WHITE OF THE EYE (1987) Reviews and overview

 

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‘The only difference between a hunter and a killer… is his prey!’

White of the Eye is a 1987 British thriller film in which a Hi-Fi expert is a prime suspect in a series of brutal murders of local housewives. As he attempts to prove his innocence, his young wife starts to uncover mysteries of her own…

Directed by Donald Cammell (Wild Side; Demon Seed; Performance) from a screenplay co-written with China Kong (as China Cammell), based on the 1984 novel Mrs White by Andrew Klavan and Laurence Klavan (as Margaret Tracy). Produced by Sue Baden-Powell, Cassian Elwes, Elliott Kastner and Brad Wyman.

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The Mrs White’s Productions movie stars David Keith, Cathy Moriarty, Alan Rosenberg, Art Evans and Michael Greene.

The soundtrack score was composed by Rick Fenn (of 10cc) and Nick Mason (of Pink Floyd).

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Buy Blu-ray: Amazon.com

[The following reviews contain spoilers although no more so than some of the publicity stills for this film].

Review:

Donald Cammell is the stuff of legend. Not exactly a prolific filmmaker – White of the Eye was only his third feature film in two decades – his allegedly (and probably) decadent lifestyle and nihilistic streak make him one of the most fascinating characters to emerge from the 1960s counter-culture.

And so on paper, this film sounds like a bit of a sell-out – standard 1980s psycho slasher film. And the opening minute or so makes your heart sink. It looks and sounds screamingly Eighties – rich people, big houses, horrible fashions, a ghastly bit of music by Nick Mason and Rick Fenn that reminds you of their appalling 1985 album… that nasty 1980s feel that can best be described as ‘the look of money’. The scene is set for a shameful exercise in the degradation of burnt-out talent.

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However, things change rapidly. The giallo-like murder that this opening moment immediately leads to is impressive and splashy – still very much of the era, but perhaps more on a Michael Mann/Manhunter level of stylised excess where there is an awareness of the potential for crassness that allows the designer look of the film to become intrinsic to the narrative – where every moment feels like a deliberately created hyper-reality. And then the film begins to move in its own direction, becoming increasingly off-kilter and ending up with a finale that becomes so deranged and excessive that the only possible point of comparison could be David Lynch from the same era.

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At heart, White of the Eye is simple enough. David Keith is Paul White, a family man and audio expert who installs high-end sound systems in the homes of the wealthy. A couple of brutal murders have taken place in the vicinity of where he works, and the tyre prints match those of his truck, making him the number one suspect. Meanwhile, his marriage to Joan (Cathy Moriarty) is in trouble, thanks to the attentions of a horny rich client (Alberta Watson).

So far, standard 1980s neo-noir stuff then. The wrongly accused hero has to try to clear his name while assorted potential suspects – Joan’s ex, the somewhat unbalanced ex-jailbird Mike (Alan Rosenberg) chief among them – are paraded before us and the occasional extravagant murder keeps the plot ticking over. But this is far from standard.

The screenplay by Cammell and wife China gives the film several quirky twists as it digs into native American mythology, flashing back and forth in a way that is dizzying and sometimes deliberately confusing, and shifts under our feet so frequently that we become unsure who to trust.

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Eventually and surprisingly, it turns out that Paul really is the killer. Given that the film has gone out of its way to make him seem like the classic victimised hero, this is quite a revelation, and it’s done in dramatic fashion – Joan discovering hidden boy parts under the sink. Having given him an alibi when questioned by the police (she’d slashed his tyres in revenge for his adultery, suggesting that he was a philanderer rather than a killer) and then reconciled with him, this seems the ultimate betrayal.

And as Paul flips into full psychotic mode, the film itself suddenly casts off all restraints and becomes deliriously insane. Paul paints his face to look like a Native American warrior, destroys the house and chases his wife into a quarry where the only slightly less mad Mike has been waiting – seemingly for years – for Paul to turn up for their final showdown.

The David Lynch comparison made earlier is, of course, the immediate one that comes to mind while watching this film. It has that mix of small-town soap opera and Bad Things Happening under the surface of normality that informed Lynch’s work of the time – Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks – and shows a similar lack of restraint when unleashing the insanity.

Keith is impressive as he switches from normal guy to raving lunatic, especially as the shift is almost imperceptible – it happens quickly yet slowly, if that makes any sense. But he doesn’t seem that much crazier than half the townsfolk – again like Lynch, Cammell populates his film with eccentrics and crazies.

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The film looks astonishing – there are wide, sweeping landscape shots that are pretty stunning, and the opening murder, red splashed across white and goldfish gasping for breath in pools of blood, have an operatic sense of grandeur. Every shot in the film seems carefully thought out and the bleached out flashbacks slowly become more integrated into the main narrative, to the point where it’s sometimes hard to tell which time period we are in – possibly both simultaneously.

What’s more, the previously clumsy soundtrack by Mason and Fenn suddenly shifts gear into being rather brilliant, as if that opening moment had been a deliberate act of misdirection, making us think we were in for another generic glossy 1980s thriller, rather than the slow dive into madness that the film actually is.

White of the Eye is one of those rare 1980s films that both reflects and subverts the era it was made in. I can’t say it’s entirely unlike anything else you’ll ever see because there are a handful of other films – including those mentioned earlier – that pull a similar trick. Yet, it’s staggeringly original, innovative, challenging and twisted, worthy of the Cammell legend.

