The Final Programme
1973 / Colour / 89 m. / UK / The Last Days of Man on Earth
Starring: Jon Finch, Jenny Runacre, Graham Crowden, George Coulouris, Basil Henson, Patrick Magee, Derrick O’Connor, Gilles Millinaire, Sterling Hayden, Hugh Griffith, Ronald Lacey, Julie Ege
Cinematography: Norman Warwick
Art Director: Phillip Harrison
Film Editor: Barrie Vince
Original Music: Paul Beaver and Bernard Krause
Written by: Robert Fuest based on the novel by Michael Moorcock
Produced by: Sandy Lieberson and John Goldstone
Directed and Designed by: Robert Fuest
Reviewed by Lee Broughton
Nobel prize-winning physicist Jerry Cornelius (Jon Finch) is seemingly unmoved by the death of his biophysicist father. He’s more concerned with destroying the Cornelius family’s futuristic country house, killing his errant brother Frank (Derrick O’Connor) and re-establishing his relationship with his estranged sister Catherine (Sarah Douglas). Jerry is driven by a sense of urgency because a casual acquaintance, Professor Hira (Hugh Griffith), has determined that the end of the world is nigh.
Erstwhile colleagues of Cornelius senior, Dr Smiles (Graham Crowden), Dr Powys (George Coulouris) and Dr Lucas (Basil Henson), approach Jerry seeking a microfilm that contains the “final programme”, a mysterious set of calculations that the old man had been working on at the time of his death. This gives Jerry the perfect excuse to lead an assault on the Cornelius house and take his feud with Frank to the next level. However, things get complicated when Smiles brings onboard a power hungry computer programmer, the psychopathic Miss Brunner (Jenny Runacre), who is intent on using the quasi-mystical power of the “final programme” for her own nefarious means.
An adaptation of an acclaimed Michael Moorcock novel, Robert Fuest’s The Final Programme has garnered something of a “love it or hate it” reputation over the years. I first came across this film when it played as part of a season of apocalyptic sci-fi movies on UK TV in the early 1980s and I took to it immediately: stylish, enigma-laden and completely unpredictable, it was a film with a strange vibe all of its own. I’ve read some negative critiques of The Final Programme over the intervening years and I largely understand where they are coming from. But I still find much to like about this quite unique little film.
While an authoritative definition of what actually constitutes a “cult movie” is hard to pin down, there are certain properties that tend to be ascribed to such films: idiosyncratic art direction, an abundance of impenetrable enigmas, anti-classical narratives, atypical characters, unresolved endings and the like. For better or worse, by accident or design, The Final Programme ticks all of these boxes. So it’s frustrating when critics attempt to assess the film’s worth by using standard classical Hollywood norms to judge its narrative and formal properties. Using such methods of assessment on an off-the-wall movie like this can only result in less than favourable appraisals.
To put the film’s content in context, it’s based on the highly original and thoroughly compelling novel of the same name written by Michael Moorcock in 1965. The richness of Moorcock’s detailed and descriptive text and the scope of his imagination resulted in a story that was essentially un-filmable in 1973. Riding high from the success of his fabulous Dr. Phibes features with Vincent Price, Fuest elected to rise to the challenge. However, the production’s relatively small budget and the limits of period special effects demanded that some of the book’s key set pieces were re-imagined on a drastically smaller scale, which ultimately hurt the film for much of its projected audience (the Michael Moorcock fans who were familiar with the book).
Furthermore, other sections of the novel were radically re-written (or dropped altogether, along with certain characters) in order to achieve an acceptable running time for the film. In the process of doing so, Fuest also added new characters, details and scenarios drawn from his own highly creative imagination. All of this is of course standard practice as far as adaptations go but some of the changes irked Michael Moorcock so much that he publicly voiced his disappointment with Fuest’s work. Ultimately, the movie became a kind of episodic mini-odyssey-cum-chase film that held the potential to alienate the average cinemagoer at both a narrative and a formal level.
The film’s detractors may have a point when they observe that Fuest’s natural flair for stylistic excess was allowed to run rampant on this project. Personally, I find Fuest’s overly stylistic approach rather pleasing. Given its limited budget, The Final Programme’s striking costumes and set designs are very impressive and warrant praise not criticism. But it does seem that Fuest felt the need to ensure that viewers were actually aware that they were watching a constructed spectacle that he had designed specifically for them to marvel at. To this end, a number of interesting but awkward distanciation effects are employed during the first third of the film.
As if reverting to the “cinema of attractions” mode of early silent shorts (wherein vaudeville acts acknowledged the “presence” of the cinema audiences that they knew would be watching their filmed routines), Fuest wheels on exquisitely dressed bit part players (see the tap-dancing “roller” girls in the pinball night club scene) who pointedly take their appointed place centre frame and knowingly pose just long enough for the audience to note their spectacular appearance before some other stylish diversion (see the Pierrot-like clown in the translucent life-size pinball in the same scene) comes along and takes their place.
Elsewhere, key characters break the filmic fourth wall and look directly into the camera. Again there’s the risk of distanciation but the actors’ actions don’t appear to be motivated by any obviously Brechtian/political agendas beyond Fuest’s desire to have the viewer consciously acknowledge the artistry that’s unfolding onscreen.
