A southern gothic melodrama laced with taboo themes and featuring terrific performances from Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, Julie Harris, and Brian Keith, Reflections in a Golden Eye pushes boundaries and buttons galore as it explores - among other things - repressed sexual longings, voyeurism, mental illness, and infidelity. Director John Huston's adaptation of Carson McCullers' novel focusing on two marriages in crisis at a post-World War II military training camp often goes way over the top, but the substantive issues simmering beneath all the excess makes the film bizarrely fascinating and often hypnotic. Warner Archive salutes this titillating production with an enticing two-disc set that includes two different, equally stunning presentations of the film - Huston's preferred gold-tinted version and the wide-release Technicolor version. Both have been lovingly restored for this release and make this wild, often creepy, and bizarrely captivating motion picture a sumptuous feast for the senses. Highly Recommended.
"Any fulfillment obtained at the expense of normality is wrong, and should not be allowed to bring happiness...It's morally honorable for the square peg to keep scraping about in the round hole rather than to discover and use the unorthodox one that would fit it."
The psychosexual melodrama is one of Hollywood's most fascinating creations. As censorship's grip on the movie industry began to loosen in the late 1950s, films could more frankly explore taboo subjects, and with delicacy and innuendo they titillated audiences hungry to explore adult themes. By the mid-1960s, the horse had left the barn, so to speak, giving directors even more freedom to push the envelope as far as they could. Reflections in a Golden Eye takes us right up to the precipice with a Southern gothic story that's a virtual kitchen sink of Freudian afflictions. Part Tennessee Williams, part Peeping Tom, part Equus, with a little Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? thrown in for good measure, director John Huston's adaptation of an early Carson McCullers novel takes us on a wild, weird, often disturbing, yet strangely hypnotic ride that's certain to provoke strong reactions in anyone brave enough to hop aboard.
Repressed sexual longings, obsession, voyeurism, sadomasochism, adultery, psychosis, and homophobia are only some of the themes swirling about this dream-like drama that takes place at a southern military camp a few years after the end of World War II. The rigid, fastidious Major Weldon Penderton (Marlon Brando) does everything by the book ("I dislike clumsiness, willful or otherwise," he firmly states), but his secret homosexual longings and messy marriage to a wanton woman who gleefully denigrates him at every turn torture his fanatical sense of order and decorum. Just as he struggles to control his steed when he goes out riding, Penderton struggles to suppress his desire for Private L.G. Williams (Robert Forster in his film debut), the camp's hunky, withdrawn stable boy who often rides naked through the woods on the horses he lovingly tends.
Such a brazen display of raw, unbridled sexuality both revolts and transfixes Penderton, but Pvt. Williams only has eyes for the major's voluptuous wife Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor), an untamed, vulgar, child-like, somewhat sloppy hausfrau who ceaselessly preys on her husband's insecurities. She also cheats on him with his best friend, Lt. Col. Morris Langdon (Brian Keith), whose fragile, deeply neurotic wife Alison (Julie Harris) "cut off her nipples with a pair of garden shears" after their baby daughter died a few years prior. ("Deeply neurotic" just might be the understatement of the century.) After doing some yard work for Maj. Penderton, Pvt. Williams becomes obsessed with Leonora, and regularly sneaks into her bedroom at night just to watch her sleep...and caress her stash of sexy lingerie.
Against this bizarre backdrop of sexual deviance and mental instability, tensions invariably rise, leading to violent confrontations, desperate actions, emotional breakdowns, death, anguish, and murder. That's quite a menu for one motion picture, and it's all presented in a creepy, sometimes campy manner that wrings every grotesque drop out of the unsettling yet heartbreaking narrative. It's no wonder the film incites a mixture of fascination, disgust, and utter incredulity as it continually tries to shock our sensibilities.
Though a box office failure at the time of its release, Reflections in a Golden Eye has become a cult favorite, and I'm the group's newest inductee. After watching this movie twice in preparation for this review, I've become obsessed with the weirdo characters and their twisted relationships, secret proclivities, and impulsive actions. A sinister mood and plenty of gothic trimmings fuel Huston's cryptic, provocative presentation, so much so you can almost see the director's mile-wide grin and twinkling eyes as this phantasmagoric display of sound and fury unfolds. Though it may ultimately signify nothing, it sure is fun peeling back all the crazy layers to see what horrors lie beneath.
