Nicolas Roeg’s bizarre blend of high drama, searing sex and over-the-top brutality waited a year, only to be given a tiny American release. It then dropped out of sight. We’re now in a better position to appreciate the show’s great actors – especially Theresa Russell, the boldest and bravest actress of the 1980s.
SMALL>1983 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 130 min. / Ship Date May 10, 2016 / available through Twilight Time Movies / 29.95
Starring Gene Hackman, Theresa Russell, Rutger Hauer, Jane Lapotaire, Mickey Rourke, Ed Lauter, Joe Pesci, Helena Kallianiotes, Corin Redgrave, Joe Spinell, Frank Pesce, Timothy Scott.
Cinematography Alex Thomson
Production Designer Michael Seymour
Film Editor Tony Lawson
Original Music Stanley Myers
Written by Paul Mayersberg from a book by Marshall Houts
Produced by Jeremy Thomas
Directed by Nicolas Roeg
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
I remember Nicolas Roeg’s Eureka as being one of the biggest busts of the 1980s. It has been described as a post- Heaven’s Gate victim of an industry determined to make sure that ‘artistic’ directors were not in control. Roeg’s Bad Timing / A Sensual Obsession had made news as an auteur piece gone haywire, an art film that seemed to militate against mainstream acceptance. Perhaps because it was considered more of the same, and also violently repellent, Eureka wasn’t even granted a real release. It certainly was not an inexpensive movie, with its remote locations and roster of name stars. Paramount made plenty of money from its own 1983 Gene Hackman picture, a sentimental ‘we didn’t lose in Vietnam’ movie called Uncommon Valor. Nicolas Roeg tried something blazingly different, and nobody saw it beyond a couple of weeks’ exposure in L.A. and a few other big cities. I think I finally saw it on the “Z” Channel, in an unimpressive flat TV print.
Unlike Bad Timing and The Man Who Fell to Earth, Eureka is a straightforward narrative with only a smattering of the splintered editing forms that made those shows such mysterious puzzle pictures. In the frozen North, the determined Jack McCann (Hackman) defies nature and rejects partnerships, preferring to go it alone. He brings in an incredibly big gold strike, what looks like an underground river of the stuff. Apparently inspired by a friend, the brothel madam Frieda (Helen Kallianiotes of Five Easy Pieces), Jack makes his find. The story then leaps twenty years to see McCann installed on his own private island in the Caribbean. Jack is an eccentric billionaire surrounded by unhappiness. Wondering what happened to the man she loved, his wife Helen (Jane Lapotaire) has become an alcoholic. Gorgeous daughter Tracy (Theresa Russell) has enraged Jack by marrying Claude Maillot Van Horn (Rutger Hauer), a French yachtsman and playboy that Jack insists must be after his money. That may be partially true, but Jack has no friends and has alienated everyone in the local English government. His only close associate Charles Perkins (Ed Lauter) wants to be business partner, but Jack partners with nobody. Charles has become entangled by the Miami gangsters Mayakofsky (Joe Pesci) and his lawyer factotum Aurelio D’Amato (Mickey Rourke). They that insist that Charles make McCann sign their development deal for an island resort on his island. Floating in his selfish isolation, bitter over his daughter and threatening to kill his son-in-law, McCann perversely goads the gangsters to do their worst.
Eureka is very accomplished filmmaking yet will remain tough sledding for audience appreciation – it doesn’t encourage much in the way of emotional involvement. Its most rewarding section deals with Jack McCann’s thorny personal relationships. His loving daughter Tracy just wants an exciting life with her new man, Claude, but Daddy considers her marriage a personal insult. Claude has his pride and tells McCann he doesn’t want his money and in fact doesn’t want to owe him anything. Jack McCann unfortunately believes that all life should revolve around him, as the magic finder of the Golden Apples of the Sun. He gives away real gold nuggets at the dinner table, as an expression of his hubris. When Claude swallows his nugget, Jack banishes him from his house.
