Wednesday, May 11, 2011

EYE OF THE DEVIL (13, 1966)

Anyone else look at this one on TCM last night? If not SolarCoasterX has uploaded a hint of what you missed.

J. Lee Thompson's thriller has a lot going for it, but doesn't quite live up to that trailer. It's pretty ambitious visually, opting for black and white pretty late in the game but to often menacing effect on location at castle and environs. Thompson and editor Ernest Walter also opt often for a rapid-fire montage style, though at times it's so reminiscent of a Mission:Impossible opening that you expect to see the fuse burning across the screen. The technique works best at the climax, as Deborah Kerr runs to the rescue of husband David Niven while David Hemmings readies his bow to perform Niven's ritual execution and Sharon Tate as Hemmings's witchy sister lurks nearby. The deal is that Niven, who owns extensive lands in rural France (and is presumably, like Hemmings, Donald Pleasance, Flora Robson, etc., French) but lives the sophisticated life (harp concerts, etc.) in the big city, must return to the countryside and his overlording castle when the vineyards fail for the third straight year. Niven's is a lineage of sacrificial kings; the menfolk lay their lives down as blood offerings to the land so the crops will flourish. But somehow he never told his wife about this before the crisis, so most of the picture is Kerr's agonizingly protracted discovery of the truth, impeded by Tate's malice and Pleasance's obfuscation in his capacity as the local priest. Maybe Niven thought he could live out his life without getting the call home, despite his angry memory of his own father's faking death by drowning to dodge the ancient obligation. Maybe I just don't understand the ways of these French folk, but this whole human sacrifice business is something you might tell the woman you're sharing your potentially-truncated life with about. But I suppose that stiff-upper-lip tradition for which the French are well known forbids one from revealing those little details that might trouble women's delicate sensibilities. Better to trouble them all at once when the time comes to take your mandatory arrow in the chest.

It's up to Kerr to carry the picture, both as a woman in peril and the only person likely to defy tradition and superstition and save the day. The problem with the story is that there's no consistent sense of the peril she's in or her potential for heroism. Sharon Tate seems to want to kill her, but her witch character seems singular in her intentions, though Hemmings does point an arrow in Kerr's direction once. Ultimately, the film disappoints because the thriller set-up requires Kerr to accomplish something, but she doesn't. She could break up the sacrifice, or convince the old man to intervene, or she could even sacrifice herself (for love if not the wine crop) by taking the arrow herself. But this is a movie that concludes with a race against time that the heroine loses. The effect was meant to be horrific, I'm sure, but it only seemed futile.

Still, Eye of the Devil (released as 13 in England) has its moments, and most of those belong to Sharon Tate. Whenever she's not being flogged by Niven, she's given free reign by Thompson to command the screen. In this introductory, heavily-hyped performance, she projects modish, mild-mannered menace in stylish black pants suits. Despite her placid, elegant demeanor, she's so overtly sinister compared to the covertly conspiratorial villagers that she seems to be in the wrong picture sometimes. She belonged in a better one. She steals this movie from a somnolent Niven, a frantic Kerr, a mostly mute Hemmings and an under-utilized Pleasance. Because of real-life horrors to come, Tate was probably bound to steal the show in retrospect, but I think she deserved some props for her performance regardless. For one reason or another, she's the main reason to watch this film.

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