323. CATCH-22 (1970)

“You’re a very weird person, Yossarian.”–General Dreedle, Catch-22

“When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.”–Randall Jarrell, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Mike Nichols

FEATURING: Alan Arkin, Martin Balsam, Jack Gilford, , , , Bob Newhart, , Paula Prentiss, , Richard Benjamin, , Charles Grodin, , Gina Rovere, Olimpia Carlisi

PLOT: The story is told out of sequence, but begins with Capt. Yossarian, an Air Force bombardier at a Mediterranean air base, being stabbed in the back by what appears to be a fellow soldier. This leads directly into the first of a recurring sequence of flashbacks where Yossarian tends to a young wounded airman in the belly of his bomber. Further flashbacks reveal a protagonist of questionable sanity in the company of equally insane flyboys, including a quartermaster who schemes with the Group commanders to create a black market syndicate that morphs into a fascist regime.

Catch-22 (1970)

BACKGROUND:

  • Joseph Heller published the absurdist comic novel “Catch-22” in 1961, based on his own experiences as a bombardier in World War II.
  • Orson Welles had attempted and failed to acquire the rights to the novel, a fact Mike Nichols was not aware of when he cast him as General Dreedle.
  • Catch-22 was Nichols’ followup to his smash hit The Graduate. He once again worked with screenwriter Buck Henry (who also played Colonel Korn here). The screenplay took two years to produce.
  • Filming (in Rome and Mexico) took more than six months to complete. Cinematographer David Watkins would only shoot the exterior scenes between two and three o’clock in the afternoon, so that the lighting would be exactly the same. This meant the cast and crew were sitting around for long periods of time with nothing to do, which led to resentment on the set.
  • Catch-22 is credited as the first American film to show a person sitting on a toilet, and the first modern Hollywood film to feature full-frontal nudity.
  • Second Unit director John Jordan plummeted to his death when he fell out of the camera plane while daring to film a flight scene without being strapped into a harness.
  • Although the film did not bomb at the box office, it was overshadowed by ‘s similar (but lighter and more realistic) M*A*S*H*.
  • George Clooney is producing a new adaptation of the novel as a six-part miniseries scheduled to air on Hulu.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The gruesome death of Hungry Joe, who’s cut in half by an airplane propeller while standing on a platform in the beautiful blue Tyrrhenian Sea.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Urine I.V.; offscreen portrait switching; friendly fire for hire

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Catch-22 was a novel of paradoxical, circular logic and inverted moral geometries. The certifiably insane Yossarian is saner than his schizoid comrades and commanders—but only because he is the only one who realizes he is crazy. The movie doesn’t soar to the heights of the book, but it creates its own weird all-star universe of moral decay and dystopian reasoning. There aren’t twenty-one other catches. One catch serves as a catchall. Catch-22. It’s the best there is.


Original trailer for Catch-22

COMMENTS: Adapting Catch-22, a novel whose building blocks are wordplay, association, and repetition rather than straightforward narrative, was a daunting task for screenwriter Buck Henry. Working in close collaboration with director Mike Nichols and eschewing the fool’s errand of abridging the novel literally, he produced a script which captured both the epic scope and grim humor of Heller’s classic, but on cinematic terms. Take the way the film stages the classic reveal of the meaning of “Catch-22.” In the book, it’s a punchy dialogue exchange; in the film, it’s one of many elaborately staged tracking shots. Doc Daneeka and Yossarian walk across the airfield, shouting their counterpoint dialogue (which plays like a blackhearted Abbot and Costello routine) over the roar of the bomber engines. At the end of the conversation, Yossarian climbs into a plane as it’s taxiing down the runway—the debate ends with him flying another mission, even though none had been scheduled. He hangs his head out of the hatch on the underside of the plane and concedes, with admiration, “that’s some catch, that Catch-22.” We see a shot of Doc Daneeka’s inverted head agreeing: “it’s the best there is!”

