If you leave the twist–which isn’t even a twist, just a justification for conspiracy–ending off Soylent Green, it’s a detective story. The case–the murder of a wealthy businessman–isn’t as important as how that case affects lead Charlton Heston. He starts carrying on with the victim’s “widow,” Leigh Taylor-Young. The case also has some unexpected consequences for Heston’s friendship and work relationship with partner Edward G. Robinson.
Robinson is the best thing in Soylent Green, both in terms of performance and narrative impact. Heston doesn’t have the most affect, even when he’s trying to have affect, but Robinson humanizes him. And that lack of affect, which in turn helps with the Taylor-Young subplot.
It also helps Chuck Connors–as the victim’s suspicious bodyguard–is terrible. He gives the kind of bad Charlton Heston performance Heston is now obviously not giving. The more the film gives Taylor-Young to do, the better her performance. The more it gives Connors, the worse. Luckily, Connors isn’t around a lot.
It’s also a future dystopia movie–sorry, I meant to mention that part earlier. Heston’s a cop, Robinson is his assistant (a “book” who does research, which shouldn’t matter for police investigations but whatever), Taylor-Young is “furniture” (a live-in combination maid and sex slave for rich men–there are no rich women). Heston’s boss is Brock Peters. Heston and Peters are great together. The murder involves the a friend of the governor (an occasionally appearing Whit Bissell–he’s in lots of posters, but rarely in scene).
The Earth is dying due to greenhouse effect; high temperatures, no food. Unemployment is at fifty-percent. Manhattan has 40,000,000 residents. Everything outside during the day looks a grimy green thanks to a filter. Everything at night looks like it was shot on an empty backlot (there’s a curfew to explain the lack of extras).
More than anything else, the limited budget is Soylent Green’s greatest problem. The film does all right showing the misery of future living through Heston and Robinson (they live together and are adorable, curmudgeon roommates) and their daily life. You ride the bike for electricity, you have limited water (not much showering, the future must smell something awful), you get food rations.
The things they do to survive weighs on them. There’s only so much anyone can take (i.e. Robinson’s fits of guilt when Heston, as a standard–if off the books–police procedure, robs the victim of soap and groceries). It turns out to be one of the themes of the film, the despondence of living in the future.
Almost all of the film is interiors. The crappy apartment for Heston and Robinson, the great one for Taylor-Young and her “boss,” Lincoln Kilpatrick’s church, the police station. The film’s great about packing people into the interiors. The exteriors not so much. There are a couple set pieces where the crowds are big enough. Director Fleischer doesn’t do much with them, of course, because the budget is still limited. During a riot scene, there’s some great editing from Samuel E. Beetley; it almost makes up for Fleischer’s too-tight composition.
The end falls apart a little. It’s got a rushed finish, where the film hangs it all on the “twist” revelation instead of the characters. Maybe if the film had emphasized the investigation a little more, but it didn’t. It emphasized Taylor-Young and Heston’s canoodling.
But it’s pretty good. There are some great small performances to make the future function. Paula Kelly, Celia Lovsky, Kilpatrick. Not so much Leonard Stone, who gets to be way too much way too fast.
And it’s got Robinson. He’s fantastic. He acts circles around Heston without ever looking like he’s doing it because he’s too concerned in making the scene work for both of them. It’s a patient, giving performance. And Heston steps up. And their relationship is this beautiful thing in Soylent Green. It’s not hopeful, because hopeful isn’t a real thing in Green, but it is beautiful.
Money would’ve made the difference. Slimy green filters don’t a future New York make. So either it needed money or a different directorial approach. Fleischer does a lot of things, none of them badly, none of them well. Fleischer’s direction lacks personality. The film lacks personality.
So thank goodness for Robinson, who exudes enough to cover it until the end.
Directed by Richard Fleischer; screenplay by Stanley R. Greenberg, based on a novel by Harry Harrison; director of photography, Edward H. Kline; edited by Samuel E. Beetley; music by Fred Myrow; produced by Walter Seltzer and Russell Thacher; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Starring Charlton Heston (Thorn), Edward G. Robinson (Sol), Leigh Taylor-Young (Shirl), Brock Peters (Hatcher), Chuck Connors (Fielding), Paula Kelly (Martha), Celia Lovsky (Exchange Leader), Whit Bissell (Santini), Leonard Stone (Charles), Lincoln Kilpatrick (Priest), Joseph Cotten (Simonson).