What to do about Jon Finch? He can look as wan and bloated as any British drinker but when the dialogue and co-star is right, boy oh boy, he's like a prime era Peter O'Toole (in richly Shakeseparean, commanding voice crossed with a delightfully dissolute feyness) possessing a young Jim Morrison's dandy jaw line and heroic drug intake. Robert Fuest's dark, freewheeling, and--for a long time--hard to find British sci-fi satire from 1973, THE FINAL PROGRAMME (distributed stateside by Corman's New World Pictures as The Last Days of Man on Earth) is finally here in a stunning new transfer. Now we may marvel and swoon over Fuest's beguilingly surreal production design (he's the man behind the Phibeses), Finch's alcohol-enriched roaring, literate energy, and a roster of sublimely-etched side characters. Marred only by the occasional groan-worthy satiric jabs at consumerism's future ouroboros vanishing point (the world's supposed to be ending, but the budget can't afford crowd scenes or anything too dystopian, so we have to take Finch's word for it) and a kind of disappointing resolution, it's worth checking out for the game and hearty.
Taking leaps of adaptive liberty (I'm told) with Michael Moorcock's countercultural touchstone (in Britain) novel, it's the tale of libertine military hardware collector and helicopter and (off-camera) jet pilot Jerry Cornelius (Finch). After a native funeral up in Lapland for his genius billionaire father, Jerry makes immediate plans to resolve inheritance disputes with the other heir/s by dropping napalm on the ancestral mansion and jetting off to some private island with his sister (it's implied they've some weird incestuous connection). So first he needs the napalm; that means running around London, meeting eccentric arms dealers played by future Raiders of the Lost Ark villains, and so forth. In the meantime, feeling some strange passive-aggressive urge to be helpful, Jerry agrees to help the three of his father's Quentin Crisp-ish scientist cronies locate the "final" computer program that dad was working on. See, it's on a disc or a tape now hidden deep in a safe inside a vault inside a safe room inside the family's heavily burglary protected mansion which has been activated by his evil drug addict brother-in-law. To retrieve it, Jerry teams up with the scientist's sexy androgynous computer programmer Miss Brunner (Jenny Runacre). She has the endearing habit of literally absorbing her lovers and/or anyone whose knowledge she seeks to possess, like a sexy amoeba (we never see it though, too expensive I imagine). This titular program involves a kind of 'new human' androgyne, the unifying of Miss Brnner and some Italian pretty boy waiting in the car. This is supposed to bring about the savior of the new dawn-- a self-replicating perfect hermaphrodite human --the best of all man and woman have to offer -- a fusion of two brains--two genders-- into a single all-knowing being that can finally formulate and answer the ultimate scientific question.... why? and what the hell are we even doing here?
Sure, like so many films of the era, its quixotic attempt to be both sociologically satiric and counerculturally hip invariably results in crossing over from dangerously subversive into datedly campy at times, but only because there are so many cool elements in place, the uncool stand out too sharply (i.e. imagine the fusing Dr. Strangelove and Myra Breckinridge). Superfluous cameos like an ineffectually mugging Sterling Hayden as eccentric arms dealer Wrongway Lindbergh ("the Wrong way is the right way!") reek of that late-60s trope wherein familiar older stars trying to fit into the counterculture by showing up in kooky cameos, like hookah-smoking caterpillars or pothead CEOs. There's also proto-twee bits like Jerry and Miss Brunner flying up to Lapland in a balloon (rather than the more expensive Phantom F4, which Jerry supposedly owns and mentions frequently, but which of course the budget forbids). There also massive gapes in the narrative weave which a good editor could have either trimmed the dead ends or filled in the blanks: Jerry's quest for napalm (he pronounces it "Nepal-m") goes nowhere, and the rescue of his strung-out sister from his junky brother Frank's druggy clutches never really pans out or makes sense. We never really even see the sister until much later, so any inkling of what kind of strange incestuous reason he has for wanting to liberate her from Frank is left unexplained.
