Dordogne Among the Dead Men

More J. Lee Thompson — EYE OF THE DEVIL was originally to be called DAY OF THE ARROW and then THIRTEEN, which would seem to have jinxed it. They started shooting on September 13th, also.

Sid Furie was originally slated to direct, and a few distinctive “Sid Furie shots” appear, but these seem to have been shot by Thompson and the resemblance is a matter of fashion. Not many directors shoot down through lampshades, it must be said. Within a year or two directors got all self-conscious about this kind of self-consciousness. The minute they found themselves crouching behind a potted fern, viewfinder nosing through the leaves, they would say to themselves, Oh God no, not a Sid Furie shot!

After Furie, Michael Anderson was attached, but got ill early in the shoot. Or did he? There are a number of questions hanging over this one. Did he fall or was he pushed?

So it became a Thompson film, starring Kim Novak, and then two weeks before the end of filming, Novak was out. The official story was that she’d injured her back in a fall, but everyone stressed the fact that she’d be fine, but she couldn’t work for a few months and so the film would have to be restarted with a replacement.

But David Hemmings, who makes an early appearance, indiscreetly reveals in his very readable memoir that Novak departed after rowing with producer Martin Ransohoff at a press conference. Hemmings reports that he can no longer recall what Ransohoff said to offend Novak, nor if she was justified in her outrage, but he had an indelible memory of Novak stubbing her cigarette into his one good eye…

Nothing that horrifying happens in the film, which is nominally a scary movie…

Anyway, that’s Novak out, but co-star David Niven comes to the rescue, roping in Deborah Kerr, making the film a kind of Powell & Pressburger affair since Flora Robson also appears.

It’s a kind of WICKER MAN/ROSEMARY’S BABY plot, but much less gripping and more guessable than either, and the horror at its heart is strangely uninteresting. But the film itself is sort of fascinating.

Thompson is treating it as an exercise du style, pulling in a lot of nouvelle vague influence — the opening blur of flashforwards, which has no real reason to exist, is certainly modernist and flashy — then MARIENBAD seems to be the order of the day. Thompson tracks incessantly and cuts before his movements finish, which pre-Resnais was considered filmically ungrammatical, though obviously this was always false (exceptions existed for cutting from a shot tracking with a character, to their POV, for instance, as seen so often in Hitchcock).

The direct cutting approach, unfortunately, lops all the tension out of the film. No sooner has the thought of a character going somewhere scary been planted, than we cut to them arriving, or already there. And yet MARIENBAD itself is quite a spooky film. Maybe because it combines sudden jumps in time (which promote nervousness) with funereal creep. This movie’s had all the creep excised.

It has Donald Pleasence doing his whispery bit, but the eeriest presences in it are Hemmings and Sharon Tate, as a twisted brother and sister. One’s first response to Tate is that she’s surely dubbed. Publicity at the time suggested she took lots of voice lessons to acquire a posh English accent and a deeper voice — but, as we know, the publicity people on this film were not always completely truthful.

In a way, it doesn’t much matter if Tate’s using her own voice — certainly there’s a lot of (pretty good) post-synching going on — the combination of the plummy purr and her striking beauty and stillness is quite uncanny. A slight feeling that her voice isn’t coming from her body but from somewhere beyond adds to the character’s sinister presence/absence.

Critics complained about her immobile face, evidence that the weekly film reviewer’s job is to notice anything fresh or interesting an actor does, and then condemn it. They trashed Anjelica Huston on first sight also.

This vertiginous sequence, part of the evil games Tate’s character indulges in, is genuinely alarming, partly because real child endangerment seems to be occurring. Sure, the shots are framed so that someone can always be hanging onto the kid, and ropes and harnesses may be involved, but it still seems dodgy.

Elsewhere, Niven gets some terrific stuff acting hypnotized — a mode of Niv we’ve never seen before. And there’s a relatively early example of a downbeat ending — not only does evil triumph, but it’s going to carry on perpetuating itself and triumphing down the generations. If the film had come out when it was new it would have perhaps had more impact, but it seems to have crept out incrementally over the course of about three years.

