Thinking about White of the Eye (1987)
Donald Cammell’s film was more-or-less marketed as a psychological thriller / slasher movie; or in other words, a non-Italian Giallo. To be sure, a rudimentary description of the plot would lead you to such a conclusion but that’s a rash way to assess what films are really about. On the face of it, the movie concerns a serial killer – diligently working his way through the rich ladies of Arizona – and his family. Underneath its slasher overcoat, White of the Eye hides a sensory marvel and, from what I can gather at least, an involved tale of the passion to destroy and its grip on the male psyche. This is all built on a bedrock of the age-old story of infidelity, the spark which lights the film’s tinder box.
Cammell is a cinematographer by trade and it’s the visual aspect which is clearly the focus of his energies. The opening murder sequence, whilst substantively inspired by Argento’s set-pieces, is a tour-de-force of ocular technique. The sequence uses a grand total of 55 shots fitting into 140 seconds, all blanched with exotic colour and off-the-wall imagery. The film doesn’t let up from here and Cammell’s camerawork stays true to the standard established in the first few minutes. The visuals are so stark that much of the picture feels like a music video driven by Nick Mason’s compositions and with the score sounding somehow aligned with another dimension, it gives sun-baked Arizona a hue of an alien and foreign land.Not only are the exterior shots so convincing and enjoyable but the attention to detail in the set-design and voyeur-like perspective of Cammell’s camera make the interiors of Arzona’s well-healed community quite hypnotic.
At its naked least, White of the Eye is a pitifully sad movie and I liked the genuinuity of a husky-voiced Cathy Moriarty as Joan White – wife to David Keith’s deranged killer. I note that others have been less kind to her performance, but it’s her acting which gives the love story within the film its heart. Indeed, one of the accomplishments of Cammell’s film is to drastically shift the focus from David Keith’s killer to Cathy Moriarty’s wifey in a seemless way. That said,the mood completely disjoints from a tortured marriage tale in the finale and we end up with sticks of dynamite, blazing guns and Apache legend – all thrown together in an ending which evokes some reminiscing of Kubrick’s The Shining. It has to be said that Cammell did not achieve a balanced movie here.
Furthermore, patches of the story are undeveloped and some key characters are left looking unwanted. The frustratingly sporadic use of Art Evans as a homicide detective with a gut instinct for White’s madness gets me down; but there’s also a healthy serving of mumbo-jumbo scriptwriting likely to put some viewers off. Whether I will ever go to the bottom of some of the mumbo jumbo, I really couldn’t say but what it does do is hook you to the film’s themes in a manner which can only illicit repeated future viewings. With multiple ways to interpret the events and motive depicted on screen, this is a film to revisit time and again. To be certain, I am still asking some perplexing questions as to the meaning of some of the sections in this film.
In summary and having seen this film a number of times in the past few years, White of the Eye’s aesthetic glare gives an oddly scary example of what can be done with a camera. For that alone, seek it out and all the better if you can immerse yourself in the guttural themes on display. If you decide to do the latter please do get in touch, I have some ideas I’d like to test with you about some of the subliminal and not-so subliminal messages.