Saturday 23 March 2013

A mixed bag… Candy (1968)

There was a time in the late 60s when studios just couldn’t keep up with the rapid emergence of young talent and the demand for “artistic freedom”… blame The Beatles and the growth of accelerated career paths built on the “new”.

The bread-heads never knew if they were granting funding to people with sustainable talent - so many started well only to fall at the second or third hurdle. It has ever been thus… but probably not so much as in the psychedelic years from which every gaudy miss-step stares in stoned disbelief at the phase-shifted after image of its own folly… man.

Ewa Aulin
Candy has been described by some as the worst movie ever made (Cinema Retro actually made this the cover story a few years back: back issue still available!) but is it really that bad… with Burton, Brando, Matthau and Coburn?!

Well… not quite. Candy is a bit of a mixed bag and no amount of acting talent can completely rescue this over-wrought, over-thought, irritating and sometimes actually funny and good-looking sprawl… it’s a triple album which should have been an EP.

Elsa Martinelli, Ewa Aulin and "Uncle" John Astin
Candy is based on Terry Southern’s novel of the same name written in the late fifties as an updated version of Voltaire’s Candide. Southern’s book is well regarded and he has an impressive CV but he wasn’t involved in the film and subsequently disowned it. Buck Henry – writer of The Graduate – concocted the script and he couldn’t maintain its author’s coherence, snap or wit.

The film was directed by French actor Christian Marquand who had plenty of ideas but no consistent style although the cinematography is pretty good and there's no shortage of budget in evidence. His good buddy Marlon Brando played a major part in getting the film made and naturally enough appears along with the above-mentioned host of A-list Hollywood.

Maybe Marquand gave his actors too much freedom?

Walter Matthau and Marlon Brando
The ads for the film – distasteful like their subject matter – said that the only thing Candy is faithful to is the book. This is not entirely true either of the character or the story.

Candy begins the film as some kind of extra-terrestrial spirit which descends through space onto earth… transforming into the beautiful form of Ewa Aulin. The Swedish actress was just 19 at the time and is very good looking but, in so many ways, this works against her and the film. She’s not acting in her first language and appears to lack emotional engagement through all of the indignities she faces… which makes things so much worse.

Police harassment
Turning that PR line on its head, Aulin’s Candy can’t be “faithful” to anyone as she seems to be incapable of making any decisions of her own… thoughtlessly compliant to every forced advance, she’s innocent and trusting. She has “faith” in everything and everyone – there is no lack of it in her soul.

No guru, no method...
The redeeming feature is that, ultimately and literally, Candy rises above it all leaving Brando’s phoney mystic exhausted in her endlessly inquiring wake as she strides almost dismissively through all of the film’s flawed characters to a destiny beyond…

This final section is well done with the various parties lounging around on a sunlit hillside covered in brightly-coloured flags… Candy ignores them all and makes her own way away from their pointless depravity. Or maybe I was just relived that the film was over?

Richard Burton as Macphisto!
After the cosmic beginning, we see Candy as a college student being taught by her father Jack Christian (John Astin… a talented comedy actor formerly of The Adams Family). There’s an inappropriate moment even between father and daughter which foreshadows much of what is to come.

Richard Burton rolls up as the continuously wind-blown pisshead poet, Macphisto who wows his impressionable audience before taking Candy home. He abuses her in his car – chauffeur-driven by Zero (Sugar Ray Robinson) - and is too drunk to proceed further which allows Mexican gardener Emmanuel (an excruciating turn from Ringo Starr) to grab handfuls of Candy.

"Aw noo, thees is no good!"
 Dad returns to find the mess and resolves to send Candy away to private school in New York. He is joined by his twin brother (Astin again) and his sassy wife Livia (Elsa Martinelli). Chased by Emmanuel’s three sisters on motorcycles (a funny bit!), they just about manage to board a military plane carrying  General R.A. Smight (Walter Matthau) and a squad of troopers who patrol the skies in constant battle-readiness.

Matthau gives perhaps the best/least-worst performance and can carry the OTT satire better than the drama specialists. But the general has been starved of companionship and proceeds to maul Candy in the cockpit (see what they did there…?).

Landing in NYC, Candy’s dad has to undergo brain surgery at the hands of superstar surgeon, Dr. A.B. Krankheit  (James Coburn) in front of a paying audience… this being an operating theatre and all (see what they did…?).

Coburn does his best and is aided by a vicious turn from Anita Pallenberg  as his psychotic left-hand, Nurse Bullock  and a creepy cameo from John Huston as Dr. Arnold Dunlap. Things go a bit dull for a while with an “after-show” party and the bad Doctor’s inevitable examination of his patient’s daughter.

James Coburn, Anita Pallenberg, Ewa Aulin, Elsa Martinelli and chums
But Candy escapes the medical fraternity’s attention and runs into downtown where she is abused by the mafia and then a random man with a camera who insists on filming her in the gents toilets… he’s beaten by the Police as she runs off to encounter a Hunchback thief played with creepy intensity by Charles Aznavour… Here the mix of European and American sensibilities does jar and maybe that's one of the core issues: we weren't all in on the same joke... man.

Marlon Brando is Grindl!
As our winding plot finally starts to eat itself, Candy finds guru  Grindl in the back of a lorry… it’s Marlon Brando! Grindl improvises that Candy’s route to a higher state will be through sustained sexual congress… but Candy outlasts his energies and heads out over the desert where she meets a mysterious mud-caked pilgrim who turns out to be her “father”.

There’s too much and whilst the ending is enigmatically pleasing – Candy having overcome all the low-life around her – the humiliations of the previous two hours just feel gratuitous.

From an age when simply to ask questions was enough, Candy has little in the way of actual answers. It’s too cynical and abusive to be viewed as merely a “period-piece” retro-treat although it’s drenched in the spirit of the times.

Matthau apart, the big names are mostly flapping about, Burton takes the piss out of himself well enough as does Brando but their characters have no depth and rapidly run out of steam. As pop culture Candy is pretty shallow and its ultimate point, that we should respect ourselves a little more and always seek the answers beyond societal norm is as applicable to the film as the wider world. What would Candy do if she had to sit through this film?

Dusty verdict: Just about entertaining and worth preserving so long as you don’t feel too guilty about ogling Ewa Aulin when the narrative gets tough… The poor woman never got beyond her looks in her short career - a fact that nails Candy’s vapid pretensions firmly to the floor.

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