Donald Cammell

b. January 17, 1934, Edinburgh, Scotland
d. April 22, 1996, California, USA

articles in Senses
web resources

The only performance that makes it, that really makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness.

Performance (1970)

The death of Donald Cammell was as flamboyant and dramatic as anything he had ever filmed. Haunted by death and suicide for many years, he took his own life in 1996 at age sixty-two with a gunshot to the head. But he fired into the top of his head instead of the roof of his mouth with the result that he was alive and conscious for up to 45 minutes afterwards and, reportedly, was in a happy, almost euphoric state. The fact that he didn’t die instantly was not accidental; in fact he allegedly requested that his wife and writing collaborator China Cammell hold up a mirror so he could watch himself die and asked her ‘Do you see the picture of Borges?’

This was a reference to the climax of the only film that he is widely remembered for today, Performance (1968, released 1970), in which gangster Chas (James Fox) shoots reclusive rock star Turner (Mick Jagger). In a startling move, the camera plunges after the bullet into the hole in Turner’s head only to end up confronting a photograph of Jorge Luis Borges, a writer much quoted in the dialogue and – like Burroughs and Genet – a literary influence on the film as a whole. Performance is a film about the merging of opposites, of male and female, of identities, of personae, of the apparently different worlds of gangsterism and extreme artistic decadence that are both revealed to function through the engine of the performative ritual of violence. Or, as the tagline had it: ‘Vice. And Versa’.


London gangster Chas specialises in extortion, a ‘performer’ whose ‘act’ consists of ‘putting the frighteners’ on those slow or unwilling to pay up. Self-consciously macho, the coldly brutal Chas is one of his boss’ favourites until he kills another gangster against orders and is obliged to go on the run. As a hideout, he picks a completely alien milieu, the home of Turner and his two girlfriends Pherber and Lucy (Anita Pallenberg and Michele Breton). Although Chas’ imposture as an out of work juggler fools no one, Turner is intrigued and broke enough to allow him to stay. Pop star Turner has run out of energy and inspiration and retreated into the self contained world of his house and garden to lead a drug addled life of decadence that initially fills Chas with disgust and contempt. Soon Turner and Pherber start playing an elaborate series of mind games on Chas, taking advantage of his fugitive (and hence dependent status) and using drugs to deconstruct his aggressively masculine persona. (After tricking Chas into consuming some fly agaric mushroom, Turner explains to him, ‘I just wanted to go in there… This blood of this vegetable is boring a hole… penetrating the hole of your face, the skull of your bone…’ – imagery that foreshadows the hole Chas will create in Turner’s head when he shoots him.) For Turner, on the one hand Chas represents a ridiculous figure both in his attempts to pass himself off as an entertainer and in the more deeply ingrained deception that he is practicing upon himself, namely the suppression of his feminine side and constant, progressively futile assertions that ‘I’m normal’. On the other hand, he is a manifestation of the innately violent power to ‘perform’, whether it be music or crime, that has abandoned Turner. It is probably this aspect of Chas that leads Turner to dismantle and explore the criminal’s character. Disorientated by drugs and wearing a long wig, Chas’ precious masculinity wavers, a state of affairs effectively visualised during a scene in bed with Pherber in which she holds a mirror to him that reflects parts of her face and body so that they appear to be part of his.

When the gangsters at last arrive to take Chas away to his death, he goes to Turner’s room and kills him. There is a strange complicity between the two in this act, almost as if Turner had been preparing Chas to bring him death all along. Although it is clearly Chas that the gangsters put in a car immediately afterwards, it is Turner’s face visible at the car window as it speeds away. The two men have become one; the ‘masculine’ Chas and ‘feminine’ Turner now melded into one complete whole through the ritual of death.

Performance is the product of a very specific subculture at a very specific time, made mainly by people – Cammell, Jagger, Fox, Pallenberg, Breton – who were part of the same social group. It has even been described as ‘the most expensive home movie ever made’. But, almost unbelievably given the violent, sexually explicit, hallucinogenic, formally experimental and also overtly intellectual nature of the finished film, it was made with Hollywood money, by Warners, who believed they were getting the equivalent of one of Richard Lester’s Beatles movies starring Jagger! On top of that, it was the first film by both of its directors- Cammell and Nicolas Roeg – and its producer, Sandy Lieberson.

