Catch-22 (Nichols, 1970)


Many of the novels’ fans unjustly malign the film adaptation, because Catch-22 is without a doubt one of the most accomplished and biting film adaptations there is. The novel as is, is almost unconvertible to the big screen, and Buck Henry organizes a series of vignettes and character stories in order to best explore comedy, the absurdity of war, and the dangers of capitalism.

The film’s structure is difficult to describe, at first dream-like and fragmented, it soon becomes clear that there is a natural comedic and thematic progression of each scene. The comedy begins lightly, slight absurdum, obvious jokes about sex, and the crucial, and ironically humour explanation of the Catch-22. However, with each progressive scene, it becomes more difficult to laugh. The audience is presented with a scenario that begins as little more than a sketch, but dissolves into tragedy or horror, putting a very strange taint on the audience’s understanding of the situation. This is thematically crucial, as one of the film’s main thesis’ is about the higher-ups and capitally motivated industries understanding of war, and how they perceive soldiers to be expendable.

There is a series of scenes towards the mid range of the film, that is perhaps the most beautifully orchestrated I’ve ever seen in cinema. It begins with the longest comedic beat in film history (I can only assume), as Orson Welles stands shocked, in awe and bewilderment as the naked Yossarian stands before him waiting for his medal for bombing the Mediterranean. This for Yossarian is rock bottom, and beyond this point, the film quickly becomes a strange pastiche of quick vignettes and strange nightmare like sequences bringing the ideas of corruption, capital and absurdity to well… absurd heights. With a very deft match-cut (nearly every scene transition in the film is a rather clever match-cut using sound or imagery, somehow it never gets old and is always quite amusing), the scene cuts to Yossarian in bed with the beautiful Luciana. Their scenes together are an incredible joy, the most human genesis of the absurd nature of human relationships and compromise. They argue playfully in bed about getting married, and come back to the idea of the catch-22. It’s very clever, and always sweet. The light and romantic nature almost seems out of place, but at the same time, it’s almost miraculous how much chemistry and affection exists between Arkin and Carlisi, that a later scene where she becomes a part of the syndicate, becomes so much colder and painful. All the warmth of humanity has evaporated, and of course, the scene that follows that is chilling. Back to them in bed, this match-cuts to Nately and his whore, and the old man who explains why Italy is the strongest nation of all. It’s one of the most incredible monologues in cinema. Not only potent in it’s writing, but the delivery, almost delirious, drunk on life and humour is awe-inspiring. As frightening as it is amusing.

The film’s final act, is a strange and detached world, where Milo’s syndicate has finally taken over. War is no longer about ideals and fighting for one’s country (was it ever about that? A question both the novel and the film ask), but about making as much money as possible. Human life is expandable, not only physically but emotionally and psychologically as well. There is the incredibly evocative and disturbing scene where they blow up their own base, as they made a deal with the Germans to get that job done, as long as the Germans take the cotton off of Milo’s hands. It ends up costing one soldier his life (for the “greater good”), which is handled with an almost too on the nose sequence, where Milo explains the money will be sent to the man’s family (Yossarian answers, he’s too young to have started a family!), to which Milo says, well to his parents then! (Yossarian answers, they’re already rich!) and without a blink, Milo answers “they will understand then”. There is also Milo’s brothel, taking in the whores and women from the street in a sort of mechanical set-up to be as efficient as possible. It drives one man to murder, but it’s a necessary risk, and there is no perceived crime, only damaged collateral.

Catch-22 is actually one of my very favourite films. I suppose I’ve explained in part why, the delicious comedy, the biting satire and the ruthless criticism of capitalism, but beyond that, I find something comforting in Yossarian himself. A man who is beyond just a little neurotic and crazy, surrounded by people who are so much more insane than he is. He has simple desires, he doesn’t want to die, he wants love and happiness, but mostly… he doesn’t want to die. It’s something that’s difficult not to relate to. He’s been called annoying and off-base from the novel, but I think his reactions are on the money, and you have those scenes with characters like Luciana that reveal he is anything but a broad caricature. He just seems to see things more clearly than everyone else (well nearly everyone), though ironically it is his need for self-preservation that prevents him from being truly saved. Somehow, I find both his crazed paranoia, and confused clarity incredibly endearing, and I’d even say comforting. It’s a strange film to watch to make you feel at ease, but it somehow works for me, I’d say largely due to his presence.

