Legendary power-couple, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor star in Joseph Losey’s critical snivel, Boom! (1968) Adapted from the play, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore by Tennessee Williams, the film is showing as part of the John Waters Retrospective at BFI Southbank, as one of the director's favourite movies. Boom! tells the story of a terminally ill woman and a mysterious young poet intent on getting his greasy mitts on her bulging purse. Sissy Goforth (Liz Taylor), is an isolated maiden, a ticking time bomb living in the lap of luxury on her own private island, with staff to rub oils into her back, pass her fancy drinks and to transcribe her mundane memoirs. Christopher Flanders (Richard Burton, in a role written for a much younger man) is a man with nothing, no possessions, no money and no morals. He is thrown from a boat and swims to the shore of Sissy’s island in his black trousers and thick wooly jumper.
As he scales the cliffs, to her castle, like the prince to Rapunzel, he yells her name.”MRS GOFORTH!” He yells as if beckoning her to lob her locks over the cliff edge. Eventually, his persistent yelling becomes too much for Sissy and she commands her security guard, a vicious dwarf, to set the dogs on him. Flanders finds himself torn to shreds in an unwelcoming environment where wild birds are caged and monkeys are chained and the humans lack reason and self control. Flanders arrives at the right place at exactly the right time, just as Sissy is speaking of the love of her life, who also happens to have been a poet. He then proceeds to sell himself accordingly to her last requests. Out of the blue and arriving on the shoulders of servants, Sissy is joined for dinner by The Witch of Capri (Noel Coward in a role rejected by an offended Katherine Hepburn) who warns her that there is more to the mysterious poet than meets the eye. Rumour has it, that Flanders is a manipulative gigolo who has a habit of turning up just as ill and wealthy women are on the verge of popping their proverbial clogs.
Director, Losey described being on set with Burton and Taylor as “Absolute hell”, claiming the pair would both turn up steaming drunk and screaming at one another, which indeed shows in the performance. The dialogue, in parts, is smart and poetic and occasionally delivered with the air of a beat poet, “Then there is when, then!” Yells Taylor or “What’s human or inhuman is not for human decision.” However, amidst the lyrical flow there is a pounding dissonance, whether that be the screams of “yoo-whoo!” as The Witch arrives to dinner, the repetition of “MRS GOFORTH!” as Flanders scales the cliffs or the hilarious outburst from Sissy as she staggers into her waiter, knocking a tray and it’s contents to the floor, “Shit on your mother!” She shouts in one of the film’s verbal highlights. There is a great deal of inconsistency in the film’s soundtrack also. What happens in the scene, never appears to match what’s going on in your ears. The music pounds like a nasty headache that the leads probably woke up with the morning after. Admirably though, towards each point that the music becomes unbearable, either Sissy or Flanders walk over to a mysterious tape deck, press a button and simply switch it off, bringing you back into the room.
Whilst the sets, scenery and costumes are excessive (look no further than Taylor’s ridiculous Kabuki costume, above), Losey, whose expertise can be witnessed in faultless classics, The Servant (1963) and Accident (1967) somehow manages to keep the drama contained by creating a sense of claustrophobia, amidst a great deal of space. As the relationship between the characters heats up, the performances become histrionic to an increasing extent, which is perhaps due to their excessive consumption of alcohol. Ultimately, the film could have been highly regarded had the casting been dealt with accordingly. Flanders would have been played by a younger, attractive and enigmatic actor and Sissy, an older, elegant woman. Instead, the leads are played by actors that don’t suit the demands of the roles, making Burton and Taylor appear self-indulgent and incapable. That being said, it’s definitely one to watch but for all of the wrong reasons. Sissy’s mysterious terminal illness, not to be laughed at, is very funny indeed, as it seems she is being slowly killed by a tickle in the throat. The mixture of dirty coughs and groaning porno noises made by Taylor cannot help but raise a smile. As the film nears it’s finale, Losey’s camera backs away, allowing the characters to become fully consumed by their lavish environment. It’s a gritty, shitty, yet highly watchable mess, that unfortunately ends with a cough, splutter and snigger as opposed to the promised titular Boom!