Cornell Woolrich’s “Waltz into Darkness” (which the author published under his pseudonym of William Irish in 1947) certainly isn’t the best novel in the world, but it doesn’t deserve the treatment it’s gotten from filmmakers over the years. Francois Truffaut, who, like many of the Gallic directors of his time, had a great affection for American pulp crime stories and the wonderful films noir based on them, tried his hand on the material–involving a man taken in by a femme fatale posing as his mail-order bride and then ruining himself in pursuit of her love–in 1969’s “Mississippi Mermaid.” The outcome, shot in bright colors and made contemporary (the setting was changed from turn-of-the-century New Orleans and St. Louis to an island off the east African coast and modern France), wasn’t very successful in capturing the moody, despondent air of the original, but it had compensating virtues: Jean-Paul Belmondo and Catherine Deneuve as the chic central couple, some lovely locations, and an attempt to stay generally faithful to Woolrich’s narrative line. Though decidedly imperfect, it now seems a positive masterpiece compared to Michael Cristofer’s unintentionally hilarious new version, which makes florid and absurd the parts of the book it retains and miscalculates badly in adding a twist of its own to the plot.
In “Original Sin”–a title about as silly and pointless as the rest of the enterprise–the duped rich man is Luis Vargas (Antonio Banderas), a nineteenth-century Cuban entrepeneur, who’s surprised to learn that the American woman he’s been corresponding with, and who’s just arrived to marry him, isn’t the plain Julia Russell whose photo he’d received, but instead the luscious and seductive Angelina Jolie. She explains that she hadn’t wanted to be chosen by him for her looks, and he accepts the excuse. They’re quickly wed, but soon trouble arises: a letter from Julia’s sister arrives complaining that Julia hasn’t written, and in due course a private detective, Walter Downs (Thomas Jane) appears looking for her. Equally troubling are Julia’s curious interest in the Mephisto of a traveling theatrical troupe, the fact that she never bothers to unpack her trunk, the suspicious death of her pet canary and her remarkable love of coffee, which she had once written she found undrinkable. Under the circumstances, might it have been a mistake for Luis to make her a joint owner of his considerable bank accounts?
It’s fairly obvious where this plot is headed, but Woolrich wasn’t so much interested in the con aspect, as in the inability of the wronged man to free himself of desire for the woman who’s misused him after he finds her again: it’s the tragic nature of his love which forms the centerpiece of the story. Truffaut played this out pretty straightforwardly, making a deadly confrontation with a detective the fellow had originally hired to find his wife the linchpin of the last act of the tale, and while he didn’t use the book’s dark, doomed denouement, he did at least keep his ending noncommital. Cristofer embellishes the latter portion of the story with a simply stupid twist involving the identity of Detective Downs–a change which, in turn, leads to a climax so overwrought that its flamboyant foolishness can only engender giggles. To make matters even worse, he has the script narrated in flashback by the false Julia, allowing for interludes in which she converses sultrily with a priest and a final “surprise” which panders shamelessly to the contemporary audience’s inability to tolerate anything but a “happy” ending. The last fifteen minutes of the picture are so utterly ridiculous as to invite one to drop his jaw in stunned silence.
To add to the woe, Cristofer adopts a wildly exaggerated directorial style that renders the mess he’s made of the narrative even more comic. Everything seems to be done in italics–from a trashily staged sequence involving Banderas, Jolie and lots of nudity early in the proceedings (the bedsheets are so carefully situated that the result has the feel of a series of near-pornographic magazine ads), through an even more embarrassing scene in which Banderas later accosts Jolie’s new suitor, to the risible concluding chase involving Banderas, Jolie and Jane on a train platform. Typical of the helmer’s ineptitude is his penchant for employing quick cuts within shots to no perceptible dramatic purpose, deliberately omitting bits of a pan to achieve a jumpy effect; the technique is the editing equivalent of strobe lighting, and should be used sparingly, if at all, but Cristofer resorts to it repeatedly, and pointlessly.
One can’t really speak of any acting in the movie. Banderas smolders in his usual fashion (he also shows lots of skin, for those interested in such things), and he does Luis’ look of longing with Mediterranean skill, but in a few sequences when he goes momentarily berserk, it’s pretty embarrassing. Jolie pouts and poses, but her huge lips do most of the work. Jane is terrible as the far too obvious Downs. Jack Thompson, however, does a respectable turn as Luis’ cynical but supportive partner.
It’s always sad when a book that some readers cherish is poorly adapted to the screen. Woolrich fans, however, can still take comfort in “Rear Window,” Alfred Hitchcock’s incomparable version of the author’s “It Had to Be Murder.” Those interested in a serious adaptation of “Waltzing into Darkness” are directed to “Mississippi Mermaid.” “Original Sin” can be recommended only to moviegoers who like pictures so outrageously bad that you can revel in their awfulness.