Thursday, June 28, 2012
Movie Review: Monsignor (1982)
In his excellent book Superman Vs. Hollywood, author Jake Rossen recounts an anecdote in which Christopher Reeve cornered Sean Connery at a party and asked him for career advice. Reeve was concerned that Superman "would make him a star and ruin his career, all at the same time" due to typecasting. If anyone knew something about managing a career around portraying an iconic character, surely it would be James Bond himself. After hearing Reeve's concerns about portraying the Man of Steel, Connery gave him the following advice: "If it's a big hit, do something completely different for your next picture. And if the second one's a big hit, get yourself the best lawyer and agent in the world and stick it to them." I have no doubt that Sean Connery thought he was giving Reeve sound advice, but upon viewing Monsignor my take is that Connery's formula is not to be applied in a one-size-fits-all type of fashion.
1982, now celebrating its 30th anniversary as a numerical notch in the belt of cinematic history, was a time when amazing movies were flowing out of Hollywood. That summer in particular was a literal treasure trove in which one classic rolled out after another. It was also a full two years since the previous installment of Superman. The only other film Reeve had done as a leading man was Somewhere in Time, which came out in the fall of 1980, just a few months after Superman II. While not a blockbuster, it was generally well-received, and meshed well with Reeve's likeable onscreen persona. So in the spring of 1982, audiences knew Reeve essentially as Superman and a generally heroic, dashing cinematic figure. Instead of coming out with another installment of Superman in that legendary summer, or at least another spectacular genre film, Reeve decided to put Connery's advice into effect with a vengeance. In March of '82 he played Michael Caine's conspiratorial, murderous lover in Sidney Lumet's Deathtrap, and in October he followed that up by playing a corrupt priest in Monsignor. Two very non-Superman like roles, and two movies not embraced with enthusiasm by the movie-going public.
Before getting into a general discussion about Connery's advice and Reeve's career, first let us address the business at hand - Monsignor. I've got to be honest here, it's hard to know where to start with this movie, it's truly unlike anything I've ever seen. The plot, such as it is, follows the rise of young priest John Flaherty (Reeve) from battlefield chaplain in World War II to Vatican treasurer. Things starts out well enough with Flaherty attending the wedding of a close friend before he heads off to war, echoing the beginning of The Godfather. Immediately following this promising start the film moves right into the thick of battle, where Flaherty heroically takes on a German battalion by himself. This deed draws the attention of the Church hierarchy, and Flaherty is brought to the Vatican to serve as their treasurer. This is all takes place in the first 15 minutes, and Monsignor seems to be moving briskly in the right direction. Unfortunately upon Flaherty's arrival at the Vatican, things spiral downhill quickly and the movie earns its reputation as one of the elite circle of legendary Hollywood bombs.
Once Flaherty assumes his role as treasurer, he learns that the Vatican is short on financial resources due to the war. Flaherty then coincidentally meets up with an old buddy, who is tied in with the Sicilian mafia in trafficking black market goods (e.g. chocolate, tobacco, liquor, etc.). Flaherty, who up until this point would appear to be a pretty decent fellow, inexplicably decides it would be a good idea to funnel the goods through the Vatican commissary and take a slice of the proceeds to swell the Vatican coffers. He cuts a deal with the local mob boss Don Appolini (Jason Miller), and receives the tacit approval of his superior Cardinal Santoni (Fernando Rey). This pits Flaherty and Santoni against their rivals for the Vatican hierarchy Cardinal Vinci (Adolfo Celi) and Father Francisco (Tomas Milian). Amidst all this supposed intrigue Flaherty also falls for a French nun (Genevieve Bujold), who he deceives regarding his identity as a priest.
This is one crazy movie, but not for the reasons one might think. If memory serves me correctly, I recall at the time there being a bit of an uproar about how the Church was portrayed in this film. In truth though this movie never reaches the type of intensity of your typical mob movie (e.g. Goodfellas). Reeve's plot is actually pretty bland compared to that encountered in most crime sagas, and frankly the restrained approach the film generally adopts renders the whole organized crime thread pretty dull. Basically the whole thing comes off as Reeve making some questionable decisions, and partnering with some seedy individuals who never come off as particularly ominious. Jason Miller (The Exorcist) plays the villain of the piece, and I could totally see him being great in a mob movie role. In Monsignor though he never seems like a mob boss, and therefore any sort of implied threat he might represent cannot be taken seriously.