Nicolas Roeg almost always pins fantastic undercurrents to the surface events of his movies. He makes McCann’s discovery of the mother lode the result of a lightning bolt and Frieda’s apparent psychic guidance. Her suffering is dramatically intercut with Jack’s stumbling into a literal Ali Baba’s cave, a weird cavern stylized to make it look as if the gold exists in a liquid state. Jack emerges with gold sparking from his beard and caked on his coat. It’s pretty impressive.
Jack McCann is based on a real gold-hunter who became so rich that he bought an island and also an English title, all to avoid Uncle Sam’s taxes. But that amazing story isn’t enough for Roeg and his writer Paul Mayersberg, who bring in Tarot cards and eventually Voodoo to maintain that sub-current of spiritualism. These diversions mainly clog up the story. The literal plotline is mainly there to set up a notorious, and ghastly, murder. The estranged daughter Tracy is in New England with her mother when the gangsters decide to force McCann to agree to their business plan. Claude uses his wife’s absence to take two local British officer’s wives to the Voodoo celebration. A drunken Claude becomes an inadvertent witness to the attack on McCann.
When Jack goes violent and attacks Claude, it makes sense because he’s trying to get his daughter back, as if she were his property. As to the gangsters, that part of the story is perhaps historically accurate, but Eureka doesn’t handle it well. Joe Pesci behaves exactly like the corporate killers in Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, working up to murder by re-defining himself as a businessman with the greater good in mind, and McCann’s stubbornness as a lack of cooperation and an obstacle to progress. As with the Buck Henry character in the previous movie, McCann doesn’t even listen to the business proposition. He just laughs and tells Mayakovsky’s hoods to go away, even after it’s obvious that they’re dangerous criminals eager to hurt him. Roeg and Mayersberg give Jack a strong death wish. He makes love to his wife and then sends her away, so he can all but deliver himself to his killers, almost like Colonel Kurtz backhandedly begging to be assassinated in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.
Pesci’s killers really give McCann what he asks for. Roeg delivers a surfeit of ugly violence in Eureka, beginning with a gore effect in the first scene (repeated in slow-motion) that would likely inspire walkouts among average movie viewers of 1983. What with the amazing Theresa Russell involved, the sex scenes are arresting and exciting, and not as gynecologically explicit as in the earlier Bad Timing. But the scenes of Jack McCann’s murder are a real deal-breaker in terms of unnecessary gore. It’s unnecessary for us, in that we really don’t want to see a man beaten into a stupor, stabbed, and then blow-torched to death. They then cut his head off. The effects for all this are not quite explicit enough to make it an atrocious spectacle like one of the zombie movies of the time, but who wants to be compared to them? In the film’s glamorous context it just seems far too much. One shot of the killing makes it look as if part of McCann’s face has become a pool of boiling white fat.
The killing is also counterproductive for Mayakovsky. What do Pesci and his hoods have to gain from a murder that’s not going to make them McCann’s business partners? McCann himself believes that Claude is in on the deal, but he’s mistaken. Mayakofsky (reportedly Meyer Lansky in real life) appears to massacre McCann (Sir Harry Oakes) out of personal rage, which doesn’t align with his aim of securing McCann’s property.
If the gross-out gore weren’t enough, the movie’s sudden-death overtime epilogue makes it even less of a viable commercial release. After the killing, the show continues for the better part of twenty minutes, while Claude is put on trial for McCann’s murder. Unable to put up an alibi – he was at a Voodoo orgy with other mens’ wives — Claude must watch as Charles and Maurelio bear witness against him. He’s forced to fire his lawyers, defend himself and rely on the emotionally confused Tracy to engage the jury’s sympathy. The way the movie has proceeded, we don’t care very much what happens to Charles. We also wonder why Mayakofsky’s minions don’t offer Claude a slick deal – exchanging a plausible alibi in exchange for another shot at the business deal that McCann refused them. Nope, no such thing happens.
