John Boorman's career is littered with misfires, maybe the price we pay for the huge artistic risks he takes. In between the early triumphs of Point Blank (1967) and Hell in the Pacific (1968) and his masterwork Deliverance (1972) lies Leo the Last, which gets very little love and not even the kind of scornful attention accorded to catastrophes like Zardoz (1974) and Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977).
Maybe this is because bad drama has kitsch value, whereas bad comedy nobody can stand, and Leo the Last appears, at times, to be attempting humor, a surprising choice for Boorman whose very humorlessness can seem a strength in his successful films and a weakness in his failures. There's something heroic about the fact that it apparently never occurred to Boorman that a man having sex wearing full plate armor (Excalibur), Sean Connery in thigh boots, bandoliers and nappy (Zardoz) and Linda Blair doing a musical number (I'm sure you can guess) could ever be comical.
Not that Leo is attempting to be some kind of full-on laugh riot, but the theater of the absurd and sixties movies like The Knack (1965) seem to have exerted some kind of disturbing influence on it. Half-hearted in its pursuit of comic effects, but relentless in its strangeness, grotesquerie and verfremdungseffekt, the movie plunges foursquare into whimsy as displaced monarch and unknowning slum landlord Marcello Mastroianni becomes concerned with the lives of his black tenants in a London slum street.
From Richard Lester, Boorman borrows the idea of a Greek chorus of disapproval, a grumbling soundtrack irrupting non-diegetically into the film: like a re-tuning radio, we get snatches of Beatles lyrics and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and more iterations of Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night than there are in Interstellar, and that's a lot. Rather brilliantly, this turn out to be an uncomprehending audience watching the film, and while an authoritative voice (Boorman? or just someone who's seen it before?) eventually breaks through and explains who the characters are, the key question "What kind of film is this?" is never answered, either by the V.O. or by the unfolding action.
On the warring picture track, Boorman is luckier in his influences: he had already experimented with painting locations to turn them into sets, after the manner of Antonioni: in Point Blank, the pale yellow of Angie Dickinson's sweater co-ordinated strikingly with the tower viewer Lee Marvin uses to scope out his prey. Here, the action never strays from a single street, which is painted a nameless dark grey-brown, and any color that isn't black, white, grey or brown has been expunged from costumes and props likewise. Unlike most color filtering or tinting, the effect isn't stifling or claustrophobic, since the skin tones (in all they variety) remain natural. Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, these days David Cronenberg's preferred collaborator, was a major figure in Britain in the sixties and seventies, working with Ken Russell, Peter Watkins and Joseph Losey. He had also made his mark as a stills photographer documenting London street life, which seems highly relevant here: for all its obsessive visual control, the movie does manage to suggest, paradoxically, a sense of vivacious community.
Boorman wears his influences on his sleeve and in his cast list: Billie Whitelaw evokes Beckett, Graham Crowden constitutes a shout-out to Lindsay Anderson. Mastroianni, of course, suggests Fellini. But Boorman doesn't have the wit of any of these artists. His best films usually riff off strong source material by other hands, but here he's adapting a play by George Tabori, author of the equally shapeless (but intriguing) Secret Ceremony (1968). The film struggles to reconcile its fantastical side with some version of social commentary. At least the movie tries to deal with race (in the U.S., Hal Ashby's The Landlord was a more successful treatment of a similar set-up), but despite "additional script material" by an actual black person, actor Ram John Holder, it never seems to have even a single foot securely on solid ground.
Elsewhere in the cast, handsome Calvin Lockhart, one of Britain's few black stars, impresses, and Glenna Forster-Jones intrigues as always, and always gets too little to do (check out her weird, unsatisfactory credits.)
At the climax, Boorman blows up the house, not once but repeatedly, in a dream-loop recurring explosion that must have given déjà vu to anyone who saw Zabriskie Point the same year: something was certainly in the air. The property destruction motif would return again in Exorcist II and can probably be traced to the influence of the London Blitz, which Boorman dealt with directly in Hope and Glory (1987). The movie doesn't evince any real understanding of revolutionary politics, which needn't be a failing except that the movie keeps insisting that it's interested in injustice, involvement, property, and a host of other issues it can't seem to keep its mind on.
Really, it's about color, I think: not race, color. Its own lovely umber palette.
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.