Fuest was also clearly determined to load the film with the kind of fine observational detail found in Moorcock’s book (see the recurring evidence of Jerry’s love of chocolate digestive biscuits and the ins and outs of an evening spent at a strange wrestling match venue) even though these nicely executed touches don’t assist in making the show’s narrative any clearer.
The same goes for the abundance of unexplained enigmas (how is Miss Brunner able to literally absorb other people? Why is the Cornelius family so dysfunctional? Where did the Cornelius brothers’ needle guns come from?). It all plays like a pointed exercise in breaking the rules of classical Hollywood cinema and, when viewed in this context, The Final Programme can perhaps be appreciated as the intriguing “artistic” creation that Fuest intended it to be.
Obviously Fuest was asking for trouble (commercially speaking) by making a popular genre film that purposefully flouted filmic conventions and norms in such obvious ways. But having said that, there’s plenty of content here that has the potential to engage fans of more mainstream sci-fi or action-orientated cinema if they are prepared to stick around long enough. Michael Moorcock’s later Jerry Cornelius stories often cast the character as a kind of futuristic super spy-assassin and Fuest, seemingly riffing on this and his own earlier work on TV’s The Avengers, amps up these aspects of the character and his world here.
For example, Jerry has unlimited resources at his disposal and much is made of the various modes of cool transport that he is able to instantly call upon: a helicopter, classic cars, a motor boat, a light aircraft, a military jet and a hot air balloon. Some of Fuest’s quirky spy show-inspired additions are pure cinematic magic. For a good example, see the secret door in the Cornelius mansion that sports a chess board lock that is cracked by deciphering the sheet music positioned on a nearby piano. The film also features a couple of well-staged (needle) gun fights too.
And when all is said and done, the film (just like the book) does possess a pretty compelling narrative hook: just what is the “final programme” and what will happen when it is run? It’s when we find the answers to these particular questions that the potential for disappointment at the final hurdle becomes apparent. Filming the novel’s actual ending would have been an impossible task in 1973, regardless of the film’s budget, so Fuest was forced to concoct an alternative conclusion of his own imagining.
Again flouting the rules of classical Hollywood cinema, The Final Programme’s largely unresolved ending does possess a sense of strangeness that is in keeping with the rest of the show. But the film’s lack of a clear denouement might well confound those viewers who prefer straightforward and unambiguous endings. However, if we’re looking to confer cult movie status upon The Final Programme, it could be argued that the film’s bizarre finale is perhaps the strongest of all of its cult movie credentials.
One plus factor that cannot be denied is the film’s impressive cast of key cult actors who are associated with the quirkier side of early 1970s British cinema. Period faces such as Jon Finch, Jenny Runacre, Graham Crowden, Patrick Magee, Hugh Griffith, Julie Ege and Ronald Lacey always represent good value for money (even if Fuest’s overly episodic approach results in Magee, Griffith, Ege and Lacey effectively taking on cameo roles here). As with the book, there’s a lot of sly but clever humour present in the waspish exchanges of dialogue that the various characters are drawn into but it’s easy to miss this given the speed with which some scenes flash by and the sometimes distracting nature of the fascinating visual elements that embellish the show’s mise-en-scene.
One further – and somewhat surprising – cameo appearance of note is Sterling Hayden’s showy turn as a gung-ho US military advisor: the wired, cigar-chomping Major Wrongway Lindbergh. Some of Michael Moorcock’s later Jerry Cornelius stories used the chaos and destruction brought about by America surreptitiously fighting World War III on European soil as their backdrop and Fuest appears to have introduced Lindbergh (and included odd bits of dialogue and radio news broadcasts that refer to widespread military action in Europe) in order to give The Final Programme a vibe that was more in keeping with Moorcock’s most recent works. Lindbergh’s breaking of the fourth wall and the viewer’s presumed knowledge of Hayden’s iconic role in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964) suggest that Fuest was pursuing another exercise in distanciation here.
Electronic music pioneers Paul Beaver and Bernard Krause composed the film’s soundtrack score but it isn’t really that “electronic” sounding. The upbeat jazz piece that plays over the film’s opening titles has comedic and farcical overtones that are at once at odds with the visuals (a wide and lengthy panning shot of a line of huddled figures traversing a bleak landscape in Lapland, which is followed by an identical shot which shows the always fashionably late Jerry Cornelius treading the same path) but somehow in keeping with the show’s off-kilter approach.
A couple of subsequent bluesy rock numbers are nothing special and Michael Moorcock’s space-rocking pals Hawkwind (who are briefly seen performing during the pinball night club scene) would surely have been better placed to provide the film’s heavier music cues. However, Beaver and Krause do hit the mark when they move into a more melancholy jazz mode: these cues bring to mind the work of Basil Kirchin (as featured in Fuest’s own The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and Jack Cardiff’s The Mutations (1974)) and they really do bring a notable sense of atmosphere to the scenes that they underscore.
The Final Programme isn’t a perfect film but it has a one-of-a-kind quality that makes it special. The show’s original approach, quirky content and unpredictable narrative result in a film that it is hard to classify. The nearest points of reference for me would be equally unclassifiable films such as Kevin Billington’s The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (1970) and Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! (1973). The Final Programme isn’t as overtly political or as pointedly satirical as those two films. But all three movies remain striking in their ability to refract the familiar image of early 1970s Britain through optics that result in some really quite unique, subversive and surprising scenarios.
Psychotronic Cinemas rating: Very Good ++
© Copyright 2013, 2017 Lee Broughton.