When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand

A great many fans of Elizabeth Taylor declare that 1974’s THE DRIVER’S SEAT is her worst film.  It isn’t — but it’s probably the least middlebrow thing she ever did.

It’s a pedigreed package:  based on a Muriel Spark novella, filmed by a Neopolitan opera director with images burnished by master cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, featuring quirky appearances by a supporting cast including Mona Washbourne and Andy Warhol.  The end result is confounding and disturbing like its literary source; yet what makes the film remarkable is how it states its case using a strong, tightly developed visual language.  The film vocabulary of THE DRIVER’S SEAT encapsulates Spark’s metaphysical darkness in a world of optical meaning that holds its own hypnotic luminosity.  It’s the cinematic equivalent of viewing a scorpion trapped in amber.

The movie’s lexicon of lens choices and camera moves meshes with the detached prose style of Muriel Spark.  (Disclaimer:  I have read a couple of her books but not the one this film was based on.)  Also, as in her prose, the script’s timeline is splintered by frequent flash-forwards which then return to the core narrative.  Yet, as an Italian production shot in Rome, there are none of the expansions in film space and gestural camerawork usually found in Cinema Italiano.  The director, Giuseppe Patroni Griffi, took the meaning and tropes of the book and articulated an icy and dispassionate view, keeping a graphic distance from locales and actors, instead of the usual embrace of figure and space employed by most of his contemporaries.  The film is a primer on the aesthetic choice of creating and speaking through flat space, with most shots reading like a bas-relief or a fresco.

Reflecting the author’s aesthetics, the camera movements contain a Protestant linearity while — within the frame — persons and objects expand and contract like the mea culpas found in a crisis of Catholic guilt.  Spark herself had a Jewish father but was raised Presbyterian, and later converted to Roman Catholicism, leading her to break off relations with her son who had converted to Orthodox Judaism.  From this mulch of beliefs, THE DRIVER’S SEAT investigates and questions spiritual values, gender and the notion of victimhood as Elizabeth Taylor’s character, Lise, flees her Northern European home and job, flying to Italy where she intuitively knows she will find the right man to murder her and end her psychic torment.  It’s a narrative that one can approach and contemplate yet never truly encompass.

Lise finds the perfect, malleable young man to do the deed.

Perhaps the director’s work in opera, where the score and text cannot be significantly altered, explains Griffi’s acumen in adapting Spark’s novella.  But literary fidelity is only part of the scheme in the aesthetics of this movie. 

For THE DRIVER’S SEAT is a subversive movie:  its choice of material is disturbing; its casting offbeat; its visual clues and vocabulary are rebellious.  Still the creative team was able to ride the tiger of its insurrection while issuing a project that artistically holds together — where all the elements ping off each other the way they always do in good works of art.  It’s an A-List movie whose qualities belong in the finest of Underground Cinema.  Just watching the film can make a viewer feel as if he or she is participating in something equally as seditious as Lise’s quest for a murderer.

The expansive Villa Borghese -- and its numerous hideaways for lovers' trysts -- is delineated with the opacity of a shadow-puppet play.

But lots of moviegoers are uncomfortable with that feeling (and are uncomfortable with Underground aesthetics too), which is why this film has been swept under the rug of film history.  Frankly it was my subconscious that led me to this movie, after I recently dreamed I was back in Italy working on a film, as I did for real in 1989, except that this time Elizabeth Taylor was along for the ride.  The dream piqued my curiosity about THE DRIVER’S SEAT, about which I had previously only heard sketchy reports.  Released in some markets as IDENTIKIT, the film suffered a schizo distribution, including bad home video releases.  I’ve heard of people finding the DVD at dollar stores now and then but I found it at Amazon.

Doug / PoMo Joan

Related posts:

10 Comments to “THE DRIVER’S SEAT (1974)”

  1. For the record, Doug, I *have* read the novel … albeit years ago, so the memory’s none too detailed. But I don’t remember (cf. “Protestant linearity”) any flashing forward and backward. The sources I’ve found, while Googling for an answer, say that we are informed that Lise will be killed … but they don’t say *how* we’re informed. My suspicion is that something like an authorial voice informs the reader.

    I do remember, in any case, that the “Jean Brodie” book (as opposed to the Ronald Neame film) was full of flashings forward and back.

    When thinking of the “Driver’s Seat” movie, of which I’ve only seen snippets, I’m reminded of “Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone.” Then I’m reminded of “Death In Venice.” I suppose you could lump them all together as stories of travelers who Go South to encounter sensuality — and Death. (“Why not one without the other?”, as Shelley Winters asked in that tacky “Wives and Lovers” comedy.)

    The main reason for distress with this film, I believe, is the seeing of MGM’s Darling in a context of underground moviemaking. Would audiences want to see Angela Vickers of “A Place In The Sun” turned into another Bridget Polk?

    More crucially, though, I think it’s that “Driver’s Seat” shows us Taylor, whom we’ve loved elsewhere as Someone Who Succeeds — often shamelessly — turned for the sake of this film into someone ripe for, and destined for, Death. File this under “Say It Ain’t So!”

    … or at least so i’ll claim until I see the entire film and find reason to change my mind.

    • Doug says:

      Chris, now I really *should* read the book, although I’m still shaking off the chill of the film version.

      It’s interesting how death-and-sensuality seem to be related to a compass point in the Northern Hemisphere. As someone who grew up living the Southern Gothic Novel, I really am amused at how the suicidal Hoosier who wrote RAINTREE COUNTY conveyed a sense of latent psychological entrapment in warmer climates.

      Tell me, are you a fan of Taylor as an actress? I found her strengths (subtle, intuitive intensity) and weaknesses (a half-octave voice that frequently creeps into the higher registers) overflowing in this movie. The fact that throughout the movie her hair is disheveled and her wardrobe (as in the book) is loud and tacky would be enough to turn off anyone who (like I) absolutely can’t take my eyes off her when she’s onscreen.

