Movie night with Urbaniak: Performance


  nor I had ever seen Nicholas Roeg’s 1969 druggy, draggy landmark of 60s Weird British Cinema before, so we were on equal footing for this viewing.

Myself, I’ve come to believe that the cinematic form demands a certain complexity of plot. Others, obviously, disagree. In any case, I’m always keeping my eye out for novel plotlines, so I kept a pad of paper and pen handy to record the plot of Performance. Here’s what I wrote:

“Chas is a cockney gangster in the 60s” (James Fox is quite startling in this part, seamlessly playing a snide, brutal thug, not unlike Michael Caine’s gangster roles of the same period, and looking a lot like Paul Bettany in Gangster #1 (which is set in the same time period).

“He gets in trouble with his boss and has to go on the lam. He scams a room in a creepy dive, a townhouse that happens to be owned by a guy named Turner, who used to be some kind of pop star.” (Turner is played by Mick Jagger, who is always fascinating to watch, but the part is drastically underwritten, I’m guessing intentionally so, to keep him enigmatic and weird.)

That’s Act I, and it’s straightforward enough. The editing is, to my taste, a little show-offy and grating, but up to here it’s still pretty much a 60s Cockney Gangster Movie (this genre would be revived in the 80s by movies like The Long Good Friday and Mona Lisa, and in the 90s by Guy Ritchie, whose movies had show-offy editing of their own).

(One of my favorite things about Cockney Gangster Movies is that everyone freaks out whenever someone pulls out a gun. You, essentially, have Gangsters Without Guns, because guns are a relative rarity in Britain. Here in the US, it’s assumed that all gangsters (at least in movies) carry guns at all times, but when a Cockney Gangster pulls out a gun, everyone hits the deck — watch out, he’s got a gun! No “Mexican Standoffs” for Cockney Gangsters, it’s all punch-ups and thrown chairs. At the climax of The Long Good Friday, Cockney Kingpin Bob Hoskins goes to war with somebody or other, calls his guys to his HQ, and passes out guns — “okay boys, here you go, come and get ’em.” Imagine Al Pacino in Scarface having to supply his thugs with guns at a special meeting.)

At the end of Act I, Chas dyes his hair red and puts on sunglasses and a trenchcoat, and begins to look disturbingly like David Bowie in 1975 (which I’m beginning to think is not a coincidence — that was the year Bowie performed in Roeg’s similarly plotted The Man Who Fell To Earth).

Act II

“Chas tries to figure out what the hell is the deal with Turner.” Turner himself is uncommunicative to the point of opacity, but he has a couple of birds who live with him who are more than happy (delighted, even) to share their secrets with him. They wander around the house, take baths, take drugs, dress up, have sex in various combinations, talk about philosophy, essentially lead a burnt-out late-60s version of the hippie dream. Turner, we eventually find out, used to be a pop star but has lost his inspiration, is looking for something new. “A time for a change,” says Turner, over and over, quoting Mick Jagger, who happens to be playing Turner. There’s a child, I don’t know whose, who also lives in the house. Turner wants Chas out, but then decides to let him stick around.


“They try to fuck him up — why? Chas freaks out.” Turner’s girlfriend feeds Chas a psychedelic mushroom. Chas has a bad trip. The themes of Act II are pushed to their abstract extremes. Incident drops severely as Chas’s concerns turn within. And I have a confession to make: I have about as much patience with movies that try to describe altered states of consciousness as I do with people who try to describe altered states of consciousness.

Anyway, Chas freaks out for a long, long time, and then, just when the movie has lost all semblance of form, it bursts through into a weird, four-minute musical number where Mick Jagger, now made up as a Cockney Gangster, sings “Memo From Turner” to Chas and his Cockney Gangster Pals, backed by the able Rolling Stones. The scene makes no sense in any way I feel like trying to discern, but it is electrifying, and I’m guessing it was inserted by studio people who said “What? You’ve got Mick Jagger in your movie and he’s not going to sing? Then what the hell is he doing there?”

