The power of Burton: The Medusa Touch (Jack Gold, 1978)

tmt

The only two Richard Burton films I’ve seen are The Medusa Touch and Where Eagles Dare, which is pretty unfortunate, I know. But while anyone could have played his role in Where Eagles Dare, I don’t even want to consider someone else portraying John Morlar in The Medusa Touch.

Morlar is a novelist who somehow survived having his skull stove in and his brains spilled onto his living room carpet. Brunel (Lino Ventura), the police inspector investigating the attempted murder, finds that Morlar’s psychiatrist, Doctor Zonfeld (Lee Remick), has some unusual things to say about her patient. He believes that he caused terrible things to happen with the power of his mind: not just the deaths of his nanny, parents, and wife, but disasters larger and far more dangerous.

Although Morlar is presently in the hospital, comatose and attached to a variety of machines and with his head held together by bandages, Burton is an inescapable presence. He appears in flashbacks neatly tied into Brunel’s conversations with people who knew Morlar, and as a voice when Brunel reads the author’s diaries.

Burton is perfect as Morlar because he does not so much as play the part as get under your skin. Who else could so effectively haunt the story from the past, could make Morlar such a forceful, memorable figure, could make you go “Eeyargh!” every time he appears unexpectedly onscreen? Morlar is sharply intelligent, with the verbosity of a natural writer, and filled with contempt for the human race that is born out of his isolation and his perceived capacity for (self-)destruction. With his weathered face and depth-filled eyes, Burton gives Morlar intensity and madness and a melding of passionate emotions with an ever-working mind. He hardly seems to need supernatural powers to compel a woman to leap to her death. He makes a startlingly brilliant choice of how to deliver “Telekinesis!” as Brunel’s eyes fall across that single word written by Morlar’s hand. His threat to put his fist through Zonfeld’s face, should she suggest that what happened to Morlar’s only child was a mere coincidence, is unbelievably vicious. TMT is a tangibly unsettling film, and much of the credit for that goes to Burton.

I won’t say that the film would be worthless without Burton, but the last fifteen minutes, in which he hardly appears, are pretty poor. They involve an interminably long build-up to a disaster that is unsatisfying because it barely involves any characters that we care about. It’s quite a letdown, though the unrelentingly bleak ending nearly makes up for this.

TMT does have other things to recommend it. Nearly every character is written with some interesting or unusual detail. Brunel is a Frenchman working in England for a short time, which is a point of discussion during several scenes. We don’t see Zonfeld’s personal life, but the hints at it show that there’s more to her beyond her role in the plot. From Morlar’s neighbour (Robert Lang) to his publisher (Derek Jacobi!), this film’s minor characters are not flatly written or played, which keeps it feeling fresh, and keeps the story’s direction unpredictable.

Other parts of TMT are also effectively creepy. Take the fakeout scare when Brunel’s sergeant surprises him in Morlar’s apartment. It works because of Michael J. Lewis’s subtle, unnerving score and the suggestiveness of the eerie art prints in Morlar’s collection. Who would have “The Scream” in black and white? Morlar does. And there’s a moment of catastrophe that may involve some dated special effects (this is 1978, after all), but is a brilliant coming together of acting, sound, and cinematography.

With use of films taken of supposed paranormal experiments, intense excerpts from Morlar’s writings, and suggestions that The Powers That Be are interested in his abilities, TMT creates a strong feeling of paranoia. It may not be Burton’s greatest film, and it may have a disappointing ending and a couple of red herrings left unexplained, but it is a frightening and inventive oddity well worth seeking out.

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