Anita Pallenberg as Pherber in Performance

Described by Marianne Faithfull (who was initially cast as Pherber but pulled out due to pregnancy) as a film that ‘preserves a whole era under glass’, it captures a drug soaked London at the end of the ’60s, moving between the worlds of the Kray twins and Rolling Stones. It falls into two distinct halves, the first dealing with Chas’ world of organised crime and the second with Turner’s decadent bohemia. Although on one level the first part is a fairly realistic picture of the day to day workings of a criminal organisation, Cammell endows it with a hallucinatory edge through extensive use of deliberately jarring intercutting that was revolutionary for its time, and a sometimes claustrophobically expressionistic mise en scène. In keeping with the film’s sexual obsessiveness, Cammell also creates a homosexual undercurrent in these scenes, manifest in the muscle man magazines that are visible scattered around the boss’ office and the climax of the first half in which Chas is beaten and whipped by other gangsters before turning the tables on them and killing their leader. This undercurrent is made explicit in a stunning musical number hallucinated by Chas in the film’s second half. It takes place in Chas’ boss’ office, but with Turner in place of the boss, performing his song ‘Memo from Turner’ and forcing his men to strip naked. It concludes with a shot of them lying in a presumably dead pile in the middle of the floor, a tableau deliberately reminiscent of the painting of Francis Bacon.

Turner’s house, where all the action of the second half takes place, is a zone that exists as a sort of hazy antechamber between reality and the purely subjective landscapes Chas ultimately loses himself in. At times it seems very concrete in its messy seediness, as in Chas’ arrival in his bedroom, Turner’s bath with the two women or the kitchen scenes, but more often it appears as a glittering, spatially indeterminate womb of psychic and sexual possibility governed by Turner’s jaded desires.

Superficially, Performance has been highly influential, blazing the trail (along with Boorman’s Point Blank [1967]) for the sort of MTV cutting that characterises many of the current crop of British crime films from Guy Ritchie to Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast (2000, featuring an iconic cameo from James Fox) and Paul McGuigan’s Gangster No. 1 (2000). In fact, these at best amusing and at worst intensely irritating films have adopted Cammell’s editing techniques more for their flashiness than for anything else. They actually owe far more to the glib posturing of Tarantino’s gangsterism-as-fashion-statement ethic than to Performance, with the possible exception of Gangster No. 1. The ’60s set flashback that occupies most of the film is a genuinely impressive answer to Performance‘s first half. Unfortunately Gangster No. 1 falls apart in its final section, degenerating into an atrocious series of scene-chewing rants by Malcolm McDowell that are almost embarrassing to watch.

Rather than regard Performance as a film that opened doors for future filmmakers, it is probably more instructive and accurate to see it as the culmination of a specific cultural moment. In terms of its aesthetics, its editing patterns and its recasting of pop culture as magickal ritual in a sexualised celebration of death, Cammell is quite explicit about the film’s origins: Kenneth Anger was “the major influence at the time I made Performance”, much of which is “directly attributable” to him. Anger was a friend of the Rolling Stones and Cammell at this time. Jagger provided music for Anger’s Invocation of my Demon Brother (1969) – and was so unnerved by the experience that he allegedly wore a crucifix for months afterwards! – and Cammell played the Egyptian god Osiris in his Lucifer Rising (1973). It is not hard to see the Crowleyan Anger’s vision of cinema as a magickal spell woven together of pop culture images imbued with esoteric significance at work in Performance.

In fact, what is so special about Performance may well be that it is the furthest truly underground filmmaking has ever penetrated into the mainstream. Not just in terms of techniques pioneered by the avant-garde only to be snapped up for commercial purposes (of which Performance has many) but in the ideas and sensibilities that came together to create it. The world that gave birth to Performance was soon to dissolve. Rolling Stone Brian Jones, upon whom the character of Turner was substantially based, died; James Fox withdrew from acting and his social milieu to devote himself to Christian evangelism for a decade; the danger inherent in Jagger’s image would mellow after the tragic events at the notorious Altamont concert in 1969. Donald Cammell went to Hollywood to edit Performance, a two-year struggle with studio heads who didn’t know what to do with such a strange and outrageous film. He was to stay in Hollywood for the rest of his life.

