Saturday, November 5, 2011

Movie – Catch-22 (1970)

The movie Catch-22 is based on the 1961 bestselling novel of the same name.  It dealt with the insanity of war.  It grew in popularity as the 1960s went along and the Vietnam War increased in intensity.  Responses to the novel soon followed with Dr. Strangelove (1964) about the Cold War, this movie about World War II in 1970; the novel (1968), movie (1970) and TV show (1972-1983) M*A*S*H about the Korean War; and finally Apocalypse Now (1979) about Vietnam.

The premise is that an American bomber squadron based in the Mediterranean during World War II keeps having its number of missions increased before they can rotate home.  This is driving them all crazy, especially Captain Yossarian, who is convinced that the enemy is out to get him personally.  He tries to get out of flying, but can’t. 

The impact the book had on people led to the phrase “catch-22” quickly entering the English language.  It describes a no-win situation such as the one where companies will only hire you if you have experience, but you can’t get experience if no one will hire you.  In the film it is described in the following exchange that is right up there with Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First” routine:

Yossarian: Is Orr crazy?
Dr. 'Doc' Daneeka: Of course he is. He has to be crazy to keep flying after all his close calls he's had.
Yossarian: Why can't you ground him?
Dr. 'Doc' Daneeka: I can, but first he has to ask me.
Yossarian: That's all he's gotta do to be grounded?
Dr. 'Doc' Daneeka: That's all.
Yossarian: Then you can ground him?
Dr. 'Doc' Daneeka: No. Then I cannot ground him.
Yossarian: Aah!
Dr. 'Doc' Daneeka: There's a catch.
Yossarian: A catch?
Dr. 'Doc' Daneeka: Sure. Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat isn't really crazy, so I can't ground him.
Yossarian: Ok, let me see if I've got this straight. In order to be grounded, I've got to be crazy. And I must be crazy to keep flying. But if I ask to be grounded, that means I'm not crazy anymore, and I have to keep flying.
Dr. 'Doc' Daneeka: You got it, that's Catch-22.
Yossarian: Whoo... That's some catch, that Catch-22.
Dr. 'Doc' Daneeka: It's the best there is.

The film has what would become an all-star cast.  Alan Arkin (Slums of Beverly Hills) plays the main role of Captain Yossarian.  Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) plays Gen. Dreedle.  Martin Balsam (12 Angry Men) plays Col. Cathcart.  Buck Henry, who also wrote the screenplay, plays Lt. Col. Korn.  Richard Benjamin (The Sunshine Boys) plays Major Danby.  Bob Newhart plays Major Major.  Singer Art Garfunkel plays Capt. Nately.  Charles Grodin (The Heartbreak Kid) plays Capt. Aarfy Aardvark.  Jack Gilford (Cocoon) plays Doc Daneeka.  Martin Sheen (Apocalypse Now) plays Lt. Dobbs.  Jon Voigt (Midnight Cowboy) plays Lt. Minderbinder.  Paula Prentiss (The Stepford Wives) plays Nurse Duckett.  Susanne Benton (A Boy and His Dog) plays Dreedle’s WAC.  Bob Balaban (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) plays Capt. Orr.  Norman Fell (Three’s Company) plays Sgt. Towser.  Peter Bonerz (The Bob Newhart Show) plays Capt. McWatt.  And in a movie about insanity, who better to have than Mr. Psycho himself, Anthony Perkins, who plays Chaplain Tappman (who’s a Captain.)

From the prior paragraph you can tell that the author had fun with the names of the characters – Colonel (Americans pronounce it as “kernel”) Korn, Major Major, Aarfy Aardvark, Doc Daneeka, Minderbinder, Chaplain Captain Tappman, and Orr, whose name pun becomes apparent by the end of the movie.

There’s another great “Who’s on First” routine by Bob Newhart and Norman Fell in regard to Major Major’s office.  First, Major is in his current position because the Colonel thought he was an actual major, not that his last name was Major.  To correct that, he got promoted to Major, and so became “Major Major”.  He had been in charge of laundry, but now he’s got to lead a squadron of bombers.  He knows nothing about it, so he doesn’t want to have to deal with anyone, ever.  He instructs Sgt. Towser (Fell) that if he’s in then people should wait, and when he’s out they can be sent in.  So when he’s out he’s in and when he’s in he’s out.  Note – while this routine is going on pay attention to the framed portrait on the wall of his office for another little bit of humor.

That sequence was a long one with no edits.  There are several of those in the movie, including the opening sequence, and one that actually featured an entire squadron of planes taking off, which was then followed by more dialogue from characters – all in a single shot.

The movie was directed by Mike Nichols (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf).  He and Steven Soderbergh do a commentary for the movie, but Nichols couldn’t remember much of anything about the film.  He wasn’t prepared and I stopped listening to it after a while.  Before I did I learned that they believe that a dream sequence that featured a full frontal nude shot was the first one in an American film since the infamous Hays Code had been established nearly 40 years earlier.

While we’re on the subject of nudity, anyone who has seen the movie A Boy and His Dog (1975) or her Playboy pictorial the same year as the Catch-22 movie, knows that Susanne Benton has a lovely body, but they obviously padded her WAC uniform to an absurd level for a funny sequence when the General shows up to observe a briefing.

I mentioned at the top that the movie was about the insanity of war.  As the movie goes along you come to realize that everyone is insane to one degree or another.  As Anthony Perkins’ character Norman Bates in Psycho (1960) says, “We all go a little mad sometimes.  Haven’t you?”  The most chilling of these examples in Catch-22 is Charles Grodin’s performance as “good old Aarfy” when his insanity becomes apparent.

Two notes on watching the movie – it’s not always apparent at first if something you are seeing is a dream sequence, a flashback, or a jump forward in time.  You do learn the answers to those as the movie goes along.  Second, the sound mix is not good.  Several scenes take place with airplane engines or truck engines running and they almost drown out the dialogue, even though the actors are yelling.  I had to turn on the subtitles to follow the dialogue in these scenes.

There are a number of little jokes inserted into the movie, and I’m sure I missed a bunch of them.  One to watch for is a sequence with two nurses dealing with a man in a full body cast.  Pay close attention to what they do with the two bottles he’s hooked up to – even the nurses are crazy here.

Catch-22 is laugh out loud funny in some places, and chillingly effective in others.  There is also a conversation with an old Italian man where he makes a point about surviving war that is every bit as fitting for the current situations in Iraq and Afghanistan as it was for the situation then in Italy. 

Unless you are a person who only wants to see heroic portrayals of wartime, then I highly recommend this movie. 

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

[Note – you can see all the Movies by Numbers, as well as get some hints on what’s to come, at this link.]

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  1. I laughed enough but the film starts to get a little weird by the end. However, I still liked all of the performances and the way its humor was approached. Nice review Chip.

  2. @Dan O. - Thanks. I agree things get weird and more insane as the movie goes on. (I'm thinking about a certain deal to unload some cotton...)