Heller’s wicked paradox is strong enough that this scene could have been done in a simple two-shot and still had an enormous impact, but the movie stages it as an action sequence that not only allows us to admire the comic timing, but to soak in the atmosphere of the base at the same time. Although it’s inevitable that a film adaptation of a beloved classic novel will fail to satisfy many fans, Henry’s script does a tremendous job of taking translating the spirit of Heller’s words from the page to the screen. Although many viewers find the constant flashbacks and digressions to be confusing, the screenplay arguably imposes more structure on the material than the book does. In the novel each chapter seemed disconnected from the rest, usually titled after a particular character but wandering from event to event within the chapter as one incident requires elucidation by another, stream-of-consciousness style. The movie starts near the end of the story, then circulates through flashbacks to come back to where it starts, so that the second time we see the scene it has an emotional and informational context lacking in our introduction. The movie’s plot also focuses all of Yossarian’s paranoia and alienation on one event—the recurring flashback of him in the belly of the bomber with the wounded boy—while tracking the threatening rise of Milo Minderbinder’s syndicate as a parallel subplot. There is plenty of time for the vignettes exploring the absurdity of army life, like Yossarian accepting a medal of honor in the nude. And, according to Steven Sorderberg’s DVD commentary, the few segments that Henry invented in the book’s style met with Heller’s approval (“I wish I’d thought of that” was his actual quote about Milo’s chilling final line, “Then they’ll understand”). Meanwhile, Nichols goes all out with elaborate tracking shots that will go unnoticed by the average viewer, but imply a level of production value and attention to detail that comes through subconsciously, at the very least.

What everyone will notice, and the film’s chief appeal at the time, is the cast, which is insanely good. Arkin is the perfect Yossarian—physically, he’s swarthy and hairy, masculine enough that his cowardice seems born of rational reflection rather than natural mousiness, and perfectly “Assyrian.” He conveys the character’s tricky balance of comic frustration and resigned doom, peppered with flare-ups of compassion and idealism. Orson Welles naturally steals the spotlight as the obnoxious blowhard General Dreedle, who arrives with a well-padded WAC girlfriend and a hated son-in-law and orders his own men shot for insufficient brown-nosing. Bob Newart, then a relative unknown, impresses in his sketch as the reluctant squadron commander Major Major, giving orders never to be seen by anyone until he’s out of the office opposite a humorously accommodating Sergeant (Norman Fell), trying to sneak out the window while Fell keeps asking for clarification. Pretty much everyone gives it their all: Martin Balsam as the indifferent and possibly incompetent Colonel Cathcart, Jon Voight as the scheming and avaricious Milo Minderbinder, Anthony Perkins as the meek and ineffectual chaplain… so many characters that a great turn by Charles Grodin almost goes unnoticed. They are all one-note characters, sure, but woven together they create a multi-dimensional tapestry of an Air Force squad divided between the self-serving officers at the top and the cowering underlings at the bottom, all of whom are united only in the fact that they’ve been driven crazy by the constant threat of death.

Catch-22 isn’t nonstop weirdness, but it sprinkles in the perfect amount of surrealism to illustrate its thesis. First off, there is no denying that almost every character in the film is crazy, utterly bonkers. The few candidates for voices of sanity—Doc Daneeka and a 107-year-old Italian pimp—deliver their nuggets of wisdom in the form of paradoxical riddles. Even Yossarian, the movie’s Everyman, is crazy. He doesn’t sit naked in a tree for a comrade’s funeral because he’s faking it; he’s no Corporal Klinger, psychologically malingering. The movie is rooted in the insanity of war, so the insane becomes the expected. The out-of-sequence narrative and returns to that mysterious moment in the clouds help, but things are subtly dreamlike throughout the picture. Notice how there are almost never any extras on the scenes in the airbase—war machines fill those roles. Watch the portrait in Major Major’s office. The final act, where a brothel plays a key role, is frequently (and accurately) described as esque—look for the shot the grandmotherly woman breastfeeding an infant on the streets of Rome after midnight. One of the strangest and most affecting sequences involves Yossarian pretending to be the child of a dead man whose family has arrived to pay their last respects. They play it straight so that it’s never clear if they’re somehow fooled, actually deluded by grief, or just playing along with protocol. It’s a scene that would have fit into a film of the period, if Buñuel possessed such a sentimental morality.

Although it’s well-regarded now, it’s remarkable how little critical love Catch-22 got on its release. Pauline Kael, Richard Schiekel, and Roger Ebert all damned it with faint praise. The most common complaint was that the movie version was too broad and obvious: “so heavy and messagey that the ironies were buried,” Kael complained. Part of Catch-22‘s problem was competition with the more populist and approachable M*A*S*H*, but also the fact that studios in 1970 were obviously greenlighting cynical war pictures to capitalize on the counterculture’s anti-Vietnam sentiment. Ironically, this climate may have prejudiced critics against the film, leading them to expect an overblown screed. By setting his story in the middle of a “good” war fought for a just cause, Heller abstracted the story: it clearly wasn’t a criticism of U.S. policy in World War II, but a tale that took on a universal, existential air. The book was also an attack on 1950s corporatism (the Syndicate parodies the Cold war slogan “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country”), and on McCarthyism (in the novel an officer require anachronistic “loyalty oaths” as a selfish power play)—but no one today reads the novel for insights into Eisenhower-era America. They read it because the horrific depiction of bureaucracy as a weapon unprincipled elites use against helpless ordinary people still resonates, and because Yossarian’s insanely rational fear of death invites us to reassess our own priorities. There is nothing in the film version that forces viewers to abandon any of those interpretations. Now that we’re out from under Vietnam’s shadow, we can see that clearly, and approach the movie as it’s own weird, disquieting delight. The idea that this wartime story could only be understood and appreciated in peacetime, when its warnings were not needed, is one that might appeal to Joseph Heller’s twisted sense of humor.

