Bad Timing: Criterion Edition Review

Vienna. A young woman, Milena Flaherty (Theresa Russell), is rushed to hospital after taking an overdose. Her former lover, psychiatry professor Alex Linden (Art Garfunkel), accompanies her to hospital. As the doctors try to save Milena’s life, police Inspector Netusil (Harvey Keitel) questions Linden, trying to get to the reasons for her suicide attempt, suspecting that Linden isn’t telling him everything...

Bad Timing begins with Tom Waits singing “An Introduction to the Blues” and ends with Billie Holliday telling us it’s “The Same Old Story”. For the two hours in between we have perhaps Roeg’s darkest and most extreme look at relationships between men and women and their mutual misunderstandings. As the posters said, it’s “a terrifying love story” and a bleak picture it is too. The Rank Organisation, who funded the film, reacted with shock when they saw the end result. An executive called it “a sick film made for sick people by sick people” and the famously conservative distribution company removed their man-with-gong logo from the beginning of the film and banned the film from their own cinemas, the Odeon chain. (The gong man was reinstated on the – pan-and-scanned – video release of the mid 80s, which was how I first saw this film. He’s also on the Carlton budget DVD of 2003, of which more later. The present Criterion disc is gongless.)

Alex Linden is a man who lives in his mind, and it’s in his mind we stay for most of the film as we flash back and forth through his and Milena’s obsessive and destructive affair. For him, spying is a natural condition of life: in his lectures, a young child is “the first spy”. Milena’s impulsiveness – while certainly not stupid, she feels rather than thinks – excites not just his lust but also his jealousy. His compulsive need for control, classification as a means to understanding – one of the earlier scenes shows him buying a colour-and-number psychological test for her – drives Milena to despair. But he can’t help his lust either, which leads him to commit an act which made the film very controversial in its day and probably did more than anything else to provoke Rank’s reaction. No-one doubted the quality and intensity of Russell’s performance (she’d only made two previous films, The Last Tycoon and Straight Time). She makes the film so much her own that it’s pointless (though not uninteresting) to speculate what this film would have been like had Roeg’s first choice, Sissy Spacek, had made this instead of Coal Miner’s Daughter. On the other hand, the casting of the three male leads is a little curious. Denholm Elliott would certainly not be anyone’s first choice to play Milena’s estranged Czechoslovakian husband Stefan, but he stamps his authority on the part. Watching the film again, I noted he was only in three scenes; having assumed he was onscreen for longer, such is his presence. Harvey Keitel underplays the role of the police inspector. Art Garfunkel had had acting experience before this (notably in Catch-22 and Carnal Knowledge, to the latter of which Bad Timing is something of a companion piece). However, this must be his best screen work, his baby-faced features hiding reserves of coldness. As ever with Roeg’s work, the camerawork (by Anthony Richmond, ending his run of three Roeg films as main DP) and editing (by Tony Lawson) is frequently dazzling.

Bad Timing isn’t an easy film to watch, as many people will find echoes of their own relationships in it. Yale Udoff’s original script told the story chronologically, but the film’s distinctive time sequence evolved in editing. It’s told in a series of flashbacks, but to describe them as such is too simplistic. Although the arc of Alex and Milena’s affair is generally kept to, chronology isn’t: the earlier scenes are interrupted with scenes from later on, and vice versa. The narrative proceeds more or less by free-association: for example, a shot of sand pouring out of a souvenir leads us to a sequence of the lovers in Morocco. A shot of a snake and its charmer cuts to the serpentine Arabic letters on the side of an aeroplane. Roeg does give us some clues: the changes in Milena’s hairstyle help us locate particular times. He begins a scene on a bus with the opening of The Who’s “Who Are You” – later on, when we return to this scene the music continues where it left off. What is also interesting is that some scenes where Linden is not present are incorporated into the pattern, for example Netusil’s investigations. The way Stefan’s final scene is treated questions how much is actually real in this film and how much the product of Linden’s mind.

Bad Timing must rank as one of the most antichronological films ever made in the commercial cinema. This type of non-linear narrative was used by some of the French New Wave directors, in particular Alain Resnais and in particular his film Muriel, which shamefully is unavailable on video or DVD in the UK. This kind of narrative technique crossed over into English-language cinema shortly afterwards – note particularly 1968’s Petulia, directed by Richard Lester and photographed by Roeg – but was generally thought too difficult for mainstream audiences. You do occasionally see it though, 21 Grams and Last Orders being notable recent examples.

