“More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.”
Truman Capote, Answered Prayers – The Unfinished Novel
When the The Greatest Films of All Time were published in Sight and Sound in 2012, I watched the Top Ten over consecutive nights and it was tempting to look for thematic similarities between them. I was seeing them in succession and was beginning to make connections that were not really there, but there was a striking absence from all of the films that topped the list: none of them used voice-over*. Each of these films were attempting to represent a narrative voice in a visual sense, whether it is the rolling newspaper headlines in CITZEN KANE, or the beautifully considered poise of TOKYO STORY, or the visual trickery of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY or MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA, or that wonderful moment in SUNRISE when the city crowd disappears and leaves the lovers alone, in the middle of the street. There is a sense that these films have achieved greatness by challenging the conventions of film language to represent human consciousness or the narrative voice visually. Students of the mechanics of the Sight and Sound list (or, in other words, nerds) will have noticed that filmmaker/ critic Mark Cousins included EUREKA in his list as it is a striking example of a director thinking with their eyes.
Jack McCann is a grizzled prospector searching the icy plains of the Yukon for gold. Gene Hackman plays him as a man driven by his desire for gold above everything else. He ignores the temptations of the sorceress-like whore Freida and the horror of another prospector blowing out his brain in his pursuit. Roeg delivers cabalistic imagery and psychedelic miasma as fire seems to blast from the heavens to deliver Hackman his philosophers’ stone: he transforms form prospector to alchemist by making a discovery of a fantastical river of gold within a magical grotto.
There is a sudden jump cut forward to the Forties, where Hackman is framed with his beautiful daughter Tracy. He is older, reluctantly living his life as a millionaire on Californian island in his complex named Eureka. Like Kane in the confines of Xanadu, there is something inevitable about his decline. The film is concerned with how his life disintegrates and leads to his ultimate, horrific destruction. Paul Mayersberg, the screenwriter who also collaborated with Roeg on THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, was intrigued by the reports of an incident in the West Indies during the Second World War: A man who was rich following a gold strike was killed in a savage and ritualistic manner. He became interested in how this incident played into the myths of those who find everything they desire only to see it all disappear for no apparent reason.
The film asks the question, what is it like to live a life where you have found everything you desire? Perhaps all that matters is that ‘Eureka moment’ of discovery. The film leaps from the moment of euphoria to the last weeks of his life where he is surrounded by people who desire more from him, than he does from life: his daughter played by the beautiful Theresa Russell, his son in law played with ruthless, disquieting grace by Rutgar Hauer, his business manager (Ed Lauter) who is attempting to stitch him into a Macguffin-like casino deal with gangsters, played by a young Joe Pesci and Micky Rourke.
There is a preternatural link implied between Hackman and Russell (they have a flair for mental arithmetic that they use as a party-piece) so the relationship with Hauer is intriguing. By the use of mirrors and subtle framing Roeg establishes a dynamic that suggests that Hauer wants more than just the gold, he wants his soul. Hackman, on the other hand, has a lust for his own daughter which indicates his own self destruction (Roeg uses similar devices that are deployed in DON’T LOOK NOW to symbolically foretell his doom) – like Midas, he is unable to touch those that he loves. The dynamic is more dramatically emphasised in the third act, in the court room where Hauer cross interrogates the grieving Russell.
During a recent ‘Dirk Night’ screening, I issued a warning that the film really required several viewings to appreciate the different layers of meaning. After Dom-Dirk saw the film he quoted his bible, Halliwell’s Film Guide, who said, “Unpleasant in detail and obscure in meaning, this is the sort of film of which the fact that it was financed at all, is the most interesting thing about it.” – Enough said?
I disagree strongly. This is an exceptional film. Halliwell, Malcolm and Sight and Sound’s list may believe that everything that could be said and done in cinema was done before the 1970s, but I think that this is evidence that films continue to be challenging, interesting and have a ‘greatness’. This could be one of the best films made since 1977.
– Dirk Malcolm
*apart from a brief moment in VERTIGO when the fateful letter is read by Kim Novak
- Nicolas Roeg interview: the director who fell to Earth (telegraph.co.uk)
- Dirk’s Five – It’s Not Paranoia (dirkmalcolm.wordpress.com)
- Shelf Space: Film biographies including Nicolas Roeg, Oliver Reed and Ava Gardner (metro.co.uk)