The British are Coming ! The British are Coming! That might be what the studios were yelling in the late 1960's. They weren't talking about the Beatles. It was the invasion of British directors to Hollywood. First came Englishman John Boorman's gritty POINT BLANK in 1967 with Lee Marvin. In 1968, Peter Yates (yes, he's British too) would direct the police drama BULLITT with Steve McQueen and the greatest car chase in film history. And in 1969, MIDNIGHT COWBOY came out directed by yet another Englishman named John Schlesinger starring Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight. All of these directors had begun their careers in England but these were their first American efforts set in uniquely American cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York.
Another Brit who made his American directorial debut in 1968 was Richard Lester and his film PETULIA, a modern drama set not in swinging London but San Francisco about middle-age crisis, divorce, domestic abuse, and a free-spirited, unhappily married young woman named Petulia (Julie Christie). PETULIA is a far cry from Lester's more light-hearted, comedic films starring the Beatles like A HARD DAY'S NIGHT (1964) and HELP! (1965) not to mention later bringing back THE THREE MUSKETEERS and THE FOUR MUSKETEERS in 1973 and 74. I enjoy when a foreign born director makes a film on American soil. They tend to view the United States slightly differently, both in story and visual sense than an American born director. Foreign directors just see things in a unique way.
I selected the film PETULIA (1968) because when I worked as a production assistant for director/producer Michael Mann's company, Mann and an editor were talking about films and Mann liked PETULIA'S cinematography. He liked that things were slightly out of focus. I didn't know what it meant but I always kept it in the back of my mind that I needed to see this film. PETULIA is based on a novel by John Haase called Me and the Arch Kook Petulia, adapted by Barbara Turner and written for the screen by Lawrence B. Marcus.
PETULIA is set in modern San Francisco during the psychedelic heyday (both Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin make musical appearances in the film) and it reminded me of another film a year later, director Mike Nichols THE GRADUATE (1969) with Dustin Hoffman. In THE GRADUATE, Hoffman is the uninterested, bored college graduate Benjamin Braddock, having a mid-life crisis at 21. In PETULIA, it's George C. Scott as middle-aged, newly divorced Archie Bollen, a doctor who's stuck in neutral during the middle part of his life.
The film opens at a swanky charity event for Highway Safety in San Francisco. Petulia Danner (Julie Christie) tries to start an affair with recently divorced doctor Archie Bollen (George C. Scott). Petulia is married to the rich but spoiled David Danner (Richard Chamberlain), a naval architect and scion of wealthy philanthropist Mr. Danner (Joseph Cotten). Archie and Petulia sneak away to a futuristic but cheap hotel. Archie doesn't take Petulia's advances seriously and they don't consummate the meeting. Petulia begins showing up everywhere Archie goes, on a passing cable car or at the zoo, even at the hospital Archie works at for a suspicious rib injury. Archie's doctor friend Barney (Arthur Hill) is envious of Archie's freedom, wishing to divorce his wife Wilma (Kathleen Widdoes) just like Archie divorced his wife.
Archie got tired of being married but he's still friends with his ex-wife Polo (Shirley Knight). Polo's confused by the divorce but she's already fallen in love with another man Warren Smith (Roger Bowen) and plans on marrying him. Archie's two boys like Warren too. This irritates Archie who realizes that he still needs to be a father to his two sons. Archie tries dating, going out with the red headed May (Pippa Scott) but he runs into Petulia again at the Golden Gate Park. Petulia confesses to Archie she's in an unhappy marriage and wants to divorce David.
Archie and Petulia begin an affair. After taking his two sons out for the day on Alcatraz Island, Archie returns to his home to find Petulia savagely beaten in his bedroom. Petulia's husband David seems like the prime suspect but Archie can't convince Petulia to press charges. Mr. Danner moves Petulia out of the hospital and cleans up his son David's mess. David fixes up his boat again and takes Petulia away to sail to Peru to try to patch up their marriage. When Archie finally sees Petulia again a year later, she's back at the hospital, only this time she's pregnant. Archie and Petulia rue their lost chance for love but make peace. Petulia seems over Archie but as she's about to be sedated before giving birth, a hand caresses her cheek and she calls murmurs "Archie?"
