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September 03, 2015

The Honey Pot

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Joseph Mankiewicz - 1967
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

In 1972, I had the opportunity to interview Robert Benton and David Newman in conjunction with the film they wrote, and Benton directed, Bad Company. They had told me that the character of the outlaw known as Big Joe was modeled after Joseph Mankiewicz, the director of their previously filmed screenplay, There was a Crooked Man. Prior to being hanged, Big Joe proclaims, "I'm the oldest whore on the block". That line was reportedly Mankiewicz's description of himself.

The Honey Pot bears the distinction of being the first theatrical feature Mankiewicz made following the debacle known as Cleopatra, and the last film with his name in the screenplay credit. There isn't the snap of back to back Oscar winning Letter to Three Wives and All about Eve. Still, there are moments, especially at the end, that it becomes clear just how personal this film is, an acknowledgment by Mankiewicz of his limits as a writer/director.

That the film is essentially an updating of the play Volpone is even stated within the film, starting with the Volpone character, here named Cecil Fox, watching a performance of the play, from his own box seat, a private show in an empty theater. Pretending to be dying, Fox hires sometime actor McFly to act as his private secretary, setting up a "performance" involving three former lovers who believe they are to be named as beneficiaries of Fox's estate in Venice, Italy. In several scenes, the Fox and McFly refer to the 17 Century play, comparing their version to that of playwright Ben Jonson.

Where The Honey Pot becomes personal in the intertwined themes of time and money. Early on, Fox declares that even if one is rich, you can never have too much money. And going back to Mankiewicz's quote, the question is raised as to what will someone do for money, especially for the promise of being extremely wealthy. The three women, former lovers, who come to Fox's estate each bring a gift, an elaborate time piece from different eras, an hour glass filled with gold, an ornate clock from the 17th Century, and a modern clock - more like a large glass brick with clocks set at various international time zones.

Time and money undoubtedly were on Mankiewicz's mind during the years he spent filming, and editing Cleopatra, a film already five million dollars in the red at the time he first took over production. As it turned out, just has the final version of Cleopatra had been taken out of his hands, so too was The Honey Pot, shorn of about twenty minutes of footage. Scenes involving Herschel Bernardi were cut, although his name appears in the final credits. The film concludes with the off-screen voice of the recently deceased Fox stating that life doesn't always follow the script one writes. In Joseph Mankiewicz's case, neither do some of his films.

One of the highlights is 59 year old Rex Harrison, as Fox, doing a solo dance in his bedroom, leaping on his bed, and across the room. The scene that follows, a conversation between Harrison and Maggie Smith, displays flashes of true affection the two had for each other. The device of the off screen voice, heard by Smith, and later by Harrison, was to be found in other Mankiewicz films. The Honey Pot also belies the assessment of Mankiewicz's films as being being a form of filmed theater. Dialogue driven, to be sure, and People will Talk could easily be the title of several Mankiewicz films. But between the camera gliding along with the characters, and close-ups that almost fill the screen, The Honey Pot is also decidedly cinematic.

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Posted by peter at September 3, 2015 08:29 AM