In Memoriam: Robert Fuest (1927-2012)

BAD takes a moment to honor the most iconic 70s director you've never heard of.

In the early-ish days of DVD, I blind bought a title from Anchor Bay called The Final Programme. All I knew of the film was its description on the back of the DVD:

As the world teeters on the brink of nuclear anarchy, swinging London scientific genius Jerry Cornelius (Jon Finch) discovers that the microfilm formula for a self-replicating human being is missing. With the help of the beautiful and voraciously bisexual computer expert Miss Brunner (Jenny Runacre), the pair must race through a wasteland of murder and madness to recover “The Final Programme” and trigger the creation of a startling new messiah.

Now, they had me at "swinging London scientific genius" (especially as played by personal favorite Jon Finch), but as I watched the film I realized the hopelessness of that synopsis writer's task. That plot description only hints at the film's true insanity; in fact, so does a first viewing of the movie. The Final Programme (based on a novel by Michael Moorcock, who disowned the film) felt a bit like someone hired Jodorowsky to make a Bond film, then took away half the budget and removed a bunch of script pages at random.

I thought I hated it. Yet, when I loaned the DVD out and never got it back, I found myself chasing down the now out-of-print disc, as I couldn't get  the film out of my head. With expectations in check, I was able to appreciate the details that had gone past me in a design-heavy rush on first viewing. It's in many ways the perfect film of the early 70s; the fearless cinematic experimentation of the 1960s crashing into the cynical nihilism of the Me Decade. Plus Sterling Hayden.

The film was directed by Robert Fuest, a name that didn't register with me at first, but one which was already on my DVD shelf, as the director of Vincent Price's two Dr. Phibes films. Like The Final Programme, that franchise also benefits from Fuest's beginnings as a production designer; his colorful sets are cleverly staged to hide their meager budgets, and for a guy who got his big break directing black and white "live-to-tape" episodes of The Avengers, it's impressive work.

Fuest also handled less surreal genre fare like And Soon The Darkness and The Devil's Rain (starring the power trio of Shatner, Travolta and Borgnine) quite skillfully before returning to television, and then moving into teaching. Fuest passed away this past weekend at the age of 84, and though he never broke through to the mainstream (I would have LOVED to see him tackle an actual Bond film in the 70s), he was lucky enough to leave his mark with a small handful of truly iconic works. His contribution is a solid and influential one, and he deserves a hat tip on his way out the door.