Robert Mulligan 1925-2008

nickel_ride

The director of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and many other excellent films, whose mise-en-scene was based in a deep understanding of the rarely used subjective viewpoint in cinema, died yesterday in his Connecticut home. He was 83. The Los Angeles Times obituary is here.

And the New York Times obituary is here.

78 comments to Robert Mulligan 1925-2008

  • Kent Jones

    dm, if you’re interested, there’s a detailed commentary from Kazan on the original production in his autobiography. It was rare for Strasberg to actually direct at that point. He’d devoted himself to teaching.

    I’ve never seen KISS ME GOODBYE or CLARA’S HEART of THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS. They seemed like dubious projects to me, but I’m sure they’re worth looking at.

  • Stephen Bowie

    KISS ME GOODBYE … Kent, don’t be so sure, despite the cast. I haven’t seen the other two myself.

  • PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS: how many of us have seen it, and how available is it (in any format) these days? My great film critic friend and mentor Tom Ryan (we grow ‘em good here Down Under) wrote about it in MOVIE in the ’70s and that is reprinted in the FILM JOURNAL dossier. I remember in Tom’s film class of ’77/78 he screened a 16mm print, presumably long ago junked: ah, those were the days when commercial distributors had such stuff on their shelves and would give it to us university cinephile-intellectuals for weeks on end at a nominal price! But does the film circulate in any format today? It is certainly a curiosity-item, not among Mulligan’s very best, but certainly one of the better ‘Hollywood looks at youth revolution’ movies, for whatever that’s worth.

  • Blake Lucas

    I didn’t see the original Bruno Baretto DONA FLOR AND HER TWO HUSBANDS, so maybe had no prejudice against KISS ME GOODBYE. I thought it was a really funny film–a little uneasy with James Caan’s tap dancing as the ghost but made up for it in scenes with Jeff Bridges, who plays with great comic flair. Minor Mulligan maybe but most enjoyable and not out of line of his concerns.

    I saw THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS when it came out. A youth film like this should be up Mulligan’s alley but seemed uncharacteristically strident then, and if I had to choose the least of his films right now this would be it. But I can’t dismiss it–it stays in my mind as something I’d like to see again.

    CLARA’S HEART is an interesting film and gets quite a defense in that Film Journal issue as I recall. It’s no MAN IN THE MOON but you do want to seek this out, Kent. And KISS ME AGAIN as well–both easily available I believe.

  • Kent Jones

    Stephen, I’m not so sure. That’s why I wrote that I’m sure they’re worth looking at. As you and Blake and Adrian have indicated.

  • Miguel Marías

    Kent, Stephen, though I agree those three films did not look too good, I saw all of them out of interest for Mulligan. I think Adrian describes quite right “The Pursuit” (which could be an apt title for most of Mulligan) and I agree with Blake. Even “Kiss Me Again” becomes interesting – and it may be his slightest film -, and “Clara’s Heart”, despite my reluctance about its cast and “general storyline” is a very good and decet and moving film about learning (another of his apparent obsessions). It is true he always kept a very low profile, nothing much is known about him, and I don’t recall ever having read an interview with him. Anyone knows about one?
    Miguel Marías

  • KISS ME GOODBYE has the mise-en-scène of the rest of Mulligan. Sally Field’s house has wood, wood, WOOD, that Mulligan favorite. It is unusual in that many Mulligan wood buildings look old, and perhaps working class. Field’s house is a chic home of upper class New Yorkers. Mulligan’s camera still likes to explore every inch of the wooden fixtures. He also likes the reddish-pink on the non-wood areas. The resort interior is also wooden, if memory serves. The yard outdoors at the resort, recalls the more elaborate country area visited so memorably in THE NICKEL RIDE.

    Mulligan told us in 1971 that he rehearsed FEAR STRIKES OUT from beginning to end, just like a stage play. He did this out of ignorance of standard practice. But it paid off in speed of shooting. Mulligan was also proud of the performers in his films.

  • Stephen Bowie

    Mulligan & Pakula participated in the laserdisc/DVD extras for TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. There’s an audio commentary with both, although I can’t remember whether Mulligan was interviewed on camera. I don’t recall coming across any other interviews following his final film in 1991, but I wasn’t really looking; there could be plenty.

  • When Mulligan spoke after the preview of Summer of 42 (1971), he was wearing a dazzling Mod white suit, that was typical of the fashion of the era. At the time I thought, “So that’s how a glamorous Hollywood director dresses!”

    Jason Miller is sporting a somewhat similar off-white suit during the first third of The Nickel Ride. He looks very similar to how I remember Mulligan. One wonders if the protagonist is in some ways a stand-in for Mulligan, drifting through a surreal, dream like experience. The whole film is full of Mod fashions of the era. Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck in Mockingbird) also wears a lot of white suits.

