Dark, alien, and plagued by a period in development Hell that would make Terry Gilliam shudder, David Lynch’s 1984 film Dune endured a lot of false starts before making it to a theatre near you. The film tells the story of two warring factions: House Atreides and House Harkonnen. House Atreides (Jürgen Prochnow, Kyle MacLachlan, Francesca Annis) rule the beautiful ocean planet Caladan. They’re attractive, intelligent, and noble. House Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan, Paul Smith, Sting) dominate the desert planet Arrakis. They’re ugly, barbaric, and cruel. OK, Sting’s not ugly, but he’s so nasty you think he is. Filled with political intrigue, spirituality, and even references to the Middle East’s control of oil, Dune is an ambitious film. It aims high, and while it doesn’t hit all of its targets, it hits enough to make for a bizarre and entertaining experience.
Don’t stand so close to me.
Though Lynch’s Dune premiered in 1984, attempts to film it started in 1971. Arthur Jacobs, who produced Planet of the Apes and Play It Again, Sam, gave it a shot first. He asked David Lean to direct. Lean said no. Jacobs searched for a director and worked on other projects. He died in 1973 before production began.
Computer says no.
Jean-Paul Gibon’s company took over after buying the rights from Jacobs’ estate. They hired Alejandro Jodorowsky, who brought in the dream team of Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, Dan O’Bannon, Mick Jagger, H.R. Giger, Moebius, Pink Floyd, and Shirley Temple Black. All right, not Black; I just wanted to see if you were paying attention. Cost overruns abounded, and the producers, afraid of what would have been a 10-14 hour film, wrestled the script from Jodorowsky’s hands.
Japanese poster for Jodorowsky’s Dune
Producer Dino De Laurentiis bought the rights, asked Dune author, Frank Herbert, to write a screenplay, and hired Ridley Scott to direct. Now the film would be made in two parts and last a more manageable four hours. The death of Scott’s brother Frank caused him to reassess his life and career. He left the production to make Blade Runner.
Either way, Ridley, you’re stuck with me.
De Laurentiis scrambled to secure the rights again, and his daughter, producer Rafaella De Laurentiis, hired David Lynch to direct Dune. Fresh from the critical success of The Elephant Man, but with no science fiction background or knowledge of the Dune series, Lynch began writing a screenplay. He wrote another screenplay. And another. Lynch wrote a whole bunch of screenplays; then he made the film we know and love. Well, some of us love it. Some lump Dune in the same category as Cimino’s 1980 film Heaven’s Gate: an expensive, rudderless epic. I don’t. For me, Dune has everything a good science fiction film needs.
Enough already with the abuse.
First, it has space. The two feuding houses don’t live on either side of the Adige in Verona. They live on different planets. It’s the year 10,192 and space travel is a snap. This is especially true if you’re in the Spacing Guild. Spacing Guild members travel the same way Carlos Castaneda did. They drop a little spice and fold space. It beats walking.
Hey man, come over and we’ll fold space. It’ll be epic.
Next, it has cool futuristic weapons. House Atreides invents these awesome weirding modules that can kill a guy with the right wavelength. Also, Patrick Stewart and Richard Jordan, clad in transparent armor, train Kyle MacLachlan in hand-to-hand knife fighting. Stewart and others refer to atomic weapons, and remote-controlled hunter seekers armed with poison darts float from room to room.
Pew pew pew!
Then, it has nomadic desert troops waging jihad against their Harkonnen oppressors. The allusions to Arabic culture don’t end there. The character name Thufir means victory in Arabic and Kyle MacLachlan’s tribal name, Mu’adib, translates to teacher. Herbert made comparisons to the Middle East oil crisis and environmental issues throughout his Dune series.
I hope they’re wearing sunscreen.
Then, it has worms and spice. Is there a relationship? The worms are rather large and have accompanying lightning. People fear and worship them. The spice mélange expands consciousness, changes eye color, and helps with that space folding thing.
