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The Forgotten: The English Assassin Assassinated

"It's much easier to run a hospital with all the patients sleeping."

Easiest way to run the world, for that matter.”

The Final Programme (1973), also known as The Last Days of Man on Earth, has a reasonable cult following – arguably it’s not forgotten at all – arguably it’s exactly as modestly famous as when it first came out.

 

But…

It’s easy to forget how interesting it is, and how promising and shamefully shunted-into-obscurity its director and star were. An abyss opened and swallowed them, and swallowed much of what was exciting and ballsy about British cinema of the early seventies.

jer

Robert Fuest had made a few features – Just Like a Woman (1967), the obligatory sex comedy, now genuinely impossible to see (only the most awful Brit sex-coms are available); And Soon the Darkness, a Hitchcockian psycho-thriller in which plump English girls are menaced in a flat French landscape (very good stuff); Wuthering Heights with Timothy Dalton, a very respectable adaptation with impressive credits. And then he parlayed his experience as a hip director of TV’s The Avengers into a gig directing two Vincent Price horror comedies, high-style bits of black comedy sadism known as The Abominable Dr. Phibes and Dr. Phibes Rises Again (a third, Phibes Triumphant!, was ditched when Fuest couldn’t think up any more extravagant murders).

Fuest then proceeded to damage his reputation with this beautiful and witty take on Michael Moorcock’s psychedelic sci-fi novel (the first in the Jerry Cornelius Quartet, and the only one with anything resembling a plot). Made with snazzy colour-supplement visuals and swingin’ sexiness, but with a bitter proto-punk attitude (Fuest inclined more to booze than pot), the film was too cool for the room in 1973, and still is.

The Devil’s Rain (1975), an American horror movie with an insanely eclectic cast (Shatner! Lupino! Travolta!) was re-cut by the distributor and effectively ruined Fuest’s career. His only subsequent feature, a glossy European porno called Aphrodite (1982) is better than it ought to be, but was never going to launch a comeback. The loss is ours.

jer & ms b

Eating chocolate digestive in a geodesic dome: Jon Finch with Jenny Runacre.

“And I also have it on very good authority that the world is coming to an end. I thought I'd go home and watch it on television.”

To play Moorcock’s anti-hero, the playboy scientist and mercenary Jerry Cornelius, Fuest selected Jon Finch, another fashionable figure, whose casting as lead in Polanski’s Macbeth and Hitchcock’s Frenzy seemed to promise great things. In fact, Finch is a little muted in those high-profile movies, but cuts loose for Fuest with a memorable, louche and splenetic interpretation. His Cornelius is campy, arrogant, and undeniably beautiful; addicted to Bell's Whisky, pills and chocky bickies; cynical and romantic, dashing and deeply cowardly as soon as he starts to lose a fight. Finch would have been perfect for George MacDonald Fraser’s anti-hero Harry Flashman if only anyone had thought of it.

With his frock coat, long black fingernails and needle-gun, Finch’s Cornelius ought to be at least as iconic as Malcolm McDowell’s Alex in A Clockwork Orange. And he has attitude to spare: discussing the accidental atomic incineration of Amsterdam, he remarks, “For once the Americans did a good job.” Anyone who can muster such antipathy towards the Dutch must be have deep reserves of nastiness. (In a filmed interview regarding Macbeth, Finch recalled Polanski's fondness for adding greater ichor and ick to stage blood by mixing it with instant coffee, and his profound revulsion at the mention of Nescafe was another clue as to his enormous capacity for disdain.)

Sympathy was never a Fuest strong point, or even particularly a concern, so he pairs Cornelius with a leading lady even less calculated to win affection. As Miss Brunner, the brilliant psychic vampire, Jenny Runacre substitutes elegance and humour for nearly everything else. Sharp little teeth. One of the few women to have won the Alternative Miss World Competition, ostensibly a platform for drag queens. A crisp, poised manner that compliments Finch's decadent emotionalism. They're a handsom couple.

pb

“A very tasty world.”

Mud wrestling? Check. Giant pinball machine with people inside the balls? Check. Sterling Hayden, Patrick Magee, Little Nell, Graham Crowden and George Coulouris? Absolutely check.