I’d love to see the outtakes — Michael Anderson’s stuff, Kim Novak’s. And I wonder if the MARIENBAD approach was established by Furie at the planning stage (it seems like something he might come up with) or Anderson (if Thompson were taking over early in the shoot it seems he’d want to match what had been filmed) or Thompson, who certainly went to town with it. “He’s given this film everything,” attested Niven.

EYE OF THE DEVIL stars Sister Clodagh; Sir Charles Lytton; Ernst Stavro Blofeld; Devon Miles; Queen Elizabeth I; Caligula; Sarah Shagal; Dildano; Sgt. Wilson; Lady of Lyonesse; Tsarevitch Alexei; Bunny Lake; and Vivian Darkbloom.

8 Responses to “Dordogne Among the Dead Men”

  1. Grant Skene Says:

    It seems to me the British film industry was obsessed with dubbing people almost as much as the Italians. Does a word of George Lazenby exist in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service? I hear more of George Baker’s voice. Not to mention every Bond girl and many of the villains. I caught the start of the original Wicker Man the other day, and Brit Ekland is being dubbed (rather well) by a lovely Scottish voice.

  2. Michael Winner never seemed to grow tired of the Sid Furie Shot. In fact, prior to reading this article I had always called it the Michael Winner Shot and received funny looks.

  3. I don’t think Angela Scoular’s dubbed in OHMSS, she seems to have had a lot of voice talent. Nor is Diana Rigg. The others, probably.

    Britt is dubbed alright, by Annie Ross!

    Richard Lester never got out of the dubbing habit, with Philippe Noiret revoiced by somebody or other as late as Return of the Musketeers. I think Richard Briers voices Jean-Pierre Cassel in the first films (Lester wasn’t sure, but thought so too) and Michael Hordern does Georges Wilson. Lester considered dubbing Geraldine Chaplin — I guess he was unhappy with what he’d got — but her contract prevented it. She dubbed herself and he was satisfied.

    Yes, Winner carried on hiding in the aspidistras to his dying day, whereas Sid Furie didn’t really keep it up beyond Ipcress File until The Entity, where again there’s a good reason for it. Though he does do some hilarious over-shoulder shots in The Appaloosa with a wide angle lens and a sombrero, so that Brando appears as a tiny face sandwiched between two vast expanses of fabric.

  4. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Treating Sharon Tate as if she were a statue come to fitful life is evidence of conventional thinking. Under the expert hands of her husband roman Polanski she is an innocent swimming in a sea of evil in “The Fearless Vampire killers” shows what she could do like no one else. Sadly she didn’t get to exhibit her talent extensively thanks to the genuine evil of the Manson family

    Quentin Tarantino’s treatment of Tate in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is beyond insulting.

    As for Martin Ransohoff, his manipulative vulgarity is the reason why Alexander Mackendrick retired..

  5. I do think Tate’s glacial performance is right for this film, though, and she and Hemmings make a great team.

    Terry-Thomas reported her telling him that she couldn’t act at all, but that he wasn’t to worry, because everything seemed to turn out OK. He agreed: she had some kind of quality that made acting superfluous. What Nick Ray called “a natural.” Here she’s deliberately artificial — and pulls that off too.

  6. Mike Clelland Says:

    I thought David Niven (the “Niv”) was good in the Eye of the Devil, but he seemed miscast. There is a line I heard somewhere, and it’s probably made up. Someone said, “David Niven was quite good in his new film, but he was simply marvelous at the cocktails last Saturday.”

    They might have been talking about this movie.

  7. Mike Clelland Says:

    There was a typo in my comment above. I’m correcting it here:

    “David Niven was quite good in his new film, but he was simply marvelous at the cocktail party last Saturday.”

    Again, I don’t if anyone every really said this, but it’s a very good line.

  8. “It’s such a charming thought, I do hope somebody expressed it.” Mrs. Wilberforce.

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