Giles Edwards adds: To paraphrase the late William Tecumseh Sherman, “Bureaucracy is Hell”. Mike Nichols’ Catch-22 is that rarest of War Movies in which we never see any actual combat—the bombing of countless fish off the coast of a small Italian village not-with-standing. The enemy, aside from the “everyone” out to kill Yossarian, is not the German army, but the nascent military-industrial complex. Or, more precisely, the pinhead managers thereof. Milo Minderbinder, who begins innocently enough as a mess officer trying to make a quick buck for the “Syndicate,” becomes the embodiment of administrative evil. His machinations evolve into something grand and terrible (albeit lucrative). Culminating somehow in the death of a faultless Italian prostitute, Minderbinder’s actions as the antagonist (aided by Colonel Cathcart and Lieutenant Colonel Korn) are the driving force behind the sinister weirdness that takes root in Catch-22, becoming a palpable evil in the film’s dark, second half. The flits of perspective and eccentricities of the characters certainly help Catch-22 make the list; Minderbinder’s maniacal focus on his syndicate cement its place there.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…stumbles its way through distended burlesque, and contrived stylism to its ultimate root theme: antisocial nihilism.”–Variety (contemporaneous)

“It’s a flawed film, hampered by weird tonal shifts and an overpopulated cast. But, 31 years later, Catch-22‘s chilliness seems forgivable, its vision of a military (and a nation) ruled by gung-ho capitalists, shameless opportunists, and evil yes-men as prescient and incisive as ever.”–Nathan Rabin, The A.V. Club (DVD)

Catch-22 is nobody’s favorite film, but it’s still an impressive show — funny, bizarre, and remote at the same time. Its all-star casting was a major deal in 1970, and every hot actor wanted a crack at one of Heller’s dozens of weird characters.”–Glenn Erickson, DVD Talk (DVD)

IMDB LINK: Catch-22 (1970)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Catch-22 (1970) – Overview – Turner Classic Movies’ Catch-22 page

Some are More Yossarian than Others – A Catch-22-inspired 1970 profile of director Mike Nichols for Time magazine

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller’s original novel

HOME VIDEO INFO: Paramount release Catch-22 on DVD in 2001 and reissued it several times, most recently in 2017 (buy). We believe that the releases are the same, except for the cover art; at least, the commentary track is retained, which is the only feature of serious interest (the original disc also included the trailer and a photo gallery). That commentary is a gem, with the knowledgeable hosting director Mike Nicholls in a discussion that ranges from technical shop talk to anecdotes about Orson Welles.

Paramount has also licensed the film for video-on-demand, with multiple purchase or rental options (buy or rent).

As of this writing Catch-22 has not been released on Blu-ray, an oversight we hope will be corrected in the near future.

(This movie was nominated for review by “Robin.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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  1. I know I’ve already said my piece on this movie, but I would like to suggest a competing “Indelible Image”.

    As the Minderbinder-induced nightmare descends upon the airbase and the nearby Italian city, the once relaxed atmosphere of the formerly “mom-and-pop”-style bordellos gets brutally mechanized. Yossarian scurrying past unending lines of of weary American GIs waiting for an assigned room with an assigned prostitute is as psychologically haunting as Hungry Joe’s dramatic death is viscerally haunting.

    That’s not to say that what the GIs got up to during leave was all giggles & sunshine, but the assembly-line developments rendered the entire thing both soulless as well as callous.

  2. I’ll have to take a second look at this. I enjoyed the novel but it seemed totally unfilmable, and the idea of adapting it to the big screen struck me as an absurd and pointless vanity project, so I’ve always avoided this movie, despite the involvement of a credible director and cast. But if you guys put it on your list there must be something worthwhile going on here, so I’ll check it out and let you know what I think.

    • Vanity project? I wouldn’t be surprised. Pointless? Less so.

      I’m glad you’re giving it a chance — I suspect you won’t be disappointed. The only disappointment I had with the movie was that its tenor changed from farcical nihilism to nihilistic nihilism about half-way through.