February, 1965: a snowy day in the Quantock Hills of Somerset. Thirty-two-year-old John Boorman was hard at work on his debut feature, Catch Us If You Can. The former television documentary maker had captured the attention of producer David Deutsch, who pitched him a movie vehicle for The Dave Clark Five, one of the few British Invasion bands to represent a credible if ultimately fleeting threat to the Beatles. Their single “Glad All Over” had nudged “I Want to Hold Your Hand” from the top of the British charts the previous year; in December of 1964, they had reached the summit of the US chart with a cover of Bobby Day’s “Over and Over”; and they had recently made their American television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, only weeks after their Mersey Beat rivals. The Dave Clark Five were officially The Next Big Thing. As such, they deserved their own Hard Day’s Night.
But Catch Us If You Can was no peppy, poptastic jukebox musical. The band refused to play themselves and refused to play their music on screen, instead taking on the roles of stuntmen/extras who are inexplicably roped into an advertising campaign for meat. With its mix of anti-establishment ennui and bouncy pop, Catch Us If You Can shares more DNA with Lindsay Anderson’s later O Lucky Man! (1973) than Peter Yates’ Cliff Richard and the Shadows vehicle Summer Holiday (1963) – it is as melancholic and “saturnine” as its lead. Dave Clark was not a star in the making; he wasn’t even the face of The Dave Clark Five – that duty fell to singer and keyboardist Mike Smith. Clark had performed in a handful of largely uncredited roles and claimed to have been a stuntman before embarking on his music career, but Boorman had doubts about his leading man, saying “there was nothing light-hearted about him, nothing youthful, nothing graceful or rhythmical.” Bad news for a drummer with a popular beat combo, even worse news for the star of what was supposed to be a breakout movie.
And so Boorman attempted to lighten the film by focusing on lead actress and former fashion model Barbara Ferris. Clark noticed, became sullen and resentful. Unable to confront the director, the grumpy drummer instead made the mistake of taking out his frustrations on costume designer Sally Jacobs, who just happened to be married to Deutsch’s volatile assistant, Alex.
Enter our anti-hero, fists at the ready. Alexander Jacobs was not the shy, retiring type. A nasty spill during the Tour de France had scarred Jacobs and ended his career as a professional cyclist. He worked as assistant director to fellow irascible sod Lindsay Anderson on the Free Cinema short documentary Every Day Except Christmas (1957) before moving into television with a view to directing, but his obsession with images – “the teeth or the mouth or the way the lips curled and all that sort of thing” – butted against the traditional talking-heads school of television production, and so he “went into producing and writing as a means of getting on to cinema and at least working.” But as much as he wanted to work, he was not about to suffer some uppity percussionist yelling at his beloved wife.
“Alex flew into a rage,” said Boorman. “It was a terrifying sight. He frothed at the mouth. He smashed his fist into Dave’s face. I was entranced by the blood on the snow. It seemed like the end, like a full stop. I stared at it. I felt rather as I had when our house burned down, a kind of relief, a lightness. It was all over.” The shoot was postponed while Clark’s face healed and Jacobs was banished from the set, apparently telling Boorman, “Sow’s ears never really make silk purses” as he left. But it was far from over: Boorman completed the film, and Catch Us If You Can did well in the United Kingdom before slouching into American cinemas with the even less apposite title Having a Wild Weekend only to be lauded by the likes of Bosley Crowther and Pauline Kael. Boorman’s pessimism was unwarranted: Catch Us If You Can would be his passport to Hollywood. As for Jacobs, he had an appointment in Lovecraft Country.
The Shuttered Room aka Blood Island (1967) would be Alexander Jacobs’ first screenwriting credit, shared with prolific television writer Nathaniel Tanchuck and D.B. Ledrov. The film is nominally an adaptation of the 1959 short story of the same name, written by August Derleth and based on Lovecraft’s notes, but – much like Corman’s Poe adaptations – jettisons most of the story and does its own thing. Unlike Corman’s Poe adaptations, that thing isn’t worth doing. Initially earmarked as Ken Russell’s feature debut, director’s duties soon fell to David Greene, a veteran television director who – according to star Carol Lynley – “had been living in Rome and dropping acid for several years” and who promptly tossed the script, telling Lynley and her co-star Gig Young to make it up as they went along.
