Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
John Frankenheimer had his share of problem pictures, and despite its assured performances and well-observed small town atmosphere The Gypsy Moths is one of them. The movie's overheated romance fares well, as does some interesting action photography of a daring skydiving team, but there must be some interior dimension to James Drought's source novel that isn't being communicated here, because we can see the emotional shots miss by a mile. Yet, with a cast this powerful, there's never a dull moment.
A barnstorming skydiving team blows into a small Kansas town. Dealmaker Joe Browdy (Gene Hackman) beds a topless waitress (Sheree North) for a one-night stand, and then goes to church on Sunday. Malcolm Webson (Scott Wilson) grew up in this town, and finds rooms for the trio at the house of his aunt, Elizabeth Brandon (Deborah Kerr), where he meets young student Annie Burke (Bonnie Bedelia). The taciturn leader of the skydivers Mike Rettig (Burt Lancaster) is taking more and more risks lately -- he makes a play for Elizabeth, right under the nose of her stuffy husband Allen (William Windom).
Advertised as doing for skydiving what Frankenheimer previously did for Grand Prix racing, The Gypsy Moths is admirably directed and acted, with air-to-air skydiving camerawork that is still breathtaking. But skydiving by its nature is nowhere near as spectacular as the formula-one racing circuit. What we have here is a quieter update of Douglas Sirk's The Tarnished Angels -- the inner drama of men risking their lives daily for an audience that regards their daring as a trivial entertainment.
Unlike car racing (we all drive cars), skydiving is one of those activities that is fairly unthinkable to most of us. When things go wrong, we tend to think not what a great tragedy has happened, but that the skydiver was asking for his fate. We all know that in a movie about people jumping out of airplanes, somebody is going to buy the farm before the end of the show. That built-in anti-suspense factor doesn't help The Gypsy Moths.
Other films of this kind, like The Great Waldo Pepper, have big issues to sell -- the bloodlust of the crowds, the humiliation of the carnival-like barnstorming profession. We only get a part of that here. Gene Hackman's character is practical and realistic, a 'healthy coward' who wants no part of the riskier stunts. His idea of a dream is to go west and become a movie stuntman, which is not a bad idea for a guy already risking his neck every weekend for a few dollars. But we really aren't told why Scott Wilson or Burt Lancaster skydive, and have to make do with the probable motivations. Wilson is toying with the death of his parents in a car wreck, and Lancaster has a Death Wish a mile wide. Neither motivation is overplayed, but we're left with some emotional holes.
One thing The Gypsy Moths does have is heat. The film's Paradise Bar is one of the few topless joints in a movie that works beyond cheap thrills, especially with known hot number Sheree North putting her body behind her very good acting. And Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr get a chance to do onscreen what was only suggested in From Here to Eternity sixteen years earlier. This over-50 couple gets it on like teenagers on the living room sofa, and unlike most 'liberated' films with nudity, they generate an impressive sexual charge. The sparks start as soon as they meet. The best thing about The Gypsy Moths is the way that Kerr's smouldering glances pay off in a real affair. So many of her Hollywood movies brought up the issue, only to evade it.
But the drama overall is muted. William Windom plays the cuckold in a near-catatonic stupor, as if already nullified by some earlier Kerr infidelity. She's bold enough to flummox her husband but unwilling to run away with Lancaster, whose commitment to total freedom frightens her. Hackman's connection to Sheree North is short-lived, and we wouldn't mind some compromise with realism to have her play at least a small part in the later story. Scott Wilson's motivations are realistically clouded, but his brief affair with the very young, very attractive Bonnie Bedelia just doesn't amount to much.
I think what Frankenheimer, Lewis and Lancaster wanted was to use the new freedom of the screen to cut through the bull of Hollywood dramas and present characters as complex and un-readable as real people. In reality, nobody would be able to figure out a guy like Mike Rettig, so this is a good idea. But audiences in 1969 were left without strong emotions they could understand. They probably wrote the film off as too murky, and overly serious. (spoiler) The proof that something dramatic is amiss comes when a certain character exits in the third act. What little fun the show had goes with him, and the ensemble that remains lacks cohesion.
The Gypsy Moths looks very good on DVD. Savant saw only the trailer when it was new, and it's thrilling to see Lancaster, Hackman, Kerr, Wilson, and Bedelia in a brand new 'old' picture. The Kansas town is sketched in blistering heat and sudden rainstorms, and the aerial photography is indeed impressive. A featurette on the skydiving team assembled for the film has some nice sound bites from Lancaster and Frankenheimer. As might be expected, they both seem fascinated by the technical challenge and the fearless professionalism required to jump from planes. We learn that it took 1300 jumps to film the picture -- none of them by the actors, however.
The commentary by the late John Frankenheimer is as good as his other commentaries, especially his candid thoughts about the film in general and his reassessment of it as a worthy but unsuccessful project. For whatever reason, audiences in 1969 stayed away.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Gypsy Moths rates:
Supplements: Commentary, 1969 featurette, trailer
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: September 11, 2002
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson