By: Adrienne Crew
August 12, 2017

One of 25 installments in a series of enthusiastic posts analyzing and celebrating a few of our favorite neo-noir movies from the Sixties (1964–1973).



Performance is a trippy movie, famous for its witchy cast and crew. Scriptwriter and co-director Donald Cammell fraternized with notorious magicians: Aleister Crowley was a family friend, and Cammell would play Osiris in Crowley-esque filmmaker Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising. Within the trappings of the neo-noir genre, this cult movie explores the metaphysics of the Western Mystery Tradition.

Chas (James Fox) is an East London gangster on the run; Turner (Mick Jagger) is a reclusive rock star with a room to rent. As their story unfolds, students of the occult sciences will recognize references to Tarot, alchemy, hermeneutic Kabbalism, and theurgy. Turner’s former tenant, Noel, sports a green tunic and studded belt, mimicking the Fool (Key 0) in the Tarot. Repeatedly called a “fool” by Turner’s companion Pherber (Anita Pallenberg), Chas is an outlier ready to journey through his own psyche.

The filmmakers refashion noir design elements, like iron bars and mirrored surfaces, for their own occult purposes. Like a femme fatale, Pherber first greets her potential lodger behind the bars of an elevator — which frame Chas as if he’s a caged beast. Later, Turner mesmerizes Chas with his wand-like neon rods and penetrates into his brain — liberating the demon [essence] within.

Alchemical symbols play an important role in Performance. Androgyne Lucy (Michele Breton) is mercury, while Turner is sulphur and Pherber salt: these are crucial ingredients when creating a Great Work. Chas (his name evokes chaos) is the prima materia necessary to initiate the operation. After a meal of hallucinogenic red and white (symbolically significant) mushrooms, Chas undergoes several stages of transmutation — shedding identities, homophobia, and psychic trauma via sublimation and coagulation in the hermetically sealed space of the house. Alchemical symbology depict such a transformative process as a Chymical Wedding. Here, it looks like an orgy.

Chas emerges from the house as a new man wearing Turner’s wig. The white limo that picks him up — in order to carry him back to gangster Harry Flowers, who wants Chas dead — can be seen as a symbol of the albedo stage of transformation. (Also: While invading Turner’s studio, Flowers’s henchman, Rosebloom, passes a rosebush in bloom; in alchemy, the rose represents a completed stage of transformation.) Will Chas survive his re-immersion into the neo-noir world? Signs point to yes. At the end of their encounter, Lucy gives Chas a magic amethyst ring — a gem that kept ancient soldiers from harm. Harry Flowers hasn’t got a chance.

For expanded material about the occult secrets in this and other movies, visit Adrienne’s website Louche Angeles.


KLUTE YOUR ENTHUSIASM: Series Introduction | Kio Stark on THE KILLERS | Alix Lambert on BANDE À PART (BAND OF OUTSIDERS) | Judith Zissman on ALPHAVILLE | Mark Kingwell on HARPER | Lynn Peril on BLOW-UP | Devin McKinney on SECONDS | Drew Daniel on BRANDED TO KILL | Luc Sante on POINT BLANK | Gordon Dahlquist on LE SAMOURAÏ | Alice Boone on LE CERCLE ROUGE | Brian Berger on COTTON COMES TO HARLEM | Adrienne Crewe on PERFORMANCE | David Levine on THE FRENCH CONNECTION | Dan Fox on GET CARTER | Melissa Gira Grant on KLUTE | Brandi Brown on SHAFT | Kaleb Horton on FAT CITY | Peter Doyle on THE GETAWAY | Sarah Weinman on HICKEY & BOGGS | Annie Nocenti on BADLANDS | Josh Glenn on CHARLEY VARRICK | Gary Groth on THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE | Lisa Jane Persky on THE LONG GOODBYE | Mimi Lipson on MEAN STREETS | Sherri Wasserman on SOYLENT GREEN.

MORE MOVIES at HILOBROW: KLUTE YOUR ENTHUSIASM: 25 neo-noirs of the Sixties (1964–1973) | James Parker’s BOURNE VARIATIONS series | Alix Lambert’s SÉRIE NOIRE series | Jacob Mikanowski’s SCREEN TIME series | Josh Glenn’s SHOCKING BLOCKING series | Joanne McNeil’s ALL MY STARS series | MORE: including dozens of HILO HERO items on movie directors and actors.


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