White of The Eye (1987)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #522

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Number of Views: Two
Release Date: May 9, 1987 (Cannes), May 20, 1988 (United States)
Sub-Genre: Suspense/Thriller
Country of Origin: United Kingdom
Budget: $2,800,000
Running Time: 111 minutes
Director: Donald Cammell
Producers: Sue Baden-Powell, Cassian Elwes, Elliott Kastner, Brad Wyman
Screenplay: Donald Cammell, China Cammell
Based on Mrs. White by Andrew Klavan
Special Effects: Cliff Wallace
Cinematography: Larry McConkey
Score: Rick Fenn, Nick Mason
Editing: Terry Rawlings
Studio: Mrs. White’s Productions
Distributors: Palisades Entertainment Group, Paramount Pictures, Cannon Films
Stars: David Keith, Cathy Moriarty, Alan Rosenberg, Art Evans, Michael Greene, Danielle Smith, Alberta Watson, William G. Schilling, David Chow, Marc Hayashi, Mimi Lieber, Pamela Guest, Bob Zache, Danko Gurovich, China Cammell, Jim Wirries, Katie Waring

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There are few tales quite so regrettable in cinema as that of tortured genius Donald Cammell. In a career spanning twenty-five years, the Edinburgh-born filmmaker only ever made four full-length features and consistently found his vision compromised by the studio. It started with Performance in 1970, a film he co-directed with Nicolas Roeg two years previous and was shelved while executives attempted to find a way of marketing it. Much to Cammell’s frustration, it was largely misinterpreted on its release and took years to gain the recognition he thought it deserved and, while Roeg went on to greater things, he found it increasingly difficult making an impression on the industry.

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This was never more evident than with his final film Wild Side in 1995. Perhaps most notable for featuring one of Christopher Walken’s most outré turns, his thriller was wrestled away from him in post-production and extensively re-edited against his wishes. Consequently Cammell asked for him name to be removed from the project and, instead, it was credited to non-existent alias Franklin Brauner. in-between, he brought us the intelligent sci-fi thriller Demon Seed but, even then, many of his ideas were vetoed. He asked for close friend Marlon Brando to be cast in the role of Alex but the actor was deemed too expensive and the studio eventually brought in Fritz Weaver against his wishes. He and Brando later attempted to work together a second time but their project never quite got off the ground.

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Regarded in the industry as a maverick, he was also a well-mannered, gentle and unquestionably troubled man and, in April 1996 his increasing despondency led to a desperately tragic end as he committed suicide in his Hollywood home by shooting himself in the head. According to his wife and frequent collaborator, China Kong, it took 45 minutes for bullet to kill him, in which time, Cammell requested she retrieve a mirror in order for him to observe his own final curtain. His conclusion was made all the more poignant by the fact that his own struggle mirrored that of his lead protagonist for his 1987 psychological thriller White of The Eye. Now regarded by many as his finest work and certainly his most personal, it enjoyed massive critical success but left little impression at the box-office. Indeed, it has taken almost thirty years to be given the credit is so richly deserves.

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It is worth noting that, while Cammell himself was known by those closest to him for his unassuming nature, he encouraged conflict on his set and flat refused for any of his actors to ad-lib their scenes whatsoever, much to their bemusement. However, the fact that the resulting film deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Joel & Ethan Coen’s near perfect noir Blood Simple. suggests that it was the closest he came to doing things precisely how he wanted and shows just how much we missed out on as a result of his sad passing. Four films is precious little output in the grand scheme of things but, in Cammell’s case, it was quality over quantity that made him such a treasure. White of The Eye provides living proof of that.

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Based on Andrew Klavan’s 1984 novel Mrs. White, White of The Eye begins with a bang and closes with one also. The opening scene is wonderfully evocative of seventies giallo and one of the most intricately shot and stylish sequences of the entire era. However, it soon reveals itself as a different creature altogether. Essentially more character study than anything else, the murder mystery aspect plays second fiddle to the examination of mankind’s need to destroy. After settling into his solar-baked Tuscon, Arizona setting, we are introduced to Paul White (David Keith: An Officer and a Gentleman), a spiritually gifted sound installation guru with the canny ability of locating audio sweet spots in the luxurious homes of the well-to-do. Both affable and mysterious in equal measures, Paul is the kind of guy you wouldn’t have no problem shooting hoops with whilst making sure not to body check him.

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His bond with wife Joan (Cathy Moriarty: Raging Bull) and their ten-year-old daughter Danielle (Danielle Smith) appears close and unbreakable. In the decade or so since meeting his significant other after snatching her away from her self-obsessed road companion Mike (Alan Rosenberg), the two have formed a spiritual connection and are fiercely devoted to one another. However, Mike’s sudden reappearance (which only Joan is aware of) coincides with a number of vicious killings, the likes of which a lazy desert town like Tuscon just isn’t prepared for and, with smiling assassin detective Mendoza (Art Evans) sniffing around and his spouse acting suspiciously out-of-sorts, he finds himself increasingly backed into a corner.

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White of The Eye punctuates its unapologetically slow burn with a number of vicious murders, each committed on beautiful, blessed mistresses and upholds its mystery right through the opening two acts. However, the quiet spells no less handsome in their observation and, this is partially indebted to the screenwriting skills of both Donald and his wife, it is most evident through the performances of its two main leads. Keith is exceptional as Paul and each silence speaks as eloquently as his verse. We really get to see the white of his eye and he positively double-dares the lens to get up-close-and-personal at every available opportunity.

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Meanwhile, it is arguably Moriarty that shines brightest in a role that reeks of empowerment but never loses sight of vulnerability. The formerly Oscar-nominated actress is gloriously feisty here and her performance as Joan deserves just as much celebration as anything else from her oeuvre. There is a real shift, particularly come the closing act, and Moriarty commands our devotion effortlessly through her metamorphosis back into the flaxen kestrel she left behind ten-years back. The manner in which she balances independence with dependency is truly the work of a great and makes White of The Eye very much personal to Cammell’s audience too.

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Her troubled husband’s mental melee is every bit as pivotal to proceedings, as is the opulent and, when required, stifling photography of Larry McConkey. Numerous panning landscape shots reveal the vast stretches of desert, before penning us in to ensure we feel the hopeless desolation of Joan’s plight. Like each of the crime scenes depicted, Cammell’s film represents very much a work of art. The closing act is steeped in foreboding and culminates in the resolution of our love triangle in the only way feasible by this point. I recommend this fine movie wholeheartedly and implore you to stare deep into the White of The Eye. It truly offers a window into this marvellous and regrettably misunderstood artist’s soul.

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Dedicated to Donald Cammell (January 17, 1934 – April 24, 1996)

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10

Grue Factor: 3/5

 

For the Grue-Guzzlers: Each dispatch is actually remarkably spiteful, despite the lack of discernible grue on exhibit and, every last one, executed with meticulous precision and indisputable flair. I could list a number of dab-handed giallo masters who would raise a glass of rosso to the majestic opening snuff alone.

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