In Praise of Lana Turner Losing Her Mind in 1969’s THE BIG CUBE

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60s psychedelic mind-bender THE BIG CUBE is Lana Turner’s last great film.

Poor Lana Turner.

The former Hollywood sex-siren, she being one of the original Femme Fatales in Tay Garnett’s 1946 adaptation of James M. Cain’s THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, was considered in her prime to be one of the most dangerous and desirable women working in front of the lens. Of course, like most if not all of the living legends controlled by grooming studios during that period, much of Turner’s public persona and carefully marketed myth was fabricated. In truth, the actress was a gentle, troubled soul, an alcoholic and a bit broken after failed marriages and carreer dips and the typical Hollywood sneering at women when the bloom leaves their rose and they slip into middle-age.

It was at this point in Turner’s career that she would find herself starring in what is one of the most outrageous and bizarre films of the 1960s. Director Tito Davison’s Mexican/American co-production THE BIG CUBE was Warner Bros. attempt to out-trip Roger Corman’s THE TRIP and blend noir tropes with druggie youth culture and the still popular “horror hag” wave of films, the likes of which usually starred Bette Davis or Joan Crawford. Turner joins their ranks here, in a psychedelic assault on the senses, common and otherwise, a film so over-the-top and wrong of head that cruel critics had a field day eviscerating it and Turner’s appearance and performance in it.

The bile ladled upon THE BIG CUBE upon release helped propel it into virtual oblivion and so damaged Turner’s already fragile state, that she wouldn’t appear in any films until 1974’s trashy British horror/melodrama PERSECUTION (where she played Ralph Bates’ domineering mother).

But watching THE BIG CUBE today, it’s actually something of a marvel; an absolutely insane anti-drug yet still drug-addled free-fall into surreal psychedelia and ludicrous, overheated psychodrama. It’s a genuine cult film that has sadly not yet found its cult.

THE BIG CUBE sees Lana starring as Adriana, an aging, elegant actress of stage and screen who gives it all up to marry wealthy millionaire bachelor Charles Winthrop (HALLOWEEN III’s Dan O’Herlihy, whose equally obscure and deranged 1962 sorta-remake THE CABINET OF CALIGARI is the perfect psychotronic companion picture to CUBE). Charles’ daughter Lisa (Karin Mossberg, whose thick Swedish accent is bizarrely explained away as the result of her attending a Swiss boarding school!) isn’t terribly thrilled about dear old dad marrying again, but Adriana genuinely cares for the girl and sweetly attempts to build a relationship. But their potential bright future takes a tragic turn when,while on a sailing trip, Adriana and Charles are in a shipwreck and Charles drowns. Gutted, Lisa falls in with a pack of acid head hipsters, led by sociopathic, disgraced med student/LSD alchemist Johnny (played by WEST SIDE STORY’s George Chakiris). When Johnny learns of her fortune, he manipulates the girl into a plot to drug her stepmom to Palookaville and secretly trip her out to the point of madness. Convincing Lisa that Adriana was actually responsible for her dad’s death, Lisa’s mild disdain for her new mom turns to blind hate and she goes along with the plot, with dire results for all involved.

THE BIG CUBE is pretty much wall-to-wall lunacy. The movie is shot almost entirely on sound-stages, dream-like expressionist interiors that are ideal for projecting the endless LSD-trip visuals over the surprisingly frequent naked female bodies and wild-eyed male faces that make up a bulk of the non-domestic scenes. Chakiris is pure, smooth evil, essentially a kind of vampire who seduces and spikes his victims with acid-soaked sugar cubes (hence the title) and thinly grinning through all of his transgressive actions, convinced he is above suspicion and any sort of law. The entire thing feels like a play put on by the inmates of an asylum. Like MARAT/SADE for horny, far-out 60s teens.

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As we mentioned, poor Lana got lambasted for her turn here but really, she’s rather good in it. She’s a sympathetic presence, a woman who sees her second chance at happiness with a wonderful man and whose attempts to give love are met with malevolence. In her late 40s at the time, Turner doesn’t look nearly as worn out as critics have cited, though you can certainly see where the effects of booze and chain-smoking (the latter which led to her death from throat cancer in 1995) have played minor havoc with her skin. Sure she wears a cavalcade of cheap wigs, but such affectations suit the character and add to her slightly past-its-prime old school Hollywood glamour.

Many have giggled at the film’s final reel, where an LSD-damaged Turner is convinced to essentially re-enact the entire film’s events in a mocked-up stage play directed by her former lover and collaborator Richard Egan, but it’s that surreal, overheated turn of events that most lovers of odd cinema will cherish most. Truly, I’ve never seen another film quite like it.

THE BIG CUBE was released as part of long out of print “Cult Camp Classics” DVD box set from Warner Home Video that also included the proto women-in-prison flick CAGED! and the uproarious Joan Crawford vehicle TROG. The transfer on this version is gorgeous and bright and presented in matted widescreen.

You’ll laugh at THE BIG CUBE and that’s okay. It is funny. But more than simply tittering at its dated charms, you’ll more likely be astonished at its skewed vision and of Turner’s brave, committed performance, one of her last great roles buried in a movie that so many people would have you believe is just antiquated junk.