Yes, we’ve all lived before; when I come back I don’t care who I am as long as I’m in the 1%. When Michael Sarrazin reaches into a previous life his big sacrifice is to abandon the gorgeous Cornelia Sharpe for the gorgeous Jennifer O’Neill, arousing the suspicions of his wife in his previous life, gorgeous Margot Kidder. The show looks great, Jerry Goldsmith’s music is beautiful, but it runs up against real trouble in the script and directing departments.
The Reincarnation of Peter Proud
KL Studio Classics
1975 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 105 min. / Street Date May 29, 2018 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Michael Sarrazin, Jennifer O’Neill, Margot Kidder, Cornelia Sharpe, Paul Hecht, Tony Stephano, Norman Burton, Anne Ives, Debralee Scott.
Cinematography: Victor J. Kemper
Film Editor: Michael Anderson
Art Direction: Jack Martin Smith
Original Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Written by Max Erlich, from his novel
Produced by Frank P. Rosenberg
Directed by J. Lee Thompson
Now I get it — Michael Sarrazin starred in the awful For Pete’s Sake with Barbra Streisand, and for his sins he was reincarnated as another Peter in this movie! Oh, that’s not how reincarnation works?
Movies about psychic phenomena skate on thin ice with this viewer, when they expect the audience to believe in things that are unprovable, ‘just because.’ That snag is why I never got into the One Step Beyond TV show. It scared me as a tot, until I realized that I wasn’t being being asked to consider the paranormal, but to simply believe in nebulous ideas simply because a man who looked like he was on drugs (John Newland) was telling me to. I later heard firsthand facts about the real parapsychology unit at UCLA headed by the actual ghost hunter Dr. Thelma Moss, from my film school friend Clark Dugger. I wrote up the crazy facts of that debacle in my review for The Entity, a dramatization ridiculous exaggeration of a true case.
Reincarnation hasn’t fared well either. Although not exactly the same phenomenon, the various Bridey Murphy stories all have shaky foundations, and the most prominent picture in the bunch that I know is Robert Wise’s laughable Audrey Rose. Perhaps after Exorcist producers decided that selling quasi-religious super-exploitative stories as ‘real’ was a sure box office formula. Audrey Rose has a court judging questions of pure faith in a legal context, making a joke of rational cause and effect.
1975’s The Reincarnation of Peter Proud simply wants to tell a good story, which is a relief. It looks beautiful and is graced with an impressive Jerry Goldsmith soundtrack, and a lot of the acting is good. But it still ends up as one of those movies where we wait an hour to find out what’s going on, and as soon as that’s revealed, we wait patiently while familiar events drag on to a wholly predictable ending. It also has an upscale exploitative factor — the producer’s real interest seems to be the sex scenes.
UCLA professor Peter Proud (Michael Sarrazin) has dreams about a murder on a lake, in which he speaks in a different voice. He calls out to ‘Marcia’ even though his present sleep-in girl friend is a fellow instructor, Nora (Cornelia Sharpe). Peter also complains of unaccountable pains in his hip. His buddy Dr. Goodman (Paul Hecht) puts him in a sleep test situation that proves that his dreams aren’t real dreams at all, but hallucinations. Obsessed with these visions, Proud travels to Massachusetts and discovers that the locations in his hallucinations are real, as was the crime he has ‘witnessed.’ In 1946, war hero Jeff Curtis (Tony Stephano) still suffered from a shrapnel wound received on Iwo Jima. His wife Marcia (Margot Kidder) killed him during a midnight swim in Crystal Lake. A bit of research tells Peter that Marcia is still alive. He contrives to meet Ann Curtis, Jeff and Marcia’s daughter, and promptly falls in love with her. The alcoholic Marcia senses that something’s wrong, that Jeff and Peter are linked. And Grandma Curtis, an uncommunicative old woman in a nursing home, immediately recognizes Pete as her long lost son. Peter disappoints Dr. Goodman by saying that he doesn’t want to be used to prove the reality of reincarnation; he wants to forget the whole thing and just be with Ann. But he’s convinced that the only way to ‘break the spell’ and exorcise his hallucinations is to recreate Jeff’s midnight swim.
