Director Larry Peerce (1930-) is a name which is critically linked to films which are regarded as plain awful in terms of the critics raving upon their release… And yet this film-maker was some sort of activist in terms of the social comment and issues of his films in the 1960s until his retirement from theatrical feature film making in the late 1980s. Peerce’s films are in some ways remarkable. It seems a shame he seemed to lose interest in the art of cinema somewhere along the way…
Peerce was born the son of popular operatic tenor Jan Peerce (1904-84 after stroke and two years in a coma) and his wife Alice Kalmanovitz (1907-84). Jan sings miserere from Il travatore in one of Deanna Durbin’s (1921-2013 no cause given) last films Something in the Wind (1947) which Durbin hated and refused to watch in later years. Jan would also make another rare appearance in his son’s most popular and mainstream movie Goodbye, Columbus (1969) along with Peerce’s Uncle Max.
Peerce made his first feature in Ohio for a reported $250,000 and it was called One Potato, Two Potato (1964). Made in the wake of the Kennedy assassination it takes the title of the old children’s game of the same name… A game which comes down to mathematics and the dealer possibly knows who is going to win or lose in the end just by picking the right place to start. The game is also played as Eeny meeny miney moe which has racist overtones… You are “it”! So, it’s probably not surprising that this film is an early take on race relations and of the most intimate as it tells of a white woman and a black man who fall in love… and the consequences.
The film stars future Oscar nominee Barbara Barrie (1931-) who would win the Best Actress at Cannes for One Potato, Two Potato for her role of the white woman who falls in love. The black man is played by Bernie Hamilton (1928-2008 cardiac arrest). Meanwhile Barrie’s first husband, who she leaves for her lover, is actor Richard Mulligan (1932-2000 colorectal cancer). The film’s screenplay received an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay which was by Orville H. Hampton (1917-97) and Raphael Hayes (1915-2010). It is perhaps no coincidence that Robert Mulligan’s brother Robert Mulligan (1925-2008 heart disease) had directed the now politically incorrect though well-meaning, also in terms of race relations and mental illness, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), around the same era in terms of the burgeoning civil rights movement. Peerce’s movie is a braver exercise and could have only been done as a low-budget independent movie… It is the kind of independent spirit which was probably inspired by John Cassavetes’s (1929-89 cirrhosis) movie Shadows (1959) which also dealt with race relations. Cassavetes would appear in Peerce’s Two-Minute Warning (1976).
“The movies… it’s like living a different life,” says Barrie to her new black friend near the beginning of the picture after a trip to the cinema. And he responds: “Like another place, another time.”
These couple of sentences sum up the notion of the movies being a special place, a possible melting pot for the world to solve its problems and director Peerce creates his first model couple in terms of de-segregation in America both in the cinema and in the hopes of the future. The movies are perhaps the bond and illusion which links the world in a peaceful dreamlike way together as it forgets the death of John F. Kennedy (1917-63 assassin’s bullet), no matter what your race and religion… and yet the film doesn’t skirt the real issue as this woman ends up in court and her laundry is aired publicly as her first husband demands custody of their child. So, divorce is also tackled as an issue…
“It was an ordinary, everyday, uncomplicated relationship,” it is said as the tale of this movie is recounted by court records of a love that preceded Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) by three years. The innocence of the movies is questioned as society must face the reality in terms of both the individual and society which is ultimately on trial. The accused individual is meant to learn from a guilty verdict… It’s just the guilt here is linked only to daring to love which is seen as a deviation… It is just that the society of segregation and racism is the deviate society as integration is shown to be a battle against the odds in 1964. The case of Mildred (1939-2008 pneumonia) and Richard Loving (1933-75 killed by drunk driver) would truly reveal the facts of interracial love in America in court a court ruling in 1967.
From the opening establishing shots of the movie, we are aware that this is a caring and pro-active director who has tackled his subject with enthusiasm even if the drama falls a little flat in the end… Peerce’s first feature is not as cinematic as his later The Incident (1967), which is his masterpiece, but he is well on his way in terms of frame and composition if you are in to that sort of thing!
