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Performance (1970)

The British cinema that redefined itself through the 1960s is bracketed for posterity between two films that were considered in their day an affront to good taste. On the far end, Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960) was regarded by critics in the United Kingdom as emblematic of the decline of one half of the respectable "Archers," the two-man production outfit responsible for such national treasures as 'I Know Where I'm Going!' (1945), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948). The backlash against Peeping Tom derailed Powell's film career and he retreated for several years into television. Ten years later, Performance (1970), a collaborative effort between former painter Donald Cammell and cinematographer Nicolas Roeg (who had shot Fahrenheit 451 [1966] for Franois Truffaut and Petulia [1968] for Richard Lester) ruffled similar feathers and it isn't difficult to appreciate why the film opened old wounds. Both Peeping Tom and Performance deal in part with the act of looking, with the consumption inherent in the process of observing, and both works left filmgoers and critics deeply disturbed. Writing in The Spectator in 1960, Isabel Quigly called Peeping Tom the "sickest and filthiest film I remember seeing" while Performance (financed by Warner Brothers and held in reserve in the studio's vaults for a year) was skewered by American critic Richard Schickel as "the most disgusting, the most completely worthless film I have ever seen." A generation later, both Peeping Tom and Performance are considered contemporary classics.

The origins of Performance go back to Donald Cammell's immersion in the subculture of London's bohemian Chelsea quarter, a nexus from 1959 onwards for dandyism and decadence, for ethnic influences and unorthodox philosophies. Fascinated by the inclusion rituals of both drug-takers seeking spiritual transcendence and career criminals (such as the infamous Kray Twins) for whom secrecy and alternate identities were standard operating procedure, Cammell crafted a tale of the collision of artistic and criminal worlds which he intended to call The Liars. The notion appealed to Hollywood agent Sandy Lieberson, who asked Cammell to tailor the piece for Marlon Brando and Mick Jagger, clients of Creative Management Associates. Cammell banged out the screenplay in Saint-Tropez with the assistance of his then-girlfriend, model Deborah Dixon, and actress/model Anita Pallenberg, a former lover. (Actually doing his typing on the beach, Cammell nearly lost his manuscript to an errant gust of wind which lifted the pages out to sea.) The title was changed to The Performers and ultimately the more existential Performance as Cammell's script incorporated Pallenberg's studies in mysticism and "magick" (Cammell himself had a personal connection to British occultist Aleister Crowley) and the influence of avant garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger, "Beat" writer William S. Burroughs and Argentine novelist Jorge Luis Borges. (Cammell also drew inspiration from John Boorman's Point Blank and Vladimir Nabokov's novel Despair.) Brando dropped out of the project early on (the actor and Cammell would be involved in a number of stillborn collaborations through the next decade) and the role of the gangster Chas was given to Cammell's Chelsea neighbor James Fox, who had appeared in the Cammell-scripted Duffy (1968). Jagger's then-girlfriend Marianne Faithfull alleged in her 1994 autobiography that the controversial mnage a trois depicted in Performance's trippy second act was based on a real life four-some involving herself, Jagger, Fox and the actor's androgynous companion Andee Cohen.

From preproduction to the final edit, Performance was plagued by - or benefited from a series of calamities that boosted the prevailing aura of madness. The production history is larded with myths about what really went on during principal photography (among the more long-lived rumors are that Fox participated in actual criminal burglaries and that he was dosed with psilocybin during filming) but the verifiable anecdotes make for equally good reading. Hollywood actresses Tuesday Weld and Mia Farrow had both agreed to appear in Performance as the in-house concubines of Jagger's reclusive Turner but both bowed out due to injuries; Anita Pallenberg assumed Weld's role and newcomer Michele Breton was given the part abdicated by Farrow.

