In this 1983 film, Gene Hackman plays Jack McCann, a prospector who is determined to either get rich or freeze to death as he wanders around Alaska in the 1920s. When he’s not having sex and philosophical discussions with the local witch, Freida (Helena Kallianiotes), Jack desperately searches for gold. Jack is convinced that gold is all that he needs to be happy, though Freida counsels him that it’s also important to pursue more Earthly delights. Everywhere Jack looks, he sees people dying in the snow. In fact, Jack nearly dies himself until he stumbles across a mountain full of gold. As gold dust pours down on him, he celebrates while having flashbacks to Freida writhing in ecstasy. It’s just that type of film. When Jack tells Freida about his claim, he asks what’s going to happen next. Freida tells him that it’s both the end and the beginning. Once again, it’s just that type of film.
At this point, Eureka jumps ahead 20 years. The year is 1945. World War II is coming to an end. Jack is no longer freezing and starving to death in Alaska. Now, he is one of the world’s richest men. He even owns his own island in the Caribbean. Jack has a huge house, a beautiful view of the ocean, and all the money in the world. One could even say that his life has become an exclusive beach vacation, an eternal Spring Break, if you will. And yet, even with all of his money, Jack has fallen victim to ennui. He was happier when he was poor and starving and seeking warmth from Freida. Now, he’s got an alcoholic wife (Jane LaPotaire) and his daughter, Tracy (Theresa Russell), is in love with a dissolute aristocrat named Claude (Rutger Hauer), to whom Jack takes an instant dislike. Claude claims that Jack has stolen his wealth from the Earth. Claude is the type who eats gold and then promises to return it to Jack as soon as he can. That’s something that actually happens. It’s kind of silly but Rutger Hauer is such a charmer that he nearly pulls it off.
Claude and Tracy aren’t the only thing that Jack has to worry about. An American gangster named Mayakofsky (Joe Pesci) wants to take over Jack’s island so that he can build a casino on it. However, despite the best efforts of Mayakofsky’s attorney (Mickey Rourke), Jack is still not willing to sell. When hitman Joe Spinell shows up outside the estate, are Jack’s days of ennui numbered?
Of course, they are! That’s not really a spoiler. Eureka is (loosely) based on the real-life murder of Sir Harry Oakes, an American-born prospector who was thought to be one of the world’s richest men when he was brutally murdered in the 40s. Jack is, of course, a stand-in for Oakes while Mayakofsky is based on Meyer Lansky, the mobster who many people suspect ordered Oakes’s murder. Lansky was never charged with the crime. Instead, Oakes’s son-in-law, Count Alfred de Marigny, was arrested and charged with the crime. After a trial that made international news and was described as being “the trial of the century,” de Marigny was acquitted and the murder of Harry Oakes remains officially unsolved.
It’s an interesting story and it seems like one that should perfectly translate to film. Surprisingly though, Eureka doesn’t really do it justice. The film was directed by one of the masters of cinematic surrealism, Nicolas Roeg. Roeg, of course, is probably best remembered for films like Performance, Don’t Look Now, Walkabout, and The Man Who Fell To Earth. As one might expect from a Roeg film, Eureka is visually stunning but, as a director, Roeg can’t seem to decide whether he’s more interested in Jack’s ennui or in all the soapy melodrama surrounding Jack’s murder. As such, neither element of the film gets explored with any particular depth and the resulting film, while always watchable, still feels rather shallow and disjointed. (After taking forever to reach the end of Jack’s story, Eureka then turns into a rather conventional courtroom drama. Theresa Russell does get to utter the immortal line, “Did you cut off my father’s head?” but otherwise, it’s kind of dry.) The film is at its strongest when Jack is just a prospector in Alaska. The harsh landscape and the crazed dialogue is perfect for Roeg’s dream-like style. Once the film moves to the Caribbean, it suffers the same fate that befell Jack when he become rich. It loses its spark.
That said, Eureka has its moments. Any film that features Gene Hackman, Mickey Rourke, Joe Pesci, Rutger Hauer, and Joe Spinell all acting opposite of each other is going to have at least a few scenes worth watching. I particularly liked Pesci’s surprisingly subdued performance as Mayakofsky. With everyone else in the film chewing every piece of scenery on the island, Pesci wisely underplays and is all the more menacing for it. While Eureka ultimately doesn’t add up too much, it’s worth watching at least once for the cast.
Finally, my personal theory is that Harry Oakes’s murder had more to do with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (formerly King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson) than it did with Meyer Lansky. (The Duke was the governor of the Bahamas at the time of Oakes’s murder.) But that’s just my opinion.