David Bowie’s first film role has the hallmarks of a career that constantly challenged the world’s perception of him.
Earning him the grand total of £30, twenty-year-old David Bowie made his screen debut in the late 1960s in Michael Armstrong’s silent horror film The Image.
Today, this fourteen-minute film is striking for its simplicity. But as well as being a fascinating horror film, it is also a significant visual artefact: Bowie’s first movie role was also one of the earliest short films to receive a notorious ‘X Certificate’ from the then British Board of Film Censors for its horror-themed violence.
Armstrong was only twenty-one when he directed The Image, and these days he is remembered more for Mark of the Devil (1970), a film set in West Germany and whose extreme violence is made explicit in its alternate title, Witches Tortured Till They Bleed. Beyond the niche world of cult film fandom, however, The Image’s primary point of interest is its status as a rare, fascinating glimpse at Bowie before he became a superstar.
It is a rough, experimental short, and its horror stems as much from its formal instability as from its plot. The film is marked by shaky camerawork, the absence of a soundtrack, and raw, stark black and white photography.
The ‘story’ itself is equally crude. The Image begins with a character credited simply as The Artist (played by Michael Byrne, familiar to contemporary audiences for his performance as Colonel Vogel in Steven Spielberg’s 1989 film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).
The Artist paints a portrait of the young Bowie, simply named The Boy, and to his horror the figure in his painting comes to life, appearing first at his window in the rain, then finding his way inside. The terrified artist kills the young man, his fear and determination increasing as Bowie’s character mockingly regenerates time and time again, refusing to die, until the previous relationship between the two men – and the reason for the haunting – is loosely implied in the film’s final moments.
To suggest The Image is any great masterpiece of independent 1960s British filmmaking is, by Bowie’s own account at least, a stretch. He himself has described the film, in Wim Hendrikse’s biography David Bowie: The Man Who Changed the World, as follows:
My first true film appearance was in a movie called The Image, an underground black-and-white avant-garde thing done by some guy. He wanted to make a film about a painter doing a portrait of a guy in his teens and the portrait comes to life and, in fact, turns out to be the corpse of some bloke. I can’t remember all the plot, if indeed it had a plot, but it was a 14-minute short and it was awful.
Bowie isn’t the only one to dismiss The Image. NME sniggered when it was released on home video in 1984 to cash in on Bowie’s superstar status: ‘Gasp with horror as your hero gets murdered not once not twice but five times. Gasp with astonishment as he gets up entirely unharmed. Wonder with puzzlement how his acting career ever survived the carnage.’
Yet survive it did. Throughout his career, Bowie’s achievements as an actor met with both critical praise in films such as Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and outright derision (as was the case with Julien Temple’s grossly underrated 1986 film, Absolute Beginners, which now has long overdue cult status).
The magic of seeing Bowie in films like these today is tightly bound to how these performances so often expand or challenge the way we think about him more broadly as a pop-cultural phenomenon. Think of his turn as Pontius Pilate in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (2006), or as Andy Warhol in Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat (1996).
His screen career drips with intertextuality, which makes the pre-superstar Bowie in The Image an intriguing – if not necessarily great – artefact.
In these smaller cameos, his presence isn’t necessarily intended to make us forget who he is but the opposite: the very importance of these renowned historical figures is silently yet powerfully communicated by the fact that it is David Bowie playing them. His screen career drips with this kind of intertextuality, which makes the pre-superstar Bowie in The Image an intriguing – if not necessarily great – artefact.
Whether it was Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke, Pontius Pilate or The Boy, Public Bowie was always explicitly a performance: knowing, joyful, shrewd. That we were privy to the knowledge that this was all make-believe – dress-ups, a hyperactive costume drama put on for our benefit – played a pivotal role in changing what stardom was and could be in the broader popular imagination. On both screen and stage, Bowie simultaneously revealed and revelled in the representational apparatus by celebrating artifice itself.
After coming to terms with Bowie’s recent death at the age of sixty-nine from a long battle with cancer, watching The Image is an oddly reassuring experience: the collective hope that it can’t be true, that he’s not really gone, is played out in this grainy, almost haunted relic now almost fifty years old.
Though the short has failed to attract critical praise, Peter Doggatt (author of The Man who Sold the World: David Bowie and the 1970s) noted traces of Henry James’s ‘The Story of a Masterpiece’, while Tobias Rüther (author of Heroes: David Bowie and Berlin) drew parallels between The Image and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. The latter is of particular note when considering Bowie’s own well- documented interest in painting: it’s virtually impossible to watch The Image and its story of a painting coming to life and not think of German Expressionist painter and printmaker Erich Heckel’s 1917 painting Roquairol, an explicit influence on Bowie’s angular gesture that marks the cover image of his iconic 1977 album, Heroes.
Doggett has also flagged a core of homosexual self- loathing within The Image, and it’s also difficult to watch the film without a queer reading of it: it’s certainly conscious of its own homoerotic overtones.
According to interviews with people involved in the production, this quality was palpable on set. When discussing the film and his relationship with Bowie, director Armstrong’s infatuation with Bowie is apparent. ‘David was a terrible flirt in the way in which he dealt with you’, Armstrong is quoted as saying in Wendy Leigh’s Bowie: The Biography (2014). ‘He did that with me. He was flirtatious, it was a part of him… He always seemed to be playing a cat and mouse game with you. I said that he would either be a giant star or make a lot of money in the Piccadilly men’s loo.’
As Fabio Cleto noted in The Routledge International Encyclopedia of Queer Culture, ‘the role David Bowie played in popularising a glamorous queer identity…can hardly be underestimated’, a figure who ‘created a number of songs and images that capture(d) the zeitgeist of the queer 1970s’ in particular.
