A box office and critical failure upon its release, John Huston’s 1967 film Reflections in a Golden Eye (showing at BAM as part of its Southern Gothic series) has aged very well. Watching the unflinching psycho-sexual drama now with its seething anger and distant longings, it is an essential and illuminating stop in Huston’s peerless filmography. Combining the director’s taste for often ill-fated heroic journeys of discovery and self destruction (Moby Dick) with his interest in Freudian psychology (Freud), Reflections is a tragic tale of repression and the rage it can spawn. The film follows army Major Weldon Penderton, Marlon Brando in maybe one of his best performances, as the distant, almost hypnotized Major, who finds himself attracted to a young private, Robert Forster, on the base where he and his wife (Elizabeth Taylor in a role resembling her turn in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf by way of her Tenessee Williams’ twang) live.
There is a complex web of relationships which Huston expertly sketches--Penderton’s wife, Leonora, is having an affair with Lieutenant Colonel Morris Langdon (Brian Keith); Private Williams (Forster) is obsessed with Leonora; Penderton longs for Williams; and Langdon’s wife, Allison (Julie Harris), carries on a child-like relationship with her caretaker, Anacleto (Zorro David). For a film of such brutal candor it is also kind, giving time and attention to all its characters in a way that is devoid of the mechanical balancing act of other ensemble drama. Instead, it goes where it needs to go when the time is right, creating an unpredictable, completely realized piece of film art and drama.
Brando’s character and performance are the center of the film, and his solitary wanderings represent some of the film’s most radical departures from the typical American dramatic film. In gorgeously photographed sequences Brando tracks Forster in the woods, finding him naked—Huston and his cinematographer Aldo Tonti framing the sequence in incredibly evocative wide shots, which are both real and yet so damn beautiful they might as well be the phantasmagoric visions of a yearning heart and mind, something akin to the work of American photographer F. Holland Day—and in these moments Huston’s film recalls the aristocratic lust of Thomas Mann. The visions bring to mind passages in Mann’s novella Death in Venice and the unfinished Confessions of Felix Kraus Confidence Man, where young men are envisioned as golden adonises and repression and self loathing mingle with near hysterical exaltation.
With Reflections Huston reaffirms himself as a film artist of absolutely unique vision and skill with a film which is probing yet subtle, direct but not overbearing. A work of literary craftsmanship by a director who never stopped being a writer.