“I love to write people, you know,” the late Lewis John Carlino – who passed away in 2020 at the age of 88 – told The New York Times at the back end of his long career. “I’m trying to get back to subjects that have some affirmation for the human condition. The work that I do from now on should make you feel good about being alive.”
While Lewis John Carlino may have grasped at a more positive set of thematic and narrative concerns late in his career, his work has always bristled with the urgency and intensity that comes from characters deeply at war with themselves and those around them. With only three big screen directorial efforts to his name, Carlino is far more recognised for his much lengthier resume as a screenwriter and playwright. He began writing for the stage with his play The Brick And The Rose; A Collage For Voices, which was first staged in Los Angeles in 1957 before eventually being presented for television as part of the CBS Repertoire Workshop in 1960. The success of the play saw Carlino tapped to write episodes for episodic television, but it was superstar Kirk Douglas who really gave the writer his first crack at big screen work.
Impressed by Carlino’s stage and tele plays, Douglas’ production company hired the writer to adapt David Ely’s novel Seconds for the screen. After shifts during development, the film was eventually directed by John Frankenheimer with an against-type Rock Hudson in the lead role. Carlino’s rock-solid script stood, and the dark, incredibly grim 1966 conspiracy thriller remains one of the great cinematic paranoid nightmares of all time. Though far from being a box office hit, Seconds was highly regarded, and it instantly provided Carlino with the cache needed to move onto a host of further screenwriting gigs.
He adapted D.H Lawrence for Mark Rydell (1967’s The Fox) and Stanton Forbes for William A. Fraker (1972’s A Reflection Of Fear); crafted a number of screenplays for telemovies during the 1970s; and hit big with his own original scripts, most notably for Michael Winner’s much loved 1972 Charles Bronson thriller The Mechanic, and the mobster movies The Brotherhood (1968) and Crazy Joe (1974). In 1973, Carlino moved beyond screenwriting when he created and developed the short-lived TV series Doc Elliot (1973-1974), which starred James Franciscus as a New York doctor who relocates to the backwoods of southern Colorado.
After nearly ten years of success as a screenwriter, Lewis John Carlino made his directorial debut in 1976 with the quietly bizarre cult curio The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea. In a bold and unusual move, Carlino adapted legendarily troubled Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima’s short story for the screen, and transposed the action to England. Starring Sarah Miles and Jonathan Kahn as a widowed mother and son living in a small coastal town whose lives are up-ended by the arrival of Kris Kristofferson’s eponymous seaman, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea is a wild, haunting cacophony of seventies weirdness. Filled with steamy but deeply disturbing sex scenes and wrought utterly uncomfortable by the son’s gaggle of cruelly circling, horribly philosophical and ultimately murderously violent friends, the film suggested Carlino to be a director bound for serious cult status, but he never made anything near this unusual again. The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea remains one of the most curiously hypnotic and strangely horrifying films of the seventies, and that’s really saying something.
After receiving an Oscar nomination in 1977 for his lucid, highly emotional co-write on the adaptation of Joanne Greenberg’s novel I Never Promised You A Rose Garden (an early and now largely sadly forgotten delve into the tragic world of schizophrenia and mental illness), Carlino went on to direct his key work. Adapted from the novel by Pat Conroy (The Prince Of Tides) and boasting an absolutely extraordinary performance from Robert Duvall, 1979’s The Great Santini showcases Carlino’s incredible facility for dialogue and characterisation.
Duvall rages, seethes and grandstands as Bull Meechum, a macho, domineering Marine pilot who makes life hell for his family, and particularly for his teenage son (the superb Michael O’Keefe), who he bullies with seeming delight. Though Duvall and O’Keefe were nominated for Oscars, The Great Santini is something of a forgotten wonder of the seventies, and Carlino has never really gotten the credit that he deserved for this battering masterwork. “I loved its humanity, and I loved its humour,” Carlino told The New York Times in 1980. “The people were very real. They just leaped off the page for me.”
Carlino’s last great work came with his original screenplay for 1980’s grittily mesmerising Resurrection, which stars the Oscar nominated Ellen Burstyn in a towering performance as a woman who briefly dies and comes back to life burdened with strange powers. Directed by fellow Unsung Auteur Daniel Petrie Sr. and co-starring Sam Shepard in a stunning turn, the film is a thought provoking meditation on religion and cynicism in America’s heartland, and deserves a far weightier position when it comes to appreciation of eighties cinema.
Carlino’s final film as a director, meanwhile, would come with the disappointing 1983 teen comedy Class, a middling entry in the desultory eighties sub-genre of older woman/younger man sexcapades. Starring Andrew McCarthy as a sensitive teen who finds his way into the bed of the beautiful mother (Jacqueline Bisset) of his preppy friend (Rob Lowe), Class is horribly average, and features no credited script input from Carlino. In his fascinating memoir Brat: An 80s Story, Andrew McCarthy remembers Carlino as a gentle but deeply frustrated director at war with the film’s producers and backers; while he was aiming for something more akin to the comedic melancholy of The Graduate, they were largely looking to cash in on the craze for teen sex comedies kick started by 1981’s smash hit Porky’s. The result was a mess of a film now solely remembered for its pretty cast and its stupid poster.
A superb writer (his last credited screenplay, disappointingly, was for Ivan Passer’s lugubrious 1988 Byron-Shelley tale Haunted Summer) truly adept at digging right into the complex mental and emotional states of his characters, and a fascinating director who should have made many, many more films, Lewis John Carlino was one of the American film industry’s truly untapped talents.
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