Monday, December 19, 2011


"I have a gift for disaster," says Richard Burton, late of Exorcist II: The Heretic and The Klansman, among others, and from that point -- probably as soon as the trailer started playing --  Jack Gold's movie was a sitting duck for reviewers. Burton plays John Morlar, a man seen mostly in flashback after his head is bashed in (shades of The Assassination of Trotsky!) to start the picture. Euro-detective Brunel (Lino Ventura) has to figure out whodunit as a comatose Morlar clings to life. Fortunately, Morlar left plenty of notes. These lead Brunel to Dr. Zonfeld, whom he's shocked to discover is a woman (Lee Remick). Sacre bleu! Are they that backward in France? But in Brunel's defense, Zonfeld was a man in the source novel by Peter Van Greenaway. In any event, the doctor describes a tragic nut who had grown convinced that he had somehow willed the deaths of his parents, a hateful schoolteacher, and so on. Fine, but unless someone believed him, why would anyone try to kill him? There are more plausible suspects, like the client attorney Morlar got convicted thanks to an insulting, unpatriotic rant in court. There's a neighbor who just might blame Morlar for his wife jumping out a window. On the other hand, could Morlar do what he thought he had? To find out, Brunel learns about telekinesis and American and Soviet experiments along those lines. If Morlar had such powers, some superpowers might well be interested in him. But was he telekinetic, merely clairvoyant, or simply insane? If he did have powers, his jumbled notes might prove far more menacing than they seemed at first, especially since they seem to refer to an upcoming royal event. The more Brunel learns, the more that knowledge appears to establish the motive for murder -- and the more tempted he is to become complicit in murder....

Telekinesis was the secular diabolism of the 1970s, a variation on the devil's power to make bad things happen without the baggage of God and his inevitable victory. For every Exorcist or Omen or Holocaust 2000, it might seem, there was a Carrie, or The Fury -- or The Medusa Touch.   Marvel Comics was ahead of the curve here, having cast a telekinetic in its X-Men comics in the 1960s, and that may have been just one expression of the idea of telekinesis as a mutation of modernity. Whatever its sources in pop culture or pseudoscience, telekinesis was a godsend, secularly speaking, to Seventies cinema. But it didn't guarantee you an entertaining movie, and Medusa Touch goes out of its way to diffuse the potential excitement. The flashback investigation format is deadly as Ventura, presumably dubbed and cast on the strength of a similar investigative role in Francesco Rosi's Excellent Cadavers, plods from informant to informant to pick up each discrete anecdote of Morlar's career. It's a rare but perhaps predictably lifeless performance from a hero of French crime cinema, but no less lifeless are Remick as the doctor and Burton himself as Morlar. Supposedly sober at this time, if I remember the biography correctly, Burton still seems disoriented and confused here, but a script that's too coy about whether Morlar is innocently crazy or ultimately malevolent may be to blame. But while it's always good to have stars' names on the poster, acting is secondary to set pieces of death and destruction, from an out of control car flinging a couple off a cliff to a jumbo jet ramming a skyscraper. The effects are hit and miss, but at least the production made an effort, especially for the big climax at the cathedral. Harry Andrews proves more heedful of dire warnings than he would be in Superman, but despite all his efforts as a security man you can't do without a disaster, so down comes the masonry on the early arrivals -- Her Majesty was fortunately warned off in time. The collapsing goes on for maybe a bit too long -- it has to accommodate Ventura dashing to the hospital to confront the supposedly moribund Morlar -- but it's at least carried on with the typical apocalyptic enthusiasm of the era. I was also amused to see how extensive the TV coverage of the cathedral event and surprise disaster were. When Ventura catches the coverage on a hospital set, the camera angles are exactly the same (including views from the ceiling) as those we'd already seen in "real time." The omniscient TV cameras common to movies (and TV shows) are a minor pet peeve of mine, but they come with the territory.  If Jack Gold and writer John Briley could have built things up with the same enthusiasm as they smashed things, Medusa Touch might have been more enjoyable throughout. Instead, it's a curio of Seventies genre cinema and more proof of Burton's unlucky talent for disaster during the decade.

Here's a trailer uploaded to YouTube by hideseek124.

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