Bad Timing: The Men Who Didn’t Know Something

“They were down for each other.” If one wanted to pitch the concept of Bad Timing in six words, this comment by its director, Nicolas Roeg, couldn’t be bettered. “They” are two lovers who meet by chance, though it’s the kind of chance that has a strong element of psychological necessity. It’s the attraction/repulsion of complete opposites, a force that will bind them to each other even while they torture each other.

There are other ways of unpicking that phrase, of understanding what put them down for each other. It might have been a fate with a malicious sense of humor—in their blind extremes, this pair deserve each other. It might have been a kind of Gothic doom, which the film’s lighting and design gradually emphasize. It might even have been a mysterious logic in the nature of things, which the film seems to be following in the way it breaks up and rearranges everything in mosaic patterns, where details of attitude and behavior, speech and gesture, pass from character to character.

“They” are two Americans in Vienna. Dr. Alex Linden (Art Garfunkel) is a psychoanalyst who lectures at the university, and Milena Flaherty (Theresa Russell) apparently drifts, after separating from her Czech husband (Denholm Elliott) in the film’s first scenes. Alex and Milena meet at a party, she impulsively giving him her number while he tries to maintain a teasing distance, keeping control over any possible relationship by suggesting that it should remain just that: “Why spoil the mystery? If we don’t meet, there’s always the possibility it could have been perfect.”

Impulse and control—the relationship that does develop batters between these two poles. For Alex, what is desirable—even when it comes to physical desire—is determined by what is containable, what he can understand and hold in his mind, like a piece of psychoanalytic research or that formula for perfection that he suggests at their first meeting. For Milena, experience is never containable, imperfection necessarily follows from being open to the moment, and understanding hardly comes into it. Their relationship begins to resemble one of those impossible ball-in-a-maze puzzles—there are, in fact, two matching sets of these in the film—where he is drawn to her wildness and chaos and impelled to tame it, perhaps because he fears a matching chaos in himself. When he despairs that she’ll never change, she retorts, “If you weren’t who you are, I wouldn’t have to.”

If something in the scheme of things has put them down for each other, then something else might equally have kept them apart—something called chance. As Roeg has said of their initial encounter at the party: “If he had left a little earlier or a little later—it’s just bad timing.” There are so many ambivalences in the scheme of things—so much shifting between the operations of hazard, choice, and predestination—and the dazzling, fragmented style of the film is designed to catch this play.

It is a style that Roeg seemed to have made very much his own by the time this film appeared, although its origins were probably multiple. It emerged out of a complex of his own zigzagging way of making connections and a particular moment in the history of cinema—a complex, again, of choice and chance. It is evident in his debut feature, Performance (1968), codirected with Donald Cammell, which was made at a time when the mind-bending effects of hallucinogenic drugs and more cerebral identity riddles (via Jorge Luis Borges, for one) were ideas in the air. But even in the last film Roeg shot as a director of photography, Petulia (1968), directed by the maestro of the sixties cut-up, Richard Lester, the style can be seen in embryo. Roeg developed it through Walkabout (1971), Don’t Look Now (1973), and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), where stylistic playfulness stretches to include time and space bending.

There’s play as well around the concept of “bad timing,” when it ceases to signal a romantic collision and becomes a matter of police investigation. A problem emerges—it becomes the framing drama for the story of the love affair itself—about Alex’s own timing, what he did and when, on the night that marked the convulsive end of their affair, when Milena was rushed to the hospital in a coma, from a drug overdose. This triggers the intervention of police inspector Netusil (Harvey Keitel), who is the third point in what becomes an unusual triangular relationship, as well as the man who owns a ball-in-a-maze puzzle to match Alex’s. There is a case to be solved here, but like the impasse that confounds Alex and Milena, Netusil also has his own identity puzzle to solve. In part, this is a doppelgänger story, but an incomplete one. The detective sees himself in the psychiatrist, but imperfectly reflected: the two men dress alike, but Netusil’s suit is, as Roeg puts it, “off the peg”; the policeman has a diploma from Harvard, but it’s for athletics. Netusil’s struggle—to better, to transform himself—seems almost to be a physical one, whereas Alex works only through mind games.

As a project, Bad Timing itself began as a bit of a mystery. In the mid-1970s, after he had made The Man Who Fell to Earth, Roeg had an association with the Italian producer Carlo Ponti. They would sift through possible scripts and ideas together, and Bad Timing emerged from that. According to Roeg, “It was given to me as a kind of longish idea, translated from Italian. It was very different, about two Italians, but it was the same basic idea, about that condition of man and woman. I never got to the bottom of who wrote it.”

To develop the screenplay, Roeg brought in the American playwright Yale Udoff. In Udoff’s recollection as well, the project’s origins were ghostly: the proposal Roeg showed him was “indented,” he says, in story form, but maybe not quite a novel. “It was about a wealthy Roman playboy and his girlfriend, and it was like an Alberto Moravia novel, but very bad Moravia, with a feel of the sixties. Although we changed almost everything, it did have a few elements we kept—it had an investigation into a murder. What interested Roeg was the idea of a couple in extremis, a man and a woman battling. Udoff surmises that the mysterious author may have been Ponti himself, and the story a fantasy derived from “something out of Ponti’s life.”

What might once have belonged to the world of La dolce vita was transplanted to the cold north, to Vienna, to the world of The Third Man and a whole range of references to spying, prying, psychoanalytic inquiry, and police probing. Udoff recalls that he and Roeg developed the script through extensive conversations: “We just talked about men, women, women and men together, battles, our own personal lives.” Udoff was well qualified to contribute personal material to these discussions on relations between the sexes, since he had always been in the habit of recording observations, keeping journals on his friends’ behavior and attitudes. This, he says, had earned him the reputation of being “the Allen Dulles of the literary world.” And this turned out to be another qualification, since the activity of spying, especially as carried out here, by two professionals—a psychoanalyst and a policeman—is essential to the erotic imbroglio.

