cigarette lighter)—as Daniel he seems to be more in a perpetual snit, as if he’s just found out he’ll get no pudding for dessert. Even Mandy Patinkin, whom I normally loathe, does well as the brilliant but cocky Paul Isaacson—his scene where he visits his children while in prison is as uncomfortable as it is unforgettable; a man whose attempts to fake hysterical good cheer can’t quite mask his fear and suffering. The only discordant note in the casting—and it’s really a product of my being a pop-culture sponge than anything else—is that I recognized Sesame Street’s Will Lee as the presiding trial judge…and it was a mite difficult getting a certain gargantuan yellow bird’s voice saying “Judge Looper” out of my head after that.


Andrew Leal said...

As an obsessive Muppet/Sesame Street researcher, I like it when Will Lee pops up (though the fact that he seldom even changed the same glasses he wore as Mr. Hooper makes your reaction understandable). It was his final film role and a nice turn (and just slightly ironic, when he rules that Communist party affiliation should be explored if it connects to a crime, since Lee was a blacklist victim).

What's your DVD copy like, Ivan? I bought a used VHS and wasn't aware that a DVD was available (the fact that Deep Discount lists it as "DVD R" format makes me wonder a bit).

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

If my copy is a DVD-R, you'd never be able to tell by me. It's in excellent condition...but keep in mind, I don't have one of those brand-spanking new HD televisions, just a slightly used 25" (one of the old gasoline-powered models).