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Reflections in a Golden Eye

Reflections in a Golden Eye(1967)

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To say that they don't make 'em like Reflections in a Golden Eye anymore is to imply that they ever did. Its ingredients alone promise decidedly unique pleasures: one oversexed self-absorbed bitch, one out-of-control control-freak, a neurotic housewife who performed a self-nipple-ectomy with pinking shears, a butt-nekkid soldier on horseback, an army fort too busy chewing up its own officers to be of any use in anyone's war.

From its oblique title to its somber pace, this is an adult movie from an era now lost, a time when movies could, from time to time, talk up to their audiences instead of down. There's a lot of sex in this thing, but nothing sexy-even Liz Taylor's nude scene is clinical and off-putting.

Major Penderton (Marlon Brando) is a distant authoritarian, afraid of his wife, his own lustful urges, and just about everything life has to offer. His wife Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor) finds satisfaction elsewhere-sleeping with her husband's friend Morris (Brian Keith) and doting on her beloved horse Firebird. Morris' long-suffering wife Alison (Julie Harris) is a cracked shell of a woman whose sole pleasures come from her Grade A weirdo houseboy Anacleto (Zorro David, in one of the creepiest performances ever committed to film). While Brando, Taylor, and Harris were (and are still) big names, Robert Forster has remained a perennially underrated actor. Here he makes his big screen debut as an army Private with no sense of privacy-he plays peeping tom from right inside the bedroom of the Pendertons, and spends his spare time literally bareback riding.

The book was a scandalous masterpiece from author Carson McCullers, late of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Time Magazine thought it on par to Henry James' The Turn of the Screw; other reviewers offered similarly expansive praise. Director John Huston took on the screen adaptation at a time when Hollywood studios were increasingly given to experimentation.

Huston immediately tapped Elizabeth Taylor for the role of the selfish harpy who taunts other for their insecurities, and makes no effort to conceal her philandering. Not a glamorous role, but something one she could sink her teeth into. The role of her husband, a deeply closeted army major, was however more demanding both in dramatic and athletic terms. The studio feared that the ailing Montgomery Clift was not up to it, while Taylor was so adamant about Clift's inclusion she staked her own salary to insure him for the gig. Clift promptly died, throwing the entire production into disarray.

After burning through the likes of Richard Burton, Patrick O'Neal and Lee Marvin, Huston settled on Marlon Brando. Mr. Method Acting demurred, played hardball in salary negotiations, and ultimately delivered an extraordinary performance so fully realized that the only way you can even get this movie today is to buy it as part of the Marlon Brando box set!

The DVD in question presents the film in its originally intended form, with the colors bleached away and replaced by a sepia wash. The result is a golden-hued image, as if the world were indeed just a reflection in the golden eye of Anacleto's painting of a peacock (what that symbolism might mean, however, is left for the intrepid viewer to puzzle out alone). Audiences in 1967 found this baffling, and the studio abandoned the experiment-aside from the first week of its New York run, the film was never screened this way.

Understated colors, though, are as one with other understated directorial touches: important details are put in throwaway lines, shoved into the background of long shots, or otherwise minimized. The dysfunctions of the characters are not so much explored as clinically documented. Human lives and pain archived like so many butterflies pinned to a board.

Hand it to Warner Brothers' home video division to know how to market this in the modern day. Its ilk have all but disappeared from the screen, and it lacks the kind of name recognition that can move units of, say, Chinatown. So, it is packed into the well-programmed and affordable Marlon Brando box. The transfer is flawless, and it is accompanied by roughly 25 minutes worth of silent home-movie footage from behind the scenes that has been thoughtfully preserved for that rare handful of people who might care to watch.

For more information about Reflections in a Golden Eye, visit Warner Video. To order Reflections in a Golden Eye (which is only available as part of the Marlon Brando Collection), go to TCM Shopping.

by David Kalat