Marvin and Tige

The final image of a swan taking flight as a framed jigsaw puzzle took critics by surprise and left them goggling, even though it’s prepared in the preceding scene by having Marvin (John Cassavetes) tell Tige (Gibran Brown) the story of the ugly duckling, describing himself as an “ugly duck”. This, one might well believe, caused them to doubt what their eyes had seen and characterize the film as false and sentimental. The small, local point is that Marvin has been pondering the story. The larger, general one is that the film and he both find a conclusive understanding in it.

The second obstacle to criticism is the stylistic objectivity of the director, Eric Weston. He insists on making his point with an obliqueness of realism that forgoes any involvement in the images provided by the script, and yet he very carefully demonstrates the full range of technique in transitional shots with a perfectly smooth crane or dolly, and he punctuates a confessional speech with a slow zoom. Weston’s tour de force (just echoing Arthur Penn in The Miracle Worker) is the long take on Marvin and Tige in the kitchen, which occurs twice with a structural realization each time (Tige can’t read and Marvin is angry at him, Marvin can’t afford a birthday present and Tige forgives him).

The close advantages of this technique are essentially dramatic. Tige is a gamin at the beginning, he cadges papers and returns home past a man leaving the house, his mother (Denise Nicholas) tells him the gas has been turned off, he hears her suffering that night and in the morning finds her dead. Later on, Tige’s father (Billy Dee Williams) explains to Marvin why he left the woman years before (he now has a family), because there are reasons for everything in this film, and the mind’s eye unconsciously realizes the sequence of events offered to it.

Add to this interlocking structure the fact that Marvin’s wife died some years before, that he too is griefstricken (despite his rational ability to explain the proper outlet for tears) and suffers a sea-change, like Tige. Like Father and Son is another title of the film said to be used sometimes on television—each of these two wrecked souls finds within him a proper station in life.

These incidental details are dwelt upon in this note to illuminate a purblind criticism and bring to the attention of the viewing public one of the more important films of the time. It’s a companion piece to Cassavetes’ Gloria, and you can recognize in Brown’s performance the legendary skill of that director. There is perhaps a nuance from Rudolph Maté’s Branded, with Alan Ladd, and a stylistic homage to Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner in the brief department store scene of children squirming on Santa’s lap, punctuated by flashes of light as if from a camera bulb.

The fine score is by Patrick Williams. The author superimposes a dedication on the picture of the swan which certainly suggests by association Cassavetes’ own film A Child Is Waiting from the same year as Peter Brook’s Lord of the Flies. “To the children of the world, may their tears of loneliness by heard and answered with love.”