Nicolas Roeg went to Australia to make Walkabout (1970), the first of a series of great films that would put him at the forefront of ’70s directors. Although credited as co-director, Roeg’s role on Performance was mainly a technical one. An experienced and respected director of photography, he looked after the camerawork while Cammell dealt with script, performance, characterisation and structure. Roeg was only present during the first stages of editing and had nothing to do with the final cut, which he initially disliked. After Performance Cammell’s career would be a difficult one, resulting in the completion of only one film per decade. While Roeg’s career flourished, it was widely assumed Performance was mainly his work while in fact it was Cammell’s personal project from the outset and full of the themes and obsessions that would haunt all of his work – death, sex, transformation, the blurring of male and female, the power dynamics of often lethal mind games.

Donald Cammell was born in Edinburgh and brought up in a bohemian atmosphere, an environment he described as ”filled with magicians, metaphysicians, spiritualists and demons” including Aleister Crowley, the great inspiration behind Kenneth Anger’s life and work. Cammell was a precociously gifted painter, winning a scholarship to the Royal Academy at age 16. He subsequently studied in Florence and made his living as a society portrait painter. While still in his late teens, The Times hailed one of his portraits as ”society portrait of the year.” He had a short-lived early marriage that produced a son. After its disintegration he moved to New York to live with model Deborah Dixon and concentrate on painting nudes, which helped him to satisfy his notable sexual appetite – he had the reputation of being irresistible to women – but not his creative desires. He moved to Paris and began writing screenplays; first a thriller called The Touchables, then a collaboration with Harry Joe Brown Jnr called Duffy. This caper movie was directed by Robert Parrish in 1968 (and featured James Fox), an artistic failure that frustrated Cammell to the point that he decided to direct. Through his friendship with Anita Pallenberg he came into the orbit of the Stones and moved to London.

After Performance, he wrote a script called Ishtar that was to feature William Burroughs as a judge kidnapped while on holiday in Morocco. Like most of the scripts he worked on, it remained unproduced. His unwillingness to compromise his ideas alienated him from the Hollywood establishment that perceived him as an eccentric troublemaker. Several of Cammell’s major frustrations involved Marlon Brando. In 1978 Brando invited Cammell to collaborate on a script called Fan Tan which Brando soon lost interest in; then he asked Cammell to adapt the script as a novel and again scuttled the project half way through by losing interest. In 1989 Brando employed Cammell to direct a script he had written called Jericho. After eighteen months of work, while on pre-production in Mexico, Brando again decided he didn’t want to go through with the project.

The next project Cammell managed to get made was a short called The Argument (1971/99) that was shot on location in the Utah desert by Vilmos Zsigmond on the sly. Cammell had obtained the camera on the grounds that Zsigmond was shooting tests for another film. This visually stunning confrontation between a frustrated film director and a goddess (played by Myriam Gibril, Cammell’s lover and Isis to his Osiris in Lucifer Rising) covers many of Cammell’s favourite themes, but does so in an overly obvious way, verbalising rather than dramatising the situations with the effect that the comedic dialogue becomes nothing more than an irritating distraction from the images. This is not helped by the inevitable comparisons to the magnificent Lucifer Rising that arise due to the presence of Gibril as a goddess in a desert. Cammell never completed the film. It was rediscovered and put together by his editor, Frank Mazzola, in 1999.

Cammell’s next feature was the underrated Demon Seed (1977). Although not a personal project, this intense science fiction thriller featured many of Cammell’s obsessions. A super-computer takes over a scientist’s house with his wife (Julie Christie, an impressive performance) inside and proceeds to terrorise and ultimately impregnate her. A claustrophobic two-hander between Christie and the computer, Demon Seed‘s picture of a domestic environment turning against its owner is genuinely unsettling. The mind games and closed environment are reminiscent of Performance, while the idea of the machine giving a child to the heroine and thus providing itself with a human incarnation is another example of Cammell’s fascination with transformative sexuality.

Cammell had to wait until 1987 to complete another project, White of the Eye. This visually impressive study of a serial killer is intelligent and obviously Cammell’s work, featuring a welcome return of his imaginative crosscutting techniques absent in Demon Seed. Unfortunately, it seems rather dated today, with its sympathetic portrait of an ordinary man driven to murder by metaphysical delusions appearing tired rather than challenging.

