cast: James Fox, Mick Jagger, Anita Pallenberg, Michele Breton, Johnny Shannon
director: Donald Cammell, Nicolas Roeg
101 minutes (18) 1970
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Warner DVD Regions 2 + 4 + 5 retail
reviewed by Gary Couzens
Chas Devlin (James Fox) is a ‘performer’, an East End gangster with a taste for violence. But one day he goes too far. Assigned to keep an eye on bookie Joey Maddocks (Anthony Valentine), an old enemy, he receives a vicious beating and in return kills Maddocks. On the run, Chas hides out in the Notting Hill house of reclusive rock star Turner (Mick Jagger) and his two female companions Lucy (Michele Breton) and Pherber (Anita Pallenberg). Under the influence of drugs and the bohemian atmosphere of the house, Chas’ sense of his own identity begins to slip…
The inspiration for Performance came from Donald Cammell, who had previously worked as a screenwriter on 1968’s Duffy. Cammell took inspiration not only from contemporary swinging London (a milieu where criminals rubbed shoulders with socialites) and his own wide reading – notably the works of Jorge Luis Borges, who is explicitly alluded to in the film. As Cammell was a first-time director, he was paired with Nicolas Roeg, who had worked his way up through the industry to become one of the industry’s leading cinematographers. Principal photography took place in 1968, Cammell working with the actors, Roeg (also credited as director of photography) concentrating on the technical aspects. Some of the head games played on the ultra-straight Chas in the film were by all accounts played by Cammell and Anita Pallenberg (Keith Richards’ then girlfriend) on Fox on set: for whatever reason, Fox was so disturbed by the experience of making the film that he joined a Christian order and retired from acting for over a decade. His performance, cast as he is against class background, is quite remarkable.
It’s fair to say that Warner Bros didn’t know what they were getting when they gave the green light to Performance – probably they expected a film that would cash in on the popularity of a current pop band, as the Beatles had had with A Hard Day’s Night and others had followed. But what they received was a film that combined violence, which was noticeably strong for its day, with sexuality of a distinctly bisexual and sadomasochistic kind. Roeg had to go to Australia to make Walkabout, so Cammell re-edited the film in collaboration with Frank Mazzola, introducing much of the film’s trademark cross-cutting which ironically would be adopted by Roeg in his later solo films. (To be fair, some of this technique, which derived from French New Wave directors – Alain Resnais in particular – can be seen in Richard Lester’s Petulia, the last film Roeg photographed before Performance.) On its eventual release in 1970 – landed with an X rating by the MPAA, and cut by the BBFC – the film rapidly picked up a cult following which it maintains to this day.
The opening section is a gangster thriller, looking forward to the early 1970s trend for violent crime films (Get Carter, Villain, and so on). Once Chas arrives in Turner’s house, the tone shifts. Identities merge, emphasised by the directors’ use of superimpositions, and even the boundaries between genders becomes uncertain. In a famous scene (borrowed by Paul Schrader for Mishima), Pherber uses a mirror to have her head on Chas’ body, one of her breasts on his chest. Chas gets into bed with someone we at first think is Turner – no, it’s the gamine Lucy, who somewhat resembles him. As Chas enters Turner’s world, Turner enter Chas’ – in an acid-trip sequence which features Jagger’s song Memo From Turner (or ‘Memo From T’ as the credits have it). The film’s final shot indicates that Chas and Turner have become one.
However, some of the film’s technique – de-saturating the colour down to monochrome, an under-the-sheets threesome shot in grainy 16mm, a bullet entering a skull – does seem self-conscious, something that carries over into Roeg’s first solo film Walkabout. His use of trick shots (for want of a better term) is less apparent after he handed photographic duties over to others, in his films from Don’t Look Now onwards. The music score is particularly noteworthy, mostly by Jack Nitzche who used one of the first Moog synthesisers to produce it. Also heard are Buffy Sainte-Marie, proto-rappers The Last Poets, Merry Clayton, Randy Newman (who sings Gone Dead Train over both sets of credits) and some dazzling bottleneck slide guitar from Ry Cooder.
Performance was on many people’s wish lists from the early days of DVD. The film is presented in a ratio of 1.78:1 with the credits sequences slightly window-boxed. The soundtrack is the original mono, presented in Dolby digital 1.0. The film is uncut but there is one anomaly: during the Memo From Turner sequence, Jagger raises a glass and says, “Here’s to good old England.” However, on this DVD we see Jagger’s lips move but do not hear the words. (The Region 1 NTSC release is exactly the same.)
The extras are good enough as they are but given the reams of material written about this film over the years, disappointingly sparse. The main item is a 25-minute featurette Influence And Controversy. Cammell committed suicide in 1996 so is understandably absent (though it’s to be hoped that the documentary The Ultimate Performance could be licensed for a future special edition), though his brother David appears. More disappointing is the lack of input from Roeg or Fox. Also on the disc is contemporary featurette, Memo From Turner (five minutes), and the trailer.