Directors: Nicholas Roeg / Script: Paul Mayersberg / Editing: Tony Lawson / DP: Alex Thompson / Music: Stanley Myers
Cast: Gene Hackman / Theresa Russell / Rutger Hauer / Jane Lapotaire / Mickey Rourke / Ed Lauter / Joe Pesci / Helena Kallianiotes
Can’t Buy Me Love.
Talk about poor timing… Nicholas Roeg, Director of such classics as Walkabout and the Man Who Fell to Earth to name but two, signed on to make this picture with United Artists – just at the time Michael Cimino was haemorrhaging studio cash with his production of Heaven’s Gate: a production that was to seal the studio’s fate and drive it into the waiting arms of rival, MGM. As a result, when Roeg’s picture finally emerged from its lengthy (and costly) production, the new management were ready to write it off and start again with a slate of their pictures: that’s show business.
Through no fault of its own, Eureka was shown in a few cinemas in both the UK and USA, before being sidelined and trundled-out only for the odd festival or Roeg retrospective, so this re-release marks the first time that most of us have been able to judge this ‘lost’ masterpiece for ourselves.
The film begins with an unspoken motto: that even in the bleakest of Yukon winters, the greed of man burns bright and strong. We know this, because the first thing we see is a helicopter shot of two prospectors duking it out, watched by a woman who’s screaming for them to stop. Even when Roeg moves his camera down-to-Earth, they’re still at it, when they should be huddling inside their only tent. Still, it’s one way of keeping warm in a blizzard – and as Jack McCann ((‘JM’) Gene Hackman in a rich, textured performance) stomps-off into the white-out, he delivers the mantra that will henceforth drive the picture: ‘I never earned a nickel from another man’s sweat!’. Well, Amen to that, brother.
JM ends-up in the bleakest, most forlorn mining camp: they even called it ‘Bagdad’ in some bitter, predictive twist (actually, this was a real, abandoned place; the production simply re-dressed it for the film: I bet they were glad to leave…). It’s a place so devoid of hope, that the Mining Claims Office is shut: much to the annoyance of another prospector waiting on its front step, who blows his brains out with a pistol, rather than seek warmth, treatment for his frost-bitten extremities or, err, both.
Roeg chooses this moment to offer us a glimpse of the film’s alchemy at-work, for what JM sees, is not a spattering of blood, but an exploding firework. It’s a supernatural intervention, not privy to the rest of us and it’s telling him that he has to SURVIVE. That he does in the local brothel, under the care of Frieda (Helena Kallianiotes). She’s a mystic, whose destiny in this picture is to ‘lead’ JM to the largest gold strike in history.
We’ve also got a meteorite landing at JM’s feet. This stone (translucent, potent) will be his ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ – his ‘touchstone’ – for the rest of his life. Not only does it help guide him to the gold, but Roeg occasionally fast-cuts to a close-up of the Moon, or a horizon-spanning mountain range, as if to imply that ‘nature is watching’; that JM has been gifted this secret and now has to live with its consequences. It’s as though Roeg is implying magic-realism has had a hand in JM’s change of fortune, but JM is the driver here: he saw the fireworks at the Claims Office before he met Frieda; she just unlocked the door that he then walked-through. This entire sequence is also a bravura example of Roeg’s signature style: a shattering of a narrative’s chronological order, that asks the viewer to piece things together to form their own version. His use of cutaways and fast-zooms all add to the disorienting lack of hand-holding; it’s astonishing to witness.
Roeg’s idea of JM’s gold strike, is as fantastical as it looks: a cave, the walls of which, literally glow with light from exposed nuggets. JM hacks away at just one of these over-sized lodes in a feverish ecstasy and duly ‘uncorks’ a subterranean river; the sudden influx of water carries him to the surface, in a ‘baptism’ of gold flakes. He returns to Frieda in triumph, only to have her die on seeing his success: an understandable reaction to seeing a delirious prospector covered from head to foot in gold flakes. I jest: it’s as if her own existence is bound to the gold and once discovered, she no longer has a purpose in living. Like Jason with the Golden Fleece, JM has returned from a perilous quest with the riches of the Gods. It turns-out, that that’s the easy part: living as the newly-minted ‘Richest Man in the World’ will be a lot harder.
