D: J. Lee Thompson. S: Robin Estridge, Dennis Murphy, [uncredited] Terry Southern. Novel: “Day of the Arrow” by Philip Loraine [Robin Estridge]. P: John Calley, Martin Ransohoff. Cast: Deborah Kerr, David Niven, Donald Pleasance, Sharon Tate, David Hemmings, Flora Robson. US dist (DVD): Warner Archive.
Despite its numerous flaws, I rather liked this: an odd mixture of stylish visuals and modish flash-cut editing, prescient paganism (it predates Roddy McDowall’s The Ballad of Tam Lin by four years, The Wicker Man by seven) and cobwebbed
Gothic cliché. Its chief weakness is the casting of The Innocents’ Deborah Kerr as yet another ineffectual heroine, a middle-aged twit who does nothing but react (wetly) to events as they unfold around her; honestly, you could cut out her role entirely without significantly altering the narrative, never a good sign. Incredibly, Kerr was producer Martin Ransohoff’s replacement for departing first-choice star Kim Novak, who either injured her spine in a riding accident or (according to co-star David Hemmings) was sacked after a blazing row with Ransohoff; whichever version one believes, it’s hard not to heave a frustrated sigh at the thought of what this film might have been with the stunning Novak as its lead.
And actors weren’t the only problem faced by the production. The film went through two prior directors (Sidney J. Furie and Michael Anderson) before settling on the capable J. Lee Thompson, and two prior titles (Day of the Arrow and 13) before ending up with the emptily generic Eye of the Devil. Add to this the fact that the film was trimmed by MGM of several minutes before release, and you have the ideal portrait of a production in distress. (Stick through the end credits and you’ll see the 13 handle scroll up at the end, suggesting the Devil re-titling was the last in a long line of belated re-thinks.) That the film still manages to conjure some measure of intrigue and suspense is not just remarkable, it’s astonishing.
Kerr is wifey to good-egg Marquis David Niven, a French aristo unexpectedly summoned from Paris back to his ancestral pile, whose vineyard has been failing steadily for the past three years. This is evidently serious stuff, and Niven insists on travelling to the chateau alone; pensively, he doodles an arrow piercing the falcon on his family crest. (Following a nicely elliptical Maurice Binder title sequence – a flurry of puzzling black-and-white images, rattling railway tracks intercut with closeups of a quivering arrow-head – we’re primed from the get-go to expect Something Sinister.) Succumbing to curiosity, Kerr joins Niven at the ancestral seat with their two children, and immediately spots things are off when creepy siblings David Hemmings and Sharon Tate (both blonde, dressed in black, and wearing odd medallions) start posing moodily about the masonry. Hemmings tops this by killing a dove with his trusty bow-and-arrow, which drops dead on the driveway at Kerr’s feet. (Note to viewer: this is symbolic.)
Kerr is further disturbed to witness a strange ritual inside the chateau: with great pomp, Hemmings and Tate present the dove to a gathering of twelve black-cowled figures. The doors to the chamber close before she can see any more, but her interest is piqued. The ethereal Tate also begins to woo Kerr’s young children, especially the son: employing either magic or mesmerism, she apparently transforms a toad into a dove. Only the son seems to be able to see it flying into the sky. Later, Tate smilingly encourages the kids to walk along the edge of the castle’s highest parapet, to Kerr’s horror; when she confronts the witch-like young woman, a reflection from her medallion induces a sudden lassitude, and she stumbles helplessly towards the parapet’s dizzying edge…
Hey! I’ve not mentioned the creepy local priest (Donald Pleasence, still sporting his skinhead from Polanski’s Cul-de-Sac, and here rehearsing for his staring-eyed Blofeld performance in the following year’s You Only Live Twice), in cahoots with Niven over some ritual shenanigans or other, nor Niven’s shifty, doom-laden sister (Flora Robson), forever avoiding difficult questions. Along the way Kerr is menaced by the twelve Sinister Monks (an effectively threatening daylight pursuit through the woods, with faceless black friars looming out behind every tree) and learns of a curious local festival carried over from pagan times: twelve hooded men dance through the village streets, and between them – if one looks carefully enough – there may be glimpsed a magical thirteenth…
Main casting aside, there’s a lot to like about Eye of the Devil. Easily the most compelling of the cast’s array of (semi-deliberate) ciphers is the creepy brother-and-sister duo of Hemmings and Tate; the latter (in her screen debut) is especially striking, her natural beauty lent an ethereal quality through luminous closeups and elegant dissolves. (Just imagine how the film might have played with Kim Novak and Tate together on the screen; as ungallant as it sounds, the matronly Kerr is out-gunned on every level.) The twelve monks add a pleasing Edgar Wallace vibe, and the monochrome cinematography (courtesy of DP Erwin Hillier) is never less than sparkling. An understated final shot, suggesting an infinite progression of seigneurial duty, nicely underscores the tragedy of the piece. For aficionados of black-and-white British horrors, Eye of the Devil is far better than its reputation suggests. If you can stifle your impatience with Kerr’s performance, you may find yourself unexpectedly gripped.