The resulting film is a jumble of hereditary curses, chewy New England accents (attempted by a primarily British cast) and the odd karate chop thrown in for good measure. Lynley makes the most of her dual role and tries to affect some chemistry with a much older and clearly bored Gig Young as her husband, but the most notable performance outside of Donald Sutherland’s bizarre voice cameo comes from Oliver Reed, whose turn as the local inbred thug echoes his performance in Joseph Losey’s The Damned (1961) with a dash of man-child eccentricity, no doubt informed by his perpetual inebriation – Reed would later admit The Shuttered Room was the “most plastered” he’d been on any set. But the film is an inauspicious start to Jacobs’ screenwriting career, the very definition of a sow’s ear, and a far cry from his next writing job, which would reunite him with the director of Catch Us If You Can and famously bring the European sensibility to the American crime thriller.
The script for Point Blank (1967) is arguably Jacobs’ most famous and revered work. The film itself has already been discussed extensively elsewhere, but the story of Boorman and Jacobs coming together to turn Rafe and David Newhouse’s potboiler adaptation of Richard Stark’s The Hunter into the king of avant-garde American crime movies still tends to underplay Jacobs’ contribution. It was here that Jacobs honed what would be known as his signature style, jagged and terse, yet prickled with barely-suppressed emotion. In his memoir Adventures of a Suburban Boy, Boorman paints Jacobs as the quintessential writer-producer, the ideas man who astonished in the room, but struggled to sit down and write: “He eventually became a rewrite man, a script doctor. When they had a project with intractable problems they would send for Alex. He would demolish the script, reduce it to rubble, then when everyone was in despair, he would rebuild it into a potential masterpiece ... He bamboozled. He bludgeoned. He knew how to cut through to the quick, to what was essential, as he did on Point Blank.”
This account of Jacobs’ working method corresponds to others who knew him well, but still diminishes his contribution to the craft of screenwriting. Yes, the Film Quarterly interview reveals Jacobs’ obsession with “cutting off every inch of spare flesh”, which included camera angles and unnecessary “signpost” or filler dialogue, but while he cut his scripts right down to the gleaming bone, there was still marrow within. The fledgling director who once wanted to forgo talking heads for wild angles is evident in the writer, whose focus is unerringly on the right image and right line of dialogue for any given moment. Just as William Goldman revolutionized screenwriting with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s bantering asides, Jacobs took the screenplay form and turned it into haiku, pushing the story to the fore while allowing interpretation to flourish in the space between the lines. His work on Point Blank is never simplistic, never empty minimalism – all that white space allows the rumble of underlying emotion to be heard. The film succeeds because of the tension between Boorman’s cold-blooded aestheticism and Jacobs’ psychodrama – or, as Jacobs puts it, the friction between “Anglo-Saxon and non-Anglo-Saxon attitudes” to art.
On Point Blank, Jacobs found an artistic ally and talented sparring partner in Boorman, but their working relationship would be short-lived. Hell in the Pacific (1968), a largely dialogue-free World War II fable in which a pair of stranded soldiers, one American (Lee Marvin) and one Japanese (Toshiro Mifune) face off in a microcosm of war, would be their final collaboration.
“Hell in the Pacific silenced him,” said Boorman. “We pondered it, we pushed and pulled at it, but got nowhere. We had come to the end of each other. Alex’s face was heavily scarred from the accident he suffered on the Tour de France, but he was so animated that his personality overwhelmed those old wounds. Now, he suddenly contracted Bell’s palsy, which made one side of his face, the good side, go slack and lifeless. It would take many months before those facial nerves would repair. The dead side of his face felt like a metaphor for our script. It was as blank as the paper before us.” At this point, Boorman says that Jacobs became “tetchy” and unreasonable, a state of mind exacerbated by his exclusion from a location scouting trip to Palau. According to Boorman, Jacobs quit and was replaced by Eric Bercovici and an uncredited Shinobu Hashimoto.
