I've just watched Smash Palace again after some twenty plus years. It stands up well to the test of time, and though I remembered certain scenes quite well, others had gone completely – including the ending, thank goodness, which, when you think about it, is borrowed from Buster Keaton’s The General.
It has the feel of an ‘art’ film, rather than a commercial one – though it was a commercial success. (The Piano was also an art film, and borrowed heavily from the moody and gloomy 60s/70s European art films, borrowed without somehow taking up their intellectual depth.)
Smash Palace has the great advantage of starring Bruno Lawrence – and Greer Robson. Their scenes together are a delight (apparently she regarded him as a kind of a second father, her own father having abandoned his family sometime before she made the movie), and the film would never have been the success it was without these two. Anna Jemison (these days, for some reason, known as Anna Maria Monticelli) is good, has a kind of glow onscreen and is effective, but doesn’t receive the sympathy she perhaps should. Donaldson himself was having some marriage problems at the time he wrote the script and these are reflected in the way he treats the characters. You root for Lawrence much more readily than for Jemison, who comes across as being rather selfish.
In a documentary on the DVD version, someone notes that American actors such as Jack Nicholson greatly admired Lawrence for his absolute honesty and openness on the screen – and the raw emotion he could bring. The same person comments that while actors such as Nicholson have those same sorts of qualities, it’s unlikely any of them would ever do the scene in which Lawrence divests himself of all his clothes – except his gumboots – and stands there shouting (‘with his dick hanging out’ says the person) at his wife and her ostensible lover. The scene could have been ridiculous; somehow with Lawrence it’s believable. Even the kidnapping of the girl in the chemist’s survives – although it’s absurd – because Lawrence makes it work.
And there are a couple of wonderful lines connected to this scene: as Lawrence is dragging the girl out of the shop she weeps that she can’t go with him: she’s got a hair appointment at three o’clock. It’s so ridiculous in the middle of the tension that it works. Later, as Bruno lets her go, he says, ‘Hurry up, you’ve only got a few minutes.’ She turns to look at him, terrified that he’s changed his mind about letting her get away. ‘What for?’ she asks. ‘Your hair appointment.’