DVD: Dutchman (1966)

March 22, 2018 | By

Film: Excellent

Transfer:  Very Good

Extras: n/a

Label:  Image

Region: 1 (NTSC)

Released:  July 4, 2000

Genre:  Drama / Suspense

Synopsis: A highly unstable woman toys with a demure black man, bringing racial tensions to an explosive exchange in a NYC subway car.

Special Features:  (none)




After starting off as an actor and later establishing himself as a noted editor for directors like Stanley Kubrick (Lolita, Dr. Strangelove) and Bryan Forbes (The L-Shaped Room), Anthony Harvey selected a most unusual script for his directorial debut – Amiri Baraka’s (aka LeRoi Jones) 1964 play Dutchman – in which a white, highly unstable woman (“I never tell the truth”) worms her way into the life of a young black man on a quiet subway ride, and by the end of the 50 minute journey, one of them is quite dead.

Shirley Knight is terrifying as batshit loony Lula, ostensibly a serial killer who targets young black men by being provocative in body and words to tease and establish a faux connection, and Al Freeman Jr. handles the transition of Clay’s reluctance to full explosion beautifully. Baraka’s script is a performance piece for the actors, and marks one of the frankest, most verbally graphic statements on race relations in American film – an in-your-face alternative to the polite Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967) Columbia production packaged for more sensitive general admission audiences.

Clay’s doom is ensured at the beginning when he glances at Lula as she poses with sunglasses on the platform. They make eye contact, but she enters the car from the rear, startling him and slowly invading his space by approaching from behind, easing to the adjacent seat, and then the other half of his two-seater; Clay’s forced to reassign his bag to another seat, and he readjusts his composure when she keeps swooping close to his face, eventually wrapping her legs over his thigh.

The two soon dine on the apples she carries in her long bag, but Lula’s constantly dropping hints of her dangerous ways, and Clay’s attraction to her wildness ultimately quashes his internal radar that should’ve told him to get off the train, or move to another car and avoid her manic extremes.

Lula may not formally know Clay, but she knows his type and has Clay convinced that she’s met some of his friends. Her ability to peg his background and ultimately exploit his vulnerabilities are what lead to the first of two explosive scenes in the short film’s second half. By the midpoint Clay has become so hypnotized by her moods and bold verbiage that he’s unaware they’re no longer alone in the car, but the two continue their close chatter and fondling, isolated in a bubble which Lula soon bursts in a tirade that drops a slew of racist epithets.

Clay ultimately explodes and smacks her in the face, dropping his polite diction and initially perplexed reactions to Lula’s slithering & pole-grinding, and he chastises her and the onlookers, berating white appropriation of black culture, and the naive expectation that several hundred years of racism have been neutered by voting rights.

It’s logical that Clay, a literature student who still fancies himself a closet Beaudelaire, would unleash his rage in a poetic stream of argot rather than profanity, and it’s a torrent of graphic contrasts and shock words which give Freeman a tour de force moment that also has his character telling Lula she’s essentially full of crap. When the end comes it’s not quick and fast, but a sharp blade to Clay’s chest that stays firmly in place, because he’s already noted she’s “strong” for such a thin figure.

When Clay falls dead onto Lula, he’s pulled off like a sack of trash, and carried towards the camera for a forced fadeout, followed by a reset as Lula enters another car on another day, ignoring an older tougher black man, but eyeing a more demure, Clay-like figure who’s a little awkward, but easily turned on by her aggressiveness.

Knight won a Best Actress Award after the film screened at the Venice Film Festival in 1967, and it was Dutchman that led Peter O’Toole to select Harvey to helm The Lion in Winter (1968), another fierce two-character drama, with forceful performances by O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn.

What Dutchman meant in 1966 and means today may vary due to Baraka’s use of a serial killer premise, but there’s a sense Lula’s game is fair play: the victim can leave at any time, and he can choose not to explode and not reveal his suppressed rage to a cabin of passengers before he’s bladed, but Lula knows her type, and like an adept tracker, she tests and creates a safe zone where both share from her bag of apples until it’s time for the dressing-down.

Baraka’s prose and Freeman’s tirade are still arresting because they’re not filled with F-bombs – they’re rhythmic streams of contrasts. Clay’s outrage rips everything inside-out, tossing false ideals and caricatures onto the floor that’s already littered with the pieces of apple Lula’s spat out or chucked aside like hunks of rotten fruit.

Morsels of her dialogue with Clay involve aggressively biting into apples and displaying the figurative pound of flesh she’s masticating and occasionally sharing with her target. Lula’s manic behaviour and Clay’s insistence on seeing his ride through is the hardest part for any urbanite to accept – if someone’s having an episode, you move away and keep moving until you’re in a safe zone – but taken as a stark, high-pitched seduction, the film works.

Harvey’s direction and editing aren’t showy or kinetic, and he relies on the performances to propel the drama. He wisely cuts to a short montage of subway stations and passing trains to force a time jump, as Clay will become just as puzzled as us that while the two have carried on in their own world, fresh riders kept entering, seating themselves, and listening to their chatter from a safe distance.

John Barry’s singular theme works very well for the eerie drama – not unlike his Lion in Winter score, the tone and rhythms are about entrapment, plus the horror of realizing you’re done for – and Gerry Turpin’s stark cinematography is appropriately claustrophobic, especially when the lights dim for lengthy periods. (Camera operator Ronnie Taylor would eventually move to full cinematographer, including Ken Russell’s Tommy and Dario Argento’s Opera and Sleepless.)

A somewhat broader attempt to dramatize urban tensions in a subway car emerged a year later in Larry Peerce’s The Incident, itself based on a 1963 teleplay by Nicholas Baehr, and you could argue a greater distillation of confined conflicts became the backdrop in the subway heist thriller The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) in which everyone is having a really, really shitty day.

Dutchman was released on bare bones DVD in 2000 and is deserving of a new edition with some restoration (the source print is pretty worn around the reel changes), sound clean-up, and extras that contextualize this unique film. Baraka and Knight reportedly participated in a documentary titled Dutchman Revisited (2018) which at present remains unreleased.

To close, here’s a pastiche of campaign art for the short film which was apparently double-billed during its release in certain cities (see last).


Dutchman (1966) poster.




UK double bill of Dutchman (1966) + Tonight Let’s All make Love in London (1967).


© 2018 Mark R. Hasan




External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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