  • Here’s an attempt to link to my article on Mulligan and his mise-en-scène:

    Hope this works…

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Adrian, I just found out I have a video of PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS, taped from ENCORE many years ago. I remember not liking it very much but otherwise my recollection is faint. I’ll look at it again and report. Of course it’s pan&scan — what was the original aspect ratio

  • Miguel Marías

    Jean-Pierre, if my memory is right, it was 1.85, but I may be mistaken, of course. Last time I saw it on TV it was flat…
    Miguel Marías

  • Blake Lucas

    Talk of Mulligan’s more minor moods has me wondering of Brad watched COME SEPTEMBER. I know that Brad likes “comedies of male deflation” and I remember an especially good scene in this in which Rock Hudson and Bobby Darin sit around feeling sorry for themselves, almost like a couple of haplesss children. Of course, Mulligan does not do this in a mean way.

    Mike mentioned Gina Lollobrigida as the female lead so let me hasten to add tht Sandra Dee is the ingenue and paired with Darin. They met on the film, I believe. So if you like Sandra Dee (and who doesn’t) it’s one more extra reason to see this one.

    Meantime it took me awhile to find a rental copy of SUMMER OF ’42 on DVD but now have it in hand and will watch in the next two or three days, maybe even on Christmas. I’m really looking forward to seeing this again.

  • Blake Lucas

    That was supposed to say “Mulligan’s more minor movies…” of course, though I kind of like “…more minor moods…”

  • Joe

    it’s Mulligan’s voice we hear as the narrator of “Summer of ’42,” the only appearance of any kind (I believe) he made on screen.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS: I didn’t expect to enjoy it much but I did, although it’s definitely a minor effort. AR-wise it looks exactly as though it had been shot in Academy ratio although it most probably was not. I didn’t notice any awkward framing or pan-and-scan fooling around. It was perhaps this squareness of the image that gave me the impression of watching a telefilm — but not a bad one (rather the kind that Maltin’s book would call “average,” perhaps even a notch above that).

    The film was made in 1970 (released in February ’71) and is very much of its time. Some annoyances: too much dated music, and a rather obnoxious theme song by Randy Newman that keeps popping up. Visually, some gratuitous zoom-in and zoom-out, but on the whole, little camera flourish.

    Theme of the time: idealistic youth vs corrupt adulthood. William (Michael Sarrazin) is a disenchanted student (he used to be involved in left-wing politics but has lost interest and now prefers to sail model boats on Central Park Lake — the credits sequence)who encounters nothing but hypocrisy, prejudice, cynical dishonesty and general phoniness in the adult world of police, lawyers, families ( he has an ultra-conservative grandmother who manages to express hatred for the Irish, the Catholics, the Jews and the “negroes” in one breathless sentence).

    William broods about the draft but his real problems start after he kills a woman in a car accident. He is clearly not responsible yet he ends up in jail for a while, makes an escape and decides to flee to Canada, draft-dodger style. Since he is in a hurry to escape the police and the pilot who’s supposed to fly him to Canada has to fly to Mexico on that day, William opts for Mexico instead of Canada (he takes his girlfriend with him — Barbara Hershey, who sports the same long flat hair parted in the middle that nine out of then high school and college female students sported at the time). The film ends with shots of the small plane taking off and flying by the Statue of Liberty — final shot a closeup of the statue’s head, an echo of a dream a friend of William’s had told him at the beginning.

    Several characters are borderline caricatures: William’s aunt, his grandmother, his lawyer uncle, his friend Melvin, and the most interesting, perhaps, William’s cellmate in prison, a State senator who’s doing time for embezzelment of public fonds, a cynical know-it-all who briefly becomes William’s mentor but later turns against him (good part, good acting, can’t remember the actor’s name).

  • Stephen Bowie

    I’m very curious about THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS and BLOODBROTHERS now. This is interesting: if the TCM database is accurate, the “Jon Boothe” who co-wrote PURSUIT is a pseudonym for the screenwriter Sidney Carroll (THE HUSTLER, A BIG HAND FOR THE LITTLE LADY).

  • Bill DeLapp

    That truncated version of Bloodbrothers mentioned by Brad Stevens was one of several severely edited Warners movies that were prepared for broadcast on Cinemax, of all places, in the early 1980s. Other titles included Bobby Deerfield, Big Wednesday and Lepke, all pruned to about 100 minutes each and presumably tailored for eventual syndication packages. But those Warner prints haven’t been circulated for years, much like those awful re-edits of late 1960s Universal movies that were first broadcast on NBC and then played into the 1980s on TBS.

