Updated: Feb 14, 2022
Due to a lack of time and a yearning for a change in pace, this entry of “From the Depths,” as you can no doubt tell, is in a different format. The centerpiece of a triple feature that also included Richard Kelly’s The Box and Tony Scott’s Unstoppable, I watched Sinful Davey with Vance Osteen, a local degenerate and staff writer at Film Cred. In place of a standard article, I recorded and transcribed our conversation immediately following the film.
Made in the later part of John Huston’s career, Sinful Davey is adventure comedy in which John Hurt plays David Haggart (supposedly the son of the famous highwayman Willie Haggart), a rogue who stumbles proudly from crime to crime in 19th century Scotland, never quite succeeding. Throughout his bumbling adventures, he is trailed by his pious childhood friend, Annie MacNeil, played by Pamela Franklin.
Chance Freytag: Alright, so I’m going to open up and say that by this point, the movie Sinful Davey has already become a joke and we’ll refrain from saying, “How sinful was Davey?” or “Was Davey as sinful as the title promised?” or any other variation of Davey being questionably sinful.
Vance Osteen: It’s kind of hard because being sinful is so central to Davey as a character.
C: Right, they’re constantly asking, “Why is he so sinful?” His dad was sinful! He’s going to do every black deed that his father did!
V: I think the fact that Huston consciously put ‘sinful’ in the title makes the viewer examine how sinful Davey really is.
C: And that has nothing to do with the fact that this is based on a book called the The Sinful Adventures of David Haggart?
[This is untrue, the book is called The Life of David Haggart, published in 1821.]
V: Yeah, and the titular David Haggart has a writing credit on the film Sinful Davey.
C: Which is very important information, because the movie is framed by [Davey] writing his memoirs before he is about to be hanged.
V: Although, it doesn’t really adhere to that structure. It plays very fast and loose with that, there are points in the film where Davey is narrating and then there’s just long stretches where he’s not narrating.
C: In that first third, you get tons of narration and then they kind of forget about it until the end when he’s actually writing his memoirs in jail.
V: That was the point where John had left the set to go gamble.
C: Right. With this movie, you can tell that John is either sleepwalking through the direction for most of it or… There’s the story of [Huston] on the set of The Kremlin Letter betting on horse races while filming was going on, and that movie was made right after this. So it stands to reason that he would be in the same habit.
V: I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that the most sinful person on the set was, in fact, John Huston and not John Hurt.
C: Of course, and Hurt’s doing amazing work. Huston does good work whenever he’s on set.
V: When he was actually directing.
C: Exactly, because you have so many scenes that are just nothing. It’s technically competent direction with no purpose. And then you have shots like when Davey’s out on the lake, they're robbing the ship, and the camera’s affixed to the boat, it’s bobbing up and down. Which is a nice bit.
V: A good seventy percent of the direction, I would say, is passionless. You could have gotten Arthur Hiller to come in and direct this.
C: You didn’t have to kill Arthur Hiller like that.
V: Well, I mean, Arthur Hiller didn’t have to kill himself by not making any movies that are worthwhile
C: This is fair. Back to Hurt’s performance, which is actually worth a damn.
V: His performance is incredible.
C: He anchors the whole movie, he’s very charming, he has lots of freckles.
V: He looks like a twelve year-old boy for half of the film.
C: As you mentioned, his haircut makes him look like a small child. He has lots of sex.
C: You can’t say that. [Laughter] You would think that when this was coming out, with this cast and director, that this movie wasn’t going to be as raunchy as it was, but there was a fair amount of nudity, there was a prison orgy.
V: This is the same year that the Hays Code ends and the MPAA starts. It makes sense that there’s a little bit of nudity and I think it’s a little sinful. Some of the scenes are a little sinful.
C: This is following Reflections in a Golden Eye.
V: Which is, I would say, a little more risqué in terms of its content.
C: And Reflections in a Golden Eye is much more intense, but you see more in Sinful Davey. Sinful Davey’s a very light movie and it is breezy.
V: It’s definitely a souffle film. I want to give a shoutout to Pamela Franklin’s performance as Annie, as well. She’s great.
C: Absolutely. While John Hurt’s the anchor of the movie, Franklin’s Annie is vital.
V: She’s the heart and soul of this movie.
C: Because Annie is everywhere, as the running gag implies.
V: As Davey himself says, “You can’t trip without finding Annie.”
C: You really can’t. This movie is very light, but supposedly Davey is going to die, he’s committing crimes left and right, you never feel the gravity of any of the actions, but by the end, you really want Annie and Davey to get together. You really care. We were yelling at the screen, “They love each other! Please! Please! They love each other!”
V: I was indeed yelling, “I just want them to be together! Please! I don’t want Davey to die!”
C: Let them raise cows!
V: Let them live together in harmony and raise cows, please.
C: The fact that this movie makes you care about that is really something. My neighbors hate me for a number of reasons, but us screaming about wanting Davey and Annie to get together is definitely near the top of that list at this point.
V: I will commend Huston for making a film that, in our minds, was a joke before watching it and I honestly went in thinking this movie was going to be boring as hell and then it was actually engaging and fun. Which was a shock to me.
C: There are so many scenes in this movie that are way funnier than they have any right to be. Not because they’re delivered particularly well, but you have the scene when he breaks into the doctor’s house, the doctor’s going to shoot him, and Davey goes, “What if I could get you a corpse?” And they get the corpse and they run into the guards and then there’s cabbage in the coffin. They lift the coffin, the body falls out, etc.
V: This movie has no structure. It’s just sort of strung along by zany bits and that’s okay.
C: It’s all shenanigans. It’s entirely shenanigans. Like you said, this movie was a bit, it could’ve been boring, we could’ve been sitting here in half-silence talking about something, but we were yelling at the screen constantly. Which is the best I can say. Is this the worst John Huston movie I’ve seen? Yes. I don’t have to think about it.
V: Until we see The Bible: In the Beginning…
C: Or Phobia!
V: Something where it’s very clear that John Huston just did not care.
C: But there’s enough going on in Sinful Davey that it’s just fun. It’s very superfluous. You don’t need to watch this movie. Watching this alone would not be the same experience, I don’t think.
V: I’d still recommend it, sort of halfheartedly, because there are enough moments in it to justify its existence. It’s not a chore to watch.
C: No, not at all. It’s better with somebody else or it’s a lazy Sunday afternoon movie.
V: I have an entire category of films I call Laundry Cinema and it’s perfect Laundry Cinema. Something to throw on in the background that just kind of plays as ambient noise that you don’t really have to pay attention to, but you’ll catch a moment or two that’ll make you go, “Oh, that’s clever,” or “That’s fun.”
C: Robert Morley is in this more than I expected him to be.
V: Oh, he’s very fun in this. I liked his character in this. He’s drinking, playing the bagpipes, he throws a tree at one point. That’s fun.
C: We expected it to be a cameo.
V: But he’s in at least three different scenes.
C: The entire back third of the movie he’s in pretty heavily. Which is a great surprise.
V: Even if he’s just in the background, he’s there.
C: Like you said earlier, there’s enough here that it’s definitely worth checking out. Is it forgotten for a reason? Yeah, probably! It’s a very forgettable movie.
V: It’s completely disposable, but I think we need movies that are completely disposable. Not every movie can be a masterpiece. Especially with a director like John Huston, who’s usually batting a thousand, with what I’ve seen from him.
C: Whenever he cares, you end up with one of the greatest movies of all time and whenever he doesn’t care, it’s enjoyable. There’s there in his movies that you want to keep watching. You’re not just going to turn the movie off because you’re bored.
V: I haven’t seen Phobia! so I don’t know. That movie could be boring as hell.
C: Phobia! could be an absolute slog.
V: I’ll watch that in a few days and I’ll tell you.
C: But with Sinful Davey, you have Hurt, you have Morley, and you have Franklin as Annie, the greatest character of all time.
V: One of the greatest cinema friends, honestly.
C: And the theme song’s just an absolute banger.
V: Oh, it slaps.
C: It really makes you get into it. John Hurt is in Scotland, he’s going to rob some people, he’s going to do some fun crimes in the 1800s.
V: Should we rank the Davey Haggart songs?
C: Sure. There are at least three Davey Haggart songs. There’s “Sinful Davey” by Esther Ofarim from this movie, there’s “Black Jack Davy” by Steeleye Span from the seventies, and there’s “Black Jack Davey” by The White Stripes.
V: Which is a reinterpretation.
C: Right, because “Black Jack Davy” is a folk song and it changes over time. Number one straight up goes to Ofarim’s “Sinful Davey.”
V: That’s the best one. I think you and I will have the same list.
C: Number two is The White Stripes’ song.
V: It lowkey slaps.
C: It does. It’s got a great opening. It’s like a spaghetti western score. Then the last one is the Steeleye Span one, not because it’s all awful. The verses are good fun, it’s a nice folk song, then you get to the chorus and it’s bullshit sixties rock.
V: It sounds like your dad’s AM rock radio station.
C: I don’t know what rock radio your dad listened to, that chorus does not sound like AC/DC to me.
V: It was stuff like Vanity Fare’s “Hitchin’ A Ride,” that I was the stuff I heard.
C: I’m so sorry for you.
V: Look, it’s enriched my cultural knowledge, because now I know of songs like “The Night Chicago Died” by Paperlace, which is one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard.
C: I’m never listening to that as long as I live, but you know what enriched my cultural knowledge?
V: Sinful Davey?
C: Sinful Davey.
V: It enriched mine as well because I filled a big Huston blind spot. A major Huston blind spot for everyone apparently.
C: Take a look at the poster. There’s gallows. John Hurt’s a hunk in the poster for some reason. There’s a bunch of random women.
V: All these women are ogling him even though he’s about to be hanged for what reason, I don’t know.
C: For stealing a horse and stealing some stuff and giving it back.
V: I wanted to add, he doesn’t really commit any crimes that are worthy of hanging, I guess they just wanted to get rid of him.
C: Well, back in olden times, all of those crimes could get you hung. Steal a horse? Steal jewelry? You get hung.
V: Sure, but watching it, it just looks like he’s having a good time. I wouldn’t hang him.
C: Everyone was having fun! All the people he robbed went, “Don’t hang him!” and the judge just goes, “If we let this guy go, we have to let everybody go.” Then they go, “Shit, I guess we do.”
V: That’s true. Nobody argues that. Annie suggests sending him to Australia and the judge says, “What has Australia ever done to me?”
C: Davey isn’t that bad!
V: It’s not like you’re unleashing the Kelly Gang.
C: What if we watched Mick Jagger’s Ned Kelly?
V: We could.
C: Why would we do that?
V: It’s not good. I don’t know why we’d do that. We could feasibly do it.
C: It is a possibility.
V: Chance is threatening me.
C: This is a threat. I’m pulling up Mick Jagger’s Ned Kelly as we speak.
V: He’s gonna make me do a double feature of Mick Jagger’s Ned Kelly and John Huston’s Phobia! I don’t know why we’re gonna watch those two movies back to back.
C: They’re a perfect double feature.
V: Nothing could go wrong.
We did not watch Ned Kelly or Phobia! following this recording.
“From the Depths” is a recurring column where the central conceit is that I bumble ignorantly into the vast realm of widely unseen movies, scraping the bottom of the barrel in search of hidden gems or, at the very least, interesting disasters.
Sinful Davey is streaming on Amazon Prime.