Friday, September 9, 2011

I'm About to "Touch" You

I'm just back from a theatre convention at which the theme was everything Greek. The primary banquet included a costume party with folks inspired to dress as their favorite gods, goddesses and whatever else. You'd think that I would go as Poseidon, right? I did consider it, but ultimately I chose to go as, of all things, Cupid! And wouldn't you know I won the contest. What's more, there was a marriage proposal that night and there I am with my bow, shooting arrowheads of love at the betrothed couple in nearly every picture! Additionally, the newsletter you sometimes hear me grousing about having to write (which I did again on Tuesday and Wednesday this week) gleaned six awards for me, two Excellences and four Outstandings, making it all seem worth the trouble.

Anyway, I got back and saw that there was a movie on my DVR with a similarly-themed title, The Medusa Touch. Still feeling a little Greek, I watched it. (The last time I felt a little Greek, his mother caught us and I got in trouble! Bah-dum-bump!) It actually has nothing whatsoever to do with Greece, mythology or Medusa, apart from a scary wall hanging in one character's apartment and is, instead, a contemporary British suspense thriller from 1978. Starring Richard Burton, Lino Ventura and Lee Remick, it's one that I've been wanting to see for decades, but which had eluded me all that time until just now!

The Medusa Touch concerns an embittered, troubled man (Burton) who somehow seems to have manifested his hatred of certain people to the point that he can make horrible things happen with his mind. The movie kicks off with him watching a moon mission gone hideously wrong on TV only to be struck repeatedly in the head by an unknown (to us) assailant. Declared dead by the coroner, detective Ventura then attempts to find out what led to this crime. The story is revealed through flashbacks, interspersed through the present day story.

We learn that Burton's gift for destruction first reared its head when he was a boy and was disenchanted with his overbearing nanny and, later, his nagging parents. Then a vindictive schoolmaster learns the hard way not to chide and dominate the boy. As Ventura continues to dig for clues and interview those who knew him, we meet others who were affected by Burton at his worst. The chief link to Burton's life and persona is provided by a psychiatrist (Lee Remick) who had been treating him prior to the attack.
Since she seems to have had the most in depth contact with him, including his sharing of some of his most shocking innermost ideas and thoughts, Ventura turns to her continually throughout the film. Likewise, in the flashbacks, Burton turns to her often as well, though often with a sneering and/or belligerent frame of mind.
During the course of the investigation, we're shown various people who came upon Burton, some of whom didn't live to tell about it! Almost all of these roles are portrayed by stalwart British character actors. Alan Badel is a barrister who recalls Burton's own career as a member of the legal community. In a fiery courtroom speech, Burton crosses the lines of tact and diplomacy, angering the judge on the bench and effectively ending his livelihood.

Then there's Derek Jacobi as Burton's publisher. Burton had been the author of several well-written, but dark, imposing works and was far from easy to deal with. We also meet Burton's wife (Marie-Christine Barrault), who isn't even bothering to hide the fact that she's having an affair with local actor Jeremy Brett.

Michael Hordern pops up briefly as a palm reader and fortune teller who is petrified by what he sees during Burton's visit to him. Robert Lang is Burton's neighbor, a man who is henpecked by his slovenly, yet exacting wife, much to Burton's annoyance as he can hear the squabbling through the walls.

Ventura is assisted in his investigation by assistant police commissioner Harry Andrews and fellow detective Michael Byrne. A doctor portrayed by Gordon Jackson is also on hand. While these names may not be household ones in the U.S., the faces might be more familiar as all of these folks have worked in the cinema for many years as well as on television.
With the clues falling into place, Ventura comes to the realization that the problems Burton had been causing are far from over, thus it's a race against the clock to prevent yet another disaster from occurring. This is key for me - “disaster.” You know, I'm a '70s disaster movie freak and thought that I'd seen virtually every one of them ever made. While this isn't a disaster film in the strictest sense (i.e. - the film isn't based solely around a catastrophic event like a tidal wave, a fire or an earthquake), it still contains considerable footage similar to what can be found in that genre.

For one thing, there's an explosive crack-up between a passenger jet and an office skyscraper. The scenes regarding this are brief, but the makers didn't skimp on creating special effects for it. A nine-foot long model was used, careening fifty yards from its spot twenty feet off the floor to the scale model of the office tower (which was based on an actual London building, once nominated as one of the city's ugliest structures!)
This event is what was published on the jacket of the 1973 source novel by Peter Van Greenaway and is undoubtedly one of the reasons that the film has been scarcely seen in the U.S. over the past decade, its imagery uncomfortably similar to the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. (Then again, I could never find the movie anywhere prior to that, either! This was not a successful release in America to begin with.) In fact, the shots of this incident's “ground zero” bear a startling similarity to the look of the one in New York City, making this rather chilling viewing for us. (See below) The fact that I'm viewing and writing this almost a decade to the day is sheer coincidence (OR IS IT??!) My apologies in advance if this timing disturbs anyone.
The brief scene on the airliner is well-handled by a trio of flight crewmen (and there's a tiny row of seats filled with passengers depicted in the cabin as well.) Hellaciously sedate “elevator” music plays in the passenger section while the pilots struggle to find out what is happening to their aircraft. Considering the era, budget and resources, it's an effective sequence and nothing to be ashamed of at all. In fact, I'll take these homemade special effects any day over the GCI that has taken its place. I find it unwatchable.

