John Morlar has a gift for disaster!
UK, France / 109 minutes / color / Coatesgold, ITC Dir: Jack Gold Pr: Anne V. Coates, Jack Gold Scr: John Briley Story: The Medusa Touch (1973) by Peter Van Greenaway Cine: Arthur Ibbetson Cast: Richard Burton, Lino Ventura, Lee Remick, Harry Andrews, Alan Badel, Marie-Christine Barrault, Jeremy Brett, Michael Hordern, Gordon Jackson, Derek Jacobi, Robert Lang, Michael Byrne, John Normington, Robert Flemyng, Philip Stone, Malcolm Tierney, Norman Bird, Jennifer Jayne, Avril Elgar, James Hazeldine, Wendy Gifford, Shaw Taylor, Gordon Honeycombe, Adam Bridges, Joseph Clark.
I read the Peter Van Greenaway novel upon which this is based—one of the odder of his oddball, semi-fantasticated Inspector Cherry detective novels—quite a few years before I had a chance to watch the movie, but even so I know my viewing was affected by memories of the book. Now that many more years have passed, I was better able to enjoy the movie on its own terms.
Van Greenaway wasn’t the most fluent of writers and one had to work quite hard to read what were billed as thrillers, but I tackled several and became rather fond of them: they certainly had a greater intellectual heft than the vast majority of the crime and thriller novels with which they shared a bookshop shelf. The Medusa Touch was the one I enjoyed the most. In the movie adaptation Inspector Francis Cherry of the Yard is replaced by a French cop called Brunel, improbably working in London on some kind of exchange deal between the Yard and the Sûreté. However, as Brunel was played by Lino Ventura there are no grumbles from anyone among the extensive Noirish staff.
Brunel (Lino Ventura) begins his investigation . . .
. . . aided by the loyal Sergeant Duff (Michael Byrne).
The movie opens with successful novelist John Morlar (Burton) being beaten to death by an unidentifiable figure wielding a handy statuette. Or not quite to death, as investigating Inspector Brunel (Ventura) and his English sidekick Sergeant Duff (Byrne) discover while snooping around Morlar’s apartment. Even though the man’s brains have apparently been spilled out on the carpet and the paramedics have declared him dead, he suddenly draws a deep and anguished sigh. The cops have him rushed to the hospital, where the emergency team led by Dr. Johnson (Jackson) simply cannot understand how Morlar is managing to stay alive.
Dr Johnson (Gordon Jackson) is at a loss to explain what’s going on.
Mind you, the team members have other things on their minds. A jumbo jet has recently crashed into an office block in central London, and hundreds of bodies plus some survivors are still being dug out of the rubble. Bearing in mind also that much of the world is glued to the TV, where a NASA space program disaster is playing out, it’s evident these are gloomy times.
The Assistant Commissioner (Harry Andrews) is initially crusty but eventually believes Brunel’s extraordinary claims.
Nonetheless, encouraged by a Scotland Yard Assistant Commissioner (Andrews) who seems to know more than he’s letting on, Brunel remains determined in his hunt for the would-be killer of the novelist. He’s both aided and bamboozled by the very extensive journals Morlar kept. Here’s a selection:
Equally puzzling are the files Morlar maintained of newspaper clippings concerning disasters great and small.
In search of someone who might have a motive for the attempted murder, Brunel interviews the barrister (Badel) who used to employ Morlar during his short career in the law, Morlar’s publisher (Jacobi), and the neighbor who discovered the body, Pennington (Lang)—who believes Morlar was in some undefinable way responsible for the suicide of his late wife, Grace (Elgar). All describe Morlar as very much a loner, someone who was impossible really to know. Brunel does, however, begin to get a grasp of the level of the dead man’s misanthropy, a misanthropy rooted, ironically, in what’s really a desire for human justice, an antiestablishmentarianism that seeks a better deal for the masses. The publisher draws Brunel’s attention to a passage in one of Morlar’s novels that seems to epitomize the writer’s loathing for those in positions of authority:
“It’s God Himself who should stand at the bar of public opinion. That almighty enemy of evil should face the jury of His victims—the helpless, the hopelessly deformed, the despairing.”
Morlar’s publisher (Derek Jacobi)).
