Monday, July 12, 2010

A Most Uncommon Movie: Petulia (1968) Julie Christie ,George C. Scott, directed by Richard Lester

"Petulia" (1968) is a film set in a particular time and place--the San Francisco of the late 60's Hippie Cultural Revolt-- but yet its still  one of those movies that doesn't seem to age, certainly not like  42 year old movie should.
It was always a "dark horse" of a film, one I saw a couple times many years apart.  Now, finally, it was put on DVD last year,and hopefully is available.    It is an unconventional film in a variety of ways.   

What starts out looking dangerously like a Goldie Hawn vehicle from the 70's--- a "too-cute" film about a kooky young married jet-setter Petulia (Julie Christie) who falls in love with an older surgeon named Archie  (George C. Scott).  Why she falls in love with him is revealed a bit later.

The story  changes its tone quickly.  Petulia is a kooky woman, but she is also a fully realized human being who is desperate to escape the clutches of a hasty and mediocre marriage to a spoiled all-American upper-class man/boy David (Richard Chamberlain), who has  a violent streak that rightfully should put him in prison.  But his father (Joseph Cotton) can smooth over anything, except the world he once knew, a world crumbling before his eyes.  

Scott's character knows not where he's going, expect that he doesn't want to be married anymore to his former wife (Shirley Knight) and he doesn't want ot get burned again in a relationship. He's a man in flux, not even sure a liaison with a beautiful and bright woman can heal what is eating away at his soul.
Petulia has no such limitations on herself, but she also has a past that won't just fall away and let her be free again.  
   This friction between the two characters, both running from an unsatisfying past, leaves them with much more in common than Archie realizes, at the very end, what he has to grab unto...if she is still there for him as she was at the first.    

 All the actors are superb and even George Scott, an actor known for conveying rage perhaps all too readily is both subdued and still powerful in this change of pace for him.    The music by the great John Barry is a mile away from his work on the James Bond films, and hits the mark all the way through. 

Moving back and forth expertly in story-line between, past present and future this film grows  into a much stronger  feature about the nature of attraction, love, the woes of divorce, domestic  brutality, and the perils of accepting ones life versus fully living life 100 percent by letting go of the past. Nicholas Roeg's cinema photography captures all levels of the backdrop of the city, from the electric energy of the club scene of the time--Janis Joplin and The Grateful Dead can be seen playing throughout parts the film--to the ennui-inducing   shallowness of matters like the penguin act at Aquatic Park or a society charity show at the Fairmount Hotel. 
Even if you don't care much for the 60's and flower children and all, be assured this is a movie you are likely not to forget. I couldn't and I'm glad its now available in a clear print to a wider audience. 
In this scene, Archie puts up with his ex-wife's new fiancee and runs into Petulia. (Where else in San Francisco but at a Cable Car Crossing?)

See the following brief  scene between Petulia and Archie at Aquatic Park at the first comment below.    


  1. One of the more poignant scenes in the film:

  2. Hi Doug - I've never seen the film, but it looks intriguing. There's clearly a lot of suppressed emotion going on in there. Julie Christie was so beautiful at this age.

  3. Penguin abuse....truly appalling Doug, hope they weren't forced to smoke as well.

    I've never seen this film. The acid gospel sound in this video reminded me a lot of the Fugs...I like the look of this film....there is something oddly comforting about posh birds like Julie Christie dropping out at Haight Ashbury.
    Her voice gives you a sort of warm feeling inside, well, it does me could almost imagine it was true that some middle class home counties girl had a relationship like this with some poor old bugger from Bernal Heights, or wherever?

    For pure escapism it looks like a very good choice of film Doug,Swinging London meets San Francisco Nights.... both mixing up normal and weird at the same Anglospheric classic theme, thanks for posting these great clips Doug.

  4. This is a film I've missed Doug. I must say it looks interesting I shall have to keep my eyes open for it on television

    I smiled at the scene where they are smoking. These days they'd have been thrown outside in a
    gazebo.I think the director would have had trouble adding atmosphere to that scene. CUT.......everyone outside to the gazebo...:-)

  5. Intriguing is a god word Ian. You can cut that suppressed emotion with a knife in that scene--the story is really put together well. And, yes, Julie Christie is a stunning beauty.

  6. Hahaha. I am sorry for exploiting performing penguins, AA, even at this second-hand juncture. I'm sure diving/smoking penguins are outlawed in the UK.
    Sad note: the documentary on the DVD of this film reveals that these highly intelligent birds escaped in a stolen 1967 blue Buick Electra, rented for the movie company. The three abandoned the vehicle when it ran out of gas, and were recaptured hustling for change at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. George, Ringo and Robert were last heard from working as waiters at Disneyland's "Mary Poppins Restaurant" down in LA.

    You made me laugh twice here, but then I always break up with laughter when anyone makes mention of Bernal Heights.

    Yes, that's the thing--Julie Christie is so sparklingly posh, isn't she? If she was filmed just looking through a phone book in her flat to order Chinese food--ciggy dangling form her lips, in a penguin costume, that bit of film would be worth noting and have a warm effect on one's view of humanity.

