Friday, August 6, 2010

Sinful Davey (1969)

"When fame comes to a man at so early an age," writes Davey Haggart, "it can only be deserved. As we will see later in these memoirs, I was much too enterprising a fellow to be wasted in the army. The trouble with the King's service... is the service you have to give him."

So begins Sinful Davey (1969), John Huston's 95-minute odyssey of a young rebel who deserts the British Army, is chased by the government, arouses the excitement of female fans near and far, and seeks to make a name for himself by becoming the first man ever to successfully con the Scottish nobility. But where he excels as a ladies' man he falters as a stuntman: he cannot steal a coach without falling off of it backwards, and although he is able to lead pursuing troops into the middle of a grassy bog of quicksand, he is finally caught when he fails to avoid getting hit in the head by an incoming golf ball. This is a relentless soul who will stop at nothing to be Scotland's most famed rebel--the kind of man who takes offense when only five guineas are placed on his head.

But time has not been kind to the film. It's hard to watch Sinful Davey today without immediately noticing that the production was a rather lame attempt to cash in on the success of Tom Jones (1963). Whether or not Huston himself ever borrowed anything from Tony Richardson's Academy Award-winning film is of course up for debate, but nevertheless the film--allegedly based on a true story--is practically the same movie all over again: 18th-century European has a series of misadventures; 18th-century European becomes a Casanova type; and 18th-century European is nearly hanged at the end of the film before somehow living happily ever after. Not to mention he gets the girl, too.

That isn't to say Sinful Davey isn't worth seeing; it most certainly is, just as every Huston film is worth seeing. John Hurt's performance in the title role is an absolute pleasure, and he captures every inch of that roguish charisma that Albert Finney had in the Richardson film. When Davey tells his new friend, the pickpocket MacNab (Ronald Fraser), about his plans for the future, we look forward to them with anticipation. Davey's father, we learn, was the infamous Willie Haggart, who tried and failed to pull a con on the Scottish nobility, and has now been all but forgotten; he is remembered only by envious criminals of the present day, and nobody even knows where he is buried. Davey hopes to correct his father's mistake and somewhat restore dignity to his family name. "My father, if you recall, had bad luck robbing the Duke," he reminds MacNab, "while I intend to finish off what he started."

No doubt this is "an amusing notion", as Huston himself agrees in his autobiography, and Huston even goes on to say that the finished product was "a light-hearted romp... an altogether delightful affair." But is Sinful Davey a successful film? I don't know. To begin with, let's talk about the problems with that beginning scene, in which Davey is writing his memoirs and Hurt's voiceover is heard over the soundtrack. It is followed then by a title song, sung over the opening credits by Esther Ofarim. It seems a jolly enough way to open the picture, even if it does reek of conventionalism. But as Huston later writes in his book, this is not how Sinful Davey was ever supposed to begin in the first place.

"Like The Barbarian and the Geisha," Huston writes, no doubt remembering the way that John Wayne had tampered with Huston's original vision on the aforementioned film, "it [Sinful Davey] was ruined after I delivered my final cut. I turned it in and then that was that until I next saw it upon release. I was aghast! Walter Mirisch, the producer, had given full sway to his creative impulses. He had taken a scene from the end and put it at the beginning, so that the whole story became a flashback. And he had added a dreadful narration! Under the circumstances, Otto Preminger [perhaps Huston's recollection of the way Preminger bullied Tom Tryon on the set of 1963's The Cardinal] would have brought suit. I sometimes wish I were Otto Preminger!"

Now, does that mean that we should look at the film differently simply because Huston's picture had been taken away from him? Again, I am at a loss to really say. All the same, I am not sure Sinful Davey would be any more or less of a better film than it already is, and I have a sneaky feeling it would still look like what I've accused it of being: a pale Tom Jones imitation. There is no question that Huston's intent with the film is supposed to be comical and tongue-in-cheek, but the screenplay by James R. Webb (adapted from the real David Haggart's book) has very little of that bizarre imagination that compelled, say, Truman Capote to write his own screenplay for one of Huston's most celebrated films, the infinitely superior Beat the Devil (1954). Students of cinema, of course, recognize Beat the Devil as the first great cult classic of American cinema, and rightfully so: that film offered an hour and a half of Bogart and Jennifer Jones in a race against a team of scheming, sniveling bad guys (including Peter Lorre!) that veered around Italy and across the seas to the Middle East. The plot concerned a quest to find a dangerous supply of uranium, but that was of second importance.

In fact, it was an incomprehensible movie without really any plot at all, and that was the point. Sinful Davey, to be sure, offers some funny gags here and there--as when Davey and MacNab try to burgle the coffin of the recently deceased "Tom Pepper", but are are foiled when night watchmen burst the coffin open and it releases cabbages that roll down the street. Or when a dwarf named Billy the Goat (Mickser Reid) beats the living Christ out of Davey in jail (shades of the Nazi Mexican dwarf that menaces Finney's Geoffrey Firmin in Under the Volcano), and, later, because of his small size, is risen up in the air to burst through the roof of the jail cell, allowing Davey and his fellow cellmates to join the sultry ladies upstairs. And, in the scene where Davey is hit by a golf ball and knocked unconscious, Huston plays a sort of Chuck Jones-inspired "birds chirping" queue on the soundtrack. All fine gags, but unfortunately none of them overcome the limits of the film's ordinary narrative.

