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* (April / May 2012)  A PRAYER FOR THE DYING

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"A PRAYER FOR THE DYING":

TROUBLE DEPICTING
"THE TROUBLES"


by CEJ


A PRAYER FOR THE DYING (1987)
The Samuel Goldwyn Company
GullCottage rating (***½  on a scale of 1 - 5)

Dir. by Mike Hodges
Prod. by Peter Snell
Screenplay by Edmund Ward and Martin Lynch
Based on the novel by Jack Higgins
Dir. Of Photography: Mike Garfath
Music: Bill Conti

Cast: Mickey Rourke, Bob Hoskins, Alan Bates,
Liam Neeson, Sammi Davis, Christopher Fulford,
Alison Doody










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     Cinema darling or box office bomb? To which category a film finds itself relegated over the years can often be less a matter of it’s quality as much as timing.  2001: A SPACE ODYESSY, Disney’s FANTASIA, BRINGING UP BABY, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, BLADE RUNNER and John Carpenter’s 1982 version of THE THING were all lambasted by critics, as well as being box office failures during their initial runs.  But, not unlike the unnoticed “plain” girl at the prom - whom everyone realizes years later was the best catch, popular opinion can change dramatically over time.  When something “sets a trend”, “breaks the mold” and even “initiates a new genre” an audience often must “mature a bit” before it can catch up to and appreciate something years ahead of it’s time. 


     Such was (and is) the case with Mike Hodges’ 1987 thriller A PRAYER FOR THE DYING.  While admittedly not in the same “classics” category as say, “2001 / FANTASIA”, it’s cinematic cred has increased over the past 25 years, going from a film so under appreciated it was originally even disowned by it’s director and star, to a small gem now seen as a fulcrum shift point which would make it acceptable for future films to address controversial political ideas within the context of a pulp thriller.  Later smashes such as the Tom Clancy film adaptations (PATRIOT GAMES et. al) are in it’s debt.  


Where you find it ... - BEFORE SUNRISE (1995)

 
 

BETTER LATE THAN NEVER


      There’s a wonderful scene halfway into Richard Linklater’s romantic 1995 tone poem of a film BEFORE SUNRISE, where American traveler Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Parisian student Celine (Juli Delpy) - the two spending their one night together strolling the streets of Vienna, come upon a poster ad for a museum exhibition of French Neo-impressionist painter Georges Seurat.  As the couple won’t be in town when the show opens, Celine points out to Jesse various attributes of the artist’s work, using the poorly realized reproduced images of his paintings which are pasted to a street lamp poster. While doing so, she, Jesse, and we the audience are momentarily spirited away by her love of the artist and her description of the “transitory” nature of his images.  The lesson?  You don‘t need an expensive museum.  “Art is where you find it”.

   Art amongst the "cheapie bins" ...
 


     Those over 30 will remember the 1980s - 90s “heyday” of the VHS home video revolution, where (no exaggeration) near every Mom & Pop corner store rented movies for a couple of bucks, even the local Rite Aid.  As the movement began to wane, and all those who’d hopped onto it as the latest money making fad started to panic and sell off their stock, a film fan could walk into that local Rite Aid and purchase five films for ten dollars. 


     If you waited and came back the next week, you might even get each for 99 cents.  As had earlier happened with the vinyl lp, so now had the era of the movie “cheapie bin” begun.  For cinephiles it was the home video version of the Alaskan Gold Rush, where one could find both old faves for which you couldn’t afford to pay full price, as well as obscure foreign and independent films you otherwise might never have seen but on which you could now afford to “take a flying chance”.  Around this same time, and in this manner, we became familiar with 1987’s A PRAYER FOR THE DYING. 


play "God Be With You" (D. O'Riordan)

 
Mike Hodges   

BORN IN SIN

      Directed by Mike Hodges (GET CARTER - 1971, THE TERMINAL MAN - 1974, FLASH GORDON - 1980), and based on an early novel by THE EAGLE HAS LANDED author Jack Higgins, A PRAYER FOR THE DYING starred the estimable acting trio of Mickey Rourke (at the apex of his 1980's era performances - having just completed ANGEL HEART and BARFLY), Bob Hoskins, and Alan Bates in the story of IRA hit man Martin Fallon (Rourke), fed up with “the life of violence” and seeking to quit.  When his final job unintentionally places the life of local parish priest Father Da Costa (Hoskins, in the film a former soldier who years ago turned his back on violence) at odds with the local mob boss (Bates), Fallon finds himself becoming the priest’s “guardian angel”, all the while Da Costa attempts to save Fallon’s soul.    


      It’s probably unwise to begin a retrospective of a film by mentioning how many people hated it, but there is method to our madness.  And to say critics were unkind to PRAYER FOR THE DYING upon it’s initial release is an understatement.  There were a few accolades.  L.A. Weekly felt it featured Mickey Rourke’s “finest performance to date”, and The New York Times found something to like in it’s “brisk style and edgy rhythm”.  But the lion’s share of opinions at the time tended to concur more with Roger Ebert’s assessment:


     “This plot essentially has nothing to do with Protestants, Catholics, Northern Ireland, the IRA or the British. They are just the backdrop for a slam-bang melodrama. By the end of the movie, common sense has been so completely forgotten that we get a completely impossible scene. Bates traps Hoskins and his blind niece in the church tower with a bomb that will explode in 10 minutes”.

