Directed by Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg. 1970
Starring James Fox, Mick Jagger, Anita Pallenberg, Michele Breton, Johnny Shannon, John Bindon, Stanley Meadows, Allan Cuthbertson, Anthony Morton, Anthony Valentine and Ken Colley. 105 mins.
Released on Warner Bros Premium Collection containing Blu-ray, DVD and Digital Copy of the films.
The first third of Performance is film making on another level, an extraordinary dam burst of creativity and provocation so potent that its influences are still washing up on the shores of popular culture to this day, arguably the most remarkable and dazzling piece of film making ever made on this island. Then Mick Jagger turns up and that's the end of that.
But that's OK, those first 35 minutes pack in so much that it is like a full length feature, but in such a concentrated, overwhelming manner you may need a breather. So while I definitely wouldn't recommend turning it off the moment that Chas (Fox) rings the door bell at 81 Povis Square in Notting Hill to inquire about a basement flat, it is something you could do with a clear conscience.
The first third of Performance is often held to be the greatest British gangster movie ever, and though Get Carter may have something abrupt and forceful to say on this issue, Performance is the first showing of many figures we'd become over familiar with. Chas is our fine young sadist, employed to put the frighteners on anyone who hesitates in accepting the merger proposals of his boss Harry Flowers (Shannon.) This part of the film is a tour de force of experimentation, with different stock used, characters talking directly to the camera, all done in a blur of associative editing.
What is remarkable about it is not how bold and unconventional the film making is, but how effective it is. It may be experimental but it is telling a story and cramming into it a wealth of character detail and background. Through hints and allusions we get to know the gang and their way of business in depth, and do it almost instantly. The extraordinary precision of the editing fires out bullets of information; a single jump cut can be worth ten pages of dialogue.
The editing is phenomenal, but so is the footage it is applied to. It scores in every department – the acting, the dialogue, the music is all first rate, and it looks incredible. Roeg's camera really gets the shabby awfulness of rundown 60s London. There is a chilling level of commitment to Fox's transformation from upper class theatrical toff, to East End cinematic villain; it's almost a purging of his identity, an effort to be more them than they are themselves. It is all senses of the word, a Performance.
Where the film really succeeds is getting across the nastiness. These are the archetypes of the theatrical menace that would become the default for cockney screen villainy. But, though they have plenty of great lines, “United we stand, divided we're lumbered;” “I like a bit of a cavort, I don't send solicitor's letters,” they are not the least bit endearing, or even glamorous. You like watching them on a screen, but you get very clearly that you don't want to to go near them, that they can hurt you in ways beyond bruises and bullet holes. A lot of people when it was released found the film repellent. (The very same Brothers Warner who are presenting this as part of their Premium Collection wanted to burn the negative at the time.) Repulsion is an entirely reasonable reaction because the film cuts very deep, really strips us down and doesn't leave us with much.
Chas will, of course, fall from favour with his employer, and need to lay low in the basement room of the home of a hermit former rock star, Turner (Jagger), and as soon as the film gets there it jolts into a different gear. It's like W.A.L.L.E, when the wondrous, transfixing, magically well made opening section on Earth gives way to the spaceship set bulk of the film. It's not that this new section is bad, it's just not the miracle that has come before. Rather than a free ranging piece of pure cinema, it becomes set bound and dialogue reliant. There is drug taking, threesomes (with Pallenberg and androgynous Breton) and general bohemian debauchery; but predominantly there is talk, and talk in rooms.
To be fair, the more times you watch it the more interesting and involving events at 81 Bovis Square become. Turner is a rock star who's lost his demon and can't create anymore. He hopes Chas can help him get it back. There is quite a bit of pretentious hot air being expended in these sequences, particular when Jagger gets to read aloud from ancient Persian texts, but also quite much that is fascinating and perceptive. Cammell was one of the first artists to realise that there was an extremely dark undertow running beneath the gentle currents of Peace and Love. (Despite the release date, it was shot in 1968, pre-Manson, pre-Altamont.) Once they see through Chas's assertion that he is a juggler just back from a tour of the continent, Pallenberg and Jagger fawn over Chas, are drawn toward his air of menace.
Jagger doesn't really act here, but in a film that gives him home team advantage, he holds his own opposite a talented actor giving the performance of his life. He was something to behold back them, that ridiculous full lipped pout leaving him poised and curled between the sexes, ready to leap on any opportunity that came his way, but not prepared to search. He looks beyond human (presciently Chas describes him as “a comical little geezer, you'll look funny when you're fifty”) and seeing him here you understand how his charisma would be enough to drag The Rolling Stones up to a point of near cultural parity with The Beatles. He's no kind of actor but he really doesn't need to be. Without Jagger there would be no Performance – it was conceived as a vehicle for him and it's his face that adorns the cover – and outside of his lyrical contribution to a dozen or so compositions with Keith Richards, Performance is his greatest achievement.
It is also possible that he inspired, indirectly, the film's greatest triumph, the amazing editing in the first third. When the film was first shown to horrified Warner executives they complained that it took too long to get to Jagger. Back in the editing suite Frank Mazzola was brought in to speed it up.
It seems to me that the film's structure is like that of one of the other landmark British film, Withnail and I. It starts with a really potent look at the reality of late sixties London for those outside the Swinging elite and then goes on holiday. Fantastic as Bruce Robinson's script is, I still can't see why we spend so much time in the cottage in the Lake District. The break though does give the closing scenes back in the capital a concentrated force and it is the same in Performance when we eventually emerge from the gloom in the final scene.
The credits list the film as having been written by Cammell and photographed by Roeg, with the pair described as co-directors. There is a tendency to think of it just as Roeg's debut movie but I suspect it is just as much, if not more, Cammell's achievement. It was his project, his vision and his script which Roeg, previously known as an outstanding cinematographer, helped to realise. The deeply ambiguous ending appears to show the two men swapping destinies. After Performance Cammell only got to make another three films and never came close to matching Performance's intensity. Roeg made a string of extraordinary films that utilised beautifully the creative strategies they'd pioneered in Notting Hill at the end of the sixties. At the end of the film, when he rides off to Australia to make Walkabout, Roeg takes Cammell's seat in the white Rolls Royce.