One Potato, Two Potato was the launching pad for Peerce’s social concerns as it is about racism, while The Incident is about the flaws in America’s social fabric and individuals, A Separate Peace (1972) concerns homosexuality while The Sporting Club (1971) looks at white society and the gun culture, while The Bell Jar (1979) looks at suicide and mental illness… Even his middle of the road hit movie The Other Side of the Mountain looks at life as a disabled paraplegic (1975) years before Coming Home (1978) won Oscars.
“Children? What are you going to do about children?!,” asks the black family of our hero in One Potato, Two Potato, as the world in terms of the game of society would have the odds already stacked against them in terms of stigma and the American schism … Perhaps this movie was the beginning of hope which is sung in the – ironically British – 1969 song Melting Pot which has assimilationist lyrics about churning coffee coloured people by the score. Interestingly, a UK radio station recently banned the song after someone complained about its racist lyrics. Not even a well-meaning piece of art or an anti-racist movement is a solution to permanently paranoid and closed minds. I mean turn up rather than off your radio!
“I love you. How can I be afraid of somebody or something I love?,” Barrie asks her black lover, as she tells him: “You’re exactly the same.”
Barrie establishes her credentials as an actress which wouldn’t be fully celebrated until her Oscar nominated appearance as the middle-aged mother in the surprise hit movie Breaking Away (1979). It was made the same year as Peerce’s The Bell Jar in which Barrie appears as the possibly dream destroying publishing mentor to Sylvia Plath’s character named simply J.C. which hints at complexity of a possibly soul saving character and yet soul-destroying in terms of freedom at the same time. But more on that neurosis later…
Meanwhile, the couple in One Potato, Two Potato must live in seclusion once they marry, almost like the homely couple in The Enchanted Cottage (1945), as their love is seen as ugly as they are to the outside world… Yet, this is no New England fantasy, but based on court documents as The American Dream doesn’t permit physical ugliness on-screen, and it also doesn’t permit love in terms of skin colour despite its beautiful contours… Monied, skinny and connected socially or through blood is the dream of the ‘real’ world and Peerce would remind us of this with his film The Sporting Club… Black can be beautiful today, as long as you are not poor, ugly and mentally ill … and that goes for white too and the rest of the colours of the rainbow. Reject conformity and pay the price.
Peerce remained true to social issues despite his later disinterest in ‘mise en scene’ or the frame of the film itself as his work after the early 1970s became more mundane and television movie like in terms of their look as they began to lack distinction. This is perhaps why his is not celebrated today and never really was. It was his jaunt on television between One Potato, Two Potato which gave him a taste of the limited tv screen and its story-telling potential.
He directed an episode of Wild, Wild West (1965-69) in 1967 around the time of the making of The Incident. And this episode entitled The Night of the Brain would encapsule Peerce’s rejection of conformity in Hollywood which peaked with his much-maligned final theatrical feature Wired (1989) about the life and death of comedian John Belushi.
“We’re being pushed step by step until I find out why, we have to go where we’re pushed,” says our hero James West played by Robert Conrad (1935-2020 heart failure) when he is delivered newspapers from the following day predicting events which have not yet occurred and yet he is present at these upcoming events. They are deaths.
Director Peerce is credited as Lawrence Peerce and this episode of Wild, Wild West is a melding of fate, the power of the media to control and create the fate of celebrities, including framing them towards their own self-destruction. It also hints at conspiracy in terms of the media being puppets to masterminds who use it by remote control… all led by a Mr Braine who uses either deduction or mindreading from his steam-powered wheelchair to hopefully control the fate of the entire world itself! It’s an interesting concoction where even the White House’s foreign policy is possibly compromised… The media and the Vietnam War come to mind at the time. Interesting that CBS produced this series and Peerce’s gun nut movie Two-Minute Warning (1975) would use what resembles the CBS logo as the assassin’s gun sights as Peerce takes aim at the intrusiveness and helpfulness of television in the same year that CBS was named and would later become become “America’s most watched network”. Newspapers and the cinema seem irrelevant in Two-Minute Warning… Be that as it may… his next movie The Incident (1967) was released and partially produced by 20th Century Fox.