I don’t think the heavy stuff’s gonna come down for quite a while.
Last, it has an alien aura like no other film. Dune looks like a post-apocalyptic steampunk S&M club’s rendition of Lawrence of Arabia. Vast deserts, steam-powered weaponry, red mohawks, burqas, goggles, leather Speedos, and dimly lit rooms contribute to the overall atmosphere of Victorian future space Bedouin chic. The sweeping theme by Brian Eno and Toto reinforces Dune’s epic status. With a supporting cast that includes the Lynch repertory company of Dean Stockwell, Brad Dourif, and Jack Nance, Dune is well acted and fun to watch. I even like Alan Smithee’s two-part televised version even if David Lynch doesn’t. I’m not alone either. Quite a few of us find the strangeness of Lynch’s vision appealing. Recently, the topic of guilty pleasure films came up on Twitter and I named Dune as one of mine. Immediately, people came out of the woodwork expressing their love for the much maligned film. The praise for Lynch’s odd science fiction gem surprised and delighted me. I guess I’m not the only fan of worms.
A version of this essay appeared first in the Brattle Film Notes, the blog for the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts and my favorite theatre in the world. Here’s a link to that piece. http://www.brattleblog.brattlefilm.org/2015/02/25/dune-now-with-more-spice-2654/#more-2654
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Caryl Chessman, called the Red Light Bandit because he used a red light atop his car to pull over couples, rob them, and rape the women, wrote four books during his twelve years on death row. Cell 2455 Death Row came out while Chessman still lived. The film shows Chessman (William Campbell) as a difficult teen who fell in with the wrong crowd and then became a gang leader.
I said medium rare!
He pleads guilty to some of the robberies, but innocent to the rape charges and acts as his own attorney in court. It gets a bit Alan-Alda-in-the-last-seasons-of-M*A*S*H-y in this part and the whole thing smells strongly of whitewash and Hollywood filtering. Apparently Chessman did a decent job of fending off the electric chair in real life though. Anti-death penalty crusaders protested and wrote songs on his behalf. Biggies like Aldous Huxley, Norman Mailer, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Ray Bradbury wrote letters asking for mercy. SPOILER ALERT: When the film opened he was still with us, but was later executed when the secretary asked by the judge to call the jail for another stay of execution, called the wrong number. By the time she found the correct one, it was too late. No kidding. You can’t make this stuff up. The most interesting part of this film is that William Campbell’s younger brother Robert plays Chessman as a youth. Vince Edwards appears as a fellow criminal. Pretty standard.
The real Caryl Chessman’s mug shot.
Despite the fact that two of the five best picture nominees for 1957 took place in courthouses, there was no justice for quite a few filmmakers at the RKO Pantages Theatre that year. I started to write this piece about the snubbing of a particular film, but after researching the story I found many glaring omissions for that year. We think of Oscar snubs as a modern phenomenon, but even in the 1950s, filmmakers found fault with the Academy’s choices. In fact, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas sang a duet during the awards ceremony called “It’s Great Not To Be Nominated”. Who did grab the glory that year?
“It’s Great Not To Be Nominated”
In 1957, for the first time in Academy Award history, the five nominees for best director came from the five nominees for best picture. Here are the nominees.
The Bridge on the River Kwai
1957 was David Lean’s year. The Bridge on the River Kwai got eight nominations and won seven Oscars including best picture and best director. Full of strong performances from Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, William Holden, Sessue Hayakawa, and the entire cast, Lean’s epic on the futility of war scored big and deservedly so. I think there were other films that could easily have won or at least grabbed a nomination in a few categories, but no matter. Kwai plowed through all of them.
Witness for the Prosecution
Billy Wilder’s incredible courtroom drama boasts a great story written by Agatha Christie and adapted for the screen by Wilder, Harry Kurnitz, and Lawrence B. Marcus, and stellar performances from its cast. Charles Laughton, Elsa Lanchester, Marlene Dietrich, and Tyrone Power create memorable characters in this legal drama full of fun plot twists. Witness received six Oscar nominations, but won none.
