It feels weird to say that the best part of John Huston’s oddball 1967 flick isn’t Huston himself, Marlon Brando or Elizabeth Taylor. It’s not even Julie Harris. It’s Robert Forster, in his first film role.
Forster plays Private Williams, a young army man who is obsessed with Leonora (Taylor) and perhaps equally obsessed with Leonora’s perhaps homosexual husband Major Penderton (Brando). Leonora is having an affair with Lt. Col. Langdon (Brian Keith), who serves under Major Penderton, who may or may not know.
Lots of ‘perhaps,’ and ‘maybes’ in there, appropriate for a film that clearly not only pushes the outmoded censorship of the day, but also serves up its own kind of slow-boiling narrative, so different from its other late-60s peers.
Forster here is the revelation. His taciturn Williams is a free spirit. He rides horses bareback (read: both he and the horse are bareback). He sneaks into the Penderton house and watches Leonora sleep. He silently entices Penderton into following him around. And he communicates almost solely through sunken but alert eyes. It’s Forster’s body language here that really sells the character. He may be a wounded character from some unknown past, but his stature and the way he carries himself, and basically manipulates Penderton, implies otherwise. He’s conflicted and complex – animalistic. Much of this comes out in a fairly realistic fight scene in the army barracks, but for the most part, Forster plays the part of watcher, lurker, and even spy. It’s almost like inner-personal espionage. Relationship-warfare. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on mute.
Huston – any maybe it’s because I’m writing about him a lot lately, but is it wrong to compare Soderbergh to Huston? Both shoot in a tremendous amount of genres, frequently change their style, and are interested in anti-mainstream narratives – shoots the film in a sepia-saturated tone, lending to the air of southern mystique and setting it as parable. The color tone makes Reflections in a Golden Eye part of its own world and not part of that which exists outside the given space.
It’s not only the coloration of the film that sets it apart from its peers. For one, Huston has not succumbed to the 60s-70s style that popularizes the new Hollywood at the time. He’s not the only one, but because Brando is such a force in many of these films it’s odd to see the great actor cast yet again in such a formalist film (though it won’t be his last role in a film as such).
Ultimately, it’s the pacing that makes Reflections such a unique experience. Huston spends so much time on small moments – human interactions mostly. Given to a lesser director, the sex (or lack thereof) and voyeurism element would likely be at the immediate forefront. For Huston, while these elements certainly exist in a major way (the title is literally re-created a few times in Forster’s sepia-tinted eyeball), it’s Leonora lounging with Langdon, Langdon’s wife Allison (Harris) and her outward displays of paranoia, Brando examining himself in the mirror, Brando’s near-fateful interaction with a horse, that really get the most screen-time. This slows all of the “real action (with the exception of that last example) to a crawl, pulling the film away from melodrama and more towards sexual observation.
There’s some really interesting technique in here as well, including an ending where tensions finally boil out into action. With spoiling anything, suffice to say that Huston, rather than using standard close-up and reaction shots to the tragic event at hand, shoots the four players in one shot, each in medium close-up, and constantly whip-panning from one to the next. I didn’t time it out, but the shot must be over two minutes and just constantly pans from one person to the next. It allows action to happen off-screen (people enter frame when the camera faces the opposite direction), lending an air of surrealism to it all and endowing the scene with an eerie kind of energy.
When I can’t find good stills from a film I like to look at the posters. Here are three from Reflections:
These are the Spanish, American, and German poster respectively. The middle one is the most common. There are more than a few noteworthy things:
First, is that Brando and Taylor are the only ones present in any of them. This is likely for obvious reasons – marketing. They’re the names and Forster is a nobody, but ti’s really only the two foreign posters that make direct reference to a third figure – the white horse and rider. While all, particularly the last two, seem to focus on the split between Brando and Taylor, the foreign posters make this out to be a bit more a mystery, specifically the German one, simply by virtue of the third presence.
The last poster is my favorite. It implies Forster not only in the horse and rider, but also the actual eyeball. It warps Brando and Taylor, rather than splitting them, saying as much about their relationship as it does about how Forster perceives them. That the middle of the eyeball is sepia and the rest a darker black shows the separation of worlds – Huston’s versus the rest of the world, or Forster’s versus Brando and Taylor’s.
The top one – the Spanish poster – is traditionally melodramatic in its painterly, warm-colored representation of man and woman. Man looks off into the distance, woman looks feebly away. While the colors, and the strange pseudo-eyeball design, point to the romanticism, this probably does the film the greatest disservice of the three.
The English tagline is great on the middle poster: “In the loosest sense he is her husband…and in the loosest way she is his wife!” This is also fairly misleading, perhaps an attempt to point audiences toward earlier Taylor pictures where sex truly is the selling point – Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly, Last Summer.