THE MEDUSA TOUCH (1978)

the medusa touch
Psychological thriller about a novelist, a telekinetic, who causes disasters simply by thinking about them.

The Medusa Touch is a near-perfect snapshot of the 1970s, effectively capturing the era’s attitudes, style, colours, hang-ups, and wider socio-political issues. That tumultuous decade saw extremes of economic boom and bust, a north-south divide that widened to canyon-like proportions, wild inflation, run-away unemployment, union riots, class war, a three-day week, power cuts, hippy liberalism, and a global conservative backlash.

Against this rich canvas, The Medusa Touch proudly proclaims an overall message that’s anti-war, anti-capitalism, anti-school, anti-government, anti-church, and anti-monarchy. One supposes that can be summed up as anti-establishment. It espouses the nihilistic punk aesthetic of the time, as voiced by The Sex Pistols and their ilk, perhaps prefiguring Pink Floyd’s prog-punk album The Wall (1982). More recently, the Manic Street Preachers have referenced the film by using a quote in their song “Ready for Drowning” (1998) and mentioning it in the lyric of “Leviathan” (2005).

The opening scene is hard-hitting—literally. As a man watches the television news coverage of disaster unravelling for a US space mission, a shadowy visitor dressed in long coat and hat enters his flat and beats his brains out with a statuette of Napoleon. Who was this man to provoke such actions? You may think you’re in for a straightforward murder mystery. Think again!

It’s an effective thriller that seamlessly weaves in elements from whodunnit, horror, detective, medical thriller, and science fiction. It also sits happily alongside other anti-establishment classics coming out of the UK, like A Clockwork Orange (1971), which director Jack Gold cites as an influence. There’s also a shared vibe with Lindsay Anderson’s If… (1968), which isn’t surprising as Anderson and Gold both came up from the Free Cinema realist movement that formed the backbone of British New Wave cinema in the 1960s.

Re-watching this soon after To the Devil a Daughter (1976), it’s clear that the ‘70s saw a trend for the ailing British cinema business to seek foreign funding. This brought with it some innovative international casting and resulted in films reminiscent of Italian pulp cinema, where that template had been established. This also harks back to the glut of noirish films coming out of Hollywood between the wars, which made good use of mainly displaced international talent. Indeed, The Medusa Touch also has a touch of the noir about it—basically a police procedural story with a hang-dog detective in a tan raincoat.

In a masterstroke of international casting, Lino Ventura plays raincoat-clad Inspector Brunel, as a world-weary detective who seems to find diversion in complex cases. It’s implied that he’s over in England working with Scotland Yard because he has a history of successfully solving rather baffling crimes. To him this will be another “one of those cases.” Perhaps this reputation goes some way to explaining how his more madcap theories are even considered by his superiors. His performance is calm, convincing, and, as an ex-wrestler, he has a physical presence that grants the character considerable gravitas. It surprised me to learn that, because his French accent was considered too hard to understand, his voice was later lip-synced by prolific British actor David de Keyser, who does a remarkable job here that Ventura personally endorsed.

The inspector is aided and abetted by Sergeant Duff (Michael Byrne) and their developing and deepening friendship is a lovely story thread that provides humour and moments of respite, such as the scene when the Frenchman attempts to teach his Brit colleague how to cook a simple pasta dish, without success.

Ventura may have brought in a good chunk of French money, and so to pull in some US dollars, we have Lee Remick in the female lead as Dr. Zonfeld. Apparently Remick took the role reluctantly as she was concerned that the film shared too many similarities with The Omen (1976). Reluctant or not, she delivers a clever and subtle performance. Sure, she wears a cool ‘front’ for most of the film, but slowly the layers of veneer are peeled back and we do get to know the reason for this—she has secrets and something to hide. You could call her approach ‘meta-acting’ and I think it takes a certain courage for an actress to play a part on two levels, especially when one’s intended to be less than convincing. Remick also looks so classy she could have stepped out of a Hitchcock thriller and so ‘70s she could be on her way to an Italian giallo!

So, with such great international talent at the fore, it takes a formidable British actor to stand his ground. Richard Burton unquestionably rises to the occasion. His powerful portrayal of John Morlar, the man with the power to create catastrophe, is beautifully restrained and terrifying. Some of the most chilling moments of the film are simply close-ups of Burton’s face, seemingly unmoving, as his baleful stare pinions the viewer. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll remember him dominating the screen and may be surprised at how little screen time he’s actually given, though he does get all the key scenes and by far the best lines! And that voice… well, no other actor could’ve delivered those lines with such power.

By the late 1970s Burton’s career was thought of as being in decline. His reputation for abusing alcohol and being difficult on set preceded him. He addressed this problem and had successfully rehabilitated, reportedly never touching a drop during the filming and being the consummate professional throughout—always on time, always on cue and never fluffing a line. He was fresh from completing a bravura performance in the excellent Equus (1977), another morally provocative psychological thriller that demanded long monologues on Burton’s part.

The Medusa Touch is also a great showcase of the burgeoning acting talent to be found in 1970s Britain. The cast is a roll call of many familiar faces that seem to have been ubiquitous on the telly as I was growing up.