Jacobs’ name remains on the opening credits for Hell in the Pacific and, despite Boorman’s reluctance to credit him in interviews, the action- and image-driven script feels very much like Jacobs’ work. Early drafts suggest the relationship between the two men evolved at a more considered pace, only to be fragmented by Boorman during the shoot. But it is difficult to confirm Jacobs’ work in any meaningful way, not least because replacement screenwriter Bercovici shares some Jacobs-like tendencies, not least in his belief in the sophistication of the audience, which resulted in Mifune’s dialogue remaining untranslated for the English-speaking viewer, something Bercovici would later use again in his 1980 miniseries adaptation of James Clavell’s Shogun. Either way, Jacobs dodged a bullet. The Hell in the Pacific shoot was not a happy one. The location was remote, both leads were known for their love of booze, Hashimoto’s rewrite of Mifune’s part turned him into “a buffoon”, and Boorman struggled with both a timid interpreter too scared to translate the director’s criticism for Mifune and producers looking to replace him.
And then there was the ending. After Marvin and Mifune escape the island on a raft, they wash up at a bombed-out military base, where they find provisions (including a massive bottle of sake) and begin to enjoy the comforts of civilization once more. But Boorman was in desperate need of a satisfying conclusion, at one point enlisting the help of Akira Kurosawa who suggested (probably jokingly) that the two former enemies “meet a girl”. One proposed ending had two Japanese soldiers decapitating Marvin, prompting Mifune to kill them both in revenge for his fallen comrade. Another saw the two men confronted with the “emblems of their enmity” and parting ways. This “original” ending was Boorman’s favorite, but was only seen in the French release before its reinstatement later. The third ending, apparently added by executive producer Henry Saperstein to boost lackluster box office takings, has both men abruptly killed by an errant mortar shell. What had once been ambiguous is now irrevocably bleak, and this was the ending used in most of the release prints. Stung, Boorman retreated to London to make Leo the Last (1970). Meanwhile, Alexander Jacobs was about to embark on a trio of crime thrillers that would be the very definition of hardboiled.
By 1972, Oliver Reed’s star was already in descent. After a moderately successful early career with Hammer Films, who gave him his first starring role in The Curse of the Werewolf (1961), he chewed up the screen as Bill Sikes in Oliver! (1969) and won critical praise for his work in Ken Russell’s Women in Love (1969) and The Devils (1971). Like many tough-guy actors of his generation, he was briefly considered for the role of James Bond after Sean Connery’s departure – according to Andrew Rissik, “one of the great missed opportunities of post-war British movie history” – but his brawling, boozing persona and lack of working-class credentials (Reed was thoroughly upper-middle-class) made him difficult to cast, and he soon found himself relegated to a stream of character parts and low-budget thrillers. Easily the best of the latter was Sitting Target (1972), Alexander Jacobs’ brutal adaptation of Laurence Henderson’s 1970 novel, which takes Henderson’s basic premise – violent thug Harry Lomart breaks out of prison to wreak a terrible revenge on his wayward wife and her mysterious lover – and turns the nasty up to eleven.
The opening is top-notch Jacobs image-making: a sweat-drenched Lomart exercises in the gloom of a prison cell, the camera moving over tatty reminders of the outside world (including a birthday card from his wife) before spit hits a piss pot and he is revealed suspended from the ceiling pipes performing calisthenics by way of Gregor Samsa. He is barely human, a caged animal serving a fifteen-year stretch for killing a security guard during an armed robbery. The only thing keeping him sane is the thought of returning to his wife Pat (Jill St. John), but a long-awaited visit ends in violence. When she tells him that she’s pregnant with another man’s child, she annihilates the last vestiges of humanity in him. Lomart smashes through the visiting-room partition and attempts to throttle her before he’s dogpiled by screws and tossed, straitjacketed and frothing at the mouth, into solitary. There he obsesses, muttering to himself, calcifying his pain into rock-hard vengeance. Once out of the hole, he enlists the help of prison mate Birdy (Ian McShane) to break out, whereupon he gets himself a gun (a much-fetishized Mauser Schnellfeuer) and begins to stalk his wife, now under police protection from Inspector Wilson (Edward Woodward), the man who put Lomart away.
