[Originally published in Movietone News 41, May 1975]
Memory and mortality are, almost by structural definition, the two cloutiest themes movies can tackle. Memory is implicit in any film with the least vestige of form and design: we recognize correspondences between shots, scenes, movements, colors, lines of dialogue, inflections, intonations, anything, and something goes ding!, consciously or not; and in a good movie something in the world implicitly goes ding! as well, since a piece of the world has just been held up for us in a context new and yet fraught with recognizability. Mortality we have always with us: all the fancy curtain-openings and -closes, all the shadow-boxes and halo-lights, all the mushy focus (in the camera or in the projection booth) that may actively or inadvertently try to slur the boundaries of life and movie can’t cancel the basic fact of light and not-light, film and no-film, experience and nothingness. So when a movie that plays with these twin or at least sibling themes goes belly-up in a welter of blah, the filmmakers’ failure is even more pronounced than that of your average suburban-theater-circuit mediocrity.
Judging by all the handily visible evidence (and that does not include, at the moment, a copy of the novel), Max Ehrlich’s screenplay for The Reincarnation of Peter Proud hasn’t attempted to do much about bringing to suggestive fruition the myriad potentialities fairly seething in this story of a man whose nocturnal hot flashes prove to be not dreams but scenes from his existence in the previous generation. Nothing is made of the New England milieu, studded with Puritan artifacts, where Peter Proud seeks to certify his status as a reincarnated spirit and hence, as one observer points out, bids fair to become a prophetic figure in a revolutionary religion that would transcend such restrictive niceties as sin, salvation, and mortality. That he was a prick in his previous existence and yet manages to be a thoroughly nice guy in his present life is beside any point that I detected, and I’ve only the vaguest suspicion that something was being compared and contrasted in juxtaposing the destructive philandering of the 1946 version against the casual, only slightly objectionable permissiveness characteristic of the contemporary Peter Proud and his circle of young-faculty friends. For a while there it seems as if something interesting might get started between Proud and his “daughter,” who rather digs him and can’t fathom his hesitation at key points of development in their relationship; but ultimately the question of to-ball-or-not-to-ball—and why, either way—simply evaporates.
None of this necessarily bears on my opening remarks. Whatever the failings of and loopholes in a script, an even halfway-achieved mise-en-scène would have transported us into an irrational, virtually universal realm of experience and, on some level and in some form, aspiration. The story takes us to the border of that realm, and the power of the literally life-and-death questions it poses occasionally jolts through the most lackluster realization: a senile woman who hasn’t recognized anyone in years suddenly turns to Proud and greets him as her “son”—the idea of this encounter taking place is sufficient to raise the hair on the stiffest critical neck. But J. Lee Thompson’s direction is formless. The images intended to provide glimpses of Proud’s previous life are, save for the primal situation of a nude and vulnerable body slipping through the night waters of a lake, without resonance or visual suggestibility; moreover, the nonstop twitchiness of camera and cutting serves no purpose save to prevent our seeing the bankrupt images more clearly and hence to keep us straining to see. The film’s saving grace (aside from its affording the opportunity to sift the materials and make our own “movie” in our heads, simultaneously or afterwards) is the unclassifiable Margot Kidder playing a haunted murderess at two phases of her life, almost thirty years apart. Lighting and makeup are sometimes so grossly deliberate as to make the attempt at concealing her true age laughable; yet Kidder herself, with a face one moment as broad as a Boston ‘a’ and the next gaunt with memory and desire, keeps smuggling her own brand of aesthetically shaped, truly unsettling mystery onto a screen that lacks for any other sense of design.
THE REINCARNATION OF PETER PROUD
Direction: J. Lee Thompson. Screenplay: Max Ehrlich, after his novel. Cinematography: Victor J. Kemper. Music: Jerry Goldsmith.
The Players: Michael Sarrazin, Margot Kidder, Jennifer O’Neill, Cornelia Sharpe, Paul Hecht.
Copyright © 1975 Richard T. Jameson