THE BOOTLEG FILES: THE DRIVER’S SEAT

I am genuinely surprised that “The Driver’s Seat” is not a better-known movie. When it comes to ghastly camp, this 1974 production rivals the likes of “Valley of the Dolls” or “Mommie Dearest” with its wild, no-holds-barred over-the-top lunacy. And considering its proliferation on bootleg video, there is no reason why more people cannot enjoy its warped beauty.

Based (loosely, I suppose) on a novel by the celebrated British writer Muriel Spark (best known for “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”), “The Driver’s Seat” is supposed to be a psychological thriller about one lonely’s woman rapid descent into delusion and self-destructiveness. In the ideal world, the central character of the doomed protagonist Lise would’ve been played by an actress who can plumb the deep crevices of the soul yet maintain a smooth, subtle facade that barely conceals the danger within.

But in this surreal world, the role of Lise went to Elizabeth Taylor, an actress who was more celebrated for her glamour than her subtlety. Taylor always had a penchant for chewing scenery, and in “The Driver’s Seat” she literally swallows the movie with an uncontrolled crazy performance which is ballistic even by her standards. It is not surprising that the All-Movie Guide dubbed this her very worst movie.

What goes wrong? Well, let’s follow the plot and see where the potholes occur. The problems actually begin with the opening credits, which identifies the film as “The Driver’s Seat (Identikit)”. Why the film needs two titles is unclear.

The film opens with a surreal and creepy visit to a dress shop filled with mannequins that don’t have clothing but have silver foil wrapped about their heads. Taylor’s Lise is there to buy a dress, but she goes beserk when the salesgirl informs her the desired dress is stain resistant. Taylor is outraged at the notion she would spill things on her clothing and creates a mini-riot. The shop manager emerges and finds Taylor out of her dress and only wearing a bra (a see-through number which allows her nipples to be seen – tits ahoy, Liz!).

Lise somehow gets home with a non-stain-resistant dress and prepares to go on a trip to Rome. It is not clear where she lives, but it appears she is in Germany. When she leaves for the airport, she emerges wearing a hideous multicolored striped jacket, an equally atrocious multicolored dress, and a hairdo which seems to have been created by sticking a wet finger into an electric socket. Lise’s cleaning lady starts laughing out loud and declares: “Where do you go dressed like that? To join a circus?”

At the airport, Lise is bothered in a terminal bookstore by a weird woman asking advice on what to read. Says the woman about the choice of books: “Which one would be more exciting? More sado-masochistic?” Lise escapes to the security check-in station. Annoyed by the inspections, she holds her handbag aloft and declares: “This may look like a purse but it is actually a bomb!” At this point in the film, Taylor’s voice seems to go several decibels higher than normal. All of her lines from here out are literally screamed.

Getting into the airplane, Lise fastens her safety belt and moans with slight orgiastic glee at being locked in for takeoff. A weird man sits next to her with a big, lascivious grin on his face. She sneers and yells: “You look like Red Riding Hood’s grandmother. Do you want to eat me?” The man grins wider and replies: “I’d like to, I’d like to. But I’m on a macrobiotic diet and I can’t eat meat.”

Arriving in Rome, Lise is shaken up when gun-toting airport security guards chase a young man through the terminal. She drops a book she is carrying, which is retrieved by Andy Warhol. Yes, Andy Warhol is here – playing an aristocrat (he is called “Your Lordship” by his retainers). Warhol returns the book and disappears.

That creepy guy from the airplane takes Lise to her hotel. He babbles on about macrobiotic food and how it assists his sex life. She is not interested and tells him: “When I diet, I diet. When I orgasm, I orgasm. I don’t believe in mixing the two cultures!” She arrives at her hotel, lays on the bed, opens her awful dress and starts playing with her breasts.

The next day, Lise shares a taxi with a Canadian tourist (British actress Mona Washbourne). The tourist announces that she just joined the Jehovah’s Witness movement, but strangely she never gives Lise a copy of The Watchtower. They go to a department store and visit the ladies’ room, where the Canadian falls asleep in her toilet stall.

Lise is later witness to the bombing assassination of an Arab diplomat. She is rescued from the mayhem of the crime scene by a hunky mechanic, who drives her to a deserted area and attempts to rape her. She runs away from the car, he follows her, he gets out of the car, she gets in and drives off.

During the course of this nonsense, Lise keeps telling people she is waiting to meet a certain man. She doesn’t know who he is, but will recognize him upon sight. The reason for this rendezvous would’ve made a devastating surprise, but unfortunately “The Driver’s Seat” is riddled with abrupt flash-forwards with the Roman police interrogating people who encountered Lise. As she is referred to in the past tense, her fate is telegraphed too early to have any emotional impact.

But even if the ending is spoiled, there is so much insanity afoot that “The Driver’s Seat” will bring along a ton of unintentional laughter. Director Giuseppe Patroni Griffi doesn’t seem to be in control of the movie. He is certainly not directing Taylor – she is literally running amok with wild gazes, a shrieking voice, spastic body language and the refusal to stop acting like a movie queen. Whether complaining over a dirty glass, ogling cute men, sifting through a collection of scarves in a department store display, or surrendering herself to sexual abandonment, she engages in the most extravagant hamming ever put on camera. It is not acting, to be certain, but it is highly amusing and it so blatantly wrong that it never ceases to entertain.

If that’s not odd enough, the film is burdened with bizarre artistic touches. Griffi imagines a Rome police interrogation room to look like a music video set, complete with harsh white lights and expressionistic interior decorating. There is also a piano score that is supposed to set the off-kilter mood for the thriller, but which instead sounds like a kitten romping across the ivories. As the film is populated with an Italian cast, the English version is dubbed with voices that never fit their Roman mouths. Even Andy Warhol, who turns up with a few lines of dialogue later in the movie, seems to have been dubbed.

“The Driver’s Seat” came at a rough time in Taylor’s life – her tumultuous marriage to Richard Burton was collapsing, her box office cred had disappeared after a skein of expensive flops, and her drift into middle age helped to diminish the choice of roles she was receiving. She took this role to be near Burton, who was making “Massacre in Rome” at the time, and in retrospect she expressed deep rue for this career move – a rumor exists that she attempted to buy up and destroy the prints of the film.

“The Driver’s Seat” premiered at Cannes to a stunned audience – and not a happily stunned audience, either. Avco Embassy picked it up for American distribution, but the film was barely released in the U.S. The film has turned up on numerous video and DVD labels, including a release under the title “Psychotic.” The DVD I have (purchased in a dollar store in Norwalk, Connecticut) appears to have come from a second generation dupe. Even the cover is fuzzy: a photo of a 1950s-era Taylor with shots of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and Big Ben!

“The Driver’s Seat” is a true so-bad-it’s-fun experience. Anyone who needs a healthy dose of wild turkey cinema will do well to jump on this funhouse ride.

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on December 30, 2005 in Features by
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