Q (OR Q THE WINGED SERPENT)
The film has two titles. The main suspect for the extended alternative title is Samuel Z Arkoff. He was the head of American International Pictures and the inspiration for the less than honest film producer in the cynical comedy Get Shorty. Q is dominated by the performance of Michael Moriarty as Jimmy Quinn. When a critic suggested to Arkoff that the film Q consisted of ‘fine acting by Moriarty surrounded by dreck’, the notorious producer and Hollywood role model smiled and replied, ‘The dreck was me.’ As a title, Q was not likely to attract a B Movie audience. Arkoff, or someone, added the Winged Serpent. Samuel Z Arkoff was a man who was financially responsible, or, as his friends would have said, cute.
Although financed by Arkoff, Larry Cohen wrote, produced and directed Q. Most of his movies were low budget horror and Blaxploitation. These genres and his films were aimed at specific audiences, and quality was not always important. The films, because they had a lot of action, did not require an attention span. The young could giggle at cheap special effects and be glib about dodgy dialogue. Larry Cohen also wrote scripts for TV. His responsibility to the networks was to provide the familiar and routine. His script for Phone Booth was accepted by upper-tier Hollywood, and a half decent movie was the result. Made with a proper budget Phone Booth demonstrated that there was competent work inside the man. Cohen enjoyed, though, being in control and was happiest as lord and master of low budget productions. Larry Cohen made 27 movies and wrote, produced and directed most of them.
It is tempting to compare Cohen with B Movie auteur Samuel Fuller. The two men were friends, and Fuller appeared in a Cohen movie. The comparison, though, flatters Larry Cohen who said that the most enjoyable aspect of movie making was the feeling of omnipotence. ‘I felt I was infallible,’ said Cohen. That attitude ensures things get done but it has unfortunate side effects including contempt for an audience and valuing risk taking over successful creation. These side effects are evident in Q the Winged Serpent. It is a bold B movie but uneven. Scenes are rushed, and the film lacks rhythm. If Cohen could have slowed the action just a little, he might have been given credit for anticipating the capricious anarchism of Japanese master filmmaker Takeshi Kitano. The Chicago policeman disguised as a mime artist is an eccentric moment worthy of a Kitano thriller.
The plot of the film is this. A winged serpent nests in the roof of the Chrysler Building. When not eating Chicago citizens, the bird worries about his offspring. Apart from being very big the flying serpent is more than a bird. The winged serpent is a God evoked by Aztec rituals that are being practised on the streets of Chicago by a really crazy looking character. The same character is underdeveloped which may be why he likes to wear an Aztec mask. The notion of an irresponsible and not particularly useful God is the most interesting idea in the picture. Jimmy Quinn, who is on the run from jewel robbers, discovers the nest in the Chrysler Building and leads the police to the roof. First, though, Quinn insists on being paid a million dollars. His main concern is not the welfare of the Chicago population but transforming his day-to-day existence. Cohen has been described as a social critic but there is little debate about the limits of American capitalism in Q. Yet the movie has a hard urban edge, and the atmosphere between people is sour. Expletives feature and are frequent. They do not relate to exasperation or surprised amusement as they do in films today. The expletives are snarled by the inarticulate and they exhibit the defiant contempt of the disillusioned. The one relationship that is analysed in the movie, that between Quinn and his girlfriend, is a failure between a decent woman and a man who is unwilling to understand and mitigate his limitations. The authorities agree to pay the million dollars to Quinn but they neither honour the deal nor show sympathy for potential victims. Their main concern is their accountability to voters and bosses.
Michael Moriarty is lively and inventive as Quinn but not as good as some critics have suggested. His performance is inconsistent. In his defence Moriarty was obliged to incorporate improvised lines from Cohen as scenes were being filmed. At times Moriarty is like Richard Widmark and in others he resembles young Robert De Niro. Although the changing tone of Moriarty is hard work for the viewer it is unsurprising because the film is pitched somewhere between the post-war cynicism of Samuel Fuller and the post-modern despair of Martin Scorsese. Despite the wandering style of Michael Moriarty the role of Jimmy Quinn resurrects two characters played by Richard Widmark. Quinn may be a hustler driven by the need for money but he has an unrecognised gift as a piano player. In Night And The City the character played by Widmark is described as ‘an artist without an art’. And in Pick Up On South Street, the Samuel Fuller noir masterpiece, Widmark was excellent as a hustler who, because of his desire and need for money, ignored pleas to consider the greater good.
Unlike other humans Jimmy Quinn is ignored by the winged serpent. The similarity of the names, Q compared with Quinn, suggests that Cohen thinks of his failed hustler as a character above normal humanity, something similar to how James Joyce imagined ordinary man Leopold Bloom in mythic terms. Quinn the failure may be reprehensible but he will experience an odyssey beyond successful men. ‘I am afraid of many things but I have never been afraid of heights,’ says Quinn. The conformists use their existence to achieve success and climb the social scale. What the conformists who avoid the hardship of failure do not realise is that they have an inverted form of vertigo that prevents them from facing hardship and insecurity or, as it is often described, life in the gutter. The ambition of normal men and women is timidity and a sacrifice of adventure.
Names are important to Cohen in Q. The deaths caused by the winged serpent are investigated by two detectives called Shepherd and Powell. David Carradine plays Shepherd, and Richard Roundtree is Powell, The somnambulism of Carradine may have inspired the later sleepy performances of Keanu Reeves. Roundtree has energy and aggression. Shepherd is a good cop because he realises the responsibility to his Chicago flock. He exists to protect and save lives. Powell is the bad cop, and his name indicates he is in the job because he has an unsavoury need for power. There will be no odyssey for conformist Powell. But the conscience and sense of responsibility of Shepherd are important to the rapport he has with the low life man who can be compared to Ulysses.
Although there are a couple of good lines in Q the dialogue is mainly grim. It does not help that the scenes are played too fast and dubbing is overused. Michael Moriarty and Candy Clark work hard to lift the routine dialogue in their scenes of domestic strife but their excess effort is one of the reasons their characters lack focus. At times Moriarty looks like a man impersonating a kaleidoscope. Admittedly Cohen has his tongue in his cheek but the characters apart from Jimmy Quinn are dull, and, although they should be uninspired so they can be compared with the vital energy of Quinn, the clichés that come out of their mouths could have been trimmed. Despite the failures there are moments in the script that do appeal.
Powell asks Shepherd, ‘Did you ever find that guy’s head?’
‘Oh, it’ll turn up,’ says Shepherd.
When the really crazy looking Aztec enthusiast is confronted in the middle of his attempt to skin his next victim and prepare a sacrifice, Shepherd orders the villain, ‘Drop that scalpel.’
Somebody hopes that the winged serpent will be tempted to leave Chicago and nest in New York. He believes that this might happen ‘because New York is famous for good eating.’
But that is about as good as it gets. There is, though, a pleasure in watching dull men somehow prevail in impossible circumstances. At the end of the film the actors look as surprised by the defeat of the winged serpent as the audience must have been. The Chrysler Building is a good location, and its Gothic style suggests a natural home for an uncaring and ravenous God. The final shootout at the Chrysler Building reverses what happens in King Kong but the winged serpent, like Kong, has a poignant death on a nearby roof where his giant wings flap as he expires. Of course, Gods are not destroyed as easily as random birdlife, and the end of the film makes clear that the dull human victors, despite being good eggs, will have more battles to fight.
Howard Jackson has had five books published by Red Rattle Books. His latest book Choke Bay is now available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the other books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.