    Yes there is that double effect---The man who directed the Fab Four (Richard Lester) and of course Ms. Christie representing Swinging London and San Francisco being the place where such a cultural earthquake was first fully replicated in America. There's something surreal about George C Scott's tepid reaction to her charms, but you have to create drama, right?

    Truly escapist in the best sense of the word. Glad you liked the clips.

  7. Yes, this is really an underrated "buried treasure" of a film Cassandra. It had quite slipped my mind for a long time, except for the odd reference now and then. It really is one of the best of that era in my humble opinion.

    Yes, the casual smoking does date the film. Lots of adults back then smoked Marlboros indoors and drank hard booze at lunch like half the Chinese Army just landed, as the saying went. Nowadays smokers are lucky to have a gazebo to retreat to and nobody drinks at lunch unless they own the place they work at.

  8. I can't think why I missed it that's for sure. The strange thing is, once someone such as yourself mentions it, it comes up on a Saturday showing.

    Hahahaha, I love that expression ( just like the Chinese Army have landed). You are right, the smokers are lucky if they get a gazebo, usually it's a small tent!

    Thanks doug.

    I left a link for you in your guest slot.

  9. I've noticed that too--some rather strange bit of serendipity about a particular film or actor or director's work's popping up on the tube.

    From a friend I know who teaches English in a city north of Beijing, the Chinese are big smokers. Even the French can't hold a match to them! (Sacre Bleu!) But, if either of these foreigners ever invade Oregon, they better bring their own cigarettes---the state taxes on "fags" here are ridiculous!

    Thanks for the link. :-)

  10. Maybe it's because we are more tuned in to it once someone has pointed us in the right direction.

    I wonder why that is. Are cigarettes cheap in China? So taxes are different in each American State?

    You are welcome to the link, Doug, although I wondered if it would work for you.

  11. That very well could be Cassandra. Perhaps a name or a title suddenly goes on our mental radar as we scan a television log or a computer screen.

    As my friend told me, when he first went to China a few years back he could go to a nightclub or a bar and they had ladies there giving away cigarettes! The consumption levels for cigarette use in China exploded in the last dozen years apparently, partly I think because of the more urban and Westernized lifestyles in cities there.

    Apparently the Chinese government is trying to promote Western-style health warnings to stave off higher rates of lung cancer and emphysema, especially among men. But the government also enjoys a monopoly on cigarettes there and so they likely reap much revenue from addiction. Plus there's always a the black market.

    The situation is America on cigarette taxes is very different state by state. Some tobacco producing states (Kentucky, North Carolina) have always rather low taxes on cigarettes--forty or fifty cents a pack. Oregon is about double that and then some. There's also very strong anti-smoking campaigns, but once someone is addicted its tough to quit. Took my mom twenty years and like many people she started as a teenager.

    I can't seem to locate the Youth Orchestra link now that you mention it Cassandra. I checked my site out pretty well but there may be a glitch or something at this end.

  12. Maybe, also when I buy a video it appears on television.:-)

    We find here that Asians smoke very heavily. I suppose if the Chinese are giving cigarettes away at the clubs, it is human nature for people to take them, anything for a freebie. Hahaha, maybe they are watching the old Humphrey films.

    That is rather sad, when we in the Western world are having good results from the cuts in public smoking.

    I have seen friends struggle to give up smoking, but now I never see any of them with the weed, which is good because the smell makes me feel ill. I hope your mother found her health better when she gave up smoking. Sadly people at that time didn't know the dangers.

    I think you may have found the link by now Doug, but I'll leave it in case.

  13. That's a bit of unsettling cinema synchronicity I've experienced myself Cassandra. :-)

    Part of the "Bogart Mystique" is that cool urban American with ice water in his veins, dressed in a dark suit or a trench coat, puffing away on a Chesterfield ( a popular American brand of the middle of the last century.) Sad that they weren't herbal cigarettes because Bogart died of throat cancer in 1957 at a time when, just before he got sick, his career was on an upswing. He certainly became a legend after death--the biggest deceased film star of his era in the USA-- but I'd trade that for more Bogart films.

    I think the Chinese are a bit behond the West as far as consumer development. But at least now their government is trying to get the message out there. There are warnings on American cigarettes about disease, but I understand Canada and Britian are even more direct in telling people how bad the habit can be on health.

    The one place where you can still smoke indoors in the USA is in the big casinos of Las Vegas and Reno, in the desert state of Nevada. Shirley and I stopped in one hotel/casino in Nevada and, yes, the casino floor had people smoking away like a...well, like an old Bogart movie.

    I used to work as a motel manager and had my last bad asthma attacks from people smoking away in the lobby at Lake Tahoe (Nevada again) while they waited i line to get their rooms or the shuttle buses to the gambling meccas. (Lake Tahoe is 6,000 feet above sea level and the thin mountain air didn't help.) When I moved on to non-smoking motels in California and other states, I had no problems at all. None of my friends from my youth smoke either so campaigns can work.

    Yes, my mom's health did improve, thanks for asking. She and a neighbor friends tried everything--including hypnotism--to quit. She always urged me not to smoke and that coupled with anti-smoking ads in school and television did the trick.