To amuse myself, sometimes I’ll change the lyrics to popular and catchy songs while never really learning the correct words. The changes can be relatively minor, like modifying “Don’t let the sun go down on me” to “Don’t let my son go down on me,” and “I’m starting with the man in the mirror” to “I’m sexting with a dog in the mirror.” They tend to get weirdly raunchy, yet nonsensical. For the latter Michael Jackson song, I’ve sung that version so much that my poor wife got caught singing my version at work once as the song played on Pandora. Her co-workers were a bit perplexed. 2012’s Carly Rae Jepsen earworm “Call Me Maybe” was both beloved and reviled in equal measure, so my personal version of a bit from the chorus morphed into “Hey, you just touched me. Dat bitch crazy! But here’s a taco, don’t call me Sadie!” Sadie was a dog I once owned and her two-syllable name lent itself quite well to various rhymes. Harmless fun, but as I watched Dutchman (1966), which is anything but harmless, I was reminded of my stupid lyric: Dat bitch crazy. While running at a scant 55 minutes, which still counted as a feature but nowadays would only get rejected from various film festivals for being a too-long short or a too-short feature, the play/movie provides ample opportunity for the viewer to literally scream at the screen: RUN!
Filmed plays are a tricky proposition and two-handers even more so. Sometimes it works beautifully, as in Sleuth (1972), which truly features only two actors, or My Dinner with Andre (1981), which includes very minor background characters, helping the simple dinner conversation centerpiece feel more realistic. This same approach served Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004) well while Robert Eggers’ follow-up to The Witch, The Lighthouse (2019), cleverly gave a legitimate reason to only follow two actors on an emotional and ultimately metaphysical journey. Roman Polanski has gone all-in with play adaptations of late, helming Carnage (2011) and Venus in Fur (2013), although he’d always been interested in them as far back as Macbeth (1971) and Death and the Maiden (1994) and even his breakthrough three-person thriller Knife in the Water (1962). Oleanna (1994)’s big screen adaptation is a solid example of how incendiary and powerful material can somehow fail to translate into a compelling cinematic narrative. Considering the far-more successful big screen version of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), one would think a two-hander that proved deeply divisive to theatre audiences could be equally effective on film. While Mamet’s exploration of sexual harassment and “he-said/she-said” failed to ignite on screen, editor-turned-director Anthony Harvey’s adaptation of Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones)’s hard-hitting parable retains most of the original play’s intensity.
Poet/author Amiri Baraka’s highly controversial and incendiary work often rubbed people the wrong way and he remained unapologetic about speaking uncomfortable truths about racial inequalities in America. While the original play premiered in 1964, by the time the film was produced he’d left his wife and children and become a Black Nationalist after the assassination of Malcolm X. The play represents an odd dichotomy for the playwright as his mixed feelings about the civil rights movement, about which he was critical of the more passive, non-violent participants, indicate both anger and frustration at the “damned if you, damned if you don’t” dilemma for African-Americans. While his ripe dialogue certainly comes from the Soapbox School of Screenwriting, it actually retains a great deal of power despite it being a product of its era because of the basic human emotions on display.
Shirley Knight was already a two-time Oscar nominee by the time she played the personification of white privilege and evil, the wildly seductive Lula in Dutchman, both on stage and in the film version. She first performed the role in Los Angeles along with Baraka’s The Toilet in 1965. The censorship laws were so intense at the time that the newspapers would only print the theatre ads as “Dutchman and The T----t.” Burgess Meredith directed this version of the play, which featured her big screen co-star Al Freeman Jr.. Though not a massive star, a fact she often attributed to her desire to play challenging, non-commercial roles, she acted as both a commercial name and an uncredited producer to get the film version made, taking only 125 pounds for her acting fee. She considered firing herself since she was having trouble with the part’s sensuality, but Meredith took her to a strip club called The Pink Pussycat and had her take a strip-tease lesson, which apparently fixed her.