Wild Side

Cammell’s second and final masterpiece had a tortured genesis. Wild Side was originally made for the exploitation company Nu Image in 1995. Allegedly their main incentive in hiring the director was his ability to attract stars such as Christopher Walkan, Anne Heche and Joan Chen. Although initially claiming to be committed to an art product that would upgrade their image, the company soon got cold feet. Reportedly the producer would visit the set to demand more nudity, becoming so irritating that, as the director’s brother David dryly testifies, “at one point he [Donald] was going to go and shoot [producer] Eli Cohen, but I managed to persuade him that it was a negative thing to shoot your producer and then shoot yourself.” In the cutting room, the film was taken away from Cammell and recut, taking out the director’s experimental editing and emphasising the sex scenes. Cammell disowned this version which editor Frank Mazzola described as a ‘desecration’.

In 1999 Mazzola had the opportunity to re-edit Wild Side according to the late director’s wishes. The new cut showed Wild Side to be one of the funniest, most entertaining and, above all, most consistently surprising films of the ’90s. While Tarantino had made playing with audience expectations in the context of a crime film cool, his calculating smartness was very different from the far more startling shifts in tone that characterise Wild Side. It moves from glossy, hard-bitten thriller to spacey, poetic lesbian love story to jaw-droppingly eccentric hysteria that borders on slapstick with a spontaneity and an insolent assurance that is both unique and breathtaking. Games are again played with power and identity, dangerous games but not fatal ones this time; if there is one difference between the Cammell of 1968 and of 1995 that stands out above all others, it is the replacement of Artaudian cruelty with an affectionate generosity towards his characters. The film centres around prostitute/banker Anne Heche, who gets into a criminal deal with financier Walken and commences an affair with his wife, Joan Chen. Steven Bauer plays an undercover cop posing as Walken’s bodyguard. As the film progresses, our perception of most of the characters changes at least once, most drastically in the case of Walken who initially appears as a sinister, Wellesian figure of absolute power and control, especially when discussed by the lovers. However, when the film begins to devote more screen time to him, he reveals himself as a sympathetic, even pathetic character dependent on those around him, while somehow retaining his authority. Wild Side is very much an actors’ film and all are excellent, but Walken is outstanding, delivering what must be his bravest and best performance to date, a wired tour de force of whimpering, blustering confusion that is often hilarious to watch but also manages to display just the right amount of dignity. The seductively glossy visuals and edgy, often hand held camerawork create an engaging visual tension, especially in the memorably atmospheric love scenes between Heche and Chen.

Was it the fiasco surrounding the first cut of Wild Side that pushed the death obsessed Cammell into finally committing suicide? It is unlikely. On the eve of Cammell’s death, Bill Pullman had agreed to play the lead in a new project, which would have guaranteed financing for it. Also, even before his death it seemed likely that he and Mazzola would be able to reverse the damage done to Wild Side. It is more likely that he fell victim to the split personality disorder that had plagued him for years. As producer Elliot Kastner remarked: ”Donald was madness… But his talent was unquestionable”.

Donald Cammell


Performance (1968/70)

The Argument (1971/ 99)

Demon Seed (1977) also known as Proteus Generation

U2: The Unforgettable Fire (1984)

White of the Eye (1987)

Wild Side (1995)

Film about Cammell:

Donald Cammell: the Ultimate Performance (1998) Dir: Chris Rodley and Kevin Macdonald

Select Bibliography

Mick Brown, Performance, Bloomsbury, London, 1999

Colin MacCabe, Performance, BFI Film Classics, London, 1998

Articles in Senses of Cinema

“What’s been puzzling you is the nature of my game”: Performance by Adrian Danks

Web Resources

Compiled by Albert Fung

A Cut Above
An article about Wild Side.

Cammell & Roeg: Performance
A page about the film. Conatain several related links on Cammell.

Donald Cammell – Shoot to Kill
An article on performance.

Donald Cammell’s Wild Side
A piece about the film.

Facets Multi-Media
A couple of films on VHS available here.

Killing in Style
An article on the aestheticisation of violence in White of the Eye.

Under Pressure
An article about working in Hollywood. Cammell is discussed.

Wild Side
Compares the 1995 and 2000 versions and discusses male sexuality and power in the film.

About The Author

Maximilian Le Cain is a filmmaker and cinéphile living in Cork City, Ireland.

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