The genesis story of Performance seems at first blush to be a planetary alignment for the ages. It’s 1968 and wild child writer / painter Donald Cammell surveys his list of close friends that not only include a brace of Rolling Stones – Brian Jones & Mick Jagger – but also their muse Anita Pallenberg, England’s actor du jour James Fox and cinematographer Nicholas Roeg, now chomping at the bit to try his hand at directing. They all enthusiastically agree to join Cammell on his new project and the deal is put together. The final result however is something the movie world had never seen before and a film that Warner Brothers, who’d been expecting an teen-accessible vehicle along the lines of A Hard Days Night, were so dumbfounded by that they left it on the shelf for two years.

The plot, such as it matters, is a straight forward gangster-on-the-run tale. Mid level hoodlum Chas, played by James Fox with a hitherto unseen hard edge, oversteps his remit and goes on the lam from both the cops and his vengeful boss. Moments away from skipping town he overhears of a room for rent in the basement of a quiet house that requires no references or ID and decides to move there instead. The landlord is Turner, a one time rock colossus now a recluse temporarily bereft of inspiration. Initially reluctant to let this new arrival stay it slowly dawns on Turner that this may be just the dark influence he’s been searching for.

The meta theme that runs throughout the film is the merging of two forces and the strength that develops from that union. An opening courtroom scene witnesses a corporation attempting to absorb a smaller rival and the action that gets Chas in trouble in the first place is his boss’ plan to takeover a local bookies. Turner recognises that Chas possesses what he once had but now lacks. To get at it he first enlists his two girlfriends, Pallenberg and Michele Breton, to seduce Chas and then a large dose of magic mushrooms to blast his guest’s mind wide open.


Turner states his aim openly – “I just want to go in there Chas” – but does he get more than he bargained for? Certainly the formerly straight laced gangster begins to free his mind and soon loses track of his mission to evade the forces on his tail even at one point ‘forgetting’ to collect his tickets to escape. But at the same time Turner begins to accept and merge with the gangster persona, appearing in Chas’ subconscious as his former boss and becoming darker and more aggressive as the film progresses.

For a novice film maker like Cammell this is an extraordinary piece of work, his master stroke being the marriage of his radical artistic talents with Roeg’s technical skill. As might be expected from non-actors like Jagger and Pallenberg there are times when the film does not quite seem right and reminds us that neither are professionals, nonetheless they are clearly both performers in their own right and there are moments, not least in the truly mesmerizing Memo from T scene, which crackle with electricity and show the casting to be perfect.

Jean-Luc Godard once stated “The English have done what they always do in the cinema: nothing”. This proves him wrong at a stroke.

Performance – directed by Nicholas Roeg & Donald Cammell (1970)

In Short
An undeniable high point of British Cinema. James Fox is cast against type to great effect while Cammell’s sharp and at times frenetic editing would still be considered radical today.
Trailer here