Scene Is Believing: Catch-22


That’s some catch, that Citizen-22

Catch-22 has become a well known byword  for an impossible quandary or situation. The brilliantly delicious lunacy of Joseph Heller’s novel almost impossible to describe to those who haven’t read it, howling at the absurdities therein. In 1969, director Mike Nichols rolled up his sleeves and gave a film adaptation his best shot.

In Catch-22, Yossarian (Alan Arkin) and a bunch of other oddballs are USAAF fliers, stationed on the tiny island of Pianosa off Italy’s coast in WWII. His superiors keep raising the number of bombing missions the men have to complete before rotation. Yossarian wants out, badly; he can feel death’s hand at his shoulder as he curls up into a tinier target, exposed in his plexiglass bomb aiming bubble during each hairy raid.

Doc Daneeka (Jack Gilford) informs him however of the mysterious catch:

“Let’s see if I’ve got this straight: In order to be grounded, I’ve got to be crazy, and I must be crazy to keep flying. But if I ask to be grounded, that means I’m not crazy anymore, and I have to keep flying?….That’s some catch, that catch-22.”

Nichols, working with a sharp script by Buck Henry (who also played Lt Col. Korn) was in an enviable position. Riding high on previous successes, he was the first American director since Orson Welles on Citizen Kane to be given complete autonomy on his picture, with the right to final cut, and leeway to lock-out snooping executives from the daily rushes.

Welles had badly wanted to film Heller’s novel himself, but, as with many of his projects during his Hollywood “wilderness years”, finance was hard to come by. He settled for a consolation prize as the monstrous, surly, stupid General Dreedle in Nichols’ picture, obsessed with “nice, tight, bombing patterns”. His salary would go towards another gestating Welles production.

He professed to admire Nichols: “Nobody’s in his league with actors.” Welles appears  in two scenes, the most memorable and hilarious being the bombing mission briefing. He sweeps in with his entourage and urges a nervous Major Danby (Richard Benjamin) to proceed. Dreedle then  sits on stage with his weaselly son-in-law and personal WAC, a pneumatic blonde (Susanne Benton, with heavily padded, Jessica Rabbit- like  bosoms and derriere). The sight of this vision is too much for Yossarian, who starts to moan and chew his fist, creating a tidal wave of lustful lowing from the fliers, much to Dreedle’s baffled annoyance:

“All right, at ease. There’ll be no more moaning in this outfit. The next man who moans is going to be very sorry.”

Danby finishes his syncronization countdown and realises no-one is paying a blind bit of notice. He lets out a pained moan…

Nora Ephron was a freelance magazine writer at the time, and covered the filming of Catch-22 in Guaymas, Mexico (standing in for the USAAF airbase in the Med). In her piece, Nichols and others recount the arrival of Orson Welles, as General Dreedle (NOTE: this extract is from the full article which appears on a blog entitled, in which certain details (though not from the extract below) are amended – notes under the full piece give explanation).


The arrival of Orson Welles, for two weeks of shooting in February, was just the therapy the company needed: at the very least, it gave everyone something to talk about. The situation was almost melodramatically ironic: Welles, the great American director now unable to obtain big- money backing for his films, was being directed by 37-year-old Nichols; Welles, who had tried, unsuccessfully, to buy Catch-22 for himself in 1962, was appearing in it to pay for his new film, Dead Reckoning. The cast spent days preparing for his arrival. Touch of Evil was flown in and microscopically reviewed. Citizen Kane was discussed over dinner. Tony Perkins, who had appeared in Welles’s film, The Trial, was repeatedly asked What Orson Welles Was Really Like. Bob Balaban, a young actor who plays Orr in the film, laid plans to retrieve one of Welles’s cigar butts for an admiring friend. And Nichols began to combat his panic by imagining what it would be like to direct a man of Welles’s stature.

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“Before he came,” said Nichols, “I had two fantasies. The first was that he would say his first line, and I would say, ‘NO, NO, NO, Orson !'” He laughed. “Then I thought, perhaps not. The second was that he would arrive on the set and I would say, ‘Mr. Welles, now if you’d be so kind as to move over here. . .’ And he’d look at me and raise that famous eyebrow and say, ‘Over there?” And I’d say, ‘What? Oh, uh, where do you think it should be?'”

Welles landed in Guaymas with an entourage that included a cook and experimental film-maker Peter Bogdanovich, who was interviewing him for a Truffaut-Hitchcock-type memoir. For the eight days it took to shoot his two scenes, he dominated the set. He stood on the runway, his huge wet Havana cigar tilting just below his squinting eyes and sagging eye pouches, addressing Nichols and the assembled cast and crew. Day after day, he told fascinating stories of dubbing in Bavaria, looping in Italy and shooting in Yugoslavia. He also told Nichols how to direct the film, the crew how to move the camera, film editor Sam O’Steen how to cut a scene, and most of the actors how to deliver their lines. Welles even lectured Martin Balsam for three minutes on how to deliver the line, “Yes, sir.

A few of the actors did not mind at all. Austin Pendleton got along with Welles simply by talking back to him. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like to say that line more slowly?” Welles asked Pendleton one day. “Yes,” Pendleton replied slowly. “I am sure.”

At the same time, Nichols carefully smoothed the ruffled feathers among his company. And he got a magnificent performance, from Welles as well as from the rest of the cast. “The Welles situation, which brought a lot of people down, was almost identical to the tension that was written in the script,” said Peter Bonerz, a young West Coast actor who plays McWatt in the film. “We were all under the thumb of this huge, cigar-smoking general, as written, and at the same time, we were under the thumb of this huge, cigar-smoking director. The discomfort that we were feeling was real, and I’m sure it looks grand on film.”

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Originally posted 2014-03-28 22:36:53. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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