Robert Freeman's 1968 "film" The Touchables never had any reason to exist except to capture some cellophane idea of the zeitgeist, and yet it continues to exist, barely, in bootleg tapes and discs, though the negative may for all we know be landfill under a motorway. A sixties farrago of modish wardrobe, cod-revolutionary gestures, sexy chicks and pop (both art and music), it's the kind of poorly constructed time capsule whose grand re-opening disgorges decades of rainwater and a few spoiled goods.
But what glossy, designer-brand spoiled goods they are!
THE PLOT CURDLES
As a trendy happening is transacted in a swinging London wax museum, four assorted hippychicks daringly boost an effigy of Michael Caine. Their friend Ricki Starr, an American wrestler in gold lamé trunks, castigates them for this pointless crime, so they resolve, for unexplained reasons, to make their next snatch a live target, pop singer Christian. Disguised as nuns, they swipe the singer from a wrestling match and install him in a vast transparent dome in the countryside. And so on...
The nugget buried at the heart of this romp—groupies snatch pop idol—is a sufficiently intriguing one. A variety of films could be made from it, without getting too close to the terrain of The Collector or Misery. When our quartet of pop tarts bind their near-naked stolen goods to a four-poster shaped like a merry-go-round and burl him about in their rural geodesic dome, the film feels like it might achieve some kind of s&m psychedelic integrity, or have something to say, or at least be offensive. But in his blinkered pursuit of the photogenic, Freeman ignores the psychology of the caged man and his chic Biba-babe abductors, ignores the potential pop politics, ignores the story.
WHY IS THIS HAPPENING HAPPENING?
Robert Freeman was the stills photographer who snapped the Beatles' album covers, and in the heady climate of late-sixties British cinema, it was almost inevitable that a movie would be tossed into such a connected person's lap, if he was interested. Freeman directs with the visual imagination one would expect, and with a greater sense of rhythm and movement than one would expect, and with even less sense of performance or structure than one would expect. This makes the film a continual treat for the eyes and ears and a violent ninety-seven minute insult to the mind.
The convoluted writing credits name sitcom scribe Ian LaFrenais as author, but acknowledge his work as being "based on a screenplay by David and Donald Cammell." This is interesting.
Apart from the unusual wording, the mix of talents is intriguing and clearly destructive. While it would be impossible to work out who wrote what without referring to actual copies of the varying drafts, genuine Cammellian themes can be discerned amid the rolling panoply of counter-culture references and self-indulgence. Like the slightly more coherent Duffy, made the same year by Robert Parrish, The Touchables mingles pop art and crime, attempting to capture the essence of the age of Aquarius by pasting together randomly selected images of the day, aiming for surreal juxtaposition rather than coherence. Like Peter Blake, whose masked wrestlers seem to have found their way into this film, Freeman is adept at assembling startling combos, but he has no clue how to weave narrative. The Cammells actually had something to say about the era they were in, about the meeting of art and violence, and the connection between creativity and crime, things which would eventually be said, rather forcefully, in Performance (1970). The LaFrenais script, as filmed, is just a succession of quips, quotes, non sequiturs and nonsense, running out of momentum as soon as the kidnapping is performed.
WHO ARE THE TOUCHABLES?
The actors in this lightshow often get reduced to the status of the waxy blobs in a lava lamp, floating about colourfully for no good reason. Freeman does get results when he turns them loose and lets them squabble or play in longshot, but whenever he has to assemble a plot point or deliver a scripted line, things stiffen. They're not quite the cream of the British acting establishment: delivering the material into our eyes and ears, by way of Alan Pudney's high-gloss colour supplement cinematography are—
Judy Huxtable, a ubiquitous glamour girl who married period icon Peter Cook.
Kathy Simmonds, the most photogenic and watchable of the girls—about whom nothing whatsoever is known.
Monika Ringwald, providing continental glamour, en route to support work for Benny Hill.
Ester Anderson, the token ethnic element and repository for off-colour racial humour, although a black gangster called Mr Lilywhite also raises issues the film is in no way interested in dealing with. Quite recently, Ester A. collaborated with David Cammell again, writing a documentary about Alexandre Dumas in which he appeared. How odd.
Other interested parties: James Villiers, Earl of Clarendon, as a camp gangster called Twyning; Joan Bakewell, TV presenter and Harold Pinter's mistress, as a TV presenter who is not Harold Pinter's mistress; Michael Chow, "international restauranteur"; aforementioned wrestler Ricky Starr; several other persons who made no further movies, including "leading man" David Anthony.
With the exception of Villiers, I think it's fair to say that none of these people is an actor. Simmonds is the only one who shows signs of being able to overcome this handicap just by being interesting. They mostly murder the assembled screenwriters' fractured epigrams (hippigrams?), either by overemphasis or sheer ineptitude. Unfair to blame them, just as it would be unfair to blame a mermaid for failing to land a jet. This isn't really their job.
A STATELY PLEASURE DOME
Since the captured popster falls in with his 'nappers' roleplay and capering, offering not even token resistance, and since the kidnapping doesn't even have the token motivation accorded to aristocratic hippy James Fox in Duffy, dramatic tension does not so much grind to a halt as stop on a dime, leaving the film as frozen as Michael Caine's mannequin. Three writers, and apparently nobody thought to write a middle. But that does leave us time to admire the pretty pictures. Future bodysnatchers might do well not to store their prisoners in a transparent building, but this apparently foolish decision does lead to some stunning shots. Where was that dome? Was it built specially? is it still there? Anaesthetise yourself with these questions during the dialogue scenes.
Come the third act, some mildly unpleasant violence intrudes upon the hedonism, violating what one might laughingly call the "tone", which is really just the background noise of a thousand pieces of kinetic art with squeaky hinges.
"Bye, girls. Thanks for having me!"
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday article by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.