New York was the ideal location to shoot; after all, the play takes place in a subway, but the Metropolitan Transport Authority felt the darkness of the material, especially a literal murder in the film’s conclusion, would be “bad publicity” for the subway system. Some second unit photography gives the film a bit of gritty realism and the rest was shot in six days on a set in London. While we never see the two characters from outside of the train for obvious reasons, the opening scene fools the audience fairly well to make one believe all of the action takes place in a hot, sweaty New York subway station. The interior of the train is well-designed too, with various metal bars occasionally obscuring the performers for good measure. This movie about racial prejudice had to be shot on a shoestring in England while The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 got a pass?!
The story couldn’t be simpler or more depressingly finite. A slinky blond (a 1966 review in Variety literally calls her a ‘white slut’) comes on to a well-dressed black man on the subway. She ultimately seduces, humiliates, and goads him into revealing his vitriolic feelings about living in white America. Accompanied by a jangly John Barry score, which I admit sounds very much like the opening to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, by the end of the film, he’ll be dead and the predator quickly seeks out her next prey.
Anthony Harvey would come into his own by the mid-60's, editing the Bafta-winning I’m All Right Jack, The L-Shaped Room, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and Kubrick’s Lolita and Dr. Strangelove (a film for which was insanely not Oscar-nominated for). A strong-willed and compassionate man, he’d strike gold early as his work on Dutchman brought him to the attention of Peter O’Toole, who passed his information along to producer Joseph E. Levine, who was producing a screen adaptation of James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter (1968). The very successful film would garner Harvey a Best Director Oscar nod and he’d go on to direct an acclaimed TV-version of The Glass Menagerie (1973) and the compromised but fun They Might Be Giants (1971). Never one to suffer fools, he’d ultimately retire from directing due to producer meddling on the TV movie This Can’t Be Love (1994). In Dutchman, his direction is straight-forward and occasionally playful. In order to cut costs and likely due to their inability to afford dolly equipment, BAFTA-winning cinematographer Gerry Turpin (The Whisperers, The Last of Sheila) employs a budget-friendly zoom lens, even moving from actor to actor within the same shot, which could have drawn attention away from the performances were they not so electrifying.
Clay, whose name is plainly a metaphor for the malleability of the black race, is classy and restrained. His immaculate wardrobe stands in stark contrast to the appearance of the relatively raggedy she-devil he’ll soon encounter. Al Freeman Jr. holds many distinctions, including being the first African-American Best Actor Daytime Emmy-winner for One Life to Live, but he’d also appear in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992), as well as play the slain human rights advocate in Roots: The Next Generation (1979). He’d also assume the Sidney Poitier role in the musical version of Lilies of the Field, a flop musical detailed in Ken Mandelbaum’s book Not Since Carrie. His performance here is a slow-burn.
The film plays with the viewer’s expectations and even allegiance since what ultimately happens to Clay is, for a moment at least, possibly his own fault. He casually looks through his subway window at the curvaceous blond in the sunglasses leaning against a brick wall. Of course, this is a horribly racist conceit and considering how many lynchings took place simply because a black man had the misfortune to even look at a white woman, it ultimately only serves to highlight his initial attraction toward Lula rather than place the blame for his predicament on his own roving eye. Like a spirit or a siren, Lula appears behind Clay after he’s gone back to his paper. His entire life is about to take an unfortunate turn for the worse, although he doesn’t quite know it yet.
While Freeman Jr. underplays his role with a casual, if naïve realism, Knight attacks her role full force. Were it not for the short run time and the character’s horrific behavior, this would be a role which would either garner every acting award under the sun or absolutely destroy a career. While it received mostly positive reviews and Knight won a Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival, Dutchman couldn’t possibly compete with legitimate full-length films. Reportedly, it played on a double bill with Gillo Pontecorvo’s incredible The Battle of Algiers (1996). That would’ve been one hell of a screening! As Lula, Knight is absolutely outrageous, completely physicalizing her sexuality while spouting off enigmatic philosophies and making oddly accurate yet deeply racist assumptions about Clay’s character and friends. Munching on a crisp apple, of which she has many, she is temptation incarnate, with the fruit obviously laying a thick Biblical reference down for all to see. A walking red flag, the only reason Clay even appears to tolerate her bizarre behavior, casual racism (including the use of the n-word), and increasingly amorous advances, is sadly due to her looks. It’s an unfair world and one that judges physicality harshly. If a homely bag lady wandered into the empty subway car and spouted off this exact same dialogue, Clay would likely have politely bid her good day and either moved to the next car or ignored her. Instead, Lula gets right to the point, accusing Clay of staring “down in the vicinity of my ass.”
