Nicolas Roeg’s fascinating, flawed follow-up to Bad Timing is much under-appreciated. It came after a run of critical darlings, but heralded output during the rest of the 1980s that would generally be regarded as mixed (while also representing his most prolific period). A tale of greed, obsession, and jealousy, Eureka finds the director applying his typically distinctive insights into time, subjective experience, the enduring external world, sex, and death to a screenplay that isn’t quite sure if it can take such weight. One could imagine a much more linear take on this (based on real events) story, which may be why the joins keep showing. But, if it nearly disintegrates during a third act that tries to keep thematic content going while characters wither or perish, it remains one of the director’s most dazzling and captivating pictures. Just fitfully so.
I first saw Eureka on TV during the ’80s, and it left an indelible impression. A unique, kaleidoscopic, hallucinatory fever dream of bold images, symbols and exotic scenery. And then there was Theresa Russell, sporting herself with an unselfconsciousness consistent with Roeg’s oeuvre and adding to the sense that the piece was a mysterious, unknowable forbidden fruit. It helped that Roeg’s approach to filmmaking is not beholden to narrative norms of time and space. The more familiar one is with his work, the less unique Eureka appears.
Certainly, if the picture as a whole bowled me over on first encounter, it explains why the stodgy, leaden third act failed to limit its appeal. Having revisited it a number of times since, the divisions between what really works and what doesn’t become all the more evident. Even though the screenplay came from Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth collaborator (with which Eureka bears some comparisons thematically, but mostly they favour Man) Paul Mayersberg, the divide between a “straight” narrative and the preoccupations grafted on by its director have at times never felt more glaring.
This may in part be due to the Eureka’s inspiration, a real-life event. In 1943, Sir Harry Oakes was murdered in the Bahamas. Oakes had spent a decade and a half prospecting for gold before striking it rich in Northern Ontario in 1912 (curiously, he was studying at medical school when gold fever possessed him). It went on to become the second largest gold mine in the Americas, and Oakes was Canada’s richest man at one point. He moved to the Bahamas for the tax benefits, as the very rich often do, and it was there that he was murdered at the age of 68, in a manner not dissimilar to the (gruesome) depiction in Eureka, minus the beheading. Oakes’ son-in-law was tried and acquitted, and the murder remains unsolved.
Theories include that he was offed by mobster Meyer Lansky for turning down the development of casinos in the Islands. Most of these elements leak into the picture, but more in a Winter Kills-esque skewed envisioning of reality than the more literal (and less compelling) realisation of another unsolved murder case that was White Mischief (the unsolved Happy Valley murder that occurred a couple of years before Oakes’ and was made into a film a couple of years after Eureka).
I’d like to be able to say Roeg and Mayersberg cherry pick only the elements they feel are absolutely necessary, but if anything, Eureka is guilty of being too adherent to the various strands that feed into the murder (minus the royal entanglement of the ex-Edward VIII; that might have been thread too far). The one area it might have made capital of, since it could have provided dramatic meat even if it is far from the usual Roeg beaten track, is the trial sequence. Instead the director intentionally sabotages it, turning into a hysterical (but not as in funny) and overwrought heart-to-heart between accused cuckoo in the nest and distraught daughter. The first hour of Eureka is arresting, intriguing, bewitching (literally at times) and bemusing; all the things one wants of a Roeg film. The mediocre Mob elements aren’t a deal breaker, but the exit of Hackman in a flurry of feathers and charred flesh signals the sign-off to the director’s inspiration for the project. His themes are seen through, but the narrative content itself is bereft.
Gene Hackman’s Jack McCann is the Oakes figure. We are introduced to McCann during a sensational twenty-odd minute opening sequence (after which Hackman is caked in make-up for the duration) in which he sets out to find gold in the Klondike. He does, of course, and Roeg ensures that the echoes of this, which are a blend of reality, dream, vision quest and prophecy, persist as cyclic loops throughout the remainder of the film.
It’s a familiar device for the director. The present is not merely the present; it is the past and future co-mingling and merging subjectively. This is perhaps best showcased in his 1970s classics Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth. Roeg’s style is always singular (I say that; there are points during a few of his later films where his approach verges on the classical) and frequently breathtaking. So in Eureka, stark contrasts or emphases are invited through jump cuts and zooms, through sound effects and silences. Stanley Myers, who would go on to work regularly with the director throughout the next decade, provides an effective complement with a score that is by turns classical and unsettling.
