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  • Benjamin May

Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson (1983) Review

Joe Halpern is an English, retired, working-class Jew whose wife passes away. At her funeral, he encounters a strange, wealthy American by the name of Ernest Johnson, who asks Halpern to meet him for drinks. Six weeks later, the two men have a rendezvous, and get to know one another. Incredibly, it transpires that Johnson and the late Mrs. Halpern had maintained a decades long acquaintanceship behind Joe's back- which eventually became a one-sided love affair on the behalf of Mr. Johnson. As revelations and accusations fly, Halpern and Johnson engage in a verbal sparring match over the lady who was the love of both their lives, in Alvin Rakoff's 'Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson.'

A made for T. V. movie from the pen of Lionel Goldstein, 'Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson' is a strongly written and powerfully acted two-hander exploring an intriguing central conceit in an understated way. Goldstein's simple tale smartly examines notions of grief and love, as well as the inherent drama of a man realizing his marriage and very existence wasn't what he thought it was. The last thirty years of Halpern's life has essentially been a sham- or so he initially thinks- and Goldstein's sympathetic screenplay lets the character vent his frustration in a way that is most subtle and grounded in reality.

His counterpart, Johnson, has spent the last three decades of his life waiting in vain for his love to be returned, knowing in his heart that it would never be. Goldstein imbues the character with a great dignity and decency, which makes his fruitless quest for requited affection all the more affecting. The film, based around a conversation between the two characters, paints a realistic portrait of men who couldn't be more different, linked only by a loss they both experience greatly. Though the situation may be rather sensitive, Goldstein's tactful writing makes it one that is most memorable, emotionally perspicacious and thoroughly believable.

Though all the credit cannot just be given to Goldstein, as 'Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson' features two powerful performances from Laurence Olivier and Jackie Gleason that are highlights in the filmographies of both men. Olivier, as Halpern, shows a remarkable restraint and subtlety of style, usually missing from his performances in cinema. Olivier's theatrical background meant that he often came across as a little over-the-top or mannered on screen, especially when compared to natural movie actors. Particularly during the first half of his career in pictures, he frequently appeared uncomfortable, often exaggerating his performances in a manner most unsuitable for film.

He masterfully underplays it in 'Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson,' as does his starring partner, one of the all-time Great Ones of screen acting: Jackie Gleason. A comedic force of nature, Gleason was a versatile and intelligent performer who could work within many different genres. Though primarily remembered for comedies and television shows, he was terrific in straight roles, giving brilliant performances in ventures like 'Requiem for a Heavyweight' and 'The Hustler' to name but two. Though he could ham it up with Burt Reynolds for the 'Smokey and the Bandit' pictures, Gleason instinctively knew that less meant more when acting for the silver screen; and in 'Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson' threatens to blow Olivier out of the water at times with his naturalness and ease of performance.

'Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson' is not a particularly good-looking picture, nor does it contain an especially atmospheric score, detailed set design or any high production values to speak of at all, really. What the made for T. V. movie does boast is a strong screenplay full of great dialogue and two mesmerizing performances from Lord Olivier and The Great One. Though they may sound like strange bedfellows, they bring out the best in each other on screen; making this simple story one you'd be hard pressed to forget.


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