The Incident was Larry Peerce’s big role of the dice in terms of his work as an artist as well as being a possible commercial hit. Its rejection by Oscar and the Globes probably caused Peerce to artistically go into automatic disinterest and decline… and yet it was respected enough for him to helm another major movie in its wake.
The Incident was eventually released by 20th Century Fox after getting into financial trouble, or so it is reported, and this goes with the premise of Peerce’s career being in the hand of puppeteers rather than himself. It was filmed in black and white like One Potato, Two Potato after Peerce deliberately made that choice despite an era in which monochrome was possibly seen as passe. The cast is near top draw but they are not necessarily bankable names – Beau Bridges (1941-) in his first of many Peerce movies, Ruby Dee (1922-2014 natural causes), Jack Gilford (1908-90 stomach cancer), game show host Ed McMahon (1923-2009 no cause given), Gary Merrill (1915-90 lung cancer), Donna Mills (1940-), Brock Peters (1927-2005 pancreatic cancer), Thelma Ritter (1902-69 heart attack) and Jan Sterling (1921-2004 after strokes etc.). Too many to choose from in terms of Oscar and screen time. The movie is also the first by two up and coming stars in Martin Sheen (1940-) and Tony Musante (1936-2013 after surgery), who play a couple of pool hall hustling low-lives who decide – if there is really any real decision to be made in this way of life – to torture the passengers on a metropolitan train in the early hours of Sunday morning as it crosses New York City and takes them ‘home’ in this land of the free but not necessarily home of the brave.
The movie, which runs about two hours, has different types of characters, thus the wealth of actors, which represent different types of society within America at a critical time in US history. It is 1967 and an election is looming which may see the prolonging of Democratic party government rule with its policies of social reform and a path to a possibly socialist America under Bobby Kennedy (1925-68 assassin’s bullet) as president. It is a time of hope and prosperity and yet there is still the spectre of crime and poverty which remains an underbelly, while racial and sexual – and sexuality – inequality and the Vietnam War… all these issues are present in the face of the flawed characters trapped on the train with knife-wielding thugs. This is further spelt out in the set design which shows the vulnerability of the people on the train which is decorated with social government slogans such as ‘Work with the Mentally Retarded. The pay is Great.’ – something which resonates about not looking after those less fortunate lest they may become social undesirables on trains! There are also ads in terms of the US role in worldwide peace and stability with ‘NATO’ advertised, and the reliability of the US Postal Service. It appears the government can be trusted to deliver future social reform. Yet, the writing is on the wall in terms of the people being impotent or being complacent when it is up to them to continue the good works of what was termed to become The Great Society under then President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-73 heart attack).
All is on a knife’s edge for this microcosm of America on this train as one by one their enclaves are threatened as each part of society that they belong to and symbolise… Jews, blacks, soldiers, homos etc… sit by and take no action. Society is threatened, it teeters in The Incident if they do not face and act together, or as an individual… something will be lost if they all remain passive in the face of the bullying, if only their self-respect… for a moment. A decision will have to eventually be made or society will get the government they deserve! And it happened when Bobby Kennedy was murdered and the conservative Republican government was elected and headed by future pardoned criminal President Richard Nixon (1913-94 after stroke) ending the burgeoning socialist dream… perhaps forever. The warning for the Great Society wasn’t heeded. Perhaps it never really existed.
The Incident opens with some beautiful photography, especially a deep focus shot of the thugs chatting before, like Alfred Hitchcock’s (1899-1980 kidney failure) Lifeboat (1944), it uses the confines of its limited train carriage set to full advantage in the second half of the movie. The bond between two unenlightened or criminally toxic masculine individuals isn’t necessarily the antithesis of those they pick on, it’s just an everyday occurrence or incident concentrated by the script that ‘good’ citizens have to face.
