Wednesday, 5 February 2020

The Medusa Touch - 1978 film review

In my youth, I used to see Peter Van Greenaway's books in the library quite often. When I looked at the blurbs and first few pages, I was never sufficiently enthused to borrow them, probably because it was clear he wasn't writing novels in the same vein as contemporary writers of the time whom I admired, such as Julian Symons. Probably this was a mistake (even if it wasn't a misjudgement of his type of writing) on my part, because I rather enjoyed The Medusa Touch, an unorthodox film made by Jack Gold from one of his unorthodox novels.

Nowadays, I'm much more receptive than I was then to genre-bending stories, and this film blends three distinct types of story - murder mystery, sci-fi, and horror. Let's take the murder mystery first. The film begins with an apparently fatal attack on a writer, John Morlar. The case is investigated by Scotland Yard in the unexpected person of a French cop who is there on some sort of exchange scheme. He is played, pretty well, by Lino Ventura. The first big surprise for him is that Morlar isn't quite dead from the bludgeoning he's suffered. He's rushed to hospital, while Ventura delves into his past.

A series of flashbacks follow. This isn't usually a good way to present information, but it's done fairly well. Morlar is played by Richard Burton and he has been seeking psychiatric help from Dr Zonfeld (Lee Remick). We learn that, throughout his life, Morlar seems to have had a strange power to inflict harm on people who get on his wrong side. And in recent times his misanthropy has been increasing.

The murder mystery element of the story proves to be quite perfunctory, so to that extent my youthful instincts may have been on the right lines. We're dealing with telekinesis here, though (spoiler alert) the source of Morlar's powers is never explained, and I find that irritating. The later stages of the film turn into a dramatic attempt to prevent Morlar inflicting colossal harm on institutions that he despises, and these action scenes are pretty well done. The supporting cast is terrific - it includes Jeremy Brett and Michael Hordern as well as many stalwarts such as Harry Andrews, Philip Stone and Norman Bird. To sum up, an odd film based on what I suspect is an odd book by a writer who was attracted to oddity. But interesting enough to make me curious about Van Greenaway's other work and - at last! - ready to try reading him.

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