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"Oh what a tangled web we weave / When first we practice to deceive"
A well-read film student in 1970 might have known the term 'film noir', but a great many of the most popular pictures in that film style were then considered little more than antiquated late-night movie fare. The field was fragmented into romantic thrillers, caper movies and 'turgid melodramas' deemed too morbid or depressing to be recommended in TV consumer guides. Others toyed with complex flashback structures or incorporated unusual story ideas such as identity swaps, or amnesia. Reviewers admired the entertaining Edmond O'Brien film D.O.A. but unless a big star was attached they routinely slammed the door on far-fetched 'gimmick' films.
1970 was a few years before Hollywood's conscious rediscovery of the noir style, but enterprising producers and directors were certainly trying to update the old thrills. Over at MGM, producer Robert Enders had exactly one cheap western and a couple of Rowan & Martin pictures under his belt. He pushed through a story so complicated that reading its script must have induced headaches. Enders got the nod to make Zig Zag, a plot-driven puzzle thriller to star George Kennedy. Ace editor Ferris Webster was surely a key man on the production, as only a great film editor would know if the gimmick-laden tale was making any sense. 1
Here's as much of the synopsis of Zig Zag that's fit to print. Tired-looking insurance investigator Paul Cameron (George Kennedy) arranges fake evidence in a ruined building, as if he's framing someone for a crime. It turns out that Cameron has been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor. He doesn't want to die leaving his loyal wife Jean (Anne Jackson) with a pile of medical bills. To properly provide for her, Paul frames himself for the year-old unsolved kidnapping-murder of businessman John Raymond. The scheme involves a fake confession, a secret savings account and a special Post Office box to receive the $250,000 reward posted by Raymond's board of directors. When Paul is arrested and convicted, Jean will get the hefty reward as well as Paul's life insurance money. Paul's defense attorney Mario Gambretti (Eli Wallach) protests his client's lack of cooperation and tells Jean that he's sure something is not right with her husband. Paul is obviously holding something back, but Mario can't force him to help in his own defense. Despite Mario's spirited defense, Assistant D.A. Herb Gates (Steve Ihnat) has enough evidence to ensure a conviction-- precisely the outcome Paul thinks he wants. But blind chance steers events in a different direction...
Is Zig Zag too clever for its own good? When a gimmick thriller succeeds, as in D.O.A. it's usually because the movie delivers much more than just a tricky idea. Audiences watching Zig Zag must pay close attention to follow what's going on, and that requires a magnetic leading performance. George Kennedy had certainly earned his stripes as a character actor, having won a Supporting Oscar a couple of years before. He very wisely underplays Paul Cameron in the early reels. That leaves Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach (a real-life husband and wife, incidentally) to provide the stronger emotional notes, which they handle with great skill. Wallach is marvelous as the feisty, frustrated defense attorney.
Director Richard E. Colla only had a couple of theatrical outings in his long TV career; Paul Newman replaced him as the director of the interesting Sometimes a Great Notion. The clever Zig Zag has many dialogue-free sequences that Colla and his cameraman James Crabe shoot with maximum clarity. After silently going about his strange business of planting evidence, Paul Cameron is then funneled through the prison system. Yet we're never confused about what's happening. Likewise, when Cameron connects with John Raymond's smug business partners, the intrigues and chase thrills of the final act are filmed in fine style -- on Hollywood Boulevard, Venice Beach and the long-gone theme park Marineland of the Pacific.
As a thriller Zig Zag delivers with ease. Paul Cameron certainly zigs and zags in the maze he's made for himself, dodging the police while zeroing in on the real murderer. But since he remains in panic mode on his self-imposed treadmill, we never see him gain much perspective on what he's done. Paul's relationship with his family becomes more desperate, when he can't explain why he wants her to stay quiet and accept the money while he remains a hunted fugitive. The conclusion ties things up well enough, but we get standard gunplay action instead of a truly illuminating confrontation.
Perhaps what's missing is some kind of binding statement beyond the trick plot, a theme beyond the Sir Walter Scott quote that I've used as an opener. The message that people can find incredibly elaborate ways to entrap themselves is covered in the first twenty minutes. Zig Zag is really about middle class anxiety, the difficulty of providing for a family when money is tight. The movie relates tangentially to the corrupt cop picture The Money Trap, where Glenn Ford's detective commits crimes to keep his glamorous hilltop house with the swimming pool, so as not to lose his trophy wife. Paul also gets himself ground up in his own scheme, but he's a sympathetic average guy, an everyman hero. The movie's failure to see Paul as more than a crook/victim inadvertently makes George Kennedy look like the film's weak link -- we're likely to conclude that a different actor might have been a better choice.
I saw Zig Zag when it was new, in a theater. I think it lost a big portion of the audience early on, and they mostly stayed lost. I was accustomed to being spoon-fed film content as well, and only grasped the show's basic idea about halfway through (I was 18). Filmmakers are frequently accused of dumbing down stories, but it's also possible to bend too far in the other direction. Perhaps Zig Zag needed a scrolling card up front, telling its audience to Pay Attention!
In an effort not to give away too many spoilers, I haven't remarked on Zig Zag's capable cast. Steve Ihnat's D.A. sees a conviction in Paul's case, but ends up lending a sympathetic ear to Eli Wallach's attorney. William Marshall is a nightclub owner from Paul's deep past as a jazz drummer -- his singer Sheila Mangan (Anita O'Day, former big band lead singer) knows a girl whose testimony may help to prove Paul's innocence. Dana Elcar, Edgar Courtland and Walter "Plastics" Brooke are associates of the murder victim troubled by anonymous tip-offs that Paul is the killer. Charlene Holt (El Dorado, Red Line 7000) is the victim's rich widow. Director Colla keeps things logical and believable -- not an easy feat in such a gimmicky story -- all the way up until the final moments, when editor Webster must bring out some step-frame slo-mo superimpositions to lend the finish a "different" look.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Zig Zag is a good enhanced encoding of a show that manages a pleasing look even with a surfeit of zoom lens shots. Careful watching is so important that older pan-scanned TV prints were worse than useless. The transfer element has some dirt around reel ends but by and large is in very good shape.
The PG trailer included looks like a flat pan-scan of the original Panavision frame. It sells Zig Zag as a generic 'innocent man on the run' crime picture. It should instead have stressed the movie's puzzle aspect, as did the later The Last of Sheila. Since audiences weren't going to rush to a film with George Kennedy in place of bigger stars, the best plan might have been to challenge viewers with a filmic guessing game to be solved.
The WAC's credit block misspells Steve Ihnat's name, which has happened before. I once saw the actor's name mangled in a TV guide, as Ignatz.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Zig Zag rates:
1. The problem I've found collaborating with producers is that so few trust their own material. After they've seen the same cut three times it's no longer fresh to them. The surprises aren't surprises, the jokes have lost their edge and the actors suddenly look like they're acting. So they ask the editor to change things, throw out good material and pick up the pace because they're afraid that the movie is dull. On something like Zig Zag especially, an editor of Webster's caliber is needed to keep the producer from second-guessing his own movie to death.
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Also, don't forget the 2011 Savant Wish List.
T'was Ever Thus.