Though it doesn’t feature the word ‘fuck,’ there’s a surprising amount of swearing for a film made in the mid-60's. The theatre world was much quicker to allow for harsh language while movies took much longer to adapt. The unfortunate hierarchy in gender equality is men above women, but Lula uses her position as a white woman to assert her control and supposed status in life as being above a man, just so long as he’s black. “I lie a lot. Helps me control the world.” Her loopy dialogue both intrigues and baffles Clay. At one point she says “You look like death eating a soda cracker,” whatever that means. The flirting starts almost immediately, as she drapes her bare leg over Clay’s and asks, “Would you like to get involved with me, Mr. Man?”
Clay tolerates pretty much all of her kookiness since both her beauty and aggressive behavior are undeniably fascinating. He even plays along at one point as she guesses his last name. He helpfully suggests: “Take your pick. Jackson, Johnson, Williams.” Her mood swings only mildly bother him and she even walks away from him for a while. He hesitates, the viewer begging him not to do it, then he goes after her. Nearly 25 minutes go by before the film cuts away to the outside of the train. In an oddly surreal touch, we never see passengers enter, but slowly, it begins to fill up with more and more people.
After a particularly vivid description of how she’ll take him back to her tenement house to “screw,” she starts yelling “Escaped nigger!” and even berates the rest of the passengers who, as you do in New York, just try to keep their heads down and ignore the “crazy on the train.” She starts grinding against the hand rails and provokes Clay to try and restrain her. She has the audacity to basically question his “blackness,” saying “You ain’t no nigger, you’re just a dirty white man.” He can’t take any more of her insults and starts slapping her. It all pours out of him. “I could murder you right now.” Continuing his irate speech, he says “And I sit here, in this buttoned-up suit to keep myself from cutting all your throats.” For a brief moment, his aggression toward the white race makes him feel homicidal, but he ultimately resigns himself to being ignorant because he simply is not a killer.
It’s unclear whether this is exactly what Lula was looking to get out of Clay, but she makes to leave and he decides to say right to her face that she’s not getting laid tonight. Bad move, since she turns and stabs him in a shocking and sudden moment. This scene plays out in a master, with close-ups (shot by camera operator and future Oscar winner Ronnie Taylor, Gandhi) of each principal. Clay’s look of shock is juxtaposed with Lula’s downright ghoulish appearance, made more zombie-like due to the black and white photography. He dies on top of her and after a sinister Dutch angle of the subway station, a group of men silently pick Clay’s body up and carry him off to parts unknown. It’s a surreal and bizarre ending, followed by a coda where she targets her next young, intelligent black man.
It’s mind-blowing to discover the work of an actor whom you essentially equate with one role. I saw the James L. Brooks comedy As Good as It Gets (1997) twice in theatres, and I very much enjoyed the performance of Helen Hunt’s sweet and supportive mother. It wasn’t a big role, but the actress playing her was warm and funny. This was Shirley Knight. I hadn’t even bothered to look up her previous work, assuming she was simply a working character actress who would never taste major stardom. Wow, how uninformed I was! Besides her Oscar-nominated work in The Dark at the Top of the Stair (1960) and Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), she’d triumph on Broadway with a Tony Award win for Kennedy’s Children and do fine work in films like The Rain People, Juggernaut, Indictment: The McMartin Trial, and even the hilariously bad Color of Night. While Harvey and Baraka’s work are of great value and Knight was essentially just a performer, her determination, along with producer-husband Eugene Persson (You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown) to bring this demanding project to fruition, is undeniable. She once remarked that she constantly fought against becoming a star, turning down a major role on Dallas in favor of working in the theatre. Both she and Freeman Jr. were artists who believed in art over commerce, and Dutchman is exactly the kind of passion project actors perform Herculean tasks to achieve.