  • Blake Lucas

    So, Bill, is original Bloodbrothers now available?
    If so, what should we look for. I haven’t seen it yet and do want to beware of the trucanted version. Is 116 a correct running time for the film as Mulligan made it?

  • Clara’s Heart is pretty dreadful, with Goldberg at her most mawkish. The Summer of ’42 by contrast was devastating in its day, and very much the forerunner of teen sex comedies of the 1970s. That Mulligan could balance the lush 1940s romance with the grosser comic relief shows just what a nimble director he was.

  • Michael Worrall

    I believe Dave already mentioned this, but I think it deserves repeating: Fred Camper considers “Clara’s Heart” to be the greatest Hollywood film of the 1980s. (Along with Edwards’ “The Man Who Loved Women”.) Tom Gunning also found “Clara’s Heart” to be extraordinary.

  • Bill DeLapp

    Blake, Bloodbrothers was circulating around the HBO/Cinemax channels about a year or two ago, in its 116-minute version. Amazon.com has some VHS copies running from $5 to $20. Hard to believe that there’s still a Richard Gere movie that hasn’t turned up on DVD (I don’t think Baby Blue Marine is available, either) but maybe Mulligan’s passing can spur Warner Home Video into action.

  • Kent Jones

    I watched THE NICKEL RIDE again. What a striking film. The world of small-time gangster bureaucrats in that movie is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.

    I’ve thought a lot about Dave’s mention of Mulligan’s understanding of the subjective viewpoint. Quite true. He has a sharp understanding of how to limit space, and it’s exemplified by that terrifying nightmare sequence where Bo Hopkins shoots down Jason Miller’s girl – every frenetic move is tightly tied to Miller’s viewpoint. It’s also one of the key elements that make THE STALKING MOON such a thrilling movie.

  • kent, per the above, how were you able to see the nickel ride? there was mention of “unofficial” copies in a thread above. i’ve been pretty curious about that film for years, not least because it never seemed to have much circulation after its short release in ’75. it also seems to be something of a full stop for jason miller’s u.s.-based acting career.

  • Kent Jones

    James, I’d recorded it when it was broadcast.

  • Kent Jones

    I just want to say that this is one of the first threads I’ve read on this blog that has stuck to the original topic. I think that is, in some way, a tribute to Mulligan. Taking another look at his films was one of the highlights of the year for me.

  • Blake Lucas

    You said it, Kent.

    Thanks to Bill for “Bloodbrothers” tape info—I’m sure I will easily be able to find this to rent, but just wanted to make sure it had running time of the original version and you’ve confirmed that it does.

    And that will leave my last unseen Mulligan—and my grail among Mulligan films—as “The Nickel Ride” which is so highly regarded by his other fans. I’m confident Fox channel will get back to the letterboxed version and will keep my eyes open for it, or—God willing—a theatrical screening somewhere (DVD seems less likely).

    Meanwhile, I watched “Summer of ‘42” on Christmas day, and found it stunning. (I had only seen it once before in 1971 and responded positively but didn’t remember it well) and wanted to make some thoughtful observation, if I could. Like Kent, I feel Dave’s observation about Mulligan’s command of the subjective point of view is indeed crucial, and I am presuming that I understand this the same way Dave does. Sometimes people think of the “subjective” in cinema and they think of obvious subjective shots/subjective camera as Hitchcock often makes a point of using. And there are such shots in Mulligan, of course, but it is a lot more with him. It is an atmosphere and ambiance, taking in the way sounds and settings register around a character, as well as what he or she sees, that makes us feel the mise-en-scene from their point of view. And that’s certainly the case with “Summer of ’42.” After the opening narration, a crucial moment finds Hermie/Gary Grimes with his friends seeing Dorothy/Jennifer O’Neill with her husband outside their house. A shot in which the husband picks up Dorothy and carries her inside in slow motion as she smiles happily (Hermie and the others are sure, and I think rightly, that this moment is a prelude to sex between the couple) is certainly from his point of view, and the slow motion makes this even more clear, and we see his face and reaction concisely intercut (and it’s worth noting that such sometime clichés as slow motion and the gauzy photography of much of the film can be redeemed in a film like this within a secure, purposeful mise en scene that is working as an integral whole).

