UK | 1987 | Directed by Donald Cammell
Logline: The wife of a hi-fi expert finds herself, and their young daughter, caught up in the deadly game of a serial killer in an isolated desert community.
Paul White (David Keith) is an audio expert who installs high-end stereo equipment into the surrounding Arizona desert homes. He has the ability to produce an om-like resonance that echoes through his cranial cavities, thus providing him with the knowledge of exactly where to place the stereo speakers for optimum acoustics. He is married to Joan (Cathy Moriarty) and they have a young girl named Danielle (Danielle Smith).
A serial killer is on the loose, entering wealthy homes and brutally murdering the glamorous women who live there. Detective Mendoza (Art Evans) is on the case. He has his suspicions, but no concrete evidence. He questions Paul, but to no avail. He probes Joan, about Paul, and gets nowhere quickly. Something’s got to give.
In flashbacks to the late 70s Joan is with another guy, Mike (Alan Rosenberg), on the road. They befriend Paul at a garage, and Paul and Mike go on a deer-hunting trip into the mountains. Paul channels his inner Native American and takes it to extremes, effectively frightening the shit out of Mike. But Paul wants more than just the antlers. He wants all the flesh, deer and woman too. “I am the one,” he tells Mike, as he fucks Joan, declaring himself the alpha male.
Keith and Moriarty give stellar performances, and these two physical elements, jarring against, folding into each other, and around the very young person trapped in between, provide the movie with its dysfunctional humanity. Also of note is Alberta Watson as toey Ann Mason, one of Paul White’s wealthy, alluring clients. There is a slight mysticism at work. It’s as if the desert has its own laws of nature, and those that dwell there, human and animal, are affected deeply by its wayward character and torrid climate.
Cammell co-wrote White of the Eye with his young wife China (she has a tiny part in the movie), based on an early novel, Mrs. White, by brothers Laurence and Andrew Glavan, writing under the pseudonym Margaret Tracy. It’s a haphazard, uneven screenplay, but the movie, much like Cammell’s other films, is less about the story, and more about the moments, the cinema narrative - the mise-en-scene. The score, especially the opening piece, by Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason and Rick Fenn, effortlessly captures a floating, drifting sense of abandon, a cool mountain breeze above the thick desert heat, an eagle soaring, eyeing its prey, scanning the horizon.
Cammell hired two cinematographers, Larry McConkey and Alan Jones, seemingly to fuel his desire for conflict on set, as he was notorious for his perverse methods creative drive. According to camera operator Larry McConkey, the shoot was chaotic. Special note must be made to legendary editor Terry Rawlings, who makes great effect of the opening sequence, and also the use of the bleached-out flashbacks.
The title, White of the Eye, is a reference to the Apache belief that if a person looks too closely into the eye of violence it will leave a mark upon the viewer. Cammell once described the movie as an artistic study of man’s need to destroy. He was vigilant over the dialogue he’d written with China, and refused his actors any room for improvisation. In a way, White of the Eye feels like the director’s most personal film.
NB: Cammell was a tortured artist. He only made four feature films before committing suicide in the mid-90s following years of despair over not being able to complete the movies the way he wanted. After years as a painter he turned to making films and wrote the brilliant identity crisis Performance, which he co-directed with Nicolas Roeg. Seven years after it was finally released in 1970 he made the trashy science fiction horror The Demon Seed (a movie that demands a re-imagining!), then ten years after came White of the Eye, and finally, after almost another decade made the fractured Wild Side, based on a short story his wife wrote, which was snatched from his control in post by concerned executives, but by that stage Cammell was beyond the pale. His editor Frank Mazzola delivered a “director’s cut” based on Cammell’s original notes, but it is the sociopathic intensities of Performance and White of the Eye he will be remembered best for.