My DVD of Just Like a Woman (1967), pre-ordered months earlier and delayed because it was in the same order as The Devils (1971), arrived two days after its director, Robert Fuest, died. Come to think of it, I think Ken Russell was still alive when I ordered The Devils. An obituary double feature.
I was very keen to see Just Like a Woman, Fuest’s first feature, even though I wasn’t expecting it to be particularly good. I had an idea it was a swinging London sex comedy, not the kind of material he was associated with. For that, you’d have to look at his art-deco grand guignol comedies The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and its sequel from the following year, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, and also at his pop-art masterpiece, The Final Programme (1973). Michael Moorcock, original author of the novel that one derived from, thought it was a travesty of his exotic psychedelic proto-punk science fiction work. And while it would be perverse to argue that Moorcock’s source material is in fact a travesty of Fuest’s dayglo nightmare, I’ll settle for saying that I like them both, but revisit the movie more often than the book.
Beyond those films, on which the director enjoyed a fair bit of creative control (a former production designer, he created TFP’s eye-popping sets, including a giant walk-in pinball machine, himself), Fuest struggled with the interference of producers, who butchered 1975’s The Devil’s Rain, a star-studded (Shatner! Lupino! Borgnine!) satanic horror, in a variety of cack-handed ways, extending the special-effects climax of melting diabolists until it resembles a porno movie about liquefaction—plot drops limp by the wayside as we are treated to yet another latex-dripping ECU…
Similarly, Aphrodite (1982) begins as an unusually graceful softcore in the Emmanuelle mode, but founders in a welter of shoehorned hardcore inserts, blotchy outbreaks in a movie aiming for elegance.
Fuest’s remaining TV work may have a few high spots (The New Avengers), and the earliest of his films I’d seen, And Soon the Darkness and Wuthering Heights, have definite strengths, but Just Like a Woman had hovered tantalisingly out of reach. But no more!
And what a delight to be able to report that the film is actually impressive, with the typical Fuest virtues of dazzling visuals and campy wit bolstered by a surprising hint of autobiographical content.
Setting out on this first feature, Fuest obviously attempted two commendable things: to create a beautiful art object in film form, and to deal with emotions he knew from his own life. The former impulse won out in all his later projects, probably because it was irresistable: the man couldn’t help but imagine the world in dynamic, colourful and chic images.
What makes the film unique is the personal side: it tells of a marital break-up (I just mistyped “martial,” which would have fit too) between a singing star and an alcoholic TV director. She walks out of their trendy pop-art home and builds…a new trendy pop-art home, while he flounders in whisky, women, career suicide and acid bitterness.
Given Fuest’s profession and known drinking habit (on shoots he would lock himself away at lunchtime with a bottle of Bell’s), it’s hard to resist seeing this as a self-portrait, and what’s fascinating is that Fuest tells the story from the woman’s point of view, denying his stand-in character our sympathy, holding him up to ridicule for nine-tenths of the brisk running time. A masochistic impulse?
Psycho-sexually, the movie really illuminates Fuest’s personality. Masochism seems a good fit for him: what makes the Phibes films so unusual in narrative terms is not the idea of a plot structured as a series of novelty killings, a format the movies basically invented and passed on (to Theatre of Blood, to Se7en, but also to a whole slew of less imaginative serial killer thrillers and slashers), but the fact that Phibes kills almost entirely men, mostly effete, posh comedy character actors.
Another aspect of Fuest’s personality may play into this: he was apparently a part-time transvestite, and his early days in TV featured at least one police bust (“ burst bags of women’s clothing spilling down the street” as it was described to me by an industry insider). It’s conceivable that drag was a form of self-abnegation for the director, a way of bringing on the humiliation he craved, but this is just speculation. Certainly his films ooze camp, his access to the world of flamboyance and bitchiness came with a hetero inflection, and maybe a wish to belong more fully. The showbiz crowd he related to must have been predominantly gay, and he wasn’t.
At any rate, in Francis Matthews he finds a rather elegant substitute, catty and self-loathing and taking it out on the world. Matthews has obviously studied Cary Grant’s comic delivery, so that when he slips into an excellent Grant impersonation for one bit, it’s hard for him to throw it off. As his wife, Wendy Craig is surprisingly (for those who know her from melancholy TV comedy Butterflies) vigorous and funny, even from under an orange dust-cloud of unsuitable hair.
