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1966's An American Dream was once simply a bizarre bad movie with a pretentious script and oversexed performances. Now it's High Camp, one of those strange movies one feels compelled to watch to the bitter end, all the while asking, What were they thinking?! Directed by TV veteran Robert Gist, the movie is adapted from a hot Norman Mailer novel in such a way as to nullify the author's construction of a weird moral delirium. Yet another radical book shoehorned into a standard Hollywood format, An American Dream wants to be shockingly raw but comes out as tasteless and tacky. In other words, call your friends and start popping the popcorn.
Here's the scoop. Medal of Honor recipient Stephen Rojack (Stuart Whitman, out of his depth) is a hard-hitting celebrity muckraker on a TV call-in show. Rojak wins ratings (and risks his neck) by insisting on the air that the L.A.P.D. has cut a protection deal with the mob kingpin Eddie Canucci (Joe De Santis). Learning that his estranged wife Deborah (Eleanor Parker) has returned from Europe, Stephen goes to her high rise penthouse to ask her for a divorce. A deranged nymphomaniac heiress, Deborah taunts and provokes Rojak, becomes incoherent and then violent. After a struggle, she falls from the balcony to her death. Incensed by Rojack's slander campaign against the police department, detectives Roberts and Leznicki (Barry Sullivan & J.D. Cannon) are eager to nail him for murder. Stephen claims that his wife believed that she had cancer and was suicidal. Deborah's wealthy father Barney Kelly (Lloyd Nolan) is determined that the death not be ruled a suicide, as he wants her to have a Catholic funeral. TV producer Arthur Kabot (Murray Hamilton) demands that Rojack sign a lucrative contract to take advantage of his new notoriety. Complicating everything is Rojack's old mistress, Cherry McMahon (Janet Leigh), a singer connected to the Canucci mob. Stephen would like to start over again with Cherry, but Canucci's lieutenant Johnny Dell (Warren Stevens) has other ideas.
An American Dream can't be accused of being boring. Everyone screams, and there isn't a morally uncompromised character in view. Stuart Whitman is introduced bullying people on his talk show. His ex-wife watches the show naked on silk sheets, writhing in sexual frustration while a male escort waits. When the man reaches out to touch her she burns him with a cigarette. Eleanor Parker's fearless, manic performance ranges from talking too fast to be understood to miming a pair of scissors, snipping off Rojack's shirt buttons in an implied castration.
Norman Mailer's book got snipped a bit as well. The movie shifts the setting from New York to Los Angeles, where cameraman Sam Leavitt's gaudy but flat lighting eliminates any feeling of psychological depth. The most interesting visuals in the picture are right up front, where the camera performs silly loop-the-loops to almost but not quite show Ms. Parker's nude body. Mailer's story cries out for the visuals of an urban nightmare, but what we get are a lot of conventionally staged scenes. In the original, the cops, the mafia and Deborah's father were all in cahoots, with Rojack caught in the middle. The film adaptation sanitizes all of this, giving the cops and Barney Kelly less guilty reasons to hate Rojack. The cops are rough but reasonably honest, although detective Roberts does deliver Rojack to Kelly as a "favor" to the influential tycoon. In the book Rojack is also an ex-politician.
Stephen Rojack's status as the cuckolded trophy husband of an heiress is Norman Mailer's idea of the American Dream gone sour. Deborah provokes Stephen by saying that she likes being married to a Medal of Honor winner. But the movie softens the book's strongest material. In the book Rojack murders his wife plain and simple; in the movie her death is her own fault worsened by Stephen's momentary hesitation, like that of Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun.
The show plays like a TV movie gone crazy. The cops' interrogation of Rojack is laughably over-acted, as is an attempted seduction scene between Rojack and Deborah's oversexed, just-out-of-the-shower maid, Ruta (Susan Denberg of Frankenstein Created Woman). Chanteuse Cherry can't decide if she's a tough mob moll or a yearning soul who wants to be free. Her secret hideaway is a room in a flophouse hotel flanked on three sides by downtown freeway traffic. Its rooftop is supposed to be Cherry's special happy place, "halfway between Heaven and Hell", but in reality she'd be choked by traffic fumes 24-7. While the script plays with symbols of this kind we're more likely to notice Cherry's habit of leaving her convertible Thunderbird parked at the curb in this rough neighborhood, unlocked and with the top down.
Nobody is going to remember the terrible scene where Lloyd Nolan tries to convince the demoralized Rojack to risk falling off the high-rise balcony -- the two stand facing apart, delivering their lines to the air like dueling beat poets reading blank verse. Everybody is going to remember Deborah's unforgivably tacky death scene. Her body strikes the pavement and is immediately run over by several cars, all depicted for our viewing pleasure.
Screenwriters take note: An American Dream can boast what may be the worst three-way narrative coincidence ever committed to film (I'm open to challengers). Deborah's body is hit by a limousine bearing the very same Mafia bigwig that Rojack has been attacking on his TV show. Assisting the bigwig in the car is the same woman who loved Rojack ten years ago, but was discarded by him in favor of the wife she's just run over. Wow! 1
Depending on your personal attitude toward these absurdities, An American Dream will either be filmic torture or a great entertainment value. The hopped-up story and overripe characters might have been better served by a poverty-row budget and a gritty B&W look. If the ratings system had been in force in 1966, the film could also have benefited from a more honest approach to its sex and vice angles.
Nobody comes off well in An American Dream. Stuart Whitman has the toughest row to hoe, as his inconsistent Stephen Rojack vacillates between outraged fury to total cowardice. Eleanor Parker is to be admired for her unstinting nerve, riding her crazy character to certain doom in more ways than one. She wins the prize for playing Deborah like a Pit Bull in heat, on Speed. Janet Leigh's Cherry suffers because her changing moods just aren't very well organized in the script. Jackie Ward provided the vocal for her song A Time for Love, which was nominated for an Oscar. Among other familiar faces, actors George Takei, Paul Mantee and Richard Derr each have brief roles. Director Gist and actor-turned producer William Conrad seem to have lost control of all aspects of the film -- casting, script, performances. This is a triple threat disaster, and more fun than the proverbial train wreck.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of An American Dream is an excellent enhanced transfer that retains the film's Technicolor sheen; if you watch with your mouth hanging open, you'll probably pause at least once to note how pretty the movie looks. No trailer is included. The Archive Collection is now using original poster art instead of generic "plain wrap" packaging. The title treatment shown on the cover graphic says volumes about Warners' confusion over how to market the movie -- the logo looks more suitable for TV's Love -- American Style.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
An American Dream rates:
1. (spoiler) Later on, Rojack bursts into uncontrollable laughter when the detectives tell him that Deborah did have cancer after all; I guess we're supposed to surmise that Rojack finds the confirmation of Deborah's paranoid fear (or his own desperate alibi) hysterical. Heck, considering the three-way coincidence at Deborah's death scene, Rojack should spend the rest of the movie laughing at the crazy hand fate has dealt him.
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