Made back to back with The Man Who Fell To Earth, Elephant Gun shares similarities with its sister film. Both have musicians as leads: David Bowie as the titular alien in The Man Who Fell To Earth, and Elvis Presley as the washed-up actor travelling to Las Vegas to gamble his last money on a roulette wheel. What is astounding about Elephant Gun is that it manages to make Elvis, the most famous man on the planet, unknowable. Here he is a smudge, a sad hollow middle-aged man.
The ironies abound of course. And they are traps that Roeg avoids with his straight-faced delivery. We see inklings of Elvis impersonators in Vegas, but there is no face-off, no acknowledgement; Buddy (Presley) sadly heads for his table, ignoring the glitz around him, the glitz that in real-life he represented to it's fullest. It could be seen as Elvis' disavowal of his own present, that he plays a man burning out inside and gambling his life away in this city of hellish castles.
There is a dazzling sequence at the centre of the film, in which Buddy looks at a collection of photos of good times past, and we are treated to a flashback sequence of recreated stills that echo previous Presley films. We see him in Hawaii, in LA, and in poignantly happier times on a previous visit to Las Vegas with an unnamed blonde, who the Buddy keeps seeing around town, but cannot remember her name to call and get her attention. In Roeg's Don't Look Now, he manages to create a sickening sense of dread building up to the climax; here he creates a sense of loss and fear. Buddy sees suspicion everywhere. He wins money, only to find out he actually lost.
The narrative becomes eliptical and deliberately listless. What is apparent is the growing awareness that Buddy hasn't picked Las Vegas on a whim, or because it is the sin capital of the world. The presence of a double is somehow, made evident. Is Buddy haunted by a possible alternative path his life may have taken? Does Buddy know someone who has huge fame? The repeated allusions in background conversations to an unnamed successful actor who is in town irks Buddy; what is the story? We have more questions than answers. Buddy is weary, looking for answers and avoiding them. The film drifts into existential whodunnit territory, with no idea of what the crime might be, never mind the protagonist. Cynical exchanges with a bartender litter the narrative:
Bartender (Rip Torn):Hey are you..
Buddy (Presley): Thirsty. Yeah. Gimme another.
Bartender: No I mean, didn't you used to be... I mean, aren't you-
Buddy: No. I've never been no-one. Not ever.
Bartender: Hey. Everybody is someone. I'm someone. She's someone. You're someone.
Buddy: Well set the alarm for me. Maybe I'll wake up and find out who.
There are two Presley songs on an otherwise electronic and low-key jazz score: The haunting and lovely How Many Tears Can A Sad Man Cry?, a Hank Williams style confession, and the charging drunk-in-denial Loose Booze, Loose Blues, which shockingly for an Elvis song is largely instrumental except for his distinctive echoing grunts and desperate full-throated wails.
Contractual disputes over the exact details of Elvis' movie contract and fans' shock at this departure for the star caused a lot of press and a limited release for Elephant Gun. The film came out just four months before the death of Presley. His casting was seen as a folly at the time, as watching the most famous face on the planet distorted through cracked art lenses was absurd. But this absurdity is what makes the film work. Roeg explains his choice:
'I wanted to do a biopic of Superman; I wanted him trapped in an alternative universe living a life with no powers. He would be having dreams about Earth, which he had never been to. I liked the idea that Superman, a fictional character on Earth, actually exists in another world; and that in our stories, we are sending a message to him. I wanted this man to be haunted by a possible superhero alternative to his life that wasn't happening. Then Richard Donner announced he was making the Superman movie the world wanted; so I conceived of Elephant Gun. In real-life, Presley was Earth's fictional Superman; his tragedy was that he was also real.'1
Elephant Gun Directed by Nicolas Roeg Written by Nicolas Roeg Starring Elvis Presley Rip Torn Music by John Phillips/ Elvis Presley Columbia Pictures UK/US Release Date: April 1977 Running Time: 145 mins.
1 Sight and Sound, May 2003
1 Sight and Sound, May 2003