Thursday, May 6, 2010

Ice cold and dipped in acid

I was glad to have the occasion to revisit one of the films that honed my taste for bleak and cynical satire when it came out during my high school years, Cold Turkey (1971). Thanks the DVD-on-demand program by Fox Video as distributor of MGM/UA library, the film, written and directed by Norman Lear on the eve of creating All In The Family, is available from Amazon, from an unrestored but watchable print.

Let's start from the top. Any movie that begins with a mangy old dog wandering into a dying rustbelt town to the sound of Randy Newman singing "He Gives Us All His Love" (which Newman apparently wrote expressly for this film) is already doing well. The premise is simple, albeit full of holes: a town which can give up smoking for 30 days will get $25 million from a big tobacco company. Don't think too much about that--it won't hold up. The film isn't about smoking, it's about greed and ambition.

The most ambitious is a sanctimonious hypocritical Methodist minister, played by the usually loveable Dick Van Dyke, who is looking for a way to get out of this armpit of a town. He bullies his wife and smarms his way around town. All the expected complications develop, aided and abetted by such skillful comic actors as Vincent Gardenia, Jean Stapleton, Barnard Hughes, Tom Poston, Graham Jarvis, Barbara Cason, Bob Newhart, Edward Everett Horton and, in their only feature film, playing all the newsmen in America, Bob and Ray. And, again, how can you disparage a movie in which one citizen expresses her frustration over not being able to smoke by kicking a dog clear across the town square. I mean, dog-kicking is one of the biggest no-nos in the history of the movies!

Also, you gotta like a movie in which Richard Nixon hops on the bandwagon at the last minute for no good reason except self-promotion. (I'm said to say he's portrayed in long shots by a guy in a rubber mask, but any excuse to dump on Nixon will be gratefully accepted.) And that was filmed in 1969 (the film sat on the distributor's shelf for two years) before we knew exactly how big an SOB Nixon was.

Like It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, there is only one good and decent person in this universe, and her voice is drowned out in the madness. The finale may not make any sense--after 30 years I'm still hard pressed to say what it means--but it's sheer nihilism gives a tingle of spiteful pleasure.

I mean how can you beat three hypocritical cynical gasbags being shot accidentally by a crackpot old lady wingnut, while an hysterical crowd cheers for Richard Nixon and ignores the dying men right next to them? Awesome.