Thursday, November 03, 2011


A political/romantic melodrama set in Haiti during the reign of terror of President-for-Life "Papa Doc" Duvalier. As the times get tougher (a bad economy, a murderous secret police known as the Tonton Macoutes), hotel owner Richard Burton is looking to leave Haiti. The only thing he'll miss is his mistress, Elizabeth Taylor, the wife of a South American ambassador (Peter Ustinov). As Burton returns from New York on a failed attempt to sell his hotel, he runs into Alec Guinness, a boastful but rather comical figure who is trying to sell second-hand arms to the regime; unfortunately, his contact in the government has fallen out of favor and has been tossed in jail, so Guinness is, too. Also newly arrived is Paul Ford, a blustery American businessman trying to open a vegetarian health center in a new development called Duvalierville, and his wife (Lillian Gish) who is quiet but shows backbone when she needs to. These six characters interact with each other and with a handful of natives, including surgeon James Earl Jones and poet Georg Stanford Brown, both of whom have ties to a slowly developing resistance group, and who eventually come to think that Guinness, who's been freed from prison and who brags about his military experience in Burma, could lead their ragtag band in attacks on the Tonton Macoutes. Add to this some voodoo, a nighttime public execution to which children are invited, and lots of anguished kissing between Burton and Taylor, and you've got this mixed bag, based on a novel by Graham Greene.

This movie should have been better than it is. Some critics blame Burton and Taylor, who were pretty much at the peak of their allure as a celebrity couple, but the real problem is the preponderance of long, bloodless conversations—sometimes exposition, sometimes philosophy. There are action scenes here and there, and a startling killing during a medical operation, and much of the film (shot in the West African country of Benin) looks great, even though the dry, barren land is not especially inviting. This is really Burton's movie and he does a nice job as a passive, degraded man stuck in a rut who eventually wakes up and tries to change things. At one point, Burton is referred to as being like a defrocked priest, a nice reference to his role in NIGHT OF THE IGUANA; that Burton was all rage and impulse, but here, he's more like a sleepwalker until, like Bogart in CASABLANCA, he wakes up and decides to join the fight. Taylor's role isn’t very big, but she looks good. Ustinov doesn’t have much to do, but his presence is always welcome. Although it's the white characters we're supposed to care about, it's the black actors who make their characters more interesting. In addition to Jones and Brown, there is Roscoe Lee Browne as a reporter who flits through the film acting like a trip to Haiti is as pleasant as a trip to Disneyland. Raymond St. Jacques is effective as an officer in the secret police: he plays opposite Burton in the same way that Claude Rains did with Bogart in CASABLANCA, except he's a nasty piece of work with no redeeming qualities. Not a popcorn flick, but OK for literary types. [DVD]

1 comment:

Jim said...

The book is very good, but I quickly lost patience with the film.