At first glance, Sitting Target is a grimy, hyper-violent retread of Point Blank – a homicidal criminal anti-hero takes revenge on those who betrayed him and attempts to recover loot from a previous robbery – but Lomart is more complicated than Walker, at once a feral monster lurking in the shadows and a simple-minded man incapable of dealing with a broken heart. At times, he is almost child-like – a brief bath-time interlude has Lomart giving himself a bubble beard – and his explosions of violence are more tantrum-like than considered, his murderous urges an outward representation of inconceivable pain. Indeed, Lomart’s psychosis is almost quaint compared to Birdy, who is initially presented as a submissive sidekick before his psychopathy and sexual predation is revealed, or Pat, who is apparently manipulating Inspector Wilson’s protective instincts to her own ends. This is rich territory for Jacobs, who mines it for all it’s worth, expanding Henderson’s pulpy action yarn into full-bore psychodrama and switching out the book’s ending for a more emotional, if nihilistic, conclusion.
In his Film Quarterly interview, Jacobs alludes to “craftsmen-like” directors and their need for a different kind of script, implying that these directors required a bit more inspiration on the page than their artistically-minded counterparts. He would find one in Douglas Hickox, whose debut feature Entertaining Mr. Sloane (1970) was a diverting if superficial adaptation of Joe Orton’s blistering play. While it would be unfair to dismiss Hickox as a hack – his use of split diopters, canny claustrophobic framing and his talent for an action scene say otherwise – he was arguably more artisan than artist, more likely to shoot what was presented, and therefore in greater need of a solid script than someone like Boorman. Sitting Target would be mildly successful in the UK, despite being the first British film to rate an X certificate purely for violence, but it would suffer in the United States as incongruous second feature to One is a Lonely Number (1972), a drama about a young woman struggling to deal with life after divorce. Sitting Target would last a week in theaters before it was pulled. It was an ignominious end for a startling film.
When NYPD detectives Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso began surveillance on Pasquale Fuca based on little more than a hunch, they had no idea they would eventually uncover a massive transatlantic drug-trafficking ring operating out of Marseilles, make a record-breaking heroin bust, and become the inspiration for one of the most revered crime thrillers of the ‘70s. The commercial and critical success of The French Connection (1971) opened the door for further adaptations of the Egan/Grosso casebook – Egan would be fictionalized again in Badge 373 (1973), this time played by Robert Duvall, and Grosso would continue to be played by Roy Scheider in what was effectively a prequel to The French Connection, The Seven-Ups (1973).
The Seven-Ups – the title is ersatz police slang for sentences of seven-plus years that await major felons – was based on a story Grosso told French Connection producer Philip D’Antoni about his work in the ‘50s, “having to do with the kidnapping of cops who were not really cops. A very weird and fascinating story.” D’Antoni wanted to direct; 20th Century Fox wanted another French Connection-sized hit. Most of that film’s crew would come on board, including star Scheider, composer Don Ellis, and legendary stunt driver Bill Hickman. But D’Antoni was missing a screenwriter – French Connection writer Ernest Tidyman was busy producing sequels to his other 1971 hit, Shaft – so he brought in Albert Ruben, a television writer and producer on shows such as Have Gun – Will Travel (1957-63), The Defenders (1961-65) and N.Y.P.D. (1967-69). But something was missing – for all Ruben’s hard work and experience writing gritty New York drama, the script lacked a certain edge. So D’Antoni went to one of the original writers of The French Connection, one who’d submitted a script that Friedkin and the suits didn’t like: Alexander Jacobs.
As with Hell in the Pacific, it’s difficult to ascertain which work belongs to which writer. The script for The Seven-Ups is more traditional, bulked out with plenty of action lines, parentheticals and even a few camera angles here and there, which feels more Ruben than Jacobs, though this could be a prime example of the kind of script Jacobs gave over to “craftsmen-like” directors like D’Antoni, who needed all the help he could get on his first (and only) feature. It’s worth noting that Jacobs was second writer on the script, so had plenty of opportunity to make it his own, but didn’t. Nevertheless, Jacobs’ presence is felt in the tone of the final film, which largely eschews the documentary trappings of The French Connection but keeps the pervading cynicism and tight action sequences. The main action set-piece, however, feels like it was orchestrated by that maniac Hickman – the script has the kidnappers run Buddy off the road, his car shuddering to a miserable halt instead of the film’s death-defying near-decapitation courtesy of a parked truck. Not even Alexander Jacobs could come up with that one.
