Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Screenplay: Alvin Sargent
Based on a Book by: Joe David Brown
Starring: Ryan O’Neal, Tatum O’Neal, Madeline Kahn
Running Time: 102 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
Peter Bogdanovich had a remarkable start to his directorial career. After training as an actor in the 50’s, working as a film programmer for MOMA and a film journalist, he eventually turned his hand to directing with the well received Targets, produced by Roger Corman. We’ll ignore Voyage to the Planet of the Prehistoric Women (when Bogdanovich worked under the pseudonym Derek Thomas) and say that the next three films he made were all critical and/or commercial successes. In 1971, The Last Picture Show (which I shamefully have yet to see) wowed everyone and the following year he made the hit comedy What’s Up, Doc? starring Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal, then in 1973 he released the Oscar-winning Paper Moon. Bogdanovich was box office gold and a darling with the critics (although Paper Moon had a few detractors), but from then on his career made one of the most spectacular nose dives in cinema history. Everything since has been mediocre or a curiosity at best and it’s hard to see how that happened. From the extra features included with this new re-release of Paper Moon it doesn’t sound like Bogdanovich had a hard time and the success shouldn’t have harmed him, but for whatever reason, he never regained his momentum.
Rather than lamenting the director’s decline though, let’s celebrate one of his cast iron classics.
Paper Moon sees low rent con man Moses Pray (Ryan O’Neal) saddled with a newly orphaned girl, Addie Loggins (Tatum O’Neal), who may or may not be his daughter. He is to send the girl to her aunt in Missouri, but after the sharp 9 year old cottons on to Moses’ scam which earned him $200 from the death of her mother, Addie demands he repays the money to her. Having spent it already, Moses is forced to tow her along whilst he swindles the money out of local widowers through his bible salesman shtick.
Addie isn’t as dumb and innocent as you’d think of a girl her age though and it soon becomes clear that she can teach Moses a thing or two about grifting. So the two become a con double act, robbing the American public (who are suffering from the effects of the Great Depression) along their trip across the state. As well as improving his less honourable skills, Addie gradually helps Moses become a slightly more responsible and honest man too, which leads to a final dilemma as to what to do with the young girl.
Paper Moon is a sheer delight. It’s one of those films that’s hard to fault, which also makes it kind of difficult to praise as so many elements come together perfectly. Front and foremost are probably the lead performances. The father and daughter team of Ryan and Tatum O’Neal are fantastic. A large proportion of the film is made up of them bickering and their chemistry is wonderful to see on screen. I can’t imagine a random child actress and adult actor combination working as effectively.
Elsewhere, the minor characters are very strong too. The film kind of reminded me of something the Coen Brothers would make as there are a handful of memorable small roles coming from quality character actors. Madeline Kahn, who has one of the more substantial supporting roles, is particularly excellent. Her showgirl Trixie Delight is one of the highlights of the film and her one-to-one scene with Addie is a real gem.
The humour and general quirkiness reminded me of the Coen Brothers too. A very sharp script, added to the unusual side characters mentioned earlier, show modern indie comedy dramas how it should be done.
In terms of technical craft the film is also fantastic. The black and white cinematography from Laszlo Kovacs (Easy Rider, Ghostbusters) is gorgeous, utilising deep focus to allow for some fantastic long takes where the actors can really work together and further detail and interest can happen within the frame.
The production design is another one of the stand out aspects. There looks to be a staggering level of detail in reproducing the era (especially important when everything in frame is in focus) and much thought has been put into the costumes to help create the wonderful characters. Addie’s gradual move from mismatching boy’s clothes to slightly ill-fitting dresses is a nice touch and Trixie’s extravagantly trashy outfits perfectly suit her too.
The only minor negative which prevented me from giving full marks is that, although the film works a charm as a light and cynical comedy, I didn’t feel the overall drama had a huge impact (not that it necessarily needed to). The lasting feeling was maybe a little more slight that I’d have hoped.
However, on a whole this is filmmaking of an exceptional standard and the film is utterly delightful from start to finish, with enough melancholy and cynicism to prevent things from getting mawkish. It even gets quite tense towards the end as the pair’s cons get more dangerous and risky. It’s sweet and funny and highly recommended.
Paper Moon is out on 18th May in the UK on dual format Blu-Ray & DVD, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. I watched the Blu-Ray disc and the picture quality is great, showing off the stunning monochrome cinematography beautifully. Audio is strong too.
You get a decent collection of special features. There are three connected featurettes, one focusing on pre-production, another on production and, you guessed it, the other on post-production and the film’s reception. Together this is a great little documentary on the making of the film. There is some lovely behind the scenes footage and outtakes showing the loving relationship between the two leads and the director. Bogdanovich and some other cast/crew members reminisce and fill the viewer in on technical details. It’s interesting to hear some words of advice Orson Welles offered towards the film too.
Bogdanovich also provides a feature commentary, recorded in 2003. This is a little dry and technical at times, but very detailed and informative.
As usual with Eureka’s releases, you also get a booklet included with the discs, which I didn’t get a copy of this time, but I’m sure is jam packed with essays, stills and other such goodies.