The big finale, however, is more involved. It has to do with the crumbling of an ages-old church, Minster Cathedral (a fictional name given to the real Bristol Cathedral, but meant to suggest Westminster Abbey.) While Ventura struggles to prevent it, the massive building begins to creak, crack and crumble, all the while filled with starchily-dressed visitors! (The Queen is an invited guest to the charity event after all!) The ensuing panic and melee is reminiscent of Two Minute Warning without the football and with natty, reserved hat-wearing subjects instead of casual, denim-wearing Americans.

The British film industry made very few entries into the '70s fad of calamity (Juggernaut barely had any disaster sequences in it), so its fun to see this now and have a look at the trend from that side of the Atlantic. It's an extended sequence and one not without some unintentional humor, but that is one of the joys of the genre from this era. One might expect to hear the polite, staid victims saying, “Oh dear, I do believe that column is threatening to fall!” or “Pardon me, but I think perhaps you're standing on my coat and I do need to evacuate before the roof caves in, what?” However, when push comes to shove (literally!), the posh inhabitants of the cathedral can still be counted on to scream their silly heads off as they race for the exits!

While the effects (particularly the use of sound, as a matter of fact) are more than decent, it's still unintentionally hysterical that a gaggle of bell-ringing priests continue to yank on the ropes even as the building starts to collapse and that the heavy falling bells seem to deliberately seek out a man of the cloth below on which to deliberately fall! Earthquake had that notorious scene of some people in an elevator crash getting splayed with animated blood. Here, no such tacky mistake is made as one poor soul is hit by debris only to have a nearby rock get splashed with theatrical blood. It's a far more effective approach and pretty cringe-inducing, actually.

The scene depicted here, by the way, doesn't actually appear in the finished film. It's another distinction the film shares with Earthquake, whose lobby photo set included a picture of Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner and Lloyd Nolan from a cut scene. The two priests shown here have scenes at the cathedral, but none at the hospital in the release print. It's surprising because anything Catholic-related in 1970s suspense seemed to enthrall audiences.

The Medusa Touch was directed by Jack Gold, a steadily employed helmsman best known for his work for television (projects like The Naked Civil Servant and Escape from Sobibor.) Most shocking about him is the knowledge that his nephew is American soap opera figure Ricky Paull Goldin, primarily known for his work on Guiding Light and All My Children!

Another interesting tidbit is that the film was produced by acclaimed editor Anne V. Coates, the lady who won an Oscar for cutting Lawrence of Arabia and was nominated four subsequent times. This movie has a structure that had been popularized in the '60s, but rather abandoned by the more conventional '70s. That is that the current story and the flashbacks seem to take place concurrently without a lot of separation marking one from the other. Someone else besides Coates did the editing here, but there is one very impressive bit in which Derek Jacobi is speaking to Ventura only to have the camera pan to Burton in flashback with Jacobi then entering the flashback himself with no editing in the shot until near the very end of the scene! Very clever (and subtle if you aren't paying attention.)