Another thing Fuest isn’t too hot on – structure. The Phibes films position novelty homicides like stepping stones, uniting them with a theme or quest. His sci-fi sextravaganza barely has a spine at all, piling on ideas and guest stars, sets and locations, effects and action sequences with reckless abandon, as if its writer-director-designer sensed he wasn’t going to get a chance like this again. The lack of a throughline is a slight difficulty, but I can’t see what the problem is with the ending, which absolutely everybody hates, especially Michael Moorcock. To me, Jon Finch looks good as a hermaphrodite ape-man, and the Bogart impression puts the tin lid on it. More endings like that, please!

What we have is a pop-art sci-fi proto-punk masterpiece, starry and sexy and funny and a bit twisted. Since A Clockwork Orange is unavoidably unpleasant and Barbarella is shambolic, this movie is really the place to go for futuristic fun. Very little of the fiction from the New Worlds group of experimental sci-fi authors made it to the screen, for reasons which are as obvious as they are lamentable — it takes courage and smarts and imagination to even want to make movies like this, and those qualities are unevenly distributed in the film industry, just like cash. Possibly the cash gravitates towards the vaccuums of courage and smarts and imagination, actually.

It should be notes that Michael Moorcock hated this film, but you can't please everybody. I do rather regret that Fuest left out one of Moorcock's more amusing ideas, a quest to find a manuscript written by the US astronaut who spent longest in space. When tracked down at last, this MacGuffin proves to consist of the single word "Ha" repeated many many times, prefiguring the experimental fiction of Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

Nevertheless, it's rare to find a film that may possibly be suffering from too many ideas (my suggested solution: add more!), and this film is that.

Now I hate long goodbyes, so PISS OFF!”

jr

***

The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

peter
I enjoyed your piece. Unfortunately I haven’t seen the The Final Programme, but from those great quotes it sounds just like my cup of tea. Peter
So glad to see you celebrating this outre delight. For me it belongs on a very special shelf containing Fuest’s “Phibes” movies along with Losey’s maudit manifique “Modesty Blaise” and the ineffable “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai.” The look on Jenny Runacre’s face when she “absorbs” an adversary is alone worth the price of admission — or DVD.
I should have mentioned that the film is available on a beautiful DVD from France. French subtitles can be deactivated.
It is also interesting to note George Coulouris, who grew to look precisely the way he did in “Citizen Kane.”
Yes, it’s always kind of surprising to see him in the 70s. His performance style is pretty consistent too. And the great Graham Crowden, playing his cohort, has essentially seemed the same age forever — eternally young/old.
I saw this film once years ago, and loved it (the Cornelius books are brilliant, BTW). Good to know it’s on DVD. Thanks for the article!
Fuest sounds like a whole lot of fun! Now, if I could only find “The Final Programme” in the US…
I haven’t seen it since the ‘70s — and even that was in the U.S. version called “The Last Days of Man On Earth.” I liked it a lot, then, and am curious how I’d feel nowadays. My abiding affection for Moorcock would probably be the prevailing factor. That trio of Cornelius siblings, Jerry and Cathy and Frank, always struck me as a tad Bronte-esque. Is it any wonder Fuest directed both this and “Wuthering Heights”? One Runacre moment that I remember loving, which comes straight out of the book, has Jerry happening upon Miss Brunner and a female companion in a nightspot. Finch: “How did you find her?” Jenny Runacre: “Delicious.” I wonder how familiar the makers of “Buckaroo Banzai” were with this movie and/or the Cornelius books. Seeing Peter Weller and his rock band in “Banzai” certainly brought Jerry C. to mind.
Hmm, could be — I would think someone like WD Richter would have read all the scifi on the shelves. Although I think Doc Savage is the big influence there. Brady, you’ll be able to try the Phibes films easily enough, and if you look hard enough, The Final Programme can be found (I hesitate to suggest anything as illegal as downloading, but…)
Little Nell? Where’s she in this? Are you sure you’re not thinking of Sandra Dickinson as the waitress? (“JESUS, sir, I don’t know what side the factory’s on!”) Hard to mistake physically, but similar Judy Holliday-squeaky voices…
Oh, and note to Brady Kimball — Anchor Bay released a US DVD of this in 2001. It seems to be the original UK release print, not the cut one that New World put out — and it’s got a very nice commentrak with Fuest and Runacre. I believe it’s still in print, and Amazon’s got it in stock,,,
Good Lord, you’re quite right. memory mis-influenced by the Dickinson squeak and Nell’s turns in pop-art apocalypses Lisztomania and Jubilee, I fear. The Anchor Bay DVD looks like it’s out of print to me — the prices on Amazon are steep.
Oooh. Trailer. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NKNrL3sRV4o
This looks amazing…had no idea the Moorcock had ever been adapted.

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