Was His Early Film The Mind Snatchers The Piece Of Garbage Christopher Walken Claims?
Yesterday's birthday boy Christopher Walken makes no secret of the fact: he loves to work. And that's one of the reasons he makes as many bad movies as good ones. For every Deer Hunter, Dead Zone, King Of New York, Pulp Fiction or Hairspray, there's a Kangaroo Jack, Man On Fire, Click or Domino. But where does The Mighty Haired One's first lead role in a movie fall fit in the spectrum? In 1972 -- coming off a supporting part in Sidney Lumet's The Anderson Tapes -- the 29-year-old scored this adaptation of Dennis Reardon's Off-Broadway play The Happiness Cage. Given the snazzier title of The Mind Snatchers when it hit cinemas, Bernard Girard's film was praised as "a frightening contemporary thriller" by Judith Crist. Walken, however, was more succinct when he reappraised it as "piece of garbage" and said "it seemed my career in film was finished." Who's right?
First thing to know, if you're a Walken fan, you'll want to see this. That's because he hits the screen close to fully formed in a movie with strange hints of the roles to come. We're not even two minutes in and his unhinged soldier Private James Reese whispers to a woman he's menacing, "C'mon, dance with me, I'll teach you the secret of the universe". Walken wasn't quite able to shoe-horn his hot-foot-shuffling into the picture as he would so often after this. Instead he mixes up the crazy talk with that haunted stare and those eye tics before threatening to punch two chicks... one of whom goes to bed with him anyway. Check it out here.
For his misdemeanors, Reese winds up in the custody of the military police. Having suffered a busted arm resisting arrest, he gets a medical check-up and is diagnosed schizophrenic and... thus designated perfect for brain experimentation in an Army-run hospital. The facility has just two other patients. Ronny Cox's crazed, sex-deprived Sgt Boford Miles befriends Reese and banters with him incessantly. African-American soldier Tommy does not. That's because he's a basket case: admitted for a gut wound he now has a bandaged head and while he doesn't speak he sure screams a lot. Warning bells only kinda-sorta go off for Reese and Boford.
Despite the re-titling that promises B-movie genre thrills, this really is a talk-fest that requires Walken and Cox to wonder a lot about What's Going On. You think they'd clue in faster, given their screaming roomie and the lab filled with monkeys who have wires sticking out of their bandaged heads. But the movie takes a long time to get where we know it'll go all along and when we arrive the message -- that pain and loneliness and sadness are part of the human experience and it's not desirable to use electrodes to eliminate them -- is delivered with a heavy clunk that even A-grade Walkenness can't soften. In the cinematic chronology, The Mind Snatchers came a year after A Clockwork Orange and three before One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest but it offers little of the anarchic energy or emotional pull of those films while mining the same theme.
Still, Walken gets a lot of intense moments that are punched up with cynically comic, slightly off-kilter lines. "You know I wanted to be an MP -- when I was six," he says, teasing the army cops who're shanghaing him to the brain-busting clinic. "Can we stop the car? I have to go wee-wee. Whoops, never mind!". Later, he insults a well-meaning Red Cross nurse with, "Can you make babies? Then why don't you go do that.". If you're hearing this. In Your Mind. With That Stop-Start. Cadence, it's not quite like that but it's interesting that while Howard Thompson of The New York Times criticized the "plastic shrewdness" he described the role as "voiced by Mr. Walken."
The Mind Snatchers does offer strands the actor would build upon. There's no Pulp Fiction ass-watch, granted, but he'd again suffer a gruesome cranial injury in The Deer Hunter, be a dangerous headcase in Annie Hall and be a doomed brain-patient in The Dead Zone. There's a Brainstorm thing here, too: how many other actors have made two movies in which one of their pals suffers catastrophically because he's hooked up to continuous-orgasm technology? Walken: he likes messing with your head almost as much as his own.
Ultimately, it's not hard to see why Walken hates The Mind Snatchers but I suspect it has less to do with its plodding qualities and more because he was made to wear an arm cast and pajamas for almost the entire film and for no good reason. For an eccentric clean freak -- and one who dresses himself with clothes stolen from movie sets -- this must've represented a bad start. All that said, The Mind Snatchers might be plodding and obvious but you'd still rather watch Walken in this than in Gigli.
Want more bad movie musing? You know you do. I've written a book about the subject. And it can be yours!