Saturday, February 9, 2019

Of Mice and Men (1992)

Director: Gary Sinise                                   Writer: John Steinbeck
Film Score: Mark Isham                              Cinematography: Kenneth MacMillan
Starring: Gary Sinise, John Malkovich, Ray Walston and Sherilyn Fenn

After an admirable attempt at filming John Steinbeck’s 1937 novel Of Mice And Men with Robert Blake and Randy Quaid in 1981, it was at first a curiosity why Gary Sinise decided to remake Of Mice and Men again just a decade later. In retrospect, however, it was a brilliant move by an actor who was only beginning to make a name for himself at the time--he hadn’t even done Forest Gump or Apollo 13 yet. The problem with the earlier film is that it was made for television, and while that doesn’t necessarily make a film inherently bad, in certain respects it did in this case. The TV version simply strayed too far from Steinbeck’s original story in places when it didn’t need to, and diluting the overall impact of the tale in the process. The tremendous irony in all of this is that Sinise’s adaptation was done by Horton Foote, who had absolutely destroyed Harper Lee’s novel when he adapted To Kill a Mockingbird in 1962. Because of that it was a pleasant surprise that he made the absolutely right move in translating Steinbeck’s dialogue and settings to the screen almost completely intact. The film was not hugely successful at the box office when it was released, no doubt do to the familiarity of the story and the disappointing nature of the previous version, but it was a critical success and has come to be recognized over the last twenty-five years as the masterpiece it is.

The film opens in a darkened boxcar, as the camera pans slowly over to the face of Gary Sinise, chin in his hands, and haunted look in his eyes. Then the camera cuts to a shot of a woman in a torn red dress running across a field--Sinise’s wife Moira--the only sound Mark Isham’s subdued score to accompany it. Running in the opposite direction after another cut is Gary Sinise as George Milton and John Malkovich as Lennie Small. They escape by hiding in the river under the overgrowth, and eventually make their way south to another ranch and another job. Sinise decides to spend the night near a small creek so that Malkovich can remember the place in case he gets in trouble again. The boss, played by Noble Willingham, is suspicious at first because he thinks Sinise is taking Malkovich’s money, but he sends the two to the bunkhouse anyway. There they meet an old man, Ray Walson, who lost his hand at the ranch and works cleaning the place up. When the boss’s son, Casey Siemaszko, shows up he takes an instant dislike to Malkovich--which he will pay for later. Part of Siemaszko’s belligerence comes from his small stature, the other is his raging jealousy over his wife, Sherilyn Fenn, who he thinks is cheating on him with one of the other farm hands. The one man who takes a genuine interest in the pair is a kindly muleskinner played by John Terry.

Things get tricky for Sinise as he tries to keep Malkovich out of harm’s way. Siemaszko is looking for any reason to take a swing at either of them, while at the same time Malkovich is oblivious to the inherent danger in talking to the lovely Fenn. The ultimate goal for both of them is to save enough money to get their own place someday, where Sinise can keep Lennie out of trouble and the two can be their own boss. Things look up when Walston wants to join them, and has enough money saved already that they can put the wheels in motion. But the best laid plans, as Robert Burns poem goes, are not enough to avert tragedy in the end. Sinise had been obsessed with the story ever since he had first seen it performed on stage while in high school, and that reverence certainly paid off. In the end it is Roger Ebert’s assessment of the film that gets right to the heart of what made Sinise’s achievement so great. “The most sincere compliment I can pay them is to say that all of them--writer and actors--have taken every unnecessary gesture, every possible gratuitous note, out of these characters. The story is as pure and lean as the original fable which formed in Steinbeck’s mind. And because they don’t try to do anything fancy—don’t try to make it anything other than exactly what it is--they have a quiet triumph.”

Sinise has a subtle touch as a director and is a perfectly introspective George, which makes far more credible the devotion he demonstrates toward Lennie throughout the film. Malkovich’s Lennie is ultra realistic and the slower unfolding of the story makes the viewer’s empathy for him that much greater. It’s a brilliant performance, but in a very different way than Lon Chaney Jr.’s in the 1939 Of Mice and Men. The great Ray Walston plays the cripple Candy and adds the kind of extreme confidence that Roman Bohnen can’t even approach in the classic version. Casey Siemaszko, as Curly the ranch owner’s son, is primarily a television actor but has done quite a few small roles in features in between. The muleskinner Slim, played by John Terry, is much more appropriate for the role than Charles Bickford in the original. But it’s Sherilyn Fenn who transforms the role of Curly’s wife from the nagging trailer trash blonde of the original to a dark-haired woman-child who is so lonely that she doesn’t realize the kind of danger she is putting the men, and herself, in just by talking to them. Finally, the great Joe Morton puts in an appearance as Crooks, the stable hand. The pages of Steinbeck’s novel come alive in the hands of Sinise and company, and make this Of Mice and Men not only a treasure to match Steinbeck’s novel, but the only film version of the story one ever need watch.

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