Michael Moriarty in Q The Winged Serpent
Sometimes you watch a film and an actor or a performance can just blow you out of your seat and nail your brain to the ceiling. One such performance, for me, is Michael Moriarty as Jimmy Quinn, small time hood, in Larry Cohen's Q The Winged Serpent.
From the title of the film and the poster art you'd be forgiven for thinking this was just a low budget, cheesy, monster movie the likes of which The Asylum and The SyFy Channel pump out with alarming speed and regularity, or maybe, the kind Roger Corman used to and continues to produce with much the same results. You might expect stock characters, a generic "we gotta bag and tag that sucker" plot and a bunch of jiggly breasted, brainless co-eds screaming for their lives.
To think this is to not realise you are about to view a Larry Cohen movie where even the construction guy on the roof, who gets one small scene, has dialogue and actions that tell you a fully rounded character and gives you a relatable back story. They really don't write 'em like this anymore and I am not sure anyone but Cohen ever did. There will also be incredible photography of 70s/80s grimy and great New York, a solid understanding of cinema, a classic Hollywood sounding score and a smattering of social commentary.
So, basically, Q is not your ordinary monster flick. In fact, the monster is merely a back drop for a whole lot of other cool stuff to happen. If you haven't seen it, go watch it now.
Anyway, onto Cohen's stage walks the massively under appreciated Michael Moriarty as Jimmy Quinn. A passionate jazz musician with a tortured soul and a spinning mind trapped in the gangly, sweaty body of an ex-con, street rat who drives get-away because no one will pay him for playing the piano. With his feverish, muttery asides to himself, his, endlessly quotable, beat and street speak and his self depreciating loser attitude, when Moriarty is on screen, even if he's sharing it with a giant animated flying serpent or fucking Shaft himself, you don't take your eyes (and ears) off Michael Moriarty.
The film comes across like Moriarty is ad-libbing the whole thing, such is his naturalistic and believable approach to being on screen. You know, though, that it's both the genius of Larry Cohen's scripting and the confidence he has, as a director, in Moriarty's ability to take a scene and make it jaw dropping, complex, funny and wonderful.
He tears through New York like he's aflame, at one minute on a high, the next low, sometimes being pushed into stuff and other times desperate to take control.
His Jimmy Quinn has so many layers and depths that it's really difficult to describe.
There's a fantastic scene where he returns to his, well-meaning, girlfriend's home after he botches his part in a diamond heist, gets hit by a cab and discovers a flying serpent god's egg in the top of the Chryslar building and proceeds to go through every, very real, emotion while telling her the tragic story of his day. This includes claiming he just wants to sleep but can't sleep and he just wants to cry but, he's a man now, he shouldn't cry. It's dramatic, incredible, tour de force stuff.
His scene in the conference room with the police officials when he's strutting like a peacock and making demands, despite who he is and his ego, you want him to win. You want him to get the money, the girl, the whole damn town!
Towards the end of the film, in a cheap, sleazy hotel, he gets a knife to his throat by a certain religious fanatic and his response to this is both hilarious and sad as he mocks the assailant and also pleads for him to kill him.
After the film was over I didn't want to watch another film right away and am not sure how to watch films in the future without such electrifying, interesting and mesmerising performances. Everything else will seem so mundane and obvious. Nothing could quite live up to that performance.
Richard Rountree, David Carradine, Candy Clark and the familiar Cohen/Lustig faces in the supporting cast are all at their best too but it is Michael Moriarty's textured portrayal of a scared, ego maniacal, downtrodden and artistic loser that is the joy and the surprise of this film. This film that shouldn't even have this character at its heart because it's a detective versus an ancient flying snake monster terrorising New York film!
In any other movie, made by any other writer/director (even the good ones) this would be David Carradine's film. He'd be the hero, he'd be the protagonist and Moriarty/Jimmy Quinn would be in one scene where Roundtree and Carradine would rough him up for information.
This puts Quinn up there with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and if you think making Shakespearean comparisons with a movie called Q The Winged Serpent is either exaggerating or pretentious then firstly, fuck off, we're not pretentious here in The Diner, long winded sometimes but never pretentious and secondly, go watch Q The Winged Serpent and come back to me and tell me I am wrong... because, on this, I'm not wrong.
Sometimes you see a performance in a cult or B-Movie and just hate the Oscars. Just want to hate fuck them right in their stupid puffy, white, ignorant faces. When you see Q The Winged Serpent and watch the lanky, jazz, genius Moriarty at work you'll feel that way. You'll also complete re-evaluate your definition of great on-screen acting.