“Chas’s pals come and get him.” Because the movie has to end somehow. Chas’s pals find out where he’s hiding (he doesn’t make it very hard for them) and show up. And there he is, now wearing a chestnut wig and hippie clothes, looking less like David Bowie and more like a member of Spinal Tap. It’s the Lord of the Flies moment, where “order” is suddenly restored and we see how far gone the protagonist is.

But the movie isn’t quite over yet. Something happens between Chas’s pals showing up and Chas (or someone, it’s not clear who) getting in the car with them. Someone shoots someone else in the head, someone winds up dead in a closet, someone else is shown covered in blood in an elevator. I’m not trying to keep a secret here, I honestly have no idea who’s doing what to whom.

The End.

TODD: So, I’m sorry, wait — I have a question. What just happened there?
JAMES: (Cockney accent) Well, it’s about identity, innit?

James, I will have to say, got a lot more out of this movie than I did. He recognized that it was saying something about its time (the 60s), and how the world seemed to be exploding with all these new avenues of psychological and spiritual investigation, and here’s two guys who are coming to the end of that decade from two different directions, the gangster on the lam symbolizing the “establishment” and the burnt-out pop star representing “bohemia,” and they’re both stuck in this purgatory-like house, their lives on hold as they try to figure out where to go now that all the rules have been suspended. And it’s true, the movie does do that. I just wish it would have done it with more plot.

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9 Responses to “Movie night with Urbaniak: Performance”
  1. craigjclark says:

    I’ve seen this twice now — once one the big screen at a revival house and once when it came out on DVD — and can attest to the fact that it does make a bit more sense the second time around. The same goes for Richard Lester’s Petulia, which Roeg shot the year before and which has a similar editing style (as does John Boorman’s Point Blank). It was something that was in the air, I guess.

  2. vertamae says:

    I saw it in the late ’70s in the theatre – the idea was to get very high before going. Maybe that’s what you missed.

  3. teamwak says:

    I never dared watch this, same with that other 60’s classic Blowup(?), the about the photographer. I think the world had moved on too much by my day, that I had no desire to see movies that were less about story, but more about a mood that had passed. I suppose if I had more of a desire to know the 60s I would watch them, but to be honest British culture has revered the 60’s ever since the 60’s. The vibe has popped up in more popular culture over here than I could mention. It is the land of the Beatles, The Stones, and Twiggy. I’ve seen too many re-runs of things that look like the opening of Austin POwers. 🙂

  4. Anonymous says:

    Never had the courage to view Performance. I admire your pluck. Do you think as a screenwriter the focus is more on plot than tone and how that can more subtly convey theme? Love TLGF! So many actors from that film (The 1st for some of them) went on the amazing careers! Helen Mirren, Bob Hoskins, Paul Freeman from Raiders of the Lost Ark, even a young Pierce Brosnan playing an IRA assassin. The ending (Hoskins character’s expression!) is masterful.

    • Todd says:

      Never had the courage to view Performance.

      It takes no courage, really — it’s not a chore to sit through or anything, it’s just a little slow in spots.

      Do you think as a screenwriter the focus is more on plot than tone and how that can more subtly convey theme?

      My interest as a screenwriter (as far as Performance goes) is how story is delivered by plotting. As it happens, there isn’t much story or plot in Performance, although there are an adequate number of Ideas, which are important in movies, and which have almost completely vanished in the current cinematic landscape.

      The ending [of The Long Good Friday] (Hoskins character’s expression!) is masterful.

      You’re not kidding. I saw that movie when it first came out, and twenty-odd years later, that last shot of him was the only thing I remembered from the movie. The rolling emotions changing his features as he silently works out just what has happened to him are a wonder to behold — screen acting at its finest.

  5. chtulie says:

    Sounds like a Kitano film. Specifically ‘Sonatine’.
    A yakuza gang war, a bunch then have to hide out together on a remote beach where then the bulk of the film takes place as things get very weird with these people disconnected from the rest of the world.