Now. The future, some-time in the early 1940’s and JM’s family is established in a pair of scenes. The first, sees him, now as an older man, watching his chauffeur dig his Rolls-Royce from out of a snow-bank, in the company of Tracy (Therese Russell, in an alluring performance that cemented her position as Roeg’s muse); she’s his daughter and evidently a chip off the old block. The second, sees him at home with wife Helen (a brittle Jane Lapotaire). Home now, is ‘Eureka’ – a luxurious Caribbean mansion with views across the sea. It should be everything he ever dreamed of (especially when you learn that he owns the island), but then again, not all is as it should be. For a start, Helen drinks like a fish and reads her own tarot: a shorthand for instability if ever there was. There’s a malaise, here. A discontent with the world that JM has built for himself, for he’s no longer scouting. Mining. Hunting. He’s become complacent. Soft. Unhappy.
Into this set-up, comes an external force: an antagonist in the form of Miami mob-boss Mayakofsky (Joe Pesci in an early, understated role) and his lawyer, Aurelio (Mickey Rourke, ditto), who have designs on ‘Lunar Bay’ – the part of the island in which Eureka stands. They wish to build a hotel-casino on the site, but JM’s not selling. If anything, as he explains to right-hand-man Charlie (under-used Ed Lauter), he’s retired… In this tale however, nothing is as it seems, for Mayakofsky represents EVIL, as a force, directed against any GOOD that’s still vested in JM, via the gold (and the watching Moon, etc), so the stakes are high.
There’s another complication as well: Tracy’s romance with ‘The Frog’, Claude (Rutger Hauer). In Hauer’s quicksilver depiction, Claude is a ‘man-child’ who’s made an art out of ‘dabbling’ in everything, but who’s achieved little to show for it. A peripatetic playboy, his only asset appears to be a yacht (and crew) with no other visible income. In a later era, he’d be a rich, over-indulged hippy, with ever-anxious parents worriting over him in the background, but in 1942 or so, he’s just bumming round the Caribbean and escaping the war: marrying Tracy is a good prospect for ensuring long-term solvency and indulgence.
I mentioned a complication here, though, and it’s this: JM loathes Claude, because he always earns his nickels from other men’s sweat… He’s the antithesis of all that JM believes in; all that he was, is, or ever will be. What’s more, in a revealing dinner scene, we begin to realise that JM and Tracy are cut from the same cloth: they are the same players in this un-ending cosmic production…
Aside from Aurelio and Charlie, who are passive witnesses, the driving force here is Claude, who twice reveals his true nature. First, we see a picture on the front of his shirt, showing ‘the five points of the Kabbalah’ (1. Science. 2. Listening. 3. Remembrance. 4. Practising. 5. Teaching, in case you’d forgotten). Claude’s no Jew (as far as we know), so this reinforces his character as lacking a spiritual core; he’s as much a dabbler of faiths then, as anything else. After describing the dinner as a ‘Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, he then abuses JM’s hospitality for the last time. As an after-dinner treat, JM gives each guest a small nugget of gold (he’s got so much, he can afford to give it away), but Claude swallows his: such is his contempt for both father-in-law and his wealth.
This is important, as not only does it reveal this mutual loathing to the key players, but Aurelio relays it all back to Mayakofsky, who’s resolve hardens in-turn. As he says: ‘He dug up his fortune. We cannot allow him to stand in the way of new men who want to build theirs…’
There’s one more card to be turned-over in Claude’s life: he receives a letter informing him of his mother’s death. This is the catalyst that burns everyone, in the end. Tracy becomes estranged from her father and escapes, with Helen, back to the mainland. Left to his own devices, Claude is soon on-the-lash with a friend and a couple of WRNs collected from the local naval base (it’s the War, remember). Without a thought for Tracy, they end up at a voodoo ceremony, where an orgy ensures, fuelled by whatever’s in the water. Just as well that Claude isn’t at home, as JM’s looking for him…
Then the final confrontation, later that very night. Not with Claude, as we might’ve expected, but with Aurelio, who presents the ‘Lunar Bay’ contract for the last time. Jack refuses to sign, even at gunpoint, before dismissing the lawyer and his hired trio of cronies with ‘If only your mothers could see you!’. The Moon has been watching over JM all this time, protecting him. Now, in refusing the ‘Lunar’ contract, what’s he doing? Denying the Moon? Protecting it? We’re about to find out, as the muscle follows him back to Eureka and there, watched by Claude, these unknown assailants attack Jack with a blowtorch, then feather and decapitate his body: it’s a voodoo killing, but Roeg is keen not to show who-does-what.