Nicolas Roeg: I wanted to make a film about ecstasy, the many forms of ecstasy. Ecstasy in individual people, and ecstasy as the mystic sense of life. How our actions are connected to everything and everyone around us. (full interview)
The isolated rich man, unpersuaded by his material gains, alone in his high castle, is a common theme, from Citizen Kane (Eureka borrows its snow globe to much more cryptic effect) to a more innocent personfication in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Roeg and Mayersberg eschew McCann’s glory years; we never see Jack in the mythical nostalgic place where “It was so wonderful, once upon a time” (so says his wife Helen, marvellously played Jane Lapatoire).
Was it ever? One of the picture’s problems is that Roeg is never quite able to make good on his subtext through the narrative or performers. He can get so far but no further. Tracy (Theresa Russell), like Jack, is possessed of the quest for ecstasy. His is (was) gold; hers is sensual fulfilment. This sense eludes Claude (Rutger Hauer), the third part of the love triangle and the son-in-law figure. Yet the insights granted to father and daughter translate either as the curmudgeonly hubris of a boorish old man or the strained and over-earnest shrilling of an ingénue (or a young actress called to play beyond her range). Ironically, Hauer’s character, shallow and intellectually wanton, engenders more sympathy. This is down to the doubt, humanity, and vigour with which Hauer interprets him and despite Claude’s implied duplicity.
But before the characters there are the symbols that inform them. The picture opens on Jack’s fight with another prospector. He rages his repeated aphorism “I never took a nickel from another man’s sweat”. Jack defines himself in broad strokes, and one wonders whether that saying came to him fully formed or if he adopted it as an identifier. Just as he adopts magical incantations (repetitions) as signifiers to inform others of his nature, so the outer world responds with curious talismans and wondrous portents. McCann’s search for gold resembles something of a grail quest. Indeed, his trek and return and launch again recall Percival’s counsel with Arthur in Excalibur (although, in that case the disruption punctures the tension of John Boorman’s finale).
Jack McCann: What are you smiling at?
Shoeless Man: The End.
Jack McCann: It’s not over, until it’s over.
There’s a persuasive piece on Eureka on the Italkyoubored blog, one I don’t necessarily concur with with on every point, but which rigorously analyses of the symbolism in the picture. We are unsure how much of Jack’s quest is real and how much is metaphor. When he arrives at Claims Office, and the man sitting on the steps, his feet frozen, blows his head off, it represents the kind of crimson-soaked foretelling to which Roeg is partial (in Don’t Look Now the colour red itself is a character).
The man’s brains splatter across the Claims Office sign, announcing the path to which Jack’s gold will lead. The suicide (Jack’s eventual demise is tantamount to self-immolation) replays as Jack heads back into the snows. The exploding head is accompanied by the fireworks of an altered state, the soul unshackled.
The prone figure accepting resigned to his fate also recurs as an invitation to death. Jack finds himself lying beneath a tree, real or imagined (at his final end he is bundled onto his bed, too battered to move). It is a Tree of Life that also proves to be the symbol of his death. He is transported there on both occasions in which he faces eternity. The milieu brings to mind the tree of Norse mythology (Yggdrasil, from which Odin hanged himself; McCann is later identified with Tarot’s The Hanged Man).
While it represents McCann’s connection to other worlds here (specifically – and demonstrably yet mystically – that of the Moon, a force of feminine energy), his sitting, or lying, beneath the tree is closer in outcome to that of the Buddha’s attainment of Enlightenment. McCann’s attainment is one of soured, materialist gain, one that leaves him with insight but also empty. This is a far cry from being enlightened, but McGann had no desire to reach such a state. Nevertheless, the place he does reach allows him to see more clearly others and that which he lacks.
Blending into this symbolism is also the tree of knowledge of good and evil; McCann’s choice of gold over love is specifically bound to the tree, where he finds his philosopher’s stone (in very literal terms, as it is a stone; the stone leads McCann to his gold). Whatever the “reality” of Jack’s arboreal experience, the item he takes away from it, the stone, is substantial and exerts a special connection with, and hold over, him from that point.
