Sunday, 19 April 2020

Malice by Sorkin and Frank

Aaron Sorkin is one of my screenwriting heroes. Scott Frank is no slouch, either.

They are two of the credited writers on Malice, a 1988 thriller directed by Harold Becker, also a considerable talent, who is best known for Sea of Love.

Becker describes the movie as being "in the Hitchcock vein", which indeed it is.

It was Aaron Sorkin's first movie job after the enormous success of his play A Few Good Men on Broadway had brought him out to Hollywood. 
Sorkin is very dismissive of the movie these days, calling it a "mess" and being rather negative about Harold Becker.

But Becker is much more generous towards him. "A wonderful writer," he says of Sorkin.
And Malice is far from being a mess. It is, in fact, a sly sucker-punch of a thriller which utterly deceived me and had me chuckling with pleasure. It's a small but genuine classic of the genre. 

At first the film appears to be a routine serial killer story. A predator is stalking the campus of a university in Massachusetts where Andy (Bill Pullman) teaches.

Meanwhile, allegedly charismatic surgeon Jed (Alec Baldwin) renews a high school friendship with Andy and begins to take rather too much interest in Andy's wife Tracy (Nicole Kidman).

All of these characters were uniformly cold and unengaging and I was on the verge of switching the movie off — but then, about a third of the way in, the whole serial killer story is abruptly wrapped up and we discover that the film is about something else entirely...

In fact, Becker refers to that entire self contained story as the "McGuffin" in this movie. You could also call it a red herring, distracting us from what is really going on.

And from this point on, Malice is simply great.

I don't want to say too much more, because I'm loath to reveal any of the splendid surprises in store for viewers of this gem.
But I will tell you that Anne Bancroft (Mrs Robinson from The Graduate) puts in a fabulous appearance as a drunken con-woman who schools Bill Pullman in the facts of life in the real world.  

"She's terrific," says Becker, "That was my favourite scene in the movie." Maybe mine too,
though there is close competition.

Nicole Kidman is fantastic and also has something of a jackpot scene — I agree with Becker's assessment that it's breathtaking. "That was good stuff," he says. "I enjoyed it." Me too, Harold.

And a young Gwyneth Paltrow features in one of her first screen roles, looking surprisingly
Junoesque with long tresses, in a sharp and memorable appearance as an entitled brat of a student who is not long for this world.

The movie has a top cinematographer in Gordon Willis — nicknamed the 'Prince of Darkness' by Conrad Hall for his shadowy compositions in films like The Godfather.

And the music is by the magnificent Jerry Goldsmith, who provides a classic score featuring beautiful and ethereal voices.

"It was a great group," says Becker. "Maybe that's why I enjoyed the film so much."

Having seen Malice, I immediately did two things — I bought the CD of the Goldsmith music, and set about writing this post to alert you to the movie.

Oh yes, I meant to say... the film also features a scary old house on a cliff above the sea which looks very hokey and silly and is unworthy of a movie which otherwise is an ingenious, audacious and deeply satisfying thriller. 

If you are stuck at home, at a loose end, with time on your hands (and I'm writing this in April 2020, when a large portion of the world is in exactly that position) I suggest you spend an entertaining hundred minutes or so with Malice.

(Image credits: The movie poster, creases and all, is from Imp Awards. The MGM DVD cover and the Czech movie poster are from the Movie Poster Shop

Anne Bancroft drinking with Bill Pullman is from Hotflick. Nicole Kidman with windblown hair is also from Hotflick. The portrait of Anne Bancroft is from Pinterest. Gwyneth Paltrow is from Fatal Attractions on Twitter. The other images are from my copy of the DVD, and the CD of the gorgeous Jerry Goldsmith score, which I am listening to as I write this. By the way, the back of the DVD cover is a breathtaking extravaganza of error: Jonas McCord, the third credited screenwriter is listed here as "Jonas Sorkin" — presumably Aaron's long lost brother. Scott Frank is "Jcott Frank" (sic) and poor Jerry Goldsmith is "Gerry" Goldsmith. Someone deserves a stern talking to...)

1 comment:

  1. "... the magnificent Jerry Goldsmith..."
    Rarely have I seen such a splendid application of the adjective "magnificent".
    I should watch this movie. Thanks for the review!