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Tuesday Morning Foreign Region DVD Report: “Boom!” (Joseph Losey, 1968)

Unlike some directors who give up on a bad script or else send it up, one senses that you always try to play fair; but in some of those early British films, one also sense a kind of irony behind their worst excesses. Is this so?

"There was, but it was a desperate irony because I was so badly in need of work and under such extreme pressure. This can be dangerous, because Tennessee Williams, for instance, had been told by all sorts of people who are not qualified to comment—people with whom I've never worked and who therefore don't know how I work—that I'm death on writers, that I cut ruthlessly, that I have no respect for a script. This couldn't be more untrue. Of course if I get a script which is a piece of nonsense, I will say that I'll do it only if it is rewritten; of course if I get a script from a writer I've previously worked with successfully, and the script isn't right, I will start all over again with another script. But once there is a script, one I believe I can do and is right, I never make a change without consulting the writer. And when I say consulting, if he's available, he makes the change himself. I don't make cuts or even line changes, and this can be testified to by the two writers I have worked with most, Evan Jones and Pinter. The only line changed in Accident was changed by Pinter's wife, Vivien Merchant, with his consent and my approval—a very slight change. I believe in the writer's contribution and I foster it. It annoys me, these judgments passed by people who are presumably colleagues and who have no basis for making them; it's like all the people who said Charles Laughton is impossibly difficult, Wilfrid Lawson is hopelessly irresponsible; absolutely untrue in both cases, though maybe true in other circumstances. Like the man who said to me last night, 'I've dealt with people who are terribly difficult, almost as difficult as you'—and he'd met me fifteen minutes before, didn't know a damn thing about whether I'm difficult or not. I'm not difficult. I'm obstinate; I'm insistent on quality; and I fight like hell for it. And of course this is very inconvenient for some people."

Thus spake Joseph Losey to Tom Milne, for the interview book Losey on Losey, just as he was embarking on Boom!, which his new collaborator Tennessee Williams was adapting from his failed stage play The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore. Not to be glib about it, but the piece can be most succinctly described as being of the subgenre in which the Gay Male Artiste casts a gimlet eye on the haughty, aging, much-divorced (perhaps former) socialite who's possibly going a bit batty. That this female character is named Sissy Goforth is indicative of the problems of the text—it's both gimlet-eyed and symbolic, aieee. Sissy lives in splendid-morphing-to-decadent isolation on a Mediterranean island, dictating her memoirs to a younger woman and entertaining the likes of "The Witch of Capri." An intruder named Chris, a one-time poet whose visits to various patrons and such seems to invariably lead to their deaths, shows up at Sissy's estate, and a somewhat diffuse battle of wills and lusts ensues.

Losey at first envisioned Sean Connery and Simone Signoret as Chris and Sissy; then, James Fox and Ingrid Bergman. He wound up with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. While Taylor had wed almost as many times as the character Goforth (Burton was Taylor's fifth husband; Goforth had six), she was all of 36 years old and just a little on the puffy side when shooting this picture; hardly the personification of nerve-wracked dissolution the character was conceived as. (And Burton, playing the putative "younger man" was in fact seven years Taylor's senior.) Also problematic for Taylor was the fact that she seemed to forget more and more about acting as the years went on. Look at her in A Place In The Sun, or in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and then look at her here. She shows a narrow range in both of the former films but at least she's working that range; she's paying attention and working with precision. Here she's all over the place, the result of Losey's inability, or is it refusal, to direct her. Her accent and her timbre vary wildly from not just scene to scene but from line to line; there are stabs at British refinement, and then she'll go all Shelley-Winters-at-her-most-Brooklynesque screeching "Putcher cloes on!!!" Combine that with the self-conscious literary language of Williams' text, and such un-sellable lines as "he mounts me again" and you get a...

Well, John Waters and a number of others see the picture as a camp classic. And one has to admit that his reading is one of the few that goes any lengths to potentially salvaging this mess. Burton, looking not-untypically bedraggled, performs as if under the impression that the fact that he's got his lines down is entirely sufficient. Poor Joanna Shimkus can't do much more than project a "I can't wait to get out of here" vibe. The only performer who has any idea of what he's doing, any conception of how to put across the language, is Noel Coward, as that Witch of Capri, a part that was originally to be played by a woman. Casting Coward was a kind of masterstroke for Losey, but it only pays off while Coward is actually on-screen, which isn't nearly enough. The only other member of the cast with any wherewithal is Michael Dunn. Yes, the little guy who was a villain on The Wild Wild West. Here playing the head of security for Miss Goforth and doing that smug-smiling thing he was so reliable at.

As the supporting players are dispatched and the pas de deux between Sissy and Chris proceeds to its rather predictable end, Boom! begins to look like...well, like Liz and Dick home movies from Bizarro World. It stops having anything to do with Williams and everything to do with their self-regarding celebrity. Even as Losey slathers on his mise-en-scène, there's no escaping it: these once-sacred monsters are consuming the film.

It's a shame that, during the course of their friendship, the age-appropriate Taylor and her younger friend Michael Jackson never entertained remaking this piece; now there would be a slab of celebrity semiotics for the ages. As it stands, this film has some spectacular views and camera moves, but for cinephiles and Loseyphiles it is one of two object lessons having to do with what I have called "Losey's failure to comprehend that old-school Hollywood icons would prove utterly fatal to this kind of material." The other being his subsequent Secret Ceremony, the review of which I wrote that last bit in. For Boom!, it's these Hollywood icons in particular that define/mutate the material, and as for contemporary camp value, it grows more distant each year; I kind of doubt that Perez Hilton even knows who Taylor and Burton were...

The picture is available in a decent-looking Region 2 UK version from Second Sight.

Oh yes! When Taylor pushes the MRI (?) machine off the cliff, I knew I was in love.
I agree with Waters. This is classic camp. One can not help but wonder if this was less a poor rendition of Williams and more an accurate rendition of the tempestuous relationship between Taylor and Burton.
While I suppose this is a negative review, it has definitely made me want to see this film. Thanks?
I watched BOOM a few hours ago and need time to process, but my first impressions are generous. I was impressed by the cinematography which was unfortunately flattened and washed out by the typical low resolution of DVD. I liked SECRET CEREMONY much more but don’t consider either film to be Camp. Or at least entirely Camp.

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