White Of The Eye Review
White Of The Eye, directed by Donald Cammell, tells the story of Paul and Joan White, a happily married couple living in Tuscon, Arizona, with their daughter Danielle. Paul, a hi-fi installation expert, has a gift for understanding how to achieve the perfect acoustics within any space and uses these talents to make him the go-to-guy for high end audio systems. While on an installation job at an expensive, isolated house, he finds himself the subject of police questioning regarding the murder of a neighbour and soons falls under suspicion of being responsible for a series of brutal killings committed in the area. Meanwhile Joan, after stumbling across the boyfriend she was with at the time she met Paul, begins to fear that her husband is not simply ‘working late’ and through a combination of infidelity, police interrogation and surprise discovery, the film builds to an explosive climax.
I appreciate that this is a fairly short description of a fairly formulaic sounding plot, but at its heart, that’s what White Of The Eye is. What elevates it slightly above the norm, is of course, Cammell’s direction. For a start, he’s clearly in love with the setting. Huge, swooping aerial shots of the area, be it factory, copper mine, road or countryside, give a real sense of the vastness within and whether highlighting the scale of the industrialisation or the emptiness around it, the isolation really comes through in these shots. He also shoots and edits the film in a way that makes it stand out from a routine thriller. I couldn’t say it raises it far above the norm, as clearly his style is not going to be everyone’s taste and some of the symbolism used, particularly in the opening kill, is a bit heavy-handed. I can see that substituting scenes of a horrific murder with the consequences of that murder (red wine spilling, tomato sauce spraying and marinating spare ribs being smashed) might seem like a novel, giallo influenced spin on things, but it’s also a bit simplistic. Similarly, Cammell seems intent on reminding the viewer that the film is named White Of The Eye (based on a fictional Native American belief that Joan White’s ex-boyfriend describes) and we are therefore treated to a quick flash cut to the white of someone’s eye at regular intervals. In fact, the film-making style that Cammell adopts is very similar to the one he used on Performance at the tail end of the 1960s, so therefore manages to feel both different and familiar at the same time.
Film-making styles aside, the central performances are all excellent. David Keith and Cathy Moriarty are both very believable, particularly considering their characters transition from calm contentment to confusion and panic by the end of the picture. Alan Rosenberg (as ex-boyfriend Mike Desantos) and Art Evans (as Detective Charles Mendoza) also deserve a mention, as although they are very different performances, they both convey compassion and understanding in their own ways. The score by Nick Mason and Rick Fenn is excellent and blends long, flowing, Pink Floyd style guitar work with a very synthy keyboard and drum sound, typical of the mid-1980s. Talking of the mid-1980s, I should also mention the warm feeling I got on seeing the Cannon Films logo move across the screen at the start of the movie. Very niche, I know, but it was like all those dreadful “I Love The 80s” TV programs condensed into one perfect 10 seconds.
Arrow Films bring us White Of The Eye on Blu-ray in a new scan of the original camera negative. The picture is very much of its time. Colours are bright and bold, yet the image is quite soft and diffused. Grain is also very evident in a lot of the shots. Brightly lit exteriors fare well, but the flashback scenes, interiors or low light shots can appear very grainy, almost giving the impression of having a fine gauze stretched over the lense. It is, however, never distracting and is clearly an artistic choice.
Audio is available in a linear PCM 2.0 soundtrack, which is clean and well balanced. The accompanying audio commentary is available in 2 channel Dolby stereo and the film also carries English subtitles.
Extras are lengthy, but worth your time. First off, we get an audio commentary by Cammell’s biographer Sam Umland. Clearly a very intelligent and knowledgeable man, Umland offers much insight into both the film and Cammell. Unfortunately, his scripted, scholarly tone makes for a very dry listen and although his deep affection for the man and his work is clear, at times it can sound like a film studies lecture. On occasion, he also can’t resist describing exactly what we’re seeing on screen, which just ends up being a very erudite audio descriptive soundtrack. Things improve with a 74 minute BBC documentary called Donald Cammell: The Ultimate Performance, which gives a fascinating insight into his career in film. Made in 1998, two years after his suicide, Cammell comes across as quite the charmer and although the film focuses heavily on Performance, it easy to see how his particular brand of art school cool was perfectly suited to the 1960s and explains why he perhaps found it more difficult to continue that distinctiveness in the one film he made in each of the next three decades.
The Argument is a slightly surreal 12 minute short, shot in the Utah desert in 1972 and abandoned after filming. Assembled after Cammell’s death by his regular editor, it also includes a commentary by Sam Umland, which offers a bit of background to its conception. Into the White: Filming White Of The Eye is up next and offers an honest and reflective 11 minute interview with the film’s director of photography. 5 minutes of deleted scenes, cut from the film by the studio and featuring the actor John Diehl, are also included. Unfortunately, no sound elements exist for these, so again, Umland provides a commentary.
The flashback scenes from the main film, which feature a bleach bypass process to give them a high contrast, grainy look, are featured as originally shot. These 12 minutes predictably don’t offer any startling insight, other than a lack of contrast and grain. Things are rounded off with an alternate opening title sequence, which only differs from the main title sequence by virtue of adding John Diehl’s name.
White Of The Eye is a curious film. Not without merit, but more a diversion than a bold piece of film-making, it spices up a simple story with a distinctive look that keeps the viewer interested. The first hour contains all the ingredients of a routine thriller, yet when blended with Donald Cammell’s particular style, this routine is made slightly edgier and more interesting. Once the killer is revealed, the film becomes quite terrifying for a while, until the final 20 minutes cuts loose from the rest of the film and descends into a manic blend of slasher/revenge movie. It’s definitely a film that ought to be seen, especially within the wider context of Cammell’s other work and Arrow deserve praise for not only giving the film another life on Blu-ray, but for also making the effort to support the film with informative and entertaining extras that help paint a fuller picture of the type of director Donald Cammell was.