We see others (Claude, Ed Lauter’s Perkins) unimpressed by it, but Jack responds physically (it burns him – as his daughter is inflamed with sexual ecstasy – but it is immune to the effects of fire). While Jack’s choice in respect of the stone is not portrayed in terms of right and wrong per se, it has consequences for his soul that can be seen as wholly negative. Certainly, in spiritual terms, he is left dead inside. When the time comes for Jack to physically die, the stone gives up its powers (it spontaneously cracks on the night of his demise).
Frieda: The stone found you. It’s your destiny. But everybody pays… Luck’s for ordinary men. Not a mystic. When you took the stone, you made your choice. You’re alone now.
If the tree, and the lightning bolt that provides the semi-frozen man his salvation (sent by the Moon herself), is of uncertain physicality, so is the permanence of his subsequent encounter with brothel madam Frieda (Helena Kallianiotes). He comes upon her house as a fairy tale vision in the distance. Jack professes at various points to dismiss mysticism, but his actions of self-belief create effects every bit as tangible as the divination practiced by the women in his life.
Jack is back under the tree at the moment of his death, suggestive of a mental state. As such, Frieda may be a guardian at the gates of passing; Jack’s choice is to live, but live a living death. Really, he froze out there under the tree. The ecstasy he found was not all it was cracked up to be. Frieda sees Jack coming, through her crystal ball (Roeg said of Eureka’s female characters, “they’re given this kinship with the world of sorcery, of mysticism”) and Roeg overlays a miniature figure – Jack – braced against the elements, trapped in a snow globe.
This at once gives the impression that Jack himself is merely a puppet, dangled at the mercy of fate; that he doesn’t realise the archetype he is living. But there’s more too; there is the sense that Jack in the snow globe is the Jack of Jack’s mind’s eye. He is the weathered, stalwart adventurer; he is one who has made his way in the world through honest labour and determination. The imagery here is startling, enthralling. And it needs to be, because it informs us of the choice Jack has made and why he makes it.
Jack McCann: What happens now?
Frieda: A mystery. The end and a beginning. There’ll be another after you.
Quite explicitly, Jack sacrifices love and affection for the embrace of gold. He says as much; “Gold smells stronger than a woman” (a line that will be repeated later, as he contemplates all that he has become in a mirror). Gold has erotic allure that Frieda does not. In turn, she puts her physical decay down to his rejection (when she “started to smell bad”). Quite directly – and again, interconnectedness and synchronicity are fundamental supporting constructs of Roeg’s cinematic world – Frieda wilts as Jack encounters his true love. She coughs, heralding her demise, as has he hits at the rock face.
Jack’s striking of the mother lode is an explosion of liquid gold; the eruption itself is sexual. McCann rises from the lake laughing and gibbering; he is overcome with the ecstasy of gold. Very evident from this point is that no one reacts to gold in the manner of Jack. Claude mocks it. Tracy rejects it. The Mob is beholden to only to the dollar (“Everyone is American now”). That’s because the ecstasy Jack has set his sights on is not one of ultimate happiness. In Roeg’s terms it is not Seventh Heaven. Jack has stopped short of paradise, mistaking the material for the divine (and this may be Tracy’s pitfall too, equating the carnal with true ecstasy). But even this is, in Roeg’s eyes, a step beyond the listless uncertainty of Claude.
When we jump forward 25 years, Roeg intentionally unbalances the viewer. We are out in the cold again, that much is familiar. Hackman is there, now buried under prosthetics. And he’s with… his young trophy wife? We don’t learn Tracy’s identity until a good way through the conversation, which leads us to infer that Jack is now past it and allowing his young lovely to carry on with a dashing pretender to the throne.
The language used is flirtatious (Tracy: Would you have given me a second glance?; Jack: No, my darling Tracy, I would never have taken my eyes off you) and Jack’s jealousy of Claude is suggested through his denial. This incestuous undercurrent persists throughout the picture. While I don’t think Roeg means to imply this has a physical dimension, he clearly sees it necessary to emphasise the depths of their bond in a manner that is sometimes disturbing. Jack’s obsessiveness goes beyond that of the classic protective father, and Tracy’s sensuality is unfettered and dangerous.
