Director/screenwriter Lewis John Carlino’s career was not all that prolific, but it was punctuated by a handful of very significant high points. After writing three scripts for television, John Frankenheimer took Carlino’s screenplay for Seconds (1966) and produced a paranoid classic. Much of Seconds feels like a feature-length episode of The Twilight Zone–which I mean as a high compliment. The story of an unfulfilled middle-aged man who decides to change his appearance and identity to go live with a secret society of “reborns” is a chilling representation of what a man might do to escape what Thoreau once called a life “of quiet desperation.” The pitch-black ending is really something to behold. Seconds is a brave, powerful film with a great lead performance by a never better Rock Hudson. It was one hell of feature screenwriting debut for Carlino.
Screenplays for Mark Rydell’s adaptation of a DH Lawrence novella (The Fox), and a gangster film starring Kirk Douglas called The Brotherhood followed in 1968. Neither received great notices, but four years later, Michael Winner’s direction of the Carlino written Charles Bronson vehicle proved to be a solid hit. The film’s wordless 16 minute opening sequence is a model of tension and efficiency. The Mechanic is also the rare Charles Bronson film that holds up today. In fact, the construction of The Mechanic is so solid that the Jason Statham remake from 2011 – which maintains much of Carlino’s blueprint – is pretty damn good too. If you’re keeping score at home, that means Carlino is responsible for both a good Charles Bronson film and a good Jason Statham film–a rare double.
Carlino’s next three screenplays (Honor Thy Father, A Reflection of Fear, and Crazy Joe) came and went without much notice, but his cumulative work did lead to his first opportunity as a director with 1976’s The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea (which he also wrote), starring Kris Kristofferson and Sarah Miles. Based upon a Mishima novel, Sailor is a mix of erotic drama, thriller, and to be honest, incomprehensible storytelling. That being said, as hot messes go, it’s pretty hot. Despite its weak reviews and poor box office, the film did score Miles a Golden Globe nomination for best actress in a drama.
The next year Carlino earned his first and only Oscar nomination in the category of best adapted screenplay for I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, starring Kathleen Quinlan as a young woman in treatment for schizophrenia. The film’s depictions of mental illness and its overall melodramatic tone haven’t aged well, but the nomination did set up Carlino to return to the director’s chair and create what many (including myself) would consider his masterpiece:
1979’s The Great Santini.
While The Great Santini didn’t make a huge mark at the box office, its critical acclaim was almost universal. Carlino’s screenplay adaptation of the Pat Conroy novel and his sensitive direction of the film are true models in how to make a great family drama. As Marine fighter pilot “Bud” Meechum, a near career best Robert Duvall plays a warrior at peace time who feels a loss of purpose and takes out his frustrations on his son (a never better Michael O’Keefe). As Ben, O’Keefe is a star basketball player at his local high school who can’t beat his dad at one on one in the driveway. There is a scene in the film of Bud antagonizing Ben during one of their match ups where Bud takes the basketball and continually bounces it off of Ben’s head when Ben tries to walk away from the game. It is positively excruciating to watch because it feels so lived-in and real. The Great Santini is a great film about a young man trying to make peace with an intolerable father and then due to tragic circumstances, never gets the chance. Ben then has to find a way to forgive his father in absentia. For their extraordinary work, both Duvall and O’Keefe were recognized by the Academy in the lead and supporting actor categories, respectively. I haven’t met many people who have seen The Great Santini, but every one of those happy few has testified to their love for it.
In 1980, Carlino’s screenplay of Resurrection starring Ellen Burstyn landed in theaters to some acclaim. The Daniel Petrie directed film tells the story of a woman who survives a car crash and then discovers she has the power to heal people earned Burstyn an Oscar nod for best actress.
Carlino directed just one more film in his career, 1983’s critically reviled sex comedy, Class, starring Jacqueline Bisset, Rob Lowe, and Andrew McCarthy. Five years later, Carlino’s final screen credit would be for writing Haunted Summer, a 1988 dramatization of authors Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and Mary Shelley spending a season of philosophical conversation and debauchery together.
Haunted Summer would be Carlino’s final film credit. His career never quite recovered from the failure of Class. While his resume is relatively sparse in volume, he has at least two masterpieces to his credit with Seconds and The Great Santini. People live their whole lives without touching that level of greatness.
Carlino did it twice.
Lewis John Carlino died quietly eight days ago. He was 88 years old.