Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Movie: Gangster Story (1959)

Most people justifiably think of Walter Matthau as a comedic performer. I always associate him with the trio of tough crime dramas he made in 1973 and ’74: CHARLEY VARRICK, THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN, and THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE, which I really need to stop talking about.

He stayed in the genre for his only directing gig. The resulting movie is terrible. GANGSTER STORY has that wall-eyed look you only see in MST3K films. Every line of dialogue was looped. The interiors were shot at crew members’ houses in Anaheim.

Still, Matthau’s character Jack Martin pulls off a brilliant bank robbery at the beginning of the film, one that involves inviting the police in advance. It’s like something Donald E. Westlake would dream up.

As a director, Matthau made one key mistake. He hired himself. He’s so much better than the rest of the cast that he throws the movie out of whack. It’s a clear violation of the Joe Queenan Guitar Rule.

In THE UNKINDEST CUT, his book about independent filmmaking, Queenan compares hiring an actor who outshines the others to leaving a guitar out at a party. Many guests will pick it up and noodle around with it, strumming a few chords. Then one guy, who used to be in a band, will play an entire song and make everyone else feel inadequate. The party’s mood will shift. Guests will make excuses and leave. The next thing you know, they’re all gone by 9:30 and you’re tossing out perfectly good shrimp. I told you we didn’t need to buy the big platter. Whenever we throw a party you never listen to me. If we’d put on that jazz CD like I suggested, we wouldn’t be in this mess. And why do we keep inviting your friend Carol? I can tell she has it in for me. And she zeroes in on the good gin like a guided missile.

OK, that one got away from me.