Even when we see Claude leave the scene, brushing feathers from his clothes, we’re not certain that he actually did anything; though his motivation is as strong as the mob’s.
To underline the metaphysical aspect of JM’s insight, we see a repeat of those fireworks at the moment of his death; even his touchstone is melted-down, in a calculated act of eliminating its potency. Thus ends the Second Act, with a tonal shift out of kilter with what’s passed before. It’s meant to be shocking: after all, this is a battle between Good and Evil: it’s supposed to be…
After that, the Third Act – a straightforward courtroom drama – was always going to be underwhelming, even if the Crown’s only suspect is Claude. At first, he reveals a naiveté in the dock, as the prosecution struggles to make its circumstantial case, but things change when he fires his lawyer and chooses to defend himself, with Tracy as his only witness.
At first, he asks her a number of leading questions, hoping that she’ll spring to his defence, but having gotten nowhere, he switches tack: ‘Look at me. What do you see?’ he asks. She responds with a bruising honesty: ‘A man who can never pass by a mirror without looking at himself. A man trying to get me tipsy while staying sober himself.’ Yet she goes on to talk of their love, as being fateful. She also talks of her father on finding the gold in 1925, after 15 years of searching. ‘Only then’, she explains, ‘did he realise that all of the joy of going out looking for it, had gone… Poor Jack! A moment of rapture, followed by decades of despair’. Tracy now admits that JM was despised by others, because he’d found what he was looking for: he’d had his rapture. Maybe that’s why her father despised Tracy: because she’d found her rapture in Claude and he didn’t measure-up to what JM had in mind for her…
Just as the prosecution reveals that Claude had been packing to leave when arrested (a momentary flash of alarm flits across Tracy’s face), so Roeg triggers his ‘Deus Ex’ moment: the doors burst-open and in-streams a crowd, jubilant with the news that ‘the war is over!’. We never get our revelatory moment and Claude is acquitted, to be deported.
Now reunited, Tracy and Claude have dinner together on Eureka’s verandah, whereupon Tracy announces that she’s ‘going to give it all away’. Hmm… After complaining about the cold, Claude goes indoors for ‘something warmer’. He looks about the Hall, then at himself in the mirror (as predicted by Tracy) and says to himself, ‘I knew it would be you, Tracy’. Then he rows himself back to his yacht, alone, but watched by her. Why? Maybe he’s acknowledging that if he stays with her, he’ll never find what he’s looking for. She’s become her father – and Claude can’t stand to be around her and the memories she invokes. I took my hat off to screenwriter Paul Mayersberg over this last revelation, as it raises as many questions as it answers and leaves us feeling fresh ambiguities over Claude’s true nature and history.
It’s quite a story, then and all the more shocking to learn that it’s based on the true case of Sir Harry Oakes, who was murdered in Nassau, in 1943. A Canadian prospector who struck it rich and bought his way into society (and a knighthood), his ritual murder has never been solved. Author Marshall Houts wrote two books in the Seventies looking at this puzzle and drew no firm conclusions, which might be another reason why Roeg felt it would be a good basis for a feature.
I’m writing this a few days after having seen the film, but its themes and tone still linger. I wouldn’t say it was an important film, but there’s something about it that appeals and endures days after watching it – and how many films can do that?
It’s shame that the incoming MGM suits
couldn’t see didn’t want to see the same, in this overlooked gem…
Once I had it all. Now I just have everything.