Wednesday, March 31, 2010


"The tragedy of many people," Norman Mailer contended in Cannibals and Christians, "is that they don't find love not because their bodies are inadequate for love, but their minds are. Love is an enormously complex matter, and we have absolutely no preparation for it in this country." The assertion is debatable--the author had a marked tendency to overstate his case, or he wouldn't have been Norman Mailer--but certainly some of the most unloved and unprepared characters to be found in all of our nation's fiction prowl the pages of his remarkable fourth novel, An American Dream, which kicked up a devil of a fuss in 1965. Feminist critic Kate Millett, with the customary confusion of the perpetually aggrieved, castigated the book as "an exercise in how to kill your wife and be happy ever after," and the inevitably emasculated Hollywood adaptation materialized a year later. The rampaging writer had stabbed his second wife, painter Adele Morales, with a penknife several years earlier at what must have been an especially memorable party, so it's difficult, if not impossible, to perceive at least a little of Mailer in his homicidal protagonist Stephen Rojack, a Hemingwayesque anti-hero lost in the shadow side of machismo. (The Prisoner of Sex subsequently spent seventeen days in the bughouse and received a suspended sentence for assault; Morales refused to press charges, but did divorce him.) It's also easy, and perhaps not completely unfair, to infer that Mailer's crime, coupled with his by-then legendary propensity for making a public spectacle of himself, from pugilism to politics, must have negatively influenced some of his most vociferous detractors in that bra-burning doozy of a decade.

Mister Rojack--a Korean war hero, one-term Congressman, professor, talk-show host, certified public intellectual, and all-out raging alcoholic--hallucinates the voice of la Luna commanding him to leap to his death from a balcony at the party of a friend who may or may not have slept with his estranged spouse, Deborah Kelly. Our Renaissance maniac doesn't commit suicide, but departs instead to confront Deborah in her high-rise duplex. The couple quarrel and Rojack strangles her, later tossing her corpse over the parapet after first satisfying his lust with Deborah's German maid, Ruta, who's actually a spy. The police don't believe Rojack's claim that his wife killed herself, but there's not enough evidence to hold him, so off he wanders on a bender into a nightclub where chanteuse Cherry--who was a passenger with her mobster pals in one of several vehicles crashing into each other when Deborah hit the pavement--warbles Cole Porter in the wee hours. The new lovebirds hide out at her Lower East Side tenement (Rojack admits to the singer that he murdered his missus, and she's entirely comfortable with that), but their erotic idyll is rudely interrupted by the arrival of Cherry's ex-beau, Shago Martin, a violent Negro entertainer who was earlier blacklisted, so to speak, by Deborah when he turned down an opportunity to perform at a benefit she had organized. The boys duke it out, then Rojack--who has in the interim been, most reluctantly, cleared by the police on Orders From High Up--has a man-to-man at Deborah's penthouse with her fatcat stepfather, Barney Oswald Kelly--who was once (stay with me, dear reader) another of Cherry's lovers--confessing his crime to the big shot before nearly being pushed to his death by him when he guiltily walks the parapet where Deborah was dumped. It's hinted that the late Mrs. Rojack had intelligence connections, which explains the presence of Fraulein Ruta, so the investigation of her death is officially closed, and Rojack returns to Cherry's pad, only to find her expiring from a beating by an acquaintance of Martin's. (Shago is also slain.) Rojack skips Deborah's funeral and heads west to commune with the moon, then packs his bags for some postmodern soul-searching in Guatemala and Yucatan.

