Dutchman (1967)

“I told you I’m not an actress… I also told you I lie all the time. Draw your own conclusion!”

Dutchman Poster

Synopsis:
A sultry, psychotic white woman (Shirley Knight) seduces a young black man (Al Freeman, Jr.) on a New York subway.

Genres:

Review:
Based on Amiri Baraka’s incendiary, Obie-award-winning 1964 play, Dutchman qualifies as one of the most unusual — and certainly one of the shortest — listings in Peary’s Guide For the Film Fanatic. At just 55 minutes, it’s barely a feature-length film, and seems more like an experimental venture than a fully fledged narrative. Indeed, the film’s “simple” premise — a white woman seduces, then humiliates, a gullible black man — is widely regarded as allegorical: Lula (Knight) represents both a seductive Eve (she chomps continuously on apples) and a provocative, wasteful white America (she throws away said unfinished apples with abandon), while Clay (Freeman) embodies an assimilated Black America perpetually taunted by the elusive promise of mainstream acceptance.

Director Anthony Harvey and cinematographer Gerry Turpin do a reasonably impressive job cinematizing what is by its very nature a claustrophobic, geographically-limited playlet, and John Barry’s pulsating score is appropriately jarring — but the truth is that Dutchman (even at such a short running time) remains a bit of a chore to sit through, due primarily to Knight’s insufferable central performance. While subtle characterizations are perhaps too much to ask for in such a heavily weighted allegory, Knight’s performance is (as noted in Nathan Rabin’s DVD review for The Onion) “embarrassingly theatrical, a tour-de-force of histrionics that only underlines the pretentious, feverishly overwritten nature of Jones’ script.” Freeman — infinitely subtle in comparison — fares somewhat better, but can’t help being overshadowed by Knight’s hideous gargoyle of a femme fatale.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Al Freeman, Jr. as Clay
    Dutchman Freeman
  • Gerry Turpin’s b&w cinematography
    Dutchman Cinematography
  • John Barry’s percussive score

Must See?
No; this one will primarily be of interest to theater buffs rather than film fanatics. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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One Response to “Dutchman (1967)”

  1. First viewing. A once-must for its place in cinema and theater history.

    Here, Baraka gives a little background to the play (written when he was still known as Le Roi Jones):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qkhL70D2ZB0

    I would have to agree that, ultimately, Freeman Jr. is giving the better performance here. Of the two, he is the one playing a real character as opposed to an ideology, but Knight goes for the obvious and stays there – when, with some more shading, her performance could not only be genuinely sexier but more terrifying. (Admittedly, since we are not meant to accept Lula as a real person, both the director and actor will probably take license with interpretation. I suppose, given the time the play was first performed, I’d find it more effective if Lula’s own rage was more clearly duplicitous and up to the level of Freeman’s eventual counter-attack.)

    That said, I still don’t find the film difficult to sit through. The time flies by fairly quickly. And, in some way, I don’t find the film particularly dated. Racism is still very much alive in this country and much of what is exposed in ‘Dutchman’ still rings true.

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