TCM unearths the 1970 movie version of John Updike’s Rabbit, Run

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Rabbit, Run (1970) movie poster.

Did a ’70s pornographer save the only known copy?

Here’s a curiosity, especially for the literature-inclined: a film adaptation of John Updike‘s first Rabbit novel, Rabbit Run.

Even Updike fans might be surprised to know that the film exists. Filmed in 1969 in the author’s hometown of Reading, Pennsylvania, the movie quickly went MIA following a poor audience response at a test screening in 1970 (in Reading! Even the locals didn’t like it). I certainly had no idea of its existence until it popped up in the listings for TCM.

According to a story that ran in 2007 in The Reading Eagle, Rabbit, Run might have been lost forever if it wasn’t for Ray Dennis Steckler. Steckler, who made a name for himself in the ’70s for adult films such as Sexual Satanic Awareness and Red Heat (he also made the rather fabulously titled 1964 cheapie The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies), bought a 16mm print of the film for $1000 after seeing an ad for it in a magazine. Originally from Reading himself, Steckler wanted a little piece of home. He later gave the print to the organizer of a film festival in Berks County (a county in Pennsylvania that includes Reading). That print ended up at the Historical Society of Berks County.

I’m not sure if this was the print that was shown recently on TCM or not. However, it’s safe to say that no one was really missing this movie, which is at best a portrait of Pennsylvania circa 1969 and curio, rather than a successful literary adaptation.

The problems are many. For this viewer (and Updike fan), the movie gets off to a terrible start with some kind of pop song in the sixties Alfie vein that just does not jibe with the era or setting depicted (the movie was filmed 10 years after the events depicted in the book, which took place prior to the sea-change of the sixties; it’s unclear if we’re in 1959 or 1969). It’s also dreary to watch, with uninspired (for the most part) performances and a drabness that makes All in the Family look like 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Apparently, Steckler’s copy was “brittle” and missing the blues and greens. If this was indeed the print TCM broadcast, that may account for the movie’s atmosphere). Many of the film’s extras and, it seems, much of the supporting cast came from Berks County.

But the biggest problem for me is James Caan‘s performance as the title character, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. For most of the movie, Caan wears a poor-me, put-upon half-grin. This look can be interpreted as that of a befuddled idiot of a lead character, or simply the expression of an actor who doesn’t know the first thing about the person he’s playing.

One problem with the movie is that Caan runs too damn fast.

Caan’s Rabbit is a mess, but not in a charming way; in his Rabbit books, however, Updike finds the humanity in his stereotypical boorish American.

As Janice, Harry’s poor, put-upon wife, Carrie Snodgrass is okay (Updike apparently liked both her’s and Caan’s performances) as an exaggerated, but ultimately unconvincing drunk housewife.Anjanette Comer, as the woman that Rabbit briefly hooks up with after leaving Janice and his young son Nelson, has a meatier role, but is ultimately there for window-dressing and sudden hysteria.

In the annals of books that probably shouldn’t be turned into movies, Rabbit, Run is up there. To be fair, this was an independent (i.e. low-budget) film that was probably made with the best of intentions by director Jack Smight and screenwriter/producer Howard Kreitsek, who had worked together on a 1969 film adaptation of Ray Bradbury‘s The Illustrated Man. It’s hard to imagine anyone making a decent film out of the book, which is almost all interior, and hinges Updike’s ability to draw the reader into Rabbit’s world.

Talking about the movie later, the author himself admitted that he felt “embarrassment and extreme unworthiness that I’ve caused all these gifted people – handsome actors, gorgeous actresses, gifted directors and cameramen – I’ve put them all in this kind of box they can’t get out of, the box being my little story, whose life on paper and from thence into the mind of the reader I tried to make as real as I could, but which in the film media, becomes kind of nonsense.”

Trailer—Rabbit, Run (1970)

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