Friday, 14 June 2013

Friday Night Film: Reflections In A Golden Eye

Torrid melodramas set in the southern states of America were all the rage in the fifties and sixties, with Hollywood churning out about one a week (note: check this statistic). The ingredients were pretty much always the same: neurotics and lunatics rub each other up the wrong way until tragedy strikes or an unpalatable truth is wrenched into the open.  I’m fascinated by them, especially as, for the most part, contemporary audiences weren’t particularly bothered about them and I wonder why Hollywood persisted with the form.
Case in point: ‘Reflections In A Golden Eye’. Top director, stellar cast, high drama, massive flop. Based on the book by Carson McCullers, ‘Reflections’ is prefaced with a simple quotation from the novel:  ‘there is a fort in the south where a few years ago a murder took place'.

Brando busts a nut.

Taylor boozes.

Things aren't going well.

Private Williams waits and watches, sees fat nude arse.

Anacleto. He's flamboyant.
The story concerns a bizarre love hexagon, a heptagon if you include the horse. Major Pendleton (Marlon Brando) is a tightly wound, vain, humourless instructor at a military academy and barracks. His stroppy wife, Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor – shouty, as usual), is having an affair with his colleague, Major Langdon. Major Langdon’s wife is permanently on the edge of mental collapse (her baby died, so she cut off her own nipples with a pair of pruning shears), so their Filipino houseboy, Anacleto, tries to keep her occupied by camping it up, painting golden peacocks and prancing around doing ballet and singing to her. 

An enlisted man, Private Williams, has become obsessed with Leonora, and breaks into the house every night to watch her sleep and rummage in her drawers and fondle her flimsies. Pendleton has noticed Williams hanging around and assumes that Williams is interested in him, and this unleashes his previously repressed homosexuality. That’s a hell of a synopsis, and I didn’t even mention the horse, Firebird - Leonora loves it, Private Williams looks after it (and rides around on in the nude) and Pendleton nearly beats it to death for throwing him (Leonora gets her own back by thrashing her husband with a riding crop in the middle of a cocktail party).

Not actually what is meant by the term 'bareback riding'.

Brando bursts in.

'Well, I declare'

Kinicker sniffer nicked sniffing.

It’s a pretty breathless hour and a half and, by the outrageously over the top end of it, two of the characters are dead, one has run away and one is ruined and on their way to jail. It’s a little too serious to be high camp, but it is certainly hysterically overwrought. I really like it particularly as, unlike a lot of films in this vein, there are very few big speeches and expository declamations, so a certain ambiguity is retained. It’s a very ambiguous film in general, and that makes it so much more interesting.

Brando hears I called him a 'waster'.


There’s an awful lot going on in this film, and every moment is charged with meaning, but it’s Brando who really stands out for me. His tight-jawed, ramrod straight (in some ways, anyway) performance isn’t exactly ‘normal’ in leading man terms, but is extremely well observed and extremely skilful – the aftermath of his fall from Firebird where he goes from abject, sickening terror to crazed anger, for instance, or the scene where he restlessly waits for Private Williams to come into his bedroom (not knowing he’s actually heading for Leonora’s) and suddenly realises his hair is a mess and tries to sort it out  – and it’s strange to think that he was third choice for the role after Montgomery Clift (who died) and Lee Marvin (who refused it). Brando was a funny bloke, and a bit of a waster, but, when he’s on form, he’s fantastic.   
Finally, director John Huston (all over the place quality wise in the sixties and seventies, and an incorrigible game changer) originally suffused every scene with an eerie golden glow. It looks great, but audiences didn’t like it, so a standard version was put out for audiences to dislike instead. The screenshots, of course, are from the version Huston originally intended to be seen. It’s a neat, odd little touch that further recommends this off kilter mini masterpiece to aficionados of the slightly bizarre. That’s you, by the way.  

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