I should be more careful what I wish for! Having been fond of the late Marcello Mastroianni in just about all of his roles, I really wanted to watch the above film again. I knew that I had seen a television screening in the very distant past, but could recall nothing much about it -- apart from a scene in a swimming pool (which I shall return to below). So when I noticed that an extremely rare showing was scheduled at the National Film Theatre, there we went -- only to be horribly disappointed.
Its director John Boorman has made some wonderful films like "Point Blank", "Deliverance", "Hell in the Pacific", and "Hope and Glory", but this must be amongst his worse, although he was also responsible for 1974's unfathomable "Zardoz". To my complete amazement, he actually won a best director award at Cannes for this mystifyingly bad movie. He apparently wooed dear Marcello to take the lead of the crown prince of a dethroned kingdom, who returns to his late father's cul-de-sac London mansion, and the actor agreed to come to Britain for one of his rare English-speaking roles. Professional as ever, he does throw himself into the part of the otherworldly princeling, but he looks more than his bemused character -- it's almost as if he is asking the world "what am I doing in this farrago?"
Accompanied by his gold-digging fiancée Billie Whitelaw and surrounded by a coterie of protective lackeys, he is only able to view the world through misty windows and his ever-present spyglass. In the basement, his weird major-domo Laszlo, played by shifty-eyed Vladek Sheybal, is marshalling a pack of counter-revolutionaries eager to restore the monarchy. When a soiree is arranged for him, he finds that he is surrounded by greedy guests, gorging and stuffing their faces like a herd of swine. He then discovers that the elaborate mansion is set smack in the middle of a lower-class, largely black slum, and he watches his neighbours' comings and goings much as his twitcher watches the flocks of pigeons that darken the sky. To his horror he learns that his inherited wealth largely derives from his father's having bought up the surrounding streets and that the desperately poor people he is spying upon are his tenants -- shades of the period's Rachmanism. He reluctantly wanders out into the 'real' world, eager to somehow relieve their suffering. His futile attempts to be a do-gooder only tend to make matters worse.
His minders and Miss Whitelaw are horrified that he might give away the wealth that they covet and do everything to prevent his joining the common herd. At one stage she convinces him to attend some sort of New Age meeting in a swimming pool, peopled by a crowd of naked wannabes grotesquely bobbing up and down to the exhortations of their guru. As each of them in turn shouts out that they feel marvellous or reborn, Marcello can only respond that he feels nothing but 'wet'; this was the only amusing piece of dialogue in the entire film! The movie is so very much of its time with nods to flower-power, boho liberalism, and pointless polemic, that it seems more than dated and verges on the unwatchable; none of this is helped by pompous voice-overs quoting T.S. Eliot or by one of the worst musical soundtracks ever.
Among the supporting cast are Calvin Lockhart as a resourceful rebel and 70s singer Ram John Holder as a not very charismatic black preacher; I did not however spot an uncredited Louis Gossett in an early role. Then there's the white rapist Kenneth J. Warren and the object of his lust, trainee-whore Glenna Forster Jones who Marcello tries to redeem. The stand-out performance in the crowd, however, is white busker Doris Clark, who belts out Cockney staples above the noisy melee. In the end the whole mansion comes tumbling down to the cheers of the mob and the mystification of Marcello. I'm sure it's all very symbolic, but goodness knows of what.