(Disclaimer: Reflections in a Golden Eye was originally released with a sepia cast applied, but from what I understand a large portion of surviving circulating prints feature the film's original, more neutral color grading. Strangely, most of the images online for the film are sepia-toned, so although I've used these images, this review reflects the alternate version that I saw.)
“Economize! Turn the lights off!” So goes the instruction on a poster pinned to an office wall at a southern military outpost in John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye. By no means is this quirky bit of set decoration a focal point—it’s centered in a master shot between two officers, but it’s so small in the frame that it would be hard to read outside of a movie theater—yet for some reason it caught my eye, and Huston, symbolist that he is, probably didn’t put it there randomly. Reflections, an almost coming-out melodrama that plays out in a regimented, heteronormative milieu, puts a fair amount of emphasis on lights. On his nightly peeping tom rounds, a laconic private waits outside his major’s house for the last remaining bedroom lights to be switched off before infiltrating the home to ogle its snoozing matron. Later, he will be discovered when someone enters the room and flicks on the switch before leaving in horror without flipping it back. Most dramatic of all, the climactic finale occurs during an exaggerated lightning storm—nature’s own way of violently flickering on and off the lights.
In this context, this peculiar wall adornment registers as a detail of some significance. Residing as it does in a major’s office and thus intended, however subtly, as “official” advice, the poster makes a basic enough request: turn off unneeded bulbs to conserve energy and lower costs. When separated, however, from that utilitarian plea and placed into the larger atmosphere of social repression in which the story circulates, the exclamation-pointed advice may subliminally take on the tone of a threat: play by the rules, or else. If cost-cutting is a way of preemptively avoiding the possibility of an economic meltdown, so turning the metaphorical lights out is code for keeping transgressive behavior at bay; in both cases, the preservation of social order is the goal.
Major Weldon Penderton (Marlon Brando) knows only order. In his role of authority, he regularly spits received wisdom regarding military duty to a classroom full of recruits and assigns groundskeeping duties that will tidy up the post. In his free time, he pumps iron in front of a mirror, sweating to maintain the expected image of an army chief. All around him are the pillars of a respectable life in the military: a buxom wife named Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor) who acts as a sort of empress of the training community, cooking meals for evening functions and socializing all around the post; a large home, suitably overwhelming the unglamorous barracks of the trainees; and a cornucopia of patriotic pins lining the lapels of his expertly tailored beige uniform.
The “problem,” construed as such by his own conscience as much as by the implicit behavioral codes of the military system, is that Weldon harbors an unexplainable urge toward a younger, chiseled private (Robert Forster)—coincidentally, the same man who, unbeknownst to him, has eyes for his wife. Weldon's is an interest that goes beyond platonic respect or macho concern; it’s a magnetic attraction of implied but never explicitly stated homosexual nature. But it’s also an attraction that Weldon would never be able to articulate or admit to himself. Submerging himself in this conflicted interiority, Brando is a bundle of gestural tensions. He mechanically repeats normalized behavior—stoically tugging his beret down over his eyes, raising his chin up, straightening his suit—but within these stiff mannerisms, his eyes dart around nervously, his syllables trail off into mumbles, and a glossy layer of sweat sits perpetually on his skin. When his beret is blown off in one key scene, it’s a much more profound disruption that it seems on the surface.
Weldon’s arc moves from external to internal rejection. Initial jealousy regarding Leonora’s adulterous behavior with lieutenant peer and neighbor Morris (Brian Keith) culminates in a convulsive beating of her angelic white stallion, an eruption that can easily be read as an act of violence against his wife given Huston’s obsessive linking of the woman and her animal. Burnt out on this ineffectual revolt, Weldon begins to timidly pursue his object of desire, meanwhile all but handing his wife over to Morris. Unable to reconcile his new longing with his duty as an impartial major, self-hatred sets in, and Reflections closes on Weldon’s violent, misguided attempt to do away with the impulses that his rational brain rejects. Repression guards. Awareness disgusts.
Morris’ wife, Alison (Julie Harris), is an embodiment of Weldon several stages developed. A common target of gossip for slicing her nipples with garden shears after the death of her newborn, she is at least comfortable in her own abnormality. Her transgressive self-abuse, which effectively cuts her off from her assumed womanly duty, is nothing if not committed. With this assertive display of individuality, Alison is free to indulge unconventional relationships, such as the one she shares with her flamboyant Asian houseboy (Zorro David, a fairly obnoxious role), who’s the most liberated character in the movie and therefore the one who delivers the titular nugget of wisdom. Still, the price she pays is to be a perceived nut, and her offscreen fate comes in a home for the ill.
Reflections in a Golden Eye’s opening sequence shows Weldon’s object of desire passing through the hazy dawn landscape and saluting the horses in their stable, a series of images that immediately bonds him to the natural world. Soon, he will be revealed as something of a pervert; his trips to Leonora’s room find him sniffing her lingerie, and he also frequents the forest for jaunts in the nude. But one thing is clear: he’s a man at one with his environment, his body, his sexuality, and his identity. Weldon, who’s acknowledged around the post as a klutz on horseback, seems to long for that sense of internal stability as much as he longs for the man himself.
Framed in widescreen, obscured by a great deal of shadow or forest haze, and scored to a creeping, tension-filled medley of flutes, clarinets, strings, and glockenspiels by Toshirô Mayuzumi (the composer for several key films by Mizoguchi, Oshima, and Imamura), Reflections drifts along like a dream, with many muggy lulls punctuated by sudden bursts of heightened emotion. Multiple scenes between Brando and Taylor, likely intended by the studio as the film’s real selling point, have an awkward, stumbling pace that suits this atmosphere (though a definite lack of on-set chemistry is felt, it couldn’t be more appropriate given the nature of the couple’s waning marriage). Weldon’s presence—and this is the brilliance of Brando’s performance—has a palpable impression of sleepwalking, a quality that Huston maps onto the film’s rhythms. A highlight scene features nothing more than Weldon navigating a post-boxing match crowd at night in pursuit of the solitary private, trailing him down the street and then picking up his dropped Baby Ruth wrapper as if hoping to find some clandestine love note. The whole thing has the surreal tension of an out-of-body experience.
As Weldon's inner and outer selves start to collide in the final scene, Huston appropriately inflicts the shock on the environment. For the first time, Weldon spots the private tip-toeing around his house. As he impulsively fixes his hair for a possible meeting, the environment shudders and a thunderstorm elevates in intensity. The light of everyday ritual and the darkness of bottled up desires infringe upon one another in the form of lightning. Flicking on the light switch as the man enters his wife's room, Weldon makes a desperate attempt to introduce his latent identity into the realm of the visible, but undergoes a spasm of denial as a result. Huston's final shot—a continuous panning movement between Weldon, his shrieking, just awoken wife, and his fallen object of desire that suggests the cameraman frozen in a robotic loop—could hardly be more perfect: Weldon's is an unresolvable turmoil.