Orson Welles threatens Joseph Cotten in a Ferris wheel overlooking Vienna. James Mason dies, slowly, on a snowy Belfast night. A paper airplane containing information that could send Ralph Richardson to the gallows flies over the heads of a phalanx of police officers.
While Carol Reed had traversed a number of genres since he began directing in the 1930s, it was his noirs of the following decade (The Third Man, Odd Man Out and The Fallen Idol) that preserved his name in the film history books. He continued on through the ‘50s and ‘60s—helming Mutiny on the Bounty until a recalcitrant Brando drove him to quit; winning his only Oscar for his only musical, Oliver!—but his long career had reached its end by the early ‘70s. His final film: The Public Eye.
Well-to-do accountant Charles (Michael Jayston) does not believe his new wife Belinda (Mia Farrow) when she says she’s late for dinner because she lost track of time while looking at dolphins in the park. None of her other excuses have worked for him either. So he hires a private detective, expecting to catch her cheating.
She wasn’t lying. A free-spirited Californian suffocating in the smog of Charles’ Englishness, she takes every chance to escape their dreary flat and his boring colleagues and go wandering around London. Charles seemed to love her unusual way of looking at the world when they first met, but since their marriage, he’s become heavy with shame that she’s nothing like his friends’ wives. The weight of his newfound disdain for her, not another man, is what pushes her out of their home.
The private eye Charles hired, however, finds Belinda enchanting. She catches Cristoforou (Topol) tailing her almost immediately, and—confused, but fascinated—she accepts his long-distance company on her sojourns around the capital. They don’t speak, they keep at least several meters between them at all times, and yet this funny type of friendship becomes a balm in the lonely lives of both the follower and the followed. Has Charles lost his wife to the private eye he hired to tail her?
Romanticized stalking has plagued romantic comedies for decades. Time and again, we’ve been presented with the prospect of (usually, though not always) a man shadowing a woman and indulging in other worryingly obsessive behavior towards her—that scene in Love Actually being the most notorious example—and it being treated not as sinister, but as the height of passion. Something to be dreamed about, not frightened of.
That The Public Eye comes close to doing the same could have been troubling. While there are moments when the movie’s cheery depiction of stalking verges on uncomfortable (when Belinda says, “If he got a kick just following me around, who am I to complain?” no one could blame you for yelling at the screen “No Belinda, you can legitimately complain about that!”), that it largely doesn’t is a matter of agency.
It takes Belinda no time to discover that she has a tail—Topol is so conspicuous he may as well be wielding a “Yes, I am following you!” placard—and she’s intrigued. She’s been desperately lonely in her day-to-day life, feels so ignored by her husband and his wider social circle, that this goofy man seeming to want to keep her company (albeit from a distance) is an appealing prospect rather than a terrifying one. Cinematic stalking is also often patriarchal: A man feels possessive about “his woman,” and keeps watch over her without her knowledge. But The Public Eye gives a woman her power back. After all, to follow also means to let another person lead.
As well as granting Belinda agency, Reed’s film does her the credit of not flattening her into a manic pixie dream girl. She is positioned as a vibrant contrast to stuffy old Charles, but she’s still allowed an inner life, and a full spectrum of emotions. Mia Farrow—not far past her breakout role in Rosemary’s Baby—gives Belinda a vulnerability underlined with quiet, unyielding defiance; if her husband won’t accompany her on the little adventures they had together before they married, then she’s damn well going to go by herself. Or, as it transpires, with Cristoforou.
The daffy, poignant, wonkily romantic scenes where Topol and Farrow jaunt around London are the best of the movie. The Public Eye started life as a Peter Shaffer play, but Reed does a resplendent job of de-stagifying the source material, opening out the action and shooting the capital with a sunnily sumptuous lens. Adding further cinematic juice is John Barry’s sweeping, lush score; It’s arguably overblown for a film that can be so silly—a glorious mini-montage sees Topol pointing and snickering at all the streets named for food—and yet it still works.
More than any other one element, though, it’s Topol that gives The Public Eye its strange, joyful appeal. Fresh from his Oscar-nominated turn in Fiddler on the Roof, yet with a cinematic career ahead of him that could be politely described as “otherwise disappointing,” The Public Eye catches the actor at the peak of his ebullient, twinkly charm. Of the three leads, Topol lands Shaffer’s most garrulous passages of dialogue, as well as a whole bundle of quirks that might have been maddening in the hands of a lesser actor. While you could in no way describe his performance as subtle (he is, after all, playing a character with an endless supply of macaroons in his pocket, one who can’t even answer a phone without making a production of it), Topol grounds Cristoforou’s eccentricities in a recognizable, sometimes surprisingly melancholic humanity. Warm and funny and just a little bit sad—much like the movie as a whole, in fact—he’s beautiful to watch.
The Public Eye made no impact critically or commercially upon its release in 1972, and has spent the last 50 years as a footnote to the careers of the many illustrious people involved in its production. Although that’s no real surprise—it is an undeniable oddity—it’s a shame nonetheless. Between the lively performances, the rapturous view of London and the ahead-of-its time treatment of Farrow’s character, there’s a lot to love about Reed’s swansong. Sure, perhaps there’s no single scene worthy of the iconic pantheon Reed created during the 1940s, but neither is there a moment in those films so bursting with glee as Topol’s face when he discovers the street sign for “Pudding Lane.”
Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI, Podcast Review, and Paste.