Starring: Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch
Director: Sidney Lumet
When it first came out in 1976, Paddy Chayevsky’s satire on the world of television was attacked as shallow and obvious, but in these days of Ukip and the Tea Party movement its portrait of a public stewing with anger and discontent only seems to have gained in depth and relevance.
Peter Finch won a posthumous Oscar for his performance as Howard Beale, the patron saint of grumpy old men, a veteran news anchor who becomes the “mad prophet of the airwaves” when he cracks up on live TV and delivers an unforgettable rant that strikes a chord with the viewers. William Holden is in his element as Max, Howard’s friend and boss, who finds the editorial autonomy of his news division threatened by a sinister conglomerate that has taken control of the network, and Faye Dunaway – who actually receives top billing – is Diana, the hotshot executive who exploits Howard and turns his cri de couer – “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!” – into a catchphrase.
Flamboyant to a fault, Chayevsky’s script has its wordy, armchair theatre moments – most particularly in the scenes between Max and his long-suffering wife – but there’s a majesty to the way it builds towards Howard’s ‘mad as hell’ speech, exactly halfway through the movie, and later on Ned Beatty gets to deliver a speech which is arguably even more remarkable. Chayevsky is also unexpectedly even-handed, giving even the less sympathetic characters (such as Robert Duvall’s number-crunching corporate hatchet man) a fair hearing. Diana isn’t simply some coldly cynical power bitch, she’s a neurotic fuelled by a visceral desire to make TV history and, much more than Howard, she’s the true mad prophet of the airwaves. On the flipside, Max’s attempt to hide behind high principles isn’t entirely convincing, and you sense that he’s sterile and out of ideas. Sidney Lumet’s direction acts as a foil to Chayevsky’s baroque story, keeping it rooted in a gritty, naturalistic mise-en-scene, so that you hardly notice when the film detaches entirely from reality into a blackly comic nightmare towards the end. 10/10
Perhaps it has something to do with Lumet’s ultra-fast shooting style or the quality of the film stock, but the transfer seems rather soft dull most of the time. That said, the scenes of the revamped Howard Beale Show (with stained glass window) come up crisply as do the exteriors and the pale natural light in Max’s office. 6/10
An hour-long documentary on Sidney Lumet, a useful survey of his large, uneven body of work with contributions from the likes of Rod Steiger and Jack Lemmon. An excellent 47-min video essay by Dave Hizkoff that looks in detail at the development of the script, the casting and the shooting schedule – it has a lot to say about the way in which Chayevsky researched and developed his ideas, and we also learn that Finch only managed 1 ½ takes of the ‘mad as hell’ speech (apparently Chayevsky originally wanted Paul Newman to play Beale). 8/10