The gruesome murder of Sir Harry Oakes at his Barbados retreat in July 1943 remains arguably one of the world’s most perplexing unsolved crimes. Said to be the world’s richest man at the time of his death, the manner of the gold prospector’s death can’t help but shock; the death scene photograph of Oakes’s burnt and battered corpse reposed on his bed and covered in feathers is one of the ghastliest images you’re ever likely to see.
If ever there was a tale crying out to be adapted for the big screen, then it’s this one. And then along came Nicholas Roeg. What else could a film fan want? As a story it has everything: fabulous wealth, exotic setting, a family feud and the Mafia. Oh, and I did I mention Theresa Russell’s naked cavorting? Something for everyone.
And it gets even better. For the cast of Roeg’s 1983 film is simply to die for: not only do we have the always magnetic Russell in the lead female role, there’s also Gene Hackman, Rutger Hauer, Mickey Rourke and a splendid turn from the vastly under-rated and criminally underused Jane Lapotaire as the billionaire’s neurotic wife. (If you haven’t done so, then do catch her 1978 performance as Marie Curie.)
Although the spoiler for this movie contains the usual disclaimers, this is indeed the story of Sir Harry Oakes here called Jack McCann and played with just the right amount of ambiguity by Hackman. Is McCann a good guy or a bad guy? Self-composed, ruthless. ambitious yet for all his wealth teetering on fragility, along with his fellow characters McCann shares a trait which only helps make the two-hours even more engrossing: all the people in this film are enigmas, as much to themselves as to each other.
Which, if any of these characters are moral or immoral? Who should we root for? Who gets our sympathy? Roeg leaves it entirely to the viewer to decide. If you like your films to be black and white, metaphorically speaking, Eureka might therefore be a step too far. Indeed, imdb users don’t rate the film very highly. Then again, the same users reckon Babette’s Feat (1987) to be a masterpiece of cinema, a film that sent me to the land of nod . . .
So, the enigmatic billionaire has a few problems utmost of which is that his darling daughter Tracy (Russell) is obsessed with louche playboy, Claude Maillot Van Horn (Hauer) – French Mauritian Alfred De Marigny for those au fait with real events. Hauer seems made to play the part, a playful blond God with a dark side. Is he just a fortune hunter as Jack McCann believes or does he actually love the much younger Tracy? Tension fills the air when these two alphas meet.
Meanwhile, over in Miami the Mafia has its sights set on developing Jack’s paradisical island and are becoming restless. A self-made man whose boast is that he ‘never took a nickel from anybody’ Jack McCann is not afraid of anybody, a fatal flaw which will ultimately be his downfall.
Replete with the full range of Roeg’s cinematographic genius, this is a mightily impressive visual feast. The film’s astonishing opening sequences shot in an icy north American wilderness and charting Jack’s gold prospecting days bring to mind Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Revenant and Goldfinger! A later scene featuring a voodoo-orgy scene of ritualistic slaughter and carnality unnerving and disorientating in equal parts is pure Roeg.
And then there’s the climatic murder scene and all its vivid brutality. McCann’s last stand is a tense affair taking place on a night of torrential rain just as happened with Sir Harry Oakes – which makes that disclaimer even more hard to fathom. The walls are closing in yet McCann seems to relish the end. A death wish? Maybe. Be warned, this is graphic stuff. Whoever killed Oakes on that July night did so with extreme violence and the blow torch is nothing short of macabre.
Two hours goes by in a flash. For my money Eureka is right up there with Roeg’s best work, Bad Timing and Walkabout. Watching Eureka is to observe an artist at the peak of his very considerable powers. What more can I see. J’adore Eureka! One for the bucket list.