One thing I like about the opening scenes of the film is Davey's escape from the British Army. Bored with having to beat an instrumental drum over and over again while marching in line, Davey, ignoring the commands of his peers, jumps off a bridge and, despite being unable to swim, survives the fall by using his drum as... a boat. This helps validate one of the theories that Huston's scholar, Professor Lesley Brill, uses in his 1997 book John Huston's Filmmaking: that water, in Huston's films, is a device that spares the characters of the story more than it does pose as a threat. Consider how Bogart and Hepburn always survive the death-defying rapids of The African Queen (1951), and are magically carried away by peaceful waters in the closing scene of that film; or how Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) begins with the ocean peacefully washing Robert Mitchum, lying unconscious in a raft, up onto the shores of the seemingly deserted island. Even in a perilously submerged film like Moby Dick (1956), the whale is far more menacing than the waters it swims in, and although Captain Ahab eventually dies by drowning, it is only after being tied to the side of the whale by ropes. In Sinful Davey, the river helps Davey escape from the British Army, and although it transports him to a rather disconcerting destination (a water wheel), Davey survives this obstacle as well.

Professor Brill goes to even greater pains looking for Hustonian elements in Sinful Davey by analyzing the end of the film, in which Davey is sentenced to death by hanging; Brill eloquently compares this scene to the ending of The African Queen. "Like Charlie, he [Davey] manages to be remarkably calm in the face of death, devoting his 'final words' to a plug for his memoirs, soon 'to be sold to the public at a most reasonable price'," Brill writes in his book. "Rescued just after what appears to be the nick of time, his story ends, like that of Charlie and Rose, with the prospect of life as a married, presumably reformed man, saved by the love of a good woman."

That "good woman" is Annie (Pamela Franklin), a quoter of the Good Book who is a childhood friend of Davey's, and who carefully follows his trail throughout the film to make sure that he doesn't get into trouble. Franklin's work here is one of the best female performances in Huston's films, right up there with Jennifer Jones in We Were Strangers (1949), Hepburn in The African Queen and Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits (1961). She obviously loves Davey more than he loves her, and at one point cannot hold back her jealousy. "Davey, you've kissed every female within reach," she complains, "but have you ever given a thought to kissing me?" She is a strong woman who seems to be out of Davey's league, and in some ways he doesn't deserve her--but it is finally because of her courageous efforts, and not the sympathies of the kind but powerless Duke (Huston regular Robert Morley), that Davey eludes his capital punishment. The film ends with Davey and Annie rejoicing in bed together, and Davey, still rather egotistical, keeps up with his roguish attempts to impress Annie (or keep her in a state of jealousy). "Have you no questions to ask at all?" he asks, dumbfounded. "Questions?" she responds. "No!" They kiss and make up. Davey may have gotten the girl in the end, but it is Annie who has the last laugh in the relationship.

The Internet Movie Database claims that a young Brenda Fricker makes an appearance in the film, as well as a young Angelica Huston, but I certainly don't remember seeing their faces. I would have to watch the film again and search for them, though I confess that I'm not in much of a hurry to do so. I wouldn't say Sinful Davey is one of the rotten apples at the bottom of the Huston barrel, exactly (I would try to make a case that The Unforgiven and Annie are even lesser works, for example), but I wouldn't say that the film leaves much of an impression on me, either. The purpose of a film like Sinful Davey is to entertain, and it does it well. But I keep thinking back to what Arthur Miller once said about Huston's work: that for every artistic triumph born out of quiet meditation and thought, there were films made for more banal, more commercial reasons--or maybe for the sheer fun of it.

Perhaps Huston made the film because, at the time, he was living at the enchanting estate of St. Clerans, and wanted to capture on film the green European countrysides that he had gazed upon so often during his legendary foxhunts. Aesthetically, what lingers about the picture, for me, is the cinematography by Edward Scaife and Freddie Young, which, although normal, captures the pure essence of the Scottish lands. In effect, Sinful Davey was perhaps the most successful film (until The Dead, at least) to fully illustrate Huston's embracement of Ireland, Scotland and everything in between--and then put it all on celluloid for audiences everywhere to see.


  1. This sounds like something I'd probably enjoy as a costume drama fan, although, from your review, clearly not one of Huston's greatest! According to the Film 4 website it is rarely seen because of legal issues - a shame, as I'm intrigued. Great stuff. Haven't had time to write anything up for the blogathon yet but will do so over the weekend - great stuff so far.

  2. Aye Judy, clearly this one is on the lower tier, but Adam finds enough Hustonesque elements, including the opening, to at least find it mildly engaging. Yeah, it does appear to be an attempt to cash in on the success of TOM JONES, and it makes sense what you say here about the director wanting to (cinematically) realize the beauty of his surroundings. Hurt, of course, is always an asset, and no doubt makes teh material more palatable. Terrific opening salvo here of a film that I have never seen, regretably.

  3. Actually, had I not recorded the film during its late night run on June 2, I wouldn't have been able to see it at all! To my knowledge, Sinful Davey has never had a proper DVD release, though I'm glad TCM was able to give it a chance to air. Now if they could just give that chance to Freud: The Secret Passion so that I wouldn't have to stick to the poor quality version on the Internet...


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