As Wendy storms about smashing things in stereotyped angry wife fashion, Matthews heaps sardonic mockery upon her, willing the audience to loathe him. It’s odd to think of Fuest, the writer, supplying his character with such unsympathetic material, as if to invite the whole world’s disgust. And Fuest the director adds to the character’s irritation-factor by having him apparently teleport around the flat, in defiance of all continuity, so that wherever Wendy storms to, he’s there, as ubiquitous as Droopy. He even plants his star under a coffee table, snarking up at his screen wife through the glass.
Their vicious infighting gets the film off to an enervating start, and it’s not at once clear how bearable anybody in this film is going to be, but a small inkling of warmth does trickle through the boggling sixties décor.
In the film’s sets, Fuest excels himself. His designer, Brian Eatwell, who also created the moderne stylings of the Phibes movies, dishes up fabulous interiors in piercing royals blues, vicious reds and glaring white, all configured so Fuest can spy on the action from a variety of whimsical angles, peeking through huge foreground objects with shameless faddishness.
As a portrait of the middle-class bohemian TV industry types of its era, popping pills, swilling alcohol, listening to jazz (no rock’n’ roll for these hepcats, although jazzman Barry Fantoni guests as a hilarious parody pop star), and being pretentious, racist, sexist and miserable, this rivals Mad Men’s take on the fifties, and what’s more it was made in the period it’s about, by the people it’s about. Sociologists should have a field day.
For those unfortunate enough to not be sociologists, there’s the visual splendour, the jazz, and the jokes, some of which are very good, some of which are funny without properly speaking being jokes at all. Wendy Craig gets into such a groove that she raises laughs just with well-observed behavior.
If Fuest notably lacked anything, it was a sense of structure. This doesn’t much matter in the Phibes movies, strung together as they are from cruel and unusual punishments. Wuthering Heights has a book to fall back on, though like all adaptations it has to pick and choose from the wealth of incident on offer. And Soon the Darkness benefits from being virtually one long suspense sequence. The Final Programme does flag in the middle, with the shockingly good vignettes and set-pieces of the opening petering out rather, before the climax at a North Pole Nazi HQ makes you stop worrying and love the end of civilisation as we know it.
Just Like a Woman seems to owe something to Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (Cary Grant again) in its break-up-and-make-up plot, but while the screwball classic seems like just a series of delightful farce sequences, it’s actually tightly structured and everything’s there for a (carefully concealed) good reason. Fuest can’t construct a story quite as beautifully as he can a set or a shot, so his shenanigans don’t hang together seamlessly or sustain the interest unflaggingly. But his invention is often joyous.
After the break-up scene, there’s protracted business with Wendy and her fey best friend John Wood nearly getting arrested for toilet-trading via a contrived misunderstanding, some musical interludes, lots of funny stuff at the TV studio with Matthews falling apart during some awful light entertainment show (Miriam Carlin is superb as his sarcastic assistant who lives to torment him), and a strange semi-slapstick interlude where Wendy commissions a new home from celebrated German architect Clive Dunn (“Sieg Heil!” on the soundtrack). This is just an opportunity to trot out some elaborate new sets and bizarre caricatures—it doesn’t add too much that’s actually funny, although Sheila Steifel as Isolde, the Great Man’s devoted acolyte, squeezes all the comedy she can from her screen time.
And we also get a brief cameo from Dennis Price as a bathroom salesman, emerging from a concealed door halfway up the wall… Other bit players include animator Bob Godfrey, crazy gadget wizard Bruce Lacey, and Ronnie Brodie (“electricity man for the whole nation” in The Bed Sitting Room).
For a finish, Fuest is close to being stumped, but a trendy party (lots of great non-sequitur exchanges among the media darlings), a punch-up (oddly homo-erotic, with the men rolling around the floor at Wendy’s feet, clothing torn) and a strange fantasy finale, a sort of TV commercial melange of The Seventh Seal and Eight and a Half, do allow him to deliver his contractually-obliged running time, ending with the leads escaping in a milk float. And why not? The cinematic window of opportunity for such endings, and such films, opened all too briefly.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.