Nicholas Urfe (Michael Caine) arrives in Greece hoping to forget about the love affair he has had with French air hostess Anne (Anna Karina), which has ended badly. He is to be an English teacher on one of the islands there, and learns on landing from his new colleague Meli (Paul Stassino) that the previous holder of the teaching position committed suicide. Nicholas hopes he won't end up the same way, although he is English too and will be staying in the dead man's room, but soon he finds himself locked in a baffling plot - and the wealthy local "magus" Maurice Conchis (Anthony Quinn) could be behind it all...
After writer John Fowles' novel The Collector was filmed, he didn't think he received the credit he deserved from it; it was all his story after all. So when the option came to adapt his bestseller The Magus for the big screen, he thought he'd have a go at it himself, with what were regarded at the time, and indeed today, as disastrous results. And yet, there were a small amount of fans, perhaps of the book, perhaps not, who enjoyed the film's endless game playing and pulling the rug out from under its main character, and were not put off by what was really something of a trudge through the novel's edited highlights.
It's not simply that there appear to be pages missing from the film version, but a spirit is missing too, an intrigue that might set a spark across the sunbleached landscapes and glittering seascapes seen here. Caine is supposed to be fascinated by this labyrinth he is lost in, but not it's not so much that his Nicholas appears confused, but that he doesn't seem to be especially bothered about any of it. Was the Englishman not used to the heat? He certainly looks as if he doesn't function well in high temperatures during this.
In the title role, Quinn should have a twinkle in his eye at the very least, but he's a doughy presence, adding to the leaden atmosphere that hangs around like a heavy fog. The frequent fooling and misdirection doesn't help much either, as at first we are meant to wonder if Conchis has anything to do with the previous teacher's death, but later it apparently doesn't matter as the layers of meaning are peeled away. At first, he claims to have been in England during the First World War, and played by Roger Lloyd Pack no less, where he romanced a mystery woman, Lily (Candice Bergen, inadequate).
It's then that Nicholas encounters this woman, though how he knows she's supposed to be the same one is unclear, like a lot of aspects to this. She talks elliptically, so he never gets a straight answer, but after an hour of thinking she is somehow Conchis' partner, it turns out that she is a schizophrenic and he is her doctor. But it doesn't end there, as after that the possibility is this is all a kind of theatrical experience for Nicholas's benefit, to the extent that he is playing one of the roles. Drag in a subplot about Conchis' possibly traitorous involvement in a local massacre during World War Two and you have a film obsessed with testing its characters to the point that we are never convinced any of it is sincere. Frankly, by the finale the whole project has enigmatically disappeared up its own arse. Music by Johnny Dankworth.