   CAL (1984)


       Now, it’s important to point out (the “method in our madness“ part) that before going into his review of A PRAYER FOR THE DYING, Ebert opened by stating his extreme disappointment that the powerful 1984 film CAL never received a proper release in the U.S.  Directed by Pat O’Connor, CAL starred John Lynch as an IRA driver partially responsible for the murder of a member of the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary).  One year later when he meets the grieving wife (Helen Mirren) of the victim, he seeks to make amends for his part in her late husband’s death, and, to his own surprise, finds himself falling in love with the widow. 


     In some respects CAL plays out as an earlier version of THE CRYING GAME, only without the trans-gender plot twist.  And in a very real way Ebert (understandably if unfairly) vents his animosity for CAL’s lack of fair distribution on A PRAYER FOR THE DYING, a film which never had intentions of being a “serious examination of the Troubles”, but rather sought to be a nifty potboiler thriller, or as Ebert puts it “a slam-bang melodrama” … albeit one with a conscience.  And as such his lambasting is arguably akin to criticizing a “slam bang” Tom Clancy page turner like CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER for not being ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN … although there are thematic similarities between the two.  


 


                                    Docherty (Liam Neeson) and Fallon (Mickey Rourke) wage war. 
   

     In A PRAYER FOR THE DYING, IRA soldier Fallon has been wrestling for some time with doubts about what he as a young man steadfastly believed to be “the glorious cause”.  Not about the objective, but whether or not his original passion has since degenerated into vengeful blood lust.  Now older he has more of a propensity to see both sides of the equation.  And when the bombing of a motorized British military column in Northern Ireland goes awry and instead kills a busload of school children, his mind is made up.  He disappears then resurfaces in London, seeking new I.D. papers and passage on a ship to a new life in the United States where he can leave his past behind.  Already a wanted man by Britain’s Special Branch, he’s also now wanted by his former comrades who consider him a security risk.  And to this end they send his best friend and former IRA colleague Docherty (Liam Neeson) after him.  With normal channels now closed, Fallon must do business with London’s criminal underworld to get what he needs.  But it comes with a price. 




    
     East End gangster Jack Meehan (Bates) wants to expand his operation, and to do so needs to take out underworld competitor Jan Krasko.  Because the local police are watching his every move, Meehan wants Fallon to kill Krasko for him so it will look as if the dead mobster was offed by “one of the IRA lads” in a dispute over a weapons delivery, etc.  Believing he has no other option, Fallon assassinates Krasko in a church cemetery but is seen by parish priest Father DaCosta (Hoskins).  With no stomach to kill the man of God (Fallon himself an Irish Catholic) he strikes upon a unique solution to keep the Father from talking - later (in a plot device lifted from Alfred Hitchcock’s I, CONFESS) entering the confessional and telling Da Costa what he did.  Bound by the sacrament of the confessional, Da Costa now can’t share what he knows with the authorities, and in essence is forced to “protect” Fallon. 



    



     When Meehan learns Fallon was seen by the priest, he wants the witness silenced, and Fallon now finds himself protecting Da Costa.  For the duration of the film, and in between it’s thriller-ish “slam bang” action/suspense set pieces, the relationship between Fallon and Da Costa grows as layers of each man are slowly peeled away.  We learn of Da Costa’s violent past, and come to understand his compassion for Fallon, as he once was where Fallon is now.  It’s genuinely moving, as well as damned exciting as a thriller should be.
 

     The cinematic depiction of the Troubles in Northern Ireland go as far back as John Ford’s THE INFORMER (1935).  But with the exception of it and the following year’s BELOVED ENEMY (1936 - a very loose depiction of the life of Michael Collins), most of the films skirted the more serious (and certainly controversial) subject/question of “terrorist or freedom fighter?” by safely using the conflict as mere dramatic backdrop.  ODD MAN OUT, THE QUIET MAN, SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL, RYAN’S DAUGHTER, Sergio Leone’s DUCK YOU SUCKER and others were all earlier films which fell into this category but were (interestingly) lauded by Ebert and others who dismissed PRAYER for not being (like CAL) a serious examination of the conflict.


   John Ford 's THE INFORMER (1935)

      In fact Ebert went so far as to call PRAYER an “almost obscene exploitation of that situation, a ludicrous movie about a subject that deserves more serious treatment ".  In retrospect it’s easy to understand the position of studios at the time of films such as THE QUIET MAN and RYAN’S DAUGHTER.  Both Great Britain and Ireland were (and still are) major cinematic markets, and no bottom-line-watching studio exec worth his severance check was going to risk offending either by presenting what could be construed as a “slanted” or even “sympathetic” view of/to one side of the volatile “question”.  Hence, the “Troubles” became backdrop - a way to acknowledge it’s existence while not committing to examining it.