When cast in The Image, Bowie had only a tiny number of fans, and the twenty-one-year-old Armstrong proudly identified as one of them. Legend holds that Armstrong saw Bowie’s self-titled debut album in a shop window and was instantly star struck. He bought it on the spot and determined to work with Bowie.
After contacting Bowie’s manager, Ken Pitt, Armstrong met with them both.
‘I spent two or three hours with David and Ken, and I fell in love with David. He was absolutely amazing and did a wonderful Elvis impersonation,’ Armstrong said in Bowie: The Biography. He had discussed collaborating with Bowie on a feature called A Floral Tale, and by some accounts Bowie wrote seven songs for it that still remain unreleased. While that project didn’t eventuate, The Image did.
The project’s development is a curiously fractured one.
The project’s development is a curiously fractured one. In 1964, fellow London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art student Tony Maylam (director of the 1981 video nasty The Burning) asked Armstrong to write him a script for a short film, resulting in The Image. Nothing came of this on Maylam’s part, but in 1967 Armstrong received funding for a short and decided to pursue it himself.
Filmed just off Harrow Road in London over three days, the shoot was not a smooth one, and only half of the original screenplay had been shot before Armstrong ran out of money. Among other challenges, the weather during the shoot was freezing: Bowie was so cold after filming the scene where he is standing outside The Artist’s window in the rain that he almost turned blue. (He was allegedly towel-dried by an enthusiastic film crew.)
The Image all but vanished upon its initial release, but Bowie’s growing success offered distributors a commercial opportunity they seized upon instantly. The fourteen-minute version was finally shown at the Jacey Cinema in Piccadilly Circus in 1969, alongside Pierre Roustang’s sleazy sexploitation film Les Teenagers.
One needs only the most cursory of knowledge in Bowieology to know why this date is so significant: mid- 1969 saw the release of ‘Space Oddity’ (first the single and, later, the album of the same name).
To say that important changes took place in Bowie’s life during this period is an understatement: the single, which was recorded in late June that year at Trident Studios and released only a few weeks later, was strategically released to coincide with the excitement surrounding the launch of the United States’ Apollo 11 mission.
With ‘Space Oddity’, Bowie eventually achieved his first UK number one, and international success was sealed.
Young Bowie’s interest in performance is well documented, and his fascination with mime and butoh in particular seem to inform his mute, eerie performance in The Image.
A major early influence on Bowie was Lindsay Kemp: a revered choreographer and mime. Kemp formed a dance company in the 1960s, and while he himself was a student of people of the calibre of Marcel Marceau, Kemp’s own students included not just David Bowie but the iconic and equally enduring Kate Bush.
David Buckley in his book Strange Fascination: David Bowie: The Definitive Story (1999) noted that, in the 1980s, Kemp had said of Bowie: ‘I didn’t really teach him to be a mime artist but to be more of himself on the outside…I enabled him to free the angel and demon that he is on the inside.’
It was from Kemp, too, that Bowie in large part inherited his flair for adopting different characters. On the front of the script for The Image, Armstrong described the film as ‘a study of the illusionary reality world within the schizophrenic mind of the artist at his point of creativity’. How prophetic, we can now reflect, when we consider David Bowie’s remarkable career, with its myriad multifaceted guises.
Bowie’s performance in The Image manifests at the intersection of violence, eroticism and immortality – elements that would again come to the fore fifteen years later in the cult horror film The Hunger (1983). Starring Catherine Deneuve as vampire Miriam Blaylock, Bowie starred as her vampire lover, John, who after 200 years together, discovers that Miriam’s promise of eternal life did not necessarily entail eternal youth.
Watching scenes of John’s rapid ageing in 2016 is a profound, moving experience: within the confines of horror film logic, the fantastic acceleration of the ageing Bowie prompts inescapable associations with the glut of career overview montages that permeated the mediasphere after his death.
Unlike John, however, Bowie embraced age: the final photograph taken by his long-term photographer, Jimmy King, only days before his death is marked less by the ravages of terminal illness than his radiant, infectious smile.
Even at its darkest and most perverse, this sense of playfulness permeates Bowie’s more intriguing movie work. We need only recall performances in films like The Man Who Fell to Earth and The Hunger to find evidence that his broader star essence as pop icon – a kind of ethereal, sexualised sublime – crossed over on more than one occasion into the cinema with spectacular results. There is something about Bowie’s near-defining tendency for transformation that runs throughout so many of his movie appearances, from his debut in The Image through to his brief but shattering cameo in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992).
Horror, art and sexuality manifest in The Image in fascinating and often explicit ways.
Like so many of these films, horror, art and sexuality manifest in The Image in fascinating and often explicit ways. Bowie’s onscreen personae in all of these movies pivots on a compelling intersection of the bizarre, the dark and the sensual. That we watch The Image with the knowledge that this is a pre-fame Bowie allows for a unique insight into how deep these leanings towards uncanny, almost temporally perverse characters were embedded in him as a performer, even at this early stage, suggesting that this overlooked short film was, in retrospect, more in tune with Bowie’s own artistic vision – his aesthetic long game, if you will – than has been widely credited.
It is no revelation to emphasise the importance of transformation to Bowie’s star persona, and films such as these allow us a space to begin thinking through the aspects that unite some of these shifting identities. The Image is as haunted as it is haunting, a precious relic from the pre-fame life of a figure whose loss we are only beginning to comprehend.
An earlier version of this article was presented at ACMI’s ‘The Stardom and Celebrity of David Bowie’ symposium in July 2015.
Original illustration by Guy Shield.