Lawrence B. Marcus (screenplay), John Haase (novel),
Barbara Turner (adaptation)
C. Scott, Julie Christie, Joseph Cotten, Shirley
Knight, Arthur Hill, Richard Chamberlain
Knack & How to Misuse It
A Look Back at Petulia
By Walt Mundkowsky
No doubt about it,
Richard Lester has the knack: considerable
intelligence, explosive visual invention, unequalled
cleverness with a camera. Petulia,
his latest, parades these virtues and reveals
the defects which prevent him from becoming a major
artist. Petulia starts with an almost
insurmountable disadvantage. It is based on a novel
Me and the Arch Kook Petulia
by John Haase, who was aptly described by
John Simon as a male Californian Rona Jaffe.
The story is tired soap-opera material. We start
at a fancy party. (Big Brother and the Holding Company
are playing at a charity dance titled Shake
for Highway Safety.) Archie Bollen, a middle-aged
surgeon who is divorcing his wife, is one of the
partys hosts. Dancing with her husband is
Petulia Danner, a working-class English girl from
Bristol her mother was a prostitute, she
claims who has married into San Francisco
high society. The party bores Petulia (Highway
safety is so blah), and she finds Archie interesting,
so she propositions him rather awkwardly. (Ive
been married six months and Ive never had
an affair.) Petulia is the very embodiment
of chic upswept blonde hair, white ostrich
feathers, jewels, etc. and Archie half-heartedly
accepts. They drive to an electronic nightmare of
a motel, but she changes her mind. She continues
to stalk him, though, finally breaking in on him
and his mistress, shouting, All that crap
about the humanitarianism of the medical profession
Out of resignation or something
Archie takes her to bed. He leaves the next
morning to spend the day at Alcatraz with his two
sons. When he returns, his flat is a shambles; he
finds Petulia on the floor, beaten into a bloody
mess. Petulia and her father-in-law conceal the
circumstances surrounding her injuries. Her husband
was the assailant, but she goes back to live with
him even though he has done this before. Archie
is left helpless. Many months later Petulia enters
the hospital where Archie works to have a
baby. Again he offers to save her from her unfortunate
marriage. She turns him down, and the movie ends
with one of her kooky rejoinders. When
I lie dying, wondering what my lifes been
all about, you wont even cross my mind. No,
wait I lied She adds gravely,
Ill never forget you, Arnold.
is another commercial dilution of Resnais
fragmentation techniques, after The Pawnbroker
and Point Blank. With Hiroshima
mon amour Resnais inaugurated the cinema
flashback flash being the operative
word. He showed just how suddenly and strikingly
a memory can intrude. Lester makes extensive use
of this: From start to finish he intercuts brief
shots Archie in the operating room, Petulia
falling to the floor as her husband breaks her rib,
an overexposed sequence of Petulia and her husband
(a vastly inferior imitation of the brilliant tracking
shot which floods the screen with light at the end
of Resnais Lannée dernière
à Marienbad), Petulia breaking a
window. Resnais jumps through time and space
always underline the theme that runs through his
films: what John Ward calls the Bergson-Proust
dichotomy of Time the destroyer and Memory the preserver.
But as Bergson points out and as Resnais never tires
of affirming, memory does more than preserve; it
also creates. Lesters scrambling of
the time sequence in Petulia carries
none of these philosophical implications; he is
merely using a narrative device which has become
largely derives from his early work as a director
of TV commercials. In fact, A Hard Days
Night, The Knack and Help!
looked very much like stretched-out TV commercials,
with their abrupt zoom shots, lack of story line,
and quick, elliptical editing. The frenetic cutting
wrecked A Funny Thing Happened on the Way
to the Forum. As John Russell Taylor said,
slow-burn comedy chopped up into little
bits does not become fast, snappy comedy; it remains
obstinately little bits of slow-burn comedy, but
prevented from working satisfactorily even in their
own terms. But this conflict between style
and subject was an advantage in How I Won
the War it permeated the movie with
biting tension. In Petulia he has
found a good vehicle for his approach upper-echelon
California. Here San Francisco is a TV ad brought
to life. Lesters sharp commentary on contemporary
values brings to mind what Tony Richardson (in The
Loved One) and Mike Nichols (in The
Graduate) have tried to do with similar
settings. (Talking about intentions there is risky,
as its hard to find two more confused and
muddled films.) Admittedly, Lesters target
is not small, but he hits the mark with some regularity.
The automated motel, the rows and rows of tract
homes, the supermarket, the charity ball, the hospital
where Archie operates become, in Lesters hands,
set pieces of well-lit bleakness.
Lester uses the comments
of bystanders on the edges of the story very effectively
much as he did in The Knack.
They serve as a kind of chorus, remarking on the
main action. When Petulia is carried out of Archies
apartment after being beaten, the neighbors comment,
Oh Harry, come and look whats going
on! Shes dead. What happened
to you? Shell have a heck of a time
washing that blood out of her hair. This empty
speech and Lesters clever use of locations
combine to make important statements about the stifling
world the films characters and we
must be considered a failure, in spite of its many
merits. Its story simply fails to convince. Petulia,
youve turned me into something crazy,
says Archie. And again at the films close:
Did I change you, Archie? You
turned me into a nut. We are obviously supposed
to believe that Petulia and Archie have switched
positions at the end that he has become a
kook and she has become responsible.
Archie says that one day he just
got very tired of being married. Youre
a lonely screwed-up mess, Petulia tells him.
When the film ends, Archie seems no less tired,
lonely or screwed up than he was at its start. And
Petulia has not gotten more responsible; she has
become pregnant. Stanley Kauffmann correctly observed,
The only serious change in Petulia is that
at last she is satisfying her starved maternal urge,
which is not the same, necessarily, as undergoing
a change of character.
was adapted by Barbara Turner; the screenplay
itself is credited to Lawrence B. Marcus. The supposedly
flip dialogue is strained (My name is Petulia.
Im not surprised), and
the script does nothing to alleviate the novels
basic problems. The films events seem too
pat, too manipulated.
As Archie, George C.
Scott gives his finest movie performance since Dr.
Strangelove. His characterization is so
strong that the film seems mistitled it is
Archies story rather than Petulias.
Julie Christie, on the other hand, cannot transform
the scripts manifold flaws. Richard Chamberlain
is surprisingly pointed as the weak, sadistic husband,
and Shirley Knight (Archies ex) is both frightened
and scary. Petulias reactionary father-in-law
is the villain of the piece, and Joseph Cotton seemingly
channels the silky, venomous tones of William F.
Buckley, Jr. Prized in the theatre, Arthur Hill
and Kathleen Widdoes have little to do.
is technically superior. (Scott reported that Lester
spent more time with the camera crew than with the
actors.) Nicolas Roeg employs the full armory
focus racks, zoom shots, all types of camera movement,
filters and his vivid Technicolor palette
emphasizes the contrasts in Lesters time shifts.
Antony Gibbs edited The Knack, and
he keeps things moving along. The flashbacks are
never unintelligible, while the few action sequences
(the roller derby, Archie and his sons romping through
Alcatraz, an auto-pedestrian accident) are stunning.
The music is reticent and subdued; John Barry can
be much more than his Bond scores.
Richard Lester has
been called one of the films New Men.
Perhaps he is, but dazzle alone will never satisfy.