Beyond these practical reasons, Huston felt a deep connection with Irish culture, which gave him a "serenity and a tranquility that assuages the spirit," as he put it in an interview shortly after the rising cost of living made him reluctantly decide to move elsewhere. Even then he remained loyal to his adopted country. "I go back to Ireland," he said, "to lick the wounds that have been inflicted on me in the outer world." Unfortunately for Huston, he acquired a number of wounds in Ireland as well. The critical and commercial failure of Sinful Davey was one of them.
There actually was a Sinful Davey, and Huston's movie is based on the memoir this rascal published in Edinburgh in 1821, written by "Himself, While Under Sentence of Death" and grandiosely titled The Life of David Haggart, Alias John Wilson, Alias John Morison, Alias Barney McCoul, Alias John McColgan, Alias Daniel O'Brien, Alias The Switcher. The book's frontispiece is a drawing of Haggart sitting on a bench in his death-row cell, one leg tied to the floor with a lengthy rope, pen and ink on a shelf nearby. He appears to be quite content, and looks very little like John Hurt, who plays him in the movie. He was executed on July 18, 1821, for "the murder of the late Thomas Morrin, turnkey in the jail of Dumfries," according to the preface of his book; but in prison he expressed remorse for his crimes, the preface adds, and "left the world a sincere penitent."
Huston's movie begins at about the time the real Haggart was waiting for the noose. Davey is in the army when we first meet him, marching in formation and beating a bass drum. But military discipline is definitely not for him; instead, his ambition is to commit as many sins as his father did before getting hanged for a botched robbery at 21. Deserting the corps by jumping off a bridge and floating away in his drum, Davey hooks up with a pickpocket named MacNab, and escapades galore soon follow, ranging from robbery to seduction. He's always in some kind of trouble, and while he sometimes escapes on his own, other times he's bailed out by Annie, a childhood friend who quietly loves him and wishes he'd get religion and settle down.
A turning point comes when Davey meets the Duke of Argyll, the very man who had his father hanged. Davey ingratiates himself with the duke and duchess, pulls off a heist during their fancy-dress ball, gets caught when Annie foils his plan for his own good, and runs for his life in the most elaborate of the movie's many chases. Like the real Davey, he winds up in the death house; but Huston grants him a last-minute getaway, and in the end it looks like he might possibly settle down with Annie after all.
Sinful Davey has an enjoyable cast, energetically headed by Hurt, who appears to be having a great time even when the story gets so far-fetched that even his fine talent can't make it believable. Among the veteran British actors on hand are Ronald Fraser as MacNab the pickpocket, Pamela Franklin as loyal Annie, Nigel Davenport as a constable on Davey's trail, inimitable Robert Morley as the good-natured duke, and Donal McCann, who would later deliver a superb performance in Huston's last film, The Dead (1987), as another aristocrat who crosses Davey's path. They do what they can to make the movie work, and Huston kicks in as much action, color, and buffoonery as the screen will hold, helped by two gifted cinematographers, Freddie Young and Edward Scaife, and a lot of Irish scenery. In the end, though, James R. Webb's screenplay is too patchy and episodic to gather much momentum, and the story's sheer silliness eventually catches up with it, making the whole affair seem more frantic than funny.
I suspect Sinful Davey was inspired less by Haggart's memoir than by the phenomenal success of Tony Richardson's picaresque Tom Jones (1963), based on Henry Fielding's eighteenth-century novel, six years earlier. In his New York Times review of Sinful Davey, critic Vincent Canby mischievously speculated that United Artists agreed to finance it because they thought it came from the author of Tom Jones, not the screenwriter of Guns for San Sebastian (1968). Canby places Sinful Davey into Huston's "tired period," and Huston might not have disagreed. "I made a series of films between 1968 and 1973," he wrote in An Open Book, "that were either outright failures or, at best, only moderately successful." The first was Sinful Davey and the last was The MacKintosh Man (1973), after which The Man Who Would Be King (1975) ended the losing streak by becoming a smash hit. Of these, only Fat City (1972) has been substantially upgraded by critics in later years, although Huston authority John McCarty makes a case for Sinful Davey as a savvy reflection on youth during the tumultuous 1960s. Calling it "a mordant black comedy about crime and criminals that harks back to Huston's Beat the Devil (1953) and looks forward to Prizzi's Honor (1985)," McCarty argues in The Films of John Huston that its humor simply had too much "subtlety" to be detected by critics and audiences.
Huston didn't accept all the blame when Sinful Davey flopped. "The picture was a light-hearted romp...and, I thought, an altogether delightful affair," he wrote. Then he handed it to executive producer Walter Mirisch and was "aghast" when he saw it again. Mirisch had "given full sway to his creative impulses," Huston complained, making the story a flashback by transferring a scene from the end to the beginning, and adding a "dreadful narration" to boot. "What was rather blithe and unserious became clotted and cluttered and distasteful," he told a biographer. Mirisch, meanwhile, told the same biographer that Huston had missed a couple of preview screenings where people streamed for the exits, forcing him to make it "more accessible and less confusing." When that didn't work, UA yanked it from release after a week.
Whatever the reasons, Sinful Davey was a box-office fiasco that nobody has particularly wanted to own. But it's also an interesting document from Huston's tired period, showing what can happen when a great director and a major studio clash over a project that was probably fated from the beginning not to click.
Director: John Huston
Producer: William N. Graf
Screenplay: James R. Webb
Cinematographers: Freddie Young, Edward Scaife
Film Editing: Russell Lloyd
Production Design: Stephen Grimes
Music: Ken Thorne
With: John Hurt (Davey Haggart), Pamela Franklin (Annie), Nigel Davenport (Richardson), Ronald Fraser (MacNab), Robert Morley (Duke of Argyll), Fidelma Murphy (Jean Carlisle), Maxine Audley (Duchess of Argyll), Fionnuala Flanagan (Penelope), Donal McCann (Sir James Campbell), Allan Cuthbertson (Captain Douglas), Eddie Byrne (Yorkshire Bill), Niall MacGinnis (Boots Simpson), Noel Purcell (Jock), Judith Furse (Mary), Francis de Wolff (Andrew), Paul Farrell (Bailiff), Geoffrey Golden (Warder McEwan), Leon Collins (Doctor Gresham)
by David Sterritt