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Eureka – Flashback to a Forgotten Film

September 27, 2020

If you’re a film buff and you’ve watched your way through lists of the greatest films ever made, occasionally stopping to think how on earth did certain films get on the list (American Beauty?), then you may also be interested in films which can be deemed ‘interesting failures’.

One film that could fall under such a classification would be Eureka. It has many of the key ingredients of an ‘interesting failure’ – a director (Nicolas Roeg) who had gained the attention of Hollywood after a string of critical successes, a dynamite cast of newcomers and established stars, a big budget and epic story involving exotic locations, rich period detail and a real-life unsolved mystery. Oh, and there’s some twisted romance and kinky sex thrown in. Eureka could have been a smash hit but it was critically panned and widely considered a misfire in the career of everyone involved. Having watched the film a few times, there’s no doubt in my mind that the film fails as a mystery drama, and yet I’m drawn back to its compelling power.

The story begins in the Klondike in 1925. Jack McCann (Gene Hackman) has been searching for gold without success for fifteen years. Driven to the point of insanity by solitude and arctic conditions, he eventually finds a mountain of gold. Flush with success, he asks his dying lover Frieda, a whorehouse sibyl, what will happen next. She responds ‘A mystery. The end of the beginning. There’ll be another after you. After the war’. The action cuts to 1945. It’s the final days of World War Two and a now ageing McCann is living in regal splendour in a sprawling mansion named Eureka on a Caribbean Island. All is not well though. His daughter Tracy (Theresa Russell) has married a French playboy, Claude Maillot Van Horn (Rutger Hauer). McCann detests his son-in-law who accuses him of stealing his wealth because he ‘took it from nature. You raped the earth.’ But McCann has a much more dangerous enemy to worry about. A Miami based financier/gangster Mayakofsky (played by Joe Pesci and the character is loosely based on Meyer Lansky) wants McCann to sell his land so he can build a luxury casino and hotel. Mayakofsky sends his smooth-talking lawyer Aurelio (Mickey Rourke) and a bunch of heavies to ‘convince’ McCann. McCann refuses to sell-up.

Eureka has a solid noir premise. But Roeg’s approach to the narrative is surrealistic and every scene is crammed with bizarre imagery. More than an hour into the movie, a murder occurs and things evolve into a more conventional courtroom drama as Van Horn is tried for murder. When Roeg ditches the arty portentousness the film becomes truly compelling. As with many great noirs, Eureka has a warped love triangle. McCann’s hatred for his son-in-law may stem from incestuous feelings for Tracy. Tracy and Van Horn’s sexual chemistry is sizzling. This couple are great in the sack. Quite literally in one scene. There was one sex scene I detested though. A drug-infused orgy in which two priggish Englishwomen are sexually humiliated. On the way home the traumatised women are coached into what to say to protect the men. Watch this today and ask yourself, how is this different from sexual assault?

Jack McCann is based on Sir Harry Oakes, an American businessman who moved to the Bahamas and ingrained himself with the British colonial society. Oakes’s murder was as shocking and brutal as the Black Dahlia killing and, as it is still unsolved to this day, has inspired many books and films about the case. Hackman is great as McCann. He’s much too grizzled to play the character as someone who aspires to be a British toff. His Jack McCann doesn’t want to be anyone but himself, but he does have an air of snobbery. He refers to himself in the third person more often than Bob Dole. The ensemble cast give superb performances. Jane Lapotaire is haunting as Harry’s lush wife, and Joe Spinell is oddly memorable as a smiling but silent hoodlum. Some of the visual sequences are stunning. McCann’s discovery of the gold is one of the best designed, shot and edited scenes you could find in any movie.

Mark Cousins has described Eureka as a masterpiece but its flaws are numerous. The film is overwrought, pretentious, even a tad silly. It earned a paltry $100,000 dollars at the box office following a rotten distribution and publicity campaign. That said, the original trailer is excellent and captures the essence of the film. Perhaps Eureka was just too weird to be a commercial hit no matter how it was marketed. But it remains a dazzling and beguiling film when viewed today that will linger in your mind long after.

And it’s sure aged better than American Beauty!

Eureka Movie Poster (1983)

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