Mack the Knife (1989)
Trey’s Rating: 4 Surprisingly Young Bill Nighys (out of 5)
As I write this I am struck by the appropriateness that today (10 February 2011) is the birthday of playwright Bertolt Brecht, the playwright responsible for the play which Mack the Knife adapts. Before I begin, let me briefly put on my Theatre Snob Beret and say that The Threepenny Opera is awesome. The music is catchy, the lyrics are witty, and the satire is razor-sharp. That said, (as I switch back to my Film Critic Fez) Mack the Knife is much better than any late-1980s English language adaptation of Threepenny Opera has any right to be.
For the uninitiated, Threepenny Opera is a musical satire by Bertolt Brecht & Kurt Weill which follows the exploits of criminal leader Macheath (aka Mackie Messer or ”Mack the Knife”) in the time leading up to the coronation Queen Victoria. Originally a German stage production, the show has also enjoyed several popular runs on Broadway and the West End. In addition, the 1931 German film by Georg Pabst is easily one of my favorite German films of all time – although it deviates significantly from the plot of the stage production.
Surprisingly, Mack the Knife is a fairly faithful adaptation of the stage production. Even more surprisingly, it is a Golan-Globus production. Golan-Globus was an Israeli production company mostly famous for low-budget action/adventure movies. Their bread and butter were films such as the Death Wish sequels and Chuck Norris vehicles, along with the occasional low-budget comic book adaptation like Superman IV: The Quest for Peace or Captain America (1990). Suffice it to say, I was not expecting that company to appear in the credits for an adaptation of a German musical. Of course, because it is a Golan-Globus film, the budget is sometimes apparent – nothing specifically looks cheap, but often the shots are tighter and closer than I would expect from a musical, probably due to set limitations.
Where the film really shines, however, are the performances. Raul Julia (The Addams Family) plays Mackie, a role he previously played on Broadway, and he brings the perfect combination of sleaze and charm to the character (in addition to a very good singing voice). Richard Harris & Julie Walters (both of the Harry Potter franchise, among other things) play Mr. & Mrs. Peachum, the parents of Mack’s new bride who operate a licencing firm for beggars. While not exactly complex characters, both actors play the roles broadly and humorously. A surprisingly young-looking (see my rating above) Bill Nighy appears as Mack’s paradoxical friend, police chief Tiger Brown – it’s more of a smaller supporting role, but notable because Bill Nighy is cool. Last, but probably most unexpectedly, the Street Singer (who functions as a sort of Greek Chorus throughout the film) is played by Roger Daltrey of The Who. Not only does it show off a different kind of vocal performance than Daltrey normally delivers, but the role also shows off what a great stage presence and sense of comic timing he has. That covers most of the recognizable names in the cast, but the other roles – Jenny, Polly Peachum, etc – are also very well done.
The film is not without its weaknesses – as mentioned the budget clearly had an effect on the set design – the street scenes feel claustrophobic, and appear to have been shot on a soundstage. Sometimes there is some confusion about just how realistic or stylized any given scene is supposed to be. ”Pirate Jenny,” while beautifully sung, wavers uncertainly between the two as shots shift from the bordello to Jenny’s vision of the ship. This could be a stylistic choice, but it never quite worked for me the way I think it was supposed to. In addition, sometimes actors in closeup seem unsure if they are supposed to be directly addressing the camera or not. Also, while the choreography is often entertaining, the cinematography lacks the sort of panache that I would expect from a movie musical. I’ve definitely seen worse, and it’s not a deal-breaker, but there is a kind of blandness to the way the film is shot that belies its Golan-Globus pedigree. Also, there is a protracted chase sequence as the police attempt to arrest Mack which feels entirely out of place in the middle of the film.
What does work is the film’s sense of humor. The skewering of the class system didn’t seem to be quite as biting or explicit as the 1930s German version, but that is partly because of the plot changes that the older film had made to highlight those ideas. Mack the Knife still plays cleverly with the hierarchy of the criminal class as beggars, thieves, and prostitutes clash. I found the ending to be especially effective. It brings its filmic artificiality to the forefront, in addition to skewering theatrical performance and conventions, to add another layer to the existing twist ending. The result, in my opinion, actually enhances the Brechtian aesthetic of the film, distancing the viewer from the events being depicted in a sharp, clever way. This isn’t a feel-good musical, but it isn’t a tragedy either. It is a musical that thrives on its own theatricality – driving toward its inevitable conclusion, only to pull the rug out from under everything – all the while reminding the viewer that the only reason things work out the way they do is because it’s not real.
Unfortunately, for the time being you’re probably just going to have to take my word for it. The film has never been available on DVD, and as far as I know there are currently no plans to release it. There are some used VHS tapes floating around the internet, but other than that Mack the Knife is a pretty hard flick to track down.
I’m going to do something a little out of the ordinary here and appeal directly to you, Fellow Cinephiles: Spread the word about this film. Get people interested. While I’m not sure (the Golan-Globus back catalog has become scattered among various distributors over the years), I think Sony Pictures has the distribution rights to Mack the Knife. Email them, call them, tweet to them – and tell them you want this film to get a home video release. If they say they don’t have it, try Warner Bros. – they bought out a lot of the Golan-Globus/Cannon Films catalog. I want to own a decent copy of it, and if your taste in movies is anything like mine then I think you’ll dig this quirky 80s musical that seemingly never got a fair shake. However, the only way that can happen is if the studios are made aware that demand exists.
“Moritat (The Ballad of Mack the Knife)”
© Ralph Lawson III, 2011, All Rights Reserved