Studios almost never admit to being wrong. So Warner Bros.’ decision to release John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye in its original tinted version is not only a major act of restoration, but a major act of humility. (The film is available as part of the new Marlon Brando Collection, which also includes Brando’s turn as Fletcher Christian in the 1962 remake of Mutiny on the Bounty, his performance as Marc Antony in Julius Caesar, as well as The Teahouse of the August Moon and The Formula.)
Huston’s film of Carson McCullers’ 1941 novella was shot, by cinematographer Aldo Tonti, in an almost-sepia tinting that added a golden wash to the film. Warners allowed the film to be shown that way for one week in 50 first-run theaters before those prints were pulled and straight Technicolor ones substituted. The film hasn’t been seen in that form since, though, as Huston made clear in his autobiography, An Open Book, he always hoped it would be.
There’s really no reason for the tinting beyond pure aesthetics, a visual play on the title. It looks beautiful, but it adds to the already distanced effect of the movie. The setting is a Georgia Army base a year or two after the Second World War. A late scene of soldiers attending a base boxing match is a shock: Up until that moment, it seems there’s been barely more than half a dozen people in the picture.
Reflections in a Golden Eye feels abstracted (both dramatically and narratively) and only fitfully alive. What carries the film is Huston’s intelligence and craftsmanship and the willingness of the actors to kick against the mainstream, to do something not just unexpected but downright strange. Reflections has a whiff of the excitement that can happen when a group of artists are walking, sometimes precariously, on the edge.
The adaptation, by the Scottish novelist Chapman Mortimer and Huston’s frequent collaborator Gladys Hill, Freudianizes McCullers’ Southern Gothic so that we can draw lines from the characters’ most bizarre behavior to its root causes. When we find out that Alison Langdon (Julie Harris), the emotionally fragile wife of Lt. Col. Morris Langdon (Brian Keith), cut off her nipples with garden shears, we’re meant to see it as the manifestation of her breakdown after the death of her infant daughter. (She destroys the symbol of her motherhood, the part of her that nourished her child, and so on.) Marlon Brando’s closeted homosexual, Major Weldon Penderton, is used as an emblem of the repression that leads to psychosis and violence.
In contrast, his wife Leonora, played by Elizabeth Taylor, is meant to be in touch with her sexuality (she’s having an affair with Langdon). There are also private fetish objects, a whipping, voyeurism, the Langdons’ flamboyantly gay Filipino house boy (Zorro David), even nude horseback riding—the whole picture sometimes seems conceived as a catalog balancing healthy (i.e., open) sexuality with unhealthy (i.e., closeted) sexuality.
Reduced to those explanations, Reflections in a Golden Eye is ample proof of the infantilizing effect that Freud had on American movies: the neat belief that everything can be reduced to a plausible explanation. It’s no wonder that Hollywood embraced Freud in the 50’s: He allowed mainstream movies to seem adult while avoiding any of the ambiguity that the studios discouraged.
And yet for all that, there is a basic strangeness here, probably rooted in McCullers’ Southern Gothic approach, that Chapman and Hill’s adaptation cannot dissipate. As in Huston’s film of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, the director doesn’t try to make a grotesque world any less grotesque than it is. This may be the Williams-Capote South of the late 50’s and 60’s, a kind of antebellum Hubert’s Flea Circus of the bizarre and repressed, but it’s not a put-on, and Huston, whether on purpose or because he hadn’t sorted it out in his own head, keeps its meanings teasingly out of reach.
You can’t say that Huston, a director who both reveled in and explored the madness of masculinity, understands homosexuality. As in Bertolucci’s The Conformist three years later, Reflections uses repressed homosexuality as a symbol of incipient tyranny and violence, and the idea is a wheeze. But you don’t have to buy that equation to make the destructiveness of sexual repression dramatically believable, and no director hidebound by traditional concepts of masculinity would have given Brando the free hand he has here.
It may seem strange talking of Brando’s free hand when he’s playing a character so tightly wound and brutally reined in. Brando immerses himself so completely in Major Penderton that he closes down some of his own resources as an actor. You never see all the way into this man. But when Brando’s Penderton preens before a mirror, or shows us his ungainly backside bobbing up and down on a horse, or sits with a kind of grotesque coquetry in his darkened bedroom awaiting a visit from a young soldier he’s infatuated with (a nearly mute Robert Forster, in his movie debut), you’re seeing an actor for whom vanity is an utterly alien concept, and one for whom taking a risk is simply a matter of what being an actor is about.
It’s worth remembering as you watch this amazing performance that in 1967, the vulgar spectacle of publicity passing as critical judgment—a phenomenon that by now has almost completely overtaken arts journalism in America—had deemed Brando washed up, a caricature of his former greatness. His triumphs in The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris (for my money, the greatest performance ever put on film) were only four and five years away. For all the attempts to sell Elizabeth Taylor as the most elegant of stars, she has always seemed most herself as a bawd. She faked that in the gussied-up bitchery of that crummy “classic” Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and dove into it whole hog in the Edna O’Brien–scripted X, Y & Zee. She’s far from the beautiful child of National Velvet here, but she wins you over in a different way. Everything about her Leonora, from the voluptuous build to the voluptuous laugh, conveys sensuality and impolite appetite. In some ways, she has never seemed as at ease with herself as she does here.
The best performance in the movie, and still an unheralded one, is Brian Keith, who is so casual, so relaxed that he seems one of those rare actors incapable of forcing a thing. His Lt. Col. Langdon is a straightforward man doing his best to keep his head in a situation outside anything he’s experienced. And though he’s physically suited to Leonora, he loves his wife, and grieves for the way she has mentally gone away from him. Keith’s performance is so clear, his emotions so genuine in a movie that, even at its best, feels willfully oblique, the audience forms a special bond with him. He reminds you of just how deep the tragedy of an ordinary man can go.