Hey Moondog

Secret Passage

SECRET CEREMONY is a film maudit if ever there was one. Even many hardcore Loseyites find it hard to defend.

“Anyway, to go back to SECRET CEREMONY, here is how it was finally set up. I was sitting in Rome; I had just been doing the dubbing of BOOM!, Burton was going off to do WHERE EAGLES DARE, or whatever they do — shit — WHERE EAGLES SHIT — and we were all in the Grand Hotel. Elizabeth said ‘Why don’t we do something again?’ I remembered this script and thought she would be ideal for it. I got her the script a few days later from London, and she said ‘I’ll do it’, and we did it, at once. Now, of course, I brought [writer George] Tabori back in and we did a great deal of re-working, mostly out of that particular house.”

~ from Conversations With Losey by Michel Ciment.

(I like Ciment, he has a particular enthusiasm for the mad and visionary strains of British cinema that are at least as big a part of our culture — the valuable part of it — as social observation and all that muck.)

Justify My Love

So, having finished Tennessee Williams’ BOOM! (which is John Waters’ favourite movie for reasons that are evident if you can manage to see it ), while Burton is off where the eagles shit, Liz Taylor is parading around in various Christian Dior outfits in this deeply weird art movie in this weird house in Addison Road, London. The house had been a rest home for the mentally ill, run by some kind of religious organisation who had fallen on hard times — Losey’s regular collaborator Richard MacDonald ran amok in it and created one of the very best London houses in cinema — it stands alongside Asshetton Gorton’s work in THE KNACK and BLOW-UP, and John Clark’s in PERFORMANCE. The great London house films of the period.

Sausage, M'lady?

Munch chomp gnosh

Early on Liz, grieving her lost child, is adopted as mother by orphaned loony Mia Farrow, who cooks her a splendid sausage breakfast. And the film slams on the brakes and simply observes, with Farrow, as Liz wolfs down the lot. A whole breakfast consumed, in silence… It seems like a dreadful mistake at screenplay stage: The script must have said, “She eats the sausages,” and nobody thought anything of it, but it’s one of those sentences, like “The Indians capture the fort,” that really entails much more than it seems to. Yet somehow the film knows we want this. We want to see Liz eat those sausages. All of them. It’s pornographic, but we can’t look away. The fact that Liz is carrying, shall we say, a few extra pounds and Farrow, who does not eat, still has the emaciated spidery limbs she sports in ROSEMARY’S BABY, adds to the pervasive and enticing wrongness of it all. This is a terrible thing we are witnessing.

Later, Liz will pat her jowls reflectively and complain, “Christ, I’m so f=a=t,” her voice rising to a hoarse beep on the final word.

My Last Breath

What’s going on? All the characters are insane, as Losey admitted. This makes things pretty alienating for any audience member with a grasp of reality. And while Losey announced that Farrow’s character was “in every detail thought out as a hysterical schizophrenic,” I get the impression that his sense of those words may be rather loose. Jean-Pierre Melville also described Delon’s character in LE SAMOURAI as schizophrenic, and I have no idea what he meant by that. Autistic might be closer in that case. I think Farrow’s schizophrenia, like protagonist George Harvey Bone’s in Hangover Square, may be a plot device as much as a condition.


(Damnit, I now have private information regarding Farrow’s mental state at the time, but I don’t think I can repeat it. Never mind, Losey loved her, and she’s very good in his film.)

I think that by making Liz’s character so nutty, the film kind of disables itself, since if she functioned as a vaguely reliable guide to the labyrinth, she could get away with being distraught, maybe a bit irrational, but not this totally random screwball she is.

Moon Age Day Dream

Screenwriter George Tabori, who is no Pinter, obviously has no shortage of ideas, but his organisation is lacking. David Caute’s Losey book criticises the dialogue for muddling American and British idioms, but I got the impression that’s Liz’s character — a yank who fakes a Brit accent when she’s pretending to be the mother. It’s just about the one thing I was clear on. But it’s a throw-away film full of throw-away notions, like Farrow’s fear of “Moondog”, the God figure in a William Blake illustration on the bedroom mantel. It probably relates to her incestuous stepfather, and maybe when Robert Mitchum turns up (“C’mon, you know I’m harmless before lunch!” with an Irish beard and a bunch of flowers, we’re meant to be reminded of the sinister figure. But why “Moondog”?

Calypso is... like so

ALTHOUGH — the environments of the film are beautiful and the various performers do fascinating things. Mia Farrow essays her note-perfect English accent, also displayed in Anthony Mann’s swan-song, A DANDY IN ASPIC, and her physical acting is likewise remarkable, all flailing arms and manic grin so wide it threatens to crack the outline of her face and break out on its own. Liz is just Liz, she stomps about, giving her all, seizing on anything she can emote at. Robert Mitchum turns up and shows his bravery again, playing loathsomeness without apology. Decorative eccentricity is provided by Peggy Ashcroft and Pamela Brown, who are always welcome round my place, but Losey’s use of the phrase “sort of comedy relief” in describing them is a clue to the fact that they’re not actually funny, just more neurotic whimsy.