In the interview on this DVD, Roeg suggests that “bad timing” might sum up his career, in that he consistently made films that failed to find critical favour or audiences at the time of their release…but these films stand up very well twenty-five or thirty years or more later. Roeg’s run of films, which began with Performance and ended at a point which could be debated (somewhere between the last third of Eureka to Insignificance) before decline set in, is one of the greatest in the history of the British cinema. Bad Timing is part of that, and worthy of it.

Incidentally, when Bad Timing was shown to the BBFC they passed it with an X certificate (over-eighteens only), which is hardly surprising given the film’s explicit content. However, one amendment had to be made. In his lecture, Linden shows us “the first spy” (a child) juxtaposed with “what is spied on” (lovemaking). The BBFC pointed out that containing both in the same shot constituted an image which was technically indecent in the terms of the recently passed Child Protection Act. Roeg reedited this shot into two and this version is the one that has been released worldwide, including on this DVD.

Criterion’s DVD (encoded for all regions) is released simultaneously with their Region 1 edition of The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Bad Timing was Roeg’s second and so far final film shot in Scope, and is transferred to DVD in its original ratio of 2.35:1. That’s about all this disc has in common with the 2003 Region 2 release from Carlton, which was in the correct ratio but was non-anamorphic. Criterion’s anamorphic transfer is far superior, as you might expect: brighter and sharper, with stronger colours, better shadow detail and solid blacks – virtually faultless in fact. A comparison follows, the Region 2 first and then the Criterion. (The title shot at the beginning of this review also comes from the Criterion edition.)

The soundtrack is the original mono and sounds absolutely fine. Dialogue, sound effects and music are well balanced. Subtitles are available for the feature, but unfortunately not for the extras. Some brief exchanges in German, French and Arabic are intentionally left untranslated. There are twenty-three chapters, the final one being Criterion’s trademark colour bars.

There is no commentary on this DVD, but Criterion makes up for it with a pair of quite thorough interviews. The first is with Roeg and producer Jeremy Thomas, shot in London in 2004 (28:01), though Roeg does much of the talking, describing his filmmaking methods and discussing casting. Thomas talks about Rank’s reaction of the film. The second is with Theresa Russell (19:18), who says that one motivation for her taking the part was that the story scared her. She describes her experience of making the film and meeting Roeg, whom she later married and had two children by. Be advised that both interviews contain major plot spoilers. As with the Man Who Fell to Earth DVD, what we have is very comprehensive, but I wouldn’t had minded hearing from some of Roeg’s regular collaborators, such as Anthony Richmond or Tony Lawson. Also missing is screenwriter Yale Udoff, who is a mystery man, apparently principally a playwright: his only other cinema writing credit is for the very different Eve of Destruction.

Next up are sixteen deleted or extended scenes: as ever, interesting to see but obvious why they were deleted. The sound quality is a little rough on the first eight; the remainder are silent. Finally, there is the theatrical trailer (1:22), which makes the film seem more like a thriller than it actually is, and a stills gallery which contains international poster designs for the film as well as the usual production stills.

Finally, Criterion provide a booklet which, along with a chapter list, principal cast and crew listing and DVD credits, contains two text pieces. "The Men Who Didn't Know Something" is an article by Richard Combs analysing the film, which includes interview extracts with Roeg and Udoff, the latter helping to make up the gap I mention above. "A Case of Bad Timing: Art Garfunkel's Real-Life Tragedy" is an interview by Chris Hodenfield which originally appeared in Rolling Stone in 1980. In it, Garfunkel talks about making the film at a difficult personal time in his life, particularly following the suicide of his live-in girlfriend Laurie Bird (who had acted in Cockfighter, Annie Hall and most notably Two-Lane Blacktop), the year before.

This is one of Criterion’s less lavish editions, comprising one disc instead of two or even three. However, the extras are, as almost always with Criterion, thorough and well chosen. The only advantage the Region 2 release (which has only the trailer as an extra) has is its low price; for anyone who can play NTSC, Criterion’s edition makes it completely redundant.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 06:59:09

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