Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Film #77: Catch-22
Joseph Heller's now-classic 1961 novel was rejected by publishers 15 times. It started out as Catch-14, then Catch-11, Catch-17, and finally, upon publication, Catch-22. In the novel, Yossarian is a nervous WWII pilot who's fed up with risking his life and, by feigning insanity, wants to get drummed out of the force. In Buck Henry's college-try adaptation of this impossible-to-film novel (or so it was thought), Yossarian confronts Doc Daneeka about his plan, and discovers the maddening rock-and-a-hard-place bureaucrasy behind the infamous catch:
Yossarian: Can't you ground someone who's crazy?
Doc Daneeka: Oh, sure. I have to. There's a rule saying I have to ground anyone who's crazy.
Yossarian: Then why don't you ground me? I'm crazy. Ask Clevinger.
Doc Daneeka: Clevinger? Where is Clevinger? You find Clevinger and I'll ask him.
Yossarian: Then ask any of the others. They'll tell you how crazy I am.
Doc Daneeka: They're crazy.
Yossarian: Then why don't you ground them?
Doc Daneeka: Why don't they ask me to ground them?
Yossarian: Because they're crazy, that's why.
Doc Daneeka: Of course they're crazy, I just told you they're crazy, didn't I? And you can't let crazy people decide if they crazy or not.
Yossarian: Is Orr crazy?
Doc Daneeka: He sure is.
Yossarian: Can you ground him?
Doc Daneeka: I sure can. But first he has to ask me to. That's part of the rule.
Yossarian: Then why doesn't he ask you to?
Doc Daneeka: Because he's crazy, He has to be crazy to keep flying combat missions after all the close calls he's had. Sure, I can ground Orr. But first he has to ask me to.
Yossarian: That's all he has to do to be grounded?
Doc Daneeka: That's all. Let him ask me.
Yossarian: And then you can ground him?
Doc Daneeka: No. Then I can't ground him.
Yossarian: You mean there's a catch?
Doc Daneeka: Sure there's a catch, Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy.
Yossarian: That's some catch, that Catch-22.
Doc Daneeka: It's the best there is.
The film Catch-22, released in 1970, looked great on paper, what with its excellent pedigree. Director Mike Nichols and Buck Henry were just coming off of their massive 1967/68 success with The Graduate. Alan Arkin, who was perfectly cast as Captain John Yossarian, was one of the top ten male stars of 1970. And Nichols had cobbled together an enormous cast of then newcomers: Richard Benjamin, Paula Prentiss, Art Garfunkel, Jon Voight, Charles Grodin, Martin Sheen, Peter Bonerz, Austin Pendleton, Bob Balaban, Richard Libertini and Buck Henry himself. Scattered among them, too, were seasoned veterans: Bob Newhart, Martin Balsam, Anthony Perkins, Liam Dunn, Jack Gilford (as Doc Daneeka) and Orson Welles (who wanted to film the novel ever since its release but encountered his usual money problems; when it looked like Nichols, in only his third outing as a film director, was going to get the assignment, Welles grudgingly settled on appearing as the supremely unreasonable General Dreedle).
Getting the story on film was a different matter, though. In adapting it, Henry had to throw out Heller's inventive, time-juggling structure and thereby took away some of the novel's unique appeal. Still, as it stood, Heller eventually approved of the project and of Henry's dialogue as well. The film's budget ballooned to over $20 million (about $100 million by today's standards) when the arial footage of the B-25 bombers became difficult to secure. But UK cinematographer David Watkin (who, in 1985, won an Oscar for photographing Sydney Pollack's Out of Africa) did a yeoman's job of capturing the action through his widescreen lens (I particularly remember dialogue scenes proceeding as airplanes land in the background; what a chore this must have been to coordinate). And regular Nichols collaborators Richard Sylbert (art director) and Sam O'Steen (editor) contributed their usual fine work.
But Catch-22 was overshadowed in 1970 by an equally acerbic anti-war comedy called M.A.S.H. Turns out that Robert Altman's farce pulled in the money and the critical raves the execs at Paramount were counting on Catch-22 to dredge up, and at a fraction of the cost. Still, Catch-22 lives on as a bleak curiosity that, like M.A.S.H., shows little warfare but much madness. Unlike the Altman film, however, there are a few moments of horrifying brutality that will stick with you forever (a still-standing torso-less body, chief among them). Arkin is perfection in the lead, and it's still mindblowing to see all the young faces of so many future lead and character actors all in one place. Bob Newhart, as Major Major, even gets one of his patented phone conversations, and it's a scream (Newhart began his stellar stand-up career doing one-ended phone conversations as part of his act).
And here's a trivia note: In 1969, singer Art Garfunkel left his recording partner Paul Simon in New York to finish the album Bridge Over Troubled Waters while Garfunkel traveled down to Mexico to start filming his acting debut in Catch-22. Long beset by fierce bickering, Simon and Garfunkel broke up soon afterwards, with Simon writing about it in the album's melancholy "The Only Living Boy in New York." In the song, he refers to Art as "Tom," the name Art originally had in the duo's first recording incarnation as "Tom and Jerry." It's a revealing, sad tune that tells a one-of-a-kind behind-the-scenes tale.