A Killer Gaze: Richard Burton and his ‘Medusa Touch’
A severely beaten man who has survived a heinous assault is unconscious in a London hospital.
His head and face are wrapped in bandages with only his eyes (a key thing) and mouth visible. The heart monitor near his bed is flatlined, but inexplicably there is a small blip of brain activity. He isn’t dead – but is he alive?
As the 1978 British film The Medusa Touch unfolds over the next 100 minutes, that blip will grow in speed and size, increasing in intensity and pulling the viewer to the edge of their seat. At least that’s how I felt recently watching this thriller starring Richard Burton as a troubled man who believes he can kill with his mind.
The film summary – A French detective in London reconstructs the life of a man lying in hospital with severe injuries with the help of journals and a psychiatrist – made me believe I would be watching a simple mystery, but I got more.
The title also references one of my favorite monsters, Medusa, the mythological creature who turned people into stone with one look. I wondered how that played into the film and, of course, I hoped the creature would show up in some way, as implausible as that felt. (Technically she did appear, but as a piece of art.)
It turns out that The Medusa Touch is an intriguing combination of mystery thriller and telekinetic horror film. When one of the characters utters the simple line “For a moment, I turned to stone,” it is definitely chilling.
While Brian DePalma’s excellent 1978 film The Fury remains tops in this genre, The Medusa Touch is an interesting and nicely done movie with nifty special effects. (Wait until the nearly 10-minute scene of death and destruction at the end.) It appears to have fallen under the radar over the past 40-plus years, but certainly deserves a new look. Honestly, it’s worth watching (and listening) to see Burton – who makes the most of his somewhat limited screen time – along with Lee Remick, French/Italian actor Lino Ventura (The Valachi Papers) and a supporting cast that includes Harry Andrews, Jeremy Brett and Derek Jacobi.
* * * * *
The Medusa Touch opens with a television broadcast of the impending disaster of the Achilles 6, a U.S. mission for the first permanent station on the moon. We only see the back of the person watching in a dark room, but we know it’s Burton. He plays John Morlar, a writer of novels and poetry that are darkly poetic, often angry and filled with bombast.
There’s a knock at the unlocked door.
“Thought you’d come,” he says without turning around.
The unseen visitor violently spins his chair so they face each other.
“Ah, response at last,” Morlar says before a statue is smashed against his head, again and again, blood splatters on the TV screen.
As the opening credits begin, the camera focuses on the Medusa shield on the wall that captures her moment of death: snakes for hair, a scream of horror forever etched on her face, blood at the base of her decapitated head. Finally Medusa’s image dissolves into Burton’s face. Director Jack Gold is making a statement.
Detectives arrive, led by dour French inspector Monsieur Brunel (Lino Ventura) who is in London as part of an exchange program. (We’ll warm up to him.) All are sickened by the sight of the body on the floor. “Talk about beating somebody’s brains out,” one says. We don’t see the face – the director shoots the scene with the head cleverly hidden behind a chair – but we get the point.
Inspector Brunel reads one of Morlar’s journals that holds pages of neatly printed poems, rants and mysterious words:
No sign of L
The West Front
What does it mean? The mystery kicks in.
After examining the crime scene and questioning a neighbor, they return to Morlar’s apartment where the inspector reads more poetry. (The film has a passion for words, and I appreciate that.)
“There are more tears than smiles, there is more sea than earth
One day, the insupportable grief of mankind will seep over the land
and an ark will float on that liquid expression of misery.”
It’s a glimpse into a man’s soul, but we don’t have time to reflect because the sound of heavy breathing intrudes.
Our corpse is alive. It’s a miracle.
* * * * *
Morlar barely shows signs of life at the hospital which is also where victims of a nearby jumbo jet crash were taken. (Coincidence?) We’ll return to his room throughout the film, but the only change is the unnerving bleeps from a machine that shows his increasing brain activity, while another doesn’t register a heartbeat. “You’re looking a mind determined not to die,” the doctor chillingly says.
We get to know Morlar through his journals and flashbacks. Providing much insight into this complicated man is the Zonfeld mentioned in his journal. That’s Dr. Zonfeld, his psychiatrist, who is played by Lee Remick with her startling blue eyes that have their own role to play.
The film drills deep into the ideas that eyes are not only the windows to the soul, but also are Medusa’s power source. The camera, then, loves to focus on the eyes and with Remick and Burton having similar coloring, their connection is unmistakable.
People also fear Morlar’s eyes.
“Have you seen Morlar’s eyes?” neighbor Pennington asks the inspector. “The church says there are demons in some people and there are.”
As a law student, Morlar is described as withdrawn and someone who had “The most disconcerting eyes. One could never return his gaze in conversation.” Creepy.
Flashbacks let us eavesdrop on sessions between Zonfeld and Morlar, where we hear about his “gift for disaster” and how trying to convince him they are simply delusions or a series of coincidences only make him angrier.
“It’s not coincidence, it’s me,” Morlar forcefully insists, quickly telling the doctor “You spend most of your time dragging people out of hell, yet you refuse to recognize the devil.”
This is a man haunted by tragedies that he feels so deeply responsible for that he collects newspaper clippings in an oversized scrapbook: Floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, massacres, riots, killings, murders, air crashes, famine.
He recounts the many people who died in his life: His childhood nanny who terrified him with her tales of brimstone, fire and hell; his cruel and bullying mother and milquetoast father who also met with accidental deaths, as did the cruel headmaster at his school. Then there’s his neighbor’s wife. Though Morlar says he didn’t physically kill them, he vehemently believes he willed them to die.
Listening to Burton spew Morlar’s beliefs and anger in that powerful voice is wonderful. “I made it happen, I commanded it to happened,” he bellows. (This film would not have been the same without Burton.)
He shares his anger about the world – with the government spending millions on rescuing three astronauts while millions of people starve, a judicial system that doesn’t protect the innocent and money collected to save buildings. It sounds almost noble even to Inspector Brunel who says “I am learning to admire the man.”
Along the way, what started as a simple whodunit becomes a film that makes the characters and viewers question their own beliefs. Is it all a coincidence? Can someone psychically will an act of violence? Is Morlar a victim of circumstance? Possessed? Mad?
While the film takes the idea that he can kill with his mind quite seriously, it doesn’t supply any pat answers.
Even Morlar doesn’t know as he screams an anguished “What am I?” to Dr. Zonfeld.
She doesn’t have an answer for him.
Me? All I’m sure about is that Richard Burton has killer blue-green eyes.
Medusa on film
Treat yourself to seeing Medusa in a movie as she is meant to be: a killing machine who only needs to look at her victims. I highly suggest two classic movies: Hammer’s traditional horror film The Gorgon (1964) starring the dynamic duo of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, and Clash of the Titans (1981) with its Greek gods and monsters and a Medusa crafted from the talents of stop-motion animation master Ray Harryhausen.
– Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub
Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever and is a member of the Classic Movie Blog Association. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.