Give it the grin

Richard Rodney Bennett did some fantastic music for Losey, and his stuff here is absolutely right for the film, a messed-up music box tinkle that helps make us feel as crazy as the characters. When Liz and Mia go to the seaside, a stunning resort filmed in Holland, the design and score lift us into a wonderful dream state. Then Mia Farrow shoves a stuffed frog up her dress and pretends she’s pregnant. Put this on a double bill with William Cameron Menzies’ THE MAZE, a 3D mystery in which the lord of a Scottish castle is secretly a giant frog, having never evolved out of the amphibian stage we all supposedly go through in the womb.

What makes you think I want a stain-proof dress?

Better yet, you know what this would make a great Fever Dream Double Featurewith? BOOM! is obviously a good choice, which might prove fatal if you didn’t have strong drink to hand, but try it with Giuseppe Patroni Griffi’s THE DRIVER’S SEAT, also known as IDENTIKIT, which has lots of equally barking mad Lizwork in it, and an even louder frock. Liz gets very irate at the suggestion that she might want a stain-proof dress, at one point: a fine Liz moment. It’s from a book by Muriel Spark, apparently reasonably faithful in its adaptation. Ian Bannen is around to supply, what? Himself, I suppose.

9 Responses to “Hey Moondog”

  1. Amazing! I was just about to mention The Driver’s Seat, which stars Liz and features Ian Bannen, Mona Washbourne and (wait for it!) Andy Warhol. Makes Secret Ceremony look positively sane by comparasion.

    Not sure what you’ve got on Mia but she had quite a long and complex history pre Losey. A Hollywood spud who knew everyone, and went after Sinatra with double the dedication she put into stealing Andre Previn from Dore Langdon (whose song “Beware of Young Girls”) is all about Mia. Frank had never seen a woman with a body like that, and was especially intrigued as she was throwing herself at him — wearing a see through dress under which she was “Going Commando.” The weirdest marriage in Hollywood history was too lukewarm not to cool down. Then came Woody. And then came Soon-Yi.

    Karma’s a bitch, ain’t it Mia?

    Anyhoo in your screen grabs Mia looks astonishingly like. . Jane Birkin !.

  2. Moondog sounds like quite a guy.

    I think Mia looks like part Birkin, part Shelley Duvall in that close-up.

    When Ava Gardner heard about Mia and Frank she reportedly said “I always knew he’d marry a boy.”

  3. Darryl McCarthy Says:

    Your brief mention of The Driver’s Seat prompted to pick up a copy (quite woeful quality) on a whim. What an experience it turned out to be: blatantly awful yet somehow oddly compelling. I can only wonder what Liz had to say off-camera while making it. And how on earth did Warhol come to be involved (with a pretty good English accent)? Flashes of brilliant camerwork, in particular a scene where Taylor and Mona Washbourne are walking in the street past a massive antique marble freeze and seem to drop out of the bottom left corner of the shot. Did the director produce anything else as startling? My appetite has been whetted.

  4. Patroni Griffi had a very varied career, though he wasn’t prolific. His film of Tis Pity She’s a Whore with Charlotte Rampling is probably his best — great sets and costumes, Morricone score, Storaro photography…
    “Shakespeare for sleazoids?” asks the IMDb reviewer.
    The Trap is pretty good, kinda pornographic though.

  5. Sorry to be commenting so late, but I simply can’t keep up with your prodigious blog output. Anyway, I know little about Patroni Griffi, but I quite like his The Divine Nymph with Laura Antonelli.

    My innpression is that Secret Ceremony is not nearly as maudit as, say, Boom – a fair number of Losey fans are willing to get behind it. There’s an American TV version with really bad added scenes that did the film’s reputation no good.

  6. That’s the main Griffi I haven’t seen. La Gabbia is OK, Tis Pity She’s a Whore is pretty excellent, and there isn’t very much else, although his writing credits are more extensive, including the Visconti episode of Le Streghe.

    Well, I hope to get a nice copy of Boom! soon, and I’m really going to try and get into it. Am saving up my Loseys for another marathon session.

  7. Secret Ceremony-is a lot of drivel, I agree that if at least Taylor’s Leonora character was a bit more sane the film would have had some moral compass? Watching Farrow was irritatiing, that creepy, spindly, strangeness got on my nerves. It is sooo slow moving in the beginning, that I’m sure a lot of movie patrons in 1968, just got up and walked out on it. or wanted their money back?….now for sheer Liz thesping to the skys, Drivers Seat can’t be beat. Fascinating, wierd, hysterical I’ll never forget Liz sitting in a bar and yelling out “what time is it” startling everyone around. Yes, over the top, I doubt that she got paid a lot for it.

  8. I dunno, not sure Liz ever worked cheap, although I’m sure her price was beginning to drop.

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