27 February 2012



1970 / Directors: Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg / Writer: Donald Cammell

Cast: James Fox, Mick Jagger, Anita Pallenberg, Michele Breton, 

Amazingly this fairly historic and influential film was not released on DVD until February of 2007. It stars James Fox, Mick Jagger and Anita Palenberg. Palenberg also helped with writing some of the film script. Prior to Performance James Fox had played mostly proper English gentlemen of one sort or another. Here he convincingly plays the viscous and violent Chas, an East side London gangster who is the enforcer for boss Harry Flowers. Fox' s performance is chilling and has been cited as influential on the London gangster type that appear in the newer British crime movies by directors like Guy Ritchie. It is too bad Fox did not do more roles like this. In fact he would all but retire from acting after Performance and devote his energy to being an evangelical Christian, only appearing here and there over the years in films, most recently as Varuca Salt' s father in Tim Burton' s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

The film itself was controversial at the time and Warner Brothers was shocked by what directors Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg delivered to them when they were expecting a pop-music movie similar to The Beatles A Hard Day' s Night. The film captured the darker feel of late 60' s period London and there is fairly graphic sex and drug use (some purported to be real). In one scene Anita Palenberg injects what we assume is heroin into her butt cheeks. Even by today' s "flexible" standards the scene is unnerving. There were rumors that Palenberg - who had dated Rolling Stone' s temperamental and star-crossed guitarist Brian Jones and then later became Keith Richards common law wife and mother of their three children - had an affair with Jagger during the filming. Neither have ever confirmed this and Palenberg has sharply denied it.

While Fox stretched his capable acting abilities and created the evil and yet ladish Chas, Jagger and Palenberg simply play themselves and yet it is a perfect balancing act between Chas' uptight and rigid sensibilities and Taylor and Pherber's "free love" and drug using inclinations. After Chas becomes a target of the mob he works for he goes into hiding while trying to escape the country to America where gangster like him are truly appreciated. He winds up staying in the bizarre and decadent household of reclusive rock star Taylor (played by Jagger) and his girlfriends Pherber (Palenberg) and Lucy (Michele Briton). Taylor does not warm up to Chas, but finally Chas convinces him that he needs a " Bohemian atmosphere " to hole up in for a short while. Chas and Taylor begin to get drawn into each other' s dangerous worlds and a twisted connection is formed. Pherber slips Chas some psychedelic mushrooms and Fox is soon wearing wigs and lipstick and searching his soul while grooving to some far out tunes. Jagger is great as the reclusive and jaded Taylor and performs a really good blues song on guitar in one scene.

The ending is somewhat odd and confusing but it seemed fitting really in this case. Normally I do not like a strange ending to a movie that leaves too many questions. The look and sound of the film is marvelous and it is supposed to have been the first full length film to employ what is known as the " cut-up technique " , formally used in literature by people like Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs. It is the method of splicing random scenes together to create an effect of irregular yet seemingly purposeful continuity. It is a common technique in film anymore and you hardly think it is anything special now. The film had problems with release and distribution and was widely panned at the time of its release as lurid and exploitive (are those supposed to be bad qualities?), but has since went on to be considered one of the great films of British cinema. Some parts may seem dated, such as the strange synth tracks and experimental photography played at the beginning during a court room scene. Some other parts are ahead of their time even, for example a song sequence that predates MTV in the way it is done. It is tough and hallucinogenic at the same time. A hippie/gangster movie. Not a genre that was explored much. It does not become an " acid trip " movie in any way though some scenes have those elements.

Also check out Fox's excellent performance as Peter Marlowe in one of my all time favorite films, 1965's King Rat with George Segal and Tom Courtenay, about existence in Changi POW camp in Singapore during WWII. There will a post of that remarkable film coming soon.

Here is an article about the film showing the reactions to it in the early days and then how those opinions have changed. The statements are from the cast and crew.

As well here is a nice piece on James Fox from the Cinebeats blog by Kimberly Linbergs. 

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