Flickhead
DVD Review
By Ray Young

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I’d walk a mile for a Cammell

Duffy (1968) Written by Donald Cammell and Harry Joe Brown Jr.; directed by Robert Parrish and produced by Martin Manulis; released by Columbia Pictures. Running time: 101 minutes.

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    No doubt inspired by the apparent success of the Warner Archives, Sony now has their own line of made-to-order releases from Columbia Pictures. A canny business move, these on-demand DVDs (rather, DVD-Rs) work like heroin on a vulnerable collector’s market willing to shell out twenty- to twenty-five bucks per title on films which, if mass produced, would be gathering dust in the five-dollar bin at Walmart, a fate many of them weathered years ago when they were released on VHS. As of yet, none are on hand for rent or instant viewing at Netflix.

    Less the Holy Grail of Donald Cammell’s sketchy oeuvre than one of its many missing links, Duffy (1968) is a psychedelic heist film making a long overdue debut on home video. (As far as I know, it never came out on tape.) Props to Sony/Columbia for recognizing the absence, and providing such a clear, rich looking transfer. As with the others in the Warner and Columbia catalogs, it’s short on bonus features outside of a trailer. Who cares? As a longtime Cammell fan, I was happy just to see the thing in its entirety. Those who don’t share my enthusiasm, however, may want to proceed with caution.

    On the one hand, Duffy is an eye-popping relic from that momentary lapse when a conservative mainstream grappled with all things mod, a dangerous cultural turning point that found us getting hammered with chartreuse Nehru jackets, paisley bellbottoms and tea shades — trendy items any true hipster wouldn’t be caught dead wearing. It’s also where Cammell, a psychic descendant of the Pre-Raphaelites, may have found solace in the prevailing fashions and ethics. The commercial hook in his story was an elaborate robbery, hot stuff back when people were still going on about Rififi (1955) and Topkapi (1964), and enough to secure a high profile three-James cast: Coburn, Mason and Fox. Along for the ride is newcomer Susannah York, playing an ornamental sex object who, we’re told, “may be a hooker but not a slut.”

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Hedonism, incorporated. Above, Coburn and Fox on the terrace of Duffy’s art studio and apartment.

Below, Duffy catching some rays back when smoking, drinking and suntans were all the rage.

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    He’s credited for co-writing the screenplay with Harry Joe Brown, Jr. (Harry Sr. produced all of those cool Randolph Scott-Bud Boetticher westerns in the 50s), but the more compelling aspects of Duffy revolve around its proximity to Cammell’s own personal life. There are thinly veiled references to his father and brother David, and glimmers of the hedonism to come in Performance (1970), which he’d soon start filming with Nicolas Roeg. Still inexperienced as far as the studios were concerned (after an aborted career as a portrait painter in the 50s, his only previous film credits included a brief appearance as a tourist asking directions in Eric Rohmer’s La collectionneuse [1967] and collaborative work on the screenplay for The Touchables [1968]), the thirty-four-year-old Cammell did not direct DuffyRobert Parrish did, and delivered something decidedly different than we imagine its author would have allowed. Prior to Duffy, Parrish was an actor (John Ford’s Mother Machree [1928], Chaplin’s City Lights [1931]), and climbed his way up the production ladder, first as sound editor (on Young Mister Lincoln [1939] and others for Ford), film editor (for Ford, George Cukor, Lewis Milestone, Max Ophüls; winning an Oscar for Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul in 1947), and kicked off a thirty-two year career as a director with Cry Danger in 1951. Fifty-two-years-old when Duffy was made, it’s easy to see Parrish scratching his head over such groovy idioms as “Can you dig the scene, man?” and “This happening just isn’t my bag, baby.”

    If Cammell’s to credit for the plot and characters, he has two half-brothers — one an underachiever with improbable corporate aspirations (played by John Alderton), the other a bohemian fashion whore averse to manual labor (James Fox) — cooking up a scheme to rip off millions from their conniving, emotionally distant father (James Mason), part of whose fat bank account is the net result of their dead mothers’ inheritances. They and their situation may not bear direct similarity to David and Donald; nor their father, the poet, author and Aleister Crowley biographer Charles Richard Cammell, but it’s safe to assume Donald drew from personal experience to flesh out the screenplay. There’s a direct reference to the Cammell family’s history in shipbuilding (their fortunes were lost in the Great Depression) as Mason’s loot is in transit on one of his company’s cruise ships — a vessel prophetically named after the Egyptian god Osiris, a character Cammell himself later portrayed in Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising (1972).

    Alderton and Fox enlist the services of the title character, an American expatriate, avant-garde sculptor and thief living in Tangiers (James Coburn), where most of the action takes place once we’re away from the sons’ London digs. Cammell was reportedly dissatisfied with Parrish’s direction, but Duffy has moments of rhythmic beauty and craft, such as this casual introductory shot of Coburn arriving at a destitute village bordered by a bustling oasis of suntans, bikinis and cocktails set to a snappy Lou Rawls tune:

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    Then at the zenith of his popularity, the lanky and toothsome Coburn starred in five major releases between his breakout role in Our Man Flint (1966) and Duffy two years later: What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966); Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round (1966) — one of the decade’s more colorful titles; In Like Flint (1967); the Western comedy Waterhole #3 (1967), in which a rape is dismissed as “assault with a friendly weapon”; and The President’s Analyst (1967). He arrived at an interesting characterization for Duffy, whose contradictory persona is left open for interpretation. An artist, capitalist, nonconformist, pot smoker, peace lover, gun owner, analytical thinker, cigarette smoker, zealous about his morning meditation, drinker, playboy, con artist — meat, potatoes and tofu — and the most grounded character in the story. He’s also an American whose sheer brain power and charisma enable him to float above his less intelligent Moroccan neighbors and bungling British cohorts, evidence of Cammell’s mounting disdain for old world European values (he was born in Scotland) and an increasing awareness of Colonial strong-arm imperialism. It’s worth noting that the lead character in early drafts of Performance was an American gangster (with Marlon Brando slated to star) not far removed from Duffy, a role that later evolved into a Cockney crime enforcer ultimately played by Fox.

    Reviews at the time were understandably mixed. Writing for the New York Times, A.H. Weiler considered Duffy “a fairly charming diversion,” and found Coburn “an unbelievable delight.” Whereas Pauline Kael thought it was “a cheat at every turn,” and called the actor “a spastic zombie.” Depending on how you look at it, both are correct. The middle and latter part of the 60s were inundated with commercial mainstream films striving to capture the mood of a turbulent era. But for every success like A Hard Day’s Night (1964) or Blow-Up (1966), there were dozens of lesser works that felt instantly outdated. In too many ways, Duffy suffers from that same obsolescence; but as a piece of the puzzle that is Donald Cammell, it’s an invaluable steppingstone to one of the strangest careers in modern cinema.

  • For further (and immensely entertaining) study in Donald Cammell, I recommend reading Mick Brown on Performance (Bloomsbury, 1999) and Colin MacCabe’s Bfi Film Classics: Performance (Bfi Publishing, 1998). By then, if you’re really hooked, continue with Donald Cammell: A Life on the Wild Side (Fab Press, 2006), a disappointing biography by Rebecca and Sam Umland; and make every effort to see Kevin MacDonald and Chris Rodley’s priceless documentary, Donald Cammell: The Ultimate Performance (1998).