Allegory Of Conspiracy Becomes The Subject Of One
DIRECTED BY: WILLIAM RICHERT/1979
STREET DATE: NOVEMBER 12, 2019
“Somebody’s trying to teach me a lesson in futility!” So says Nick Kegan, half-brother of assassinated president Timothy Kegan, just now on the newly-revived trail of who shot the president in Philly two decades before. The movie is a purposely obvious roman à clef of the Kennedy assassination and all the thick-blooded conspiracy stories that bled out of it into the popular culture – and it reminds us in its wry-yet-straightforward way that somewhere inside all that pedaled clap-trap and conjecture is the actual living and breathing truth.
Tonally, the story shifts around as it goes. Effectively dramatic moments, like lingering on Kegan’s look as he holds the discovered rifle that killed his brother – a moment that must have rung haunting in ’79, within such close memory-shot of the real and true event – are butted up against broader satirical bits like the sinister antics of Kegan’s father, “Pa Kegan”, played by craggy John Huston as a caricatured Joe Kennedy, swooping down with lurching condescension from his stack of wealth. He’s a burlesque Noah Cross, bragging about all the hospitals and airlines and politicians he owns and dangling bits and pieces of his own probable complicity from his grinning teeth for all to see.
The somewhat ad hoc collision of all the weird tones and broad ideas (Sterling Hayden, in big, white Ahab beard, plays one suspect, who surrounds our hero’s car with a half dozen tanks) smooths out thanks to Nick, our smart but always-a-step-behind protagonist. Because he’s Jeff Bridges, he’s affable enough that his dumb decisions, like continuing to follow the trail of possible culprits laid out by his clearly evil father, and fumbling around with a woman who might as well be wearing a “femme fatale” tee shirt, are almost endearing.
Meanwhile, Anthony Perkins revs up his scenes with a motor-mouthed intensity. He’s brainiac John Cerruti, Pa Kegan’s hybrid PR man/tech mastermind, essentially living like Oz the Almighty in his “contract silo”, a building-sized tower of drawers full of every interlocking business deal Pa’s ever made, along with massive computers that track and record every conversation Pa’s ever had. The production design has it looking like the love child of Strangelove‘s War Room and Forbidden Planet‘s underground machine complex, making this a great, exaggerated satire, until you realize that with today’s all-seeing, all-knowing tech, it’s probably too quaint by half.
The script is based on the Richard Condon book, but it would actually be a perfect Robert Ludlum story, possibly titled “The Cerruti Tapes” or some such, about a typical everyman caught up against his will in the corruptive nexus of international business and domestic politics – except in this case the everyman is the quasi-bumbling half-brother of an assassinated president. This earnest satire (a usually moribund combo, but not here) was mounted by first-time feature film director William Richert – probably the only guy in town who’d dare touch it: a documentarian with little to lose and enough chattering energy to rustle up the right cast and crew. Unfortunately, his bosses were the first-time producers Leonard Goldberg and Robert Sterling, big talkers with half the money to make the movie and the other half floating on promises made to MGM and Warner Bros – they somehow convinced studio heads that more money was forthcoming until, eventually, the paychecks dried up and the production was shut down by Hollywood unions. The independent production had overextended itself across several studios and cities with the daring and naïve assumption that if they had so many people to pay, they’d just let them keep shooting to make the money back on release. Uh, but no.
Two years later, Richert the dynamo, flush with new cash from a quickie film (also with Bridges, called The American Success Company) gathered the band back together to shoot what was left, and then let it loose in the theaters…only to have it mysteriously shut out three days later, even sitting on a stack of stellar reviews. The grandest theory has it that the production company, Avco-Embassy, had business dealings in common with then presidential hopeful…Ted Kennedy, and they didn’t want a conflict of interest. It’s anyone’s guess, and it’s yours to contemplate as you watch the film, completely of a piece with the great paranoid thrillers of the 70s – not a crowning jewel, per se, with its rangy jabs at humor and scruffy satire, more like its cherry on top. Or, let’s say, its pretty red ribbon around the most redacted file in political history.