    The surface subject of “Summer of ‘42” is “coming-of-age”—in the lighter sense, the boys’ desire to get laid and their prosaic obsession with this, which we’ve all shared—while the deeper subject is the deeper understanding of life which comes along with it when Hermie actually gets to make love to his fantasy figure, Dorothy. I always feel that “coming of age” movies shouldn’t end with a youthful character having sex—they should begin with it; because the experience doesn’t close a story, it opens it to where a character’s real story–facing problems, struggles, darknesses as well as joys–will begin.
    This film seems to follow the traditional model, but I believe that’s illusory and will try to explain why and bring back to the point as regards subjectivity. Watching the film, I felt the story did break open in the last quarter, with the Hermie/Dorothy sexual encounter, leaving Hermie with difficult feelings with which he is beginning to grapple.

    The first three quarters are really the setting of a comic atmosphere, in which Mulligan can display his gifts for comedy, often no less than his gifts for sensitively conveying “formative experience”—as he really gets the most anyone could out of the boys’ horniness. The scene in which Hermie tries to buy condoms is hilarious, anchored by a wonderfully knowing performance by Lou Frizzell as the pharmacist—the furthest thing from a caricature and it makes the scene absolutely real.

    But Hermie’s real pull is toward his deeper feelings for Dorothy, which are sexual but more. And here is the telling point—a shot that begins the climactic scene, in which Mulligan effectively transforms the whole film. Hermie comes through the door of her house after she has not answered her knocking—the camera quietly sweeps by him to his right and begins to circle the room—the bottle on the table, the smoldering cigarette, signs of something that feels like a mystery. Here, more than at any other point (and even though it didn’t begin this way) is what feels like a subjective shot: Hermie’s view of the room, but as the camera finishes circling, the image ends, startlingly, with us looking at Hermie himself. I think we might have expected to see Dorothy emerge. In fact she emerges several shots later, after he has seen the telegram revealing the death of her husband. And because Mulligan has now transformed the film, modifying Hermie’s subjective point of view so that we are now seeing the action from a wider perspective, the Dorothy we will see in the sequence is not simply the fantasy figure we have seen before, a beautiful, likeable, but seemingly simple, and maybe even vapid woman—we see the depths of feeling and complexity in her eyes and posture, and in a moment the wonderful Jennifer O’Neill, in an extraordinary performance, reconciles the fantasy with our impression of a real woman. Hermie sees this too—and if you look at Gary Grimes, he too becomes more dimensional in the scene—as life, and sex, are more intense, more complex, than he thought. And he learns there are darknesses as well as joys around relationships.

    In his last scene with Oscie/Jerry Hauser (who also takes on just enough serious dimension to help make for a terrific scene), Hermie says nothing as the other talks, but stands with his arm around a wooden post (the wood that Mike Grost loves in Mulligan), looking out to the ocean, looking, perhaps at his own complex life ahead that this experience has opened up. So, Mulligan has reconciled in the mise en scene a profound rendering of subjective experience with a perspective that places it in the wider world.

    I must say I felt quite a pang hearing Mulligan’s own voice doing the narration at the beginning and end. He could have got some actor who was polished and well-practiced in voiceover narration but I don’t think it would have had nearly the telling effect or been as moving. There is a feeling in his voice of someone who, as part of his artistry, has had some real understanding of his own emotional life, , knows how to both use it and “place” it in creating the mise en scene. This story was not his—it was the experience of the screenwriter Herman Raucher. But Mulligan seems to get it on a deeper level, to know its deepest truth. Whatever his own first sexual experience was, everything about his films tells me he’s not a man who took it lightly.

    Seeing “Summer of ‘42” made me wish I had all of Mulligan’s theatrical films at hand to watch again in chronological order, the ones I’ve seen a lot, the ones I’ve seen once or twice, and the ones I haven’t seen at all. I mean to make the effort in the coming year. This film, certainly, is beautiful, and I must say it moved me deeply.

  • Blake Lucas

    “after she has not answered her knocking…”

    Should have read “after she has not answered his knocking…”

    ***

    It was a week getting back to try to write what I had in mind and then wound up doing it in some haste. Maybe I didn’t get it over as well as I would have liked, but at least a little I hope.

    The two things I most wanted to say, and which I hope are at least intimated above, are related and both contained in what I took to be that transformative shot described.

    One what that the effectively prosaic comedy of the first two thirds is abruptly and breathtakingly transfigured into a final part that can be fairly described as poetic, and hauntingly so, with those whispers of melancholy and even a tragic sense breaking through. Second, though the deeper and more dramatic story of Hermie really begins in this part, Mulligan at the same time effectively reveals a shadow story, about Dorothy’s youthful happiness as a married woman and its sudden, tragic end, and this is a story we suddenly care about and do see coming to an end.

    For me, the “deep understanding of the rarely used subjective viewpoint in cinema” that Dave so cogently described is the key to perceiving how Mulligan makes all of this happen in the film, and why it happens so expressively.