David Flint, guest reviewer via The Reprobate

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Other reviews:

” …while the dialogue skitters close to arch (Cammell co-wrote with his wife, China), it’s the visuals that truly stick. Working with (noted documentary cinematographer) Larry McConkey, Cammell mimics the faux chic often associated with giallo, placing it in the middle of the desert as a filmic anachronism, and to present the malady as Paul sees it. The film, apropos of the title, is all about seeing – how we are seen by others, how we view them, and how we see ourselves.” Daily Dead

White of the Eye is a film like no other. It’s not the most cohesively-assembled work (allusions to Native American folklore are mostly cosmetic never really go anywhere) and not everything wraps up neat and tidy, but like life, marriage, and relationships, it’s messy by design. It’s a terrifying thriller, but it plays out like anything but a commercial one…” Good Efficient Butchery

” …a flawed but fascinating and well-acted movie that captures a personal vision of a mad, mystical world lurking behind our everyday one […] The editing is non-linear; the flashbacks are cut in, rapidly and seamlessly; an explosive climax echoes The Shining and Godard’s Pierrot le fou.” The Guardian

White of the Eye is so dazzlingly stylish it cuts the breath away from right under. The dusky Arizona locations are filmed with a beautiful synthesis of mood, art and terror. The score manages a striking blend of blues, opera and synth – sometimes all at once […] On the minus side, Donald Cammell fails to support such mesmerising artistry in the story department. He does not appear to be interested in the mystery and drops the clues with a disregard of subtlety or red herring.” Moria

“If at the end it reverts to by the numbers thriller plotting and a pedestrian climax, it has taken the more unexpected route to get there. Keith David has never been better than this and Moriarty adds spark and vim to a role that in lesser hands could have been a boring wife role. Don’t worry about the conventions, see it for the acting and the mastery of mood and scene.” The Movie Waffler

“Cammell’s film represents very much a work of art. The closing act is steeped in foreboding and culminates in the resolution of our love triangle in the only way feasible by this point. I recommend this fine movie wholeheartedly and implore you to stare deep into the White of the Eye. It truly offers a window into this marvellous and regrettably misunderstood artist’s soul.” Rivers of Grue

” …this is no gloating presentation of sadistic violence, but more of a stylish examination of the limits of love with some deliberately obscure plotting. The opening murder is filmed as if it were a rock video or a television advertisement, and throughout we are offered glossy close-ups for atmosphere, not only the killer’s twitching eyeball but food or spinning coins as well.” The Spinning Image

“Imbued with a brooding, oppressive atmosphere and coloured by vivid performances, though often murkily motivated, it is genuinely nightmarish in its portrayal of relationships where love is blinding and the past casts an intolerably heavy spell.” The Time Out Film Guide

“With lots of clues and red herrings introduced in the early reels (including a heavy emphasis on 10 years earlier 16mm blow up flashbacks of Moriarty first meeting Keith while trekking westward with her boyfriend Alan Rosenberg), picture maintains considerable suspense.” Variety, December 31, 1986

“Cammell gives the murder set-pieces a stylized kick […] Other sequences feel like they came out of an Italian giallo. So, in the end, it’s a toss-up.  Come for the stylish murders, random weirdness, and Keith’s overacting.  If you can get past the boring flashbacks, Indian mumbo jumbo, and general lackadaisical pace, you just might like it.” The Video Vacuum

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Buy Blu-ray: Amazon.co.uk

Special Features:
Brand new high definition digital transfer of the film from the original camera negative
High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentation of the film
Original uncompressed Stereo PCM audio
Optional English SDH subtitles on the main feature
Audio commentary by Donald Cammell biographer Sam Umland
Donald Cammell: The Ultimate Performance This feature-length documentary by Kevin Macdonald and Chris Rodley looks over the life and career of the rebel filmmaker and features interviews with Cammell and his closest friends, family and colleagues including Nicolas Roeg, Mick Jagger, Kenneth Anger, James Fox and many more
The Argument – A 1972 short film by Cammell, gorgeously shot by Vilmos Zsigmond in the Utah Desert. Rediscovered and assembled by Cammell s regular editor Frank Mazzola in 1999, it is viewable with optional commentary by Sam Umland
Into the White – An interview with co-cinematographer and Steadicam wizard Larry McConkey
Rare deleted scenes, newly transferred from the original camera negative, with commentary by Sam Umland
The flashback scenes as originally shot, prior to the bleach bypass processing that they underwent in the final film
Original theatrical trailer
Alternate credits sequence
Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Nathanael Marsh

Cast and characters:

David Keith … Paul White
Cathy Moriarty … Joan White
Alan Rosenberg … Mike Desantos
Art Evans … Detective Charles Mendoza
Michael Greene … Phil Ross
Danielle Smith … Danielle White
Alberta Watson … Anne Mason
William G. Schilling … Harold Gideon
David Chow … Fred Hoy
Marc Hayashi … Stu
Mimi Lieber … Liza Manchester
Pamela Guest … Caryanne (as Pamela Seamon)
Bob Zache … Lucas Herman
Danko Gurovich … Arnold White
China Kong … Ruby Hoy (as China Cammell)
Jim Wirries … Grunveldt
Katie Waring … Joyce Patell
Fred Allison … TV Newsman
Clyde Pitfarkin … Hairdresser
Richard Lester … Tucson Detective (uncredited)

Filming locations:

Globe, Miami and Tucson, Arizona, USA

Filming dates:

January 1986 to March 1986

Technical details:

110 minutes
Audio: Dolby
Aspect ratio: 1.85: 1

Trailer:

Clip 1:

Clip 2:

Arrow Video Blu-ray story: