If a film could be made from hot air, Boom would be it. Based on Tennessee Williams’s play “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore,” it is usually regarded as one of director Josey Losey’s worst films. But Williams seems like the guilty party. In fact, the film’s few redeeming features result from Losey and his visual technicians’ contributions. Whether the material could ever have made a good film is anyone’s guess. What is woefully apparent is that all the money, beautiful scenery, striking architecture, flamboyant costuming, fluid camerawork and expert editing in Boom work only to point up the play’s ostentatious vacuity.
Taylor stars as Flora “Sissi” Goforth, a rich widow in a Modernist mansion perched on a cliff on a Mediterranean island that she rules like a very loud tyrant. Between debilitating bouts of an unspecified illness, she flounces about, dictating her memoirs by intercom, treating everyone around her with utter contempt and brutality. Her bad behavior is only disrupted by the arrival of Chris Flanders (Richard Burton), a sculptor or poet or both or neither. He claims to have met her previously, but the fact that she does not remember him matters neither to her, him nor us. Flanders’s real role is to get Goforth to confront her mortality, though why anyone should care about such an irredeemable harridan is just one of the story’s many mysteries. His efforts lead to a conclusion that would have to be interesting to be either predictable or surprising.
The ending is, however, weighted with all the sickly perfume of would-be profundity that overripe writing can provide, as if raising a difficult topic dealt with it. Flanders is characterized as an Angel of Death because of his reputation for ingratiating himself with rich women before they die. It is never clear whether Flanders is literally a death figure; to ask is to care, and you don’t. Puffed-up opacity is the film’s modus operandi, gibberish dressed in drag. (Even the meaning of the title, when explained, makes no sense.)
Goforth is such a monster that no one seems to notice that the “action” stands in place as Taylor chews the scenery while we wait for her next unmotivated tantrum. The most distinctive thing about this opera for the tone deaf is the set and Taylor’s wardrobe. Losey and his technicians try to distract from the florid flatulence with striking decor and some of the director’s signature silky camera moves, but they just add to the hopeless grandiloquence.
In his book of interviews with Michel Ciment, Losey claimed that Boom had at least one notable result: thanks to working with Burton and Taylor, he was able to command a higher salary. That seems as good (and honest) a reason for making the film as any. It is certainly more cogent than the film itself, which feels like a private joke the ludicrously over-rated Williams should have kept to himself.