Anatomy of a Scene #4: The Mighty Quinn
Call it synergy, another example of how the 80’s and 90’s helped speed up the trend of commercializing everything, or whatever, but for some reason, the mid-to-late 80’s through the 90’s were a time where it seemed like there were a preponderance of movies whose titles shared the name of popular song titles. And while there were a few movies where this seemed entirely on purpose, and in fact the song in question was crucial either to the movie’s mood or plot (Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet being among those few), more often than not, that wasn’t the case. You could argue, I guess, Stand by Me, Can’t Buy Me Love, Chances Are, Pretty Woman, Calendar Girl, When a Man Loves a Woman, and other movies of this type actually do have a tenuous connection to their titles, or at least the meanings of the songs they take the title from, but most of the time, the movie’s title seems more a marketing-driven decision than anything else. And while there have been movies that have used the title song for plot purposes – Sea of Love, the 1989 Al Pacino cop thriller – most of the time, any song could have filled the bill. That is most emphatically not the case, however, with The Mighty Quinn, a near-forgotten early Denzel Washington movie where the song it gets its title from – written by Bob Dylan but best known as performed by Manfred Mann – is not only necessary to the movie but in some ways crucial to it.
If you go strictly by the plot, The Mighty Quinn, adapted from the novel Finding Maubee (the original title of the movie) by A.H.Z. Carr (Hampton Fancher, best known for co-writing Blade Runner, is the credited screenwriter), would sound like either an old-fashioned film noir/crime story, or a neo-noir set on the dirty city streets. Xavier Quinn (Washington), the police chief and the main character, is called upon to solve the murder of a wealthy developer, and there are familiar elements such as Quinn’s best friend Maubee (Robert Townshend), a drifter who is the chief suspect of the murder, though he may just be the fall guy, Elgin (James Fox), a hotel owner who wants Quinn to pin the murder on Maubee and be done with it, Elgin’s wife Hadley (Mimi Rogers), who has the hots for Quinn, Ubu Pearl (Esther Rolle), a soothsayer who warns Quinn of dire happenings, and Fred Miller (M. Emmet Walsh), a mysterious tourist both friendly and deadly (Walsh, by the way, gives the type of performance Roger Ebert – who put this movie on his top 10 list of that year – had in mind when he came up with his “Walsh/Stanton Rule”, which theorized any movie with either Walsh or Harry Dean Stanton couldn’t be all bad). And it could have easily gone the hard-boiled route. But director Carl Schenkel instead takes his cue from the Jamaican setting (the film was shot there as well), and while he pays attention to the crime story, he makes this a relaxed, somewhat funky ride. You get scenes of local color, such as Quinn having to wait for three blind men to cross the road in front of him (“Don’t you know this is a goin’ down road?”) before he can move on, and you get a lot of local music, some of it performed by Quinn’s wife Lola (Sheryl Lee Ralph). And you also get the title song.
Dylan supposedly originally wrote the song after watching Anthony Quinn play an Eskimo in Nicholas Ray’s Savage Innocents (the parenthetical title of the song is “Quinn the Eskimo”), though in the liner notes to his 1980’s box set Biograph, Dylan claimed he just wanted to write a nursery rhyme-type song, and had no idea what the song was about. Originally, it was written for what later became the bootleg album The Basement Tapes, but wasn’t officially released until it was included on Biograph. By then, it had been recorded by several groups, including the Hollies and Ian & Sylvia (the Beatles even played it during their Let it Be sessions), but, as I mentioned before, Manfred Mann recorded the best known version, and they treat it as the silly but fun song it is. But what could the song, whose lyrics are about building big ships and boats, and about how Quinn the Eskimo makes everything better, possibly do with a murder mystery set in Jamaica? The native residents of the movie’s version of Kingston all like Quinn, but they also have an amused attitude towards him. They worry he’ll be more inclined towards the wealthy developers from America and England – as represented by Elgin and Miller – than to his own people, especially Maubee. So from time to time, they sing “The Mighty Quinn”, making up their own words for the lyrics but keeping the chorus, as a way of teasing him a little, and Quinn regards this as an annoyance. Nowhere is this more evident than in the following scene, which takes place about halfway to 2/3 into the movie.
