My first reaction after watching Reflections in a Golden Eye was to label the film a “hothouse melodrama.” It seemed a perfect and apt descriptor for this 1967 story of sexual obsession, crushing loneliness and murder set on an unnamed United States Army base in the South. But a moment later, I reconsidered. Ably directed by American cinema giant John Huston from a novel by Carson McCullers, and starring actors at the top of their game, Reflections in a Golden Eye is a far more intriguing work than the shorthand phrase would indicate.
Marlon Brando, somewhere between a boxer’s physique and the torso-swaddling girth of his later career, plays Major Penderton, the base’s stern and humorless instructor of military tactics. Calling him a closeted gay man oversimplifies the matter. His repression is so deep that he’s unaware of it. In Leonora, he possesses both foil and wife. Portrayed with voluptuous dominance by Elizabeth Taylor, Leonora spends her days horse riding and enjoying countryside trysts with her lover Colonel Langdon (Brian Keith). Alison Langdon (Julie Williams), the Colonel’s mentally unstable wife, completes the menagerie.
Outwardly, Penderton and Leonora couldn’t appear more opposed. She is all impulse; he is a display of control. “I detest clumsiness, accidental or otherwise,” he proclaims early on.
And “display” is the appropriate word. The man evidences nothing but surface. What goes on behind Penderton’s mask of ruminating jaw and eyes (so often refusing the gaze of others) is obviously inscrutable to those around him. By the way his own actions constantly startle him — how explosions of anger and grief bubble up as if from some unplumbed cavern, catching him unaware with surprise twisting across his face — shows he is just as much a mystery to himself.
Only when Penderton is alone — and of all the characters in the film except one other, he is the only one ever shown alone — does the audience glimpse what roils beneath the dress uniform and classroom lectures on leadership and pride. In one affecting scene, Penderton practices various expressions before a mirror as if he’s unfamiliar with the related emotions. One likely won’t doubt for a second that this might not be the case. Similarly revealing mirror scenes punctuate the film. That an actor can provide the audience with so much simply by contemplating his appearance demonstrates why Brando is such a dramatic force.
Leonora, though seemingly Penderton’s opposite, is as much a creature of desperate loneliness and unexamined impulse. But while Brando’s character is a frigid adult, Taylor (no slouch herself in the acting department) manifests Leonora as a needy child; physical demonstration accompanies emotion. Angry after Penderton has beaten her favorite horse, Leonora strikes him repeatedly with a whip in the midst of her own party. When he calls her a slattern, she slowly and tauntingly disrobes and then struts about their home naked.
Like a child, Leonora acts on contrary impulses without the crisis of conscience it might provoke in an adult. She shows genuine if simplistic concern and love for her best friend Alison, while at the same time engaged in a deep, long-term affair with the woman’s husband.
Lending the story a rarefied patina is the cinematography. All color is washed into an amber haze. Only reds and greens appear with any distinction, and stark check marks are placed at important moments. Huston could’ve accomplished this a number of ways — why choose something so obvious? Are the characters trapped insects? Are viewers meant to take the story at an even further remove? In any case, it’s an amazing and brave decision and simply works with the movie’s tone. I can’t imagine a director with Huston’s cache attempting such a feat today (or even two Hollywood stars of similar popularity like Brando and Taylor).
But these are people supremely confident in their art. For example, Brando’s simple move of brushing down his hair when he believes a handsome young private is coming to visit is both bewilderingly optimistic and incredibly, achingly pathetic. It’s a brief yet indelible image. Who told him the moment needed that exact gesture? Huston? Or is it a glimpse into the vaunted Method? I don’t think we’ll ever know. I just know that like so much of Reflections in a Golden Eye, it is perfect.
Stefen Styrsky (@Stefen_Styrsky) writes short stories and film reviews. His work has appeared in Amazon’s Day One, the Tahoma Literary Review, Number Eleven Magazine, Litbreak and The Offing, among other places. He has an MA in Fiction Writing from the Johns Hopkins University and lives in Washington, DC. His website is stefenstyrsky.com.