Forgotten Films: The Gypsy Moths (1969) John Frankenheimer
Like many R-rated movies I saw advertised in the newspaper when I was a kid, The Gypsy Moths is one that passed by me. I had almost forgotten about the film until I noticed it on DVD at a local thrift store and bought it. The disc sat around my house for months before I added it to an already large stack of unwatched movies I’m still working through.
The film has only 116 reviews on Letterboxd, and for a movie starring Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, and Gene Hackman, that’s an incredibly low number. Plus it’s directed by John Frankenheimer, not an insignificant director. Yet I’m willing to bet most of the people reading this review have never seen it or maybe haven’t even heard of it.
Mike Rettig (Lancaster, center), Joe Browdy (Hackman, L), and Malcolm Webson (Scott Wilson, R) make up a team of skydivers. This isn’t exactly a big-time operation backed by corporate sponsorship. In addition to acting as the performers, these guys are their own managers, promoters, and booking agents. In a different era - with far lesser technology - they would be the equivalent of acrobatic troubadours roaming the countryside for meals and a few coins.
Browdy has booked the trio to perform in a small Kansas town for the Fourth of July weekend. We don’t know if this is the best or the only gig he could find for the group. Perhaps the location was suggested by Malcolm, who arranges for them to stay at the home of his uncle and aunt, John (William Windom) and Elizabeth Brandon (Kerr).
Things are a bit awkward at the Brandon house for several reasons:
1 - Malcolm hasn’t seen his aunt and uncle for many years, not since he jumped out of their second story window when he was a kid. (Malcolm’s origin story?)
2 - The Brandons have a young college student named Annie (Bonnie Bedelia) boarding in their home, and Malcolm is interested.
3 - The Brandons appear to have a somewhat tentative marriage. Rettig is interested in Elizabeth. Elizabeth is interested in Rettig. Well, now…
4 - And Browdy? Well, he’s got several issues. (What Gene Hackman character from this era doesn’t?)
Between the opening skydiving scene and the Fourth of July weekend performance, The Gypsy Moths is largely a melodrama, and a frustrating one. The local characters are so distant they’re almost unknowable, going through the motions of their small town and their insular existence at home. We certainly don’t get to know them much from their dialogue, but rather from their mannerisms, especially Elizabeth as she floats around the house making eyes at Rettig. Elizabeth and John are physically almost never together onscreen, which screams to the audience that this is a marriage on the verge of collapse. Their reserved, almost cloistered lifestyle also serves as a stark contrast to the hazardous skydivers, and while Browdy is the diver displaying the most machismo, and Rettig is a risk-taker in the air, it’s Malcolm, the group’s youngest member, who is the most careful and reserved. We would think he would be the one telling all the local dullards that the times, they are a-changin’.
They certainly are. Even small towns in Kansas must have a nightlife including strip clubs, and the three skydivers find one, which is somewhat sanitized, even by 1969 standards. Yet things become much more jarring back at the Brandon home where we view a nude scene with Deborah Kerr, who had previously played a nun (Black Narcissus; Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison), a governess/teacher (The King and I, The Innocents, The Chalk Garden), and other innocent (no pun intended) characters. Yet the tryst and the lead-up to it is largely forgettable.
We don’t need the dramatic moments spelled out for us, but William Hanley’s script is vague in the presentation of its players and especially the women characters. Hanley, who was mostly a playwright and television writer, constructs the film like a play (without the skydiving, of course). In fact, I was stunned to discover that the film was adapted from a novel and not a play.
The audience is also never quite sure whose story this is: Rettig’s, Browdy’s, or Malcolm’s. Of course it can be an ensemble picture, but Burt Lancaster is the headliner (as well as the oldest cast member), so we are inclined to think it’s his story. Hackman was not yet a household name, and wouldn’t be until The French Connection hit theaters two years later. Scott Wilson, appearing here in only his fourth film, carries a quiet intensity that makes his character the most interesting of the three. (One of Wilson’s finest performances is in A Year of the Quiet Sun from 1984, another film that almost no one talks about.)
The skydiving stunts that open the film make for a good teaser, but we don’t see such action again until the finale, which gives us much more, but the cuts between the actors in skydiving gear and the real skydivers we view from a distance make for a tedious watch, even in 1969.
MGM did not spend much time or money promoting the film, and they also put it through the blender, cutting it for its debut at the family-friendly Radio City Music Hall, then adding the footage back in for an M (mature) rating. The film appears in 107 and 110 minute cuts.
The film literally went into free fall, dying a quick death. Frankenheimer reportedly was suffering from depression during the making (and no doubt the release) of the movie, yet named it as one of his favorite films. This is the same man who directed Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, The Train, and my favorite Frankenheimer film, Seconds.
The Gypsy Moths is available to rent streaming from various companies, and is still available on DVD from Warner Archive.
Several of these photos are from Cult Film Freak