I wonder if author Max Erlich’s novel offers a better argument, because if Peter Proud put his story before the scientific community nothing would be proved — they would simply conclude that he’s lying, or deluded. But we are indeed interested in how Peter is going to resolve his little ‘haunted by a past life’ problem. The good cast takes the issue seriously, perhaps hoping that the spooky thriller will catch the imagination of the public and yield a career boost. Michael Sarrazin already had leading roles in impressive pictures (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, Sometimes a Great Notion) and Jennifer O’Neal was a promising personality from the popular Summer of ’42. Margot Kidder was certainly on the radar from pictures like Brian De Palma’s Sisters. But all three were in need of a breakthrough role to put them over the top.
The Reincarnation of Peter Proud isn’t the movie to do the job. A quasi-fantasy needs delicate handling and a stylish presentation, and the only aspect of the show that measures up is the pretty music by Jerry Goldsmith. The screenplay is slow and obvious, taking us step by step through ‘revelations’ that the characters should already recognize from old movies and TV shows. The way that Peter Proud finds his dream town with the distinctive churches, a bridge and the lake is well done, but his effortless entry into the Curtis family is the kind of thing that only happens in bad movies. He starts stalking the Curtis house from the curb in the morning, and by nightfall he’s dating the gorgeous Curtis daughter, who is already sizing him up as a bedmate.
Strike two is the direction of J. Lee Thompson. The English director did fantastic work in the ’50s (Tiger Bay, Ice Cold in Alex), and graduated to the big time with The Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear. With certain exceptions, from that point forward his career coasted on auto-pilot. Peter Proud is as anonymous as the most bland TV movie, gathering attractive coverage and expressing little. That would be okay if Thompson did something special with his actors, yet he seems totally uninvolved there too. Michael Serrazin and Jennifer O’Neill are charming and engaging, but O’Neill drifts due to a lack of direction. In an otherwise okay square dancing scene, every shot shows Ann tossing her hair and giving Peter another flashing look that says, ‘gee, maybe we’re falling in love.’ It’s as if Thompson were filming a TV commercial for hair spray, and had assembled all the takes of the hair-toss and ‘I’m in love’ look, one after another.
The much-missed Margot Kidder could also have used some direction, especially given her difficult role. Her Marcia Curtis at fifty is mainly represented with mussed hair and some eye makeup, and since all the woman does is mope around and act drunk, the age effect feels forced. When Marcia hears Peter speak in the ‘Jeff Curtis’ voice, she bolts from the country club like a track star, like the young woman she is. No, this isn’t Ms. Kidder’s finest hour.
Most of the spooky scenes are underdeveloped. In fact, because Peter never confronts Ann with the truth of his deception, and never has to explain what’s happening to him, the story never really gets out of Act One. The one successful, unbreakable scene is when old Grandma Curtis recognizes Peter as her son Jeff. The passage of time is finally fully conveyed, as the actress is genuinely old, unlike Margot Kidder. The scene feels real and honest. We also get a moment to reflect on a more universal reality. When we see our parents grow old, we can no longer deny that we are in the same decaying cycle of life.
The haunting flashback scenes are handled with uninteresting flash-cut editing. The device communicates the idea that Peter is repeating the murder scenario but expresses precious little about that experience. The ‘past visions’ are not even subjective — they seem most concerned with admiring naked bodies, especially Jeff Curtis’s. Peter is not possessed by Jeff and does not become abusive like him, so this isn’t a Jekyll-Hyde story. The only real problem is his annoying hallucinations.