Taylor originally envisioned Reflections in a Golden Eye as a vehicle to reunite her with her dear friend and former co-star Montgomery Clift, with whom she had memorably appeared in A Place in the Sun, Raintree County, and Suddenly, Last Summer. Illness (much of which could be attributed to the lingering effects of a horrific 1956 car accident that significantly altered his movie-star looks) and erratic behavior had made Clift an unbankable commodity, and since his last film four years earlier (Freud, also directed by Huston), his health continued to deteriorate. Taylor, who believed Clift would die without work, volunteered to put her $1 million salary toward an insurance policy for the actor, but sadly, he succumbed to a heart attack in his sleep at the tender age of 45 before filming commenced.
That paved the way for Brando to step in, and the film is probably much the better for it. With his fuller frame and more macho presence, Brando brilliantly juxtaposes Penderton's rigid, reserved, and brooding demeanor with a slightly effeminate vocal tone, physical awkwardness, and sense of self-loathing to create a complex, tightly wound character prone to explosive fits. He still mumbles to excess (some of his dialogue verges on unintelligible), but his highly nuanced performance elevates the tawdry plot and lends the film a resonance it might not otherwise have had. (A couple of bits of film trivia: photographs of Brando as Penderton were used to depict Colonel Kurtz as a younger man in Apocalypse Now, and the scene in which Penderton talks to himself while looking in a mirror reportedly inspired the classic "You talkin' to me?" scene in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver.)
Taylor had just won her second Best Actress Oscar for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the year before and recently finished shooting Franco Zeffirelli's bawdy adaptation of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, so it's not surprising she's still in full castration mode here. Look past the loud-mouthed ravings, though, and a finely tuned, dimensional performance emerges. Still bewitchingly glamorous, yet just a tad zaftig and continuing to project the earthiness she displayed in her two previous films, the 35-year-old Taylor embraces the free-spirited, sexually charged Leonora, whose admitted affinity for "clutter" drives her tortured husband nuts. There's one scene where she defiantly strips naked while staring daggers at him, just daring the closeted Penderton to ravage her. A body double was used for any revealing shots, but the fact that there were any revealing shots at all show just how battered and bruised the Motion Picture Production Code was at the time. (Forster and his body double also appear naked a few times as well.) Whether or not Reflections in a Golden Eye put the last nail in the Code's coffin remains open to debate, but it's not entirely a coincidence that the following year the Code was replaced by the current MPAA ratings system.
Harris supplies some much needed luminosity, and her radiant, understated portrayal of a sketchily drawn woman whose severe mental issues are too tidily explained nicely offsets Taylor's flashier work. The one who outshines them all, though - and quite surprisingly, too - is Keith, who files a wonderfully natural, measured portrayal of a tough man's-man who can't acknowledge the tender feelings coursing through him. It's a tribute to Keith that he could craft such deeply affecting work while simultaneously playing the part for which he's probably best known, the always patient yet constantly beleaguered Uncle Bill on the hit '60s sitcom A Family Affair. No two roles or projects could be more different, yet Keith infuses each with admirable authenticity.
Reflections in a Golden Eye marked the beginning of Taylor's decline as a top box office draw. Whether she struggled to adapt to a more audacious and permissive movie climate or it didn't suit her regal, Old Hollywood persona is anybody's guess, but it's too bad Huston's endlessly intriguing, completely overblown and overdone melodrama never found an audience at the time of its release. Though Reflections in a Golden Eye doesn't rank as one of Huston's most acclaimed works, it's certainly one of his most underrated films, directed with his customary mix of audacity, sensitivity, and black humor. It's an acquired taste to be sure, but once this tale of inflamed libidos, bizarre neuroses, agonizing repression, and shocking acts of violence gets under your skin, it stays there.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Reflections in a Golden Eye arrives on Blu-ray in a two-disc set packaged in a standard case. One disc contains the movie as director John Huston originally intended for it to be seen. The image features a golden tint and far less saturated color. That version of the film was pulled from theaters after the first week of release and replaced by a traditional Technicolor print, which is housed on the other disc in this set. Both versions have been restored expressly for this Blu-ray edition. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
This two-disc set includes two different photographic presentations of the film. The first disc showcases Huston's preferred version, which features a golden tint and desaturated color to "reflect" the golden reference in the movie's title. According to a title card on the disc that precedes the film, "[Reflections in a Golden Eye] appeared in theaters for just one week with this original color design before the studio imposed a full color treatment for general release, which did not reflect Huston's original vision." That full color treatment is included on the second disc in this set. Both versions were fully restored expressly for this release, and both transfer encodes are 1080p/AVC MPEG-4.
