[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]
The Public Eye begins with promise but finally has little to recommend it but some nice pictures of London. It is a sappy, soppy, misguided movie unlike anything I ever expected to see released under Sir Carol Reed’s signature. The story concerns David, a dignified, intellectual British accountant, who has met Belinda, a hip American waitress of simple philistine tastes, has dazzled her with his knowledge and culture, and has wed her. As the film opens, David retains a private detective agency to follow Belinda, who has been going out by herself a great deal, much to his suspicion. Though innocent of infidelity, she quickly establishes an intimate relationship with the detective. The two never speak or touch, cementing their peekaboo “affair” by following each other through London, day in and day out. The wife’s affections are going begging, it seems, because David’s arts-and-cultural-activities lifestyle has begun to bore her. Explaining this to David in his first few scenes as the private detective Julian Christoferou, Topol is charming and winsomely comic. But soon afterward he turns marriage counselor and determines to make David “worthy” of Belinda by spouting facile speeches about “love,” “sharing,” and “fee1ings.”
What might have been a delightful comic character becomes a saccharine, meddlesome Mary Worth. Mia Farrow is uncommonly weak as Belinda, principally because she has so little to work with. Shaffer has made her a shallow, flighty sort who is initially attracted to David by the vast store of cultural awareness he can give her, but who all too quickly loses interest and returns to the streets of London to pursue simpler pleasures. Unfortunately, her brief flirtation with the arts inspired her to marry David; so we have in Belinda a sort of failed Eliza Doolittle who disastrously weds her Higgins before becoming independent of him instead of after. What is outrageous about Shaffer’s script is that all the blame for the failure of the marriage is cast onto David’s poor shoulders, for doing no more than persisting in the lifestyle which attracted Belinda to him in the first place. He receives from both wife and detective a series of unbearably shallow, vulgar lectures on sharing his wife’s interests; and the puerile game of pursuing each other through London, never talking or touching, in a sort of trendy, pretentious follow-the-leader, becomes a metaphor for the supposedly proper conduct of modern marriage. David is a straw man, and Michael Jayston plays him as Shaffer has written him: so humorless, stuffy, and self-important as to become totally unsympathetic. In truth, he is the only intelligent, well-developed character in the film; but the odds are against him in a systematic anti-intellectual brutalization from which we draw less and less enjoyment, even as David derives less and less pleasure from his increasingly and unfairly discredited lifestyle.
THE PUBLIC EYE
Direction: Carol Reed. Screenplay: Peter Shaffer, after his play. Production: Hal B. Wallis.
The Players: Mia Farrow, Topol, Michael Jayston.
Copyright © 1973 Robert C. Cumbow