A far richer vein of information comes in the form of the psychiatrist Morlar was seeing on a fairly regular basis, Dr. Zonfeld (Remick). The screenplay of The Medusa Touch is a very carefully and skillfully constructed one, and nowhere is this more evident than in the various interviews Brunel conducts with Zonfeld. Without the slightest sense of dislocation we move backward and forward between Brunel interviewing her and Morlar consulting her—or, perhaps, using her as a confessional, even though it’s evident he was also quite genuinely hoping for a cure from her, some means of expelling the evil that he sensed was possessing him. “I have a gift for disaster,” he told her at the outset of the treatment.
Brunel (Lino Ventura) interrogates Zonfeld (Lee Remick) repeatedly.
Initially regarded by both psychiatrist and cop as products of delusion and coincidence, several incidents from throughout his life are related by Morlar to Zonfeld and seen by us in flashback. For example:
- He was only ten (Bridges) when he decided he could stand his overbearing mother (Jayne) and his spineless, posturing father, “Major” Henry Morlar (Bird), no longer, and watched dispassionately as the family car somehow slipped its handbrake and herded the two adults over the edge of the cliff upon which they were promenading.
Too late, Dad (Norman Bird) and Mum (Jennifer Jayne) realize their fate.
- A few years later, after a sadistic history teacher, Copleigh (Normington), had forced him in the midst of a rainstorm to gather precisely 1149 leaves from the school grounds so as to remind himself of the date of the end of the Second Crusade, Morlar (Clark) somehow set the school ablaze, killing Copleigh but alas also four of the boys.
- Pennington was right about the death of Grace. Pennington and Grace were a couple who could be seen almost as a replica of Morlar’s parents. In the midst of an epic row over the quality of the fish Pennington brought home for supper—a row whose volume was diminished little by the wall between their apartment and the neighboring one, where Morlar was trying to write—Mrs. Pennington threatened to jump out of their high window. Morlar’s reaction was the obvious one.
- When Morlar’s wife Patricia (Barrault) announced that she was leaving him for her fancy man, Edward Parrish (Brett), the blithe couple had been gone not an hour when their car crashed, killing both occupants. But this time was different, according to Morlar’s account to Zonfeld: “I made it happen. It wasn’t like the others, where I knew it would happen. I made it happen.”
Patricia Morlar (Christine Barrault) breaks it to her delighted husband John (Richard Burton) that she’s leaving him for . . .
. . . suave cad Edward Parrish (Jeremy Brett).
And still Zonfeld believed Morlar was simply constructing narratives out of the catastrophic events that had surrounded his life, claiming to be the cause of those events because, when we narrativize circumstances like those, we almost inevitably tend to put ourselves at the center.
That was before she witnessed him, infuriated by her skepticism, deliberately drive a jumbo jet into a central London office block.
Brunel is far readier to believe in Morlar’s powers of telekinesis than Zonfeld was. The race is now on to see if the still near-comatose novelist can be stopped before he wreaks his next planned disaster, the collapse of London’s revered Minster Cathedral (Westminster Abbey in the novel; Bristol Cathedral acted as body double in the movie) at a time when a host of the UK’s highest and mightiest—including the Queen—are to attend a service within. By now Brunel’s conviction has infected the Assistant Commissioner, and the two men try desperately to persuade a disbelieving Dean (Stone) and Deacon (Tierney) to postpone the occasion. No such luck . . .
Morlar (Richard Burton) in his younger, barrister days.
The Medusa Touch was generally rather disliked on release. Part of the reason for this might be that it’s a movie that doesn’t sit very comfortably into a genre. I’ve seen it described as sciencefictional horror, which is a reasonable description except that there’s not much overt horror going on (and the “science” bit is actually pseudoscience), and as a supernatural thriller, except that it doesn’t really set out to thrill and it certainly makes an odd companion to other, genuine supernatural thriller–chillers of its era, like The Possession of Joel Delaney (1972), The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (1975) and The Omen (1976).
Really The Medusa Touch is perhaps better viewed as not in a genre at all, but borrowing one—the detective story, or the police procedural, in both instances noir-shadowed—in service of a meditation on matters of morality and ethics. We may be horrified at Morlar’s coldheartedness as he commits one atrocity after the next, yet his actions spring from convictions that are in their way admirable. In a sense, there’s something of an echo here of the old debate about the difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter: it depends upon which side of the fence you happen to be sitting. (I’m using the word “terrorist” in its everyday rather than its technical meaning.) Some of the dignitaries in that collapsing cathedral will likely have with equal coldheartedness caused the deaths of far more human beings than Morlar ever will, yet we don’t regard them with the same appalled opprobrium.