Jacobs’ connection with Sonny Grosso didn’t end with The Seven-Ups. Fox had been trying to develop a sequel to The French Connection since 1972, but all they had was a star, a title, and an idea to set the thing in Marseilles. Friedkin wasn’t interested in a follow-up – he had already turned his attentions to demonic possession – so Fox approached John Frankenheimer, who was a fluent French speaker and in desperate need of a hit. His previous film Call Harry Crown (1974) was as bizarre and as impenetrable as its alternate title 99 and 44/100% Dead! and its darkly pop-art take on the crime movie had been poorly received. Unfortunately for Frankenheimer, the first script (and story) for French Connection II came from Robert Dillon, the writer of Call Harry Crown. Dillon had previously written Prime Cut (1972) for Michael Ritchie, The Old Dark House (1963) for William Castle and The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963) for Roger Corman, and had found simpatico directors on each. But Frankenheimer was dubious, and so Jacobs was brought in to rewrite.
French Connection II (1975) is a truly odd sequel which ignores almost everything that makes the first film work and instead subjects its audience to a series of meandering fish-out-of-water set-pieces in exchange for the narrative closure refused by the first film. We find Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) arriving in Marseilles on April Fool’s Day, looking vaguely ridiculous in his porkpie hat and Hawaiian shirt, unable (and unwilling) to speak the language yet bent on apprehending his nemesis, Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) aka “Frog One”. As Doyle blunders his way through Marseilles, he acts as bait for Charnier, who promptly kidnaps him, subjects him to a prolonged series of heroin shots that turn him into a sniveling junkie, then deposits him back in the hands of the French police. Doyle then undergoes a particularly grueling process of cold turkey before he’s well enough to finish what he started.
What Jacobs was presented with is anybody’s guess, but Dillon’s previous credits show no evidence of the hardcore torment inflicted on Doyle, which feels more Jacobs’ wheelhouse. More than anyone, Jacobs knew how to key into an actor’s best instincts, and the scenes of addiction and withdrawal become the core of French Connection II, aided and abetted by a powerhouse performance from Hackman. If these scenes are primarily Jacobs’ work, then they are undoubtedly what elevate French Connection II above the status of solid, workmanlike sequel designed to cash in on the success of its predecessor. The French Connection may not exalt Doyle’s methods, but it does make them dramatically compelling; French Connection II punishes him, turning him first into a blundering xenophobe, then the same kind of strung-out loser he previously accused of picking their feet in Poughkeepsie. After his ordeal, Doyle’s continued pursuit of Charnier has an agonized edge; he is just as single-minded, but it is now shaded with vulnerability. Popeye Doyle is no longer the hardboiled cop; he is the quintessential Alexander Jacobs anti-hero, damaged and afraid, yet more than capable of putting a couple of bullets in the right chest.
Alexander Jacobs’ last produced screen credit befits a script doctor and rewrite man: it is an adaptation of an adaptation. The source material was Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People (1882), written in a retaliatory frenzy following the public and critical disgust at his previous play Ghosts (1881), which featured adultery, syphilis and – perhaps most incendiary – the hypocrisy of 19th Century Norwegian society. An Enemy of the People tells the story of Dr. Thomas Stockmann, medical officer of a small town spa, who discovers that the waters have been contaminated by a nearby tannery owned by his father-in-law. His attempts to expose the public health issue are thwarted by his mayor brother, the local paper and, eventually, by the townspeople themselves, who would rather pitch rocks through the doctor’s window than accept the truth.
Arthur Miller retooled the play in 1950 as a direct response to growing McCarthyism, condensing the five acts into three, replacing Ibsen’s references to “superior human beings” with specific examples of Galileo and Jesus, and adding a parable of an army unwittingly marching to its doom. For Miller, the play was about the truth: “More personally, it is the question of whether one’s vision of the truth ought to be a source of guilt at a time when the mass of men condemn it as a dangerous and devilish lie. It is an enduring theme – in fact, possibly the most enduring of all Ibsen’s themes – because there never was, nor will there ever be, an organized society able to countenance calmly the individual who insists that he is right while the vast majority is absolutely wrong.” Ironically enough, while his Enemy enjoyed some critical success, the theater-going public weren’t interested: the lights went out after only thirty-six performances.
