“We were a couple before we ever met.”
“Frankie and Johnny” is an old ballad whose original authorship is unknown and whose date of origin is estimated to be sometime in the mid-19th century. The song has inspired a number of films over the past 75 years, including Her Man (1930, Pathe, with Helen Twelvetrees), Frankie and Johnnie (1936, Republic, with Helen Morgan), and the 1966 Elvis Presley vehicle Frankie And Johnny (UA). The most recent effort is the 1991 release Frankie and Johnny starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer, a film based on Terrence McNally’s play “Frankie and Johnny at the Clair de Lune.” The original two-actor stage play featured Kathy Bates and F. Murray Abraham, and was a considerably darker tale than the version fashioned for the screen.
Paramount has now released Frankie and Johnny on DVD in a very nice-looking widescreen transfer.
Frankie is a waitress at a New York City neighborhood café. After a series of unhappy relationships, Frankie lives a very quiet, guarded life. Into the café and her life comes Johnny, a recently released ex-con who’s hired as a short-order cook. Johnny soon falls for Frankie and starts to pursue her vigorously, but Frankie’s past causes her to erect a shield to protect herself from another potentially hurtful experience.
Don’t let the brevity of the film’s synopsis fool you. This is a film of some depth and perceptiveness. Playwright Terrence McNally has taken his original play, which by all accounts was a much harsher view of the relationship between two struggling individuals, and fashioned it into a more upbeat tale that still retains the many truths, both happy and sad, uplifting and painful, that make up the relationship between two people. While we don’t learn a lot about either of Frankie or Johnny’s background, we learn quite a lot about the reality of their current existences and it all has the ring of the real thing. These are two lonely people. The loneliness is plainly written on Frankie’s face and reinforced by the events of her daily home life. In Johnny’s case, it’s less overt as he manages to hide it with nervous energy and the consuming passion that he gradually develops for Frankie. The obvious loss that has characterized their lives to date is not allowed to overshadow the film, however, and the result is a screen entertainment that is entertaining and uplifting. Much of the film’s good spirit comes from the atmosphere of the café — its compassionate owner Nick, and Frankie’s quirky co-workers, especially good-time-girl Cora and plain-Jane Nedda. But it is the complex and sensitive work of the film’s two stars that make the whole thing work.
Al Pacino is one of my favourite actors. While he’s certainly done better work in other films, I think it’s safe to say that he’s never been more likable than he is in Frankie and Johnny. From time to time in the film, he still turns on the brooding intensity, a characteristic that so often is found in his acting, but on the whole the effect is of a regular guy struggling with the detail of everyday living yet glorying happily in the passion that he has developed for Frankie. Michelle Pfeiffer, one of the true beauties of the American screen, is wonderful as Frankie. Her part is a difficult one because we’ve often encountered her character on film, the woman who’s withdrawn herself from the world because of the hurt of past personal disappointments. Yet far from being stale, her character comes across with freshness and believability. The transformation from the almost gaunt, sallow-faced individual that we first encounter to the Frankie who finally really seems able to open herself up to Johnny is so gradual, we’re almost unaware of it until the last moment. Then when we do, we realize that she’s given us the clues all along in the little snatches of hidden smiles to herself, in the diminished degree of aloofness with her co-workers, and in the brief attempt to reach out and offer help to an abused neighbour. Frankie and Johnny are characters with complex emotions that Pfeiffer and Pacino are both successful in conveying with honesty and sincerity.
Aside from Pacino and Pfeiffer, Frankie and Johnny benefits from a fine supporting cast that includes Kate Nelligan as the ever-available Cora, Jane Morris as Nedda, Hector Elizondo as Nick, and Nathan Lane as Tim, Frankie’s gay neighbour and confidant.
From director Garry Marshall, the pleasure of Frankie and Johnny is not unexpected. Long associated with popular TV series such as Laverne and Shirley and Murphy Brown as well as such successful big screen fare as The Flamingo Kid (1984), Pretty Woman (1990) and the recent The Princess Diaries (2001), Marshall has the common touch that manages to translate seemingly slight material into successful entertainment. His most important contribution to Frankie and Johnny is to prevent the film from becoming too feel-good. While the inevitable happy ending is never in any real doubt, he sees to it that every vignette along the way offers just that little grain of uncertainty, that little dash of reality that life seldom offers any easy routes to happiness. The result is that although the film is almost two hours long, it never drags nor loses our interest in seeing the final resolution.
Paramount contributes to the pleasure of the film by providing us with a fine DVD presentation. The film is delivered in a 1.85:1 anamorphic version that utilizes 17 scene selections. The image is in great shape. It’s crisp and clear, and the colours are vibrant yet natural. Blacks are deep and luxurious and whites are clean. Shadow detail is very good. Edge enhancement is virtually non-existent. Perhaps not the equal of the very best transfers, but not far off it.
A Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix is provided and once again Paramount has done a nice job. The dialogue-driven film is delivered with richness and clarity. The background songs and music engage the surrounds modestly and provide a subtle but effective enveloping atmosphere. A Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo Surround track is also provided as are English subtitles.
The only supplement is the original theatrical trailer, fairly standard for Paramount releases.
The title and a brief synopsis of this film don’t suggest that Frankie and Johnny has much to offer. The reality is very different. Two very fine performances by Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer are aided by director Garry Marshall who allows the emotion of the actors to dominate the story’s various incidents. The result is a most pleasant two hours of entertainment that ultimately leaves one feeling good despite the painful realities of life that the film’s protagonists have to face along the way. Paramount delivers a very fine DVD presentation even though the supplementary content leaves something to be desired. Recommended.