Burton, by this time, had veered far from the virile and handsome leading man he'd been in previous years. A lot of boozing and smoking had eroded that famous face, but the voice was still in pretty good stead. Reportedly (though it is sometimes suggested in reviews that it wasn't the case), he was not drinking during this project. He was allegedly on a drug (Antabuse or something similar) that makes it next to impossible, or at least extremely unpleasant, to imbibe. This likely made it easy for him to maintain the surly persona he demonstrates in the picture, though he only had to be there three weeks. He squeezed this movie in quickly before departing to make The Wild Geese with Roger Moore and Richard Harris. He was not the director's first choice for this, that being Nicol Williamson (who would have been quite good, I'm sure!), though he wound up giving an impassioned and committed performance.
He had made quite an impact, a comeback of sorts, the previous year with Equus (though it was tempered by his participation in the dastardly, rotten Exorcist II: The Heretic!), but his memorable career was getting close to the end. In 1981, he made Circle of Two, which paired him romantically with thirty-eight years younger Tatum O'Neal (!) and Lovespell which did the same with thirty years younger Kate Mulgrew. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1984 after completing, appropriately enough, 1984 with John Hurt.
Ventura was an Italian who made his home (and career) in France, becoming one of that country's most prized character actors. Not “handsome” in the conventional or matinee idol sense, he made up for it in spades with his natural, charismatic style of acting. Unlike a lot of screen actors, he hardly ever seemed to give a shit whether the camera caught him at a certain angle, giving him considerable verismilitude in his roles. Incidentally, he provides the sole (and limited) shirtless scene in the movie, a nightmare sequence in which he is wrested from sleep by the case he's working on. This is a film decidedly lacking in beefcake and hunkitude, the closest thing, perhaps, being James Hazeldine (shown below), the curly-haired defendant in Burton's legal case (and he says not a word during his screen time.)
Remick almost didn't accept her role because it had been less than two years since The Omen, a thriller with a similar type of theme. Her part in the book was that of a male Holocaust survivor, but the makers clearly opted to go with a female in order to further diversify the triad of leads. She makes, quite possibly, one of the worst attempts at an English accent I've ever seen in a major production. It's absent in some scenes and distractingly bad in others. She should have just been made a transplanted American, which is what she comes off as anyway. For this film, she brought along her own costumer, Jane Robinson, who had first dressed her in Jennie: Lady Randolph Churchill in 1974 and in Telefon in 1977.
Miss Remick had two of the most distinctive eyes ever captured by the camera lens. They were used to great effect in many films and in advertising as well, never more so than with 1976's The Omen (shown above.) Speaking of eyes, she had originated the role of the blind woman in Wait Until Dark on Broadway in 1966. She was, at this point, beginning to gravitate more to television movies and miniseries rather than feature films, though she continued to pop up in the cinema occasionally after this. Sadly, she was claimed by kidney and liver cancer in 1991 at the altogether too early age of just fifty-one.

Harry Andrews was one of those reliable, busy British character actors who seemed to appear in everything. Like Burton, he'd appeared in Equus the previous year and would go on to act right up until his death in 1989 from a viral infection at the age of seventy-seven. One of his late-career roles was, of all things, playing John Forsythe's dying (American) father in an episode of Dynasty! (He was only a mere seven years older than Forsythe.)

Badel was a memorable villain in Arabesque and had a featured role in the 1970 fiasco The Adventurers, as well. A great one to help fill out overpopulated thrillers and spy films, he was also in Day of the Jackal and Remick's Telefon, which also co-starred Charles Bronson. He died suddenly at the age of fifty-eight in 1982, leaving one child and his wife of forty years behind.

Just a couple of years before this, French actress Barrault had been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her work in Cousin cousine. After her dry-run cameo here, she made occasional English-language movies such as Stardust Memories for Woody Allen and Table for Five, which starred Jon Voight. Married to noted film director Roger Vadim from 1990 to his death in 2000, she still acts in French films today.

Her on-screen paramour Brett is a peculiar case. Famous for playing Freddy Eynsford-Hill in My Fair Lady (though his singing was dubbed), he continued to stay busy in many film and TV projects (including Remick's miniseries Jennie: Lady Randolph Churchill.) In 1984, he began playing Sherlock Holmes in an acclaimed series of British television mysteries and wound up becoming obsessed with the character to an extreme degree. He eventually began to let the role dominate most every aspect of his life and experienced terrible mood swings. He was later diagnosed as a manic-depressive and was hospitalized more than once. It was his heart, though, that killed him. Scarred by a childhood bout with rheumatic fever and damaged by a lifetime habit of a three-pack-a-day cigarette habit, his heart (enlarged to twice its normal size) gave out in 1991 when Brett was just sixty-one.

Jacobi rose to fame on the London stage when the actor he was understudying went to Hollywood for opportunities there. Ironically enough, that actor was Jeremy Brett! Primarily regarded as an impeccable and accomplished stage actor, he is legendary for having portrayed the deranged Roman emperor Claudius in the 1976 miniseries I, Claudius. He would continue to appear on stage, on TV and in films (notable ones including Gladiator and Gosford Park) and still acts today. In 2006, he was proud to join in a civil union with his male partner of twenty-seven years.

The Medusa Touch is almost a “lost” film, in the U.S. at least, but occasionally rears its head. It has a spotty reputation because of its lack of performance upon release and it is slow in parts, but thanks to a winning palette of great actors and some fun disaster effects at the finale, I can recommend it. I thought it was going to be far campier and sillier than it was, though it's not completely without unintentional laughs. There are aspects to the story that I have tried to avoid here because I don't like too many spoilers (none, if I can help it), so you mustn't think that I've given everything away. Fans of Burton or Ventura ought to enjoy it. I'm glad I got to round out my spectrum of '70s disaster flicks by finally getting to see it!


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