Movie Locations No.1: The Possession Of Joel Delaney
LOCATION: New York City
FILM: ‘The Possession Of Joel Delaney’
This is a new occasional column dedicated to films that bring places to life.
In the CV of the actress Shirley MacLaine are a few surprises. One of them is a supernatural story that has grown in stature and power over the passing years.
The past is another country; to modern eyes downtown seventies New York now looks as chaotic as Saigon. The city appears fragmented and claustrophobic, but the real shock is how riven by class it was. The rich were uptown, the poor were downtown and the two never mixed. In 1972 the Puerto Rican neighbourhood was just off Lexington(!) and its tenements had never been visited by outsiders.
Given how many films and novels there now are with the word ‘possession’ in their title, you’d be expecting to find another Exorcist knock-off here, only to discover that it’s nothing of the sort. This movie from Anglo-Indian director Waris Hussein is a revelation, mores now than it was at the time of release, when critic Roger Ebert, who in my opinion was never knowingly right, misunderstood and glibly excoriated it.
MacLaine is the wealthy socialite whose brother Joel, played by Perry King, has a taste for rough living. Coming out of his hippie years he lives downtown because it feels more real after his travels, and when Maclaine hears that he turned violent one night and attacked his building’s superintendent, she assumes he’s been taking drugs. He says not, but displays increasing behavioural disorders. During these attacks he speaks Spanish and talks of a Puerto Rican friend.
Making things doubly uncomfortable, MacLaine has a Spanish maid who is so disturbed by the brother that she quits. When MacLaine ventures downtown to find out why, her beliefs are thrown into question. Is her brother suffering from a mental illness or is he in some way possessed?
The film would be remarkable as a social document; New York is seen with an outsider’s eye, as I first saw it in my twenties, sometimes frightening and alienating, whereas now it’s almost quaint. There’s a documentary feel at work that makes you believe anything is possible. A long sequence at a ritual, held in an ordinary, cluttered apartment, is crucially presented not as exotic and unknowable but all too mundane and real, a practical solution for disenfranchised families ignored by their adopted home.
‘The Possession of Joel Delaney’ belongs to a small cadre of films that have aged well because they have a feeling of honesty and understanding. Re-view ‘The Parallax View’, ‘The Conversation’ or the first half hour of ‘The Exorcist’ to see this documentary fly-on-the-wall effect at work elsewhere. MacLaine is entirely convincing as a woman ejected from her comfort zone into something she cannot accept or understand, but there are other forces at work. Hussein looks for a psychological explanation too. MacLaine’s sisterly love is smothering and as claustrophobic as New York’s apartments. The screenplay, by black male and a white female, is subtle, balanced and precise. Cinematography is grainy and dark, as besets its subject matter.
The only damaging element is a reveal of the killer’s work (a neatly severed head comes straight from the props department), yet even this is melodramatically acceptable because of the veracity of MacLaine’s performance. As in many films of the period, you don’t feel on safe ground. America was suffering a severe upheaval of values at the time, and the feeling of foreboding is hard to shake; you just know this isn’t going to end well for anyone.