At one of his lectures, Alex uses a series of slides to illustrate the theme. A baby is “the first spy,” followed by a shot of a couple making love. There are slides of Freud and of other professionals in the field: no Allen Dulles, but J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph Stalin. Roeg playfully hints at The Third Man with a little zither music, but then, for him, the processes of observation are essential to all human behavior. “We are all spying on each other. That’s how we assess each other. You go to a party, and it’s, ‘Oh, I don’t like the look of her’ or ‘I wouldn’t like to meet him on a dark night.’” Even the strangest of Roeg’s characters, “the man who fell to Earth,” is kept in the frame in this way. His arrival does not go unnoticed. “Everything is seen. Everyone is seen. I like that.”

Alex exploits his professional capacities to pursue a personal goal: to understand Milena, to satisfy himself that she loves him, to fix her in place. In Udoff’s words, “What he basically wants to do is devour her.” With a less obvious goal in mind, but clearly also for tortured personal reasons, Inspector Netusil needs to solve this case, to extract a confession from Alex about what he did on the night in question. Would a perfect piece of detection grant him psychic resolution? When he first enters Milena’s flat to pursue his investigation, Netusil reacts with a strange purr of satisfaction—part discovery, part recognition. Is this somewhere he has been in another life? The questions he puts to Alex about Milena pass from the slyly provocative (“Is your girlfriend a bit mad?”) to what sounds like a dialogue with himself, as he muses, cryptically, on “dangerous creatures, to themselves and others . . . They envy our strength, our will to master reality.”

Roeg plays on the similarities between the two men in dress and mannerism, and in their disdain for the messiness of Milena’s life. But they have arrived at different points in life; at that moment they are, as Roeg puts it, “on opposite sides of the mirror.” For Netusil, “his demon was leading him somewhere else. I don’t know where he’d go, but I know he was in a lot of pain in the end, Inspector Netusil.” The name itself is a key. Roeg tells how it came from a visit to a painter friend, in the Ariadne Gallery, in Vienna. The owner of the gallery was Frederick Netusil, a Czech name. “He said, ‘Do you know what it means? It means “the man who didn’t know something.”’ And he laughed—that’s why he’s a gallery owner, because he doesn’t know about painting. I said, My inspector must be Inspector Netusil.”

Equally accidental was the way that Keitel came to play the part. As Roeg recounts it: “There were a couple of other people I thought of. Albert Finney didn’t want to do it. Malcolm McDowell I thought would have been rather interesting, but he wasn’t available. Bruno Ganz didn’t want to do it. The film was under way, we were three days off shooting, and I hadn’t got my Inspector Netusil. Then, by chance, I came back to England and I met Harvey, and it was like a gift from the gods. I’m glad, because I believe in destiny. Fate was kind of leaving the way open. People get what’s theirs; I believe that very much. They get it somehow.” Actors and their roles, evidently, are also down for each other.

And do the processes of detection have something in common with filmmaking? In Roeg’s case, it may be that they’re an opening on to endless ambiguity. “How difficult it is to fill in a police report. ‘What exactly happened, sir, on the night of the twenty-first?’ ‘What exactly happened, indeed, officer. It didn’t really begin on the night of the twenty-first . . .’ Now if I can get anything of that into the grammar of film—if it were permissible, it would be lovely to do it in an endless film, like von Stroheim’s Greed. But, unfortunately, in film we’re bound, as in everything, by a dictated grammar.”

Roeg’s achievement, through the seventies and eighties, was to construct a form that might not have approached Greed in physical length but whose glittering piecemeal construction was another way to create this density of suggestion. Many critics who only noticed the glitter accused Roeg of being merely a glorified cameraman, dressing up the job he had previously carried out for other directors. But photography is no more important in this scheme than editing and production design. The turn-of-the-century Viennese art world is part of the emotional texture of Bad Timing, the contrast between the romantic shimmer of Gustav Klimt and the psychological darkness of Egon Schiele.

To have carried this out within the mainstream English-speaking cinema was part of the achievement. Bad Timing was produced by the conservative Rank Organization, which was reportedly so shocked by the result that it removed its famous symbol of a man striking a gong from the film. In fact, in terms of censorship, Roeg’s first film proved to be his greatest stumbling block: the sex, drugs, and even dirty bath-water of Performance so alarmed Warner Brothers that the film’s release was held up for three years while its editing was fought over. Did something of Roeg’s own struggles with his profession get into Bad Timing as well, making it not only a personal account of male-female relations but of the relationship between a filmmaker and his industry?

Udoff has talked about how his and Roeg’s conceptions of the project did differ slightly in one respect. According to Udoff, some humor was lost. “I wanted to be the Antonioni with humor,” but Roeg’s drive was to make it more intense. “There was always a push to make Garfunkel really a heavy, to make him unbearable. As the script evolved, I got the feeling that Nic thought of himself as the Theresa Russell character, and I was, in his eyes, the Garfunkel character. Nic is always being pursued by the studios, by people with scripts, just as, in Garfunkel’s mind, Theresa is being pursued by all these people. And I think he felt, in a way, in his own career as a director, a fear of being devoured by people who want him to do their work rather than his work. That was, in a sense, what he saw in the Theresa Russell character. It’s in how he directed her.”

All comments from Nicolas Roeg and Yale Udoff in this article come from previously unpublished interviews with the author.

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