Director Thompson’s main energy goes into the film’s sex content. As in a standard male sex fantasy, each woman Peter meets is instantly attracted to him. All three of the film’s lead actresses have nude scenes, although Ms. O’Neill’s are discreet. Cornelia Sharpe’s performance is shrill, likely because she was given no input on how to make the two-dimensional Nora seem less like a bimbo. Thompson instead uses her figure to frame close-ups of the preoccupied Sarrazin. Casual acquaintance Suzy, wearing hot pants while washing a car, is given a leering rear-angle view that looks like rape by camera lens. She plays her short scene in a pout, because Peter doesn’t want to make it with her right then and there. Suzy is played by Debralee Scott, Bob Falfa’s girlfriend (“Ain’t He Neat!”) in American Graffiti.
Is this ‘erotic exploration’ or just trashy, exploitative ’70s filmmaking? The producer was clearly looking for controversy with the bathtub scene with Margot Kidder, which to this viewer plays as more opportunistic voyeurism. Actresses of the ’70s that weren’t exhibitionists had it rough. It was almost expected that they go naked to get roles, but most productions showed them at least some respect. With Cornelia Sharpe and Margot Kidder, Peter Proud goes for the skin.
The Reincarnation of Peter Proud brings to mind parallels with Spielberg and De Palma. Peter Proud’s recurring hallucinations take him on a strange cross-country search for a past life, not the oddly-shaped mountain “that means something important” in a big Spielberg film. And the maddened Marcia Curtis is rattled by the idea that, if Peter is indeed Jeff, then he’s having sex with his own daughter. That situation becomes a bizarre possibility in the intensely romantic Obsession. There’s no real connection, just synchronicity between movies made more or less at the same time.
The most cinematic ‘haunting from the past’ angle in Peter Proud is its choice of locations. I don’t know if all the settings in Massachusetts are actual; I suspect that a view of a lodge from mid-lake is a Jim Danforth matte painting. We’re never told that we’re in Los Angeles, but we immediately recognize one of the UCLA quads in an otherwise tepid scene where Peter and Dr. Goodman talk while crossing the campus. The vintage car showroom where Peter sees his dream Duesenberg is a specialty venue on Santa Monica Blvd. about fifteen blocks from the beach; I remember it because it was heavily damaged in the 1994 earthquake, which cut a diagonal line of destruction across Santa Monica.
Reincarnation isn’t provable, but there is something tangible to the idea of a location being ‘haunted’ by events that have taken place there in the past. I can go stand in the exact places on L.A. streets where I saw legendary stars perform, in finished movies and also in person. But as expressed in The Time Machine, being in the ‘right place’ is meaningless if you’re not there at the right time. I’m acutely aware that several old films were shot within a few feet of my house, yet I can’t make a case that the odd feeling this generates has any real significance. Whole blocks here in Hollywood are presently being redeveloped, erasing key visuals in movies like Sunset Blvd. and Loophole. When the visible evidence of this ‘history’ is lost, it’s as if something important has been wiped out.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Reincarnation of Peter Proud is a handsome encoding of this evasive title. It looks terrific — pay no attention the compromised quality of the images I found from the web. I’m told that the original music tapes for Jerry Goldsmith’s score have been lost, so his fans might want to look in just to hear some of the composer’s less familiar themes.
I like Kino’s cover art, and the label lays on the extras good and thick. Four separate animated image galleries group together stills and ad art from a variety of sources. Trailers in German and English are included as well as TV and Radio spots. A censored Spanish version of the bathtub scene is compared to the American cut — less explicit shots are repeated to cover up imágenes ofensivas.
The Key extra is a new audio commentary by Lee Gambin, yet another commentator from Diabolique magazine. He covers the facts and the genre elements in Peter Proud with an emphasis on its sensational aspects. Did you know that this is a really erotic movie?
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Reincarnation of Peter Proud
Movie: Good -Minus / Fair +plus
Supplements: Audio Commentary by Lee Gambin, Spanish Super 8 Bathtub Scene with comparison, TV Spot, Radio Spots, Four animated image galleries, U.S. and German Trailers.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 17, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson