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A Prayer For The Dying


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   Bill Conti


      The “decimated” sound track to which Hodges refers is the original more “indigenous” score by composer John Scott (HENNESSY, GREYSTOKE: THE LEGEND OF TARZAN - LORD OF THE APES) in comparison to the replacement effort by American Oscar winner Bill Conti.  While the defacto artistic impulse is to side with the opinion / vision of a director’s original intent, we diverge on the matter of Conti’s A PRAYER FOR THE DYING contribution. 

     Famous for stirring operatic themes in ROCKY, THE KARATE KID and THE RIGHT STUFF, and brass laden action the likes of the Bond adventure FOR YOUR EYES ONLY,  Conti is also the equally renowned creator of delicately introspective “chamber” underscore to the 1970's Paul Mazursky character pieces HARRY & TONTO and AN UNMARRIED WOMAN, and the Simon Weisenthal Holocaust bio-pic MURDERERS AMONG US.  A PRAYER FOR THE DYING managed to tonally bridge the gap between them all. 

     While the more commercial considerations of the producers and distributor were to “broaden the scope and size” of the film’s relatively intimate narrative by “externalizing” the characters’ emotions musically, Conti also masterfully did what he does best - creating the musical equivalent of emotional / spiritual yearning.  In ROCKY the main character has the heart of a gladiator and poet, but lack of education allowing him to express these feelings verbally. 

The same with the test pilot / future astronauts of THE RIGHT STUFF.  Long before their college-degreed counterparts of today, the first “star voyagers” of the Cold War era were mostly WW2 vets and blue-collar newbies with more guts, brio and romantic heart than social skills.  In both cases Conti’s “opera” scores had to express for the characters the inner longings of which they themselves were incapable.  The same with Fallon and A PRAYER FOR THE DYING.  The two selections sampled here effectively encapsulate the soul of the film. 

play A PRAYER FOR THE DYING - "Fallon And The Blind Girl" (B. Conti)

     "Fallon And The Blind Girl" begins with the brooding "Elegy motif" - first heard in the film during the opening school bus bombing sequence, and now heard as Fallon "preaches" his fatalistic world view ("There's nothing worth killing for, and there's nothing worth living for either") to Father Da Costa.  Fallon and Da Costa's blind niece Anna have been growing closer since he entered the lives of she and her uncle - she in the Elizabeth Hartman "love is blind" role from 1965's A PATCH OF BLUE, and seeing within Fallon's heart what others do not.  She angrily interrupts his "sermonette", telling him how terribly wrong this view is.  Then the scene segues to the image of a spinning lighted ferris wheel at night - the beginning of a montage with Fallon and Anna enjoying an evening at the nearby carnival. 

     Conti's "Fallon Theme" (in swirling classical fugue-like mode) is presented for the first time in an upbeat optimistic tone.  It befits this brief uplifting respite of "normal-ness" and tender humanity Anna brings into his life; almost doing so with the musical giddiness of a schoolboy out on his first real date.  As Fallon later walks Anna to her door, things quiet down and the "Fallon Theme" is taken over by a sensitive solo rendition played on the pennywhistle, which throughout history has always musically been closely associated with Celtic culture. 

     The "End Title" (sampled further below) is a final "concert" presentation of the film's three primary musical ideas.  It opens quietly with a pennywhistle variant of "Fallon's Theme", then (:28 seconds in) we catch a quick statement of the film's ever present "IRA motif" (played on the hammered dulcimer cymbalom), now heard as we also catch sight of IRA operative Siobhan.  At 1:02 - Fallon and Anna's "Love Theme" takes over. 

     First heard in the film during their lovemaking scene, it has since taken on dual service as Fallon's "Redemption Theme" also - the musical notion being that, more than anything, it's Anna's love which has saved his dark soul.  The "Love/Redemption Theme" is first played on the score's primary solo instrument, the pennywhistle (thus linking Fallon and Anna as soul mates), then is taken over for a lush full orchestral summation.   A heartrendingly effective combination of emotional melancholy and spiritual hope, Conti’s score elegantly fits hand-in-glove. 

      So displeased at the time however with the re-edit of their film (even though it ultimately remained a faithful adaptation of Higgins’ novel), both Hodges and Rourke vehemently disowned it in the press, Hodges even seeking to have his name removed. 

     As if that weren’t enough,  around the same time Rourke
claimed to have donated part of his salary from the docu-drama FRANCESCO (where he appears as St. Francis of Assisi) to the Provisional Irish Republican Army.  And he also made a series of additional comments construed by the  media to be critical of not only his own film industry but of western political policy of the day in general.  These, in addition to an unpopular Sun UK photo posting of him with his permanent IRA Provo tattoo, greatly crippled PRAYER’s UK release - at the time handled by Guild Film Distribution. 

  1988 U.S. VHS release

     Rourke would shortly thereafter recant his statement about his donation, and even years later acknowledge naiveté in public comments made about A PRAYER FOR THE DYING and it’s producers.  But at the time the damage had been done.  This, aided and abetted by a critical drubbing of the film in the U.S., eventually also sank it’s Stateside aspirations.  Failing to secure wide distribution as it had with the family adventures THE GOLDEN SEAL and THE CARE BEARS MOVIE, The Samuel Goldwyn Company released PRAYER to it’s proven U.S. art house theater niche where it barely managed to take in just under $1.5 million, far below it’s $6 million price tag. 

     The film’s domestic 1988 home video release debuted on the now defunct Virgin Vision VHS label - where it (interestingly enough) followed a trailer for The Goldwyn Company’s similarly themed THE ROSARY MURDERS (1987): an Elmore Leonard scripted potboiler about a priest (Donald Sutherland) hearing the confession of a serial killer, an action which by church law prevents him from going to the police.  From there PRAYER - not nearly as popular as the Schwarzengger, Willis, and Harrison Ford adventures of the day, found itself unceremoniously dumped into the drug store/supermarket cheapie bins where it would await discovery by a future generation of enthusiasts.  


      In the immediate years following PRAYER’s failure at the box office, Rourke would appear in a handful of “A” list films, among them Walter Hill’s JOHNNY HANDSOME (1989) with Morgan Freeman and Ellen Barkin; Michael Cimino’s DESPERATE HOURS with Anthony Hopkins and Mimi Rogers (1990); and Roger Donaldson’s WHITE SANDS (1992) co-starring Willem Dafoe, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Samuel L. Jackson.  But his increasingly (as he’d later admit) “self destructive nature”, coupled with a desire for a professional boxing career, would put him on the skids with the film industry - relegating him to low brow “B” projects for the next two decades, until staging a critically acclaimed comeback with Robert Rodriguez’s SIN CITY (2005) and Darren Aronofsky’s THE WRESTLER (2008) - the later of which would garner him his first Best Actor Oscar nomination.

CROUPIER (1998)   

     In 1998 Mike Hodges’ internationally lauded “neo-noir” film CROUPIER would not only make a star out of actor Clive Owen, but generate new interest in the director from a generation of film buffs and cinema students previously unfamiliar with him and his work.  This would lead to a 2000 remake of his 1971 classic GET CARTER (this time starring Sylvester Stallone and Mickey Rourke, with a cameo by CARTER’s original star Michael Caine); the first ever DVD release of his THE TERMINAL MAN as a limited edition Warner Archives title; and a 2007 re-mastered “Savior Of The Universe” DVD version of his cult classic FLASH GORDON. 

     In 2003 - 15 years after it’s first and only domestic VHS release, MGM/UA - the current owner of The Samuel Goldwyn Company catalog, would finally present A PRAYER FOR THE DYING on DVD to hordes of fans who’d come to love it via repeated “now-beat-to-hell-video-tape” viewings and a few rare cable TV broadcasts.  A mixed bag/blessing from a "specs" standpoint, the PRAYER DVD is nicely mastered.  The colors have never looked better, and the 2:1 standard stereo is lush and full, besting even some 5:1 Surround home theater mixes.  Alas, the 1:85 aspect ratio image itself however is not enhanced for widescreen / HDTVs, though we do suspect an appropriately enhanced Blu-ray version won't be long in coming.   