She looks “approvingly” for her father’s murderous eyes when Claude kisses her at the end of a tumultuous dinner. When Claude (patronisingly) refers to her as a child, she responds, “Is that why you want me?” (this may be read merely as one upon whom Claude can exert influence, but it also carries a coquettish undercurrent). When Tracy writes to her parents, extoling her love for Claude (“My blood is his blood and his mine”), Helen fails to understand but Jack does… and whisks Helen away for a night of the kind of passion that had hitherto long since dried up. On some level this reflects her quest for ecstasy with Claude, but it also stresses that which he can never have with his daughter.
Roeg: McCann doesn’t die. That’s to say, what he is, what he represents is absolutely continued in Tracy. There are children – I’ve seen it in friends of mine and their families – who are quite literally soul-clones of their parent, their father or mother. In surface things they can be quite different, but the essence is passed on.
We see this link most straightforwardly in the shared aptitude of Jack and Tracy for arithmetic (it is ironic that Claude’s penchant for the numbers of the kabbalah involves no such genuine facility, which is what he is searching for, while Tracy is contrastingly dismissive of his interest).
The problem with all this is that – despite Roeg’s qualifier in terms of difference – we never get the sense of a genuine connection between them. The rough-hewn and driven Jack really doesn’t connect with the overly didactic Tracy. This is partly down to the florid, phoney dialogue that trips out of Tracy’s mouth. But mainly it’s a problem of performance. Russell has given strong showings in a number of other pictures, but here she’s unable to overcome the frequently lumpy dialogue.
This leaves to the ridiculous courtroom scene, which rests squarely on Russell’s shoulders and which is supremely unforgiving. It’s so ripe it plays as near-parody. There’s no power behind the delivery, and Roeg renders the sequence in a clumsy, verbose, and unengaging manner (when Hauer looks stunned at the stream of analysis delivered by Tracy, it accurately mirrors the viewer’s response). Russell cannot connect the dialogue with the character (to be fair, Tracy’s preternatural insight into her hubby, her father, and her own motivations would take a rare performer to sell) and so is positioned as the weak point in the triangle. Even a relatively straightforward plea (Jack begs her to come back to Eureka – the house – with him and she replies, “I can’t. I don’t want your gold. I want flesh. I want to touch human flesh. I want to fuck it”) sounds stilted and mealy-mouthed.
Claude: I’ll win. I always win. I won you, didn’t I?
In contrast, Hauer grasps hold of the role of the louche vagabond, who is finally revealed as scheming and disreputable, and very nearly makes Claude sympathetic. It’s for good reason he became a cult actor during that decade, following his arrival in the US. His distinct, idiosyncratic pose and delivery can be humorous, disturbing, or affecting. In the latter part of the decade he was increasingly employed in B-movies to self-parodic effect, which is a shame as the period where he was offered embryonic leading man parts provides a fascinating “What if?”
Claude is introduced as the unwanted interloper, intruding on Jack’s domain and, in McCann’s eyes, a gold-digger who wants his spoils. Because Jack isn’t an especially likeable protagonist, we’re drawn to Claude’s position when he refuses Jack’s offer of financial aid and explains, “You see, I don’t ever want to owe you anything. I hope you understand… You understand it’s often harder to receive than to give”. He is evidently a smooth Adonis, popular with the ladies, and the natives (“It’s the whites who don’t like me”), but his disrespect for Jack’s riches is winning, and it appears to be genuinely motivated (after all, there is no reason to doubt his honesty when he talks about his love for his yacht, his “one extravagance”).
Claude: You didn’t earn the gold, Jack. You took it from nature. You raped the Earth
Jack McCann: I found it!
Claude: You stole it.
At the dinner, he amusingly offends Jack by eating one of his nuggets (“It’s only gold, Jack. Like all things, it will pass, and when it does, I’ll send it back to you”). Claude’s argument regarding Jack’s appropriation of wealth from the earth is also a cogent one. But the same dinner finds Claude showing off a shirt emblazoned with kabbalist symbols. It’s an ostentatious display of occult learning that undermines any genuine interest the subject holds. It deserves Jack’s dismissive reaction, “Look at that goddam shit”. Later we see Claude embrace Jack’s adored gold during a carnal interlude with Tracy (“You look like Cleopatra”), so his motivation is entirely questionable; it appears that his sole intention was to incite his host.
