The Gypsy Moths (1969)
“When you turn on by falling free… when jumping is not only a way to live, but a way to die, too… you’re a Gypsy Moth.”
The Gypsy Moths (1969)
Director: John Frankenheimer
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Gene Hackman
Synopsis: Three skydivers and their travelling thrill show barnstorm through a small midwestern town one Fourth of July weekend.
Lives of quiet desperation in a small mid-Western town are placed under the microscope by the visit of a three-man sky-diving troupe one Fourth of July weekend in John Frankenheimer’s The Gypsy Moths. The town’s in the grip of an oppressive heatwave, a reflection of the emotions and frustrations simmering in the hearts and minds of its townfolk. One of the sky divers, Malcolm Webson (Scott Wilson) is a local boy, and it’s his first visit since his Aunt and Uncle gave him up for adoption following the death of his parents. We learn that he was given up against the wishes of his aunt, Elizabeth Brandon (Deborah Kerr), a woman now in well-preserved middle-age, who invites Malcolm and his two companions to stay with them over the weekend.
The other two men are Joe Browdy (Gene Hackman – Bonnie and Clyde, The French Connection II), whose apparently conflicting habits of church-going and one-night stands are both symptomatic of his fear of sudden death, and Mike Rettig (Burt Lancaster – Sweet Smell of Success, The Unforgiven), an older man who broods a lot and says little; by the way he repeatedly occupies the foreground, however, there’s little doubt that Rettig is the dynamic character who will alter the lives of those around him. Elizabeth senses his well-hidden contempt for the provincial lifestyle she and her friends lead, but is drawn to him, anyway.
Lancaster was an actor who could play the gregarious man of action or the reserved and introspective thinker with equal skill, and in Mike Rettig, a man for whom life holds little that is new or meaningful, he finds a character who combines elements of both. Kerr, daring to go topless at the age of 48, is the picture of repressed desire, of an immaculate life going to waste. She’s well-preserved because she’s living in a void and shares her life with a colourless man who needs but doesn’t love her – or at least doesn’t know how to express that love. She’s very fine in the role. Hackman, still not the star he would become in the ‘70s, is a natural in a part that adds life to what would otherwise be a suffocatingly downbeat story. He sweats realistically, and shows glimpses of the turmoil beneath the live-wire persona.
Despite all the good things about it, The Gypsy Moths remains a little too sombre and introspective to be considered an entirely successful movie. It’s most significant moment remains unexplained, and what follows seems a little redundant. The heat, though, and the sense of lives consumed by simmering dissatisfaction, is palpable, and the quality of the acting is beyond reproach.
(Reviewed 15th September 2015)