Friday, January 16, 2015

THE MAN (1972)



     Streaming is wonderful, but many cinematic gems (for various reasons) have yet to make the leap to NetFlix, Hulu, Blu-ray or even DVD. In fact some have never been released in ANY home video format. And for this reason we saved our old school VHS tapes / players and DVD burner; and love to return "to the vaults" to relive old faves.

      Never a darling of the literary critics, the potboiler best sellers of Irving Wallace (1916 - 1990) mesmerized the buying / reading public with incredibly well researched and detailed narratives more often than not delving (sometimes all in one novel) into that most unholy trinity of public controversies which all aspiring writers are encouraged to NEVER touch upon - sex, politics and religion. During the early days of the 60s era "sexual revolution" Wallace caused more than a stir with THE CHAPMAN REPORT - his fictitious take on the infamous "Kinsey Reports". He'd precede, and maybe even outdo, the controversy, wrath and subsequent stardom heaped upon DA VINCI CODE author Dan Brown with his novels THE WORD - about the discovery of an ancient manuscript which challenges the authenticity of the Bible, and more so with THE MIRACLE - which details a possible fraud perpetrated by the Vatican. More than mindless exploitation (which more snobbish critics tended to dismissed Wallace's work as), within the very fiber of his yarns always roosted an intrinsic understanding of the current zeitgeist of the day (what was burning away at the innards of society at large), and via heightened drama, a clever way to get the audience to understand and discuss said topics en masse.

      In 1964, sandwiched between the years of the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy on one side and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy on the other, Wallace's novel THE MAN exploded onto the publishing scene with it's (some considered volatile) high octane cocktail of "political reformation" meets Civil Rights Movement. At the time of publication, it's story of the first black President Of The United States - the President pro tempore of the U.S. Senate who succeeds to the White House after a confluence of tragic deaths within the previous administration, seemed like dramatic fantasy, as did it's depiction of a President ascending to that office via non election. But THE MAN was to prove dually prophetic, predating by nine years the real life non elected ascension of Gerald Ford to the positions of Vice President (after the resignation of Spiro Agnew) then President (following the stepping down of Richard Nixon), and foreshadowing by 45 years the election of Barack Obama.

     At the height of the 1970s Black Panther Movement and cinema's "blaxploitation" era, where African American heroes like SWEET SWEETBACK, SHAFT, SUPER FLY and CLEOPATRA JONES were "bringin' it" to "the Man" (i.e. "the racist establishment") often via militant action, 1972's filmic version of Wallace's novel (deliberately and ironically using that phrase as it's title) would surprise many by being neither an entreaty for Martin Luther King-like "peaceful, non-violent non-cooperation" nor a Malcolm X-inspired rallying cry for justice "by any means necessary", but rather it would emerge as an intelligent, fair and thoughtful (if at times angry) depiction of the merits and demerits of both schools. It would also use it's genuinely unique-at-the-time premise to examine the repressed bigotry seething below the polite surface of a so-called "fair, just and equal" white-ruled society. And it would boldly / daringly shine light on the hypocrisy of some claiming to be a part of the Civil Rights Movement, but whom merely use(d) it for self aggrandizement, self promotion and political gain. 

1999 Paperback Reissue

      The high-wire juggling act task of updating Wallace's novel into a film which would have to remain faithful to it's source material but at the same time realistically take place in a world in many ways already very different than the one in which Wallace penned the story less than a decade earlier, fell to one well-versed in making social relevancy not only thought-provoking but entertaining at the same time, legendary writer Rod Serling.

      Having begun his professional writing career side by side such film making contemporaries as Paddy Chevesky, John Frankenheimer and Sidney Lumet during the days of 1950s live television, Rod Serling's TV plays (among them REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT, PATTERNS and THE COMEDIAN) refused to "preach-ify" on topics of socio-political importance, but rather made the audience WANT to know more about those subjects as said contemporary issues tore away at the souls of characters so well realized in his dramas the actors themselves fought to NOT change a line of Serling's dialog, and audiences came to not only relate to but fall in love WITH them. After battling network censors for years Serling reached a breaking point in his attempt to bring to TV a recreation of the incidents surrounding the infamous torture murder in the South of black youth Emmett Till by a band of whites who supposedly caught the young man whistling at a Caucasian woman, then all of whom were later acquitted of the crime. 

SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS: September, 1955

      Shortly thereafter Serling would transform his sociological storytelling agenda into the "less threatening" delivery system of science fiction and fantasy via his series THE TWILIGHT ZONE - wherein he claimed he "could have Martians saying things Republicans and Democrats couldn't". But from time to time however he'd still be tapped to script gritty politically-based features such as John Frankenheimer's 1964 "attempted coup of the U.S. government" thriller SEVEN DAYS IN MAY - itself a thinly veiled representation of the conflict between the Kennedy administration and "first strike" advocate, Air Force Chief of Staff / Strategic Air Command (SAC) Commander General Curtis Lemay.


