By Don Stradley
Jacqueline Bisset was so preternaturally beautiful that she often looked out of place in American movies. Her beauty was delicate, and very British; most American actresses of her era, even the loveliest of them, moved around like bison in comparison. In The Grasshopper (1969) currently available on the Warner Archive streaming service, the camera lingers on her face for much of the movie, and for good reason - her face has a tranquil quality. Alas, her looks cannot carry such an uneven movie as The Grasshopper. This isn't to say it's an awful movie. At times it's very effective, bright, and amusing. Upon its May 1970 release, The New York Times praised The Grasshopper for achieving "a fairly rare kind of intelligence and truth in the clarity and fluidity of its style." But there were very few titles on Bisset's docket that were worthy of her face.
As Christine Adams, a 19-year-old from a small town in British Columbia, Bisset is stuck in one of those dreaded “memorable character” roles, the sort where it’s not enough for her to be pleasant and pretty; she also has to be perky and unpredictable, the sort who has to spend every moment of her life rebelling against something. As the film starts, she's sneaking out of her parents' home (I kept thinking of the Beatles' 'She's Leaving Home'). Her plan is to visit Los Angeles to be with her childhood sweetheart, a tall blonde fellow who works a bank. It doesn't take the free-spirited Christine long to realize her old beau has become a bit of a drip. She sneaks out on him, too. The rest of the movie follows Christine as she bounces (or hops) from man to man, sneaking out whenever boredom sets in. By her own admission, she suffers from a profound sense of 'the grass is always greener somewhere else.’ Hence, in short order, Christine takes up with a seedy Las Vegas comic, an aspiring rock star, an ex-football player, and a much older but very wealthy benefactor played to insipid perfection by Joseph Cotton. She also becomes a drug user, supports herself as a showgirl, and by the movie's end, she's turning tricks as a kind of mid-level escort.
Christine seems to be an amalgam of other characters that were part of the 1960s zeitgeist. In her I could see a bit of Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany's, and even a trace of Joe Buck from Midnight Cowboy. She's supposed to be a smart ass, breaking into a tap dance in the middle of a laundromat, or flirting shamelessly with people to get what she wants. Bisset is game, and only stumbles when the movie stumbles. Her downfall into prostitution isn't as vile as it should have been, for director Jerry Paris approaches it with a soft touch. Instead, she just looks slightly uncomfortable as anonymous old fat men climb on top of her.
Where the movie irrefutably breaks down is when the restless Christine suddenly marries an ex NFL star played by Jim Brown. The focus is awkwardly taken from Christine and placed on him - he's unhappy in his new job as a Las Vegas greeter, and resents being treated like a piece of meat by his bosses. When he learns that one of the Las Vegas honchos tried to seduce his wife, he tracks him down and beats the holy hell out of him. Brown's convincing enough, but the movie isn't supposed to be about him, and the interracial marriage issue feels tacked on in an effort to be timely. When the embarrassed big shot has one of his assistants shoot Brown dead, we finally get back to Christine and her story. But it's too late. The first half of the movie, while not seamless, had its own rhythm and reason; I liked seeing Christine work her way into Las Vegas, using her Brit waggishness to deal with the Buddy Hackett/Rich Little types who kept harassing her. Brown is such a heavy presence that he brings the film down and it never recovers.
The Grasshopper is an early effort from Gary Marshall, who served as the film's co-producer and also co-wrote the screenplay (based on Mark McShane's novel, The Passing of Evil.) He doesn't say much about it in his 2012 memoirs (he's too busy writing about 'Happy Days' and Pretty Woman), but he does mention that it was a troubled production. Marshall had to fire the first director for not working quickly enough, and also had to bail Brown out of jail after the ex-running back had been arrested for assaulting his wife. Stranger still, Marshall cast his sister Penny in a small role as a rock & roll groupie. Well, not just a groupie, but a member of the infamous 'plaster casters,' complete with a tape measure. Can you imagine the conversation where Gary told Penny that he had a part for her?
Nearly a decade before Christine journeyed down from Canada to find herself, a waif-like beauty embarked on a journey of her own in Angel Baby (1961), a beautiful, well-crafted study of life among the tent show evangelists of the South. The opening salvo is jaw dropping, as a heavily perspiring George Hamilton whips a crowd into a religious frenzy. When he heals a mute girl into speaking her first words, she feels her new calling is to travel the back roads of gator country, as Hamilton does, and preach the word of God.
Salome Jens, an actress of almost feral beauty, plays Jenny Angel as a woman always on the verge of a religious rapture. She stares skyward with bright, marveling eyes, as if anticipating some great revelation, and smiles widely at the thought of Hamilton. Meanwhile, Hamilton is a henpecked healer locked in a loveless marriage to a shrew played by Mercedes McCambridge. It’s great to see Hamilton when he was still attempting to be a serious actor and not a skincare salesman, and McCambridge, well, has she ever been in a movie where she wasn’t asked to portray the physical embodiment of doom?
The story plays a bit like reheated Erskine Caldwell without the smut, but I was fascinated by what was happening in the corners of the movie. I loved the excellent supporting cast that included veterans Joan Blondell and the impeccable Henry Jones as a couple of kindly drunks who look after Jenny as she tries to become a faith healer. I also liked Eddie Firestone as a phony blind man, Harry Swoger as an angry crippled man, R.L. Armstrong as a shanty tramp explaining to McCambridge that his family doesn’t bathe very often, and a very young and greasy Burt Reynolds as Jenny’s hulking ex-boyfriend. The characters in Angel Baby seem to exist on the edge of violence. By the movie’s climax, when an angry mob descends upon Jenny Angel’s tent show like the hysterical brutes in a Nathanael West novel, it’s as if God’s healing is less important to these people than a chance to vent their frustrations and destroy some property.
It’s true that Angel Baby could be written off, as the Times dismissed it in 1961, as “cut rate Elmer Gantry.” It’s also a chore to suspend our disbelief in order to believe in miracle workers. Still, there’s a lot here to like, namely the picturesque directing style of Peter Wendkos, an underappreciated Hollywood figure who gave us one of the great noirs of the late 1950s, The Burglar starring Jayne Mansfield, as well as the Gidget movies. Wendkos spent most of his years directing for television, but he’s in great form here, setting up every scene like a post card sent from the middle of a Hellish heat wave. (He was allegedly assisted on the production by director Hubert Cornfield.) Cinematographers Haskell Wexler and Jack Marta create a shimmering black and white look for the film, until every barren field and broken down cabin takes on a sad grandeur right out of Dorothea Lange’s Depression era photographs. This isn’t a perfect movie, but there’s not one performance that isn’t interesting, and not one scene that couldn’t be framed and displayed as an example of topnotch cinematic art.
The Grasshopper and Angel Baby are currently available on the Warner Bros. streaming archive service.