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Donald Cammell
Shoot To Kill

Why did Donald Cammell, the director of Performance, have to die? Two years after the film-maker's violent suicide, Tom Dewe Mathews gathers new evidence of a great British tragedy

At 9.45pm on April 24,1996, the British film-maker Donald Cammell shot himself. Because the shot went through his forehead rather than through the roof of his mouth, he lived for another 45 minutes. As he lay in his house, perched on the top of the Hollywood Hills, Cammell remained calm and lucid. He remembered his greatest film, Performance, and recalled its own famous, bullet-in-the-head death scene. More practically, he asked his wife, China, for a pillow so that the carpet wouldn't be "fucked up" by his blood. But then he made a more curious request: he asked for a mirror. The film-maker wanted to observe his own death.

Cammell was 62, and he left us with only four feature films, the results of a career fraught with frustration. But 30 years after its release, scarcely a week goes by without Performance, the original sex, drugs and rock'n'roll movie, being shown somewhere in Britain.

No less than three biographers are currently researching Cammell's life, a biodocumentary film is about to be released and a forthcoming monograph by Colin MacCabe of the British Institute will hail Cammell as the creator of "the greatest British film ever made".

Performance was the pinnacle from which Cammell was forced to descend into a string of largely unrealised projects, yet this descent had a fitting end. For a man whose life was reflected and refracted by the lens, death in front of a mirror completed a circle that began six decades earlier in the precincts of Edinburgh Castle. There, in the Outlook Tower which his parents rented, Donald was the first and only child to be born under the lens of the Camera Obscura, the Victorian contraption that surveys - and reflects - the Scottish capital.

Almost as soon as he could suck his thumb, Cammell could draw. His brother remembers him having an understanding of perspective at three, and of foreshortening at four. This led him swiftly through art college to a lucrative career in the late fifties as one of London's leading society portrait painters. By the time he was in his twenties, Cammell could afford to sit back in his Chelsea studio and enjoy his facility, his good looks and their effect on women. "You name any beautiful woman from that time" says his ex-lover, Myriam Gibril, "and she knew Donald." By the mid-sixties Cammell had hit a creative block.

Beneath his bohemian veneer, he was a control freak. "That was his artistic drive," says David Cammell. "He did have the power over women and that's what made him a powerful artist, because he tried to keep control over what his vision was." But because he thought that figurative painting was dead, Cammell had to fragment the image. He had to break up those pretty portraits. "He realised," says his brother, "that the mental process involved in observing shouldn't necessarily be linear, that what you are actually observing is a whole series of events at the same time. It's like a Picasso," he says, "you have to include several viewpoints, all within one frame."

He turned to film. His privileged position in swinging London soon enabled Cammell to sell a script to Hollywood. But halfway through the location shooting of Duffy, a heist movie, the young scriptwriter was fired "for independent thought". David Cammell recalls: "At that point he was determined to go on and make another film, but this time he wanted to be in control of it."

Chris Rodley, who has just finished a film on Cammell for BBC2, says it was Mick Jagger who enabled the relative novice to direct Performance. "Warners wanted another Hard Day's Night," he says. "They didn't spell it out and neither did Donald, but I direct, otherwise you don't get Mick.'"

"Donald looked upon violence as an artist might look on paint," recalls James Fox, who played Chas in the film. "What are its components? What's its nature? Its glamour? Through his suggestions, his instincts and my exposure - as part of the filming - to gangsters in the East End, I was stimulated enough to understand the Professional nature of violence." Chas's milieu had been captured. What about his disintegration through drugs, reverse role-play and sexual ambiguity at the hands of Jagger's Turner?

"My recollection," says Fox, "is that the script was less developed in the second half and that Donald wanted to see what happened and let things run." He breaks off with a wry laugh. "And they did." And so the nefarious legend of Performance was born. Copious amounts of drugs arrived for cast and crew. Cammell dived under the sheets of a huge double bed with his co-directing cameraman Nic Roeg to shoot various combinations of Jagger, Fox, Anita Pallenburg and Michelle Breton. (Roeg says that he can still see Cammell's face lifting up the sheets to ask: "How was it for you?")

Cammell's directorial method - which relied on his perception of his cast's public strengths and private weaknesses - was intense, contained and often explosive. "Donald made me go further than I'd ever been in more or less every aspect of my life," says Fox. "But that was what his charm was about - about pushing people to the edge in terms of themselves and going where hadn't been before."

The result shows that this method undoubtedly worked. But Warners didn't think so. "Where's Jagger?" they screamed halfway through a preview of the rushes. "Is the relationship between Jagger and Fox bi?" "Bi what?" asked a disingenuous Cammell. But no answer came, as the executives had already made their way towards the exit complaining about the three-way bathroom scene. "Even the bathwater's dirty," was the parting shot.

"The most radical part of Performance," says Chris Rodley, "was brought about by the studio saying, 'Where is Mick Jagger?' Because that propelled Cammell's editing technique." To get Jagger into the movie more quickly, Cammell had to make the two worlds of Chas and Turner criss-cross each other far earlier in the film. So the director created his trademark use of image echoes, recurrent patterns of symbols and psyches and flash cuts between the recent past and present. In short, Cammell created the first rock video.

Despite Performance's mixed reception in America, after its release Cammell based himself in Hollywood. But further films were agonisingly slow to follow, and full of compromise when they eventually - and invariably - went straight to video. However an enduring exception came in 1987 in the form of White Of The Eye, a film in which the sex and mysticism of Performance has mutated into disturbing sex of mythic proportions. True to form, the film was riddled with problems: censorship, a bankruptcy proceeding, lack of promotion, box-office oblivion.

Also, aside from endless interference from producers, there was now another fault-line running through Cammell's career. He spent almost all of the last two decades of his life trying to "orchestrate that performance" from Marlon Brando (who was originally intended for the Chas role in Performance), "to see him bare his soul for once". Two scripts were commissioned from Cammell by the actor, the second of which starred Brando as a retired CIA assassin seeking revenge for his murdered daughter in what would have been one of the most violent films ever made.

"He kills everybody. Everybody! In the last reel..." Cammell would gleefully shout. But when shooting was finally due to begin in Mexico, Brando unexpectedly withdrew to his Hawaiian island. "Basically," says Chris Rodley who knew Cammell for the last 10 years of his life, "Brando took the $1.4 million of his $5 million fee and walked. I'm sure he admired Donald's work, but in the end he fucked Donald over."

Yet, just a couple of weeks before he shot himself, Cammell was commissioned to direct another film. Why did he pick this moment to commit suicide? Rodley thinks he might have lost his nerve, that he was asking himself, "Can I still get those performances?" Both Rodley and David Cammell also cite an obsession with guns. "On one occasion," says David, "he got terribly distressed. I heard him pull out his gun and cock the thing. I had to wrestle with him. That evening, I said, 'Can you give me the gun? I can't sleep thinking you've got it.' 'No, I can't,' he said. 'I won't be able to sleep myself but I promise I won't embarrass you.'"

When David rang his brother later in the year and a policeman answered the telephone, he immediately knew what had happened.

Maybe, to understand Donald Cammell's eerily self-reflecting death one has go back to what many have said after first seeing Performance: despite its cataclysmic ending, as they left the cinema they felt a sense of release. That is because, as MacCabe has remarked, the point of Performance is to understand death as an affirmation of life.

Colin MaCabe's BFI Film classic was published last year.

Source: The Guardian 01/05/1998
Article written by Tom Dewe Matthews