Eureka is at its weakest when Nicolas Roeg’s cinematics are at their most fancy. The intercutting of Frieda’s convulsions and McCann struggling in the gold cave don’t really seem connected because this just doesn’t feel like a supernatural story. Likewise the intercutting of the Voodoo party with the buildup to the murder in McCann’s mansion creates no coherent feeling of comparison or amplification. It just seems an artificial way to draw out the violent climax and add more sensational content. [It’s also a gross distortion, I am given to understand, of anything that would ever happen at a real Voodoo ceremony.] Eureka lacks the mystifying complications of Bad Timing and The Man Who Fell to Earth. Unlike them, its story doesn’t take place on multiple planes of reality.
Hackman and Theresa Russell are terrific, Rutger Hauer is much better than usual and Jane Lapotaire is so good that she makes us wish that she’d made more movies — I’ve only seen her elsewhere in the flawed horror opus The Asphyx. Joe Pesci is under-taxed by his role, while the young Mickey Rourke comes off as fussy-creepy, as if he were trying to be charming, with a touch of Peter Lorre. Ed Lauter is disappointing only because of the way his part is written — nobody would take the frightened, spineless Charles Perkins seriously. Among the tiny parts, Joe Spinell’s horrid face is the perfect accompaniment to the scene of murder and mutilation. Elsewhere, the cars, the beaches, and that fantastic house in the Bahamas are pleasant just to look at. Other viewers will find Nicholas Roeg’s sex scenes imaginative and, uh, exciting. That Voodoo bash and Russell & Hauer’s antics are pretty hot.
But it’s abundantly clear why MGM-UA threw up their hands in defeat. The movie hasn’t quite put its thesis together when it reaches its dramatic climax at the 110-minute mark. The extra two reels that follow do little more than give Ms. Russell an opportunity for a long scene of incoherent trial testimony. We’re given too much time to ponder the story’s unanswered questions. What surprises me is that Roeg didn’t edit Eureka in his fractured-time style, with all parts of the story intercut and happening simultaneously. I wonder if it would all seem better, simply because it would take more mental concentration to understand what the heck is going on. That formula worked beautifully in Roeg’s later Insignificance.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Eureka is a great presentation of this quizzical movie. The image is beautiful, rendering all those icy Yukon scenes in clean white, and making the Bahamas material very attractive. Mostly, though, Theresa Russell is a vision in HD. The camera, one’s video monitor and one’s own eyes just love that woman. Her crazy personality in this picture is a vivid impression of what a neo-rich heiress might have been like in the 1940s. The woman she was based on was close friends with Ernest Hemingway and dance maestro Merce Cunningham.
Paul Mayersberg’s hour-long video discussion removes all need to debate what’s going on — when the writer of the movie says ‘this means this,’ that’s pretty definitive. Mayersberg’s comparisons of his adaptation to historical fact add greatly to our enjoyment of the movie. The producer and editor also get lengthy interview pieces to talk about Nicholas Roeg’s picture. An audio recording of a Q&A session at the film’s premiere gives director Roeg a platform to express his opinions as well. The trailer certainly makes it look like a marketable item. TT’s Isolated Score track is a partial M&E.
Julie Kirgo’s liner notes once again walk the line between objective critical evaluation and commercial promotion. She’s not free to simply fling opinions about, as is a (responsible?) reviewer. Mrs. Kirgo is careful not to overstate the case for the movie — I’ve met Nicolas Roeg fans that consider it his ultimate masterpiece — yet she does indeed point to particular qualities that make the show stand out. Title-dropping other TT releases doesn’t diminish the credibility of the piece. We’re accustomed to marketers running video companies, and writing the product-associated text in a style that ignores the interests of cinema fans. Ms. Kirgo has managed to maintain her liner notes on a high plane.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Eureka Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good – minus
Supplements: Isolated Music & Effects Track (with Partial Isolated Score); Q&A Audio Commentary with Director Nicolas Roeg at the World Premiere; Writer Paul Mayersberg on Eureka, Producer Jeremy Thomas on Eureka, Editor Tony Lawson on Eureka, Trailer, Julie Kirgo liner notes
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 17, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson