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DirectorDonald Cammell, Nicolas Roeg
Release Date(s)1970 (March 25, 2014)
Studio(s)Warner Bros. (Warner Archive)
When it comes to cult filmmakers, there’s Donald Cammell and then there’s everybody else. Cammell only made four features before taking his own life in 1996 but if you want to see them, it requires some effort. His final film, Wild Side, was taken out of his hands before its release and tracking down the restored version is a challenge. White Of The Eye was recently released on Blu-ray by Arrow Video in the UK in what looks to be a very nice edition indeed. But the movie has never been released on disc in the US. And Cammell’s 1977 horror movie Demon Seed was out of print until Warner Archive reissued it on MOD a couple years ago.
Fortunately for those of us who are members of the Cammell cult, Performance, his first film (co-directed with Nicolas Roeg), is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive. It remains one of the quintessential movies of the 1960s (it was shot in 1968, then sat on the shelf for a couple years while Warner tried to figure out what to do with it) and one of the all-time great cinematic mindfucks.
James Fox stars as Chas, a brutal gangster in the employ of kingpin Harry Flowers (Johnny Shannon). Harry warns Chas not to get involved with his next target: a betting parlor run by one of Chas’ old associates. But Chas ignores him and ends up targeted by both his old rival and his boss, so he goes on the lam. A chance encounter leads him to a basement room in a house owned by a reclusive rock star named Turner (Mick Jagger). Turner and his two female housemates (Anita Pallenberg and Michele Breton) allow Chas to stay and soon, the steady flow of hallucinogens, androgyny and sexuality take a toll on Chas’ grip on reality.
Performance mashes together two insular, incompatible subcultures, the British underworld and 60s hippie drug culture, to create a vivid portrait of the shifting nature of identity. Co-director Roeg also served as cinematographer and he creates startling images that blur the lines between Fox, Jagger, Pallenberg and Breton. It’s hard to imagine what audiences in 1970 must have made of Performance. In some ways, they may have been more receptive to it, as the film is heavily steeped in the culture of the time. But if you were a Rolling Stones fan going to see Mick Jagger in his movie debut, this must have seemed a bit odd. Rock stars made movies left and right throughout the 60s and 70s, but very few of them would have made an appropriate double feature with Ingmar Bergman’s Persona.
Warner Archive’s Blu-ray presentation of Performance is very strong with an outstanding image that perfectly captures Roeg’s inventive, colorful cinematography. The colors are bold, solid, and a real treat in high-def. The mono sound is fine, although the audio is a little tricky on this one and it can’t quite manage dialogue, music and sound effects with equal ease. At its best, it’s more than adequate with Jagger’s “Memo From Turner” sounding terrific. Optional English subtitles are also provided, in case you need a little help navigating the often thick accents. Extras include a trailer, a vintage promo highlighting Jagger’s song and performance, and a brief featurette called Influence And Controversy. It’s an OK overview of the project but if you come away thinking that you expected the making of the movie to be more interesting, you’re not wrong. Hopefully the BBC documentary Donald Cammell: The Ultimate Performance, included as a bonus on Arrow’s White Of The Eye release, will make its way stateside eventually.
Performance is not a movie I expected to see on Blu-ray and Warner Archive deserves a lot of credit for digging into the vault and giving this obscure but important movie its moment in the sun. It’s a dense, challenging movie and, if you respond to it at all, you’ll most likely want to revisit it and dig in a little deeper. Now let’s hope the studio releases some other key movies of the 60s, like Richard Lester’s Petulia, on Blu.
- Adam Jahnke