     With a powerhouse ensemble cast including Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Fredrich March, Ava Gardner, Edmond O'Brien, Martin Balsam, John Houseman and more, SEVEN DAYS needed a script which played like a super intelligent, probing (and quick witted) lightning fast game of verbal / ideological racquetball between a cast of razor sharp professional actors - some of the greatest in the industry. THE MAN, directed by Joseph Sargent (COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT, THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE) demanded the same. Years before becoming a pop culture sensation to a generation of young fans via THE SANDLOT, FIELD OF DREAMS, CONAN THE BARBARIAN and vocal work as STAR WARS' Darth Vader and THE LION KING's Mufasa, James Earl Jones was the legendary King of Broadway for DANTON'S DEATH, A HAND IS ON THE GATE, and (of course) THE GREAT WHITE HOPE. With a wealth of Off Broadway Shakespearean portrayals also to his credit (THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, OTHELLO, HAMLET and more) he'd bring not only his famous basso-profundo vocal elocution to the role of newly ascended President Douglass Dilman, but also an indefatigable regal bearing which endures even as the office over time begins to wear down the neophyte Chief Executive from within.

Jones' Tony Award winning performance: THE GREAT WHITE HOPE (1969)

      As with SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, THE MAN's ensemble cast would also be populated by veteran character actor heavyweights such as Martin Balsam (of SEVEN DAYS and Hitchcock's PSYCHO), Burgess Meredith, Lew Ayres, William Windom, Barbara Rush, Janet MacLachlan, relative newcomer Georg Stanford Brown (who'd become famous later the same year of 1972 for his starring role on TV's THE ROOKIES), and even legendary comedian Jack Benny in an opening scene cameo, the last filmed performance of his career. Also as with SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, the dialog of THE MAN would take the form of verbal / ideological combat rather than standard conversation and debate. In Serling's scripted adaptation / updating of Wallace's drama, words are weapons of war clashing under the greatly wielded weight of gladiatorial combatants.

The men of THE MAN: (L to R) Irving Wallace, Rod Serling, Joseph Sargent
     THE MAN was originally filmed and intended to air as part of ABC's popular "Movie Of The Week" series - the same platform from which now famous films such as BRIAN'S SONG, TRILOGY OF TERROR, THE NIGHT STALKER and Steven Spielberg's DUEL debuted. But, perhaps taking a lead from the previous year's DUEL, which proved so popular it was augmented and released theatrically in Europe, and from THE NIGHT STALKER earlier in 1972 - which executives after seeing it wished they HAD released theatrically, THE MAN was re-edited into a 93 minute, 35 mm theatrical print which received a limited release by Paramount Pictures in July 1972. Filled with top-notch performances and production values - including a weighty score by multi-award winning composer Jerry Goldsmith (of PATTON, PLANET OF THE APES and THE OMEN; he'd also work with director Sargent on 1977's MACARTHUR), THE MAN still carried the stigma of it's TV origins in that it was projected in the 1:37:1 "Academy" aspect ratio, in actuality a slightly cropped version of it's original 1:33:1 TV format. James Earl Jones, recollecting THE MAN in a Los Angles Times interview a few days prior to the 2009 swearing in of President Barack Obama, mentioned how all those associated with the film were "blindsided" when it was re-edited for theatrical distribution, he and they wishing, if that was ultimately to be the case, that they would have been granted more time and resources to make a "stronger final film".

     Crippled by TV resources or not, THE MAN to this day emerges as powerful political drama - every bit as impressive and deserving of shared shelf space with thought provoking (and suspensefully thrilling) gems as FAIL SAFE, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and (of course) SEVEN DAYS IN MAY. THE MAN however would never get the chance to officially "enter the race" and compete with those classics for the hearts and minds of audiences as it to date would never receive ANY kind of home video release - VHS, BetaMax (remember those?), Laser Disc, DVD, Blu-ray or other. In fact the well worn VHS copy we've been viewing the last 25-odd years ourselves is one taped from a local late night commercial TV airing back in the mid to late 1980s. 

     A very much in-demand title (especially in the days following the election of Barack Obama - check out various message boards on TCM, IMDB, Amazon and more; it's amazing how many want this film!) we've yet been able to run down exactly why THE MAN has never seen video distribution. There are conspiracy theories galore. But the most likely reason we deduce seems to lay in the ubiquitous minefield known as legal limbo; in the fact that the original production was (at least on paper) a joint venture between ABC Circle Films - now under Disney as part of "ABC Communications", and Lorimar Television - which produced "Movie Of The Week" titles for ABC in the 1970s, but the bulk of who's catalog is now owned by Time-Warner.

THE WASHINGTON POST: Wednesday Nov. 5th, 2008

      As with other "Vaulted Treasures" we've exhumed, there are online sources which claim to offer bootleg DVD copies of THE MAN. But we cannot vouch for their quality, nor whether or not these discs (as is sometimes the case) will play on all machines. Until then we encourage you to (as we ourselves are doing) keep an eye out for a more pristine cable TV airing of THE MAN. We've been doing so for over 20 years and haven't come across one yet (which is why we've still got that VHS dupe). But time and again we've been stunned. No! We've been downright floored and thrilled to find another long lost "Vaulted Treasure" beaming across that sometimes wonderful pay TV landscape in the wee hours of broadcast dawn. After all, part of the joy and magic in finally finding and unearthing a long lost treasure is in having spent so much time and energy in pursuit of it, is it not? And THE MAN is more than worth that search. 


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Copyright © 2015 Craig Ellis Jamison. All rights reserved. 

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