Friday 1 April 2011

Hammersmith Is Out (1972)

In the days before DVDs, satellite TV and the internet, tracking down rare films was a difficult and expensive business.  Often your only means of seeing these titles was via tape trading, film fairs or - if you were very lucky - a screening at an independent cinema.  Nowadays of course, assuming you know where to look and have a decent broadband connection, pretty much everything is at your fingertips so filling in the gaps of your favourite star or director is much more straightforward.  I've been lucky to see films like THE LOLLY-MADONNA WAR (1973) and LITTLE FAUSS & BIG HALSEY (1970) that had been on my 'wants' list for many years.  And yet some films remain elusive; for instance, I can't find George Armitage's VIGILANTE FORCE (1976) anywhere.  I don't really know why these films have been lost for so long; you'd imagine there would be a market for films starring (respectively) names as big as Jeff Bridges, Robert Redford and Kris Kristofferson.  Which makes the unavailability of HAMMERSMITH IS OUT even more baffling, because it features two of the biggest names of all.

It was directed in 1972 by Peter Ustinov and stars the (then) husband-and-wife pairing of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, along with Beau Bridges, Ustinov himself and a micro-cameo from George Raft.  It has been described, not least by me, as a modern take on the Faust legend.  I think that's stretching things but given how few people have seen it, especially in recent times, it's hardly surprising that some summaries are inaccurate.  It's about Billy Breedlove (Bridges), a slovenly porter at a mental hospital, who is persuaded by a dangerously psychotic inmate, Hammersmith (Burton), to release him, in return for which he will make Billy "rich and strong".  Accompanied by Billy's waitress girlfriend Jimmie Jean Jackson (Taylor), the pair work their way up the social and economic ladder using Billy as a front for Hammersmith's nefarious plans, until Billy outlives his purpose.

Elizabeth Taylor as Jimmie Jean Jackson

Richard Burton as Hammersmith (while he's still 'in')
I suppose it's intended to be a satire about modern life: about the desire to get rich for little effort, about the willingness to be manipulated for material gain, and about where the real power lies.  Some good themes there but they aren't really explored in any depth.  The problem is that the film is played as farce when it should have been a black comedy.  When you have Beau Bridges water-skiing behind a boat driven by Richard Burton, you've pretty much lost your satirical edge.  In fact, when you're making a film about the vacuity of modern life and you cast Liz Taylor as a blowsy waitress you're defeated before you start.  This kind of thing needs Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, or at the very least Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould, not Burton and Taylor.

Richard Burton wearing a baseball cap.
I'm a big fan of Burton but even I'd admit that this was made during his really shocking period when he couldn't buy a hit.  He'd just come off THE ASSASSINATION OF TROTSKY (1971), which Harry and Michael Medved reckoned is one of the fifty worst movies of all time, and the horrors of THE EXORCIST II (1977) were yet come.  Talk about a career trough.  I guess he, and Ustinov, thought that shooting a movie with Taylor would be a sure-fire hit; and it may have been, just not with this project.  Burton's reputation has probably declined in the years since his death, probably because he made so many clunkers late in his career.  There is a body of opinion that he was essentially wooden and relied on his fabulous voice to do all the acting; Montgomery Clift once said "He doesn't act, he recites."  That's quite true of his performance as Hammersmith - he doesn't do much, certainly never moving faster than walking pace, and uses his voice alone to convey the character's malevolence.  It's not quite enough; he looks so bulky and cumbersome that it undercuts his authority.

Richard Burton wearing a chef's hat.
Beau Bridges is actually quite good as Billy Breedlove, his character's sophistication signposted by his relentless nose-picking.  But you can't help thinking that they got the wrong Bridges; Jeff played a lot of roles like this as a young man and he always managed to make them endearingly as opposed to obtusely naive.  The fact that Breedlove is such a unlovable schlub means that his fall from grace doesn't carry any emotional weight; frankly, he gets what he deserves.

Beau Bridges as Billy Breedlove
A disappointment then, which I have to admit is usually the case with films that have proved difficult to get hold of.  I guess it's all about the anticipation and the thrill of the chase.

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