'Catch-22': THR's 1970 Review

Courtesy of Photofest

On June 5, 1970, The Hollywood Reporter appraised Mike Nichols' adaptation of Catch-22, finding that the film followed the book faithfully and questioning the title's appeal to audiences. Read the review below, originally headlined, "'Catch-22' Brilliant Bits: Cynical and Bitterly Cold." 

Sight unseen, it would have seemed that no film costing as much as the John Calley-Martin Ransohoff production of Joseph Heller's Catch-22, a Paramount presentation in association with Filmways, had as great a chance of profiting in spite of its profligacy. The director is Mike Nichols, a man of uncommon comic genius, a reasonable and practical man given to criticizing waste, a man of compassion. But the cost was sinful. The film is cynical and bitterly cold. Nichols has hit one out of three virtues. A year ago, as he began the final cut, as interest — bank and audience — mounted, he said that Catch-22 was an "anti-capitalist" film. At $20 million or so it is certainly one of the most highly capitalized in the history of motion pictures. It is a film of brilliant images, some breathtaking devices, the best technical appointments to be expected at the price, uniformly excellent performances, virtues the more distressing since the film is less than the sum of these parts, possibly the biggest, most hopeless, nihilistic picture ever to go out dependent upon the goodwill and support of the largest and most diverse audience available worldwide. 

Its dependence upon dialogue and inflection severely reduces its appeal in foreign language markets, where it requires — at over two hours — either too much reading or more expensive and idiomatically shrewd translation and dubbing than is likely. With a little modish shuffling, Buck Henry's script is surprisingly faithful to the book in events, fidelity in this case not necessarily a virtue.  Something far more subtle than transliteration was required. We are given, ultimately, only the madness of men, a highly stylized vision of corruption in which war is simply one of the most efficient exploitations. We are not given a balance to that madness, not man himself. Whether it meant to or not, the film of Catch-22 says that people are no damn good, that everything is a hype, that man can be corrupted for a cookie, that nothing is beneath his dignity and that none may rise above that low if the price is right, that man is irredeemable. 

And as it settles for that impression, the ending seems no more than a foolish, dated version of the "tune-in, turn-on, drop-out" gibberish of a few seasons ago or of an earlier generation's longing for escape to a paradise island. Nichols and Henry fail to make an anti-capitalist film. They have made their case so strong that it becomes an anti-human film. Capitalism becomes no more than the means available for the exploitation of man by man, denied humanity, denied reason. If they believed that, writers would not write, directors would not direct, nor would they earn the opportunity, except to cash in on Armageddon. And man creates for reasons other than greed, as writers and directors should know best of all, even very rich writers and directors. 

Because it is not particularly an age of reason nor an age of hope, because of the film's impressive means and technical achievements, Catch-22 will be praised, will be patronized. It will gross a great deal, unable to profit if it makes as much as most of the special interest films of recent years. It needs more. It needs an audience spread it will not reach, that audience which will remain unmoved for want of character they can care about, whose fates inspire pity, whose existence is an alternative to madness, not merely a retreat. At a price allowing gross to equal profits, MASH went to a similar battlefield and managed to convey how and why man prevails through similar madness. 

In a book, in Catch-22, the narrator or the narration, the reader himself, provides a contact with reality, with humanity, through a constant point of view. Films offer the greatest flexibility of point of view. 

To simply recreate the apocalyptic visions, the brutally comic events, sustaining a highly stylized presentation, robs the piece of the ballast. The presentation becomes the reality, the exaggeration is the fact. We see not a projection of the world on the eve of some man-motivated destruction. We are forced to see its inevitability, its irreversibility, by the very success Nichols and Henry achieve in the plausible creation of the visions from the book within the essential reality of the screen. The most gruesome events are more frightening, more inhuman, because they are no longer a projection of reality, but the reality itself: It is that Nichols and Henry fail to take advantage of the flexibility of screen point of view. They had the option of giving us the monstrous distortion and a perspective. 

One recurrent scene helps but does not accomplish that, and Nichols and Henry may well have attempted more prior to the tab version of the book which is the present cut of the film, and which does not skirt the perils of all attempts at fantasy and satire on screen. The present version also fails to account for the brief appearance and disappearance of certain characters, and other characters appear more heavyhanded and unvaried than must have been intended. 

One of the penalties of Nichols' long incubation of the project is that the film arrives with a sequence scored to Richard Strauss's "Also Sprach Zarathustra," the second time it was used in a film previewed this week and at a time when every freshman student film maker is beginning to tire of his own cliche use of that music. Nichols uses the Fritz Reiner recording and it is the only scoring other than certain snatches of source music, most of the film scored to the drone of aircraft and artillery against which dialogue goes in and out of focus, making the audience listen, in the excellent sound mix of Lawrence O. Jost and Elden Ruberg.  

