Saturday 29 April 2017

We Don't Go Back #47: Eye of the Devil (1966)

Some films and TV shows are subject to a strange external force; a tragic event or a person related to these media carries an influence that subtly warps the thing itself, so it's actually impossible to watch it in the way you might have done when it was first released. And Eye of the Devil, adapted from Philip Loraine's novel Day of the Arrow and directed by J. Lee (The Guns of Navarone) Thompson, is a classic example. It is hard to find on DVD in the UK; you have to get a Region 1 import.
David Niven and Deborah Kerr should be the stars you remember...
The film is strange enough on its own; Philippe de Montfauçon (David Niven) lives in Paris with his wife Catherine (Deborah Kerr) and their two children. A mysterious visit during a soirée causes Philippe to leave suddenly and return to his ancestral seat, Bellenac, where the vineyards have failed.

Phillipe's strange behaviour causes Catherine some concern, and she follows him south to the château. There she is stonewalled by Phillipe's aunt Estell (Flora Robson, only eight years older than Niven himself), and Phillipe himself, and finds herself increasingly terrified for the safety of her husband, her children and herself.
...but they aren't.
Hooded figures hold rituals in the bowels of the château, the local priest (Donald Pleasence, on sinister form) obviously knows but isn't saying, and a pair of creepy, faintly incestuous black-clad twins with an evident talent for witchcraft have free run of the castle. No one wants to help Catherine, and it becomes apparent to the viewer that literally everyone in the local area is in on the terrible thing that's going to happen, including Philippe.

The twins, Odile and Christian, are the most interesting thing about the film, and that's in no small measure because they're played by Sharon Tate and David Hemmings. And the charisma that both actors have is such that they change the nature of the film just by being there, exert a gravity that draws the film around them. This is especially true with Tate, who is frankly sex on two legs, and the camera knows it. Her performance is worth it, too: she's magnetic, and has this amazing deep, sonorous voice that doesn't seem like it should be coming out of her mouth (but apparently really was). When she hypnotises Catherine and very nearly causes the woman to walk off the top of the tower, or transforms a toad into a dove with magic, she is the only thing you see on screen. She has this powerful, sinister glamour.
White gloves, turban.
It makes watching Eye of the Devil 50 years later a peculiarly ghostly experience, and not just because Tate steals the film right out from under Kerr, who the film is supposed to be about, but because the gravity Tate in particular exerts is of course multiplied after the fact by the one thing that everyone who's heard of Sharon Tate knows about her.

Because you watch it knowing. It becomes about her. It was tending that way already, but you think, almost withou thinking, this is a film that has Sharon Tate in it, and it haunts and discomforts in ways that the filmmakers could not have foreseen and cerainly never intended.
Sorry, why are we in the same film again?
The camera frames Tate and Hemmings in a different way to the way it films Kerr and Niven. And that creates the very weird feeling of a film that starts out as the sort of film that stars David Niven and Deborah Kerr and turns into the sort of film that stars Sharon Tate and David Hemmings.

And that's also a bit weird because while you can imagine a film set in contemporary France where no one speaks French that stars David Niven and Deborah Kerr (and if that's not weird and old-fashioned to you, try imagining a French film set in London where no one speaks English), Tate and Hemmings are associated with a very different sort of film. A different generation. And this carries across the rest of the cast: Flora Robson and Donald Pleasence are presences from two very different sorts of films. I suppose this is where I also mention the supporting turns from Edward Mulhare (Devon Miles off of Knight Rider) and John Le Mesurier (of Dad's Army) who again supply very different sorts of performance.
Would you let this man take your confession?
So you have this soft focus black-tie soiree full of people being and louche and smoking, and David Niven being very David Niven, and Deborah Kerr driving an open-top car in a haute couture turban and white gloves, and then suddenly we're in stark countryside, and here's Sharon Tate in a black catsuit with her amazing big hair and David Hemmings with a bow and arrow shooting doves in quick-cut scenes and I can't fully express how jarring that is. And then Kerr and Niven start to get pulled into that other sort of film, and you have Deborah Kerr terrorised by robed cultists and Philippe setting to Odile with a horsewhip and Odile acting like that was actually quite fun (I yelled "What!?" out loud at the screen at that point), only then you have a sequence where everyone's telling Catherine she's gone mad and she's shut in her room and no one is listening and we're back to Black Narcissus territory. Niven and Kerr act very differently to Tate and Hemmings; they represent a different way of performing, and while all four performances are of an excellent standard (inasmuch as Hemmings gets all that much chance to act), you can see the joins.

For example. If I hadn't seen it myself, I would have had a great deal of trouble thinking that an image like this...
...could appear in the same film as an image like this:
These are different visual idioms, different eras of film mashed together.

Eye of the Devil is a direct precursor to The Wicker Man, on a very superficial level, in that there's a harvest, there's an extreme and heretical solution that's managed top-down by a local noble family, and there's an outsider who's horrified to realise what's (probably) going on. It has a strong feeling of inevitability to it, and a payoff that is chilling and entirely satisfying. I like a film that has no easy answers. But Eye of the Devil doesn't honestly know whether it's an old school soft-focus melodrama or a groovy cut-up piece of new wave nihilism, right to the end.

It's almost like it was made by different directors. Which, it turns out is true. Eye of the Devil (originally titled 13) seems to have been cursed. Thompson was in fact the fourth director to work on it, and Kerr was only cast as Catherine after Kim Novak, who had the part originally, had an accident and couldn't finish the movie. So Thompson, a safe pair of hands of the old school, reshot all the scenes with Catherine in, only in a different style to the rest of the movie. It's an accident, but I think that makes it more unsettling in the end.

Because, given the denouement, it feels almost as if a new, pagan generation of film is ritually murdering an older, more reverent style. 
Look at the composition here. It screams sixties.
And there's a lot of really good stuff in this film. I did actually enjoy it. It has an unsettling, hypnotic quality, and it goes to some very strange, pagan places. There's just enough there to suggest that the supernatural elements might be the Real Deal. But the trajectory the plot takes and the weight that some of the performances take make it a queasy, unsettling watch, and not wholly for reasons that are even anything to do with the production itself. History has added an unfortunate weight to Eye of the Devil.