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The Formula

The Marlon Brando Collection

Marlon Brando had such a reputation for difficulty that it is both a surprise and a delight to hear director John G. Avildsen and writer-producer Steve Shagan in their audio commentary track speak highly of the actor and their dealings with him on the set of The Formula, the 1980 film (based on Shagan's novel) about the roots of the oil crisis. No, it was co-star George C. Scott who proved to be a pain in their collective asses. Avildsen originally wanted Gene Hackman for the role of the Los Angeles cop who stumbles onto an international conspiracy that stretches back to the Nazis and the secrets they hid at the end of World War II. Instead he got Scott, whose politics were far to the right of Avildsen and Shagan. According to their commentary, he was a grumpy alcoholic with a tendency toward bar brawling whose only redeeming feature was his concern for Brando and his desire that the actor return to the stage. Avildsen also wanted Dominique Sanda as the femme fatale but ended up with Marthe Keller, who had played this kind of role before, that of the minx manipulating the men around her. With their verbal jabs at the current political scene, it is clear that the two men would have more sympathy with Brando, who lent his prestige to numerous liberal causes over the years. Coincidentally, for different reasons both Brando and Scott shunned the Oscar ceremony in which their Best Actor awards were bestowed. Brando only worked 12 days on this film and was paid in cash at the start of each workday. However, he did contribute an extra day for free, and Shagan wrote a whole new scene for him (and for G. D. Spradlin, who co-stared with Brando in Apocalypse Now, though not in the same scenes). It is unclear from the commentary whether this scene is restored to the film on this DVD or if it was always present in the film; both interpretations are possible. Brando plays the head of an oil company whose goal is to suppress knowledge of a synthetic fuel that would put the oil barons out of business. The Formula is one of those big, sprawling stories in which a lone man tries to puzzle out a mystery, one suspect and international setting after another, with each new clue-laying interogatee usually assassinated within minutes of their interview. Scene by scene, the picture is rather hard to follow, but the point of the whole thing is clear, and it ends with a terrific visual gag. Brando refused to learn his lines and fed himself his dialogue through the ruse of his character's hearing aid. In fact the first scene between Brando and Scott evokes a similar moment about deafness between Brando and Louis Calhern way back in Julius Caesar. Warner Home Video's edition of The Formula is about as good as it can be. The widescreen image (1.85:1, enhanced) is good, although the movie is photographed like a TV show, while audio is a pedestrian DD mono (in French and English). Aside from the quartet of trailers for other films in "The Marlon Brando Collection," there is the Shagan-Avildsen commentary, which is entertaining in its recklessness. At one point they speculate that an attractive actor (Robin Clarke) had his career blighted by cocaine, when in fact he remained active in movies for years after The Formula, and they tell stories out of school about the disturbed studio executive David Begelman. The static musical menu offers 31-chapter scene selection. Slimcase in the box-set.
—D.K. Holm

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