“I told you I’m not an actress. I also told you I lie all the time. Draw your own conclusion!”
A sultry, psychotic white woman (Shirley Knight) seduces a young black man (Al Freeman, Jr.) on a New York subway.
Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:
- Femmes Fatales
- Play Adaptation
- Race Relations
- Shirley Knight Films
- Trains and Subways
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 non-silent-film — listings in Peary’s GFTFF. 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
- Gerry Turpin’s cinematography
- John Barry’s percussive score
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.