On the surface PETULIA seems like a typical TV Movie of the Week plot but director Lester and cinematographer Nicholas Roeg (who would become an acclaimed director himself) are quite daring in their approach to PETULIA. The film is very surreal. Lester and Roeg shoot the actors at times slightly out of focus or use a technique called rack focus that constantly changes the field of vision while making the previous object blurry. Is Petulia slightly out of focus because Archie isn't quite sure who she really is? Is she an angel as she floats upward on a funicular or a liar?
Lester also incorporates flashbacks and flash forwards, shifting time, with little context at first. We see quick shots of scenes we haven't seen yet and scenes in the future before they've happened. There is a whole subplot about Petulia and David bringing back a Mexican kid Oliver (Vincent Arias) from a trip to Tijuana. David tires of the boy and throws him out. As Petulia buys a bus ticket back to Tijuana for Oliver, the boys runs out between two buses and is run over by a car, injuring the boy, bringing much guilt to Petulia. Ironically, Archie treats Oliver in the hospital, not knowing his connection to Petulia until later. But we learn this back story in pieces. Cinematographer Roeg would use these shifts of time (past, present, and future) to great effect in his classic thriller DON'T LOOK NOW (1973) also starring Julie Christie. Screenwriter Lawrence B. Marcus would write another surreal film where you're never sure what's real and what's part of a movie within a movie in THE STUNT MAN (1978) starring Peter O'Toole.
More surrealism pops up with nuns who seem to be everywhere Archie goes. They do work at the hospital he works at but we see a gaggle of nuns on the Alcatraz tour, walking around Golden Gate park, and even piled into a car joy riding in a parking garage. Are the nun's Archie's conscience? A tuba becomes an Achilles heel for Archie as Petulia steals one and brings it to his home. Archie tries to take it back but it barely fits in his car or the bus and the owner's not around when he tries to return it. Petulia almost sounds like peculiar. She definitely is the kook from the novel's title.
Director Lester captures the swinging late 60's in America nicely. Archie and Barney have lunch at a topless bar. Psychedelic murals on buildings. Hippies and and rock music show up periodically. But in the background, violence and lurks. In Archie's apartment, news footage of the Vietnam War is always on the television. David Danner may beat his wife but even Archie unexpectedly shows a violent streak when he throws a bag of leftovers at Polo as she criticizes his apartment. Lester uses almost subliminal cuts at times to make a point. A night out with the family to a roller derby match becomes painful for Archie. When a roller derby girl punches another girl, Lester has a quick flash cut to Petulia's beaten face and then back to Archie wincing in the crowd.
The casting is spot on as every actor seems to grasp their character and role in this surreal drama perfectly. Julie Christie was the It girl of the 60's and early 70's, winning an Academy Award for DARLING (1965) and working with prestigious directors like David Lean in DR. ZHIVAGO (1965) , Francois Truffault in FAHRENHEIT 451 (1966), and Robert Altman in MCCABE AND MRS MILLER (1971). She often played desirable, carefree women with a dark secret and Petulia Danner is another terrific character in Christie's career. Petulia claims she's incorruptible and that money can't buy her but the Danner family has her wrapped around their finger.
George C. Scott is perfect as the perplexed Archie, suffering through mid-life malaise, a bit out of focus with his personal life and family. Archie seems desensitized to love, as anti-septic in his relationships as the hospitaal he works at. This is a great role for Scott who audiences were more accustomed seeing as a military commander in films like DR. STRANGELOVE (1964) and PATTON (1970). Richard Chamberlain is excellent as the beautifully narcissistic David Danner, the architect who can restore a beautiful boat or beat his wife almost to death. As Petulia says to David, "I turned those gentle hands into fists. You were the gentlest man I ever knew." The great Joseph Cotten, one of Orson Welles favorite actors, has a couple of nice scenes as David's father and partriarch of the dysfunctional Danner family. He covers up his son's monstrous acts by raising money for charity. Mr. Danner is elitist, old San Francisco money, and he bullies anyone who tries to tell him what to do. The rest of the supporting cast is excellent and look for bit part from future television regular Howard Hesseman (as DJ Dr. Johnny Fever in WKRP IN CINCINNATI) as a hippie.
In PETULIA, Richard Lester brings a foreigner's eye to San Francisco and the American culture of the late 60's. With his cinematographer Nicholas Roeg, editor Anthony Gibbs, and a haunting, somber score by John Barry, Lester turns a seemingly melodramatic story into a surreal, mesmerizing tale of adults trying to figure out their relationships with loved ones and family.