Playful, light-hearted period romp from director John Huston. M-G-M's own M.O.D. (manufactured on demand) service, the Limited Edition Collection of hard-to-find library and cult titles, has released Sinful Davey, the 1969 United Artists release from Mirisch Films, based rather loosely on the "true" adventures of David Haggart, starring John Hurt, Pamela Franklin, Nigel Davenport, Ronald Fraser, and Robert Morley. Box-office dud Sinful Davey didn't do a thing to pull director John Huston out of his 1960s career spiral when critics unfavorably compared it to Tony Richardson's Tom Jones. Seen today, however, Sinful Davey is bouncy and low-key charming―a "lark," if you will, that doesn't seem to fit in with Huston's darker works from this stage of his career (at least on the surface...). An original trailer is included in this good-looking transfer.
Scotland, 1821. Rambunctious, red-haired Davey Haggart (John Hurt) narrates his life story from behind prison bars. The bastard son (he believes...although his mother wasn't so sure) of notorious troublemaker and thief Willie Haggart, who was hanged at the tender age of 21 after a failed robbery on the Duke of Argyll (Robert Morley), Davey sets out on a picaresque journey to better his father's misdeeds, and then some. Deserting from the Queen's Army by stealing his Captain's (Allan Cuthbertson) horse, Davey is officially a wanted man. However, he's not happy with the paltry 5 guinea bounty on his head, so he redoubles his efforts to "fulfill his destiny," teaming up with pickpocket MacNab (Ronald Fraser) for a series of increasingly fanciful―and bawdy―adventures. Dogging his every step, though, are Chief Constable Richardson (Nigel Davenport), who wishes to stop the unruly boy before he follows his nefarious father to the gallows, and childhood friend, Annie (Pamela Franklin), who loves Davey dearly and who wishes to save his soul.
Coming out close to the nadir of director John Huston's career―at least according to critics and the public who were either shunning or attacking his movies by this point―Sinful Davey appears to be a lark Huston embarked upon for the money and the gorgeous, wild Irish settings. He's not credited with Sinful Davey's screenplay (usually a good indicator of his involvement with a particular project), and on the surface at least, the light, sometimes almost Disneyesque story seems to be miles away from the rather dark, brooding material he was most frequently connected with at the time. By the 1960s, Huston's track record with the public and the critics was decidedly hit-and-miss; box office successes like The Night of the Iguana and Casino Royale (he directed the "Bond in Scotland" segment) weren't all that well liked by the contemporary critics, anyway, while efforts like The Unforgiven, Freud, The Bible: In the Beginning..., Reflections in a Golden Eye, and The Kremlin Letter, found favor with few from either side of the aisles. Today, those "misfires" look better and better with each passing year (does anyone make a similar case for 1969's A Walk with Love and Death, probably Huston's least-liked movie?), but at the time of Sinful Davey, many critics who still followed Huston's career felt that perhaps his time was up as an artist who "mattered" (1972's brilliant Fat City would resurrect his reputation...for a time).
When Sinful Davey begins, and you hear the anachronistic, contemporary strains of Esther Ofarim sweetly singing the same-titled pop theme song, you start to wonder how Huston connected up with this movie (you can start wondering even sooner when you look at that sexy―and completely misleading―poster art that makes Sinful Davey look like Tom Jones Meets James Bond). But on a closer look, themes and ideas frequented in Huston movies do pop up. If someone had time, they could make a case that Huston might have seen in the biography of real-life thief David Haggart some similarities with his own sometimes rootless early life, particularly after Huston ran down a pedestrian in Hollywood and subsequently wandered Europe for years as a drifter. In the movie, however, real-life David Haggart (who was hanged for his crimes) is turned in "Sinful Davey," as embodied by cheerful, cheeky John Hurt, with adventures that are rustically humorous rather than dangerous or sad and melancholy. Huston always had an affinity and sympathy for these kinds of scallywags and scoundrels, boasters and charmers and dreamers who skipped along on the outer edges of "acceptable" society (The Treasure of Sierra Madre, The African Queen), and Davey here is no different: a typically rebellious Huston anti-hero on an extended "mad" journey of destiny (to copy his father's black deeds in an effort to redeem his memory).
Huston's embrace of dramatic conflict through the contrast of religion and sin is clearly on display here, too, with Annie popping up like a relentless guardian angel (she even instinctively knows which fork in the road to take...as a fleeing Davey predicts), hoping to save wastrel Davey who in turn, wishes for nothing of the sort. Indeed, SPOILER one could say that only when Annie truly rejects her saintly outlook and openly breaks the law by "fixing" Davey's hanging to save him, does Davey accept her as his wife (which would fit right in with Huston's skeptical view on religion). You can see those elements that intrigued Huston over the course of his career in Sinful Davey...if you want to. As a long-time admirer of his work, I kept watching Sinful Davey with the purpose of shoehorning the movie into my theories about his work (the fun-but-sometimes-completely-wrongheaded remnants of auteurism―a theory Huston rejected for his work, anyway), until I quit and started enjoying the movie just for how it was coming off.
Maybe I'm unaware, and Sinful Davey was hacked to pieces prior to releasing, and this isn't what Huston had in mind at all (the movie does have a breezy, abbreviated feel at times that might spell big chunks of the movie having been cut out in post). If that's the case, I'm wrong about Huston's intent here. However, the results are quite pleasant (if one can allow Huston to be light and pleasant). Scripted with surprisingly clever lines by vet James R. Webb (Vera Cruz, The Big Country, Cape Fear), Sinful Davey's roguish bounce may conceal...not much more than high spirits, but that bounce is entertaining and almost childlike in its enthusiasm (especially through Hurt's winning, open performance). Huston's tone is so playful, what with Davey riding round and round a potentially deadly mill blade, or dancing on top of a steep slate roof, or getting head-butted by dwarf Billy the Goat, or getting conked on the head by a golf ball, that save for the occasional briefest flash of an almost naked breast, you'd think Sinful Davey came from the golden age of Disney live-action comedies (and that's not a put-down, but a compliment in my book). I like that it's not really "about" anything heavy, that it's just a big Irish put-on story: airy and light and amusing. Who cares if it isn't as much fun as Tom Jones? It's still witty and pleasurable, with gorgeous cinematography from Freddie Young and Edward Scaife (hmmm...two cinematographers. Additional footage shot later?), spirited music from Ken Thorne, and hilarious support from Robert Morley (watch him throw a caper) and Ronald Fraser (and don't get me started on my serious boyhood crush, Pamela Franklin, typically lovely and grave and mysterious here). Sinful Davey may seem out of place in Huston's oeuvre, but I rather liked it...precisely because of that.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.