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Review of Two Films by Donald Cammell: White of the Eye and Wild Side

by James White

On July 31 and August 1, American Cinematheque in Los Angeles ( sponsored two double-featured evenings showing four films of Donald Cammell. On the first night, Performance (the first film featuring Mick Jagger) and Demon Seed (starring Julie Christie) were shown at the Egyptian Theater. The second night featured White of the Eye (1988) and The Wild Side (1995).

Having seen none of Cammell’s films, I had no idea what to expect from his work. Let me say right off that White of the Eye and The Wild Side impressed me as few films I have ever seen. They are remarkable examples of swift moving narratives that move into art. After several minutes of watching each film, I sat back, ready for Cammell to take me wherever he wanted. There was no question it would be a place of exotic artistic intention, yet one established to the smallest, believable detail.

White of the Eye is the story of a serial killer (David Keith) who loves his wife (Cathy Moriarty) and daughter and attempts to lead a traditional home life. Keith plays a sexy Arizona electronics mechanic who loves hunting and is pursued by married women. He is a family man and tries hard to please his jealous wife. The viewer gets to know him quickly, including scenes from his past. He doesn’t want to cheat on his wife; he works hard and is a perfectionist in handcrafting the best cabinets for the electronic equipment he sells. He knows his business and makes a decent living. Good looking and thoughtful, he pays special attention to his daughter.

When a murder occurs in the wealthy subdivision where he is installing stereo equipment, Keith falls under suspicion because the tires on his pickup match tire tracks in the yard of the murdered woman’s house. Keith is questioned and released. The local sheriff believes him innocent, but a special investigator pursues Keith. He becomes even more sympathetic because he is innocent and wrongly accused.

Then, at the end of the film, it is proved that indeed he is the serial killer. Everything we had thought about him was wrong-he is guilty. But we like him none-the-less. The final, horrific scene where he reveals his obsessive thoughts becomes moving and believable. As he turns on his wife and daughter, the tension continuously mounts.

White of the Eye is beautifully filmed throughout, and in these final scenes, the rocky canyon-like setting and the classical music played along with the larger than life images, are thrilling. The startling reality of colors and scene and sound create deep emotion.

The film certainly is the best horror film I’ve ever seen.

The next film shown, The Wild Side, written by Cammell and Chica Kong, I liked even better. In stark contrast to White of the Eye, The Wild Side is one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen.

It is a seamless farce and from the first moment, involves the audience in a rollicking situation of acting, plot, music, and believable absurdity that never lets up. The two hour film takes five minutes to watch.

Christopher Walken plays a money launderer king pen who has hired a prostitute (Anne Heche) who works as a banker during the day. She also is a secret lesbian. Walken has a chauffeur (actually an undercover cop) beautifully played by Steven Bauer. The plot proceeds as the chauffeur blackmails the prostitute into working for him so that he can prosecute the money launderer. The money launderer, however, hires the prostitute for part of one of his large money laundering deals. In the process of what appears to be her working for both, the prostitute banker falls for and has a sexual liaison with the money launderer’s lovely wife (Joan Chen). Most everyone, however, is deceiving everyone else, and in a most ingenious plot, one hilarious scene occurs after another.

The funniest scene in TheWild Side is when the money launderer, to pay back the cop for molesting the prostitute who at this point is the money launderer’s girlfriend, has the cop pull down his trousers. He is going to screw the cop rather than kill him. The cop keeps protesting, but he drops his trousers, revealing his bare butt. The prostitute protests at first, then encourages the money launderer to do it. Then something else outrageous occurs that changes the whole scene.

The Wild Side is film making at its finest-funny, beautiful, and fast paced.

The most remarkable thing about these films, however, is that neither has been properly distributed. White of the Eye had limited distribution in the U. S. for one week. It did receive critical praise that week. And it has been distributed in England. Amazingly, The Wild Side has not been distributed. Given the low quality of most films, how can these extraordinary ones not be available to viewers?

Donald Cammell killed himself in 1996. His loss is a real one for the film industry. I only wish I could watch both films again tonight.