Harry Andrews plays the nameless Chief Commissioner, with a bullish, almost brutish bent, which adds to the surprise when he accepts Brunel’s seemingly mad conclusion that Morlar might actually be capable of bringing down a jumbo jet and destroying a cathedral with telekinetic powers.

Among the more notable cameos is Gordon Jackson as Dr. Johnson, the brain specialist tending to the comatose Morlar. It’s great to see a young, pre-Holmes Jeremy Brett in the role of the love rival that Morlar’s wife chooses to leave with. Michael Hordern appears as a crystal-ball polishing mystic whose resolve crumbles in the presence of a desperate Morlar. Derek Jacobi is Morlar’s rather dapper and slightly camp publisher. John Normington plays a truly sadistic and morally questionable schoolmaster in a flashback to young Morlar’s schooldays. The three child actors who play the younger versions of Morlar are all very good, though I would think they were primarily cast because of the close eye colour matches with Burton’s.

Morlar may be a monster but he talks a lot of sense. His dialogue echoes the sentiments of Peter Van Greenaway, the novel’s author, and so it seems the director, Jack Gold. This might well be the case for the first two thirds of the movie, until things get a bit more extreme. Morlar is outraged by corruption, bigotry and injustice, so much so that his emotions boil over and break out in the form of telekinetic fury. For the most part, we’re sympathetic to the young Morlar as his psychic attacks claim victims who pretty much deserve it. As he grows up, his power seems to give him the courage of his convictions and as an author, he openly criticised those in power, knowing that anyone who stands in his way or invokes his wrath will be removed.

It’s unclear when Morlar becomes aware that he can control these catastrophic ‘coincidences’ and of course, when his judgements and decision to kill become conscious, this is when he crosses the line. You may well be seeing parallels with Carrie (1976)—but in this case it’s a boy growing up with psychic powers which become increasingly effective until one day he can take control of them. Both stories give expression to the torture suffered in the schoolyard by many an underdog or anyone perceived as ‘different’. They are both powerful metaphors for the disempowered individual finding courage to stand against mob mentality and will find resonance in anyone who has been bullied or abused by those in power, and thought “one day… just you wait.” Carrie and Morlar are given a means to realise those fantasies, with devastating consequences.

Morlar eventually goes insane, and Burton does a brilliant job of conveying this anguish of a man cursed with a talent for disaster that is dismissed as delusion by everyone else, for most of his blighted life. Some of his monologues are pretty intense, take for example this powerful piece:

I’ve found a way to do God’s dirty work for him. The Royal Chieftain, the parasites, and the whole gang of international rabble rousers, are going to bleat to the Almighty Nothing in his great Temple, to give praise for three million pounds. I promise you, the moment they kneel to pray, I will bring the whole edifice down on their unworthy heads.

Here he’s predicting, or as he now understands it, planning the collapse of Minster Cathedral on its congregation of dignitaries. His disdain takes in the establishment as a whole, and could even be considered blasphemous, though Morlar has already stated he has no belief in God nor Devil.

In the moral and political climate of the era, some directors may have shied away from such clear statements. But not Jack Gold who already had a reputation as a fair, fearless and humane maker of documentaries dealing with difficult subjects and had most notably directed The Naked Civil Servant (1975), Quentin Crisp’s biography of bravery in the face of social injustice.

At the time, the moral minority were becoming more and more vociferous since Sir Cliff Richard had lit one of 300 beacons across Britain, in September 1971. This was to launch the infamous Nationwide Festival of Light, an overtly Christian organisation declaring ‘war’ on pornography, permissiveness, and ‘moral pollution’. The organisation was somewhat nebulous in nature, but its high-profile supporters included Malcolm Muggeridge, Lord Longford, Bishop Trevor Huddleston, Dora Bryan, David Kossoff and, of course, Mary Whitehouse, founder and first president of the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association. Anyone who grew up in that decade may well remember her one-woman crusade against Doctor Who, which she famously branded “teatime brutality.”

Jack Gold had been an early victim of their ‘witch-hunt’ approach when he was accused of blasphemy and taken to court on a private prosecution, brought by the dowager Lady Birdwood, a far-right activist and prominent proponent of the Nationwide Festival of Light. He had attracted her ire for his part in bringing the provocative play Council of Love to London’s Criterion Theatre in late 1970. Ironically, the same year as this abortive trial, he also won an accolade from the Catholic church for his meditation on the tragedy of war in the TV play, Mad Jack (1970).

We had to wait another two decades for another nice irony: the 1994 criminal conviction of Lady Birdwood for distributing a pamphlet, which denied the holocaust, and proclaimed a Jewish conspiracy to subvert society (and she suggested that Jews drank the blood of gentile children). This mirrors the memorable scene in the film when Morlar, now a barrister, defends a young activist, Lovelass (James Hazeldine) for distributing anti-war pamphlets. “It is not the Defendant who should be on trial here,” rants Morlar, “but a besotted establishment who can cheerfully send a generation to slaughter in the name of war and yet has the audacity to bring a hapless fool like Lovelass to trial for uttering words.” His eloquent yet impassioned speech so aggravates the reactionary Judge McKinley (Robert Flemyng) that out of petty spite, he pronounces the young idealist guilty and hands out a stiff prison sentence. Of course, the judge then falls victim to the soul-piercing glare of Morlar’s medusa stare.

