This flawed but intriguing little film has been maligned a bit over the years as a forgotten dud, made about a year after three of the principles - stars Dustin Hoffman, Mia Farrow, and director Peter Yates had achieved major box office stardom in The Graduate, Rosemary's Baby, and Bullitt, respectively. The film did nothing to improve nor harm their careers (except perhaps producer Ben Kadish, who more or less disappeared into TV soon after), but its premise of a couple who start getting to know each other after a one night stand is a clever hook.
Based on a novel by Mervyn Jones, John Mortimer's screenplay follows the awakening couple through a roughly 12 hour period, and Yates indulges in some effective flashbacks and flash edits that juggle the time frame to offer a bit of irony between the characters' present day observations on each other some verbalized, and some heard as narrated thoughts.
The narration is perhaps the least effective indulgence, mostly because the actors' nuances, beautifully milked through editing and superb compositions, convey what we already perceive from our own personal experiences of unsaid, reticent thoughts kept quiet under benign smiles. More audible and balanced in the DVD's pseudo-stereo remix, the narration feels like a gimmick, and may have been written into the script out of fear that the tempi of whole scenes would've been rendered deadly slow (which, given the film's extant pacing, isn't an unreasonable assumption).
The flashbacks, smoothly edited by longtime Yates cutter Frank P. Keller (Bullitt , Murphy's War, and The Hot Rock), also open up the recent and distant past of both characters, and slowly explain reasons for specific suspicions, and counterpoint their hasty assumptions based on biases or hidden prejudices.
Key contemporary elements Farrow's Mary is a bit of a free-thinking, carefree student, living with a pair of equally sexually rambunctious roommates (including a very young Tyne Daly), and is having an affair with a married Senator do date the film, particularly a student rally scene where the Senator addresses the student body and attempts to bond with impatient brats wanting justice now!' but her character is clearly meant to offer a stark contrast to Hoffman's John a furniture designer whose life mandates order, simplicity, and a taste for unadorned art forms, like Bach's brass concertos, which he plays for Mary on his high-end Marantz stereo and linear tracking turntable. (In a bit of obvious product placement, it isn't a coincidence that Yates has cinematographer Gayne Rescher frame receiver's the back-end so Marantz' is crisply visible to audience.)
The problem with John and Mary lies in the play-like banter that also lacks a certain edge; it doesn't need to be verbose, profane, or provocative, but if stripped of flashbacks, what's left feels like a filmed play, lacking the kind of potent, sharp wit that elevated similarly underappreciated gems like Straight On Till Morning and Hoffman play-like dramas strongly infused with elements of horror, mystery, and bent romance.
Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow are pretty charismatic as the titular couple, and regardless of how one feels the story should end, their volleys and sidesteps provide some humour, intrigue, and frankness in a production clearly designed to exploit the popularity of two stars with an audience wanting an upscale hippy vs. square romance, with overtly adult elements (including references, behaviour, and nudity).
For the DVD, Fox adds a trailer and a set of still galleries (with some of the great poster art, and premiere stills with aging Fox Czar Darryl F. Zanuck among the guests), but the label really should've contacted director Yates for a commentary track, as these tend to be the films directors regard with a certain affection; for Yates, John and Mary was an odd rest between action and caper films, and for the actors, the script was free from the demons, psychoses, and novelty romances in recent films.
Quincy Jones' score is pretty threadbare aside from Bach extracts and some original source songs (including one by Jeff Bridges!) but the characters clearly inspired Jones to write one of his best themes that's oddly underused in the finished film. (The soundtrack album contains four theme variations and reconfigurations, including a brassy, Bach-like end title version dropped from the film that would've coloured the couple's situation at the end quite differently.)
Olympia Dukakis has a small role in a flashback as John's mother, and Cleavon Little pops up as a wannabe film director in a super-brief scene. It's easy to dismiss John and Mary, but one gets a sense it managed to affect a few audience members, as the film's first reel is basically a brilliantly choreographed montage: after separately waking up in John's bed, each better half tries to peek at the other's private objects purses, clothes, bathroom paraphernalia and Yates has fun without using any dialogue. It's a textbook example of sublime montage, and the sequence was somewhat copied and interpolated in a key seduction scene in Steven Kloves' sultry and very witty The Fabulous Baker Boys, with Jeff Bridges and Michelle Pfeiffer nosing through the other's bedroom and bathroom clutter.
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan