East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

A hot tea and an aspirin with Jerry Cornelius

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And having spent the cold afternoon reading one of the English Assassin’s latest exploits, I curled up under a thick blanket, with a steaming cup of tea and an aspirin, and re-watched Robert Fuest’s The Final Programme, the 1973 movie loosely based on Michael Moorcock’s novel of the same title.

And this seems to be Fuest’s week here in my house – after the two Dr Phibes (from 1971 and 1972), now The Final Programme (1973) – and it becomes easy to spot the common themes in Fuest’s work: the surreal set design (Fuest was not only the director, but also the screenwriter and the set designer for Programme), the use of music-hall style music on the soundtrack, certain repeated camera angles.
So, what’s this all about?

In a seedy, near future (?) Europe, in which the Americans have just bombed to oblivion Amsterdam, Jerry Cornelius (Jon Finch) – adventurer, genius scientist, etc – only wants to rescue his sister Catherine from the clutches of his drug-addict brother Frank (and possibly getting rid of Frank using napalm), but somehow gets involved with the sensual and sinister Miss Brunner (Jenny Runacre) and her minions, in the hunt for a set of microfilms about his late father’s research.

The Jerry Cornelius stories by Michael Moorcock are built like impressionistic puzzles with a few pieces missing – the idea is to use the tropes of the thriller and of urban adventure to look at social and political issues through the lens of satire.
The Fuest movie tries to use the same approach, presenting a series of scenes that act as set-pieces, elements in a larger picture we are supposed to put together. The end result is a beautiful film, filled with great quotes and with surprising scenes, that can in the end appear to be less than the sum of its parts.

Miss Bruner: What are you going to do now?
Jerry Cornelius: Well, for a start, I’m going to sit here and get smashed out of my mind. And I also have it on very good authority that the world is coming to an end. I thought I’d go home and watch it on television.

On the plus side, apart from the mise-en-scene – there is a nightclub designed like a pinball, in which nuns feed coins into slot-machines – the cast is absolutely brilliant – and if the original plan was to have Timothy Dalton or Mick Jagger portraying Jerry and Vanessa Redgrave or Sally Kellerman as Miss Brunner, in the end it is hard to imagine anyone else but Jon Finch and Jenny Runacre in the roles.
Sterling Hayden, Hugh Griffith and Patrick Mcgee – among many others – round up the company.

Jerry Cornelius: Strange chick. How did you find her?
Miss Brunner: Delicious.

And it’s weird – a lot weirder than Phibes, all things considered – and baffling, and morbidly sexy. It’s also very funny.
And weird.

But just as it happens with the Cornelius stories, in this movie, too, the viewer is pulled in, and offered a glimpse of something larger and more complex, so that while we ask ourselves in what strange way all this could possibly make sense, we still want to go on, see more, learn more, get in deeper.

The Final Programme is not a masterpiece, but it certainly works, and it is worth the time spent watching it.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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