Cold Turkey (1971, Norman Lear)
Over the next… oh, I don’t know, seventeen years?... I am going to sing the praises of some unheralded films -- great movies that are not much written about, discussed, or screened.
Cold Turkey is a gem of a satire from the early seventies. The film features a great premise and trenchant ideas, two elements sadly missing in most comedies made in the last twenty years. This film used to show up on commercial television quite a bit; that is how I was introduced to it as a youngster. I wonder if the film is currently in “copyright limbo,” because it is not shown or screened at all anymore and has never had a proper DVD release.
THE PLOT IN BRIEF: The town of Eagle Rock, Iowa has been on a downward slide since the closing of its Air Force Base. Reverend Clayton Brooks (Dick Van Dyke) is having a difficult time rallying his flock to improve the town so they can win a big government defense contract. Then the Valiant Tobacco Company, in a crazy PR stunt to improve its image, offers $25 million to the American town that can quit smoking for 30 days. Eagle Rock takes up the challenge and all sorts of pre-nicotine patch hilarity ensues.
The script is the film’s strongest asset. Memorable dialogue abounds, including Bob Newhart shouting, “Big clocks are never wrong!” and town drunk Tom Poston calmly explaining, “My drinking is directly connected to my smoking. Now, when I say ‘directly’, I mean there's a thing -- a physical thing -- that is directly connected from my liquor buds to the smoke pouch in my lungs. If you want me to quit smoking, you would have to cut -- I mean -- you'd have to physically cut that thing! And when you do, my head's gonna fall off.”
The performances are a mixed bag. Dick Van Dyke stands out, playing an atypical, unsympathetic leading role. Yes, the good Reverend Brooks is kind of a douche bag. Famed radio comedians Bob and Ray are the standouts here, parodying a variety of then-contemporary media newsmen, from Walter Cronkite to David Huntley to Paul Harvey; every time someone in the film switches on a TV, there are Bob and Ray. The performances of the rest of the cast vary wildly. Pippa Scott, Graham Jarvis, Tom Poston, and Barnard Hughes acquit themselves nicely, but many of the other performances are wildly over the top for no clear purpose. Bob Newhart, Vincent Gardenia, and Maureen Stapleton overact to an uncomfortable degree.
Mind you, it is not a perfect film. First-time director Lear is clearly learning as he goes along and it shows: too many zooms and unmotivated camera placements that call attention to themselves, too many dialogue-free montages to move the plot along, and too many lengthy scenes where all of the dialogue has obviously been looped.
The thing I really admire about this film though, is its heart. Its black, black, cynical heart. It is a rare and beautiful thing that a film that looks and sounds so much like a standard 1970s sitcom will have something ugly and true to say about the dark side of the American spirit. Writer/director Lear finds clever visual ways to reveal these truths as well: to show the townspeople’s mounting frustration and irritability after they stop smoking, Lear has one of them kick a dog across a street. The last five minutes of Cold Turkey are some of the darkest, cinematically, in a decade known for darkness in films. No spoilers here.
One wonders why this film has not received a wider DVD release. Cold Turkey warrants a special edition with bonus features while its creator and most of its stars are still alive to be interviewed. Hey, Shout Factory! Do you hear me? There is money to be made! Imagine Anchor Bay putting out an anniversary edition of this instead of their nineteenth rerelease of Evil Dead 2. It is only currently available as an MGM Burn-On-Demand title from their website or Amazon.com.
Those of you who have seen it, I am interested to hear your take on this dark and charming film.