Friday, November 10, 2023

Joe Mankiewicz Sticks His Finger in “The Honey Pot”

The Mankiewicz brothers were genuine Hollywood legends.  Elder brother Herman co-wrote Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, and literally hundreds of other classic films, starting in 1926 and ending not long before his early death in 1953. But Herman was something of an underachiever compared to younger brother Joseph. Joe (1909-1993) is credited with writing almost 40 films, and directing 22. In 1950-1951 he achieved the remarkable feat of winning four Oscars, two for directing and writing the adapted screenplay of A Letter to Three Wives, and two more for writing and directing All About Eve. He nabbed his last Oscar nomination in 1973 for directing his last film, Sleuth. (The expert in all this is my colleague Sydney Ladensohn Stern, for her fascinating 2019 study, The Brothers Mankiewicz: Hope, Heartbreak, and Hollywood Classics.)

 It was near the end of Joe Mankiewicz's fabulous career—which also included everything from the notorious Cleopatra to a documentary on Martin Luther King—that he wrote and directed 1967’s The Honey Pot. This dark-hued farce, set in a Venice palazzo, has some of the qualities demonstrated by  Rian Johnson in 2019’s Knives Out. In both there’s a lavishly decorated set, a cluster of mismatched people, and more than a whiff of murder most foul. Knives Out boasts, along with a lot of clever business, a subtle and highly amusing Stephen Sondheim joke. The Honey Pot is even more esoteric, basing its plot on Ben Jonson’s black comedy from 1605, Volpone. As a true English major, Mankiewicz clearly enjoyed esoteric references to his source material. His leading character’s surname, Fox, is a clear nod to the “sly fox” of Volpone’s English translation. And Fox’s henchman (Mosca in the original) is now William McFly. (Get it?)

 The crafty Fox is played to perfection by frequent Mankiewicz star Rex Harrison. I’ve heard obnoxious stories about the real-life Harrison, but in this film he’s delightfully devious. (Serious hilarity comes from the fact that, as a man obsessed with ballet, he madly pirouettes around his home to endless repetitions of Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours.” Yes, that’s the piece to which the hippos cavort in Disney’s Fantasia.)  Other major players include Cliff Robertson as the sidekick Fox recruits for his nefarious schemes, as well as the salty Susan Hayward,  the elegant Capucine, and the brassy Edie Adams, all of them playing former loves who are tricked into appearing at Fox’s fake deathbed in hopes of inheriting his fortune. I need a separate mention for Maggie Smith, who also takes part in the macabre festivities, in the role of Hayward’s rather prim and veddy British nurse and companion. In 1967, Smith was not brand-new to films. But she was hardly the legendary dowager she has since become in such productions as Gosford Park and TV’s Downton Abbey. In her early 30s, she was a pretty and rather vulnerable-looking redhead, one who had just received an Oscar nomination for playing Desdemona opposite a blackfaced (but highly impressive) Laurence Olivier in a filmed version of Othello. Her role in The Honey Pot seems modest at first, but proves to have hidden depths that take us by surprise. Her scenes of give-and-take with Harrison, in which she plays the innocent and he offers a nicely ironic disquisition on the passage of time, are at the heart of this film.


But all is not perfection. Along with the movie’s wit and such inspired moments as the crafty local police detective watching TV’s Perry Mason dubbed into Italian, there are key plot strands that simply make no sense. Maybe that’s part of the joke too.





No comments:

Post a Comment