Phase IV – Saul Bass

What did I remember?

Sun and dust, a baked and blistered landscape. A dome in the desert. Two scientists: a gruff bearded veteran with messianic tendencies and a cool numbers man in denim shirt and flares, talking about algorithms and game theory. The click and whirr of analogue technology, computers as big as filing cabinets, the scratch of a needle as it jitters across paper. Heat, sweat, paranoia. The glare, the isolation. A bemused and pretty girl. The ants.

The hyper-intelligent ants: I remembered them, of course. I first watched Phase IV  (directed by Saul Bass, 1974) many years ago, late at night (perhaps as part of BBC2’s Moviedrome strand). Plot, character, dialogue: I soon forgot most of that stuff. What was left was far more vivid and vital – a sensation, a pool of colours, a stain spreading through the mind. I remembered the parched and earthy palette: orange, yellow, ochre. Over the years, as my memory of Phase IV  faded, I knew that I had witnessed some kind of odd, slow, hazy nightmare, but I could not tell you the precise dimensions of that that nightmare. One image, however, did stay with me: a human hand, palm side up, a neat hole in the centre (as if made with a drill), out of which crawls an ant, followed by others.

I watched the film for only the second time a few nights ago, on DVD. I’d forgotten the set-up. An event (mercifully unspecified) has led to a change in the behaviour of desert ants. The red ants no longer fight the black ants, and so on. (Political implications are not stressed.) These ants have started communicating, collaborating, working towards some higher purpose. Rather than give us the B movie rigmarole of maverick scientists issuing apocalyptic warnings and obtuse politicians banging tables and the general public screaming in the streets, Bass wisely concentrates on the ants, on their industry and otherness. The effect is poetic, alienating: we are in a strange world. It takes some time before the plodding humans actually appear. I’d forgotten about the local oldsters who die when spayed with yellow insecticide (it looks like a custard blizzard). Their granddaughter – played by Lynne Frederick – survives and spends the rest of the film looking demure. The scientists speak a dry, expository lingo, all vectors and synapses: but this works rather well as a counterpoint to the imaginative, otherworldly ant scenes. The film has a curious, detached feel – part dream, part documentary. The real action (and beauty) always comes when Bass shifts his gaze to the ants. Their world is one of bizarre resilience. They create crop circles and build magnificently eerie pillars, blue in the desert dusk, sinister totems. The film is full of beguiling sequences, unsettling images.

The premise of Phase IV is not particularly original – nature runs amok – it’s pulpy: but Bass goes beyond genre, he takes us into abstraction. (In parts, it made me think of Glazer’s  Under the Skin  or Clouzot’s experiments with light and colour in his unfinished  Inferno). We have ghostly electronic noises, crawling synths, noodling computers. Humans are seen through the eyes of the ants – distorted, insignificant, blurred: we are shadowy and inconsequential natterers. As viewers, we enter the ant word, journey into their tunnels. The ants dominate the screen, yet they remain tiny. No need for giant monsters here. In a stop-motion passage, we see them strip a rodent down to its grey bones.

Unfortunately, my cheap DVD turned out to contain the neutered version. It was missing the original ending, an extended and idiosyncratic montage depicting the last and final phase of the insects’ plan. (Is there an unbutchered version available?) I was reduced to watching the climax on YouTube; it is only during this end sequence (hypnotic, creepy, surprising – a visual symphony) that the name of the film – Phase IV – finally appears on screen. A suave and jaunty touch from the man responsible for many of Hitchcock’s  opening titles. It’s an impressive, if curious, work.