|Let the Devil Wear Black|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 27 June 2000|
Jack (Jonathan Penner), in his twenties, returns to Los Angeles after spending time back East in a mental hospital following the death of his father (Chris Sarandon). He's still a bit unstable, not helped by learning that his mother (Jacqueline Bisset) is making plans to marry his sardonic uncle Carl (Jamey Sheridan). When he's in a toilet stall at one of the many L.A. bars his family owns, a mysterious voice suggests that Carl murdered Jack's father....
If this plot sounds rather like Hamlet, that's because it is.
The script by director Stacy Title and leading actor Penner is one of the most audacious, yet screwily faithful, updatings of Shakespeare to date. While many characters have been dropped or combined, and while Shakespeare's dialog isn't followed, many of the set pieces remain much the same, only with contemporary language and concepts. Soliloquies are out; Jack, the Hamlet character, has to actually talk to someone. The "To be or not to be" speech is transliterated into Jack musing on whether or not he should kill his uncle, not whether he should off himself. Other famous scenes receive much the same treatment, but they're not all equally successful. Hamlet's angry speech to his mother comparing his uncle to his father is reduced to a silly tirade involving a lot of head-swiveling by Penner.
Furthermore, Title and her writing partner have at times adhered too closely to Shakespeare's overall plot, so that the story of "Let the Devil Wear Black" lurches ahead in big, unacknowledged jumps in time. Jack, for instance, is evidently active in the family business between scenes -- but we should have seen more of this. As it is, we are occasionally confused by these chronological leaps.
Modern dress, modern dialog takes on Shakespeare inherently run the risk of pretentiousness, and Title doesn't entirely avoid this here, particularly in Penner's intense but mannered performance. However, the film is energetic and often very imaginative, and most of the performances are outstanding. Jamey Sheridan is supple and sleek as the evil uncle; unlike in Shakespeare's original, he suffers not the slightest pangs of conscience. While this isn't exactly a gangster movie -- the bar business seems legit -- Carl is heading straight into crime, and is quite happy about it. There would have been no point in putting on the play to "catch the conscience of the king" -- this king has no conscience.
Jacqueline Bisset, looking great, is somewhat shortchanged in the adaptation, and her scenes are relatively few. Maury Chaykin, as a bar owner, has a role that's hard to link to the Shakespearian original, but as usual, he delivers an entertainingly flamboyant performance. The Polonious role is taken by busy Philip Baker Hall, but since an equivalent of his son Laertes doesn't exist at all in "Let the Devil Wear Black," Hall's character, Sol Hirsch, has less to do here than Polonious does in Hamlet. On the other hand, the equivalents of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, here as in Shakespeare, two ambitious schoolmates of our hero, have much more to do.
Horatio and a couple of other characters are combined into Satch Rubinstein, played very well by Jonathan Banks, the FBI contact in the TV series "Wiseguy." He has a melancholy aura but also looks as tough and homely as a steel barrel, and is completely devoted to Jack. Banks should work a great deal more than he does.
Mary-Louise Parker is both decadent and delicate as the Ophelia equivalent, Julia; she never quite goes nuts, as Ophelia does, but to compensate, she and Jack have a couple of brief, intense sex scenes. This is probably the first Shakespearian adaptation to feature Pepto-Bismol as a lubricant for anal sex, and the first in which Hamlet washes his face in a toilet bowl.
Penner veers from an intense lethargy to an intense, well, intensity, sometimes bouncing about as though his pants were full of tarantulas. It's certainly a committed performance, and at times, it's exactly what the movie calls for; there's a fine, edgy scene between Jack and his two (treacherous) chums and a couple of cholos down by the docks. Lobo Sebastian, as the more talkative of the two, gives a genuinely scary performance.
"Let the Devil Wear Black" is a phenomenally mixed bag; it's courageous, but pretentious; the photography by Jim Whitaker is occasionally excellent, sometimes foolishly flamboyant; the performances range from carefully judged underplaying (Hall, Banks, Bisset) to carefully judged overplaying (Sheridan, Chaykin), to a mad mix of both (Penner, Penner, Penner). Macbeth has been modernized several times, including twice as gangster movies ("Joe Macbeth," "Men of Respect"), but Hamlet isn't often dealt with in this manner. For Title and Penner to tackle it shows a great deal of brass and sass. It's a particularly difficult movie to either recommend or warn against; it really is one of a kind.
So, one hopes, is the novel (to me) method of presenting the chapter selections. Images from the film are scattered over the screen like broken glass; when you click on one, the scene begins playing out in a red-tinted shard at the top of the screen. You can't actually see enough of the image to know if it's the one you want, so you have to wait for the right line.
The extras are minimal; there are two radically different trailers, one emphasizing the crime aspects of the story, while only faintly hinting that it's an adaptation of Hamlet. The other heavily emphasizes the Shakespearian connection. There are also some unedited clips from a behind-the-scenes video shoot which aren't entirely without interest, but would have been more interesting if they'd been trimmed.
The sound is professional enough, even -- like the movie -- pretentious at times, as when the soundtrack goes all hollow-sounding toward the end, for no obvious reason. Yet it's clearly not an error.
It's certainly worth seeing, once; it's as likely that you'll consider "Let the Devil Wear Black" a real gem as you will use the disc as a coaster.
If you liked this DVD you might also like these other movies based on Hamlet; Johnny Hamlet (1972), Strange Brew (1983) and yes that is not a typo, 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), A Thousand Acres(1997), Men of Respect (1991), My Own Private Idaho (1991), Big Business (1988), Ran (1985), Catch My Soul (1974), Throne of Blood (1957), Joe MacBeth (1955), Forbidden Planet (1956), Yellow Sky (1948), Tempest (1982).