Pennies From Heaven (1981)
Genre: Dark Musical
Walken in Short: He is a pimp. Walken plays a pimp. That should be all you need to know. No? You somehow need more?
Okay, he is a pool-playing, knife-threatening, tap-dancing pimp. I rest my case.
Movie in a Sentence: A philandering Depression-era traveling sheet-music salesman (Steve Martin) leaves his un-amorous wife (Jessica Harper) for a cute and willing school-teacher (Bernadette Peters), but he puts a bun in her oven so he runs away again, and a smooth pimp named Tom (Christopher Walken) can certainly help out a teacher in need, so maybe some music is in order (yeah!), let’s lip-synch to jazzy classics from the period and dance in elaborate and showy Busby Berkeley-style arrangements that sharply contrast their grim and Greatly Depressing reality.
Should You Watch This? Yes. Will you like it? Probably not. It’s the kind of thing that is worth having watched (because it is brilliant and dark and creative) but the experience of actually sitting through it leaves you cold, depressed, and confused about what the director was trying to say.
There are oodles of things to appreciate in this film: the cinematography, the acting, the dancing too, all impressive stuff. But though the oodles abound, when it’s all said and done it was just more Depressing than Great. Watch it, but be in the mood for that kind of story.
Director: Herbert Ross
Writer: Dennis Potter
Available to Own: On DVD and VHS. It’s not common, but it can be found.
Duration: 1 hour and 48 minutes
Similar Films: The only thing I could think of that comes close is another project of writer Dennis Potter called ‘The Singing Detective’. Check out both the original BBC mini-series, and the later American film-version starring Robert Downey Jr.
Actors Other Than Walken: Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, Jessica Harper, Vernel Bagneris
MPAA Rating: ‘R’ – Nothing too bad. There is some colorful language though. For example, Steve Martin’s character says, “…the storekeepers are as dumb and windy as my old granny’s asshole.” Isn’t that nice? Feel free to insert that lovely simile into your own conversations!
Out of Ten I’ll Give It: A seven. A high seven. I can’t go up to eight on this. I don’t care how many great scenes, moments, and performances there are, the film as a whole is depressing. And the only time it isn’t, is when the “music” begins, and we retreat into whichever character’s fantasy we are privy to. But when these tragic and flawed characters become singing dancing caricatures of themselves, it only cheapens any gravitas they may have accrued. If we see “happiness” on the screen, then we also see those quotation marks around it, mocking it, and marking it as inauthentic. Gloomy gloomy gloomy…
Walken Content: A mere 5% in quantity — But his appearance in this film, limited to the single scene, sparks a much-needed explosion of energy to a weighty, dour and seedy narrative. He is a dancing machine! True fans of the Walken NEED to see that scene. It’s impressive to say the least.
Walken Quote: His name is Tom, and Tom is a shark. He is a slick-dressed, smooth-talking pimp on the prowl for new talent. Lulu (Bernadette Peters) enters the bar looking like his next meal. She is savvy enough to recognize a predator, but she is also terribly desperate, and so she has already resigned herself to her fate. She practically starts the conversation with:
“What do you want to do to me?” He is straight-faced: “You must be kidding.” She throws a hail-mary: “Then can you lend me five dollars?” His response: “Lend you? You are kidding.”
General Thoughts: There are some really cool things in this film. They did a good job of recreating several famous paintings and using them as working sets, the most famous being Edward Hopper’s diner-painting Nighthawks.
An actor named Vernel Bagneris plays the stuttering homeless accordion-player who may hide a vicious malignity within his subservient demeanor. It is a relatively small-role, but he is absolutely mesmerizing when he’s on the screen.
I think my biggest problem with this film is that the actors are lip-synching to the original songs, as opposed to singing it themselves. I understand why it was done that way, I do. But it is just so unsatisfying! I don’t need to be reminded that the song ‘Pennies From Heaven’ is fifty-sixty-seventy years old, I know it’s old, and that it’s a classic. Same with ‘Let’s Misbehave’. The characters live their fantasies through the songs as they hear them, I get it.
It’s just not as much fun. There is a distance that is created when they are obviously not the ones singing. It pushes them away from me in these musical scenes when they should be doing everything they can to smother me with their vitality, to somehow counter-act the blah-blah reality that they’re living.
For all of my complaining though, I still say you should watch this. It is brilliant. It is creative. And it is some of the best dancing you will ever see.
Weapon of Choice eat your heart out, this pimp means business!
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This film was only the second time I’d seen Walken (the first being “Annie Hall”–a stunning cameo!) and again, he blew me away. He’s like a bolt of energy and danger, but so seductive! And suave. If you love Walken, also check out his fantastic performance in the ensemble, dark comedy, “Suicide Kings”, a much neglected film, as reformed (?) gangster, Charlie Bartlett, who outwits a hapless gang of preppies, using street smarts, humor and sly psychology to get out of a tense situation. One by one, he charms, cajoles, bullies and head-trips them into screwing up–all except for Ira (Johnny Galecki), whom he dubs “The Man”! lol Walken just rules.