I was trying, while watching Phase IV, to think of some way to put a positive spin on the film. The film stars Michael Murphy–and I’m a big Michael Murphy fan–so I was hoping for some Murphy-goodness. He’s fine and has a couple good moments, but there’s really nothing he could do to combat the film’s terrible writing. Murphy isn’t the reason I was going for the positive spin though. Phase IV is famous title designer Saul Bass’s only feature film as a director.
The film is astoundingly well composed. It’s about super-intelligent ants by the way, in case you don’t remember the video box cover with the ants coming out of the hand. There are these close-ups on the ants–extreme close-ups–and lots of ant activity and all those scenes are fantastic, but there’s more. Bass applies his compositional strength to everything in the film, down to these close-ups of fingers searching and so on. Except for one filmic element. Scenes with characters interacting. Then Bass loses his touch. The conversation scenes in Phase IV are beyond dull. Besides the terrible script, Nigel Davenport is rather bad. He’s a ham. The script is constantly laying out ominous foreshadowing–none of it pays off, which doesn’t really matter by the end–and Davenport can’t stop himself from porking out… At times, Phase IV is mind-numbing, then Bass has some fantastic ant scene or just some great camera setup and it’s interesting again.
I was just thinking today about how a novel’s writing can make it compelling, regardless of the story content–and how the same formula does not work for film. Phase IV is an excellent example, maybe even the best (I’m hard-pressed to think of a better directed but lousy film).
I forgot to mention the music. The music is terrible. It’s synthesizers. Annoying ones. But they also manage to be dull at the same time….
Directed by Saul Bass; written by Mayo Simon; director of photography, Dick Bush; edited by Willy Kemplen; music by Brian Gascoigne; produced by Paul B. Radin; released by Paramount Pictures.
Starring Michael Murphy (James R. Lesko), Nigel Davenport (Dr. Ernest D. Hubbs), Lynne Frederick (Kendra Eldridge), Alan Gifford (Mr. Eldridge), Robert Henderson (Clete) and Helen Horton (Mildred Eldridge).