Now, it wouldn’t be fair to give Jack Gold sole credit for the bravery in the script. After all the screenplay was penned by John Briley, who also wrote Children of the Damned (1964) which shares many of the central themes, and later went on to win an Oscar and a Golden Globe for his screenplay for Gandhi (1982). His other notable credits include adapting James Clavell’s Tai-Pan (1986) and writing the careful script for Molokai: The Story of Father Damien (1999) for director Paul Cox.

Although Briley’s adaptation closely follows the format of Peter Van Greenwawy’s original novel, he made some significant changes. The novel had been the first in a series of six books to feature Inspector Cherry of Scotland Yard. In the film, Briley audaciously substitutes the French Inspector Brunel (Lino Ventura), visiting London on some sort of UN exchange scheme, as the protagonist. The psychiatrist, Zonfeld (Lee Remick) had been a man in the novel, an ageing Holocaust survivor, so when Inspector Brunel enters her office and proclaims “I was expecting a man,” this is an in-joke for any fans of the book.

Van Greenaway was a moderately successful author from early in the 1960s until his death in 1988, though he seems to have slipped into obscurity since then. Although not remembered as a genre writer, he wrote dark thrillers which often had a twist of the supernatural. There was always a touch of the devil’s advocate about his characters and his subjects repeatedly touch upon damning social commentary and sharp political satire. The Medusa Touch may be his most personal work because, just like his anti-hero here, Van Greenaway had trained as a lawyer before becoming a novelist and he puts powerful words into the mouth of Morlar that are clearly a more extreme expression of his own views.

The Medusa Touch is very well put together with nested narratives revealed though flashbacks. There are even some flashbacks within flashbacks, which I would usually find most irritating, but here the transitions are so natural and seamless that they become poetic. A camera might pan away from one character in a conversation and to another in the same setting, yet years apart. The flashbacks are treated with the same care and attention as the central thread, and form little ‘minisodes’ that begin to feel like a portmanteau of short stories.

The acting is always strong and though the characters may draw a little on cliché, such as Morlar’s bullying father (Norman Bird) and cruelly critical mother (Jennifer Jayne), these knowing clichés operate as a clever short-hand to quickly establish a familiarity. Another case-in-point would be the hapless couple who happen to be Morlar’s neighbours—the overwrought, overbearing wife (Avril Elgar) and the brow-beaten husband (Robert Lang). We can see him wilt before our eyes during an argument over the freshness of a fish until the petty bickering builds to such a crescendo that Morlar, who is trying to concentrate on his writing next door, unleashed his influence to end their arguing once and for all. Like much of the tragedy in the film, the scene is not without humour and at times it can become a little disturbing just how enjoyable the death of others can be and how exhilarated we are by scenes of mass destruction and carnage. The crushing to death of those “international rabble rousers” is pure entertainment!

Unfortunately, it’s these special effects that seem to draw the most criticism. In the spectacular cathedral collapse sequence, a falling bell that should weigh more than a tonne bounces off a bell-ringer. And there’s a piece of text that’s clearly stuck onto a television screen which is supposed to be a broadcast caption—that’s something that should not have slipped though in such a meticulous production. But the jumbo jet crash, chillingly resembling the 9/11 twin towers attack, was an ambitious effect for the time. I remember reading about it ahead of the film’s release in an issue of Film Review magazine. The model plane was built big and the tower block ‘miniature’ was about 12-foot tall, large enough to accommodate some fairly realistic pyrotechnics. Both the cathedral collapse and the plane crash have been derided as unconvincing. Perhaps, but that’s not a problem for me, I understand they’re model shots and special effects supervisor, Brian Johnson does a good enough job.

I have great affection for The Medusa Touch, as it’s been an inspiration and a comfort to me ever since I saw it as a teenager. I admit that I may have identified a little too strongly with the central anti-hero and when I was at college studying film and photography, we were given an assignment to make an audio-visual self-portrait—mine included several passages of Morlar’s monologues. “We’re all the Devil’s children. We find what powers the sun and we make bombs of it. We achieve power and we go mad…” (If I recall correctly there were also a few quotes from William Blake, Doctor Who, Kate Bush and Virgin Prunes!) Watching it again today, I attempted to approach it afresh and give a more objective appraisal and… y’know, I couldn’t fault it. The performances are all top notch, the narrative structure is ingenious, it’s all so 1970s yet still seems unusual and fresh after 40 years!

So, the only thing left for me to say is… “WINDSCALE.”

Cast & Crew

director: Jack Gold.
writer: John Briley (based on the novel by Peter Van Greenaway).
starring: Richard Burton, Lino Ventura, Lee Remick & Harry Andrews.

Written By
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