Despite having made only four films, not all of them completed to his satisfaction, Donald Cammell has left a substantial legacy. Performance (1970), co-directed with Nicolas Roeg, has entered rock history, thanks to Mick Jagger, who was probably channelling the late Brian Jones, and definitely sleeping with co-star Anita Pallenberg, Keith Richards’s girlfriend. Cammell’s only other film that decade was Demon Seed (1977), an occasionally effective adaptation of a Dean Koontz sci-fi/horror novel that disappointed anyone looking for another Performance. His next film, the psycho-thriller White of the Eye, appeared in 1987. After seeing his final movie Wild Side (which starred Christopher Walken, Joan Chen and Anne Heche) heavily re-edited by the producers, Cammell committed suicide in 1995.
Of his four films, only Demon Seed and White of the Eye were released in Cammell’s intended form, and it’s probably no coincidence that they are his most traditional, accessible efforts. Cammell left behind a long list of abandoned projects; his only other commercial releases are a handful of short films and a little-seen music video for U2’s hit single ‘Pride (In the Name of Love)’.
Like most psycho-thrillers, White of the Eye begins with a murder, as a wealthy woman is followed back to her isolated home in the Tucson desert and slain by an unseen stranger. Unlike most similar films, Cammell shows us very little in the way of bloody violence, although there’s no doubt what’s happening. Instead he concentrates on the chaos caused by the assault: a wine bottle smashes, a glass leaks its contents across the work surface, fresh flowers fall to the floor, a cooking pot shatters (spilling the only blood shown in the scene). The two murders are bloodless but make a notable impact thanks to Cammell’s careful use of violence and a handful of memorably surreal images, like a goldfish splashing about in a cooking pot . In the light of later events, one moment in particular seems oddly prescient: a dying victim observes her own death throes in a hand mirror (according to some accounts, after shooting himself Cammell asked for a mirror to see the self-inflicted wounds).
From there White of the Eye moves into standard police procedural territory, as detectives match tyre tracks found at the scene of one of the murders to (among others) local resident Paul White, played by David Keith. White lives with his wife Joan (Cathy Moriarty) and daughter Danielle and makes a living as a sound engineer, fitting high-end amplifiers and sound systems for his wealthy neighbours. Keith and Moriarty are both excellent and contribute greatly to the overall impact of the movie. Unfortunately they can do little to remedy the film’s major defect: pacing. After the blitz attack of the first murder, White of the Eye settles into a slow-moving groove that robs the material of any real sense of urgency or danger, even when Paul is being questioned by the police. A subplot about Paul’s infidelity becomes essential to the narrative later on, but at the time those scenes drag heavily. It’s not until the second murder that Cammell begins to pick up the pace, having spent the first hour setting up the characters and situations in preparation for the film’s hectic final act.
Despite the pacing problems, White of the Eye has strong points, not least Keith and Moriarty’s credible, convincing performances. On a visual and audio level the film consistently impresses, whether it’s the choreographed chaos of the first murder or the way the camera glides over the abandoned quarries and pits that make up the distinctive Arizona wilderness. Although the Arizona landscape is largely man-made, the angular and bright white buildings look utterly out of place against that background. The same applies to Cammell’s characters. It’s a thoroughly incongruous setting for the trappings of 1980s culture, whether it’s the high-tech sound equipment Paul works with or the faintly ludicrous perms and high heels the residents wear. The image is reinforced by Nick Mason’s score, which mixes the atmospheric psychedelia of 1970s Pink Floyd with Rick Fenn’s restrained but evocative slide guitar, hovering on the boundary between blues and rock.
Casual viewers might find themselves frustrated by Cammell’s initial lack of interest in plot and suspense, but White of the Eye does reward patience, even if the end results don’t reach the same level as Michael Mann’s Manhunter, released less than 12 months previously.