Movies F.I.S.T. IN MOUTH

Two new films that looked like sure winners turn out to be losers.

Plodding may not be the best adjective to use in describing F.I.S.T., but certainly it’s the kindest. This great hulk of a film sinks in its own epic pretensions. The folks at United Artists undoubtedly felt that they had a sure winner. They’d signed the box office sensation of 1976, Sylvester Stallone, a distinguished supporting cast led by Rod Steiger and Peter Boyle, an outstanding cinematographer, Laszlo Kovacs, and a director with some legitimate claim to being’ an astute social and political observer, Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming). All they left out was a script and a sense of purpose.

If we’re to believe F.I.S.T., all it takes to become a power in the international labor movement is bulk, a menacing walk, and a talent for jumping up and down at union rallies. It’s doubtful that this strategy would work even in Du-buque, Iowa, where much of the film was shot; it certainly tells us nothing about the Jimmy Hoffas and Tony Boyles of the world, whose dark careers provided the inspiration for this mess. The gut issue of union corruption is never dealt with except in melodramatic, stereotypical terms. The good guys all wear coveralls and cloth caps, the villains go around in pin-stiped suits and spats. Nobody’s clean, we’re told, and there’s no way to avoid doing business with the mob.

Sloppy sociology might be excused if F.I.S.T. had at least a drop of psychological insight. But it doesn’t. We never really know what makes a guy like Johnny Kovak (Stallone) tick. What’s he looking for? How does he operate? How did he get to be such a force with the rank and file? The Godfather, to which Jewi-son pays homage throughout, gave answers to such questions. So did On the Waterfront and, in a more limited way, Blue Collar. In each, connections were made between private lives and public deeds, and the drama evolved from individual characterizations.

Not so in F.l.S.T. All those small domestic scenes that revealed so much about the Corleones and their world are merely trite here. Mama tells Johnny to be a good boy and not start trouble; Johnny laughs and downs another sausage. The overall portrait of immigrant attitudes is about on the level of Abie’s Irish Rose. When Johnny and his wife (Melin-da Dillon) are together, they talk about the weather and Ginger Rogers musicals, not power and ambition and the price of doing the union’s business. They might as well be in a musical themselves. The only tough questions come from Johnny’s old buddy Abe Belkin (David Huffman), who functions like a one-man Greek chorus. “How will we know the difference between them [the Mafia] and us?” he asks Johnny. “We never should have left the old neighborhood.” Stallone smiles indulgently through the interrogation, as if to say “C’mon Abe, this is a movie. Nothing’s for real.”

F.I.S.T. comes to life in only a couple of big scenes, a raucous convention, and a slugfest between pickets and strike breakers. Stallone is always at his best, it seems, when giving or taking a punch. Even though Laszlo Kovacs gives these sequences a soft, dreamy glow, reminiscent of an old Saturday Evening Post cover, they have enough raw energy to make us wish that the film had taken to the streets more often.

Johnny Kovak’s story is familiar enough, After making his mark as an organizer in the local, he claws his way to the top with the help of a few loyal aides and the muscle of organized crime, selling out everything and everybody along the way. Not that the point ever really registers with him. “I never took a thing in my life,” he tells a Senate rackets committee. “I represent the men.” Where’s Mama when we need her?

United Artists reportedly experimented with two different endings for F.I.S.T., an upbeat version in which Kovak succumbs to conscience and tells all to the committee, and a down-beat version in which he gets knocked off in the middle of the night. The studio went with the second ending. The only problem is that it comes about two hours too late.

Near the end of Pretty Baby, E. J. Bellocq, a turn-of-the-century photographer of New Orleans’ red-light district, confronts the mother and stepfather of his child bride Violet (Brooke Shields). They’ve come to rescue her from the brothels, where Mama used to work, and whisk her off to a life of respectability in St. Louis, where Daddy is big in the paving business. Violet resists. All things considered, living in the brothel isn’t so bad. She has lots of friends and good times. Besides, respectability doesn’t look so hot. Bellocq, meanwhile, is beside himself. “I’ll die,” he pleads. “I can’t live without her.” The parents give him one of their we-know-what’s-best-for-Violet smiles and do as they please. It should have been a memorable scene, a biting comment on bourgeois morality and the emotional violation of children. But it falls flat – mainly, we suddenly realize, because there’s not really that much to the Bellocq-Violet relationship. It’s a confusing blur rather than something we care deeply about.

As played by Keith Carradine, Bellocq is intense, diffident, and of somewhat ambiguous sexuality, a shadowy figure who makes an impression by what he doesn’t do and say. Violet is his daughter, model, bride, and, he thinks, spiritual fellow-traveler in need of protection from the outside world. She, in turn, thinks of him as a father (her favorite epithet is “Papa”) and as another lover, nicer than most but one she needn’t treat with reverence. When he ignores her requests, she throws temper tantrums or breaks his photographic plates. So we have a marriage between an older man who’s an innocent and a child who’s worldly wise. It’s a potentially rich situation which, unfortunately, doesn’t get much beyond the outline stage. Good ideas but no focus, as teachers like to say to students.

Director Louis Malle has often been praised for the civility and the intelligence of his films. In the past he’s managed to deal with controversial subjects like incest (Murmur of the Heart) and murder (Lacombe, Lucien) without turning his youthful characters into monsters. He doesn’t pander to an interest in cheap sensationalism or allow his audience to make facile moral judgments about his characters. Pretty Baby has some of the same qualities. There is no explicit sex and the dialogue is carefully laundered – sometimes, given the context, with rather amusing results. This is no ordinary whorehouse but a refined and elegant place, where there’s plenty of good food and wine and where ladies chatter amiably about the good life outside that most of them will never see. The place is stylish and decadent at the same time.

Yet along the way Malle becomes so engrossed in atmosphere that he seems to forget about his characters. We’re bathed in shadows and muted colors until the film grows static, as though Malle and his cinematographer Sven Nykvist, who has shot most of Bergman’s films, were trying to create a series of lush, moody 8 x 10’s for display in a salon. The film needs more edge – not to exploit its potentially sensational themes, but to give the characters depth and definition. In the end, the film is too soft.

Except for Brooke Shields, who is clever and calculating from the beginning. Whether picking up pointers from the other girls or practicing technique on her own Johns, she behaves like an old pro. She taunts and teases and cajoles. At one point she cheerfully allows herself to be auctioned off to the highest bidder, as though losing her virginity were cause for celebration, like a birthday party. It’s an engrossing and chilling scene that helps to define the moral confusion that afflicts everyone in the film. It also reminds us how slack much of the rest of the film is.


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