But there was one man who felt drawn to Ibsen’s ornery outsider. By 1976, Steve McQueen was becoming more famous for the roles he turned down than the ones he accepted, so why agree to do Ibsen? The usual McQueen reason: spite. His rationale appeared to be a combination of proving to then-wife Ali McGraw that he could pull off a serious role and riling up First Artists, whose restrictive deal with McQueen’s Solar Productions ostensibly gave the green light to any picture McQueen wanted to make, as long as it could be made for $3 million or less. An Enemy of the People was budgeted at $2.5 million. First Artists called McQueen’s bluff.
Jacobs went to work adapting Miller’s play for the screen, condensing scenes and removing lines, most of them belonging to Stockmann. Just as he had written Point Blank with Lee Marvin squarely in mind, so he played to McQueen’s strengths as an actor who traded in looks rather than words. Miller had already pared back Ibsen’s dialogue; Jacobs cut right to the bone once more, with only Miller’s shortest lines making through his filter. Jacobs and McQueen’s Dr. Stockmann is stoic and gentle, devoid of the righteous volatility that defined Ibsen’s original character. Jacobs removed many of Miller’s more theatrical moments, including the impromptu dance that ends Act One, the mayor’s incandescent rage at the prospect of his brother’s article making it to print, Stockmann’s desperation when confronted with the cowardice of the so-called free press, and Miller’s parable of the army marching to its death. Even Stockmann’s arrival at the town meeting, a scene that usually features a baying mob, is silent. When Stockmann’s wife begs him not to lose his temper, it’s an odd moment: we’ve never seen his temper. He is for all intents and purposes a saintly hippy, a martyr in the making.
This lack of nuance is reflected by award-winning television director George Schaefer, whose reverent shots are inevitably long and stage-bound, giving the production the airless quality of a homework assignment and deadening otherwise fine performances by McQueen, Bibi Andersson and Charles Durning. While Miller was apparently content with the film – “This was done as well as it could have been done.” – Warner Bros had no idea how to market it, spending a colossal $400,000 only to come up with: “In a time when people say there are no more heroes – there is still STEVE MCQUEEN. You cheered for him in The Great Escape, prayed for him in Cincinnati Kid and held your breath with him in Bullitt ... Now Steve McQueen portrays the most striking hero of them all – the man they called ... AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE.”
Despite McQueen’s attempts to drum up interest with a lecture on “The Genius of Ibsen”, early screenings of “McQueen’s folly” were met with a critical drubbing and Warner Bros yanked the film from distribution, making it the only Steve McQueen film never to have an official release. After one more attempt at filmed theater with a proposed adaptation of Harold Pinter’s Old Times (1971) co-starring Audrey Hepburn and Faye Dunaway, McQueen returned to the genres he knew best before his death in 1980.
As for Jacobs, he continued to work even if none of his scripts made it into production. There was a script about the Tour de France, The Yellow Jersey, an adaptation of Alfred Bester’s 1953 novel The Demolished Man and a treatment and first-draft script for The Godfather Part III, which saw Michael Corleone dead and his son Anthony atoning for his father’s sins by selling off the Family’s illicit assets, complicated by his cousin Tomasso (Sonny’s boy), whose volatile nature sets off a gang war. Only the idea of bought respectability would feature in the final film.
The year after he delivered The Godfather Part III to Paramount, Alexander Jacobs succumbed to cancer, three weeks short of his 52nd birthday. In his LA Times obituary, Michael Dempsey paid tribute to Jacobs’ talent for cutting right to the heart of a story: “Many are the upcoming writers who have initially gasped at his notions for, say, Draconian 30-page cuts in their manuscripts or structural overhauls that would fling their opening image all the way to Page 97 – only to discover, on reflection, that the unthinkable change was exactly the right catalyst.” Dempsey goes on to quote the Film Quarterly interview: “To survive, either you sit in the hills like a Bresson and come down once every five years, or else you’ve got to get in the middle and put your talent on the line every day.” Alexander Jacobs lived up to that principle. Every one of his scripts bears his mark, every one of the finished films reflecting some indelible part of his worldview. He specialized in driven, indefatigable anti-heroes battling against the system, whether that be criminal, corporate, or society itself. It was as much a recurring character as it was a core part of Jacobs the writer. Dempsey quotes Jacobs as saying, “They don’t deserve to win.” That is as fit an epitaph as any.