Not being a big John Huston fan, it took me a while to watch his adaptation of Carson McCullers’s Southern Gothic novel Reflections in a Golden Eye, produced during a problematic period in his career. That self-imposed delay just shows how limiting prejudices can be sometimes because Reflections deserves serious attention despite my mixed feelings about the director.
Atmosphere is not often valued in American film. Immersing viewers in the physical world of a time and place requires slowing down the story and Hollywood has always specialized in rapid pace and action. In adapting the over-heated goings-on of a group of military men and their wives in McCullers’s novel, Huston uncharacteristically concentrates first on atmosphere, effectively making it the story, with almost suffocatingly languorous results.
What story there is deals with sex and the consequences of suppressing it. Marlon Brando stars as Major Penderton, a closeted military instructor at an army base in the South in the 1950s. His wife Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor) is having an affair with his best friend, Lt. Col. Langdon (Brian Keith) whose wife Alison (Julie Harris) is a self-destructive neurotic given to paranoid fantasy. Penderton lusts after Private Williams (Robert Forster), Leonora’s favorite groom, but this being the military, any relationship between them is literally a dead end.
Brando never condescends to Penderton, even though he probably disliked or at best pitied him. He nonetheless feels miscast, never fully connecting with the character. Penderton is all repression; Brando was all expression. His Method emotionalism, whether bursting out or tightly wrapped, seems more self-conscious and contrived than felt. Taylor, on the other hand, is just about perfect as the spoiled, not particularly bright daughter of a general. She is shallow, crude and deceitful, but also the only character in the story to act on her desires, and thus refreshingly sane. Harris fills her stock role competently, while Keith mumbles his way through another of his familiar regular guy characterizations. Williams/Forster is a walking question mark with kinks.
From the golden-hued Panavision cinematography to the barely contained eroticism (of which you see little), the viewer is immersed in an emotional quagmire. You feel the heat, smell the sweat and reel with the characters in their drunken excesses. Only Alison knows what is really going on, but because of her own instability, her warnings are treated as hallucination. The pervasive neurosthenic hysteria produces outbursts of grotesque violence which are quickly swept under the carpet in the name of social propriety.
Reflections is a melodrama, so the emotional extremes produced by such clamping down are expected. It is far less common in making homosexuality a central issue and treating it with unusual candor and sympathy for its time (1967). Things flow slowly and inexorably toward an ending both tragic and predictable, saturated with the physical distractions usually overlooked when telling a story. The story still unfolds, but it arrives stinking like a swamp of fetid emotions.