Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / Charles Willeford — Guthrie-esque hobo, World War II hero, pulp-fiction genius — was one of the best crime writers of his generation, influential yet under-appreciated. Among his many books, Cockfighter became a cult-classic film starring Warren Oates, Miami Blues a quirky eighties jaunt with Alec Baldwin, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Fred Ward. His slender memoir, I Was Looking for a Street, wistfully encapsulated both the promise and the strange loneliness of mid-century America, much as Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald did in their detective fiction. The Pick-Up was a brutal, uniquely incisive parable about race in America. Thirty-two years after his death and almost 50 years after its initial publication, The Burnt Orange Heresy — arguably his best novel — has made it to the screen, courtesy of director Giuseppe Capotondi and screenwriter Scott Smith, who prove its timelessness.
Willeford took a sardonic, sidelong view of society’s anointed, and this story’s targets are the mavens of the art world. With lugubrious credibility Claes Bang plays James Figueras, a misanthropic art critic whose only real conviction is that fine art has no intrinsic value; it’s all a matter of spin and contextual artifice rather than brushstrokes and vision. His knowing cynicism intrigues Berenice (Elizabeth Debicki, excellent), a winsome but hardly innocent young schoolteacher. Joseph Cassidy, Mick Jagger’s pitch-perfect collector — naturally, he is wealthy and utterly unscrupulous — blackmails Figueras into finagling a presumptively priceless piece out of reclusive painter Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland, duly hamming it up), an enigmatic legend who has not produced work for public consumption in decades.
It goes almost without saying that Jagger’s casually mischievous expression and archly insinuating delivery feel as though they should cue “Sympathy for the Devil,” and he sets the tone for what turns into a kind of neo-Hitchcockian romp involving sociopaths of wealth and taste. Cassidy gets his painting — The Burnt Orange Heresy — and Figueras garners fame and esteem as Debney’s interpreter. Berenice gains a pyrrhic victory in becoming Debney’s final muse. A beatnik at heart, Willeford made his existential points with the offhand randomness of real life, and wouldn’t have framed and gilded them the way this movie does. But he also didn’t indulge moralization, and Capotondi and Smith leave the question of what, if anything, the men’s vicious machinations cost them a matter of debate. Willeford would have appreciated that.
The Burnt Orange Heresy, directed by Giuseppe Capotondi and written by Scott Smith, based on the novel by Charles Willeford. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, 2020. Available on Prime Video and other streaming services.
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