12 Angry Men
Sidney Lumet’s claustrophobic drama about jury deliberations that will decide the fate of a young man was nominated for three Oscars. 12 Angry Men’s playlike blocking and intelligent script keeps the audience rapt and the memorable performances by Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, Jack Warden, and the rest of the jury still hold up.
Joshua Logan directed this socially conscious drama about American servicemen stationed in Japan who had to battle military regulations and racial prejudice to marry Japanese women. Paul Osborn wrote the screenplay based on the James Michener novel. Michener based the book on his own experience in marrying a Japanese woman after his deployment to Japan during World War II. Nominated for ten Oscars, Sayonara won four. While the topics of miscegenation and prejudice are worthwhile, the film isn’t all that great. The main reason to watch this film is Miyoshi Umeki’s poignant Oscar winning performance.
I don’t get to keep the clothes?
Don’t get me started. Grace Metalious’ wildly popular tale of small town hypocrisy and scandal received a whopping nine Oscar nominations, but was shut out anyway. Thank goodness. Peyton Place boasts some of the stiffest acting of the 1950s. The trite script written by John Michael Hayes allows Lana Turner and Lloyd Nolan to over-emote while remaining as wooden as Hope Lange’s woodpile. Now don’t get me wrong. I enjoy the occasional bad film. I just don’t expect it to get nine Oscar nods. Clearly someone wasn’t paying attention.
I agree with the academy about nominations for The Bridge on the River Kwai, Witness for the Prosecution, and 12 Angry Men, but I take issue with some of the Sayonara nods and all of the Peyton Place nominations. What other films deserved attention from Oscar? I’m glad you asked. 1957 saw some terrific films that were all but ignored come award season.
3:10 to Yuma
Delmer Daves western nail-biter ramps up the suspense and Glenn Ford gives his best performance. Zero nominations.
In this charming romantic comedy, Spencer Tracy plays an efficiency expert hired by a television network to study Katharine Hepburn’s department. The script, written by Phoebe and Henry Ephron and based on William Marchant’s play is clever, realistic, and warm and you can’t deny the chemistry between the two leads. Zero nominations.
Edge of the City
Martin Ritt’s gritty noir deals with racism, loyalty, and personal integrity. Sidney Poitier, John Cassavetes, Ruby Dee, and Jack Warden deliver powerful performances. Zero nominations.
The Enemy Below
This taut war thriller pits U.S. Navy Captain Robert Mitchum against U-boat commander Curd Jürgens in a game of sea chess. Dick Powell produced and directed this suspenseful WWII film. The Enemy Below won its only nomination for best special effects.
Fear Strikes Out
Anthony Perkins hits it out of the park (sorry) as Boston Red Sox player Jimmy Piersall who battles pressure from his domineering father, played by Karl Malden, and mental illness to play in the majors. Robert Mulligan directed and Perkins and Malden are wonderful in this true story. Zero nominations.
Gunfight at the Ok Corral
The John Sturges directed western starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday is just fun to watch. Rhonda Fleming, Jo Van Fleet, John Ireland, Dennis Hopper, and Whit Bissell round out this great cast. Two nominations (sound and film editing).
Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison
John Huston’s sweet love story has a tough Marine (Robert Mitchum) falling for Deborah Kerr’s nun as they duck Japanese soldiers on a Pacific island during WWII. Two nominations for best actress and adapted screenplay. Zero wins.
Three Faces of Eve
Nunnally Johnson directed Joanne Woodward in her Oscar-winning role as a woman suffering from multiple personality disorder. Lee J. Cobb and David Wayne add their tremendous skills as character actors to this gentle psychological study. One nomination. One win.
Peyton Place? Are you kidding?