Claude is an intelligent man, but he lacks depth. He stumbles through sexual escapades, and gadflies about the esoteric arts. He has no skill with divination, not unless we are to interpret “Jack is going to get sick soon” as understatement. Tracy and Jack are correct to dismiss his faith, but because of the espouser rather than necessarily the content.
It is notable that Mickey Rourke’s Aurelio joins in as Claude recites the points of Kabbalah, as both attack the world through deduction rather than instinct or inspiration (“Signs are numbers. It’s all numbers. Seconds, hours, days, years”). The world of reason has taken over, and that is why Jack is a dinosaur. But it is also why magic and mysticism is on the wane. Claude at least, as portrayed by Hauer, has an awareness of his emptiness, a lack he needs to fill. It is why he attacks Jack so overtly, and why he needs to possess Tracy.
Nicolas Roeg: And this strength that Jack has is what Claude envies, what he covets. When the three of them have their fight later in the film – Tracy, Claude and McCann, when Jack breaks into the couple’s house – McCann says to Claude: ‘I see what you want. You want my soul‘. Claude wants it through Tracy. She, like McCann, has this strength, this quest for ecstasy, and understands the danger of finding your ecstasy too soon.
Hauer lends Claude a quality of believable self-confusion as the picture progresses, suggesting he is unsure of quite what he wants. His pronouncements are either incorrect (“The triangle’s broken,” he observes after Jack has threatened to kill him; Jack’s link with Tracy ensures that Claude can never win, in contrast to his posturing the first time we see him) or exaggerate his ability to follow through (“He wanted to kill me… from now on, its war”; the best he can do is – possibly – lop dead Jack’s head off).
Roeg uses a literal chain to emphasis the hold Jack exerts over Tracy; a gold chain that falls from a dresser interrupting Claude and Tracy, that Jack wears during his final hours and that Claude picks up during the murder of Jack. For all his bravado, Claude is ultimately diffident. He is a tourist, as exemplified by the voodoo scene in which he enters as the guide but flees having got in over his head. He dabbles without really finding answers. The irony is, if he accepted his essential self as the wanderer, he would be at least answering his calling rather than disfiguring the lives of others. There is, indeed, a level whereby Claude can see there is more than the paths of Tracy and Jack have to offer.
Roeg referred to Claude as “the kind of man who came to fruition later in occult things and dope and smoking grass, etc. The first hippie really, though I’ve nothing against hippies. I’m probably one myself – though a rather old hippie!” It’s difficult not to conjure a parallel between the ’70s incarnation of David Bowie as occult meddler-provocateur-tourist – and Roeg collaborator – and Hauer’s also-blonde interrogator-but-not-too-deeply. Claude characterizes himself as one who runs away – from his parents – so it is inevitable that his pronouncement to Tracy (“I’ll never run away from you”) proves otherwise. If Claude’s final motives suggest confusion, then that may be because he is unknown to himself.
Jack McCann: But the truth is, you want me. You want my soul.
Of course, Roeg purposefully blurs Claude’s motivation. This may partly be a nod to the unresolved murder case, such that Claude is shown to be there on the scene – as Jack’s favoured assassin – but ineffectual in deed. Was the visit to the voodoo ritual Claude’s attempt to establish an alibi? Is that why he shows up at the quay? If so, why does he hide from the Jack’s assassins and call his name up the stairs as if he means to means to aid him?
The murder is non-committal. One moment has Roeg cutting to Rourke looking up from the stairs to the landing before leaving; he cuts to a feathered Hauer emerging from (a) bedroom and looking down. They share space through montage but not a sense that they occupied the same time. If Claude wielded the blade that lopped off Jack’s head (and his burning of his clothes and Tracy’s pointed asking of the question lead in that direction), his action is as ineffective in claiming Tracy and her wealth as his reading the signs.
Jack’s “I knew it would be you”, echoes in Claude’s ears as he regards himself in a mirror (one in which Claude and Jack earlier shared a reflection). This serves to parallel Claude with Jack even in defeat. Both stare into the abyss of their reflections and recognise the end (of something is coming) and the choice made by each leaves them alone (“Perhaps no one can help me. I’m on my own now,” he tells Tracy during the trial). Tracy’s judgement on others’ view of Claude (“They don’t understand you. They despise you”) isn’t so far from Jack’s pronouncement on why he is unloved (“It’s not me that they hate. It’s what I represent”).
