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The Forgotten: Joseph L. Mankiewicz's "The Honey Pot" (1967)

In his last film as screenwriter, "The Honey Pot", Joseph L. Mankiewicz blends farce and whodunnit with a disquisition on storytelling.

The late career of Joseph L. Mankiewicz—who is getting a sidebar retrospective, The Essential Iconoclast, at the New York Film Festival—is fascinating. While many of his contemporaries floundered as the rules of filmmaking changed, formally and in every other aspect, he found ways, for a while at least, to carry on telling the kind of stories he liked, with the kind of people he liked, in the way he liked. Sleuth (1972) could probably have been made earlier—the amorality and venality of the characters might well have passed the censor, since vice can be said to be punished. The filmmaking is a little less sure-footed than we expect from Mankiewicz, though: he should have been the perfect director for a two-hander full of arch talk in elegant surroundings, but his attempts to keep the visuals lively sometimes seem forced.

There Was a Crooked Man (1970), is more problematic, illustrating the thesis of Molly Haskell's From Reverence to Rape more neatly than any other movie. How could the auteur who had Linda Darnell say "What I got don't need beads," end up serving the cheap misogyny and rape jokes of this tacky western comedy?

The last film Mankiewicz wrote himself (adapting and grafting together a novel and play), however, is a pure delight. The Honey Pot (1967) stars Rex Harrison, who had memorably worked with the director before in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and the world's greatest light comedian is in very good form indeed, in an ebulliently updated, quasi post-modern version of Ben Jonson's Volpone, accompanied by Susan Hayward, Cliff Robertson, Edie Adams and Capucine. Best of all, though, is.... but wait!

Harrison plays Cecil Sheridan Fox, a fabulously wealthy connoisseur of life, shuttered in his luxury Venetian apartment but planning a cruel hoax on three of the women in his life: he will pretend he is dying and see if they rush to his bedside to grasp for his inheritance. Robertson plays McFly, his secretary and stage manager, tasked with making the arrangements and keeping the play running smoothly.

So, Mankiewicz fast-forwards through Volpone, hitting Act III just 45 minutes into his two-hours-and-change runtime, at which point the play collides with Thomas Sterling's crime novel The Evil of the Day, which spins a cunning whodunnit from Jonson's set-up. And at this time, one of his stars exits the scenario, stalwart leading man Robertson becomes prime suspect, and the role of protagonist falls to a young actress just beginning to make a name for herself in movies: Maggie Smith.

Smith first appeared in a film in 1956 (Child in the House, directed by Cy Endfield), so movies had been rather slow to recognize what she had to offer. Once she gets a scene with Harrison, the movie moves into a kind of thespian high gear: the famously irascible Harrison seems to have enjoyed his co-stars here, but faced with Smith—something like a challenger—he raises his game and the sparks fly. 

This also leads to the film's most poetic scene, a monologue by Harrison about time and the evanescence of life. Mankiewicz is usually celebrated as a presenter of cultured dialogue, which tends to undervalue his considerable, if subtle, visual skills: this may be one of the most beautiful (and longest) speeches he ever shot. The fact that Harrison's Fox takes every opportunity to celebrate his supposed superiority over the average people, "the chumps," does not, somehow, dispel the beauty of his observations on fleeting time and how to appreciate and savor every moment.

Mankiewicz, in fact, was never very concerned with morality, and can find characters admirable as long as they are interesting. The Honey Pot is an elegiac late film, a Swiss watch of intricate plot construction, but most importantly for its maker, a chance to spend some time among a fascinating group of prickly characters. It's also a study of the problems of the storyteller/filmmaker's job, with Harrison as the director, trying to manipulate his "characters" into a pre-designed scheme, and finding they won't "stick to the script." Perhaps pair it with another late film on the same problem, Orson Welles' The Immortal Story?

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The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay. 

“The Honey Pot” was shot as “Anyone For Venice?” Either title is fine for this Autumnal Masterpiece. A French-Canadian film critic whose name I can’t recall wrote in the now-long-gone film journal “Take One” that “The Honey Pot” was comparable to John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and Eric Dolphy’s rendition of “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” Never encountered such critical extravagance before or since. “The Honey Pot” was Monkeybitch’s first film after “Cleopatra” — “the three hardest films I ever made.” It has the same production designer. The DP was the great Gianni Di Venanzo (""Eclipse," “81/2”) who died during production. Edie Adams’ “Meryl McGill” clearly evokes Marilyn Monroe had she lived and “married well.” Adams (Ernie Kovacs’ widow) was famed for her Monroe impression in her nightclub act, but she doesn’t do it here. Capucine (elegant as always) was Charlie Feldman’s girlfriend -ne of the few girlfriend-of-the-producer-who-wanted-to-make-her-a-star who had actual (enormous) talent. Susan Hayward’s work with Monkeybitch goes right back to “House of Strangers” - a favorite of Marty Scorsese’s and the first film reviewed by Jean-Luc Godard. In any event “The Honey Pot” is the last gasp of classical filmmaking Hollywood style, premiering the same year as “Bonnie and Clyde” — which ushered in the New Hollywood.
L’esprit de l’escalier! "The Was a Crooked Man’ was written by “Bonnie and Clyde” scribes Benton and Newman. He said during the shoot “Why not just call it ‘Joe Mankiewicz’s First Western’?”
The Honey Pot certainly makes a better case for the classical Hollywood Style than Rex’s big film of the year, Dr Dolittle.
According to “Pictures at a Revolution” Rex wrote from the Honey Pot set, suggesting Maggie for the part of Emma Fairfax in Dr Dolittle.
Makes total sense: they seem to be really enjoying one another. Peggy Cummins puts Rex’s reputation for being difficult down to the fact that he cared so much, and would rather delay something than have it go ahead in the wrong direction.

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