Neither of the two versions of the promo art for John Huston’s The Dead presented by Erich Kuersten, below, are *quite* as misleading as the cover art for the VHS version of The Dumb Waiter, a 1987 half-hour television film directed by Robert Altman based on the one-act play of the same title by the late Harold Pinter.
The Dumb Waiter‘s cover art shows the telefilm’s two stars, John Travolta and Tom Conti, dressed as waiters and acting goofy. Anyone who saw this cover would expect a lowbrow slapstick comedy in the mode of Jerry Lewis and Frank Tashlin’s The Disorderly Orderly or Steve Martin’s The Jerk. Anyone who actually watched this would discover something more akin to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
To begin with, the play’s two characters are not white-jacketed waiters. They are hoods, specifically hitmen, sitting in a basement awaiting orders from a mysterious boss. The “dumb waiter” of the title does not refer to a person, but to a device that my Webster’s Dictionary defines as “a small elevator used for conveying food and dishes from one story of a building to another.” In both play and film, it is the means by which the two hoods receive written orders from their unseen master. The orders become increasingly absurd and/or disturbing. Ultimately, Hood A (Travolta) is ordered to kill Hood B (Conti).
The Dumb Waiter, the film version, was one of several theatrical adaptations that Altman directed during his 1980s exile from mainstream Hollywood (along with the better-known Secret Honor, Streamers, and Come Back to the Five-and-Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean). For those not interested in Pinter’s dark absurdism or Altman’s mise-en-scene, The Dumb Waiter’s primary interest lies in the way it foreshadows a number of future projects. Travolta would play a hitman again, this time teamed with Samuel L. Jackson, in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), and it would resurrect his career. The situation of two hitmen awaiting orders from their boss, culminating in the boss’s order to have one hitman kill the other, would reappear in the 2008 black comedy, In Bruges.