      For every "weekly box office tally" article lamenting the dent the home video, pay per view and streaming markets have put into theatrical distribution, there are a half dozen more examples of how other titles experienced new lease on life as a result of the same wave.  As often happens, when audiences become familiar with a film maker, writer, or any number of other artists associated with a beloved contemporary work, they tend to then want to familiarize themselves with the artists' other accomplishments.  Then, regardless of the original critical reception of a previous generation, the new generation decides the work's present day value as well as future fate.  Ridley Scott's BLADE RUNNER and Carpenter's THE THING are two prime examples from the 1980s.  Hodges' A PRAYER FOR THE DYING would surprisingly find itself as another. 

   2003 MGM/UA DVD 

     The new generation, not only accustom to but now demanding real life (even controversial) political topics enmeshed in their popular entertainment (with films such as PATRIOT GAMES and CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER burning up the box office), would, through curiosity and desire for more at their local video stores ... as well as via the burgeoning Internet, come to recognize PRAYER as a major progenitors of the now popular genre.  At the same time, fans of the Sean Dillon books, already aware of Tom Clancy and others' indebtedness to Higgins, found themselves wanting more as well, namely the author's pre-1975 THE EAGLE HAS LANDED novels to “complete their lists”.  As such 1973's A PRAYER FOR THE DYING source novel would become a much sought after collectible, then even enjoy new pressings. 

     As PRAYER's popularity (book and film) increased, a bootleg CD of Conti’s score would even find itself one of the most desired titles on the international soundtrack market.  And as if not enough, by the early 2000s talk would circulate (and continues) concerning a Hodges' supervised A PRAYER FOR THE DYING “Director’s Cut” DVD/Blu-ray.   To date however such efforts have, in Hodges' words, “sadly failed”.  

play A PRAYER FOR THE DYING - "End Title" (B. Conti)


      “Alternate”, “originally intended”, “restored”, “the edition you’ve never seen” and so-called “Director’s” versions of films can be a mixed bag.  As with Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER and LEGEND, Terry Gilliam’s BRAZIL, Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA,  Welles’ TOUCH OF EVIL, Levinson’s THE NATURAL, Lucas’ STAR WARS epics, and even Friedkin‘s THE EXORCIST,  there are those which are better than others … while some should have been left the hell alone.  Ultimately a work of art (and yes, contrary to the belief of some - even those within the industry itself, cinema does qualify as art) must stand on it's own two feet as “what it is” and not “what it could have been” or “was originally intended as”.  As such A PRAYER FOR THE DYING has weathered the years,  it’s original torpedoing by critics,  and even initial lambasting by some it’s own makers - who didn't realize at the time the significance of what they'd created, to emerge as the first (and one of the best) of a new breed of political potboilers.

     Perhaps one of the most fair final assessments can be found in Sheila O’Malley’s 2008 “Sheila Variations” blog Ludicrous (and Not So Ludicrous) Things About PRAYER FOR THE DYING where in the first half she blasts the film for it’s (mostly fairly assessed) shortcomings; then in the concluding half praises what it got more than right.  She concludes:

     “And whaddya know, after all this, the very last moment of the film brought me to tears. I knew I was being manipulated, and I knew how it would end from very early on in the film … but it worked anyway. This is mainly because of Bob Hoskins’ commitment to his dumb lines, making them real, and Mickey Rourke’s unbreakable sense of reality and truth.

     So no, I shed no tears for Northern Ireland during A PRAYER FOR THE DYING because the filmmakers did not earn that response from me. But Bob Hoskins crying and clutching at Rourke as Rourke lies there with a shining soft light on his face … Yeah. I’ll cry. You got me, ya feckin’ bastards.”

     Quite well stated, well stated indeed.

      So, the next time you past that video cheapie bin in the supermarket or local drug store, or you catch sight of a used DVD or Blu-ray on Amazon for $3 bucks, take a minute or two to browse … you never know what you’ll find.  Trendsetting art can rear it’s head in the damndest places.

                                                                                                                                                 CEJ - April 2012

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