There is a heaviness which infects the film. Nichols uses long takes, with often brilliant employment of in-frame direction, entrances and exits perfectly cued, framed against a background of heat-distorted aircraft formations which hang like lazy legions of dragon flies, scene after scene beautifully capped by in-frame cuts to close-up reaction, a comic topper, a wry fade-out. The screen raises and lowers like a mammoth picture window, massive, sprawling, and yet we are overwhelmed by the sense of craft and money at work, as if we can feel the strain of counterweighing on each crane maneuver. The sound captures a sense of spontaneous dialogue, caught on the run, audible as characters move across the frame or into its depth, but no such fluidity, no freewheeling mobility is manifest visually. One feels the heat, the wait, the rigid arrangement of set pieces, the necessity of pacing the actors to a time which coincides with the spectacular Tallmantz Aviation aerial effects in the background, the carnage and destruction on the ground, which never seem to concern the characters. 

As Yossarian, Alan Arkin does make his defiance felt and seen, but his small rebellious gestures, a finger gesture, a nude appearance at a dress inspection, a scene with a dying crew member in which Arkin's human feeling and ours are eradicated by the revulsion Nichols settles for by literally spilling guts in our face. Terrific special effect, though it injures Arkin's otherwise fine performance, the character he plays, and the film. 

As we continue to see the war machinery feed the economy and corrupt the corruptible, it is a left field character, Marcel Dalio as the 107-year-old Italian who speaks of power and morality, who observes, who feels, who comments, who lives, brought in for the speech, beautifully performed, and shuffled off. 

It might better have been Arkin's insights, illuminating Arkin's character, or that of Bob Balaban, so very good in his brief moments as the crash-prone bomber who escapes the war. We are left instead with Arkin's small gestures of human rebellion, which are never enough to recover after the shock of brutal special effects. Arkin's final gesture of escape is futile, foredoomed by all we have seen. Balaban's more interesting, is unfortunately related in throwaway crazy exposition, though it is the one crazy human act most sane and reasoned in the flood of madness. 

The balance of an outstanding cast survives in vaudeville turns, cartoon highlights, showpieces. Those with sustained characterizations tend to suffer a heavy directorial hand. None more than Jon Voight as the all-American capitalist who hocks the bombers' parachutes to start a syndicate which will grow through profiteering and the capitalization of human misery. He is denied the charm by which he might engage and surprise us. He is clearly labelled and painted black and all too soon lighted from below to acquire the look of Mussolini. Anthony Perkins, as the chaplain; Martin Balsam as Cathcart; Bob Newhart in a delightful sketch as the earthbound boob whose name alone qualifies him for the rank of Major; Orson Welles in a ready made showstealer as General Dreedle; Richard Benjamin as Major Danby, and screenwriter Henry in a custom-crafted role to display superior acting craft, do their numbers brilliantly, acts on the bill which are very much like comic ground bits at an air show. 

Seth Allen has disappeared. Peter Bonerz has nothing left to do but establish the set-up for his stunt flyer double. Arthur Garfunkel makes a very impressive screen debut. In Catch-22, the characters we begin to care about die off-screen. Incidental characters are graphically blown apart in front of us. Jack Gilford contributes some bright moments and sets up a very effective routine with Elizabeth Wilson and Liam Dunn as parents willing to mourn any available body as their dying son. Nichols might well have used character point of view to better effect in this sequence. Gilford is never officially pronounced dead in this cut of the film, so his latter appearance does not convey what it should have. 

Charles Grodin's role as the moralizing American boy for who face is maintained at the cost of another life, is probably the best realized character in the film. There are good moments from fine actors as Martin Sheen, Norman Fell, Austin Pendleton. There are clever parodies of Forties fashions and makeup under costume and hair supervisor Ernest Adler and makeup supervisor Del Armstrong. There are spectacular effects rivalling the end of the world as captured by David Watkins. Panavision and Technicolor cinematography, Richard Sylbert's production design, the art direction of Harold Michelson the set decoration of Ray Moyer, the special special effects of Lee Vasque and special photographic effects of Albert Whitlock, the helicopter photography of Nelson Tyler, and the Tallmantz flying sequences, the second unit direction of Andrew Marton, John Jordan and Alan McCabe and the slick editing of Sam O'Steen, the very best that money can buy framed by an excellent Wayne Fitzgerald title layout. Memorable images. Immemorable film. — John Mahoney