If all that sounds demented, you may rest assured it is. It's also potent, stinging stuff, but Mailer's vicious vision quite obviously posed a whale of a problem for the television veterans responsible for the film version. All too often, of course, the adapter (Mann Rubin, in this instance) functions as a kind of reverse alchemist, transforming literary gold into base celluloid metals. Mann's screenplay devolves Rojack's character from a man in the middle of a psychotic break--and, frankly, one erotically energized by homicide (murder, the war veteran asserts, having killed several Germans in combat, "is never unsexual")--into a cowardly victim of circumstance, all to minimize the danger that the picture's audience will not identify with, or, worse, actually detest, him. Mailer's first-person narrator hurtles us ass over teakettle into his madness, but the cinematic Rojack--especially as portrayed by poor Stuart Whitman--merely invites our contempt. He's a dreary buffoon, and Whitman was far more convincing as a child molester seeking redemption in Guy Green's The Mark (1961) (or, for that matter, battling giant rabbits in William F. Claxton's Night of the Lepus [1972]) than he is here, reduced to the miserable parody of a television call-in host hounding seemingly untouchable mobster Eddie Ganucci (Joe De Santis, resembling a Bowery Boy in geezer drag); there's no way we can take this imbecile seriously as an egghead. His deadly encounter with Deborah (Eleanor Parker, piercing as any screech-owl; she even takes imaginary scissors to Rojack's manhood lest we miss the point of her hysteria) becomes an all-out slugfest, with the enraged redhead giving as good as she gets. Their struggle spills onto the balcony, Deborah hurls a rock from her garden at Rojack, and they grapple on the parapet, but Rubin wimps out, and--in a Theodore Dreiser-inspired instant--she teeters on the edge and Rojack lets her fall, unconvincingly shrieking her name as she plummets like Mel Brooks taking the acrophobic plunge in High Anxiety (1978).

I must admit, however, that the sequence which immediately follows--Rojack dashes downstairs, but can't locate the night watchman to let him out of the locked high-rise, so he has to watch the aftermath behind glass and through the legs of gawking bystanders--is most amusing, and rhymes well with the film's opening moments, when Deborah teasingly telephones his call-in show to deflate her husband's pomposity. Whether his medium is the idiot box or a lobby window, Rojack is an absurd talking head; his outrage against the Mob is merely, as Deborah informs her latest lover, "what any red-blooded, two-fisted TV hawk would do around option time." The viewer never stops feeling this is all low farce, and, surely enough, Rojack's interrogation by the police is the stuff of slapstick. (The boys in blue, not surprisingly, deeply resent Rojack's public criticism of them for not being more diligent in busting the elusive Ganucci, though Deborah's death has substantially simplified matters.) Over the course of the film, Rojack drifts into and out of the police station in the freewheeling style of Dwight Frye roaming the grounds of Edward Van Sloan's asylum in Tod Browning's Dracula (1931). Soon he's hooking up with Cherry (Janet Leigh in platinum locks), whom the rascal doesn't even remember romancing in Vegas before he married Deborah ("For the record," she reminds him, "...I was almost the mother of your child").

Meanwhile, Deborah's estranged father (Lloyd Nolan, who seems to have drifted in from dinner theatre) descends on Los Angeles only to learn that the Catholic Church won't condone, or eulogize, a suicide. He pulls some strings and the police rule his daughter's demise "death by accident." Rojack finally confesses his guilt to Sergeant Roberts (the always-reliable Barry Sullivan, who's appropriately frustrated, either at the machinations around him or Mann's script), but it's too little, too late, and the angry, powerless officer suggests he tell it to Kelly. In Mailer's novel, Kelly has his own guilt to confess--an incestuous desire for his stepdaughter which lead to his confining her in a convent--but here he's simply another cynical businessman more concerned with form than feeling. "It was a brutal allegation," he says of Rojack's suicide alibi. "I'd have been denied [Deborah's] funeral, just as I was denied her wedding."

Rojack, for his part, weasily protests that his wife's death was suicide "in a way. She wanted me to kill her, when I didn't want to kill her." Kelly doesn't buy it, and suggests his son-in-law is a gutless slob who's "afraid to live, and equally afraid to die." The parapet sequence, so chilling in the novel, is here reduced to ridiculousness, and Kelly departs in disgust. Rojack attempts the vertiginous walk, but stops to crawl and finally gives up as the film further degenerates into unintentional hilarity.

Events worsen, if that's possible, when Cherry is abducted by Ganucci's goons and rats him out. Mobsters and chanteuse return to her hideaway as Rojack, unseen, observes them from the roof. The boys settle into her apartment to await him, while Cherry steps outside and allows Rojack to use her pistol against the henchmen. "Think of me sometime," he tells her before being gunned down--it's depressingly plain that studio conventions require that Rojack mustn't be allowed to get away with his offense, but he's such a sad sack it's worth watching him stop some Mafia bullets. The ending also provides Leigh with what is by far the film's best line: midway through An American Dream, while the couple admire the dismal view from Cherry's rooftop, Rojack urges her to take another chance on him "because you're turning into a whore. What do you call it when money in the bank comes first?" Then, just before he perishes, he asks Cherry why she betrayed him. She's silent, but after the gangsters have executed him and filed outside, she ripostes, "What did you expect from a whore?"

