Hailed as an underrated classic by many film buffs, the adaptation of Carson McCullers' novella Reflections
in a Golden Eye (Reflections) still draws attention because of its all star cast including Elizabeth Taylor,
Marlon Brando, and Julie Harris. Directed by John Huston, celebrated for his numerous literary adaptations - many successful,
others not, depending on the involvement of the studios (read Picture by Lillian Ross for a behind the scenes look
at the filming of The Red Badge of Courage), the movie never achieved the success hoped for critically or commercially
when it was released in 1967.
McCullers' writing would seem to be particularly well suited for drama, with its
strong characters and unusual plotting, and her work in the theater, particularly in The Member of the Wedding,
and other plays indicate an interest in and familiarity with the craft. Well defined, unique characters create drama.
They will have peculiar desires that others - individuals or institutions - will inherently try to deny. Also throw
some typical life choices, plot situations, and the characters will make unusual choices. You don't have to stretch
to achieve something remarkable with these characters.
Why doesn't the movie work with this cast and director?
For starters, the screenwriters (who included the director) delivered an adaptation that was too literal and faithful to the
story. The cast knew McCullers well and she was close to death at the time of filming; I think they went overboard in
their attempt to honor the writer.
The shorter work, short story or novella, should work best for adaptation into a
film because of the limited number characters and defined period of action. At the outset we are informed a murder
occurred on an army base in the south and it involved "two officers, a soldier, two women, a Filipino, and a horse."
While this type of introduction justifiably grabs the reader's attention with portents of a juicy tale to follow,
a movie or stage adaptation which announces the outcome in the first scene, as this one does, immediately loses dramatic tension.
As we meet the characters in the first act of the script, even the densest viewer is going to figure out who's going to
get it, and when he does at the very end (just as in the book) it seems long overdue.
story delivers a rich array of characters, some of great complexity such as Captain Penderton (played by Brando), Private
Williams (Robert Forster), and Anacleto (Zorro David). The screenplay gives stripped-down versions of these three, leaving
us to wonder at a backstory, and inflates the sexually peculiar: the Major has a fondness for enlisted men and S & M,
the Private is a peeping tom and exhibitionist, and Anacleto is an effeminate companion to an ailing Alison Langdon (played
with great sensitivity by Julie Harris). Brando, cast against type, is not successful in the part he was handed; his
high-pitched delivery, poor southern accent, and trademark mumbling leave a performance that is embarrassing. Acting
teachers advise their students to turn off the sound and watch great actors' movements; it would be advisable to do so
here. We are left to wonder at Forster - is he an idiot savant or horse whisperer, a voyeur or incubus? And the fantastic
Anacleto, who is worth a film in his own right, is sensationalized as a mincing housekeeper luring the susceptible Mrs. Langdon
into a folie à deux.
The other less sharply defined characters fare better. Ms. Taylor is captivating
as the earthy Mrs. Penderton, not the sharpest blade in the drawer, but who knows what she wants and goes about getting it.
Brian Keith as Major Langdon, likewise a meat and potatoes individual and no deep thinker, seeing his sexual and emotional
needs stifled at home, seeks ways of fulfilling them elsewhere. We see immediately that this is a conventional
Southern Gothic tale, with strong, animal spirits paired against sensitive, intellectual types, with Captain Pendleton leaning
toward the former and Private Williams toward the latter. We know where this is heading.
The story has a number of symbolic
and allegoric elements which are difficult to render dramatically. The color tones of brown, red, and green, originally
included in the filming and part of the DVD I reviewed, were meant to convey the barren world of many of the characters,
particularly that inhabited by the officer class and their dependents. The golden eye is actually that of Private William,
or some cosmic stand-in, through which their desires are reflected - he being the golden boy - and the fulcrum on which the
story hinges. The perambulations of Williams clothed and naked were intended to show the primitive or atavistic side
of nature - which the horse Firebird, serves as a natural complement. These elements cannot be portrayed literally -
one is reminded of Kafka's insistence that the book jacket of The Metamorphosis not show an insect. The omniscient
viewpoint of the novella, where discoveries of character and plot are revealed visually, would seem to lend itself to a film
treatment. Yet American audiences then and now don't relate well to either the New Wave cinema or Nouveau
Roman fiction. It appears odd, if not stylized, and takes them nowhere.
This script needed someone with
a strong hand to take it and run with it, someone like Stanley Kubrick, who would pick one or two elements to focus on, deliver
that vision to the writers, and ride roughshod over the actors to get the performances he needed. It might have been
developed improvisationally with lesser known actors, à la Mike Leigh, letting a script emerge from the characters'
interactions. Or it might have been transposed in other ways which are treated in the book by William Russo and Jan Merlin,
Troubles in a Golden Eye (2005).
Captain Penderton's unique personality with his penchant for kleptomania,
physical and moral cowardice, and fastidiousness - personal and intellectual - are dispensed with for the stalking and predatory
characterization of the film. His ambivalent sexual nature where male and female elements were in delicate balance,
neither of which was in command, was transformed into a latent homosexuality. And his hatreds and anger
which sprang from observed humiliations are never really examined in the movie, but taken as an expression of his repressions.
The movie didn't do him justice, but the book, well, let's just say he is an original, probably unlike any you've read since
Carson McCullers complete novels are gathered in The Library of America edition released in 2001.
I highly recommend reading Reflections, which is about 80 pages, if or just after you've seen the film; you may
be disappointed if you reverse the order. The movie itself is worth a look, to enjoy the great stars of the past, and
to remind yourself of the risks involved in even a straightforward adaptation, with a dream team cast and filmmaker.