Peerce’s movie cares about the characters, despite their flaws and he cares about the possibilities … and yet there is a dark core to everyone or so it may seem as tolerance takes a turn for the worse in terms of injustice and cowardice… indeed selfishness. In the end, they are united in witnessing a very public assault and possibly killing and it will be the judicial system which will have the last say. Again, it may be too late in terms of trauma. Peerce’s assault in the cinema seems to have a conscience compared to other violent movies of the era. The director, upon making The Incident, may not have been as cynical as to expect history to repeat itself in terms of another Kennedy killing… But Peerce’s film does tell us that the Great Society won’t necessarily triumph without a fight despite the promise of a bright present and future in terms of advertising slogans. Thus, it’s a starkly black and white movie which shows how the rot began and how through selfish complacency and not caring enough for your neighbour even in transit on a train… something bad got into the train of thought of the American public and spilled into the election of 1968. It the end flawed human nature wins out like in most of Peerce’s movies.
The screenplay by Nicolas E. Baehr (1924-86) won an award at the Mar del Plata Film Festival while Peerce also got encouragement from the same festival with an award. Meanwhile the crisp and inspired photography was by Gerald Hirchfield (1921-2017), who started off in cheap noir in the early 1950s before graduating effectively with Fail Safe (1964). He would work with Peerce several more times and while he didn’t work on the Belushi biography Wired, he was cinematographer on Belushi’s cocaine-fuelled final production of Neighbors (1981).
Peerce’s nomination for a Palme d’Or for One Potato, Two Potato at Cannes in 1964 was once more not reciprocated by the major awards in the United States. He had touched a nerve… Yet, his next film Goodbye Columbus (1969), which has reliable material with a script based on a novel by Philip Roth (1933-2018 heart failure) and an irresistible star in Ali MacGraw (1939-) – it was a massive hit, even though it is really conventional cinema and thus not rated as a memorable masterpiece with the passing of time. The end of the movie is about the beginning of the neuroses of two young people who can’t decide on a proper form of contraception and split bitterly as a result. They are weak and flawed once again. The script got an Oscar nomination but Peerce was given the thumbs down for any award consideration.
“The dear old flag I die for, mother… Dry your weeping eye… For the honour of our land and the dear old flag I die,” is the song at the beginning of Peerce’s next movie The Sporting Club (1971). Thumbnail film critic Leonard Maltin would rate this film a BOMB or the lowest rating along with Peerce’s next two movies A Separate Peace (1972) and Ash Wednesday (1973). It was this critical sentiment which would haunt Peerce’s career in retrospect.
But the song at the beginning of the movie shows the director has chosen a vehicle which perhaps now matches Nixon’s American society as well as his then current attitude towards it – cynical and disillusioned about how ingrained gun culture is in America and how its citizens refuse to change and perhaps never will. It is all too late in The Sporting Club.
The Vietnam War was raging after Bobby Kennedy was shot in the head and the children are singing about the flag each morning at school… something echoed lackadaisically by the song at the beginning of The Sporting Club. Gun violence would eventually take a toll in the school yard and the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 showed that prayers and President Obama’s tears far outweighed action in terms of gun law reform, which just further ingrained the habit of each new atrocity which continues unabated to this day. The silliness of these prayers is taken to maximum headroom in Peerce’s movie as the sporting club itself, which is made up of the so-called cream of conservative society, who retire to the country in summer and hunt either sexually or with rifles is challenged and endangered and so turns its guns on those of the lower classes or those not of the establishment. Once more it is all self-fulfilling…
The movie, which was from the 1968 novel by Thomas McGuane (1939-), was seen as a counter-culture piece of counter-culture and the movie rights were snapped up as the film is also probably a reaction to the Kent State massacre when the Ohio national guard shot university students at a peace rally over increased action by the US in Vietnam. Ohio was close to home for Peerce as he had shot his first movie there…
“Failure of nerve, induced by poverty,” one of our heroes is told by his sporting club best friend about the link between money and sexual prowess after his business has failed and he turns up a disgrace and the topic of gossip among the rich in the Michigan countryside where they gather for their yearly cocktails. America is sex, money and power… oh, and guns! Our hero’s friend has a gun range in his basement and keeps insulting other men to challenge him to a duel with pistols. At first he uses wax bullets…
The Sporting Club has its gun nut hero laughingly and, ironically, pointing out “a glorious moment in history” as we watch what is perhaps the sight of Richard Nixon crossing the countryside in a motorcade without being shot. Meanwhile a song goes: “Just another Friday night on Fox’s minstrel show” – in a prediction of the rabid conservatism and worship of Fox News. There was once an amalgam known as CBS-Fox which released VHS tapes once upon a time! But it had nothing to do with NBC or all of them together swaying public and possibly government opinion…
The Sporting Club is all very Altman-esque, or like the early movies of Robert Altman (1925-2006 cancer), and this is probably no coincidence as the influence of M*A*S*H (1970) is clearly there and it also dates to movie. Pity Peerce didn’t flourish like Altman.