The principal photography on Performance commenced on Monday, July 29, 1968, with filming in the Wandsworth, Mayfair and Kensington neighborhoods of London. For the second act, set within Turner's tumbledown pied--terre, a Notting Hill walk-up east of the Portobello Road was used for exteriors while interiors were lensed inside a townhouse in the more upmarket Knightsbridge. To add an authentic aura of criminality, Cammell and Roeg had entertained the notion of retaining Reginald and Ronald Kray as technical advisors. When "The Twins" were arrested in May 1968 for the murders of George Cornell and Jack "The Hat" McVittie, the filmmakers relied instead on the services of scarfaced mobster David Litvinoff, who is credited as a dialogue coach. The production received its first negative publicity when ten rolls of film that had captured the mnage a trois scene were seized as pornographic material and ordered destroyed. Surviving fragments turned up in Europe in later years as porn reels.

Performance was for all intents and purposes in the can by October 1968. The following February, the film was screened in Los Angeles for Warner Brothers executives, who deemed the material unreleasable. With a regime change at the studio later that year came the possibility that Performance might be salvaged given an extensive re-edit (which would, among other things, bring star Mick Jagger into the action earlier). With Nicolas Roeg in Australia preparing Walkabout (1971), Cammell was left with the task of cutting. Working with veteran editor Frank Mazzola (who had, earlier in his career, played one of the teenage gang members in Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause, 1955), Cammell tendered a succession of possible cuts before the final version was approved by the Warners front office for release in August 1970. Since the end of principal photography almost two years earlier, Anita Pallenberg and Michele Breton had both become severely addicted to drugs (the latter ultimately confined to a sanitarium). So unnerved by his participation in the film, James Fox retired from acting for eight years and embraced Christianity. In July, Mick Jagger's Rolling Stones band mate Brian Jones (who had inspired the character of Turner) was found dead of mysterious circumstances and that December the Stones' participation at the Altamont Speedway Free Festival was marred by violence and murder (chronicled in the 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter). While Jagger, Fox and Nicolas Roeg continue to enjoy long and fruitful careers, Donald Cammell directed only three more features before taking his own life in April 1996.

Producer: Sanford Lieberson
Directors: Donald Cammell, Nicolas Roeg
Screenplay: Donald Cammell; Anita Pallenberg (uncredited)
Cinematography: Nicolas Roeg
Art Direction: John Clark
Music: Jack Nitzsche
Film Editing: Antony Gibbs, Brian Smedley-Aston; Frank Mazzola (uncredited)
Cast: James Fox (Chas), Mick Jagger (Turner), Anita Pallenberg (Pherber), Michele Breton (Lucy), Ann Sidney (Dana), John Bindon (Moody), Stanley Meadows (Rosebloom), Allan Cuthbertson (The Lawyer), Antony Morton (Dennis), Johnny Shannon (Harry Flowers), Anthony Valentine (Joey Maddocks), Ken Colley (Tony Farrell), John Sterland (The Chauffeur), Laraine Wickens (Lorraine)

by Richard Harland Smith

Donald Cammell by Rebecca Umland and Sam Umland

Donald Cammell interview by Jon Savage, British Crime Cinema, Steve Chibnall and Robert Murphy, Ed.

"Story Of The Scene: Performance Nicolas Roeg & Donald Cammell (1970)," by Roger Clarke, The Independent, November 2006

Faithfull: An Autobiography by Marianne Faithfull

"The Acid House: The studio thought they were getting a crime caper starring Mick Jagger. What they got was Performance -- an orgy of violence, sex and psychotropic drugs. And the best British film ever made..." by Rebekah Wood, Neon, March 1998

Book of Lies: The Disinformation Guide to Magick and the Occult by Richard Metzger

"Cast into Darkness," by Michael Holden, The Guardian, May 2004

"Possession: 25 years on, Peter Woolen examines dandyism, decadence and death in Performance," Sight & Sound, Volume 5, Issue 9, September 1995

"Tuning into Wonders: Christopher Gibbs gave Performance its look. He talks to Jon Savage about the High 60s," Sight & Sound, Volume 5, Issue 9, September 1995

"Donald Cammell," by Maximilian Le Cain, Senses of Cinema, November 2002

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