Roeg: It’s an arena. And when you see Claude cross-examining Tracy, it’s he who’s being exposed. ‘I taught you everything you know,’ he says. And he still doesn’t understand that he’s talking to someone who has McCann’s soul when he’s talking to her, that they’re the strong ones, she and McCann, the ones who understand, the ones with a capacity for life, knowledge, not him. She saves Claude’s neck, but in doing so all things have to be said between them. And very few relationships can survive that amount of truth.”
The obvious response to Claude’s reaction to Tracy ‘s decision to give away Eureka is that he was in it for the cash all along, playing some kind of long game. After all, he leaves immediately after he learns this, and his face displays suppressed shock at the news. If that is the case, it emphasises how inscrutable his motivations are. Giving away a house is not the same as giving away a fortune. It may be as much that Claude recognises Tracy’s father talking; that it’s not about the gold, rather it’s about her father’s golden rule.
If so, it is at least partially Claude’s failure to usurp Jack that induces him to leave his wife. While Jack is driven by inner belief, Claude only has what he sees on the surface. As Tracy says, “I see a man who can’t pass a mirror without looking into it”. The court scene is broke-backed and unconvincing, laying out plainly areas Roeg would normally treat visually, but as such it does at least serve to spotlight aspects of Claude’s motivation. The lasting line is “You are guilty of innocence”. This is not innocence in the experienced or worldly-wise sense – Claude can teach Tracy all about sex and even ritualistically sever a head – but refers to understanding. Too much of Tracy’s speech (most of it) flounders on the rocks of false import, but “I’ve found you but you haven’t found what you’re looking for yet” seals his fate and departure more than the reveal about Eureka.
Tracy: He died in 1925. What happened that night was just his physical end.
As indigestible as Tracy’s sermon is, it does also provide sufficient “tell don’t show” to establish exactly what Jack’s motivations – or lack thereof – are (or you can skip to the trailer, setting it out in a couple of succinct sentences). She tells us, “He was like a man struck by lightning. One day of rapture followed by decades of despair”, which sounds every bit as cod-poetic as it reads. Jack too is fond of holding forth (“I never cheated a man in my life”), pronouncing his own unrefined idea of himself. McCann is a coarse vulgarian, and Hackman embraces his gravelly earthiness. He repeatedly espouses the view that he was fated to his life (I don’t believe in luck, good or bad. Don’t believe in chance”). How could he? It would deny the underpinnings of his fortune.
Jack McCann: There’s only one golden rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The rest is conversation.
Jack does not, however, give off the air of one who fully understands the workings of the universe and its underpinning mechanisms. He is bemused by Frieda’s pronouncements, only interested in them as far as they lead him to a fortune. So too, when Claude comments on how ridiculous a saltcellar made out of gold is, Jack retorts, “Stupid my ass. The alchemists made gold out of salt”. This is borne not from an interest in alchemy and the occult arts, but a desire to be knowledgeable about his favourite metal.
Does Jack keep his golden rule? Perhaps so, such that it gets him killed. He claims, “I’m the most dangerous man I know,” threatens to kill Claude, and tells the Judas Charlie “I’ve been waiting for this, Charlie. For a long time. For a long, long time”. He accepts, rather than runs from his fate. Admittedly, there’s more subtlety to his earlier scenes; “The world’s richest man, wearing a dress, with parrot shit on his shoulder”, replies permanently tipsy Helen pitifully when Jack tells her “You don’t need your fortune told. You have a fortune”. Jack’s obsession with his daughter is not only because they are of the same spirit, but that he sees in her what he once had; that unrestricted, magnetic centre.
Jack McCann: Nobody can help me. Know what eternity looks like? It’s white and yet very dark. A desert of snow at night. Now I’ve reached the edge of eternity and beyond eternity, the abyss. Nothing.
How much any of that constitutes genuine rumination or just sounds good falls into the same category as Tracy’s exposition. But Hackman delivers his lines with conviction and gravitas (the ‘80s were not the actor’s most resonant decade, it must be said, and this is one of the few where the film measures up to his performance). Jack is a man who has given up on life, who wears a robe covered in parrot shit and bemoans, with ruefully self-conscious cleverness, “Once I had it all, and now I just have everything”.
Jack wills his own demise, and his belligerent contrariness repels all those closest. But he has a clearly defined code, as does his daughter, something Claude lacks. McCann still occupies a past where he was alive, which is why he shuns a last will and testament; all you can do “is stake your claim”. Jack’s insights are bored, cajoling, mocking. He has nothing to lose so takes no care not to offend. He can see into others but does not empathise.
The Mob plotline in Eureka isn’t especially effective. It appears to intrude from an entirely different movie, and, while it might be argued it is part and parcel of the new/old “dinosaur” theme (both the mobsters and Claude refer to Jack being of the past, be it relic or dinosaur, and it is no coincidence that both pride rationality over gut instinct and intuition), it is essentially lethargic and lacking in drive or real connective tissue. There are some worthwhile thematic points here, such as the new materialism that overwhelms McCann’s value system (“How can you do business with a man who believes in nothing?”; however, Jack does, or did, believe in himself). But Roeg has no feel for what he is depicting, except in its most desecrating acts.
Joe Pesci and Rourke were both on the ascendant at this time, and both miscast. In particular, Rourke, already festooned with trademark perma-stubble, barely registers as a subdued and refined character that plays against his strengths. Pesci too, as Mayakofsky/ Lansky (at one point he says “Jack is beginning to remind me of Lucky, and that’s not good”), is also an odd fit for the intellectual rigour of the mobster (the character was far better served by Anatol Yusef in Boardwalk Empire). Mayakofsky’s broken logic has a certain warped cachet (“I have to buy so he must sell. He must sign because we have to build”) but it’s only Lauter’s put-upon Perkins who provides a convincing bridge between worlds (“Fuck you! You’re so fucking selfish!”).
Nicolas Roeg: I believe in the sanctity of life and I’ve tried to show these gangsters as only foolish people and criminal, not glorified at all. Sadistic violence offered for gain, or to express machismo, is awful.
It’s the horrific murder of McCann that really defines the gangster element, and the grisly, graphic and prolonged scene Roeg displays is the last really potent one in Eureka. It’s a suitably fractured and disturbed sequence, with clumsy gangsters, smashed snow globes, Alice in Wonderland, McCann back under that tree again, skewed character geography and blowtorched head casts. Tracy’s snap awakening as Jack dies mirrors the decline of Frieda as he strikes gold; the psychic bond is severed.
Harlan Kennedy said of Roeg that he “thinks with his eyes”. Eureka at its best exemplifies this, from the Jamaica locations (it looks to me as if he uses the Dr No beach at one point) to the chills of British Columbia. It might be the director’s most opulent picture, but it is also an ill-fitting one. Overlaying his interests and obsessions only works to a degree. The title comes from Edgar Allan Poe’s poem (Roeg commented, “marvellous, the best thing he ever wrote – its speculation about the stars and the heavens, the cosmos”), an “intuitive conception of the nature of the universe” that ties in with the McCann generations. Yet Roeg would have been better served to utilise the true story purely as a jumping off point; he pays too much diligence to the basic framework of the Oakes story. He also, sadly, succumbs to the nepotism of casting his missus in a role for which she is ill-equipped. Mayersberg’s screenplay is also uneven, by turns illuminating and trite (“You’re a lawyer what would you know about ethics”).
Nicolas Roeg: It’s rather shattering, isn’t it? That really is the story of Jack McCann! Snow and fire. And the quest for the Seventh Heaven. Ecstasy.
However, even as a compromised success (I feel glass half full about the film) Eureka didn’t deserve to be abandoned in the manner it was. It was produced by MGM/UA at a troubled time (during David Begelman’s stint running the studio), was shelved, came out in the UK in 1983 and trickled down to the US in 1984. Roeg opined at a 2011 BFI screening that “It arrived at the wrong time”; a story about how success and money do not bring you happiness aired while Thatcherism was on the ascendant. Perhaps Roeg is (was? It seems unlikely we will see anything further from a director now approaching ninety) intrinsically a filmmaker for a more expressive, experimental age. Certainly, as time went on fewer were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, which is why Eureka remains one of his most interesting experiments. Closest in form to a studio picture proper (stars, locations, very nearly a “biopic”) it undermines all those aspects. And yet it ultimately comes a cropper through remaining too beholden to its origins. With a Nicolas Roeg film, though, even partial greatness is something to be savoured.