In other words, like Breckinridge's director Michael Sarne, or Candy director Christian Marquand, Fuest is his own worst enemy, making one bad artistic choice for every three good ones is still failing in the book of enduring cult films. Like those past near-misses, Programme has some genius stretches where you think all the film has to do is stay on this roll and it's going into your top ten, then it fumbles it Paranount pre-code Marx Brothers savagery for smirky 60s sociopolitical jabs, like a restaurant where wine and alcohol comes in dehydrated cubes (Jerry orders French toxic river sludge, demanding to know 'which bank' it was culled from) or a Laugh-in style one-line gag-filled pinball arcade where Jerry meets his stoned napalm connection (Ronald "Why don't you, ah, tell me where the Ark is....right now?" Lacey).
But luckily, while Myra and Candy ultimately wind up as draws, for Programme the cool outweighs the cringe: in addition to the brilliant playing of Finch and Runacre we have Basil Henson, George Coulouris, and Graham Crowden, matchless as the three older scientists who follow Ms, Brunner around; their deft worldly comedic rapport makes up for all the elements that seem to be missing. Far from the usual stuffy bowler-and-brolly types we'd expect to be harrumphing in the background or the dreaded reverse (that Richard Lester-ish style of conservative faux-hipness), this gaggle of older scientists manage the hitherto impossible - each being cool and individual while functioning as a cool ultra-dry comedy team together. As aging scientists unconcerned with the surface flash, they deliver all the straight facedness required to convey now-or-never urgency for a complicated experiment that's beyond mad/daft and that needs to be executed at a certain, looming time. The result is the perfect level of 'is this supposed to be funny or not?' ambiguity.
Perhaps the only film that comes close to Programme's weird mise-en-scene and storyline is 1971's Hammer film Blood from the Mummy's Tomb. In that film too, we may remember, a strident dominatrix-y intellectual badass female (Valerie Leon) runs roughshod over trios of stumbling old men scientists (George Coulouris and Aubrey Morris appear in both) while teaming up with a fey amoral aristocratic hipster (James Villers instead of Finch) to bring about some earth-shattering prophecy by ushering in a new kind of woman. just as did Leon in Blood, In Programme, Runacre handles her carnivorous authority with cool throaty confidence and instantly establishes a deep in-the-moment sultry rapport with Finch's Jerry, one cool young super genius sexy cool titan to another. One can't help but wonder as to what a great Lady Macbeth she would have made opposite Finch in Polanski's 1971 film instead of Francesca Annis (though she was perfectly fine). It's their scenes together--and her beating up Jerry's brother (in-law?), the manipulative junky Frank (Derrick O'Connor)--that really crackle.
Overall it's a film free of villains, unless you count Frank, who's taken over the family estate, setting all the futuristic alarms and traps --including psychedelic light attacks ("designed to cause pseudo-epilepsy:), elaborate inflatable tunnels (a mix of a carnival bouncy castle and Corman's Masque of the Red Death), poisoned gas, and poisoned needles shooting out of walls while the siblings shoot at each other in weird homemade futuristic air guns (just to be extra weird, perhaps?)
But all of that is fine with me because of the cocky actorly rapport with Runacre and Finch as these kind of super-cool amoral hedonist next-gen scientific wits in fabulous clothes and --in his case--a kind of foppish arrogant feminine elegance; hers, a Bowie-esque androgyne sexy-cool. With her tousled orange hair and natty slacks and his too-tight black velvet blazer and black nail polish, they're a superb-looking team, like they've spent a lot of time improv --they're destined to entwine!
Hint: Fans of Hammer films (and their ilk) might recall Runacre as playing a great insane red-dress wearing schizophrenic Folies Bergère dancer in the same year's The Creeping Flesh.
Taken all in all it for what it is as well as what it isn't, you may groan a bit but you also may just enjoy Fuest's wicked sense of design style (the underground Lapland Nazi submarine pen and other futuristic sets evoke fond memories of Fuest's work on several Avengers episodes and the Egyptian tomb interior of his Dr. Phibes Rises Again). I kept thinking I wanted to live down there, on that glorious underground submarine pen, and get drunk with these people ("The classic sanctuary fixation" notes Ms. Brunner), that I too may wind up safe and sound after the last days, well-rested, drunk, and ready for the new dawn.
|Navigating the family mansion's "defences"