     So why criticize A PRAYER FOR THE DYING for doing and being the same as the others?  Perhaps because it wasn‘t.  The greatest leavening reagents - the passage of time coupled with recognition of context of the day, has revealed PRAYER to be a unique film; a trendsetter more so than even intended by it’s makers.  As such it became something to which many at the time just didn’t know how to properly respond.



BORN IN GUILT

      It’s no exaggeration to say PRAYER was a cinematic “taboo breaker”.  By putting the Troubles front and center as it’s primary narrative focal point, making the story’s main protagonist an IRA soldier, and doing so in the framework of an "unimportant" genre like the pulp thriller, it became the cinematic Crispus Attucks of it’s day - taking pot shots for attempting what others had not; and those shots fired by those who at the time had no way of realizing what was being accomplished thematically and how it would help influence similarly themed material.  Even the film makers at the time couldn't realize it.  Without a crystal ball, how could they?  But this has always been the greatest strength of pulp fiction - both literary and cinematic: it's ability to address, because of an entertaining "mask", what more "serious minded" films cannot. 






     This was the case of sci fi of the 1960s/70s (PLANET OF THE APES, STAR TREK) disguising the discussion on Civil Rights.  The same with the "banal" 1950's soap opera-ish melodramas of Douglas Sirk (ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS, IMITATION OF LIFE) subtextually (even sub-consciously) focused on gender roles and repressed sexuality.  And the horror films of the 70s/80s (THE EXORCIST, CARRIE) a ventilation of Baby Boomer guilt.  When locked in a room the primary concern of a pulp writer isn't "How can I address a socio-political concern and change the course of the genre?" as much as it is simply "How do I make this more exciting, scary and thought-provoking?".  Ultimately the answer lay on what's happening outside his or her door at that particular point in time - in whatever presently has society's "panties in a bunch" so to speak.  As an often unintended result, the "socio-political concern" gets addressed in the process, and the genre ends up altered from that point on, as PLANET OF THE APES, IMITATION OF LIFE, THE EXORCIST, et al continue to illustrate.     


     Before A PRAYER FOR THE DYING, and unless filmically going the (mostly British) TV movie / mini-series route (GUEST OF THE NATION, HARRY’S GAME, THE GLORY BOYS), the decision to place the conflict “center stage” in a feature (as in CAL - a straight ahead serious drama with a more preachy thematic agenda) would often end in that film suffering the fate of, as Ebert noted, barely seeing theatrical release in the U.S.



 
Tragedy turns the peaceful Hennessy into a wanted international terrorist

      Even the earlier (and daring for it‘s time) HENNESSY ('75) suffered the same end.  Produced by Britain's Peter Snell in conjunction with Samuel Z. Arkoff's U.S. based American International Pictures (then escaping it's "B" movie stigma - their ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU and THE AMITYVILLE HORROR just around the corner), HENNESSY starred Oscar winner Rod Steiger as a peaceful Irishman who, after the loss of his family during a Belfast riot, sets out on an elaborate plot to blow up the British Houses of Parliament. 




 
     A whopper of a suspense yarn cut from the same nail-biter mold as THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and THE DAY OF THE JACKAL, the down-to-the-last-minute pursuit has Hennessy as target of both England's Special Branch and the IRA, who fear if he is successful, will be responsible for a full scale British military incursion into Northern Ireland designed to wipe out their organization for good.  In spite of decent reviews and a quartet of impressive performances by Steiger, Lee Remick, Richard Johnson (who also concocted the story) and Trevor Howard, HENNESSY's subject matter limited it's release mostly to the double-feature drive-in & grindhouse movie circuit.  And it would take over 25 years for this nifty suspense gem to finally find an appreciative audience.



                                                                                                     Don Sharp's HENNESSY (1975)


     During the conservatism of the mid 1980s Regan / Thatcher era - when even filmic tastes had taken on a more “retro” conservatism (RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, SUPERMAN II, RED DAWN), to “view both sides fairly” (once again with the attendant box- office-killing fear of being slanted) was to fly in the face of not only the national, but global (or at least western global) zeitgeist.


      This would, of course, shift years later.  The dam would break, and in the late 80s and 90s a slew of major international films such as THE CRYING GAME, BLOWN AWAY, PATRIOT GAMES, THE DEVIL’S OWN, IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, and even TV’s THE YOUNG INDIANA JONES CHRONICLES (“IRELAND - APRIL, 1916”) would boldly go where only A PRAYER and HENNESSY had dared go before - introducing a central dialog on the volatile subject of Northern Ireland into the midst of populists, and popular, mainstream entertainment. 

     In retrospect A PRAYER FOR THE DYING deserves not only “props” for being the primary fulcrum point of this filmic thematic paradigm shift, but for also introducing (years before they became popular news topics) some of the first discussions on the tenuous connections between political fervor and religion, as well as that of terrorism's link to organized crime.   Not too bad for a "slam bang" (okay, we promise - we won't use that phrase again) pulp thriller. 


     The "Da" (father) responsible for it all? - none other than Jack Higgins.


 
pg. 1,2,3
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