Mailer was wisely warned by friends not to see Warner's film of his work, and he couldn't possibly have been pleased with the prospect of it becoming a potential camp classic. The opening titles, with their screen-filling image of satin sheets, immediately signal that we are in Ross Hunter territory, and couldn't be further from Mailer's mood. An American Dream's killing moon brilliantly bookends the novel, but the author's employment of this powerful female symbol is nowhere to be found onscreen, depriving the narrative of its underworld (in both senses of the word) feminine force. Mann's dialogue is ruthlessly risible ("I'm uptight, baby, and I'm bailing out," Rojack barks at Deborah before their fatal fight), and Mailer's dark deconstruction of James Truslow Adams' national vision is, in the screenwriter's paws, obvious to the point of pain--the three telephones that Rojack answers on his television show are even, I swear to you, red, off-white, and blue.

Kelly informs his son-in-law that "the usual explanation for the terrible state of the world is that God and the Devil are having a war. Ordinarily, people don't pay much attention because it's taken for granted that the Devil will be smashed at Armageddon, the dead will rise up, and everybody will shake hands like gentlemen. It's characteristic of the human species...particularly in this country, to believe that everything will come out all right in the end. It's the American dream." He then proceeds to tell Rojack that this war is "about you. Who is to get final custody of you?" Mailer's tale is thus downgraded to a banal battle between Jehovah and Satan. Coming from Nolan's Kelly, it's as unconvincing as any televangelist's prattle. The United States may well be, in the minds of its True Believers, the New Jerusalem, but the filmmakers haven't a clue what to do with this idea. Furthermore, there's no reason for them to shift the novel's New York setting to La La Land, other than studio convenience. Mailer himself complained that the book's "whole psychology was New York....a guy just wouldn't push his wife out a window in Los Angeles--for one thing, there aren't that many high windows!"

Robert Gist, who helmed episodes of such teleseries as Naked City and Route 66, directs mechanically, but Sam Leavitt's photography brightens the proceedings somewhat. Susan Denberg, Playboy's August 1966 Playmate, is wasted as Ruta--she scarcely has a line of dialogue and seems better suited as eye candy for Dean Martin's Matt Helm--but, fortunately for her, she would shine the following year as the reanimated Christina (the role for which she is best remembered) in Terence Fisher's Frankenstein Created Woman (1967). Shago, all too typically, undergoes a Caucasian transformation, but it's for naught, since Paul Mantee, so moving as the marooned star of Byron Haskin's Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), is mere mobster background. Murray Hamilton as Rojack's television producer is simply awful.

An American Dream flopped at the box office, and was reissued theatrically with the rather desperate title of See You in Hell, Darling, but once again audiences sensibly stayed home in droves. The picture did, however, attract the attention of Oscar, as Paul Francis Webster and Johnny Mandel were nominated for Leigh's song, "A Time for Love." They didn't win, but the tune received a Golden Laurel award in 1967. Turner Classic Movies resurrected the picture, in its original 1.85:1 ratio, in late February, and this deservedly obscure film is now available as a Warner Archives DVD. If there had been no source novel, An American Dream might have been a comical misfire, but, as it stands, this is one of the worst adaptations of a major novel ever committed to celluloid. Mailer's own early cinematic misadventures (Wild 90, Beyond the Law [both 1968], and Maidstone [1970]) remain stubbornly unavailable domestically (CineMalta issued them in France), though his 1987 adaptation of his book Tough Guys Don't Dance remains in print as an MGM disc. Now that An American Dream has been unearthed, when will we finally see these weird wonders?


Mailer, Norman. An American Dream. New York: The Dial Press, 1965.

Mailer, Norman. Cannibals and Christians. New York: The Dial Press, 1966.

Mailer, Norman. The Prisoner of Sex. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1971.

Stafford, Jeff. "An American Dream (1966)."