The Bootleg Files: The Dumb Waiter

BOOTLEG FILES 826: “The Dumb Waiter” (1987 film directed by Robert Altman and starring John Travolta and Tom Conti).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: There seems to be a rights issue that has yet to be cleared.

Not likely at the moment.

By the mid-1980s, filmmaker Robert Altman’s career was going through a rough patch. During the 1970s, he was praised by critics as being one of the era’s most original and provocative creative artists, but that adulation did not win him favor with studio executives with whom he had difficult relationships. After a series of box office flops and the indignity of having one film – the 1979 all-star “HealtH” – shelved by 20th Century Fox, Altman found himself focusing on small, lower budget works that were released by smaller art house distributors. He also pursued projects for television, which was highly unusual for a director of Altman’s prestige.

In 1987, Altman received an invitation from the executives at ABC to create productions as part of a proposed dramatic anthology series. He recommended adapting one-act plays by British dramatist Harold Pinter, but initially doubted his idea would be well received – he made a similar pitch a few years earlier to HBO and it was quickly rejected. To his astonishment, ABC was interested, particularly in an adaptation of Pinter’s “The Dumb Waiter,” a two-man drama set in a single space.

However, there was a major string attached – ABC wanted John Travolta to star in “The Dumb Waiter.” Not unlike Altman, Travolta was going through a rough patch in his career during the mid-1980s and he put himself on hiatus after the commercial failure of “Perfect” in 1985. Altman later admitted that he was not familiar with Travolta’s work and didn’t see the logic in the casting. For his part, Travolta was initially disinterested because he feared that doing a TV production would be seen as a step down for someone who had been considered box office gold a few years earlier.

“Every year Gary Pudney calls me to offer me to do something on TV,” Travolta told an interviewer, referring to an ABC producer of network specials. “I always politely refuse. When he asked me to meet him in his office to discuss an ABC project I thought: how am I going to get out of it this time? But when he mentioned Altman and Pinter, I couldn’t believe it!”

One cannot blame Travolta for wanting to be part of a prestige production, nor could Altman be blamed for taking on the project – after all, there wasn’t much money to be made in low-budget art house films. And even ABC deserves the benefit of the doubt for wanting to bring a higher pedigree of class to their prime-time line-up.

But the resulting work wasn’t just bad – it was a fiasco. Altman failed to capture the claustrophobic surrealism of Pinter’s work, and the sense of mystery that the playwright infused in his work was steamrolled by the severe miscasting of Travolta and the egregiously hammy performance by Tom Conti as his sidekick.

While the stage version of “The Dumb Waiter” is confined to a drab basement apartment, Altman’s film makes the initial mistake of showing Travolta and Conti driving up to the seemingly vacant mansion where the room is based. The pair grudgingly make themselves at home in the space – there are two beds on an elevated platform surrounded by mesh wiring that gives the impression of a cage, a toilet behind a swinging door and a grimy large kitchen with dishes piled in the sink.

Travolta is supposed to be a working-class Englishman, but his attempt at Britspeak sounds like a second-rate imitation of Dick Van Dyke’s “Mary Poppins” Cockney – Travolta’s natural New Jersey dialect constantly percolates throughout the dialogue. The Scottish Conti is either trying to articulate an Irish brogue or his character has sinus blockage – his line readings are cartoonish, and his outlandish appearance with a ridiculous mustache and a black wig that looks like it was soaked in a shower gives the impression of the incompetent disguises favored by Peter Sellers’ Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies.

It is initially unclear why these two unlikely characters are sitting around in the basement apartment of a supposedly empty house. Slowly amid a stream of non sequitur conversation – there is a length debate on whether the proper phrase for making tea is “put on the kettle” or “light the kettle” – it becomes apparent they are hit men awaiting orders for their next kill.

But the wait becomes thick with strangeness. Someone pushes an envelope under their door that contains a dozen matches, and the pair begins to receive notes delivered from the house’s upstairs via a creaky dumb waiter (hence the title). The notes demand that the men cook and send up elaborate meals, but all they possess are a bottle of milk and some snacks they brought while traveling to their location.

For those unfamiliar with “The Dumb Waiter,” I will not give away the ending – except to say that Altman’s ending is not Pinter’s ending. And, ultimately, that is the problem with this production – Altman’s adaptation robs the drama of its intellectual tension and paranoia. Most theatrical productions of this work offer a bare bone setting where the seedy characters play out their neuroses and agitation with slow boiling fury. This film, however, feels like a cartoon – the basement has a silly steampunk visual style, Conti behaves like he wandered out of British pantomime and poor Travolta does a lot of posing and scowling but ultimately fails to extract any menace from his emoting. None of this is aided by an unsubtle music score by Judith Gruber-Stitzer that laces the film in a noisy manner.

“The Dumb Waiter” was broadcast on ABC on May 12, 1987, to mostly unsympathetic reviews and little audience interest – many critics complained the commercial breaks constantly disrupted the tone that Altman was trying (and failing) to create. Altman also directed a second Pinter inspired film called “The Room” starring Linda Hunt, Donald Pleasance, Julian Sands and Eurythmics’ Annie Lennox – that was paired with “The Dumb Waiter” on ABC under the banner “Basements.”

“The Dumb Waiter” never had a second broadcast, but in 1989 it turned up on VHS video from the Prism label. However, that company badly misrepresented the work with cover art that showed Travolta and Conti dressed as restaurant waiters, with Travolta fumbling a serving tray full of money while Conti gingerly holds a gun upside down. The back of the video box has a publicity photo of the actors with Travolta glaring at the camera while Conti peeks over his shoulder with a lopsided grin.

To date, “The Dumb Waiter” has never turned up on DVD or Blu-ray – I don’t believe it ever played on U.S. television again, although it did get a rare big screen presentation as part of 2015 retrospectives of Altman’s work at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Harvard Film Archive in Massachusetts. For those who are too curious, a copy is available online with Hebrew and Arabic subtitles. You have been warned.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

Listen to Phil Hall’s award-winning podcast “The Online Movie Show with Phil Hall” on SoundCloud, with a new episode every Monday, and his radio show “Nutmeg Chatter” on WAPJ-FM in Torrington, Connecticut, with a new episode every Sunday. His new book “100 Years of Wall Street Crooks” is now in release through Bicep Books.