I watched Huston's preferred version first and was instantly blown away by the gorgeous golden tint that lends the image a warm, ethereal glow. Like an extra layer of artistry that casts a mesmerizing spell, it diffuses the grotesquerie on display while enhancing the tale's dreamy gothic feel. Colors are purposely muted yet still vibrant enough to make an impression when necessary. Bits of red and blue burst through the yellow haze to create striking accents, and Taylor's white party gown (which bears an uncanny resemblance to the iconic white dress she wore a decade earlier in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) appears dazzlingly vibrant and supplies an extra splash of contrast. Rich blacks anchor the picture, shadow delineation is quite good even during extremely dark nocturnal scenes, and flesh tones remain remarkably natural looking. Very faint grain preserves the film-like feel and outstanding clarity maximizes details. Close-ups - some of which are extreme - are razor-sharp and no nicks, marks, splotches, or scratches mar the pristine source material.
When I finished watching the inspired gold-tinged version, I couldn't imagine viewing Reflections in a Golden Eye any other way. It just seemed so perfect. I popped in the "standard" Technicolor edition simply to sample a few scenes for comparison purposes and to evaluate the transfer for this review. At first, the vivid hues assaulted me and seemed to suck the lyricism out of the film. Yet within a few minutes I became utterly transfixed by all the breathtaking color on display. From bold primaries to delicate pastels, the depth of saturation bowled me over and drew me in. I couldn't stop watching. The transfer boasts exceptional clarity and contrast, wonderfully resolved grain, inky blacks and bright whites, jaw-dropping close-ups, perfect flesh tones, rock-solid patterns, and a spotless source print. Without question, it's every inch the equal of the golden-hued rendering.
Rarely have I seen a movie from this period look so luscious (1960s films all too often appear faded and dull), and to my surprise, all the brilliant color brought new and exciting shadings to the movie's narrative. Almost like entering a brothel, I became engulfed in all the sordid doings on screen. The dramatic power remained, but the story seemed wilder, more intense, at times teetering on the edge of camp. The color truly colors the movie, magically altering the viewing experience, and I found it every bit as mesmerizing as the other version. While I still think I prefer to see Reflections in a Golden Eye through the tinted lens as Huston intended, this Technicolor transfer is so good, it's like a sexy temptress daring me to taste its forbidden fruit...and I'm sure I will succumb to its charms in the future.
Whichever version you choose - and I hope you choose them both over time - you won't be disappointed. Say what you will about the story and its themes, but it's impossible to find fault with either of these spectacular transfers, which turn an often distasteful tale into delicious eye candy.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track showcases all of the story's gothic elements with clarity and nuance. A wide dynamic scale embraces the creepy music score by Toshiro Mayuzumi, and excellent fidelity helps it fill the room with ease. Subtle atmospherics like breezes, rain, rustling brush, and chirping birds come through cleanly, while sonic accents like thunderclaps, gunfire, and the whipping of a riding crop are crisp and distinct. All the dialogue - even Brando's patented mumbles - is easy to comprehend, and no age-related hiss, pops, or crackle break the eerie spell. Though not particularly showy, this is a solid track that seamlessly complements the narrative and performs its tasks with precision.
A couple of supplements enhance this striking Blu-ray release.
Vintage Behind-the-Scenes Footage (HD, 23 minutes) - Though silent and in black-and-white, this footage of Huston directing the cast and setting up shots is nevertheless fascinating. We also see Huston and Brando relaxing with an unidentified crew member, shots of the exteriors of the stars' trailers (Taylor's bears the sign "E. Taylor Burton"), Huston and Taylor conferring between takes, and plenty of pensive portraits of the actors and crew. It's amazing to see how many people are involved in capturing a relatively simple sequence, and the footage really gives us a feel for what a painstaking process moviemaking is.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 3 minutes) - The film's original preview highlights the magnetism of Taylor and Brando and the movie's provocative story. It also ends with the following advice to viewers: "Suggested for mature audiences. Leave the children home."
Morbidly fascinating, consistently weird, and packed with provocative elements, Reflections in a Golden Eye is one of those love-it-or-hate-it films that forever sparks heated debates. Repressed homosexuality, mental illness, voyeurism, infidelity, and sadomasochism are just a few of the taboo themes sprinkled throughout director John Huston's steamy, seamy, yet beautifully realized adaptation of Carson McCullers' novel that focuses on two troubled marriages at a southern military training camp in the late 1940s. Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, Julie Harris, and Brian Keith all file riveting performances and Warner Archive delivers two stunningly beautiful, five-star versions of the movie in a terrific two-disc set. The wide-release Technicolor version sits alongside Huston's preferred golden-tinged limited-issue version, providing two different takes on this gothic melodrama. Reflections in a Golden Eye may not be everyone's cup of tea, but this definitive edition makes it a very appetizing dish that comes highly recommended.