Based on a short story Marco Denevi – adapted several times for Argentine and Spanish television – this mystifying, underrated exercise in gothic dress-up and role-play and old dark house camp is a female-oriented counterpart to director Joseph Losey’s breakthrough film THE SERVANT. In place of a male servant-and-master relationship, it has a mother-and-daughter axis … but psycho-drama still plays out in a cluttered London mansion which embodies the mental and physical decay of the ruling classes. THE SERVANT was shot in cool, Expressionist black and white by Douglas Slocombie; this offers gloomy colour cinematography from Gerry Fisher which prefigures his work on other mansion-set movies (MALPERTUIS, BLIND TERROR). Production design by Richard Macdonald (SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES) and art direction by John Clark (who decorated the tonally similar PERFORMANCE) adds mod touches to the traditional olde junke shoppe aesthetic (magpie aunts actually raid the place for portable tat to sell in their antique shop). The striking location (Debenham House, Holland Park) was later used in CARRY ON EMMANNUELLE and THE WINGS OF THE DOVE.
It opens with what seems a meet-weird on the upper deck of a London bus between two strange women, but it emerges that they are already in the midst of an extended game. Earthy, mature Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor) has descended into alcoholism and prostitution after the death of her child (and the breakup of her marriage) but found a place in the orbit of fragile, infantile Cenci Englehard (Mia Farrow), who has managed to get Leonora to take the place of her dead mother amid the funereal splendour of a house stuffed full of designer dresses and knick-knacks. Hannah (THE 39 STEPS’ Peggy Ashcroft) and Hilda (TALES OF HOFFMANN’s Pamela Brown), the dead mother’s sisters, occasionally visit to gossip, chide and steal – exploiting the enormously wealthy, apparently demented Cenci. The family money comes from her dead father Gustave, but a satyr-bearded, flower-presenting wicked stepfather is in the mix. Albert (Robert Mitchum, off his usual beat), a randy and perhaps paedophile academic, may have been an earlier partner in Cenci’s fantasies. He constitutes a leering, eccentric threat to the oddball idyll and also gets the funniest line ‘I couldn’t rape a randy elephant. I’m much too tentative.’
Like THE SERVANT – deliberately evoked as the women take a trip to the seaside and Losey pauses to overhear a snatch of conversation from the next table – this follows the shifts of power in a co-dependent or symbiotic relationship between a wealthy neurotic and an adaptive hanger-on, though here the viewpoint character is the outsider and the unknowable manipulator is the home-owner. George Tabori (I CONFESS) isn’t as sharp a writer as Harold Pinter, who adapted Robin Maugham’s novel The Servant. SECRET CEREMONY – like Loseys’ other Liz Taylor charade BOOM! – is indulgent of its stars (who parade in amazing outfits and have theatrical meltdown scenes) in contrast with the firmer control Losey had on James Fox and Dirk Bogarde. It was also evidently a troubled production (as anything involving Mia Farrow and Elizabeth Taylor in 1968 was bound to be) with Universal as baffled and befuddled by the product as Warners were by PERFORMANCE. Scenes not found on this DVD were shot by other hands for a TV version which tried to explain and alter the storyline–making Leonora a wig-model rather than a prostitute, for instance.
It’s a creepy, disjointed film and neither Taylor nor Farrow are completely on form. When Cenci becomes by turns more childish (stuffing a toy frog up her dress to simulate pregnancy) and adult (seemingly abandoning the game of neurosis and appearing rational during her craziest stretch), Farrow seems in the dark about her character’s mental state. She’s oddly reminiscent of her sister Tisa in SOME CALL IT LOVING (especially when laid out in a coffin). In another odd parallel, Albert diagnoses Cenci’s problem as precisely the kind of regression (‘Merrye’s Syndrome’) suffered by the family in Jack Hill’s SPIDER BABY. Arguably, the dotty, callous aunts prefigure the DON’T LOOK NOW sisters … while the film’s art-exploitation knife-edge is suggested by the CVs of its producers Norman Priggen (CIRCUS OF HORRORS, THE CREEPING FLESH, TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS) and John Heyman (PRIVILEGE, HITLER: THE LAST TEN DAYS, JESUS, A PASSAGE TO INDIA). The seaside trip, which uses Dutch locations, shows why Fisher might have attracted the attention of Harry Kumel: a ring of wicker beach chairs arranged like stooping megaliths is an especially memorable image. Losey also makes careful use of sound–with a disturbing array of ‘noises off’ throughout, and an eerie score (incorporating the occasional ondes martenot ululation) from Richard Rodney Bennett (THE WITCHES).
This Region 2 release is far from optimal: the 1.85:1 ratio is preserved, but in non-anamorphic form with a black windowbox; the image is slightly grainy, but vivid enough to show off the shadowy imagery. However, it is available online at knock-down prices.