Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 11, 2020)
Two of the biggest stars in Hollywood history, Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor worked together only once. Along with legendary director John Huston, the actors paired for 1967’s Reflections in a Golden Eye.
Based on Carson McCullers’ 1941 novel, we meet US Army Major Weldon Penderton (Brando) and his wife Leonora (Taylor). Assigned to a fairly insignificant base in the American south, Weldon struggles with a mix of internal issues, and the marriage becomes arid and loveless.
To satisfy herself, Leonora engages in an affair with Lieutenant Colonel Morris Langdon (Brian Keith), also a married person. Langdon’s wife Alison (Julie Harris) experienced a mental breakdown when she suffered a miscarriage a few years earlier. All these characters and others bring an emotional powder keg that could go off at any moment.
Geez, that sounds like one effed up military base! With all those loony characters, one gets the impression that Eye might offer nothing more than lurid soap opera fare.
And you know what? That concept remains largely true, with one issue: Eye doesn’t quite seem lurid enough.
The film walks a fine line, as it wants to present all the whacked-out material I describe above, but Huston seems largely unwilling to embrace the story’s inherent melodrama. Normally I’d approve of a more low-key take on a potentially over the top narrative, but the approach simply doesn’t work here.
Partly the issue stems from the absence of real character development. Eye tends to favor subtext, without much concrete story information onto which the viewer can grasp.
Again, this sounds like a good idea on the surface, but Eye can feel stuck in neutral too much of the time. Despite the occasional moment of major impact, the tale drags and lacks much real momentum.
Rather than move along the plot and characters, it often feels like we get little more than one shot after another of creepy Private Williams (Robert Forster) as he stares at buildings and people. Doesn’t he ever work?
I get the use of Williams as a connecting element, but again, this choice doesn’t connect. We simply feel like Williams appears as a weird Greek chorus of sorts – albeit one who rarely speaks – and not as a strong narrative component on his own.
As the movie wanders through drama and tragedy, it fails to find a groove. Again, the characters don’t develop in a particularly compelling way, and Eye tends to waste its leads
Even with overwritten scenes, we get a good charge when Taylor and Brando appear together. Unfortunately, they spend much more time apart, so we don’t find the desired impact much of the time.
Instead, we wander through fairly dull character scenes that the film punctuates with pretentious monologues. Most of these come across more as laughable than impactful – and the scene in which Weldon suffers a breakdown becomes unintentionally comedic due to Brando’s wild facial gestures.
Other than those handful of energetic encounters I mentioned, neither Brando nor Taylor can do much with their roles, and they tend to overplay their parts, perhaps in an effort to enliven the dreary proceedings. Keith and Harris fare much better, as they perform in a more “straight” manner, and one tends to wish the film wholly focused on them.
But it doesn’t, and those supporting roles can’t redeem a murky narrative. As much fun as it should be to see Taylor and Brando in the same film, the end result disappoints.