“Let’s join The Great Society,” says Lorenzo Semple Jr’s (1923-2014 natural causes) screenplay as the gun nut crosses the woods from his elite countryside mansion to go slumming it with a guy named Earl Olive played by Jack Warden (1920-2006 heart and kidney failure) who rides a motorcycle along with his cohorts… They also play Jerry Lee Lewis’s Great Balls of Fire too loud while slugging hooch, toking on joints and having an informal bar-be-que, much to local high society’s horror. They aren’t the docile train passengers of The Incident as the great divide that The Great Society had hoped to close is now forever a schism … or the middle class weren’t invited. Earl’s society is the hippie dream of make love not war gone wrong in the wake of Easy Rider (1969) and the disaster of Altamont Free Concert in 1970. Earl isn’t necessarily obsessed by guns but rather by freedom and having a good time and his self-indulgence isn’t in the name of peace.
The original novelist McGuane was seen as a self-indulgent writer himself who never fulfilled his promise… Peerce is considered the same. McGuane was brought up an outdoorsman who preferred fly-fishing and his rejection of the counter-culture and the irony of the prevalence of gun culture in America helped kind of make The Sporting Club a lost piece of Iconoclasm to some degree.
Peerce’s movie has the mansions of the WASPs blown to smithereens and after they pray for divine intervention break out their machine gun to protect what is left of the foundations of The Sporting Club itself… It is the flaw once again in American culture as it heads towards further schism and perhaps even revolution in the backwoods like it is almost the jungles of Vietnam itself. Onward Christian Soldiers they sing in the rubble…
Screenwriter Semple had produced the abortion for an abortion revenge movie Daddy’s-Gone-A-Hunting (1969) before this in the further darkening of America’s heart before he wrote The Sporting Club. He would then later see not just the citizens but the government turning on its citizens to the point of personal paranoia with screenplays for The Parallax View (1974) – part of Alan J. Pakula’s ‘paranoia trilogy’ that includes Klute (1971) and All the President’s Men (1975) – and Three Days of the Condor (1975). And Semple had started with the campy Batman tv series in the mid-1960s… How times had changed.
The WASPs, whether they are monied and society are still the same gun-toting sex-starved individuals or wild pack even if they are only poor WASPs like Earl Olive and they will turn on each other when the money runs out and desperation takes hold… A WASP society ultimately lets itself down when it leaves itself unchecked and turns on itself because it no longer recognises itself and who is really a friend or fellow human being… In the end the two friends are left to duel to the death as a solution… with the antagonist loser calling the inadvertent winner a ‘liberal’ or Democrat just to rub it in before his demise. Meanwhile in 1971, American cities had burned as racist injustice and anger against Vietnam lost perspective of The Great Society as WASP society turned in division upon each other politically… A helicopter takes off at the end of The Sporting Club as if airlifting another casualty from just another American war which is the mini-revolution happening below and within America itself. Reprise: “For this old flag I die, mother…” The end.
We look at the rest of Larry Peerce’s career including The Bell Jar (1979) and Wired (1989) in PART TWO.