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The Last Film of Emile Vico Thomas Gavin (Viking: $17.95; 403 pp.)

August 10, 1986|Charles Champlin

The titles of Emile Vico's films sound faintly familiar, like half-remembered voices echoing out of a distant decade: "City of Sapphires," "The Mask of Don Juan," "Doomed Cargo," "Price of Madness," "The Whisperer" and his never-finished "Loves of a Spy."

But the films, like Vico, are figments of Thomas Gavin's abundant imagination. Vico, an actor-writer-director, hints of Orson Welles.

The trick would be to invent an intense and unfettered actor-writer-director who did not suggest Welles. There were times when Welles himself seemed at least partly self-invented, his own most sizable creation. Vico is also partly self-created. He invented his own name (as Welles didn't have to) and no one now, in the 1938 Hollywood in which the novel is set, can quite remember what it was originally.

Gavin is an academic, an English professor at the University of Rochester (N.Y.) who teaches creative writing. It's evident that he has thought deeply about the creative processes of the movies as well.

"The Last Film of Emile Vico" is seen, as it were, through the eye and the consciousness of Vico's longtime cinematographer, Griswold Farley. And a very complicated cinematographer he is, with a destructive and possibly murderous alter ego he calls Spyhawk, who (or which) takes over in moments of stress, leaving Farley only dark and wispy recollections of what Spyhawk has wrought.

There has been compound stress on "Loves of a Spy." Vico has been denied the director's chair and replaced by a lesser talent, not quite a hack, although it is still Vico's script, and he is starring. His gorgeous wife, Lisa, is co-starring, and Vico has grown unjustifiably jealous of her and the director.

In full tantrum and full view of cast and crew, Vico rips her dress to the waist, slugs the director and roars off into the afternoon. That night, a bloody towel at his Malibu beach house and footsteps in the sand raise the possibility that Vico is dead, perhaps a suicide.

Gavin's novel jump cuts back and forth in time, exploring--through the erratic and ever more tangled processes of Farley's mind--the truth of the blow-up on the set and Vico's subsequent movements. The twin objects of discovery are Vico's self and Farley's, who as narrator is far more than the more frequent inert witness to events in the lives of others.

Farley holes up in a cheap hotel, writing it all down and, eventually, becoming a kind of private eye who is both the pursuer and the object of his own pursuit.

All of this is expertly handled, presuming the reader accepts Farley as the most literate cinematographer in all of film. Yet the interest of the book is less its melodramatic goings-on than the knowing glimpses of the untidy and experimental way a kind of film making proceeds.

The relationship between cinematographer and director has not been a major motif in fiction until now, but any subsequent novelist will have a hard time making it more credible and moving than Gavin has.

"I knew what Vico wanted from me was what he wanted from himself--a finished piece of work," Farley says. "And to get it, I calculated his moods the way I calculate the angle of a shadow or the candlepower of a lamp. . . . Working that close to him, living off his private juices, was like being plugged into a current that could short you out."

On the acting art: "The genuine article, someone like Vico himself, powers a performance from somewhere \o7 under\f7 the lines of a script. The lines are leaves on the surface of a pond. . . . He says the lines, word-perfect if the script is worth respecting, but sometimes he'll slide right past a word you'd think the whole speech was leaning on. . . . Suddenly bubbles are churning up to the surface and you think, Christ, there's something down there, something \o7 alive\f7 ."

Writers may not be pleased to be made to seem so waterlogged, but you do get that sense, which all great actors convey, that they are inventing the words not reciting them.

Farley asks a nice question about Vico, though it's not inappropriate to himself: "Can you judge an artist by the tenacity of his obsessions?" The answer seems to be yes, although it makes them a trial to be around.

Farley also enunciates a creed that many a film maker lives by, and many a cost-conscious producer has bewailed: "If you can wait long enough, you can always get the shot you want."

"The Last Film of Emile Vico" can be enjoyed well beyond Hollywood for its gaudy events, its interplay of character, its re-creation of the '30s, its fresh and agile style. But in a film town, the larger appeal of Gavin's novel is that he seems to understand very well the pain and passion that goes into the making of movies--even the rather florid and dreadful dramas Vico seemed to specialize in. Welles, I think, he wasn't.

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