Beyond that, nearly everyone and everything comes together just right to make this film work, from the impeccable casting, to Buck Henry’s knowing and spot on screenplay, to Nichols’ careful direction. The film is also unnecessarily beautiful, it almost seems like an act of pure vanity on the filmmaker’s part to make it look so good, though I shouldn’t really complain about that! I don’t think I could really name something about this film I dislike, though I’m sure it has it’s faults, I just don’t care about them.

2 responses to “Catch-22 (Nichols, 1970)

  1. You know, I’ve heard that it’s really not that bad, and when I learned that Bob Newhart was in it, that piqued my interest. I feel like I need to read the book first, though; I’ve tried once, but I had a hard time getting into it.

  2. I’ve been curious about this even since I say it listed in one of your previous lists of your canonical films. I was thinking– Mike Nichols? an adaptation from the 70s? practically forgotten? how intriguing! . . .

    Now I have to say, for honesty’s sake, that I’m very curious to see if any of this would seem as striking to my eyes at it certainly has been to ours, because my strong preemptive urge is to think that we would disagree strongly about this one! But I don’t know . . . wasn’t Giuseppe Rotunno cinematographer on this one?

    As a rule, I think Nichols is a blowhard and a sell-out; Buck Henry can be very funny but I basically think the same of him, and I’m not a fan of the novel as I recall. And yet, to balance the scales, I think of George Roy Hill’s film of “Slaughterhouse-Five”, which I’m NOT hailing as a masterpiece, but I DID think was haunting, esp. in its Dresden sequences which Miroslav Ondricek (Amadeus, Valmont) lensed so beautifully. So if I were to find this “Catch-22” as effective as Hill’s Slaughterhouse, I will consider you absolved for feeling so personally strong about it!

    –I apologize for my Dead Ringers rant, I hadn’t slept for like 25 hours when I penned it and I’m afraid I didn’t have much of a point to make. I had this sublimely weird dream about a East European horror film, which somehow in the course of a marathon sleep (my sleep is VERY screwed up right now) reemerged in a 2nd dream in which I had somehow “recorded” the first dream on an audio cassette player, which was allowing me to proudly replay the first dream for my brother, as a kind of film I had made? It veered from a kind of Guy Maddin fake-30s b&w to Argento fullblown gelled-out technicolor, and seemed to star Jessica Harper the first time around and Teresa Wright the 2nd time? And it was all supposed to be somehow (I think “Sweet Movie”, which I haven’t seen, was some kind of shadowy template for all this too) an allegorical attack on Fascism? In the 1st installment there was this awesome tracking shot up a staircase in full Suspiria-style lighting, upon which lay a succession of murdered female corpses, all kind of trussed up like rotisserie chickens and each seeming to wear somekind of Goth or s&m clothing; my Jessica Harper heroine/incarnation was moving up these bloodsoaked stairs and only a hall upon which a trail of corpses let to the open door of a bathroom from which this succubus emerged, who apparently in some kind of “Eyes without a Face”esque way was severing body parts to reconstruct herself, and she had this bound victim with her, who looked vaguely like, I think maybe, some girl from The Spy Who Loved Me with blond braided hair, and the succubus was threatening to cup off her lips with a razor blade, and I was actually kind of closing my eyes shut to my own dream while trying to negotiate (in the form of Jessica Harper) with the succubus to let her go?– which seemed finally to succeed and it was suddenly daylight and I and a troop of witchhunters were descending from the attic of this house but really feeling that the succubus was about to reemerge in some horrific attack . . .

    And then in the 2nd installent it was b&w but bits of red started to “bleed” into the image, until suddenly there were these surreal cuts to a close-up of a white cat eating some human victim somehow (traces of Argento’s Inferno here, where there’s a surprise cut to a closeup of a cat eating, what is implied is food from the witches’ victims!) and the camera is splattered with blood and I’m triumphantly telling my brother, “See I made that!” & the next sequence is about to start and my brother hits stop and says, Wait, I’ve got to pee and I’m like, I have to pee too, so we make for a bathroom break before continuing to watch the next sequence and then I woke up (and had to pee).

    Oh, how sublime I felt though, watching my little ‘horror film’ that 2nd time! I was (and, obviously, am) giddy with the odd sense of triumph in the thing!

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