  2. Beth Withey says:

    I am shocked at myself. I don’t know this movie and based on your post, Doug, and Chris’s comment, it’s a definite ‘need to watch’ for me. I rather adore The Roman Summer of Mrs. Stone, and despite my exclamation pointy positivity, enjoy exploring the dark, deathish psychodrama side of things…think Kali…your “scorpion trapped in amber” description alone is enough to make me try to find the film. Merci and aloha!

    • Doug says:

      Beth, this one is definitely on the ‘dark and deathish’ side. I think you’ll find it a strange ride, especially since it’s an hour and a half of a major glamor queen ambling deep through alternative film territory. Hard to get your sensibilities around something like that! Warhol, BTW, plays a European nobleman and his voice is dubbed.

  3. Bravo. Indeed this film is a weird yet compelling mix of lo-brow and high art. Euro trash/class, with the weird and wonderful feature of Warhol (for only 2 scenes and about 60 seconds, pity) and Liz holding it together nicely in what could have gone hard off the rails. Melodrama by way of Godard (fractured narrative, oblique characterization) with a little Antonioni (visual design) thrown in. Taylor steals the show in a brave but measured performance, and this post-’60s ennui film seems to encapsulate the speed of prevailing traffic. “Pretty Poison” by Godard.

    I also got the DVD off Amazon and just recently saw it too – the Cheezy DVD (that’s the name of the company!) is a horrible transfer, full-screen and clearly loosing info on either side. And it appears to be from a video master. If I had caught this on cable late one night I would have been dumbfounded and transfixed. Liz was flirting with pills, the drinking, the divorces, etc. in the culture at this point and is not such a strange pick as we think from this vantage point.

    And this is a GREAT double bill with “Boom!” (1968, that one with a cameo by Noel Coward!

    • Doug says:

      Great points, Roger, about this being very much a post-Sixties malaise cinema piece that is (as you described Liz’s performance) “brave but measured.”

      I really like the recommendation of a twin-bill with BOOM, which I haven’t seen since it’s first TV broadcast. Either one would prepare your head for the other (and — I could be wrong about this since I haven’t seen BOOM in decades — they could complement each other because each film makes the other one look better by comparison).

      How are things in the world of film preservation these days??

  4. Ralph Benner says:

    Because the catalog of Liz’s movies includes a few too many braying slatterns, it’s a difficult choice to name the most appalling one, but her psycho Lise in Giuseppe Patroni Griffi’s 1974 version of Muriel Spark’s “The Driver’s Seat” would be high on the list of the unaware. We’re startled at the beginning: seething in caustic edgy indignation when told by a clerk the dress she’s about to buy is made with the miracle of stain-resistant fabric, Liz vents the vapors and looks like we do when we’ve been on Jack Daniel’s for a longer time than we want to admit — bloaty-faced, murky-eyed, blemished to the max. In the store’s dressing room, she wears a bra that looks grossly suggestive in its transparency but hefty and apparently an orthopedic workhorse. Watching mesmerized by the successive scenes of dissipation, aided and abetted by Vittorio Storaro’s camera, we begin to feel there’s an effort towards a breakthrough, she’s determined not to be the glamour puss with a cadre of camouflagers hiding all that’s become defective in face and body. Not the intentional deglamourizing as in “Virginia Woolf” but the kind of cheap-thrill freedom we get when we know we’re really cutting loose on the slum low. She has bits here that are far and away some of her best flash moments — for example, at airport security, and on the plane, when she’s wanting the attention of one man (the attractive man-boy played by Maxence Mailfort) but ends up getting it from another (the repulsive Ian Bannen as a macrobiotic nut). She has bitch-fun when Bannen kisses her, followed by a brief scene when she rubs her boobs, and soon takes off her dress to show us she’s still got enough of a shape to walk around in a slip. (But — Dios Mia! — she discovers a dirty glass in the bathroom of her hotel room and…) The flash continues, in a store when she steals a scarf, in a car with a stud mechanic who wants her to give him a blow job. It’s a performance unlike anything she’s done before or since; there’s a disquieting energy in it, probably booze-induced, maybe desperate, and at times there’s something new, even unsettling in the voice, too. Looking this disshelved, with hair ratted up, so gaudy in guest bathroom wallpaper dress and coat that her own landlady laughs at her, traipsing around with a plastic handbag, it’s easy to suggest Liz has the same death wish as her crazed character. Many things are wrong with this movie but her performance isn’t one of them; she’s cult classic fearless.

    • Doug says:

      Ralph, you really nailed so much about the fascination of Taylor’s performance. And what a prose style! “Guest bathroom wallpaper” indeed! The one thing that always perplexed me about Liz’s performance aesthetics is that, while she would expand and experiment in many ways, she never explored the range of her voice but kept it up in a high register for her entire career.

  5. Phil O'Malley says:

    Elizabeth Taylor’s walk through films in which she portrayed a mentally challenged woman began long before this art film. It was her confidence and fragility that offered the dichotomous feel to movies that she made of this type. From “Boom!” to “Night Watch” to “X,Y and Zee”, Miss Taylor knows how to play ‘unhinged’, not to mention “Secret Ceremony”. “The Driver’s Seat” is more than just exploitative pathos. It is a look deep into the mind of a woman on a journey all her own…and she takes the audience with her…as only Miss Taylor can.

    • Doug says:

      Great observations, Phil. I recently caught X, Y & ZEE and was bowled over by Taylor’s craft. A performance of deep comprehension and precise artistry.

Leave a Reply

Theme by Max is NOW!
Powered by WordPress