Savage Innocents, The (Blu-ray Review)17 Jul, 2017 By: Mike Clark
Stars Anthony Quinn, Yoko Tani, Peter O’Toole.
The last Nicholas Ray movie I really love is 1958’s Party Girl, based on its lurid color schemes, fun-time supporting cast and the extraordinary concept of smooshing together a Robert Taylor gangster picture with a CinemaScope/Metrocolor Cyd Charisse musical (think Johnny Eager Meets Meet Me in Las Vegas until I can come up with a better way to put over the point). But even before Ray took this cheeky flyer, some imprecise combination of personal problems, substance abuse, unfriendly producers and a deteriorating work ethic contributed to what we can see on screen was a progressive decline — which is why I’m surprised that The Savage Innocents has the cult it does, even though the fact that it fills this Ray lover with lukewarm tidings.
Lore has it, and it’s apparently true, that Bob Dylan penned “The Mighty Quinn” (for which Manfred Mann had the hit) after seeing Anthony Quinn’s brave performance as a kind of Baby Huey of an Inuit — which is to say that the actor’s “Inuk” character likes to play around good-naturally with slapping, gouging and slugging until the other guy’s head is bleeding profusely from all the fun. What’s more, critic/historian Danny Peary, per his Alternate Oscars tome that I keep in my downstairs viewing room with his other books, would have given Quinn one of the year’s best actor nominations. Yet despite his two supporting actors from the academy, there was always something about Quinn that made him a borderline camp figure, especially after that 45 he recorded in the ’60s where he professed to love his wife even when she wore those “thing-a-ma-jigs” in her hair (even David Letterman had some on-air fun with Quinn’s love-motifed Capitol LP, which was in the same vein). But if you juxtapose this movie against Zorba the Greek, you have to give him credit when it comes to force-of-nature considerations that extended into his personal life. When I was at USA Today, the writer next to me, who was the greatest wag the “Life” section ever produced, complained that after editors forced him to write the actor’s advance obit without giving him adequate time to do it, Quinn went on to have three out-of-wedlock children. (This was an exaggeration — I think.)
Though Innocents wasn’t from the Dino De Laurentiis stable, it has the earmarks of a De Laurentiis co-production from its era: Paramount as distributor, dubbed actor voices, choppy continuity, thematic ambition and gorgeous Technirama visuals (which by themselves could attract a cult). It was a joint French-Italian-British effort with an American director and star and with a Japanese actress (Yoko Tani) as Quinn’s wife; to complete the United Nations motif, there’s even another actor in the cast whose name is Anthony Chinn. Therefore, it isn’t entirely surprising that the movie gets off to something of a rocky start, which it then rebounds from to not insignificant extent by treating Quinn’s character and customs with sympathy and something like respect, even though they’re not too in sync with the indoor-plumbing era or wangling invitations to (we’re thinking the ’60s here) one of Truman Capote’s dinner galas. Animal right-ists aren’t likely to be fans here, either, though the killing we see is for food and needed pelts when there aren’t many culinary/shelter options. In fact, the movie’s strongest feature is Aldo Tonti’s cinematography of endless snowy white noise that’s beautiful in its own way — even though what’s pictured is a lousy place to visit, and you wouldn’t want to live there. As credentials go, Tonti also shot Rome: Open City, Nights of Cabiria and Reflections in a Golden Eye, so we’re not talking about some guy the producers found wandering around in the snow.
A lot of Inuk’s problems have to do with choosing a mate and also custom-driven but now primitive offers to “laugh” with another man’s partner, though it’s not the kind of laughing to which most are accustomed unless we’re talking about someone cracking a joke during afterglow. To reject such a generous gesture is to seriously insult the male making the offer, which even the more progressive Eskimo “town-ies” (term used loosely) apparently think has become a little much by 1960, which I’m assuming is the then-contemporary timeframe in which the film is set (it was released in 1960 in Europe, 1961 in the United States). If so, I like the fact that the combination general store/saloon into which Inuk wanders features 78s and not 45s on the jukebox, which subtly suggests a joint that’s on the outskirts of the outskirts and thus somewhat behind the times. The clientele, to a person, thinks the lunkishly ingratiating Inuk is something of the Missing Link amid the advent of encroaching civilization that will someday give us the Sarah Palin clan.
The movie’s superior second half is a pursuit-and-capture saga whose unforgettable treatment of frostbite (probably the creepiest I’ve ever seen on screen) is right out of the Jack London playbook. This part succeeds because the “elements” largely take over the story, which is something that Ray — or, more likely, the second unit — handles well. Peter O’Toole’s pre-Lawrence casting as one of the pursuing Mounties isn’t as much of a booster as one might assume because another actor dubbed his voice (what, O’Toole sounded too British?), and he sued over this, at least in Britain. This is one of just half-a-handful of movie roles the future superstar had before David Lean came through, the other significant one coming in The Day They Robbed the Bank of England, which shows up not infrequently on TCM because MGM was its distributor. (Aldo Ray and O’Toole: Now there’s a contrast when it comes to acting styles.)
There was once a fairly well-received Masters of Cinema Blu-ray from Eureka! that I’d love to see for comparison purposes (or as a keeper if it’s the better rendering), but it was withdrawn apparently over rights issues in England. Visually, Innocents cries out for the Criterion treatment it’ll likely never get because it’s essentially a “movie of interest” and not the kind of landmark (straight or camp) to which Criterion usually gravitates. Per usual, catalog titles from Olive (as with Kino) look as good as the source material will allow without fancy spiff-ups, though some of the long shots in this version are still imposing enough to deflect some reservations over what is not always storytelling. But having just seen what splendid Technirama can look like on the recent and electric German All-Region import of Night Passage (see also the U.S. Blu-rays of Spartacus, The Music Man and Disney’s Sleeping Beauty), this undeniably welcome release is something of a missed opportunity.