White of the Eye

In 1970, a film called Performance became one of the remarkable conversation pieces of its time, a strange and disquieting picture that breathtakingly caught the fragmentation of life and the disintegration of identity in the modern world. Mick Jagger and James Fox were the stars; the directorial credit was shared by Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell.

Since Performance, Roeg has gone on to build a distinctive career, with high points such as Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth. Cammell, on the other hand, remained something of a mystery. He directed only one subsequent film, the 1977 Demon Seed, an interesting horror movie that flopped, commercially and critically (reviewers seemed repelled by the central plot point, in which Julie Christie was impregnated by a computer).

So it’s been convenient all these years to assume that, given Roeg’s fascinating work, Performance was almost certainly his film all the way, and this chap Cammell could be filed away as a subject for further research.

Whoops. Wipe away a critical complacency. Cammell has made his third film, White of the Eye, and it’s a stunner. Not only that, it reveals just the kind of style—visually and thematically—that so marked Performance.

White of the Eye is a film of violence, insanity, and (oddly enough) love, set in a small town in Arizona. Someone is viciously murdering women, and the investigating officer (Art Evans) is zeroing in on a likable stereo salesman (David Keith) who lives in the desert with his wife (Cathy Moriarty) and daughter. The marriage, which began 10 years earlier (seen in flashback) when Moriarty was passing through town with her then-boyfriend (Alan Rosenberg), is about to be tested in a variety of ways.

Not a lot of the plot should be given away. Anyway, it’s Cammell’s treatment of the story that is intriguing. His camera moving and creeping, his editing rhythms jagged, Cammell risks pretentiousnss and sometimes achieves it. But just as often he finds the explosive image: a goldfish flopping on a piece of meat; the soundtrack—elsewhere composed by Nick Mason (of Pink Floyd) and Rick Fenn—swimming with Italian opera as the camera soars over the appalling ruins of a mining company; the detective noting that the bloodstains at the murder scene resemble a “post-Cubist Picasso.”

It’s a bizarre film, not soon to be shaken. Easy to overlook in the director’s tour-de-force are two excellent performances—by David Keith, who does his best screen work, and the blond beauty, Cathy Moriarty. She must’ve appealed to Cammell. Since her Oscar-nominated debut in Raging Bull, she’s made only one film. White of the Eye restores both Cammell and Moriarty to their proper station: active in the movies.

First published in the Herald, 1987

Cammell killed himself in 1996, leaving behind an incredible-sounding series of cancelled productions and scripts left in drawers (the one feature he finished after White of the Eye was Wild Side). This movie is not, at the moment, on U.S. DVD, which somehow doesn’t come as a surprise. It’s an intense and singular experience, even if the subject matter sounds all too familiar.

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