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Cammell, Donald (1934-1996)

Director, Writer, Editor

Main image of Cammell, Donald (1934-1996)

Donald Seton Cammell was born in Edinburgh on 17 January 1934 into a formerly wealthy family that had lost its considerable fortune in the crash of 1929. A precocious boy, he obtained a scholarship to the Royal Academy and after further studies in Florence successfully set himself up as a portrait artist in London in the early 1950s.

By the mid 1960s he had given up painting to concentrate on filmmaking. His first two scripts, The Touchables (d. Robert Freeman, 1968) and Duffy (d. Robert Parrish, 1968), combine crime and hippies to unremarkable effect (The Touchables was re-written by Ian La Frenais). Cammell decided to try the same formula again in his next script, but to preserve his work insisted on directing as well. His agent, the aspiring producer Sandy Lieberson, paired him with cinematographer Nicolas Roeg as co-directors of Performance. The film brilliantly melds the narcissistic glamour of London's East End gangsters and the late '60s rock star phenomenon, but its mixture of homoeroticism, violence and rock music so alarmed its backers that it sat on the shelf for over a year before its release in 1970. The final version, completed without Roeg in Los Angeles by Cammell and editor Frank Mazzola, is a rich, sophisticated and stimulating work, elliptically shot and magnificently 'performed' by its stars James Fox and Mick Jagger. The themes of masculinity in crisis, sexuality, death and rebirth, transformation and extreme violence would re-appear throughout the rest of the films Cammell directed, all of which were made in America.

After a number of false starts, Cammell accepted an offer from MGM to direct Demon Seed (US, 1977), a science fiction horror story about a supercomputer that imprisons the wife of its creator inside their home so as to make her bear its child. Although eventually taken out his hands, its lurid premise (from a novel by Dean Koontz) is offset by a strong performance from Julie Christie and a kinetic 'shock' finale that has an emotional ambiguity reminiscent of the ending of Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (US, 1968). Cammell subsequently wrote a number of scripts, spending a long and fruitless period collaborating with Marlon Brando on Jericho, a project that was never made. The only one of his films over which he maintained complete control was White of the Eye (US, 1987), co-written with his wife China Kong, a sympathetic look at a homicidal psychopath featuring an uncompromising performance by David Keith as the misogynist killer.

Wild Side (US, 1995), Cammell's last film, was first released in a version heavily re-edited by its production company, but was eventually returned to an approximation of his original intentions by Kong and Mazzola and re-released as Donald Cammell's Wild Side (2000). With its original non-linear structure restored, this version closely resembles Performance in its fragmentary editing style - full of flashbacks and flash-forwards - and in its candid and exhilarating sex scenes. A true visionary, Cammell sadly only completed four films as a director before committing suicide at his home in Los Angeles on 26 April 1996.

Chang, Chris, 'Cinema, sex, magick: the films of Donald Cammell', Film Comment, July/Aug. 1996, pp. 14-19, 83
MacCabe, Colin, Performance (London: BFI, 1998)
Savage, Jon, 'Performance: interview with Donald Cammell' in Steve Chibnall and Robert Murphy (eds), British Crime Cinema (London, Routledge, 1999)

Sergio Angelini, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Thumbnail image of Performance (1970)Performance (1970)

Dazzling psychological drama about a gangster and a rock star

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Thumbnail image of Roeg, Nicolas (1928-)Roeg, Nicolas (1928-)

Director, Cinematographer, Writer