Saturday, April 07, 2007

The greatest movie never made

Monday marks the 30th anniversary of what was perhaps the greatest failure of the Hollywood studio system: Gulf + Western's dismantling of the shoot for Sidney Lumet's "Strike of Midnight," a romantic thriller set in the world of high-stakes gambling. When you look at the pedigree of the movie as it was planned (and very nearly executed), you have to scratch your head and wonder why G+W considered pulling the plug on this project, or much less followed through with it.

The aforementioned Sidney Lumet was coming off the monumental success of "Network" and was looking for another great script to sink his teeth into, and found it in the form of a script floating around, "Strike of Midnight," from a first-time screenwriter named Horace Weems.

The reclusive Weems was coming off a particularly bad run of luck in the late 1960s with his literary fiction pursuits (some had even suggested he was a chemical casualty of the Summer of Love), but he poured all his effort into creating this one lasting document -- which was subsequently greenlighted on May 3, 1976. Casting began a month later, and turned up a formidable lead in George C. Scott.

Scott had won -- and famously turned down -- an Oscar for "Patton," and his name was at the tip of everyone's tongue. Weems, in the one interview he gave to the Los Angeles Times in the summer of 1977, offered that the part was, "written with Scott in mind. Or, George Jessel."

Shooting started in August of 1977 with cast and crew experiencing early creative tensions. Castmembers Robert Vaughn, Ernest Borgnine, and Leon Isaac Kennedy, pictured above, clashed with Lumet over key decisions, including how best to have Borgnine's military police character treat Kennedy's ex-con/lounge singer character. Lumet wanted to see soemthing akin to Wilder and Pryor in "Silver Streak," but Vaughn thought it was a disingenuous portrayal.

Worse yet, late-in-the-process studio notes introduced a separate plot threat not planned by Weems that seemed to be a fusion of sci-fi theatrics and "Osterman Weekend"-type suspense. The casting of song-and-dance man Robert Preston as "Billy Wiggums," a cardsharp who thinks he's from Saturn, did not ease tensions on the set.

Towards the end, 1970s cheesecake icon Adrienne Barbeau groused endlessly about the interminable amount of scenes in which she was either bathing or chained to a concrete wall. As it turned out, those scenes were not in the original script, but rather were hand-scribed by Borgnine himself, an error that would not be discovered until a month after shooting ceased.

Shooting had proceeded contentiously through the winter and into the spring. Finally, R. Smirthwaite Hanover, Gulf + Western Company's financial majordomo, put an end to a tortured motion picture experience with only 56 rolls of film in the can and an estimated 34 pages of script yet to film. From what those few eyewitnesses who saw clips and rushes say, the existing footage is celluloid gold -- the incomprehensible script, coupled with the softshoe of Preston and the decolletage of Barbeau, created what surely would have been one of the seminal 1970s films. Alas, it was also to be a treasure trove never seen again.

We can only wonder how the entire film would have played out. In the words of Warren Beatty, in an offhand comment to writer Robert Towne at the "Heaven Can Wait" opening night party, "If Lumet had managed to wrap 'Midnight' you could have closed the book on the ’70s three years early." Indeed.