By Phil Hall | September 26, 2008

BOOTLEG FILES 252: “Hammersmith is Out” (1972 comedy starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

LAST SEEN: Available for unauthorized download on several online video sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Briefly on VHS video.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It has been out of circulation for many years.


Every now and then, I come across a film that is so crashingly awful that I find myself numb from shock when considering that seemingly intelligent adults spent their time and energy (not to mention someone else’s money) to create a monstrosity. I am not talking about Ed Wood-style shlock that fills one with plenty of OMG LMAO giggles. I am talking about a film that is thoroughly lacking in one iota of artistic, intellectual or aesthetic value. In short, a film that goes beyond the boundaries of mediocrity and the danger zone limits of incompetence into the harsh void of sheer dreadfulness.

Such a film is “Hammersmith is Out.” If you’ve never seen it, find a spiritual channel of your choice and give thanks to the higher beings or deity therein. If you have seen it, however, come sit with me while I try to exorcise its horrific residue from my soul.

“Hammersmith is Out” takes the Faust legend and plops it into the U.S. of the early 1970s. It might have been considered as a potential satire of American culture and priorities, except that it lacks anything observation that is even vaguely sharp or witty. It could have been strictly a vanity show for its high profile stars, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, except that they barely seem to have any emotion to offer this inert mess. It is possible this could have been seen as an act of alchemy by its director, British actor Peter Ustinov, with the hope of that he could create a piece of cinematic gold from a screenplay that was pure lead. Unfortunately, that did not take place.

Ustinov was a rather underrated director and he helmed a trio of notable films in the 1960s that rarely get considered today: “Romanoff and Juliet” (1961, based on his popular play), “Billy Budd” (1962) and “Lady L” (1966). These were all prestige films, framed for the highest common intellectual denominator. Viewed today, these films are vigorous and mature in their use of language and innovative in their visual presentation.

“Hammersmith is Out” is another story. It is a crude, mindless, wretched waste of film that relies on scatological language and mildly offensive gestures to generate laughs. In regard to style, it has none – it is one of the clumsiest, ugliest looking productions I’ve ever seen. Had I not been unaware in advance that Ustinov was the film’s director, I could never have guess he was calling the shots behind the camera.

“Hammersmith is Out” focuses on dim bulb Billy Breedlove (Beau Bridges), a nose-picking good ol’ boy who works as an orderly in a mental institution. He takes pleasure harassing one of his colleagues, a somewhat sissified man who occupies his spare time with needlepoint creations. But Billy is genuinely intrigued with Hammersmith (Richard Burton), a bizarre maniac who is kept in a straight jacket within a padlocked cell that is separate from the other patients.

One night, Billy rides his motorcycle to a local diner and falls in love with the waitress Jimmie Jean Jackson (Elizabeth Taylor in a blonde wig). After very small talk, they make love in the back room – a sack of tomatoes is used as a makeshift mattress. Billy believes that Jimmie Jean is Ms. Right and they agree to elope.

But Billy decides to take Hammersmith along. Hammersmith makes strange, sinister promises to bring fame and fortune to Billy. Not being the brightest crayon in the box, Billy eagerly liberates Hammersmith.

At first, Hammersmith is able to keep his promise of providing high-ticket material belongings by viciously disposing of the original owners of the merchandise – the owner of a luxury car is stuffed in its trunk, the owner of a fine suit is stabbed in the guy, the owner of a profitable nightclub is pushed from a high window to his death, etc. Neither Billy nor Jimmie Jean are aware of how Hammersmith is able to provide immediate riches, and they savor the opportunity to enjoy new-found joy amidst the trappings of the entertainment world, the corporate suite, and the corridors of government power.

So what went wrong? For starters, Burton and Taylor clearly did not have their hearts in this project. Ustinov directed Burton to go through the film without blinking – obviously to suggest the lunatic power of the Mephistophelean Hammersmith. But Burton never bothered to put any life into his character – the solid gaze of his eyes were matched by the stolid nature of his presence. Rarely has pure evil ever been so enervated, and the lack of menace makes Hammersmith a bore.

Likewise, Taylor is completely wrong as the dumb Texas waitress who gets swept up in the story. Despite a Dolly Parton-style wig and an on-again/off-again accent, you cannot get around the fact you’re watching Elizabeth Taylor (complete with movie star tan and Cleopatra eye make-up) trying to be something she is not. It is an embarrassing performance, perhaps her worst ever.

Beau Bridges tries to carry the film, and he manages to get some genuine acting on the screen. But he is undercut by a dull story and his character quickly becomes a hillbilly bore. Veteran actors George Raft and Leon Ames briefly turn up, but their presence is so mechanical that it is easy to assume someone wound them up like clockwork toys.

Ustinov is also in the film, as the head of the mental hospital where Hammersmith was incarcerated. He does a bogus German accent and spends most of his time reacting to the stupidity around him. Had he played Hammersmith, one could imagine there would’ve been more vigor and imagination in the role. Ah well, it didn’t quite happen.

“Hammersmith is Out” marked the producing debut of one J. Cornelius Crean, a manufactured home tycoon who sought to branch out in to making films. He financed “Hammersmith is Out” and acquiesced to the idea of shooting the film in Mexico in order to accommodate tax exiles Burton, Taylor and Ustinov. Later that year, he produced the Bill Cosby Western “Man and Boy.” He stopped making movies after that when it was obvious there was more money in manufactured homes.

“Hammersmith is Out” received a surprisingly strong review from Roger Ebert, who used his Chicago Sun-Times column to call the film “weird, bizarre, funny” and “one of the year’s best comedies.” Vincent Canby of the New York Times was less enthused, but still retained some degree of sympathy. He wrote the film “is both too elaborate and not quite witty enough to be especially convincing as contemporary morality comedy. However, just when the patience is at the point of exhaustion, when one might leave the theater with a clear consience, the film comes to fitful life.”

Actually, very few people bothered to enter the theaters showing “Hammersmith is Out” – it was a major flop. Ustinov never directed another film while Burton and Taylor saw their already–frayed box office cred dwindle further.

The film turned up briefly on VHS video in the 1980s, but to date it has not been made available on DVD. Bootleg videos based on that old video release are easy to locate, and the film can also be found on a few web sites specializing in unauthorized downloads.

But, quite frankly, I could only recommend this film to masochists eager for self-inflicted pain. Hopefully, Hammersmith will stay out and stay away for as long as possible!

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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  1. James Lewis says:

    I strongly dissent from the reviewer’s negative take. I saw Hammersmith in a theater and it came across well on the big screen. “Let me OUT” in Burton’s voice made a very compelling impression. Murnau showed Faust had legs and so does Hammersmith, perhaps just as much for 70’s US as for 20’s Germany.

  2. BubbaGump says:

    The film may be a piece of excrement, but I actually saw it in a theater, and 42 years later I could remember “I will make you rich and strong…strong and rich.”

    It may have been drek, but it’s memorable drek.

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