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The Forgotten: The English Assassin Assassinated

David Cairns

"It's much easier to run a hospital with all the patients sleeping."

Easiest way to run the world, for that matter.”

The Final Programme (1973), also known as The Last Days of Man on Earth, has a reasonable cult following – arguably it’s not forgotten at all – arguably it’s exactly as modestly famous as when it first came out.

 

But…

It’s easy to forget how interesting it is, and how promising and shamefully shunted-into-obscurity its director and star were. An abyss opened and swallowed them, and swallowed much of what was exciting and ballsy about British cinema of the early seventies.

jer

Robert Fuest had made a few features – Just Like a Woman (1967), the obligatory sex comedy, now genuinely impossible to see (only the most awful Brit sex-coms are available); And Soon the Darkness, a Hitchcockian psycho-thriller in which plump English girls are menaced in a flat French landscape (very good stuff); Wuthering Heights with Timothy Dalton, a very respectable adaptation with impressive credits. And then he parlayed his experience as a hip director of TV’s The Avengers into a gig directing two Vincent Price horror comedies, high-style bits of black comedy sadism known as The Abominable Dr. Phibes and Dr. Phibes Rises Again (a third, Phibes Triumphant!, was ditched when Fuest couldn’t think up any more extravagant murders).

Fuest then proceeded to damage his reputation with this beautiful and witty take on Michael Moorcock’s psychedelic sci-fi novel (the first in the Jerry Cornelius Quartet, and the only one with anything resembling a plot). Made with snazzy colour-supplement visuals and swingin’ sexiness, but with a bitter proto-punk attitude (Fuest inclined more to booze than pot), the film was too cool for the room in 1973, and still is.

The Devil’s Rain (1975), an American horror movie with an insanely eclectic cast (Shatner! Lupino! Travolta!) was re-cut by the distributor and effectively ruined Fuest’s career. His only subsequent feature, a glossy European porno called Aphrodite (1982) is better than it ought to be, but was never going to launch a comeback. The loss is ours.

jer & ms b

Eating chocolate digestive in a geodesic dome: Jon Finch with Jenny Runacre.

“And I also have it on very good authority that the world is coming to an end. I thought I'd go home and watch it on television.”

To play Moorcock’s anti-hero, the playboy scientist and mercenary Jerry Cornelius, Fuest selected Jon Finch, another fashionable figure, whose casting as lead in Polanski’s Macbeth and Hitchcock’s Frenzy seemed to promise great things. In fact, Finch is a little muted in those high-profile movies, but cuts loose for Fuest with a memorable, louche and splenetic interpretation. His Cornelius is campy, arrogant, and undeniably beautiful; addicted to Bell's Whisky, pills and chocky bickies; cynical and romantic, dashing and deeply cowardly as soon as he starts to lose a fight. Finch would have been perfect for George MacDonald Fraser’s anti-hero Harry Flashman if only anyone had thought of it.

With his frock coat, long black fingernails and needle-gun, Finch’s Cornelius ought to be at least as iconic as Malcolm McDowell’s Alex in A Clockwork Orange. And he has attitude to spare: discussing the accidental atomic incineration of Amsterdam, he remarks, “For once the Americans did a good job.” Anyone who can muster such antipathy towards the Dutch must be have deep reserves of nastiness. (In a filmed interview regarding Macbeth, Finch recalled Polanski's fondness for adding greater ichor and ick to stage blood by mixing it with instant coffee, and his profound revulsion at the mention of Nescafe was another clue as to his enormous capacity for disdain.)

Sympathy was never a Fuest strong point, or even particularly a concern, so he pairs Cornelius with a leading lady even less calculated to win affection. As Miss Brunner, the brilliant psychic vampire, Jenny Runacre substitutes elegance and humour for nearly everything else. Sharp little teeth. One of the few women to have won the Alternative Miss World Competition, ostensibly a platform for drag queens. A crisp, poised manner that compliments Finch's decadent emotionalism. They're a handsom couple.

pb

“A very tasty world.”

Mud wrestling? Check. Giant pinball machine with people inside the balls? Check. Sterling Hayden, Patrick Magee, Little Nell, Graham Crowden and George Coulouris? Absolutely check.

Another thing Fuest isn’t too hot on – structure. The Phibes films position novelty homicides like stepping stones, uniting them with a theme or quest. His sci-fi sextravaganza barely has a spine at all, piling on ideas and guest stars, sets and locations, effects and action sequences with reckless abandon, as if its writer-director-designer sensed he wasn’t going to get a chance like this again. The lack of a throughline is a slight difficulty, but I can’t see what the problem is with the ending, which absolutely everybody hates, especially Michael Moorcock. To me, Jon Finch looks good as a hermaphrodite ape-man, and the Bogart impression puts the tin lid on it. More endings like that, please!

What we have is a pop-art sci-fi proto-punk masterpiece, starry and sexy and funny and a bit twisted. Since A Clockwork Orange is unavoidably unpleasant and Barbarella is shambolic, this movie is really the place to go for futuristic fun. Very little of the fiction from the New Worlds group of experimental sci-fi authors made it to the screen, for reasons which are as obvious as they are lamentable — it takes courage and smarts and imagination to even want to make movies like this, and those qualities are unevenly distributed in the film industry, just like cash. Possibly the cash gravitates towards the vaccuums of courage and smarts and imagination, actually.

It should be notes that Michael Moorcock hated this film, but you can't please everybody. I do rather regret that Fuest left out one of Moorcock's more amusing ideas, a quest to find a manuscript written by the US astronaut who spent longest in space. When tracked down at last, this MacGuffin proves to consist of the single word "Ha" repeated many many times, prefiguring the experimental fiction of Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

Nevertheless, it's rare to find a film that may possibly be suffering from too many ideas (my suggested solution: add more!), and this film is that.

Now I hate long goodbyes, so PISS OFF!”

jr

***

The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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