The Edge Off Influences Part II: Performance

Performance (1968)

Director: Donald Cammell, Nicholas Roeg

Screenwriter: Donald Cammell

Cinematographer: Nicholas Roeg


One of our most resonant touchstones when creating The Edge Off was a 1968 film which suffered numerous setbacks, poor reviews and a limited screen release, all of which failed to stop it gathering a reputation and emerging as one of the most influential films of its era. Performance, starring James Fox, Mick Jagger and Anita Pallenberg was directed by Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg, written by Cammell and shot by Roeg.


The film focuses on Chas (Fox), a “performer”, a gangster with a reputation for getting the job done through intimidation and violence. In the film, Chas disobeys his bosses and attacks a rival gangster who has crossed him. Realising he is now a marked man, Chas packs a bag and heads for the hills. However he changes his mind and ends up seeking refuge inside the sprawling house of Turner (Mick Jagger), an eccentric rock star who has become a recluse since losing his creative spark.


The character of Chas is similar in many ways to Lee from The Edge Off. While Chas is a performer, Lee considers himself a “fixer”, the guy they send in to resolve an impasse, one way or the other. They both cross their bosses and both end up going through a completely unexpected transformation.


Chas is a cocksure thug when he arrives at the flat, sure he’s landed in clover. Here are a bunch of washed up hippies he can push around and intimidate while he waits for the heat to die down. What he doesn’t bargain for is the relationship he develops with Turner and Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and the affection he begins to develop for Lucy, one of the other inhabitants of Turner’s ramshackle commune. Turner and Pherber begin to challenge Chas, curious about his world and his sense of identity.


When Pherber and Turner trick Chas into taking some magic mushrooms to induce a psychedelic experience, Chas reacts typically, with anger. However as his trip intensifies, he loses his anger and begins to accept a softer side of himself. In a pivotal musical scene, Jagger, now dressed as a gangster, delivers his “Memo from Turner”, a lyrical deconstruction of Chas’ character. The song refers to Chas as “…the man who squats behind the man, who works the soft machine”, a reference to the Burroughs novel about a secret agent with the ability to switch bodies or induce metamorphosis. This scene also hints at the influence Chas is having on Turner as they appear to start switching personalities and outlooks.


The fragility of our sense of self and our perhaps unwitting reliance on others to define us crystallises as the core theme of the film. Chas arrives sure of himself and of his place in the world and sure he is the master of his own destiny. When challenged however, his persona collapses like a house of cards. It is a construct, a suit, a fiction he wears to survive. By the end of the film he has transformed into someone experimenting with new ideas about who he can be. Likewise, Turner is changed. His eagerness to draw out Chas’ demons and to use them to somehow reignite his creative spark has infected him, changing his outlook and behaviour. The film goes further in fact, suggesting that Chas and Turner are somehow transforming into each other, returning to the theme of The Soft Machine. At the end of the film, Chas kills Turner before being led away to his own death by gangsters who have managed to track him down. But this is really a new version of Chas, killing an old version of himself.


In The Edge Off, our main character Lee also experiences a drug-induced challenge to his sense of identity, albeit in a story that plays out very differently. The theme of a person’s sense of self and how rationalised and fragile that can be runs throughout Performance and is picked up and explored from a different angle in The Edge Off. Do any of us really know who we are? Does our sense of identity come from ourselves or do we cobble it together from how others perceive us? And what happens when our sense of self is unexpectedly tested and pushed beyond breaking point?

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