And herein lies one of Monsignor's two key problem areas - the characters do not play the way the movie intends to portray them. Not only is Miller's mob boss not villainous, but Reeve doesn't seem either diabolical or particularly clever for that matter. In fact, the cues the movie gives you would have you believe we're watching Superman playing a member of the clergy. The film's score is by Superman's own John Williams, and as Reeve is dashing about orchestrating black market dealings the score is light, chipper, and triumphant. Adolfo Celi (Thunderball) and Tomas Milian (Django Kill!) are Reeve's adversaries in the Vatican, working to uncover his underhanded dealings, yet are portrayed as the bad guys! Fernando Rey (The French Connection) is Reeve's mentor, tacitly approving of his schemes, and is portrayed as a likeable Yoda-type figure. Granted in The Godfather we are primed to sort of enjoy the antics of Marlon Brando, James Caan, and Al Pacino, but here the supposed bad guys are portrayed as flawed, but really pretty okay folks. It's bizarre.
The other major problem with Monsignor, and for my money what makes it memorable and worth watching, is that I don't believe I have ever seen worse performances from a group of talented actors. To begin with, the movie is a who's who of genre film actors. Rey, Celi, Miller, Bujold, Leonardo Cimino, Joe Pantoliano, and Robert Prosky all turn up and hit career lows. It's as though they don't have any clue what they're supposed to be doing with these characters, and furthermore for such a lively bunch the energy level is at rock bottom. The only one who comes off as interesting or awake is Tomas Milian. Milian, for those unfamiliar, was a major Italian star in the late 60's and 70's. He was in some of the greatest spaghetti Westerns and crime films to come out of Italy. When I saw he was in the movie, receiving the highly coveted "and" credit, I got really excited. Unfortunately he is underutilized, and featured in only a few key scenes. Still it was great to see him, and he provided a brief respite from the torturous proceedings.
Standing head and shoulders above the other poor performers though is Christopher Reeve. Let's be clear on one thing upfront, I am a HUGE Christopher Reeve fan. Superman 1 and II were far more important to me as a kid than Star Wars, and perhaps never has there been a more pitch perfect performance in a film series than Reeve's portrayal of Clark Kent/Superman. In Monsignor however, Reeve is playing against his strength (i.e. being the greatest of good guys) and it doesn't work for a minute. We never buy him as a baddie, and I don't think he does either. Reeve looks completely lost when trying to play heavy, and it's an absolute train wreck. And so we come back to that advice Sean Connery offered to Reeve. If you look at Connery's career, indeed he did seem to practice what he preached. He did plenty of Bonds, but he would alternate with other unrelated films. Here is a partial list of some of those "classics": A Fine Madness, Shalako, The Red Tent, The Offence, Zardoz, Meteor, Wrong Is Right, Cuba, etc. Not exactly a roster of classics.
After Bond, while Connery certainly found work, it's pretty clear he wasn't hitting home runs left and right. Much like Reeve, anything he did that strayed far from his persona was not a smashing success. If you look at his career closely, it wasn't until The Untouchables and his Oscar that Connery launched into his great second act. And that great second act featured a whole lot of Connery doing what he did best - playing likeable tough guys. Here is a partial list of those films: Highlander, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Hunt for Red October, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, The Rock, etc. It seems to me that Connery learned that it was wise to play to his strengths, and The Untouchables gave him a wonderful opportunity to course correct.
The problem for Reeve was that he never had a chance like The Untouchables. All he got was his Never Say Never Again in the form of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. (Note: For the record I do enjoy Never Say Never Again, but I think most would agree it is far from Connery's finest hour as Bond). His big comeback movie was John Carpenter's Village of the Damned, and we all know how that turned out. In other words, Reeve took some questionable advice and charged down a path that ultimately short-circuited his career. If he had embraced his heroic, leading man image, which honestly was where his significant talent was gathered, I think we all would have been treated to a far more volumious cinematic legacy. Instead we have to sift through the likes of Switching Channels and Noises Off . . ., before we hit a Remains of the Day. Alas.
To sum up, Monsignor is truly one of the worst movies I've ever seen, and may perhaps feature the worst performances ever from a name cast (a remarkable feat indeed). It clocks in at an exhausting 121 minutes, but for fans of bad movies I have to give it my strongest recommendation. You'll also be pleased to know that it has recently been given a wonderful treatment on DVD by Shout Factory, with a clean, anamorphic transfer, allowing you to appreciate its epic grandeur. Run, don't walk, to check this out!