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CANNERY ROW

       

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday,Nov. 13, 2020

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: This film was a flop at the box office, despite garnering solid reviews. Roger Ebert wrote that ‘It's tough to pull off a movie like this, in the semi-cynical 1980s (it would have been impossible in the truly cynical seventies). Maybe the ’80s held onto that cynicism longer than he thought, since audiences stayed away. I was one of those critics that loved it and now it’s received a well-deserved Blu-ray upgrade from Warner Archive. It would be nice if a new audience discovered and appreciated it. My review was published in the Deseret News on Feb 19, 1982.

 

There is a sweetness, a fantasy-like quality to the latest film treatment of John Steinbeck’s work, and it will either grab your sense of old-fashioned movie style or leave you behind.

 

“Cannery Row” is not anything like the gritty, realistic films we are used to today but in its own way this picture seems to yearn for the naive innocence of another era.

 

Appropriately enough, it’s a period piece with lovable winos and prostitutes-with-hearts-of-gold, all gentle harmless characters whose interrelationships are the core of their existence.

 

And the center of their attention is Doc (Nick Nolte), a marine biologist who collects octopi from the nearby Monterey, Calif., oceanside and is going to write that very important paper … someday.

 

       

 

         Debra Winger, Nick Nolte, 'Cannery Row' (1982)

 

Life is fairly routine among the low-lifes and derelicts of “The Row” until Suzy (Debra Winger) floats into town. Where she comes from or who she really is, is rather vague, but in she strides looking for work. And wouldn’t you know the only job she can get is in the local bordello?

 

That gets her off to a shaky start with Doc, who likes the ladies well enough but isn’t sure he wants to be attracted to one of them.

 

Sure enough, though, once she and Doc get past an awkward introduction they’re fighting and scrapping — and you just know they’re falling in love.

 

That’s the way old Hollywood often worked; the more a couple fought, the quicker they fell in love.

 

“Cannery Row” is an episodic series of bittersweet comic vignettes, with a good baker’s dozen worth of memorable scenes: the wild frog hunt in the swamp, followed by the bums using the frogs as money in a local store; the dance sequence with Suzy and Doc trying a game of one-upmanship; the party where everyone dresses up as trees or Snow White characters; and so it goes.

 

Many of the supporting performances in this picture are worth noting, including Audra Lindley (Mrs. Roper on TV’s “Three’s Company” and “The Ropers”) as Fauna, the local Madame, and M. Emmet Walsh as Mack, leader of the bums.

 

       

 

M. Emmet Walsh, center, and Frank McRae, right, with unidentified third 'bum' in 'Cannery Row' (1982).

 

But the show is nearly stolen by Frank McRae as Hazel, a giant black man with the mind of a child — a less lethal version of Steinbeck’s Lennie in “Of Mice and Men.” McRae is a thorough delight and every scene he has is worth noting — especially when he comes up with a solution to the rift between Doc and Suzy.

 

In the leads, Nick Nolte and Debra Winger are both superb. Nolte has a childlike quality that lends itself nicely to Doc, a man with a mysterious past, and Winger, who was John Travolta’s wife in “Urban Cowboy,” has an innocence here that seems genuine, though there lurks beneath a feisty sensuousness that is less obvious. She also has the most appealing, unique voice to hit the screen since Jean Arthur, though Winger’s is more throaty.

 

“Cannery Row” also boasts a fine musical score; thrifty direction by first-timer David Ward, who also scripted (he earned an Oscar for writing “The Sting”), and luxurious photography by Sven Nykvist (who does most of Ingmar Bergman’s films).

 

The major drawback here is the set design and some obvious background projection. The set is very stylized and obviously a soundstage, and though it is original, it tends to feel claustrophobic after a while. But the real problem comes when location shots of Doc out in the water are shown. They are so gorgeous and open, that the contrast just overwhelms the set work.

 

Despite that, though, “Cannery Row” (rated PG for profanity and a scene of Winger undressing in a window) is a delightful, innocent romantic comedy.