Has any writer ridden a roller coaster as much as Norman Mailer did during the 1960s? He was the man of letters as superstar, the decade’s literary pugilist laureate. The ’60s started for Mailer with stabbing his wife with a penknife and being briefly committed to a mental hospital. The decade ended with an unsuccessful run for mayor of New York. In between, Mailer published eight books. Several were major bestsellers. One of them, “The Armies of the Night,” won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. Oh, and he wrote, directed, and starred in three movies.
Tuesday the Criterion Collection is releasing those movies — “Wild 90,” “Beyond the Law” (both 1968), and “Maidstone” (1970) — in a two-DVD set as part of its Eclipse series. Mailer’s one other directorial effort, the hootingly awful “Tough Guys Don’t Dance” (1987), taken from his novel, isn’t in the set. It’s a standard Hollywood feature, as the other three are not. The first two owe a lot to John Cassavetes (Mailer’s shortcomings as a filmmaker make even a Cassavetes skeptic appreciate his talents more), and “Maidstone” is pretty much sui generis.
This was a time when all sorts of non-filmmakers were making films. The most famous was Andy Warhol. Others included Susan Sontag and the photographers Robert Frank and William Klein. So Mailer’s making movies can be seen as another example of how wired into the Zeitgeist he was. He’d also long been fascinated by Hollywood, as indicated by his 1955 novel “The Deer Park” and, subsequently, his notorious 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe. But don’t discount the ego-trip element. Mailer’s character in “Wild 90” is named Prince. His character in “Beyond the Law” is named Pope. And in “Maidstone” his character is a presidential candidate who’s also a film director likened to “an American Bunuel.”
Except for opening and closing exterior shots of Brooklyn, “Wild 90” is basically a one-set play. Mailer and pals Buzz Farbar and Mickey Knox (none of them professional actors) play mob guys who’ve been holed up for weeks. They’re going stir crazy. Viewers can relate. D.A. Pennebaker, the celebrated documentarian, shot the movie (he also helped shoot the two others), and it’s very cinema-verite: poor lighting and sound, shaky handheld camera, yammery dialogue. There’s a lot of macho posturing. It’s all quite amateurish, but cheerfully so. French subtitles might have helped.
Mailer seems to be drunk throughout the movie. At various points he seems to be imitating Marlon Brando or trying to sound like an African-American (those were different times). He shadowboxes with a lightbulb and goes nose to nose with a German shepherd. The dog’s a better actor, but Mailer barks louder. At one point, Mailer uses a hammer as a gavel. That’s a nice metaphor for his acting style. The chief reason for watching these movies is, of course, Mailer. He’s that compelling a figure. Yet he’s also the most exasperating thing about them. It’s one thing for a famous writer’s every onscreen moment to be declaring “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” It’s quite another when the famous writer is also in charge of the close-ups.
“Beyond the Law,” with a cast of more than 30, is a distinct step up, in moviemaking terms. That said, it’s like a Sidney Lumet movie directed by a Sidney Lumet who’d never made a movie. Aggressive yet slack, it shows the limits of grittiness attempting to do the work of imagination. The story cuts back and forth between a Manhattan precinct house and a fancy restaurant, where two detectives are trying to bed a couple of women (one of them is a young Marsha Mason). A character is named Rocco Gibraltar. Mailer, as a police lieutenant, speaks with a brogue (sort of). He says to one of the detectives, “The day I have to wash my hands as many times as you have to wash them will be a bad day for soap.” George Plimpton, as mayor of New York, rather enchantingly lampoons John Lindsay. “This was a humdinger of a precinct,” he announces to Mailer. Yes, it was.
Rip Torn briefly appears as an accused murderer. With his coiled, pantherish presence, he’s really something. Torn figures more prominently in “Maidstone,” which is the best known of the three films — largely because of Torn. He plays the half-brother of Mailer’s character, Norman T. Kingsley (Mailer’s middle name), and the movie notoriously concludes with him attacking Mailer with a hammer and trying to choke him. It’s the culmination of the movie’s braiding together of reality and fiction, life and art, right down to Mailer’s then-wife, Beverly Bentley, playing his wife in the movie (as she does in “Wild 90” and “Beyond the Law”). They have an extended onscreen confrontation that in some ways is even more disconcerting than the Torn-Mailer fight.
The fight is fascinating to watch (in the way that car crashes are) and deeply troubling. It’s a combination of responses Mailer was aiming for in all three movies — seeking some kind of deeper emotional truth through a home-movie aesthetic. Actually, “Maidstone” goes well beyond home movie. It’s in color (shot in part by another celebrated documentarian, Richard Leacock), with extensive exteriors, the occasional tracking shot, and an attempt at some larger narrative. A subplot about assassinating Kingsley shows promise. But this proto-paranoid-thriller element gets dropped along the way. After all, if the movie is all about Mailer — just like the other two — what sense does it make to kill him off? Artistically, quite a lot, actually. Torn, one of the few professionals in front of the camera, may have known just what he was doing when he attacked. “I don’t wanna kill Mailer,” he shouts, “but I must kill Kingsley!” The separation between art and life doesn’t get much narrower than that — or scarier.Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.