Monday 28 October 2019

Dark Eyes Retrovision #20 - Eye of the Devil (UK 1967: Dir J. Lee Thompson)

Phillippe de Montfaucon (David Niven), a wealthy French vineyard owner, is called home because his wine crop has been threatened by drought. Against his wishes his wife Catherine (Deborah Kerr) and children Jacques (Robert Duncan) and Antoinette (Suky Appleby) join him. Back in Bellenac, the country home of the de Montfaucons, Catherine becomes concerned at the behaviour of the son and daughter of another of the area's rich and well established families, the de Carays, in the shape of the beguiling Odile (Sharon Tate) and her brother, the strange Christian (David Hemmings). Little by little Catherine understands what is needed to restore the vines to production, and the likely cost to the de Montfaucon family.

Eye of the Devil was based on a 1964 book of murder and the occult, 'Day of the Arrow' by Robin Estridge (which was popularly reckoned to have been inspired by Sir James George Frazer's 1890 study of esoteric religions, 'The Golden Bough').  Estridge was also involved with co-scripting the film along with the little known Dennis Murphy and also an uncredited Terry Southern, writer of Dr Strangelove (1964) and Barbarella (1967). The latter was drafted in to modernise the feel of the script (he was probably asked to make it more 'with it'), maybe in response to the casting of David Hemmings and Sharon Tate. Hemmings was about to land the role of Thomas in Antonioni's Blow-up (1966) which would cement his position as one of the leading faces in the 1960s London based pop culture movement. And Tate, the model and poster girl who was at the time very much a 'now' face, would be starring in her first feature, having been signed to producer Martin Ransohoff's Filmways company - who bankrolled this movie - back in 1963. 

Kim Novak was originally signed to play the part of Catherine. Unfortunately two weeks into shooting she injured her back in a riding accident. After some deliberation about Novak's recovery the actress, who can still be seen in long shots in some scenes, was replaced with Deborah Kerr, whose previous genre credit had been as Miss Giddens in Jack Clayton's 1961 movie The Innocents. Kerr being ten years older that Novak slightly strains credibility that she's the mother of two young children, but she nevertheless turns in a suitably anguished performance.

Eye of the Devil's original director was Sidney J. Furie, who had signed a three-picture deal with Ransohoff. However shortly before filming was to begin, Furie, who went on to direct The Ipcress Files (1965) instead, was replaced by action movie director Michael Anderson. Anderson then fell ill and J. Lee Thompson was appointed in his place: Thompson was more used to epic filmmaking like The Guns of Navarone (1961), Cape Fear and Taras Bulba (both 1962) - so for the experienced director this was a far more modestly budgeted affair.  

The original shooting title for the film was '13' (the title appears in the credits at the end of the movie's US DVD release): apparently the initial cut was much longer, but a lot of the content was trimmed prior to its release. This makes sense as much of the film feels rather disjointed, particularly towards the end - although this adds to the disorientation felt by cast and audience. Eye of the Devil has a languid, European feel - it was shot in the Dordogne - and the black and white photography by Erwin Hiller (a talent discovered by Murnau) has many woozy touches reminiscent of Freddie Francis' work, particularly on The Innocents, and the abstraction and montage effects give the thing a narcotic feel. But the script is a little stiff, and a largely UK cast - also including Donald Pleasence, Flora Robson and John Le Mesurier - play it very slowly. Tate's first 'starring' role is a great enigmatic debut (there's a story that she met Alexandrian Wiccan High Priest and Priestess Alex and Maxine Sanders to perfect her role), but it's a shame that Hemmings has little to do but stand in the background and practise his archery skills (although he's pivotal to one of the film's final scenes).

The finale of the film, particularly as it's spelled out about half way through, seems a little laboured, and the whole thing may be rather uneven, but Eye of the Devil is a genuine curio which helped herald a rash of witchcraft movies into cinemas through the rest of the 1960s and into the next decade. 

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