At one point in the movie, Quinn goes to a nightclub/restaurant that’s full of activity, including drinking, loud talking, and minor gambling, but all activity stops when everyone spots Quinn. At first, Schenkel and cinematographer Jacques Steyn photograph Quinn walking from behind him, as if he’s one with the crowd, but then the film cuts to a close-up of Quinn’s face, with an upward angle, walking purposefully, and after a few seconds there, it’s a medium shot so we can see what his destination is. It’s a piano at the back of the bar, and it looks like one that’s weathered and worn, both in the wood finish and the white keys. Quinn sets off his jacket, sits down, opens the piano cover, fiddles around a bit, and then segues right into playing the old Taj Mahal song “Cakewalk Into Town”, while the crowd continues to look at him askance. Quinn starts to sing the song, a blues song that even begins with “I had the blues so bad one time” (it should be noted while Washington is credited on the film’s soundtrack, and we see him play the piano at the beginning – and it certainly sounds like him singing – all shots of him singing here are of his face, from the point of view of someone watching him from the other side of the piano, so it’s hard to tell if he’s really playing). While Quinn is as sour-faced, or at least inscrutable, as the rest of the crowd at first while he’s singing, as the song goes on, he starts to smile and loosen up. For the first two verses, Schenkel and editor John Jympson just cut between the hands playing the song and Quinn singing, but as the third verse begins, some of the musicians who had been playing earlier (including Mahal) start to walk to the stage, and we see the crowd slowly getting into the song. As Quinn finishes the third verse and starts to whistle, we hear the two of the acoustic guitar players start to play along (strumming chords), and Quinn looks back in appreciation. After he whistles a verse, Quinn says, “Watch me cakewalk now,” and gives a “woo-woo” sound like a train or truck whistle.
And that’s when more instruments, including a banjo, chime in, but the tune is slightly different now (we also get a close-up of Lola, who’s been sitting in the crowd all this time, nodding to the music appreciatively at this point). At first, Quinn doesn’t notice, or doesn’t seem to mind, as he’s still grooving on the song. But at some point, there’s a laugh from the crowd, and the tune starts to sound familiar enough Quinn stops and gets a look on his face as if to say, “Not this shit again.” Sure enough, the musicians on stage, and the crowd, start to sing “The Mighty Quinn” (with a slight change in the lyrics; instead of “you’ve not seen nothing”, it’s “you ain’t seen nothing”), and Lola, who’s clapping along now, makes her way to the stage. There’s a profile shot of Quinn as he’s about to close the piano in disgust until he feels a hand on his shoulder, and he looks around him to see Lola, who chimes in on the chorus. From there, we cut to a medium overhead shot of Lola, who starts singing a verse about Maubee and Quinn, and Steyn pulls back the camera until we can see the other musicians playing along. After a few seconds of this, Schenkel then cuts back to Quinn, who by now is smiling ruefully. We see the hand of the bartender (I think) handing Quinn a bottle of whiskey, and he takes a large swig from the bottle before appreciatively thanking the bartender, and Lola finishes the verse (“Sunshine is for everyone/Sunshine come back again”). Up till now, she’s been the only one singing, but now it’s time for the chorus, and everybody joins in (we see the crowd standing, dancing, and clapping along as well), even Quinn, who is back to playing the piano again, and has a big smile on his face. After one last rendition of the chorus, the song ends, and we get an overhead shot of the crowd applauding Lola and Quinn as he appreciatively hugs her from the side, and raises the bottle in the air.
Strictly in terms of plot, this scene is unimportant, and yet it means a lot to the movie. It’s a showcase, of course, of the locale and atmosphere of Jamaica, as well as the music (except for Washington and Ralph, the other musicians are locals, or at least from the Caribbean). And it’s a perfect example of the relaxed style Schenkel brings to the movie (a style he never captured again, as he directed mostly undistinguished films like Knight Moves and Tarzan and the Lost City until his untimely death in 2003 at the age of 55). But it also serves as a microcosm of how the locals feel about Quinn, and it shows him finally accepting that attitude and moving on. Surely, it’s no coincidence after this scene, while Quinn is still trying to find Maubee (and does find him in the next scene), he no longer gives the impression of being swayed in his thinking by people like Elgin. And it’s no coincidence (if I’m remembering correctly) after this scene, and the immediate follow-up where Quinn sings it drunkenly, we don’t hear the song for the rest of the movie. For such a silly little song, that’s quite an accomplishment. As a footnote, in his autobiography Chronicles Volume 1, Dylan mentions seeing the movie, and says the movie, and Washington, was just how he imagined Quinn when he wrote the song.