White of the Eye (1987)
By: Dr. Obrero on June 5, 2006  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Maelstrom Holland All Regions, PAL. 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 2.0. 110 minutes
The Movie
Director: Donald Cammell
Starring: David Keith, Cathy Moriarty, Alan Rosenberg, Art Evans, Michael Greene, Danielle Smith
Screenplay: Donald Cammell, China Cammell
Country: USA
Hailing from an eclectic background, the immensely talented Donald Cammell (formerly a painter immersed within London's swinging 60s underground whose father penned biographies of such controversial figures Lord Byron and Satanist Alistair Crowley amongst others) was perennially frustrated by the limitations placed on him working within Hollywood's conservative studio system, hence his sporadic spawn never quite lived up to their thematic promise. The surreal Performance (1970), co-directed with Nicolas Roeg, was let down by a muddled script, somnambulistic performances and self indulgent direction, whilst science fiction genesis drama Demon Seed (1977) was disappointingly mundane and beset by studio interference. Prior to tackling Wild Side (1995), upon which Cammell again suffered the indignity of extensive studio meddling – which, it is thought, drove Cammell to his own aesthetically-motivated suicide in 1996; he took on this adaptation of the 1983 novel Mrs. White.

Cammell's picture opens in riveting style with the bravura killing of an attractive housewife - ritualistically slaughtered amidst the splendour of her sumptuously decorated kitchen – a sequence which incorporates 55 cuts in a mere 2m, 22sec and is beautifully intercut with slow motion shots of elegant décor being shattered - juxtaposing classic oppositions such as violence/beauty and civility/ferocity, thus creating a symbolic representation of what Cammell sees as the awful beauty of violent crime. It transpires, that across Arizona a number of women have been murdered in a similar manner reminiscent of American Indian ceremonies. However, this time investigating detective Charles Mendoza (Art Evans) catches a break. Seems that tire tracks found at the scene match one of only 44 sets recently sold in the area, a line of enquiry that leads them to half-Indian native Paul White (David Keith). White, a gifted stereo technician from a small town outside Tucson, Arizona is an average, sane, happily married father of an adorable little girl, and yet Mendoza, perhaps overzealously, sees him as the only logical suspect … but then Paul's wife Joan (Cathy Moriarty) begins to find evidence that makes her doubt her husband...

Cammell's tempestuous career had always suggested a visual genius trying to break free of the mechanics of straightjacketed storytelling, and White of the Eye showcases his ocular strength as a filmmaker – there's less of a preoccupation with what is being said, than the framework and context in which it is being said. Hence, White of the Eye is first and foremost a love story - albeit one seen from an oblique p-o-v, and much more of an absorbing character study than a mystery. Cammell's picture is also a profound meditation on the aesthetics of violence - one murder victim is bound, dumped in the bath, allowed up for a breath, then held underwater whilst a mirror is held above her so that she can watch herself drown - and the mystical - the phrase "White of the Eye" itself refers to an Apache legend about those who look closely into the eye of violence, and how it marks them, it is said that it allows the mystical eye to be upon them - something that fascinated Cammell throughout his life.

The film is beautifully shot by Larry McConkey – Cammell's eye for artistic detail amidst strikingly violent tableaux acts as a window into his character's souls, whilst the haunting soundtrack by Rick Fenn & Nick Mason helps lift what in other hands might've been just another stalk n slash picture out of the ordinary and into the realm of the strikingly original. David Keith is superb in the multi-layered lead role as the charismatic protagonist, although, whilst support playing is generally competent it is the film's one major weakness, most especially Cathy Moriarty, who's character comes across as dislikeable selfish and weird – not ideal in a role that should be the source of audience identification.

Judging by the documentary Donald Cammell: The Ultimate Performance (1998), White of the Eye suffered less in the way of creative interference than the other films in his canon, although the US, distributor cut a pivotal moment, a kiss between lead David Keith and another key character. White of the Eye can, even so, be regarded as Cammell's purest vision. An interesting note, when the combination of dark subject matter and graphic violence resulted in the film's initially receiving an X rating from the Motion Picture Association of America, Marlon Brando, a close friend of director Donald Cammell, wrote a lengthy appeal to MPAA analysing certain sequences in the film in great detail and praising it for its originality and its artistry. It was eventually cut down to an R, but that didn't help it in the marketplace. In much the same fashion, and for much the same reasons as Michael Mann's superb Manhunter (1987), White of the Eye, a film that challenged the American viewer and demanded they do more than park their brains at the box office and pick up a 3-gallon tub of popcorn before taking their seats, flopped at the box-office.
Malestrom's anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer has a surprising degree of grain, but nonetheless improves considerably upon previous presentations of this film on video. The colours in the film are stunning, and whilst the disc looks good, they're a little muted, a fact that disappoints. Fine detail quality is lacking and shadow detail isn't great, but on the bright side, fleshtones are spot on. This disc is eminently watchable, but I'm going to be looking to upgrade this transfer to any R1 release along the line.
The Dolby Digital Surround 2.0 track is clean, but undistinguished. However, the lack of a 5.1 track is an immense disappointment considering that the score is a key component of Cammell's picture. Nevertheless, what there is is tolerable. Dialogue is always clear, and the music itself is comes through well enough to inject some atmosphere. There aren't any fancy effects and definitely very little bass extension. It's not exactly dreary, but nothing very exciting.
Extra Features
None, unless you count scene selection, I don't.
The Verdict
An outstanding movie, a watchable 'vanilla' presentation. Pick it up for the film alone and upgrade when (if) it is released in Region 1 or UK R2.
Movie Score
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