Another, more humdrum way in which the movie can be criticized is over its effects. The model work involved in the flight of the jumbo jet over London and its fiery collision with the office block is rather shoddy, and very obvious. The falling masonry as the cathedral collapses has a definite touch of the styrofoam about it, and someone really should have told the effects people that, when several hundredweight of bell falls on top of a luckless bellringer, it doesn’t merely knock him to one side.
The Minster comes tumbling down upon the amassed dignitaries.
A related point is the supposed factual underpinning of the pseudoscience. There’s mention of Ted Serios’s widely debunked thoughtography, for example, and genuine footage of Soviet housewife Nina Kulagina supposedly shoving objects around a table using mental powers (and a lot of suspiciously distracting handwaving). In terms of the narrative, this is all rather clumsily done—and anyway completely unnecessary. We’ve happily suspended our disbelief for the purpose of enjoying the movie; the attempt to persuade us that it’s all perfectly possible because, look here, we have some real-life cases actually brings the belief crashing back to earth because, unless we get our information from the National Enquirer, we know full well the “factual” justification being offered is tommyrot.
There are also some plot implausibilities toward the end, such as that the Assistant Commissioner, having been resolutely skeptical before, suddenly becomes convinced by Brunel that Morlar’s telekinesis is real.
Another description of The Medusa Touch that I’ve seen is “lost classic.” It’s not that, either. But it’s a very, very much more interesting—and enjoyable—movie than the several criticisms I’ve voiced above might suggest. It’s also very well worth watching for the two central performances, from Burton and Ventura. The movie has of course a very impressive cast list in general, but the vast majority of those actors appear in what are little more than bit parts—Michael Hordern, for example, has a minute or two of screen time as a fortune teller who finds himself unable to go through with a reading of Morlar’s palm.
Michael Hordern as the conflicted fortune teller.
Harry Andrews and Gordon Jackson (stuck with a ludicrous pair of spectacles to make him look “expert”) have a little more to do; neither really stretches himself. Byrne suffices as the loyal sidekick. Remick’s character is deliberately made out to be superficially colorless, a bit milkwater; so there’s not a great deal there for the actress to get her teeth into—although she does well with what she’s been given. But Burton brings a genuine force and conviction to his role, giving us a Morlar with whom we can often enough sympathize or empathize even as we’re being chilled by his lack of humanity.
Lee Remick as Zonfeld.
And Ventura, as the rumpled cop, supplies us with a marvelous everyman figure; his performance manages to keep the movie grounded. He’s the Real Human Being amid a society that for the most part seems otherwise to be made up of poseurs of one variety or another—the publisher who doesn’t want to get involved, the complacent, self-contented barrister, the ghastly self-worshiping mother and the gutless father with his faux-military past, even Zonfeld, the glacially disconnected psychiatrist whose ideal self-image seems to be that of a soulless, sexless Barbie doll sprung fresh from the packaging. When Ventura’s Brunel almost comes a cropper on a loose stair rod on his way up to Zonfeld’s office, we recognize in him the same sort of imperfect being we all are.
Lino Ventura as Brunel.
One piece of cinematography really stands out. At a late stage in the movie, Zonfeld kills herself by lethal injection. We see her sprawled across her desk, with Brunel behind her, looking down sadly upon her. The camera moves and, as it does so, it seems, against all logic, to retreat from Zonfeld in the foreground while simultaneously approaching Brunel in the background. It conveys brilliantly Brunel’s sense of unsettlement, while serving also, of course, almost subliminally to unsettle us.
In sum, then, The Medusa Touch, for all its flaws, is no minor offering. Like the novel upon which it was based—and, rewatching the movie, I was yet again tantalized by the notion that there might be some identification going on between Morlar and Van Greenaway, both of them novelists who did okay but never quite seized the popular imagination—it brings some intellectual heft to the table.
Let’s leave the last line to Morlar:
“I’ve found a way to do God’s dirty work for Him.”
Addendum: Todd Mason points out that, a while back, he posted a selection of the posters for The Medusa Touch on his Sweet Freedom blog: HERE.
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