Directed by Nicolas Roeg. 1983
Starring Gene Hackman, Theresa Russell, Rutger Hauer, Jane Lapotaire, Mickey Rourke, Joe Pesci and Ed Lauter. 130 mins. Out on dual format Blu-ray as part of Eureka's Masters of Cinema series on March 21st.
Eureka on Eureka! Well, yes, obviously. Of course, his most difficult and contentious film should be among this elite selection though it could be suggested that while Nicolas Roeg was a great director (he's still alive, but that's definitely past tense) he probably wasn’t a master of cinema. His films do not suggest mastery of the form, but rather of having tapped into something uncontrollable, something wild and unnameable that he struggles with and ultimately fails to contain.
Eureka has a simple story – a man goes looking for gold, a man finds gold and retires unhappily to the Caribbean. It has a simple message – that it is the striving for success that brings satisfaction, not the actual success. This is a common homily; the basic theme of Only Fools and Horses. When the Trotters lucked into wealth the series had to end. When strong armed to bring them back, writer John Sullivan had to make them poor again for it to work. But in Roeg and scriptwriter Paul Mayersberg's hands, this spirals off into all kinds of unknowable territory.
In the 1920's Jack McCann (Hackman) goes prospecting for gold and stumbles across the biggest load in history. From there we move to the Caribbean during the war years, where McCann lives out his days in his house Eureka and fumes about his daughter (Russell) being married to a Eurotrash count (Hauer), while fending off the advances of a business partner (Lauter) who is trying to do a deal with Miami Mafiosi (Pesci) through his lawyer (Rourke.) It all culminates in an especially gruesome murder and the last half hour is taken up with an anti-climactic, almost irrelevant seeming court scene. And it's all based on a true story, that of Sir Harry Oakes.
There's a lot in Eureka, but not all of gets out. It is in turns wondrous and inept, profound and banal. Roeg fills it with the type of associative jump cuts that had become his trademark, though in many ways it is more straightforward than his real headscratchers. When he goes for it though, he really goes for it. Another Roeg trademark were subliminal ejaculation scenes and there is an example early on here when someone blows his own head off and after the gunshot the impact is represented by the embers of fireworks dispersing. You can marvel at the daring of the film making, or scoff at its ridiculousness. There are visual wonders in the film but also moments that seem threadbare, cheap, a bit amateurish. That may be intentional – mirroring its theme by making the bulk of the film something of a letdown after the vigour and excitement of its first act in which Jack struggles through the Yukon snow to find the gold.
This culminates in the gold strike which is his life’s great moment of ecstasy, and Roeg does it full justice, calling on the heavens and earth to bear witness to this extraordinary moment. Stanley Myers provides the film with a tremendous score but for these scenes only Wagner will do. In the Caribbean the film is more subdued but then two thirds of the way through it starts to rouse itself and begins summoning up its darkest forces to erupt into a bravura section involving a voodoo ceremony and an ostentatiously gruesome murder.
If nothing else, Roeg knew how to film really spectacular death scenes, ones that strike you to the core. The Man Who Fell to Earth contains one of the most affecting death scenes in cinema, a character being thrown out of a top floor window. His plummet is accompanied by sensual heavy breathing, seductive music suitable for a soft porn seduction and a few brief flashbacks before cutting to another character's love scene. And in those short moments you get this terrible sense, not of a character leaving a story, but of all that a man ever was, hoped for, cared about, being eradicated forever. It’s a beautiful scene but distressing; it stays with you and when it enters your mind you may reflect on how evocatively it was filmed but also how desperately empty and fleeting life is. A major character dies in Eureka (I'm guessing you already know which one, but just in case) and it is brutal. Not just in its violence but in the way it emphasizes the desire to take everything from him. The victim is rubbed out entirely. The fact that it is follows a suspiciously realistic voodoo sequence just adds to the sense of this being something transgressive, that we are viewing something that wouldn't usually be allowed on screen.
Roeg often found himself in conflict with producers and studios. Eureka's stillborn release was largely down to wholesale regime change at MGM/UA and a desire to bury the work of their predecessor, but throughout his career Roeg's producers would come to look upon what they had funded and see in it something so ugly, so distressing that they didn't want to be a party to it. I sympathise. Roeg at his peak was like one of those afflicted kids in horror movies who have an evil gift they don't fully understand and can’t safely harness. Roeg's sixth sense is an instinctive skill for touching on that which is the most poignant and painful in life, to prod at the nerves that cause the greatest distress.
Eureka is a film that was barely released in cinemas and one that viewers are often repelled, or irritated by. I think this is at least partly down to Roeg and Mayersberg not being very good at communicating to the audience what they want them to be interested in. They give audiences muddled directions. Hackman is in fine form in the lead role but he does seems to be working contrary to the film's stated theme. He is supposed to be a man who has outlived his life, “Once I had it all, now I just have everything,” but his McCann still seems full of fight and bluster.
Yet, if you succumb to it than Eureka is a film that carries an almost indecent poignancy, a weight of sadness, a sense of futility that will hang from you for a day or two after seeing. The passing of time has only added to this, because this was effectively the end of his inspired period, his first six films, beginning with the co-directed Performance and his own subsequent films Walkabout, Don't Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bad Timing and this. In 1985, heavily promoted by the then dominant Frankie Goes To Hollywood label ZTT, he made a film of a Terry Johnson play Insignificance and for all his tricks, and all ZTT efforts to make it seem cool and essential, it felt like a film of a play, a smart play to be sure, but still just about the dullest and most boringly British thing a film can be. And from then on, he was just another guy. Should he try, he couldn't get back that which he once had, and often he didn't really try, just got on with doing the job in hand.
Both Walkabout and Bad Timing end with fleeting but evocative shots of characters in dull futures, some years hence from the compelling times we've just witnessed. In contrast Eureka concludes with a brief but evocative flashback to McCann struggling through the Yukon snow, Stanley Myer's score rising and Hackman intoning lines from the poem The Spell of the Yukon by Robert W. Service, as snowflakes land on the camera lens and blot out the view. You may not know quite how you got there but it is a desperately and inexplicable moving conclusion.
Three interviews with producer Jeremy Thomas, editor Tony Lawson (both shortish under 15 minutes) and a long one (nearly an hour) with writer Mayersberg.
There is an audio recording of an interview and Q&A with Roeg on the stage at the NFT after the premiere of Eureka, which you can watch with the film as a kind of director's commentary.
Also you can watch the whole film without dialogue, just music and effects. Don't really know who that would appeal to, but there's always one.
There's also an accompanying 36 page booklet with new reflections on the film by Roeg himself and Daniel Bird, plus an interview with Roeg from 1983.