By Alex Brannan.
After gaining attention in Lindsay Anderson’s if… (1968), legendary character actor Malcolm McDowell jump-started his career with a pair of films that embellished moral ambiguities as they pertain to a lack of restraint toward debauched sexuality. In the first of these, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange (1971), McDowell portrayed the youthful delinquent Alex, whose proclivity for assault is turned against him through a radically experimental rehabilitation technique. The film’s satiric bent ultimately condemns both sides of the law. With the second, the equally controversial, Penthouse-produced Caligula (Tinto Brass, 1979), hedonism and pornography are used as a backdrop for what was intended to be a historical tragedy reflecting contemporary political concerns.
In Pound of Flesh, McDowell plays classics professor Noah Melville, a well-spoken and well-regarded member of the Barden College faculty. He is beloved by the staff (mostly the men) and the students (mostly the women). We hear in voiceover Melville recording his memoir, which relates to the audience the unique “scholarship opportunity” that he provides for his female students. “Sex,” the memoir begins. “The world’s oldest profession, and the only one in which women are paid more than men, which explains why men were so quick to make it illegal.”
These lines open the film and quickly instate the central concern: the moral grayness of prostitution. Like with A Clockwork Orange, Pound of Flesh assigns the audience the perspective of the villain. For most of the runtime, we follow Melville as he scouts new recruits for his covert business. These recruited female students have sex with members of the faculty, and it pays for their tuition.
Unlike the satire of A Clockwork Orange, however, Melville is not exactly condemned for his manipulation of young women – the women themselves do not receive quality screentime or characterization; their dialogue is predominately reserved for praising Melville or discussing sex. Melville loses his job and faces some adversity from the community, but the punishments are depicted less like due justice and more like the tragedies that would befall a hero in one of Melville’s beloved classics. As the script boldly claims, it is a “tragedy of Shakespearean proportion.”
When not following Melville’s exploits, we are seated alongside a pair of police officers trying to solve a murder case that has obvious ties to Melville. It initially appears as if these are the real heroes, and they will bring Melville’s lascivious dealings to the light. The back of the Blu-ray case insists that Detective Patrick Kelly (Angus Macfadyen) is the “moralistic new detective in town,” but Kelly is never treated with the same reverence as Melville. He was transferred after a questionable self-defense shooting of a drug dealer. He boozes on the job. He takes the first opportunity to check out his superior officer, Sergeant Ferraro (Elizabeth Rodriguez). Through this angle, it seems as if the goal is to present a moral comparison between Melville and Kelly. Neither are perfect, but they both function as heroes within their own narratives.
The climax bears this out with an attempt at a lofty ethical questioning of what is just versus what is good, the conclusion to this conversation being that the man who manipulated women and their sexuality is both just and good. It is not just a questionable stance on a professor who abuses his power over his students – let us not forget that this is based on a true story. It is a stance that holds no tonal water. As the final act plays out, the students working for Melville candidly discuss how much the man helped them. If it were meant as a satire, that tone does not surface in any tangible way. There is no irony or sense of humor displayed in the reverent depiction of Melville. Instead, we are left to wonder why a sleazy old man not only gets a pass for running a prostitution ring but gets his very own movie as well.
Rarely does McDowell phone in a performance. Even though Pounds of Flesh is on its face a sexploitation B-movie, McDowell gives the character his all. Where most of the voiceover work comes off as awkward products of ADR sessions, McDowell’s recitation of Melville’s memoir is energized and compelling, even when the lines themselves involve eye-rolling Shakespeare quotations or cringe-inducing objectification of women several decades his junior.
Even if you take Pounds of Flesh as a satire – I’m not convinced – there is still no excuse for the shoddy technical construction. On the small, forgivable side there are unadvised uses of color filters. In one shot there is a blue day-for-night filter, even though the scene takes place during the middle of the day anyway. In a series of frustrating scenes where the co-ed prostitutes talk around a pool, the contrast is upped to the point that shadows look like ugly stains on the screen. In one of these pool scenes, the sound of a mic being accidentally hit can be heard. And that is not the end of the sound issues. In some scenes, the audio mix is altogether too quiet. In others, dialogue will be too loud from one character and too quiet from the character in the reverse shot.
The camera work, too, is a wild experience. The camera never stops moving. When the movement is intentional, the rapid zooms and erratic pans only complicate the visual language of the film. This is because characters are rarely moving within the frame, so the zooms and pans are not necessary. Even when the shot calls for stillness, the camera jostles and vibrates. In either case, the movement is not dynamic and energizing; it is simply poorly designed.
Pound of Flesh is a thought-provoking film, but not in the way that director Tamar Simon Hoffs likely intends. There isn’t fruit to bear in dissecting the moral grayness of a man exploiting his power, because that’s more of a monochrome examination in practice. Instead, you are left thinking about how the project could go all the way through post-production without someone insisting on reshooting scenes that depict an audiovisual delirium of frantic camera work and poor audio capture. In any case, the only success here is in the casting of MacDowell; one of our finest actors has many low points on his résumé.
Alex Brannan is a freelance writer and critic. He publishes criticism at Cinefiles Reviews and can be found on Letterboxd and Twitter @TheAlexBrannan.