Oscar ignored some other good films that year. 20 Million Miles to Earth and The Black Scorpion boast effects by Ray Harryhausen and Willis O’Brien and Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man comes from a Richard Matheson story. Zero nominations, not even for special effects. The noir sleeper The Burglar, based on a story by David Goodis and starring noir fave Dan Duryea got zero nominations. Fred Zinnemann’s tale of addiction, A Hatful of Rain received one nomination for best actor. Jailhouse Rock, Elvis’ best film, wasn’t even nominated for music or set design. Budd Boetticher’s suspenseful western The Tall T has some lovely cinematography, a tight story by Elmore Leonard, and Randolph Scott! Zero nominations. While these omissions may surprise a film fan, the three I have left will probably baffle you. They did me.
A Face in the Crowd
Budd Schulberg’s prescient look at the power of fame, television, and manufactured celebrity has direction by Elia Kazan, and a talented cast which includes Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, Anthony Franciosa, and Lee Remick. It also boasts a stunning performance by Andy Griffith as Lonesome Rhodes, the southern ne’er-do-well whose homespun wisdom and charisma lifts him from obscure slacker to national power broker. It’s absolutely criminal that Griffith wasn’t nominated for best actor.
Paths of Glory
Really? This one kills me. Penned by Stanley Kubrick, Calder Willingham, Jim Thompson, and Humphrey Cobb and based on Cobb’s novel, Paths of Glory serves as a searing indictment of hypocrisy, politics, and war. Kubrick’s promise as a director showed in his earlier films Killer’s Kiss and The Killing, but Paths of Glory elevated him to another level entirely. Georg Krause’s gorgeous cinematography and those long Kubrick shots of the trenches show the contrast between the squalor of the front lines and the officers’ palatial digs. In this fact-based story from WWI, Kirk Douglas dominates the screen, but the supporting players offer stellar performances too. Adolphe Menjou, George Macready, Wayne Morris, Timothy Carey, and especially Ralph Meeker more than hold their own alongside the dynamic Douglas. Zero nominations.
Sweet Smell of Success
Alexander Mackendrick’s gorgeous, vicious story of a ruthless newspaper columnist and the people he manipulates captured exactly zero nominations. Zero. Zero nominations for the brilliant screenplay written by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman based on Lehman’s novella. Zero nominations for James Wong Howe’s amazing noir camera angles and lush black and white cinematography. Zero nominations for Elmer Bernstein’s dramatic, jazzy score. Zero nominations for Tony Curtis’ clever, nuanced performance. Zero. If you judge the quality of a film by the number of quotable phrases, you’d have to place Sweet Smell of Success near the top. Of course, the same goes for Jaws, Caddyshack, Die Hard, Casablanca, and Pulp Fiction. Actually, that’s a pretty cool crowd. Success has some real zingers. After Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) makes a particularly nasty crack J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) says, “I’d hate to take a bite out of you, Sidney. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.” Later, Falco commits a crime which will frame someone Hunsecker dislikes and reports to him, “The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river.” I’m not the only one who finds this dialogue memorable. Barry Levinson has a character in his film Diner who recites the dialogue from Sweet Smell of Success throughout the entire film. Clifford Odets (Bigger Than Life, Clash by Night) and Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) wrote sparkling dialogue for a gritty tale of power, ambition, and manipulation. The cinematography, music, and direction combined with a powerhouse cast including not only Curtis and Lancaster, but also Sam Levene, Martin Milner, and the highly underrated Barbara Nichols make for a film that stays with you long after it’s over. The fact that Oscar bypassed Sweet Smell of Success strikes me as the biggest of gyps.
I wrote this piece for the 31 Days of Oscar blogathon hosted by Paula of paulascinemaclub.com @Paula_Guthat,
Aurora of aurorasginjoint.com @CitizenScreen, and Kellee of kelleepratt.com @IrishJayhawk66
Thank you, ladies! You run a fun blogathon.